Category Archives: Russia

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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Soviet Reinvention of Siberian Exile

From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 7532-7558:

It is one of the ironies of 1917 that the revolution should have overwhelmed the exile system that the autocracy had for so long wielded as a weapon against subversion. Warders, exile officials and guards suddenly found themselves stripped of their authority and vulnerable to the vengeful retribution of their former captives. What little semblance of order remained in Siberia’s exile and prison system by the end of 1917 was torn up by the civil war that engulfed the continent between 1918 and 1920. Exiles, prisoners, their families and officials were sucked into a maelstrom of battles, refugee columns, famine and epidemics. It was a fittingly ignominious end to a system that had achieved so little at such a colossal expense.

Yet Siberia surrendered its prisoners only temporarily. After 1917, exile and penal labour would be reinvented and punishments would be revamped for an age of science, rationality and industrialization. The Bolsheviks did not inherit a functioning penal system from their tsarist predecessors, but they did inherit a very similar set of practical dilemmas: how to extract the vast and valuable mineral resources from the far-flung frozen expanses of the taiga and tundra and, also, how to contain crime and subversion within the Soviet state. After 1917, the Bolsheviks rose to meet these challenges with a zeal and a brutality all their own.

No longer would deportation to Siberia be primarily about the enforced isolation and penal settlement of criminals and dissenters, with forced labour reserved for a particularly dangerous minority. It would now involve the ruthless exploitation of convict labour on an industrial scale justified by the need for a “purification of society” and by the prospect of “individual rehabilitation.” Far-flung tsarist-era exile settlements such as Sredne-Kolymsk and prisons like Omsk were expanded into major centres of forced labour. The Gulag was celebrated in the press as a workshop of the new citizenry, and its camps were hailed as “curative labour camps.”

As part of the Bolshevik Party’s cultural campaigns to consolidate its own legitimacy and to sanctify the October Revolution, state publishing houses in the 1920s and 1930s produced a stream of hagiographical texts commemorating the martyrdom of pre-revolutionary political prisoners. Memoirs, historical studies and archival documents established an inspiring genealogy of tsarist oppression and revolutionary heroism—a genealogy that stretched back in time, linking the Bolsheviks with their revolutionary forebears and representing the victory of Soviet power as the culmination of a century-old struggle with tyranny. The experience of Siberian exile formed an important thread of continuity linking the new rulers of the lands of the Russian Empire with cohorts of illustrious radicals from the 1860s like Nikolai Chernyshevsky, and, ultimately, with the Decembrists of the 1820s. The Society of Former Political Penal Labourers was established in 1921 and began to publish a journal, Penal Labour and Exile, devoted to recording the experiences of political exiles and penal labourers. Yet ironically, at the very moment when the Bolsheviks were emphasizing the martyrdom of Siberian exiles and the cruel tyranny of the tsarist state, they were casting their own rivals, dissenters, and the human detritus of the ancien régime into forced labour camps on a scale that would have defied the imagination of tsarist penal administrators.

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Siberian Exile Pioneer Hero Tsybulenko

From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 6436-6460:

On the afternoon of 19 November 1877, an undistinguished-looking 17-metre schooner named Dawn dropped anchor alongside the Customs House on the bank of the Neva River in St. Petersburg. An excited crowd of onlookers had gathered to catch a glimpse of the ship. The Dawn had just completed the first successful maritime voyage from the Yenisei River in Eastern Siberia to St. Petersburg. It had crossed the Kara and Barents seas, before circumnavigating Scandinavia by way of Vardø, Christiania (Oslo), Stockholm and Helsingfors (Helsinki) to finally reach the Russian capital. By common consensus both in Russia and abroad, this was a prodigious feat of seamanship: a half-decked sailing boat without a keel and with a crew of only five had navigated the ice floes and storms of the barely charted, and notoriously dangerous, Arctic seas. The ship had already enjoyed a triumphal passage through the coastal towns and cities of Norway, Sweden and the Grand Duchy of Finland, where it had been enthusiastically received by crowds of well-wishers; its crew had been celebrated in the national press and treated to feasts in its honour.

By the time the Dawn reached the Customs House on Vasilevsky Island, however, it bore only four of the five crew members who had set out from the Yenisei on 9 August. Andrei Tsybulenko was absent, as the daily St. Petersburg News drily noted, “for reasons beyond his control.” Tsybulenko had been arrested that morning when the ship docked in the naval base of Kronstadt, following a tip-off from the Russian consul in Christiania. Tsybulenko was, it had emerged, an exile from Yenisei province who had illegally made the passage from Siberia back to European Russian and was, therefore, a fugitive from justice. On orders from the minister of the interior, Aleksandr Timashev, he had been taken into custody and detained in the Kronstadt fortress. The authorities intended to deport Tsybulenko back to Yenisei province, where he would remain in exile for the rest of his life, but by January 1878, Tsybulenko had been released from custody and had received an official pardon from Alexander II and even awards and commendations from both the influential Imperial Society for the Advancement of Russian Merchant Shipping and the Ministry of Trade.

Tsybulenko’s remarkable reversals in fortune—from exile in Eastern Siberia, to member of a celebrity crew of intrepid seamen, to prisoner of the state in Kronstadt, and finally to pardoned fugitive—reflect mounting public opposition to the use of Siberia as a penal colony. From the 1850s, leading figures in Russia’s scientific, commercial and political elites began to challenge the established view of Siberia as a frozen, inhospitable wasteland, suitable only as a place of banishment for the empire’s criminals. They argued for a re-imagining of Siberia as a rich economic colony, one which had been neglected by the state and crippled by the exile system but which harboured, in fact, a wealth of natural resources awaiting exploration and development. These strategic criticisms of the government’s use of Siberia as a continental prison joined the rising tide of moral opposition to a system characterized by brutal floggings, by destitution and degradation of the blameless wives and children of convicts and by the martyrdom of revolutionaries.

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Vagabonds of Siberia, 1800s

From The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars, by Daniel Beer (Knopf, 2017), Kindle Loc. 4293-4327:

A bird’s eye view of the Siberian taiga in the nineteenth century would have revealed a steady trickle of figures, stooped under heavy bundles, trudging westwards either alone or in small groups. The “hunchbacks,” as the peasants called them, were escaped convicts who had fled the marching convoys, the mines, the prisons and the penal settlements and were making their way across the forests in the direction of European Russia. Answering the spring call of the migrant cuckoo and taking advantage of the warmer weather, thawed waterways and thickening vegetation that provided them with camouflage and with food, the fugitives set forth. These were the foot soldiers of what became known as “General Cuckoo’s Army.”

The numbers of fugitives told a sobering tale. Abandoned and imprisoned in penury and squalor and with quite literally nothing to lose, Siberia’s convicts absconded from every single prison, factory, settlement and mine in their thousands. Between 1838 and 1846, the authorities apprehended almost 14,000 male and 3,500 female fugitives in Siberia (figures that probably represented just half of those convicts who were at large). In the second half of the nineteenth century, the numbers of escapes only increased as the overall exile population expanded. One government report on the state of exile in Eastern Siberia in 1877 recorded that, in three districts surveyed in Irkutsk province, half of the more than 20,000 prisoners had run away, their “whereabouts unknown.” By 1898, a quarter of the exiles assigned to Yenisei province, 40 per cent of those assigned to Irkutsk province and 70 per cent of those assigned to Primorsk province in Eastern Siberia were unaccounted for. Purpose-built penal labour sites witnessed a similar exodus. Such figures would suggest that, by the last quarter of the nineteenth century, anywhere up to a third of Siberia’s 300,000 exiles were on the run in what ethnographer Nikolai Yadrintsev termed “an endless perpetuum mobile from Eastern Siberia to the Urals.”

The tsarist government was populating Siberia not with industrious colonists but with hordes of destitute and desperate exiles who roamed Siberia as beggars, at best, and petty thieves and violent brigands, at worst. Their victims were the Siberians themselves, both the indigenes and the migrant peasant settlers from Russia. Brutalized by the conditions of their captivity, fugitives visited a plague of theft, arson, kidnapping, violent robbery, rape and murder on Siberia’s real colonists. Seeking strength and protection in numbers, they sometimes formed armed gangs capable of terrorizing not just isolated villages but entire towns and cities. The exile system had transformed Siberia into Russia’s “Wild East.”

Some exiles known as brodiagi, or vagabonds, made for themselves a life of escape, recapture, spells in prison and then escape again. Overwhelmingly male, the brodiagi embraced a semi-nomadic existence in Russia, fuelled by a combination of charity and criminality. Like most pre-industrial societies, the Russian Empire had a rich variety of migratory traditions and a large diaspora encompassing fugitive peasants, Cossacks, peddlers, gypsies, migrant hunters, pilgrims, peripatetic sectarians, travelling merchants and the nomadic tribes of the taiga, steppe and tundra. These migratory peoples had played a significant role in Russia’s expansion across Siberia in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In 1823, the state criminalized vagrancy in European Russia, a fact which accounted for a large part of the sudden upsurge in the numbers exiled to Siberia over subsequent decades. Between 1827 and 1846, the almost 50,000 vagrants constituted 30 per cent of all those exiled. Most of those convicted of vagabondage in Russia in this period were deserters from the army and fugitive serfs, and they presented in either case a direct challenge to Nicholas I’s cherished vision of a disciplined society. The numbers arrested for vagabondage declined in European Russia after the abolition of serfdom effectively decriminalized the unauthorized movement of people. In Siberia, however, the exile system gave vagabondage a new lease on life.

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