Category Archives: Ukraine

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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Austria-Hungary’s Military Incompetence in WWI

From Russia’s Last Gasp: The Eastern Front 1916–17, by Prit Buttar (Osprey, 2016), Kindle Loc. 251-74:

Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, chief of Austria-Hungary’s general staff, had been a hugely important figure in the years before the war, with a hand in almost every aspect of army training and doctrine. During the years in which he dominated the training of staff officers and the drafting of manuals for the infantry, artillery and cavalry, he preached the supremacy of offensive operations, and the need to press home attacks at close quarters. The use of artillery and infantry fire to suppress defences was often ignored or minimised, and attacks were to be carried out repeatedly against the enemy’s forces in order to break their will to fight. Retreat was something to be avoided at all costs, and if an enemy attack gained ground, it was vital that this ground was recovered with counterattacks as soon as possible, so that the enemy did not gain any advantage in terms of morale from his success. The importance of morale was something that Conrad repeatedly stressed – it was the currency that determined how long an army could continue offensive operations.

It was a huge tragedy for the kaiserlich und königlich (Imperial and Royal, usually abbreviated to k.u.k., a reflection of the arrangement by which Franz Joseph was Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary) Army that Conrad was wrong in almost every respect. In their attempts to turn their chief’s visions into reality, the commanders of Austria-Hungary’s armies squandered hundreds of thousands of lives in the opening battles of the war, and then steadfastly failed to learn from their mistakes in the months that followed. By the end of 1915, the Germans were convinced that their ally was incapable of mounting any operations unless there was substantial German involvement, and the Russians too were aware of which of their opponents was the weakest.

The problems of the Austro-Hungarian Empire extended beyond the disastrous errors of Conrad’s planning and doctrine. There was no clear war plan, other than to tie down large numbers of Russian troops until Germany could turn east in strength. Conrad repeatedly called for a grandiose pincer attack against Warsaw, with Austro-Hungarian troops advancing from the south while German forces pressed down from East Prussia in the north, but the Germans never agreed to such a plan before the war, and its implementation once hostilities began was beyond the limited resources available. Although the ruthless mobilisation of reserves and the shortening of basic training to an absolute minimum allowed the k.u.k. Army to recover its numerical strength after the crippling losses of 1914, the delicate structure of the regiments and divisions was lost forever. The multi-lingual and multi-national empire had organised its regiments along national lines, with officers speaking the same language as their men; as reserves were poured in to refill the depleted ranks, it proved impossible to maintain this arrangement. With growing alienation between officers and men, the forces of Austria-Hungary were already showing signs of war-weariness by the first winter of the war, and by the end of 1915 there were persistent concerns about the reliability of many formations, particularly those made up of Czech and Ruthenian (Ukrainian) personnel.

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U.S. Role in Ukraine Famine, 1922

From Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, by Anne Applebaum (Doubleday, 2017), Kindle Loc. 1517-53:

But in one extremely important sense this first Soviet famine did differ from the famine that was to follow a decade later: in 1921 mass hunger was not kept secret. More importantly, the regime tried to help the starving. Pravda itself announced the existence of famine when on 21 June it declared that 25 million people were going hungry in the Soviet Union. Soon after, the regime sanctioned the creation of an “All-Russian Famine Committee” made up of non-Bolshevik political and cultural figures. Local self-help committees were created to assist the starving. International appeals for aid followed, most prominently from the writer Maxim Gorky, who led a campaign addressed “To All Honest People,” in the name of all that was best in Russian culture. “Gloomy days have come to the country of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Mendeleev, Pavlov, Mussorgsky, Glinka,” he wrote, and called for contributions. Gorky’s list of Russian luminaries conspicuously left out the names of Lenin and Trotsky. Extraordinarily—given how paranoid they would become about the diaspora in the years that followed—the Ukrainian Communist Party even discussed asking for help from Ukrainians who had emigrated to Canada and the United States.

This public, international appeal for help, the only one of its kind in Soviet history, produced fast results. Several relief organizations, including the International Red Cross and the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (known as the JDC, or simply “Joint”), would eventually contribute to the relief effort, as would the Nansen Mission, a European effort put together by the Norwegian explorer and humanitarian Fridtjof Nansen. But the most important source of immediate aid was the American Relief Administration (ARA), which was already operating in Europe in the spring of 1921. Founded by future president Herbert Hoover, the ARA had successfully distributed more than $1 billion in food and medical relief across Europe in the nine months following the 1918 armistice. Upon hearing Gorky’s appeal, Hoover, an astute student of Bolshevik ideology, leapt at the opportunity to expand his aid network into Russia.

Before entering the country, he demanded the release of all Americans held in Soviet prisons, as well as immunity from prosecution for all Americans working for the ARA. Hoover worried that ARA personnel had to control the process or aid would be stolen. He also worried, not without cause, that Americans in Russia could be accused of espionage (and they were indeed collecting information, sending it home and using diplomatic mail to do so). 30 Lenin fumed and called Hoover “impudent and a liar” for making such demands and raged against the “rank duplicity” of “America, Hoover and the League of Nations Council.” He declared that “Hoover must be punished, he must be slapped in the face publicly, for all the world to see,” an astonishing statement given how much aid he was about to receive. But the scale of the famine was such that Lenin eventually yielded.

In September 1921 an advance party of ARA relief workers reached the city of Kazan on the Volga, where they found poverty of a kind they had never seen before, even in ravaged Europe. On the streets they met “pitiful-looking figures dressed in rags and begging for a piece of bread in the name of Christ.” In the orphanages they found “emaciated little skeletons, whose gaunt faces and toothpick legs…testified to the truth of the report that they were dying off daily by the dozen.” By the summer of 1922 the Americans were feeding 11 million people every day and delivering care packages to hundreds of thousands. To stop epidemics they provided $8 million worth of medicine as well. Once their efforts were underway, the independent Russian famine relief committee was quietly dissolved: Lenin didn’t want any Russian organization not directly run by the Communist Party to gain credibility by participating in the distribution of food. But the American aid project, amplified by contributions from other foreign organizations, was allowed to go ahead, saving millions of lives.

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Weaponizing Famine in Ukraine, 1930s

From Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, by Anne Applebaum (Doubleday, 2017), Kindle Loc. 194-221:

But the bourgeoisie had not created the famine. The Soviet Union’s disastrous decision to force peasants to give up their land and join collective farms; the eviction of “kulaks,” the wealthier peasants, from their homes; the chaos that followed; these policies, all ultimately the responsibility of Joseph Stalin, the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, had led the countryside to the brink of starvation. Throughout the spring and summer of 1932, many of Stalin’s colleagues sent him urgent messages from all around the USSR, describing the crisis. Communist Party leaders in Ukraine were especially desperate, and several wrote him long letters, begging him for help.

Many of them believed, in the late summer of 1932, that a greater tragedy could still be avoided. The regime could have asked for international assistance, as it had during a previous famine in 1921. It could have halted grain exports, or stopped the punishing grain requisitions altogether. It could have offered aid to peasants in starving regions—and to a degree it did, but not nearly enough.

Instead, in the autumn of 1932, the Soviet Politburo, the elite leadership of the Soviet Communist Party, took a series of decisions that widened and deepened the famine in the Ukrainian countryside and at the same time prevented peasants from leaving the republic in search of food. At the height of the crisis, organized teams of policemen and party activists, motivated by hunger, fear and a decade of hateful and conspiratorial rhetoric, entered peasant households and took everything edible: potatoes, beets, squash, beans, peas, anything in the oven and anything in the cupboard, farm animals and pets.

The result was a catastrophe: At least 5 million people perished of hunger between 1931 and 1934 all across the Soviet Union. Among them were more than 3.9 million Ukrainians. In acknowledgement of its scale, the famine of 1932–3 was described in émigré publications at the time and later as the Holodomor, a term derived from the Ukrainian words for hunger—holod—and extermination—mor.

But famine was only half the story. While peasants were dying in the countryside, the Soviet secret police simultaneously launched an attack on the Ukrainian intellectual and political elites. As the famine spread, a campaign of slander and repression was launched against Ukrainian intellectuals, professors, museum curators, writers, artists, priests, theologians, public officials and bureaucrats. Anyone connected to the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic, which had existed for a few months from June 1917, anyone who had promoted the Ukrainian language or Ukrainian history, anyone with an independent literary or artistic career, was liable to be publicly vilified, jailed, sent to a labour camp or executed. Unable to watch what was happening, Mykola Skrypnyk, one of the best-known leaders of the Ukrainian Communist Party, committed suicide in 1933. He was not alone.

Taken together, these two policies—the Holodomor in the winter and spring of 1933 and the repression of the Ukrainian intellectual and political class in the months that followed—brought about the Sovietization of Ukraine, the destruction of the Ukrainian national idea, and the neutering of any Ukrainian challenge to Soviet unity. Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish lawyer who invented the word “genocide,” spoke of Ukraine in this era as the “classic example” of his concept: “It is a case of genocide, of destruction, not of individuals only, but of a culture and a nation.”

Famine was also an effective weapon of mass destruction in Ethiopia during the 1980s.

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Sources of Lenin’s Red Terror, 1918

From Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, by Anne Applebaum (Doubleday, 2017), Kindle Loc. 904-43:

Lenin’s turn towards political violence in 1918—a set of policies known as the Red Terror—to his struggle against his political opponents. But even before the Red Terror was formally declared in September, and even before he ordered mass arrests and executions, Lenin was already discarding law and precedent in response to economic disaster: the workers of Moscow and Petrograd were down to one ounce of bread per day. Morgan Philips Price observed that Soviet authorities were barely able to feed the delegates during the Congress of Soviets in the winter of 1918: “Only a very few wagons of flour had arrived during the week at the Petrograd railway stations.” Worse, “complaints in the working-class quarters of Moscow began to be loud. The Bolshevik regime must get food or go, one used to hear.”

In the spring of 1918 these conditions inspired Lenin’s first chrezvychaishchina—a phrase translated by one scholar as “a special condition in public life when any feeling of legality is lost and arbitrariness in power prevails.” Extraordinary measures, or cherzvychainye mery, were needed to fight the peasantry whom Lenin accused of holding back surplus grain for their own purposes. To force the peasants to give up their grain and to fight the counter-revolution, Lenin also eventually created the chrezvychainaia komissiia—the “extraordinary commission,” also known as the Che-Ka, or Cheka. This was the first name given to the Soviet secret police, later known as the GPU, the OGPU, the NKVD and finally the KGB.

The emergency subsumed everything else. Lenin ordered anyone not directly involved in the military conflict in the spring and summer of 1918 to bring food back to the capital. Stalin was put in charge of “provisions matters in southern Russia,” a task that suddenly mattered a lot more than his tasks as Nationalities Commissar. He set out for Tsaritsyn, a city on the Volga, accompanied by two armoured trains and 450 Red Army soldiers. His assignment: to collect grain for Moscow. His first telegram to Lenin, sent on 7 July, reported that he had discovered a “bacchanalia of profiteering.” He set out his strategy: “we won’t show mercy to anyone, not to ourselves, not to others—but we will bring you bread.”

In subsequent years Stalin’s Tsaritsyn escapade was mostly remembered for the fact that it inspired his first public quarrel with the man who would become his great rival, Leon Trotsky. But in the context of Stalin’s later policy in Ukraine, it had another kind of significance: the brutal tactics he used to procure grain in Tsaritsyn presaged those he would employ to procure grain in Ukraine more than a decade later. Within days of arriving in the city Stalin created a revolutionary military council, established a Cheka division, and began to “cleanse” Tsaritsyn of counter-revolutionaries. Denouncing the local generals as “bourgeois specialists” and “lifeless pen-pushers, completely ill-suited to civil war,” he took them and others into custody and placed them on a barge in the centre of the Volga. In conjunction with several units of Bolshevik troops from Donetsk, and with the help of Klement Voroshilov and Sergo Ordzhonikidze, two men who would remain close associates, Stalin authorized arrests and beatings on a broad scale, followed by mass executions. Red Army thugs robbed local merchants and peasants of their grain; the Cheka then fabricated criminal cases against them—another harbinger of what was to come—and caught up random people in the sweep as well.

But the grain was put on trains for the north—which meant that, from Stalin’s point of view, this particularly brutal form of War Communism was successful. The populace of Tsaritsyn paid a huge price and, at least in Trotsky’s view, so did the army. After Trotsky protested against Stalin’s behaviour in Tsaritsyn, Lenin eventually removed Stalin from the city. But his time there remained important to Stalin, so much so that in 1925 he renamed Tsaritsyn “Stalingrad.” During their second occupation of Ukraine in 1919, the Bolsheviks never had the same degree of control as Stalin had over Tsaritsyn. But over the six months when they were at least nominally in charge of the republic, they went as far as they could. All of their obsessions—their hatred of trade, private property, nationalism, the peasantry—were on full display in Ukraine. But their particular obsession with food, and with food collection in Ukraine, overshadowed almost every other decision they made.

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Bolshevik Attitudes Toward Ukraine

From Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, by Anne Applebaum (Doubleday, 2017), Kindle Loc. 652-76:

At the beginning of 1917, the Bolsheviks were a small minority party in Russia, the radical faction of what had been the Marxist Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party. But they spent the year agitating in the Russian streets, using simple slogans such as “Land, Bread and Peace” designed to appeal to the widest numbers of soldiers, workers and peasants. Their coup d’état in October (7 November according to the “new calendar” they later adopted) put them in power amidst conditions of total chaos. Led by Lenin, a paranoid, conspiratorial and fundamentally undemocratic man, the Bolsheviks believed themselves to be the “vanguard of the proletariat”; they would call their regime the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” They sought absolute power, and eventually abolished all other political parties and opponents through terror, violence and vicious propaganda campaigns.

In early 1917 the Bolsheviks had even fewer followers in Ukraine. The party had 22,000 Ukrainian members, most of whom were in the large cities and industrial centres of Donetsk and Kryvyi Rih. Few spoke Ukrainian. More than half considered themselves to be Russians. About one in six was Jewish. A tiny number, including a few who would later play major roles in the Soviet Ukrainian government, did believe in the possibility of an autonomous, Bolshevik Ukraine. But Heorhii Piatakov—who was born in Ukraine but did not consider himself to be Ukrainian—spoke for the majority when he told a meeting of Kyiv Bolsheviks in June 1917, just a few weeks after Hrushevsky’s speech, that “we should not support the Ukrainians.” Ukraine, he explained, was not a “distinct economic region.” More to the point, Russia relied on Ukraine’s sugar, grain and coal, and Russia was Piatakov’s priority.

The sentiment was not new: disdain for the very idea of a Ukrainian state had been an integral part of Bolshevik thinking even before the revolution. In large part this was simply because all of the leading Bolsheviks, among them Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Piatakov, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Bukharin, were men raised and educated in the Russian empire, and the Russian empire did not recognize such a thing as “Ukraine” in the province that they knew as “Southwest Russia.” The city of Kyiv was, to them, the ancient capital of Kyivan Rus’, the kingdom that they remembered as the ancestor of Russia. In school, in the press and in daily life they would have absorbed Russia’s prejudices against a language that was widely described as a dialect of Russian, and a people widely perceived as primitive former serfs.

All Russian political parties at the time, from the Bolsheviks to the centrists to the far right, shared this contempt. Many refused to use the name “Ukraine” at all. Even Russian liberals refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Ukrainian national movement. This blind spot—and the consequent refusal of any Russian groups to create an anti-Bolshevik coalition with the Ukrainians—was ultimately one of the reasons why the White Armies failed to win the civil war.

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Logistics of Penal Migration

From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 715-748:

The European empires all struggled with the formidable logistical problems of penal migration. Britain’s transports to its Australian penal colonies in the late eighteenth century were dreadful ordeals for the convict passengers. Prisoners languished in the ships’ holds, “chilled to the bone on soaked bedding, unexercised, crusted with salt, shit and vomit, festering with scurvy and boils.” Of the 1,006 convicts who sailed on the Second Fleet in 1790, 267 died at sea and at least another 150 after landing. The British government took swift and decisive action to curb the lethal excesses in transportation because the organized and efficient transfer of healthy convicts was understood to be necessary to the wider project of penal colonization. It bombarded the private contractors responsible for transportation with demands for improvements in conditions, and deferred payment for each convict until he or she disembarked in decent health. A naval surgeon was placed on board each vessel and was answerable to the government, not to the contractors. Negligence and abuse still continued on some ships but, by 1815, the death rate in the transports had fallen to one in eighty-five. By the end of transportation in 1868, it was only one in 180.

The deportation of convicts to Siberia presented logistical difficulties not less (and possibly even more) daunting than those of the roiling waters of the Atlantic and Indian oceans. The annual deportation of thousands of unruly and sometimes violent convicts several thousands of kilometres across the most inhospitable territory would have taxed the resources of any contemporary European state. The Siberian continent boasted only the sketchiest network of roads, and rivers that flowed unhelpfully south to north and north to south, rather than west to east, and turned each winter into a hazardous ocean of snow.

When compared with its European rivals, the tsarist empire’s state machinery was primitive and already creaking under the weight of its administrative burdens. St. Petersburg’s remit did not run as deep as that of London or Paris. Even within European Russia, the state had little direct contact with its own population. It devolved governance onto the landed nobility, the Church, merchant guilds and village assemblies. The Imperial Army was the only direct and sustained confrontation with state power that most Russian subjects—the peasantry—ever experienced. The enormous distances separating Siberia’s administrators from their masters in the capital amplified the effects of this bureaucratic weakness. Under-resourced and virtually unaccountable, officials manoeuvred within the deportation system for private gain, neglecting, exploiting and robbing the convicts in their charge.

After several months, sometimes years on the road, convicts who had departed hale and hearty from European Russia finally reached their destinations in Eastern Siberia as ragged, sickly, half-starving mockeries of the robust penal colonists envisioned by officials in St. Petersburg. The deportation process itself thus frustrated the state’s wider strategic ambitions for the penal colonization of Siberia. The downcast and desperate figures trudging eastwards in marching convoys were indictments of the imperial state’s weakness and incompetence. The boundary post was not so much a symbol of the sovereign’s power as a marker of its limitations.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, exiles almost all made the journey to Siberia on foot. They would set out from one of five cities in the empire: St. Petersburg, Białystok in the Kingdom of Poland, Kamenets-Podolsk and Kherson in Ukraine, and Tiflis in Georgia. Most were funnelled through the Central Forwarding Prison in Moscow, from where they and their families would march eastwards through the town of Vladimir that gave its name to the road that wound its way eastwards. Synonymous with Siberian exile, the Vladimirka gained such notoriety over the nineteenth century that Isaak Levitan’s eponymous landscape painting from 1892, which today hangs in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery, seemed to echo to the clumping steps of exiles marching eastwards.

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