Category Archives: Belarus

How Many Slavic Languages vs. Dialects?

From Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages, by Gaston Dorren (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015), Kindle Loc. 2006-26:

Whether they’re from the Baltic port of Kaliningrad or from Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan, there’s little difference in the way Russians speak. In Poland, the same holds true: North Poles and South Poles can chat away effortlessly to each other, as can West and East Poles. Even people speaking different Slavic languages can often communicate without much trouble. Bulgarians can converse with Macedonians, Czechs with Slovaks, and Russians with Belarusians and Ukrainians. And, for all their political differences, there is no great language barrier between Croats, Bosnians, Serbs and Montenegrins. In fact, as the eminent nineteenth-century Slovak scholar Ján Kollár suggested, the Slavic world could, with no great effort on the part of its citizens, adopt just four standard languages: Russian, Polish, Czechoslovak and, lastly, what you might call Yugoslav or South Slavic.

There is one language, however, that wouldn’t so easily be absorbed into Kollár’s scheme: Slovene, also known as Slovenian. Admittedly, this is the language of a very small nation. Its entire territory fits no fewer than twelve times into the area of the UK (which is itself not large) and the population, at just over two million, is just a quarter of that of London. And yet, when Slovenes speak their local dialects, many of their compatriots can make neither head nor tail of what they are saying. So just imagine how these dialects would bewilder the members of some of the other nations that Kollár lumped together as ‘South Slavic’, such as the Bulgarians.

How come? Why does Russian span more than four thousand miles from west to east with next to nothing in the way of dialect diversity, whereas the Slovene language area, measuring just two hundred miles from end to end, is a veritable smorgasbord of regional varieties? Which in turn raises the question: how do dialects come about in the first place?

One school of thought, or rather thoughtlessness, holds that dialects are corrupted forms of the standard language – as, for example, in the view that ‘Scouse is just bad English’. This might be one’s automatic reaction, but it’s in fact the wrong way round: dialects come first, and tend to be at the root of any standard language, which is always an artefact. It would be nearer the truth to claim that standards are ‘corrupted’, ‘unnatural’ or ‘perverted’ dialects. For any other variation of any language, regional or otherwise, develops in a largely unselfconscious way, influenced chiefly by its degree of isolation and contact.

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Competitive Victimology in the Bloodlands

From Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder (Basic Books, 2010), Kindle Loc. 7393-7441 (pp. 402-403):

Without history, the memories become private, which today means national; and the numbers become public, which is to say an instrument in the international competition for martyrdom. Memory is mine and I have the right to do with it as I please; numbers are objective and you must accept my counts whether you like them or not. Such reasoning allows a nationalist to hug himself with one arm and strike his neighbor with the other. After the end of the Second World War, and then again after the end of communism, nationalists throughout the bloodlands (and beyond) have indulged in the quantitative exaggeration of victimhood, thereby claiming for themselves the mantle of innocence.

In the twenty-first century, Russian leaders associate their country with the more or less official numbers of Soviet victims of the Second World War: nine million military deaths, and fourteen to seventeen million civilian deaths. These figures are highly contested. Unlike most of the numbers presented in this book, they are demographic projections, rather than counts. But whether they are right or wrong, they are Soviet numbers, not Russian ones. Whatever the correct Soviet figures, Russian figures must be much, much lower. The high Soviet numbers include Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltics. Particularly important are the lands that the Soviet Union occupied in 1939: eastern Poland, the Baltic States, northeastern Romania. People died there in horribly high proportions—and many of the victims were killed not by the German but by the Soviet invader. Most important of all for the high numbers are the Jews: not the Jews of Russia, of whom only about sixty thousand died, but the Jews of Soviet Ukraine and Soviet Belarus (nearly a million) and those whose homeland was occupied by the Soviet Union before they were killed by the Germans (a further 1.6 million).

The Germans deliberately killed perhaps 3.2 million civilians and prisoners of war who were native to Soviet Russia: fewer in absolute terms than in Soviet Ukraine or in Poland, much smaller countries, each with about a fifth of Russia’s population. Higher figures for Russian civilian losses, sometimes offered, would (if accurate) permit two plausible interpretations. First, more Soviet soldiers died than Soviet statistics indicate, and these people (presented as civilians in the higher numbers) were in fact soldiers. Alternatively, these people (presented as war losses in the higher numbers) were not killed directly by the Germans but died from famine, deprivation, and Soviet repression during the war. The second alternative suggests the possibility that more Russians died prematurely during the war in the lands controlled by Stalin than in the lands controlled by Hitler. This is very possibly true, although the blame for many of the deaths is shared.

Consider the Gulag. Most of the Soviet concentration camps were located in Soviet Russia, far beyond the zone occupied by the Germans. Some four million Soviet citizens were in the Gulag when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. Soviet authorities sentenced more than 2.5 million of their citizens to the Gulag during the war. The NKVD was at work everywhere that the Germans did not reach, including besieged and starving Leningrad. Between 1941 and 1943, the deaths of some 516,841 Gulag inmates were registered, and the figure might have been higher. These hundreds of thousands of additional deaths would presumably not have happened had the Germans not invaded the Soviet Union: but those people would not have been so vulnerable had they not been in the Gulag. People who died in Soviet concentration camps cannot simply be counted as victims of Germany, even if Hitler’s war hastened their deaths.

Other people, such as the inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine, suffered more under both Stalin and Hitler than did inhabitants of Soviet Russia. In the prewar Soviet Union, Russians were far less likely to be touched by Stalin’s Great Terror (though many of them were) than the small national minorities, and far less likely to be threatened by famine (though many were) than Ukrainians or Kazakhs. In Soviet Ukraine, the whole population was under German occupation for much of the war, and death rates were far higher than in Soviet Russia. The lands of today’s Ukraine were at the center of both Stalinist and Nazi killing policies throughout the era of mass killing. Some 3.5 million people fell victim to Stalinist killing policies between 1933 and 1938, and then another 3.5 million to German killing policies between 1941 and 1944. Perhaps three million more inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine died in combat or as an indirect consequence of the war.

Even so, the independent Ukrainian state has sometimes displayed the politics of exaggeration. In Ukraine, which was a major site of both Stalin’s famine of 1932-1933 and the Holocaust in 1941-1944, the number of Ukrainians killed in the former has been exaggerated to exceed the total number of Jews killed in the latter. Between 2005 and 2009, Ukrainian historians connected to state institutions repeated the figure of ten million deaths in the famine, without any attempt at demonstration. In early 2010, the official estimation of starvation deaths fell discretely, to 3.94 million deaths. This laudable (and unusual) downward adjustment brought the official position close to the truth. (In a divided country, the succeeding president denied the specificity of the Ukrainian famine.)17 Belarus was the center of the Soviet-Nazi confrontation, and no country endured more hardship under German occupation. Proportionate wartime losses were greater than in Ukraine.

Belarus, even more than Poland, suffered social decapitation: first the Soviet NKVD killed the intelligentsia as spies in 1937-1938, then Soviet partisans killed the schoolteachers as German collaborators in 1942-1943. The capital Minsk was all but depopulated by German bombing, the flight of refugees and the hungry, and the Holocaust; and then rebuilt after the war as an eminently Soviet metropolis. Yet even Belarus follows the general trend. Twenty percent of the prewar population of Belarusian territories was killed during the Second World War. Yet young people are taught, and seem to believe, that the figure was not one in five but one in three. A government that celebrates the Soviet legacy denies the lethality of Stalinism, placing all of the blame on Germans or more generally on the West.

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Half the People of Belarus Killed or Deported in WW2

From Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder (Basic Books, 2010), Kindle Loc. 4671-4686 (p. 250):

Of the nine million people who were on the territory of Soviet Belarus in 1941, some 1.6 million were killed by the Germans in actions away from battlefields, including about 700,000 prisoners of war, 500,000 Jews, and 320,000 people counted as partisans (the vast majority of whom were unarmed civilians). These three general campaigns constituted the three greatest German atrocities in eastern Europe, and together they struck Belarus with the greatest force and malice. Another several hundred thousand inhabitants of Soviet Belarus were killed in action as soldiers of the Red Army.

The Soviet partisans also contributed to the total number of fatalities. They reported killing 17,431 people as traitors on the terrain of Soviet Belarus by 1 January 1944; this figure does not include civilians whom they killed for other reasons, or civilians whom they killed in the following months. In all, tens of thousands of people in Belarus were killed by the partisans in their own retribution actions (or, in the western regions taken from Poland, as class enemies). A few more tens of thousands of people native to the region certainly died after arrests during the Soviet occupation of 1939-1941 and especially during the Soviet deportations of 1940 and 1941, during the journey or in Kazakhstan.

A rough estimate of two million total mortal losses on the territory of present-day Belarus during the Second World War seems reasonable and conservative. More than a million other people fled the Germans, and another two million were deported as forced labor or removed from their original residence for another reason. Beginning in 1944, the Soviets deported a quarter million more people to Poland and tens of thousands more to the Gulag. By the end of the war, half the population of Belarus had either been killed or moved. This cannot be said of any other European country.

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Theatre of the Macabre in Minsk

From Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder (Basic Books, 2010), Kindle Loc. 4205-53 (pp. 225ff):

Minsk was transformed by the Germans into a kind of macabre theater, in which they could act out the ersatz victory of killing Jews.

In Minsk in autumn 1941, the Germans were celebrating an imaginary triumph, even as Moscow held fast. On 7 November, the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Germans organized something more dramatic than mere mass shootings. On that morning, they rounded up thousands of Jews from the ghetto. The Germans forced the Jews to wear their best clothes, as though they were dressing up for the Soviet holiday. Then the Germans formed the captives into columns, gave them Soviet flags, and ordered them to sing revolutionary songs. People had to smile for the cameras that were filming the scene. Once beyond Minsk, these 6,624 Jews were taken in trucks to a former NKVD warehouse in the nearby village of Tuchinka. Jewish men returning that evening from forced labor assignments found their entire families gone. As one recalled: “Out of eight people—my wife, my three children, my elderly mother, and her two children—not a soul remained!”

Terror itself was nothing new. People had been taken from Minsk to Tuchinka, in the black ravens of the NKVD, not so long before, in 1937 and 1938. Yet even at the height of Stalin’s Great Terror of those years, the NKVD was always discreet, taking people by ones and twos in the dark of night. The Germans were carrying out a mass action in the middle of the day, made for public consumption, ripe with meaning, suitable for a propaganda film. The staged parade was supposed to prove the Nazi claim that communists were Jews and Jews were communists. It followed from this, to the Nazi way of thinking, that their removal not only secured the rear area of Army Group Center but was also a kind of victory in itself. Yet this hollow expression of triumph seemed designed to disguise a more obvious defeat. By 7 November 1941, Army Group Center was supposed to have taken Moscow, and had not.

Stalin was still in the Soviet capital, and was organizing his own victory celebrations. He had never abandoned the city, not during the initial offensive of Operation Barbarossa of June 1941, not during the secondary offensive of Operation Typhoon of October. Lenin’s embalmed corpse was sent away from the Kremlin for safekeeping, but Stalin remained and ruled. Leningrad was besieged, and Minsk and Kiev were taken, but Moscow defended itself under Stalin’s obstinate command. On the 6th of November, Stalin spoke defiantly to Soviet citizens. Noting that the Germans called their campaign a “war of annihilation,” he promised them the same. He referred, for the one and only time, to the Germans’ murder of the Jews. In calling the Nazi regime an empire eager to organize “pogroms,” however, he fell far short of a true description of the ongoing mass murder. The Minsk Jews taken to Tuchinka on 7 November (the Soviet holiday) were shot on 9 November (the National Socialist holiday). Five thousand more followed on 20 November. Traditional empires had never done anything like this to Jews. On any given day in the second half of 1941, the Germans shot more Jews than had been killed by pogroms in the entire history of the Russian Empire.

The German murder of Jews was never going to play much of a role in the Soviet vision of the war. From a Stalinist perspective, it was not the killing of Jews that mattered but the possibilities for its political interpretation. The German identification of Jews with communism was not just a Nazi conviction and a pretext for mass murder; it was also a propaganda weapon against the Soviet Union. If the Soviet Union was nothing more than a Jewish empire, then surely (went the Nazi argument) the vast majority of Soviet citizens had no reason to defend it. In November 1941 Stalin was thus preparing an ideological as well as a military defense of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was not a state of the Jews, as the Nazis claimed; it was a state of the Soviet peoples, first among whom were the Russians. On 7 November, as the Jews marched through Minsk to their deaths, Stalin reviewed a military parade in Moscow. To raise the spirits of his Soviet peoples and to communicate his confidence to the Germans, he had actually recalled Red Army divisions from their defensive positions west of Moscow, and had them march through its boulevards. In his address that day he called upon the Soviet people to follow the example of their “great ancestors,” mentioning six prerevolutionary martial heroes—all of them Russians. At a time of desperation, the Soviet leader appealed to Russian nationalism.

Stalin was associating himself and his people with the earlier Russian Empire, which just one day before he had mentioned in connection with pogroms of Jews. As the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union summoned the heroes of prerevolutionary Russian history, he had to negotiate with their ghosts. By placing Russians at the center of history, he was implicitly reducing the role of other Soviet peoples, including those who suffered more than Russians from the German occupation. If this was a “Great Patriotic War,” as Stalin’s close associate Viacheslav Molotov had said on the day of the German invasion, what was the fatherland? Russia, or the Soviet Union? If the conflict was a war of Russian self-defense, what to make of the German mass murder of the Jews?

Hitler’s public anti-Semitism had placed Stalin, like all the leaders of the Allies, in a profound dilemma. Hitler said that the Allies were fighting for the Jews, and so (fearing that their populations might agree) the Allies had to insist that they were fighting to liberate oppressed nations (but not Jews in particular). Stalin’s answer to Hitler’s propaganda shaped the history of the Soviet Union for as long as it existed: all of the victims of German killing policies were “Soviet citizens,” but the greatest of the Soviet nations was the Russians. One of his chief propagandists, Aleksandr Shcherbakov, clarified the line in January 1942: “the Russian people—the first among equals in the USSR’s family of peoples—are bearing the main burden of the struggle with the German occupiers.” By the time Shcherbakov uttered those words, the Germans had killed a million Jews east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, including some 190,000 Jews in Belarus.

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Uniqueness of the Minsk Ghetto

From Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder (Basic Books, 2010), Kindle Loc. 4295-4349 (p. 231ff):

Minsk was an unusual city, a place whose social structure defied the Nazi mind as well as German experience in occupied Poland. Here, in a Soviet metropolis, the history of Jews had taken a different turn than in Poland. Twenty years of social opportunity and political coercion had done their work. The urbane Jews of the city were not organized in any sort of traditional community, since the Soviets had destroyed Jewish religious and communal institutions in the 1920s and 1930s. The younger generation of Jews was highly assimilated, to the point that many had “Belarusian” or “Russian” inscribed as their nationality on their Soviet documents. Although this probably meant little to them before 1941, it could save their lives under German rule. Some Minsk Jews had Belarusian or Russian friends and colleagues who were ignorant of or indifferent to religion and nationality. A striking example of the ignorance of Jewish origins was Isai Kaziniets, who organized the communist underground throughout the city of Minsk. Neither his friends nor his enemies knew that he was Jewish.

Soviet rule had brought a certain sort of toleration and assimilation, at the price of habits of subordination and obedience to the commands of Moscow. Political initiative had not been rewarded in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Anyone responding with too much avidity to a given situation, or even to a political line, was at risk when the situation or the line changed. Thus Soviet rule in general, and the Great Terror of 1937-1938 in particular, had taught people not to take spontaneous action. People who had distinguished themselves in the Minsk of the 1930s had been shot by the NKVD at Kuropaty. Even when it must have been clear in Moscow that Soviet citizens in Minsk had their own reasons to resist Germans, communists understood that this would not be enough to protect them from future persecution when the Soviets returned. Kaziniets and all local communists hesitated to create any sort of organization, knowing that Stalinism opposed any sort of spontaneous action from below. Left to themselves, they would have endured Hitler for fear of Stalin.

An outsider, the Polish-Jewish communist Hersh Smolar, helped spur Minsk communists and Jews to action. His curious combination of Soviet and Polish experience provided him with the skills (and, perhaps, the naiveté) to push forward. He had spent the early 1920s in the Soviet Union, and spoke Russian—the main language of Minsk. After returning to a Poland where the communist party was illegal, he grew accustomed to operating underground and working against local authorities. Arrested by the Polish police and imprisoned, he had been spared the experiences of Stalinist mass shooting that weighed so heavily in Minsk. He was behind bars during the Great Terror of 1937-1938, when Polish communists were invited to the Soviet Union in order to be shot. Released from Polish prison when the Soviet Union invaded Poland in September 1939, Smolar served the new Soviet regime. He fled the Germans on foot in June 1941, and got as far as Minsk. After the German occupation of the city, he began to organize the ghetto underground, and persuaded Kaziniets that a general city underground was permissible as well. Kaziniets wanted to know whom Smolar was representing; Smolar told him truthfully that he stood for no one but himself. This denial seemed to have persuaded Kaziniets that Smolar was actually authorized by Moscow to work under deep cover. Both men found a large number of willing conspirators within and without the ghetto; by early autumn 1941 both the ghetto and the city were thoroughly penetrated by a dedicated communist underground movement.

The underground subverted the organs of German control over Jewish life, the Judenrat and the Jewish police. In the occupied Soviet Union, as in occupied Poland, German rule forced Jews into ghettos, which were administered by a local Jewish council typically known by the German term Judenrat. In the cities of occupied Poland, the Judenrat was often composed of Jews of some standing in the prewar community, often the same people who had led the Jewish communal structures that had been legal in independent Poland. In Minsk, such continuity of Jewish leadership was impossible, since the Soviets had eliminated Jewish communal life. The Germans had no easy way to find people who represented Jewish elites, and who were accustomed to making compromises with the local authorities. It seems that they chose the initial Minsk Judenrat more or less at random—and chose badly. The entire Judenrat cooperated with the underground.

In late 1941 and early 1942, Jews who wished to flee the ghetto could count on help from the Judenrat. Jewish policemen would be stationed away from places where escape attempts were planned. Because the Minsk ghetto was enclosed only by barbed wire, the momentary absence of police attention allowed people to flee to the forest—which was very close to the city limits. Very small children were passed through the barbed wire to gentiles who agreed to raise them or take them to orphanages. Older children learned the escape routes, and came to serve as guides from the city to the nearby forest. Sima Fiterson, one of these guides, carried a ball, which she would play with to signal danger to those following behind her. Children adapted quickly and well, but were in terrible danger all the same. To celebrate that first Christmas under German occupation, Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, the Higher SS and Police Leader, sent thousands of pairs of children’s gloves and socks to SS families in Germany.

Unlike Jews elsewhere under German occupation, Jews in Minsk had somewhere to run. In the nearby forest, they could try to find Soviet partisans. They knew that the Germans had taken countless prisoners of war, and that some had escaped to the forests. These men had stayed in the woods because they knew that the Germans would shoot them or starve them. Stalin had called in July 1941 for loyal communists to organize partisan units behind the lines, in the hope of establishing some control over this spontaneous movement before it grew in importance. Centralization was not yet possible; the soldiers hid in the forest, and the communists, if they had not fled, did their best to hide their pasts from the Germans.

The Minsk underground activists, however, did try to support their armed comrades. On at least one occasion, members of the ghetto underground liberated a Red Army officer from the camp on Shirokaia Street; he became an important partisan leader in the nearby forests, and saved Jews in his turn. Jewish laborers in German factories stole winter clothes and boots, meant for the German soldiers of Army Group Center, and diverted them to the partisans. Workers in arms factories, remarkably, did the same. The Judenrat, required to collect a regular “contribution” of money from the Jewish population of the ghetto, diverted some of these funds to the partisans. The Germans later concluded that the entire Soviet partisan movement was funded from the ghetto. This was an exaggeration arising from stereotypical ideas of Jewish wealth, but the aid from the Minsk ghetto was reality.

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