Ukraine’s “History Wars” and the political descendants of Stalin and Walter Duranty

A friend has drawn my attention to a criticism of my review of the film Mr Jones. (See here for the review – this post will make more sense if you have read it first.) The critic, who is a long-time campaigner for socialism, says that the review’s characterisation of the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine as a deliberate act of genocide by the Stalin regime is an ‘outlandish charge.’ He says “the central argument of Robb’s essay title and much of its content is totally void of supporting evidence,” describing it as “a combination of intellectual laziness and pre-determined political prejudice.”

James Norton plays journalist Gareth Jones, who reported the 1932-33 Ukraine famine, in the film Mr Jones

I plead not guilty to the accusation of intellectual laziness; but I am willing to plead guilty to a lesser charge of naivety. I had naively assumed that in writing a film review in the year 2019 it would not be necessary to prove that the Holodomor in Ukraine took place, and that the Stalin regime used it to punish the Ukrainian people and crush their national aspirations. I thought these facts were so widely accepted they didn’t require corroborating evidence. I was wrong about that.

For with Ukraine – even more than Australia, where the term was coined – the History Wars rage: the facts of history are debated in a highly politicised atmosphere, because Ukraine’s history weighs so heavily on the present.

My critic says, “I think the promotion of so-called ‘Holodomor’ theory can be related to ‘Stalinophobia’, for lack of a better term. This was understandable during the terrible years of the late 1920s and early 1930s, as the frightening evidence of the rise of a new, historic phenomenon called Stalinism was accumulating. But today we have easy access to historic documentation (eg Professor Mark Tauger, including his access during the 1990s to the newly opened Soviet archives) proving that a complex of factors caused multiple famines in widely spread regions of the Soviet Union in 1932-33. The chaos and arbitrariness of forced collectivization was only one of those factors. Others included the poor agro-industrial-scientific legacy inherited from Tsarism, the destruction caused by the foreign intervention of 1917-21, the threat of a return of foreign intervention, climatic conditions and insect and biological infestations.”

I will not name this critic because it is unclear to me whether this was written as a public document or not. It is useful nonetheless to answer the arguments raised, and to examine them as a contemporary equivalent of the current of thought that Gareth Jones battled against (as depicted in Mr Jones.)

An armed guard stands in front of the grain warehouse, USSR, early 1930s. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

It is certainly true that the famine of 1932-33 was not limited to Ukraine. This is mentioned in my review, as is the undoubted fact that the disaster of the ill-prepared and hasty collectivisation was not the sole cause of the famine. Famines by their very nature involve both nature and actions of human beings; accidents of nature and technical problems of food distribution always play some part, and this one was no exception. All the same, it is clear that the ‘complex of factors’ listed by my critic are simply evasions and fallacies.

Was “the destruction caused by the foreign intervention of 1917-21″ a cause of the famine? This destruction was a major factor in the famine of 1922. But ten years later? If that were the case, then how was it that there was no famine in 1931, 1930, or 1929? (There was a food crisis –  which fell short of famine – in 1928, and it had clear social causes, in the attempts by the rich peasants to withhold grain unless the government paid them a higher price.)

What about “the threat of a return of foreign intervention”? It is conceivable that a country under threat of invasion might be forced to divert scarce resources to defence. But once again, how then are we to explain the lack of famine in the years immediately prior, when the threat of intervention was much greater? As the film accurately depicts, the 1932-33 famine took place at a time of growing rapprochement between the imperialist powers and the Stalin regime, when for the first time since the 1917 revolution, the Soviet government received diplomatic recognition and trade from the UK and the United States.

Livestock also starved when cattle fodder was used to feed humans. Dead and dying horses near Belgorod, Russia, 1933. Photo: Wikimeida commons

Nor was it “climatic conditions and insect and biological infestations” that brought about the destruction of half of the Soviet Union’s livestock. These animals were slaughtered by their peasant owners, who preferred to kill them for meat and hides rather than surrender them to the collectives for nothing. More animals starved when their fodder crops were used for human food. To ignore or downplay the consequences of the botched collectivisation in this way, one needs a peculiar kind of blindness.

The only ‘factor’ listed by my critic that has some substance is “the poor agro-industrial-scientific legacy inherited from Tsarism”.  This legacy of cultural backwardness suddenly became critically important when the historic task of transforming the twenty-five million isolated peasant plots into collective farms was posed. But this legacy was well known before the collectivisation was undertaken. The failure of the Stalin regime to take this fact into consideration, and to adjust the pace of collectivisation accordingly, is just further proof of the blind, adventuristic, top-down character of the collectivisation drive, which my critic is trying to downplay.

These crudely-concocted ‘factors’ appear to be drawn from the essays of Professor Mark Tauger, who examines in detail the effects of drought, pest infestations, plant diseases, and international factors  to explain the famine. Tauger performs a strikingly similar role to that of Walter Duranty and the “Friends of the Soviet Union” who were writing at the time of the famine.

The corpses of the starving lie on the roadside. Photo: Alexander Wienerberger Wikimedia commons

That is to say, instead of addressing the catastrophe in Ukraine directly and the role of the Stalinist regime in causing then exacerbating it, Tauger points to “a complex of factors caus[ing] multiple famines in widely spread regions.” He minimises the catastrophe, scatters its effects, and looks in great detail at accidents of nature and climate. In short, he searches for causes in all corners of the earth except where he might actually find it. The aim of this exercise is simple: to confuse and deflect, and above all, to remove the burden of criminal responsibility for the disaster from the Stalin regime. He functions as Stalin’s smokescreen today, just as did Walter Duranty, as depicted in Mr Jones.

The facts of the Holodomor have been well documented by Robert Conquest in his 1987 book Harvest of Sorrow. Robert Conquest has an anti-communist axe to grind, to be sure. One can, and should, reject his anti-Leninist analysis and explanations of events, but one must respect the evidence he has amassed, documenting the facts of the famine.

Soviet journalist and novelist Vasily Grossman with the Red Army in Schwerin, Germany in 1945

Moreover, Conquest draws on many sources which do not share his anti-Soviet and anti-communist bias. In addition to the thousands of first-hand accounts by survivors of these events documented by Ukrainian scholars in exile, he draws on observations by such people as the dissident Soviet general Petro Grigorenko, who had taken part in enforcing the Stalinist policy at the time of the famine (and who later suffered the full force of the regime’s vile punishments, including prolonged torture in mental institutions, when he broke politically with the regime in the 1960s), the prominent Soviet journalist and novelist Vasily Grossman, and the pro-Soviet novelist Mikhail Sholokov. (Both Grossman and Sholokov describe the famine in fictional form – this was the only way to get around the censorship).

Has this testimony been negated by the findings of those with ‘access to the newly-opened Soviet archives in the 1990s,’ as my critic implies? On the contrary, the archives confirm Conquest’s findings. In his 1987 book, before the archives were opened, Conquest discusses the evidence that starving peasants from Ukraine and the Kuban region were barred from travelling north into Russia to find food. The archives opened in the 1990s revealed a secret instruction by Stalin making exactly this order, and a report by Secret Police Chief Yagoda documenting the arrest and sending back of 200,000 such peasants.

The greatest difficulty in judging all this evidence is that the crimes of the Stalin regime are so immense, they beggar the imagination. To charge that the government of any country would engineer a famine to deliberately inflict millions of deaths upon one of its own constituent peoples can surely seem “outlandish,” to use my critic’s word. In the more than seventy years of relative world political stability since the end of the Second World War, there have been many atrocities, but nothing comparable to this.

Grain confiscated from the peasants. Sign says “First bread to the state.” USSR, 1933 Photo: Radio Svoboda

Yet that is what the evidence shows. Of course the famine was not intentional and deliberate – in the sense that the Stalin regime obviously did not intend that the collectivisation should fail so spectacularly. But when it did, the regime placed the responsibility for the debacle squarely on the shoulders of the peasants who resisted collectivisation, and punished them accordingly.

Also in the Soviet archives is a speech by Stalin’s protégé Vyacheslav Molotov to the Politburo in July 1932, saying that ‘we face the spectre of famine especially in the rich bread producing areas,’ followed by the Politburo’s decision that ‘the plan for bread requisition must be fulfilled regardless.’

Bread was to be taken from starving people “regardless.” The deliberate, calculated, ‘man-made’ character of the famine is encapsulated in that chilling decision. There is also a letter from the Party Secretary in Ukraine pleading that ‘food must be made available to the peasantry or there will be no one to produce the next harvest.’ Molotov answers that such a view is ‘incorrect and un-Bolshevik.’ [Conquest p viii]

Village council of Udachne village, Donetsk region, with seized grain, 1932 Photo: Radio Svoboda

In accordance with these decisions, grain was requisitioned from starving peasants, and at the same time they were prevented from travelling out of the afflicted regions. The Soviet Union continued to export grain throughout these years, as even Tauger concedes (although, true to form, he minimises the effects of these exports). Thousands of peasants were imprisoned for ten years for the crime of gleaning on the collective farms – that is, for scratching the soil after the crops had been harvested for any grains that had fallen in the dirt.

To dismiss all this as ‘the so-called Holodomor theory,’ as my critic does, is to shut one’s eyes to historical fact. Facts are stubborn things, and the consequences of disregarding them are dire.

Nor was the targeting of particular nationalities by such measures out of character for the Stalin regime. Is the charge of genocide against Ukraine so ‘outlandish’ in light of the subsequent fate of the Crimean Tatars?

In 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and the Crimean peninsula south of Ukraine, homeland of the Crimean Tatars, was invaded and occupied by German and Romanian troops. When the Soviet Union re-took the peninsula, Stalin declared the Tatar people collectively guilty of collaboration with the invaders, and in May-June 1944 the entire Tatar population, about 230,000 people, was rounded up, loaded into cattle-cars, and deported to Uzbekistan in the space of a week. Thousands died en route. Many more thousands died on arrival in Uzbekistan, where their first task was to construct windowless mud-brick dwellings for themselves on the barren plain, and where they were subjected to long hours of forced labour and inadequate nutrition. About twenty percent of the Tatar population perished in the first five years of deportation.

Mustafa Dzhemilev. Photo: Kharkhiv Human Rights Protection Group

The Crimean Tatars remained in forced exile in Uzbekistan until the late 1980s, fighting for the right to educate their children and publish newspapers in their own language, and to return to their homeland. About 250,000 Tatars returned to Crimea after the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991. Mustafa Dzhemilev, the foremost leader of the Crimean Tatars today, as an infant was among those exiled to Uzbekistan in 1944. He returned to Crimea in 1989. But today he is once again exiled from his homeland after Russian troops invaded and occupied the peninsula in 2014.

The Holodomor is now more than eighty years past. The Soviet Union is no longer. Capitalism has been restored in Russia and all the other nations of the former Soviet Union including Ukraine. Large elements of the Stalinist police apparatus, and many of its political methods and habits – especially the Big, Brazen Lie – have been carried over unchanged into the new capitalist states. The influence of explicitly Stalinist politics has drastically waned. But many of the political battle lines along which the working class of the Soviet states was driven back through the Stalinist counter-revolution remain very much alive.

Russian oppression of the nations enslaved by the old Russian empire – including outright grabs of territory and resources – remains a central arena of political struggle in the present. Ukraine, the Crimean Tatars, Chechens, Georgians and others have faced military actions by Russian troops since the breakup of the Soviet Union. This Russification drive is the fuel for the campaigns of misinformation in Ukraine’s History Wars. Stalin’s political descendants in the Kremlin beget the descendants of Walter Duranty.

The working class has nothing to gain by prettying up the Stalin regime or covering up its crimes. Nor by supporting the continuation of those crimes in the present.


3 responses to “Ukraine’s “History Wars” and the political descendants of Stalin and Walter Duranty

  1. You need to read Douglas Tottle’s book on the distortions of the Ukrainian famine. While famine did occur, the scale of the famine and its causes have been systematically distorted by fascist and capitalist press to discredit the farmers’ co-op movement in the Soviet Union (often disparagingly called “forced collectivization,” as if poor farmers in the Soviet Union with initially no land of their own objected to having the property of their landlords folded into co-operative farms! It was only “forced” collectivization from the standpoint of their class enemies, the landlords, or “Kulaks.”) These distortions also serve to discredit any sort of socialism in general, not just the co-op movement in the Soviet Union.

  2. One hardly knows where to begin to respond to this comment. No facts are adduced, simply a reference to a book and the assertion that evidence to the contrary is the stock-in-trade of the distortions by the “fascist and capitalist press.”

    citizencokane seems unfamiliar not only with the wide understanding of Stalin’s crimes by Marxists outside the aforementioned press, but also with a basic tenet of Lenin’s:

    “Our Party relies on two classes and therefore its instability would be possible and its downfall inevitable if there were no agreement between those two classes.”

    Forced collectivization requires no quotation marks around it. It was a fact. It was part of a larger policy that destroyed the worker-peasant alliance on which the Bolshevik victory and the continued stability of the USSR rested.

    As James wrote originally:

    “The working class has nothing to gain by prettying up the Stalin regime or covering up its crimes. Nor by supporting the continuation of those crimes in the present.”

  3. Pingback: Two wars over Ukraine | A communist at large·

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