Famine: Collecting corpses in a village in eastern Ukraine, 1933
It has been a long time since I considered the contradictions of Ukrainian history but the widespread belief that Ukraine is about to become the modern-day equivalent of the Third Reich is evidence that many on the left have little interest in the beleaguered nation’s history.
Furthermore, I continue to be amazed by the failure of some leftists to put rightwing Ukrainian nationalism in context, as if the toppling of Lenin statues was prima facie evidence of the need to have backed the ousted president Viktor Yanukovych. For such people the fact that President Putin backed him was grounds in and of itself to oppose the protest movement, as if neoliberal Russia had anything to do with the USSR.
For many Ukrainians, the USSR was an oppressor. Like other nations promised self-determination in the early days of the Russian Revolution, it soon discovered that Stalin had plans to reinstitute Czarist domination under the guise of building socialism. In a 1939 article titled “Problem of the Ukraine”, Leon Trotsky summed up the relationship between the Kremlin and its vassal state:
The bureaucracy strangled and plundered the people within Great Russia, too. But in the Ukraine matters were further complicated by the massacre of national hopes. Nowhere did restrictions, purges, repressions and in general all forms of bureaucratic hooliganism assume such murderous sweep as they did in the Ukraine in the struggle against the powerful, deeply-rooted longings of the Ukrainian masses for greater freedom and independence. To the totalitarian bureaucracy, Soviet Ukraine became an administrative division of an economic unit and a military base of the USSR. To be sure, the Stalin bureaucracy erects statues to Shevchenko but only in order more thoroughly to crush the Ukrainian people under their weight and to force it to chant paeans in the language of Kobzar to the rapist clique in the Kremlin.
The Kobzar, by the way, were traditional Ukrainian poet-musicians who were forced to perform pro-Stalin songs.
That, of course, was not the greatest offense, nor was the de facto imposition of Russian language on a subject people. What sears in Ukrainian memories was the 1932-33 famine that was the inevitable outcome of forced collectivization. By some estimates, the number of deaths was as great as 7.5 million.
For unabashed fans of Stalin like Grover Furr, the famine as hoax looms large as a talking point—on the same plane as the guilt of Leon Trotsky as a Nazi spy. On his website he has a Village Voice article from 1988 by Jeff Coplon titled “In Search of a Soviet Holocaust: A 55-Year-Old Famine Feeds the Right” that I would hardly use as an excuse for Stalin worship, considering its admission that:
There was indeed a famine in the Ukraine in the early 1930s. It appears likely that hundreds of thousands, possibly one or two million, Ukrainians died — the minority from starvation, the majority from related diseases. By any scale, this is an enormous toll of human suffering. By general consensus, Stalin was partially responsible. By any stretch of an honest imagination, the tragedy still falls short of genocide.
Yet, the general thrust of the article was to justify Stalin’s acts as necessary for the country’s great leap forward using the old “you need to break some eggs to make an omelet” argument:
In this context, collectivization was more than a vehicle for a cheap and steady grain supply to the state. It was truly a “revolution from above,” a drastic move towards socialism, and an epochal change in the mode of production. There were heavy casualties on both sides — hundreds of thousands of kulaks (rich peasants) deported to the north, thousands of party activists assassinated.
I doubt that Coplon was sufficiently versed in Soviet history to understand that forced collectivization had such an adverse effect on the economy that some experts count this as a major impetus to perestroika, the policy that would eventually lead to the collapse of the USSR. This was Coplon’s first and last excursion into Soviet history. Mostly his archive consists of articles about rodeos, basketball, etc.
In terms of whether there was a “genocide” or not, clearly there was not if your understanding of the term is based on Hitler’s systematic murder of Jews, men, women and children alike, merely for the crime of being Jewish. But most genocides are not like this. Indeed, some are associated with nation-building efforts that the dominant group deems a necessary evil, like Andrew Jackson’s “trail of tears” that left the Cherokees on the verge of extinction or the Turkish removal of the Armenians from their territory, seen by most Turks as a defensive measure against imperialism.
The one thing that caught my eye in Copol’s article, my first reading of the piece since it came out 36 years ago, was the invocation of the authority of the N.Y. Times reporter Walter Duranty, an early exponent of Coplon’s brand of revisionism. His critics, like Robert Conquest, were guilty of “red-baiting”. Now I am the last person on earth to take Conquest as an authority on Soviet history but this is the same Walter Duranty who told N.Y. Times readers that the Moscow Trials were legitimate.
Coplon identifies one Robert Green as a major figure in the Ukraine famine hoax. He was “a phony journalist and escaped convict who provided famine material to the profascist Hearst chain in 1935.” Just to make sure that his Village Voice readers were as impressed with the N.Y. Times’s apparent support of his argument, he invokes a publication whose liberal credentials were as authentic as the Village Voice’s: the Nation Magazine. He writes that “Green was exposed by The Nation and several New York dailies by 1935.”
He fails to mention, however, that the Nation’s ace reporter covering the Soviet Union was none other than Louis Fischer, a long-time Stalinist who initially started out expressing deep concern over the impact of forced collectivization but by 1933 had swung over totally to backing the Kremlin.
His May 2, 1934 article charmingly titled “The Tragedy of Trotzky” will give you a flavor of how he saw things:
One must judge the actual situation in the U. S. S. R. And a dispassionate study has to yield this verdict: notwithstanding the horrible cancer of bureaucracy which robs the Soviet organism of much of its spiritual vitality, the destruction of the kulaks, the agrarian collectives, costly in organization and imperfect in operation though they have been, the state industries with all their inefficiency, and the huge mass of new construction are tremendous anti- capitalist facts. They also represent seven-league strides toward socialism.
By 1945 Fischer had become disillusioned by Stalin and decided to quit the Nation over editor Freda Kirchwey’s continuing infatuation with the Soviet tyrant. He would go on to write a chapter in the “God that Failed” collection alongside Ignazio Silone, Arthur Koestler and others. He also taught Soviet studies at Princeton until his death in 1970.
It seems that Russophile habits die hard at the Nation. Stephen A. Cohen, the husband of editor Katrina vanden Heuvel and a long-time Sovietologist now teaching at NYU, has worked himself into quite a lather over events in the Ukraine. Although he has not written anything about the Ukraine, he has been popping up on radio and television to make points that will be familiar to anybody who has been reading Global Research or Moon of Alabama. On Democracy Now, he rambled on–a bit incoherently in my view:
So what Obama needs to say is, “We deplore what the people in the streets are doing when they attack the police, the law enforcement official. And we also don’t like the people who are writing on buildings ‘Jews live here,’” because these forces, these quasi-fascist forces—let’s address this issue, because the last time I was on your broadcast, you found some guy somewhere who said there was none of this there. All right. What percent are the quasi-fascists of the opposition? Let’s say they’re 5 percent. I think they’re more, but let’s give them the break, 5 percent. But we know from history that when the moderates lose control of the situation, they don’t know what to do. The country descends in chaos.
Who knows? Maybe the stream-of-consciousness on display in his remarks above and his failure to write much about the unfolding events indicates a flagging intellect, one that might very well have precipitated his descent from the august environs of Princeton to lowly NYU.
Now in terms of the fascism question, nobody can deny that there are forces in the Ukraine that can be described by that label. To some extent, this is part and parcel of tendencies throughout the former Soviet empire. How Cohen can wring his hands over their presence in the Ukraine but ignore them in Russia constitutes something of a mystery. In 2005, the BBC reported that 19 Russian parliamentarians lent their names to a letter addressed to the country’s prosecutor general. It compared Judaism to Satanism, accused Jews of ritual murder and called for all Jewish organizations in Russia to be investigated and banned.
There’s also the undeniable fact that many Ukrainian nationalists welcomed the Nazi invasion.
John A. Armstrong describes the collaboration between Nazis and Ukrainiab nationalists in “Ukrainian Nationalism 1939-1945″:
Local Ukrainian nationalists, most of whom were members of, or sympathetic to, the OUN [Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists], were organized and excited to more extreme action by OUN leaders who had been living as émigrés in Germany and who had been dispatched to the Carpatho-Ukraine by the OUN directory on the advice of the German intelligence service. A major part of their activities was devoted to forming a para-military organization, the Carpathian Sich, which, they hoped, would form the nucleus of an army of an all-Ukrainian state.”
When Hitler began his invasion of the USSR, the OUN could be counted on as an ally. In the context of the 1930s, anti-Soviet nationalist movements would have had an enormous affinity with each other, especially the Ukrainian movement that defended a people who had absorbed more punishment than most from the Soviet state. The original liberal and Christian ideology of the 1920s became replaced with an outspoken fascist belief in the purity of the Ukrainian nation. One OUN leader, according to Armstrong, professed, “Nationalism is based on feelings, which is carried by the racial blood.”
OUN leader Richard Iarii was in constant contact with Nazi Admiral Canaris and the Abwehr. In the summer of 1939, OUN militia leader Sushko had organized an auxiliary to the Wehrmacht in its approaching invasion of Poland. Since the Ukrainians were a subject nation in Poland, the nationalists looked forward to war between their Nazi benefactors and the British-backed Polish state.
When war finally broke out between the Nazis and Soviet Union, the Ukrainian nationalists were tossed aside. Their racial ideology precluded any long-lasting alliance between them and what they regarded as an inferior Slavic race. This did not prevent Ukrainian leaders from initially welcoming the invading troops. Reverend John Hyrn’okh, a chaplain of a pro-Nazi Ukrainian militia, wrote a pastoral letter stating that “We greet the victorious German Army as deliverer from the enemy. We render our homage to the government which has been erected. We recognize Mr. Iaroslav Stets’ko [Nazi collaborator] as Head of the State Administration of the Ukraine.”
Once the Nazis established control over the Ukraine, they began killing Jews and non-Jews alike. Estimates run up to 3 million non-Jews and 950,000 Jews. That some Ukrainians can today think of honoring Stepan Bandera, the head of the OUN only reveals the depth of the moral and political degradation that was bequeathed by Stalinism. When the hatred toward the USSR was so all-consuming, it apparently became possible for some elites to build alliances with a mass murderer whose real goal was to exterminate the Ukrainians in order to create an Aryan outpost of the Third Reich.
The worries that contemporary versions of the OUN like Svoboda seek to impose fascist rule over Ukraine poses certain obvious questions. If they are the cat’s paw of imperialism, what kind of imperialism is it? Does the European Union constitute a fascist threat to the Ukraine? If there’s anything that you can say about the EU, it is that the prevailing ideology is one of neoliberal democracy rather than the blood/race irrationalism of traditional fascism—not to speak of the statist control of the economy that reigned under Hitler’s “national socialism”. The obvious rulers of the EU in Germany have little use for “Mein Kampf”; they rely instead on Milton Friedman’s books and Margaret Thatcher’s speeches.
If anything, the ill-conceived romance of the Ukrainian masses with the EU has to do with a notion that corruption will be eliminated and that oligarchic control over the economy will come to an end. Based on this report, this is as about a foolish a notion as thinking that the invading Wehrmacht would treat Ukrainians as master-race brethren:
Gerry Rice, a spokesman for the International Monetary Fund, which would have to provide the billions of dollars in urgently needed credit, issued a statement on Monday saying only, “We are talking to all interested parties.”
The Obama administration said it was prepared to provide financial assistance beyond that from the I.M.F., but it did not say how much.
“This support can complement an I.M.F. program by helping to make reforms easier and by putting Ukraine in a position to invest more in health and education to help develop Ukraine’s human capital and strengthen its social safety net,” the White House spokesman, Jay Carney, told reporters in Washington.
The I.M.F. has made clear it is unwilling to help Ukraine without a commitment from the country to undertake painful austerity measures and other restructuring. Mr. Yanukovych’s resistance to those demands was a principal reason he backed away from a trade deal with Europe and sought help from Russia instead.
Given the animosity of the new Ukrainian government toward Russia, Ivan Tchakarov, an analyst with Citibank, said that Ukraine could turn only to the West for help, and would inevitably face demands for tough reforms and a near-certain recession as a result.
“Assuming that Russia will pass, it will be up to the I.M.F. and E.U. to pick up the tab,” Mr. Tchakarov said. “The I.M.F. will impose hard constraints on the economy, and these will most probably mean a recession in 2014.”
Still, Mr. Tchakarov noted that there would be long-term benefits to Ukraine’s undertaking desperately needed measures, like ending subsidies of gas prices and cutting the thickets of business regulations that weigh down the economy. These actions could potentially allow it to emerge far stronger, like its neighbors Poland and the Baltic countries, he said.
–NY Times, “Amid Political Upheaval, Ukraine Faces Dire Need for Economic Help”, Feb. 25 2014