Category Archives: economics

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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Decline of British Shipping

From Singapore: Unlikely Power, by John Curtis Perry (Oxford U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 4318-37:

In the twentieth century, just as the Royal Navy came no longer to rule the waves, the British merchant fleet began to fall sharply as a percentage of the world total. The port of Singapore would see far fewer British-flagged ships. Some of the commercial decline lay beyond British control. But British shipyards were slow to innovate, short on investment, and did not try to improve the skills and efficiency of their workers or their management. Labor relations were poor and class prejudices aggravated them.

When Lee Kuan Yew visited a British shipyard and compared it with one he had seen in Japan, he commented that Japanese executives had firsthand familiarity with the factory floor whereas British executives seemed to confine themselves to their carpeted offices. In contrast, Japanese management and workers dressed in the same hardhat and rubber boots and customarily ate the same plain food together in the same canteen. They were all “gray collar workers,” as Lee puts it. But in Britain, class lines were clear. At noon Lee’s British host, elegant in his bespoke suit, whisked him off in a gleaming Rolls Royce to lunch at a hotel far removed in every way from the yard.

British yards were known for late deliveries, and management paid insufficient attention to the market. Attitudes certainly tell us something. Sir John Mallabar, chairman of Harland & Wolff, the great Belfast shipbuilder, explained that he did not need market research. “If you get an explosion in population, you must get an explosion in world trade. This is all I need to know.”

The triumphs of the past had nurtured a sense of superiority that in a new climate caused British maritime interests to suffer. As one observer put it, “Complacency is an all-pervading legacy of Victorian Britain and affected most industries which reached positions of strength and importance in that period.” With the amalgamation of shipping lines and disappearance of the old family firms, the business became more abstract. The ship owners shifted their eyes from the ship to the office, from the deck to the ledger. And as British maritime industry declined, those leading it, instead of looking for ways to improve, tended to blame others.

I was surprised to read that “the last ship to unload cargo in London did so in late October 1981” (p. 260).

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How Singapore Became Chinese

From Singapore: Unlikely Power, by John Curtis Perry (Oxford U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 620-40, 679-703:

In this cosmopolitan but overwhelmingly Malay maritime world of the straits, how did modern Singapore become three-quarters Chinese and what does this mean? To begin to answer that question we can take a look at the motherland to see where the impetus came for the Chinese diaspora, a unique maritime-based mobile culture. This is one of the greatest and most consequential human overseas migrations in history, forming an engine for the flow of people, goods, and ideas, not simply to and from China but building a network of interconnected communities sprinkled throughout Southeast Asia, for which Singapore would function as a synapse, perceived as “the western junction of a Chinese commercial empire.”

Most emigrating Chinese ended up in Southeast Asia on the edges of the South China Sea. The Chinese called the region Nanyang or “Southern Ocean,” connoting both a saltwater space and its fringes. The concept was more commercial than political or geographical and applied to people, the ethnic Chinese of that region, as well as place. Leaving China, emigrants took their culture with them but usually abandoned their political attachments. Ultimately the diaspora would reach much farther than the Nanyang. Is there today anywhere in the world any major seaport city without its Chinatown?

The broken coast and many harbors of South China encouraged taking to the sea and spawned China’s continuing, unauthorized, and largely unrecorded maritime history in which many foreigners also participated. In south Chinese coastal towns, Arabs, Persians, and Indians, sailors and merchants walked the waterfront.

The Chinese government, preoccupied with nomad incursions on land frontiers to the north and west, paid little heed to these seaborne foreigners along the coast, content for them to govern themselves. Nor were local fishers, merchants, and pirates of interest, either to government officials or recorders of history at the capital. To the Chinese official grinding his ink and wielding his brush in Beijing, the imperial capital, the sea seemed both far away and a natural boundary, a great saltwater wall, useful only for keeping unwanted strangers away.

But local people readily leaped into maritime life, even to invest their skills and savings in overseas enterprise. Many Chinese would move to maritime Southeast Asia and become familiar figures along the Melaka Straits. Family ties and ancestor veneration tended to bind people to the homeland. Nonetheless many did leave China forever.

The junk furnished the vehicle for the Chinese overseas trading network, taking on an iconic identification with premodern maritime China. But the word is actually of Arabic or Malay origin, reflecting the influence of outsiders along the China coast where the ship type originated. Versatile vessels, junks carrying heavy cargo ventured out upon the open sea, but always chose if possible to hug the shoreline, taking advantage of seasonal winds, south in the winter, north in the summer.

The name “junk” would be applied to a wide range of vessels, large and small, which evolved over centuries of steady improvements. A familiar sight in the Melaka Straits and throughout Pacific Asian waters, these ships were sailing in some numbers until recent years. They were to be seen in commercial use moored in Singapore harbor as late as the eve of World War II.

More than a millennium ago, with the junk the Chinese had achieved a maritime technological complexity not equaled by Europeans until much later. Chinese mariners used rudders that could be raised or lowered to accommodate varying depths of water; they sailed ships with hulls of double-planked thickness and watertight bulkheads for compartmentalization. Fishers were the innovators there, wanting tanks to take their catch live to the market. Europeans did not build such compartmented ships until they began to use iron hulls in the nineteenth century.

Able to operate in rivers as well as on the open sea, brown water as well as blue, junks proved sturdy and versatile craft, joined together with nails, their timbers varnished with water-repellent tung oil, their sails slatted like Venetian blinds with bamboo battens; their sailors using compass and sounding lead. Characteristically the stern loomed higher than the bow. Whereas Europeans built their ships in the shape of a fish, bulging out from the bow and tapering to the stern, the Chinese built theirs in the shape of a water bird, swelling at the stern. Like today’s giant oil tankers, the superstructure rose far aft, well behind (“abaft” in nautical lingo) any masts, leaving ample space forward for freight stowage.

From the great population reservoir in south China, junks bore passengers who intended to stay abroad, perhaps for a while, perhaps forever. These people did not bring high culture with them; most were the underprivileged at home looking for a better life abroad. But those who settled permanently would form a nucleus for the Chinese community in Singapore, joining earlier arrivals, who might have lived along the straits for generations.

Although emigrants brought their culture with them, they had no reason to carry any political attachments. The imperial government had discouraged or even forbidden them to leave, seeing those who did so as disloyal, forever lost to the realm, and therefore of no future interest or responsibility. Had it been otherwise, Singapore, a city of immigrants, today might well be part of China, a far-flung overseas province chafing for independence from Chinese rule, just as at mid-twentieth century it would crave independence from British rule.

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Melaka, Asia’s “Gullet”

From Singapore: Unlikely Power, by John Curtis Perry (Oxford U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 552-76, 592-600:

The fleeing rulers of Temasek found a new home in Melaka, almost exactly as far from today’s Singapore as Albany is from Manhattan (127 miles). The name Melaka proved highly appropriate, deriving as it does from the Arabic meaning “meeting place” or “rendezvous.” Its origins are hazy like those of its predecessors Temasek or Singapura being the stuff of legend, but early in the fifteenth century a Hindu kingdom emerged there, soon to become a Muslim sultanate, the faith brought in by itinerant merchants traveling from the west.

Melaka was not a new kind of settlement but was in the pattern of other Southeast Asian cosmopolitan maritime entrepôts, a place for trading. Here on the straits a tiny fishing community evolved into a hangout for those wanting a center to conduct commerce or to exploit a strategic position to exact fees from passing ships, and, more crudely, we might say a place to fence stolen goods.

Unlike most Southeast Asian trading towns, which placed themselves defensively upriver to discourage maritime marauders, Melaka sat boldly at the mouth of a muddy stream where moored vessels rolled gently in the current or rode offshore in a sheltered spot on an easily navigable approach where ships could find safe anchorage.

The city that arose there depended almost totally on trade even, with the exception of fish, needing to import its basic foods to fill the rice bowl as well as to provide most other sustenance. Its land, hacked out of dense jungle, was ill-suited to growing grain although fruit orchards flourished at hand. Fruit does not travel well, especially in a hot climate. If you wanted to eat it, you had to grow it. Melaka, with its back to untamed jungle, lacked continental hinterland and we have no indication that anyone was interested in clearing and farming land beyond the outskirts of town.

Without an easily accessible hinterland, trade furnished Melaka’s life stream. Although not situated at the straits’ narrowest point, the city could control a navigable passage through which much oceanic traffic passed. It lay on the direct route between the Maluku islands (the Moluccas), the heart of Indonesian spice growing, and Alexandria, the Egyptian feeder port for Venice, the European distributor. Melaka would become the metropolis of the straits for more than a century, a flourishing maritime state presumably never as populous as Venice, but comparable to London at the time. Like other trading cities in the region, it was largely independent of any bigger territorial authority. Saltwater space formed its true sphere, “the axis of the realm.”

At the peak of its power in the fifteenth century, Melaka made itself master of both sides of the straits and the islands within, but its empire was less a matter of territory than situation, its purpose being to protect trade streams and sources of manpower and foodstuffs.

The cast of characters in Melaka at its peak illustrates the multiethnic, multicultural character of maritime life. Giving it color and pulse were Chinese, Javanese, Tagalogs, Persians, Tamils from South India, Gulf Arabs, Gujerati Indians from the far northwest of the subcontinent, and even a few of the great cosmopolitan traders, Armenians and Jews. In short, people from the whole of the Asian maritime littoral and beyond crowded the streets and bazaars of the city, all intent on doing business.

An early European visitor would call the straits, a place of cultural and commercial convergence, Asia’s “gullet,” and, mindful of its wide-ranging significance in the spice trade, declared “Whoever is lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice,” the center for distributing spices to consumers throughout Europe. If Venice were the “hinge of Europe,” so Melaka might have been described as the hinge of Eurasia.

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Rise and Fall of Temasek

From Singapore: Unlikely Power, by John Curtis Perry (Oxford U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 507-27, 532-40:

Archaeologists give us a sense of Temasek’s physical features: a terraced hill overlooking the Singapore River with a palace, market, defenses, earthen rampart, and moat. The earthen wall represented a commitment to permanence. Not even royal palaces commanded permanent building materials. But we do have some baked brick and stone remnants from the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries suggesting Buddhist temples. Unfortunately, during the early British colonial era, much was destroyed in the rush for development. And therefore the legend could arise, and long lingered in the standard histories, that nothing had existed in Singapore until the British arrived in 1819.

Being a religious center as well as a commercial one, Temasek seems to fit into a pattern of the Malay port city, its wall being an exception. Religion reflected Indic impulses, not Chinese. The hilltop held cosmological significance, representing Mount Meru, known in both Indian Buddhist and Hindu tradition as a divine abode and metaphysical center of the universe. For creating this sacred place, the builders, because they lacked labor, used a natural landscape, not a constructed one such as at the great Angkor. They then carefully allotted the downward spaces, using walls and water to define them. Divinities commanded the top; artisans lived at a respectful distance on a lower level of the hill where they fashioned such objects as pottery, glassware, and fine jewelry.

Chinese people, perhaps the first Overseas Chinese community in Southeast Asia, lived there alongside local peoples instead of in their own separate neighborhood, illustrating the diversity of this maritime town, serving as useful intermediaries in the China trade, so important in the economy. Of Temasek they reported “the soil is poor and grain scarce.”

The need to survive thus demanded trade. Coins show sophistication, and unearthed pieces of fine porcelain would indicate that people wanted high-quality ceramics not ones locally produced. Temasek thus took its place in the “ceramic route,” a southern Eurasian maritime equivalent to the continental Silk Road. Heavy and delicate porcelain could travel in volume only by sea. In return for such prized Chinese goods, the town could feed the overseas market with a luxury item, hornbill casques, so-called yellow jade, a precious bird ivory that had the advantage of being something that the Chinese highly prized and was easier to carve than other ivories.

Two poles of power, Siam and Java-Sumatra, met in the straits where these Malay city-state ports like Temasek or Palembang on Sumatra enjoyed an autonomy deriving from the ability of their rulers to generate wealth through commerce, as does today’s Singapore. Like today, the broader Asian economy largely determined what happened on Singapore Island. Local people were players in a game heavily determined by outsiders, principally Chinese and Indians, the two Eurasian super economies.

Caught between the Thai (Siamese) and the Javanese, the ruler of Temasek fled and the population followed. It had lasted only a century, yielding to the nearby port of Melaka, which benefited from cultivating a close relationship with the Chinese court. Temasek/Singapura declined as a trading state or as a political nerve center and ultimately the site was virtually abandoned. That was how the British would find it when they came early in the nineteenth century. But it continued to be important in Malayan history, figuring heavily in its mythology and remembered as the founding home of the dynasty that would flourish elsewhere in the region: successively in Melaka, Johor, and the nearby Riau Archipelago.

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Hue 1968: Winning and Losing

From Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam, by Mark Bowden (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 8484-8494:

Still, there is no question that the Vietnamese people lost something precious when Hanoi won the war. One young woman from Ho Chi Minh City, born decades after the war ended, told me that her generation looks at Seoul and at Tokyo and asks, “Is this what we would have been if we hadn’t chased the Americans away?” And while the Communist Party has relaxed its hold on the economy, to great effect, Vietnam remains a strictly authoritarian state, where speaking your mind, or even recounting truthful stories from your own experience, can get you in trouble. Researching the Battle of Hue was tricky. In telling the story I was revisiting a heroic chapter in the national struggle, but I was also reopening old wounds. The purges in 1968 left many citizens with profound grievances against the state that they remain frightened to voice. Many were reluctant to speak candidly to me, particularly those with sad stories.

On my first visit I worked with an independent translator and guide, Dang Hoa Ho, a former Vietnamese military officer (he is too young to have fought in the American War and served in Vietnam’s modern army), who was skilled at putting people at ease and who fully understood my desire for uncensored memories. On my second trip, against my expressed wishes, Hoa was nudged aside by Dinh Hoang Linh, deputy director of Hanoi’s Foreign Press Center, part of the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Linh proved to be unfailingly helpful and charming, and a skilled translator, but his presence had a chilling effect.

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