Stalin, in the Eye of the Russian Beholder

Uncle Volodya says, "Judge not; that ye be not judged"

Many of you will remember Kovane’s last effort, “A Short Overview of Russian Political Discourse”. It proved very successful in generating comment, and attracted the attention of some of the real heavyweights in Russian political blogging. Here, Kovane builds on those successes as he seizes a real lightning rod – Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, he of the luxuriant mustache and the butcher’s reputation.

Most in the west dare not say anything positive about Stalin, for fear of being accused of glorifying his memory. For that reason, a recent modest resurgence in Stalin imagery in Russia – ostensibly just part of a celebration of Russian history – provoked screams of hate and vituperation from Russophobes around the globe. See, they stammered; Russia celebrates the great wickedness, whose evil lives long after his death!! However, this strikes me (and I am certainly no historian) as a very balanced view; when Stalin messed up horribly, Kovane covers it dispassionately.

We discussed before publication that it might well outrage some, coming as it does on the very eve of the anniversary of the Holodomor – a memory of bottomless grief and anguish for many, and none more so than Ukrainians, many of whom believe Stalin deliberately starved their grandparents’ generation to death. Is that what happened? It’s difficult to say based on historical accounts, and the memories of the elderly are often coloured by their personal demons. I’d read before, peripherally, the view that it was a simple case of bungling mismanagement complicated by poor harvests, but I’d never seen it covered in the kind of detail it is here. Without further ado, Kovane has the floor, including questions and comments.

“There is definitely no more polarizing figure in the history of Russia than Stalin. Other popular topics of debate attract mostly history buffs, such as who executed more people: Ivan the Terrible of Russia, or Henry the VIII of England (Vanya comes across as an amateurish loser with a pathetic 4 thousand against Henry’s respectable 72 thousand), if Gorbachev and Yeltsin were traitors to the Motherland (yes and yes) or if the hamlets Count Potemkin founded existed only to please the Tsarina’s eyes (no; for example, one of them wound up as Dnepropetrovsk, a major Ukrainian city). But hardly does someone bring up Stalin than the whole country is at each other’s throats. Polling agencies have been surveying public opinion of him year after year, far more often than any other historical leader, and we’re talking about a man who died more than 50 years ago. So, what do these surveys say? According to this one, 37% of Russians have a positive attitude toward Stalin: sympathy, respect or even admiration; 28% – indifferent and 24% – negative, varying between fear, hatred and contempt. Practically, it can’t get any more polarizing than that. The battle rages on the Internet, between historians and on the air at Yahoo Moskvy radio. It is amazing, though, that a majority of Russians still hold a positive view of Stalin after two full-scale smear campaigns against him: in 1956, by Khrushchev, and during Perestroika when everyone tried to get in on the action. The second one was especially fierce; different authors were competing for the title of who could invent the most inconceivable crime of the Soviets, and give the highest estimate of the victims of Stalinism. The record I’ve heard so far – a whopping 150 million people (voiced by guess who? Right, Nemtsov!), which is only possible if Homo Sovieticus bred faster than rabbits. So why do Russians keep clinging to the idea that Stalin was a good guy? Should we invoke the famous “slave mentality” trope? The only way to separate the wheat from the chaff is to inhale the dust of history books, and try to put the record straight ourselves.

Stalin was always more inclined to practical activity than theoretical, although he left 16 volumes of works. Before the Revolution he even organized bank robberies in order to fill the party coffers.  Contemporaries noted Stalin’s tremendous industriousness; he often worked 12-15 hours a day. In the beginning of the Civil War his office was adjacent to Lenin’s, who became dependent on Stalin’s expertise. Another of his recognized traits was asceticism; while many fellow Bolsheviks indulged in a lavish lifestyle, Stalin lived very modestly, and had few personal belongings except for books. Having little formal education (he was expelled from a theological seminary), Stalin was always an avid reader. Foreign interviewers revealed him to be an extremely well-read person. That, coupled with Stalin’s suspiciousness, sometimes backfired on him; trying to look into the widest variety of matters, he influenced them too much. For example, Stalin’s decisions covered issues from the price of potatoes and naming a car to military regulations and the development strategy of the economy. Despite an existing cult of personality, Stalin never encouraged it, though he admittedly never struggled against it either. In the environment of his absolute power, that was more than enough for the cult to blossom. To Stalin’s credit, he was impervious to flattery and didn’t allow it to affect his decisions (for instance, he refused to accept the “Hero of the Soviet Union” title in 1945). Probably Stalin’s most notorious trait was a combination of distrustfulness and vindictiveness, which resulted in an atmosphere of intrigues and snitches. The Katyn executions have no cogent explanation other than Stalin’s desire to avenge his defeat in the Russian-Polish war and the death in Polish captivity of 60 thousand Russian soldiers. That gives Katyn deniers one of their many arguments (along with fishiness of the archive documents). And finally, Stalin demonstrated his craftiness and intelligence many times, a fact acknowledged by his opponents as well as his admirers.

After the Civil War, in 1923, the country was completely devastated. Having been in a de facto state of anarchy for more than six years, Russia was being torn apart by the nationalism of outlying regions, dissent among people who supported the Whites, and economic hardship. Industrial production dropped by a factor of 7 compared with 1913, agricultural by 38%. More than 80% of citizens lived in rural areas; the backbone of agricultural production was comprised of small farms with very low output; they consumed 85% of the grain production.  40% of the farms used wooden ploughs; more than a third of farmers didn’t have horses. As a result of low productivity, farmers couldn’t afford any industrial goods and cities grew very slowly: there was not enough food. In addition to all these woes, Soviet Russia was in complete international isolation and was therefore not the most attractive place for foreign investment and credits. The only way to earn precious foreign currency to buy industrial equipment was by selling grain. But the most serious problem was that the whole situation was very inert; the country was yet to undergo changes similar to enclosure in England or forcibly stripping land from poor peasants in Germany.

The Bolsheviks were equal to the occasion. Former military commanders with no idea about any specifics received administrative jobs. They carried old habits with them: force was the most popular solution for any problem. Even in the 30s, only 18.8% of party members had higher education. Problems with personnel plagued the state governance till the 40s. There was a lot of infighting between different factions in the Party’s top leadership. After abandoning the policy of War Communism and implementing the New Economic Policy (NEP), Russia got a desperately needed respite, and was at a crossroads. The power was concentrated in the Politburo, a collegiate body, comprised of Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev. Trotsky argued for inflaming a proletarian revolution in Germany, and viewed Russia as only fuel for a world revolution; he was the most influential leader – after Lenin – at the time. Stalin favoured the idea of concentrating on developing Socialism only in Russia. Some theorists, like Bukharin, supported an evolutionary approach, and suggested keeping the NEP and slowly correcting the inequality of the market. All leaders used those ideas merely as banners, and the real struggle for raw power unfolded.

Initially, main contenders for power were Kamenev and Zinoviev versus Trotsky. They all viewed Stalin as a minor ally, and Kamenev and Zinoviev decided to use him to bring down Trotsky. It was they who lobbied for Stalin’s appointment as the General Secretary which was only a nominal position at the time. The trio succeeded in unseating Trotsky after Lenin’s death, cleverly using his arrogance against him. From that moment, Zinoviev realized what a golem they had created; Stalin gathered much support and influence, and his opponents could only struggle for their own survival, not supreme power. But Stalin decided to play this game the end; he pushed for Buhkarin’s inclusion in the Politburo, and played him off against former allies. After Zinoviev’s downfall, Bukharin remained the only opponent popular enough to pose a threat to Stalin. Foreboding of future war was in the air, and the Bolshevik leadership realized that the country would not be prepared. While the NEP successfully solved the most basic economic issues, it was by no means adequate to long-term development. And Stalin decided to adopt strategies originally proposed by his archenemy Trotsky: industrialization and collectivization. Bukharin, representing the right wing of the party, violently opposed those policies; but Stalin’s position was already too strong. By 1929 there was virtually no open opposition; Stalin obtained absolute power; his rivals moved underground.

One of the main charges against Stalin is the catastrophic consequence of collectivization and the engineering of the mass famine in 1932-1933. First of all, famines were frequent guests in Russia; they happened in 1901, 1905, 1906, 1907, 1908, 1911, 1913, and 1921. The causes of that were rapid population growth in the XIX-XX centuries and extremely unstable grain crops in Russia. Bolsheviks had no source of income for industrialization, so they decided to carry out it at the expense of the peasantry. The goal was to increase the amount of produced commodity grain which can be used for feeding the growing worker population or for export. An old model for that, the state grain procurement program, gave results that had been worsening year after year. The proposed course of action was to merge small peasant farms into large state firms, kolkhozes, which could use modern agricultural technologies and be mechanized. The rich peasants who opposed that undertaking were to be deported. Of course, those changes hindered grain production, while a world crisis collapsed grain prices. Trying to make the most of that situation, the Bolsheviks exported a record amount of grain in 1931, while that year’s harvest was very modest. The Soviets’ balance of payments was in the red, and the plan for equipment purchases was in jeopardy. Such drastic measures drained state grain reserves, and a second consecutive bad harvest would be a disaster. Unfortunately, that was exactly what happened. Initially a good crop was expected, and the government set high figures for grain procurement and export. As more information came in, these numbers were lowered, but about 1.3 million tons were exported before full realization of the situation (4.8 were exported in 1931). The cumbersome bureaucratic machine proved too slow, and distorted feedback at the time. Consequences were truly terrifying; casualty estimates vary from 2 to 10 million, but the most reliable survey shows 7 million people died then. That’s comparable to the number of victims of the Civil War, 10 million. The famine raged in the whole of the USSR, but the most affected were the southern regions: Ukraine, Caucasus, Volga region and Kazakhstan.  Therefore, any implication that the famine was an act of genocide against Ukraine is preposterous: this map shows the intensity of the famine in the various regions. It’s the equivalent of trying to get rid of cockroaches in a flat by opening the gas and sitting next to the stove. Although the causes of the famine are disputed by many historians, the most coherent version is two consecutive bad harvests aggravated by the government’s mismanagement. Another factor contributing to the disaster was a sharp drop in the number of livestock in 1931-1932; many peasants were reluctant to hand over horses and bulls to kolkhozes, preferring to slaughter them for meat. That caused problems with plowing and sowing in 1932.  But the Soviet leadership learned the lesson: it was the last large famine to this day (save for much less severe post-WW2 famine in 1946).

The darkest stain on Stalin’s times certainly remains the subject of repressions. Unfortunately, all information on this period of time is confusing and a lot of myths and falsehoods are in circulation, even among professional historians. First of all, the laws of the Stalinist USSR were very harsh; modern China looks like Norway in comparison. But it’s a mistake to forget the specifics of the situation; nobody could have stayed in power with more lenient laws then. Initially, small scale repressions were directed at White collaborators: that was an answer to the terrorist actions of the ROVS, a White emigrant union abroad. The second wave of repressions came during the mass collectivization. Everyone who objected to those measures (organized resistance) and their families were deported to distant regions; most rich farmers were also deported. The rest of the “kulaks” (well-off peasants) were resettled within the same region and given land. Around 1.8 million people were moved during this campaign. Series of show trials (the Shakhtinsk case, etc.) can also be attributed to repressions, they were designed to set an example for saboteurs and the corrupt. Some of the organizers were executed. But in the beginning of the 30s the situation was becoming more lawful and peaceful. Everything changed in 1934, after the murder of Kirov (the leader of the Leningrad Party organization). Stalin used this opportunity to launch a campaign against his former opponents, Zinoviev and Kamenev. They were convicted in an obviously fabricated case, and executed. Their former associates were broadly arrested. And once again the wave of repressions subsided; a new set of laws was enacted, limiting the capacity of the NKVD to arrest people.

The bell rang again in 1937. One of the most eminent Soviet generals, Tukhachevsky, along with his alleged accomplices, was arrested on a charge of plotting to overthrow the government. Contrary to popular opinion and later Khrushchev’s exoneration, not everything is clear in this case. There was some incriminating evidence, although whether that was a brilliant play by German intelligence or real information is unknown. Tukhachevsky was executed in June, and in July the infamous NKVD Order No. 00447 was signed, and the Great Purges officially began. History will probably never reveal the true reasons and motivations behind this act; most likely Stalin was alarmed by a possibility of a military coup.  Under the order’s provisions, special judicial organs were created: “troikas”. They had power to review criminal cases in a simplified form and sentence to death, with an immediate execution. It was up to regional departments of the NKVD to decide who was under suspicion, they were only limited by hard-set quotas on how many people could be arrested and shot. The quotas could be exceeded only by the NKVD head Ezhov’s dispensation, but he didn’t hesitate to approve any quota extension. The level of terror was truly unimaginable. The troikas’ workload was insane; sometimes they reviewed more than a thousand cases a day. There’s no need to talk about the quality of investigation. One can only imagine how many personal scores were settled during those times. Out of approximately 880 000 people that were executed during 1921-1953, more than 700 000 fall in the years 1937-38. Stalin’s apologists usually try to present this as some sort of collusion in the NKVD, which probably is not without reason, but any attempt to whitewash Stalin is destined to fail here. A statesman of his stature had to realize the consequences of such actions: besides, he signed many documents personally. Despite Khrushchev’s statement that those repressions were directed at Party members, more than two thirds of the convicted were common people. The Great Purges ended as abruptly as they started, in the end of 1938. Stalin offloaded all excesses on Ezhov, he was arrested and executed on charges of spying and conspiring to overthrow the government (he was even accused of “performing acts of sodomy, acting with anti-Soviet and venal purposes”). The Great Terror is definitely the largest of Stalin’s crimes. Having a chance to be written in history books as the greatest Russian leader ever, he obliterated it by the 1937-38 years, and became but one of many murderous dictators. These actions had terrible consequences, and it’s not even the explicit moral implication of killing nearly a million men. The events of the Great Terror smoldered in people’s memories for years, and were used to smash the Soviet Union in the 80-90s, bringing catastrophic suffering. Perhaps if not for them, the Soviet Union would have been reformed more peacefully. After 1938, the Soviet government applied its efforts to creating solid legal foundations for the state, and mostly succeeded. Stalin even abolished capital punishment briefly in 1947, but reinstated it in 1950.

One of the most spun myths in the West is GULAG, owing mostly to Solzhenitsyn’s exaggerations; it’s supposed to mean some scary death camps, much worse than Auschwitz. In reality it was nothing more than a government agency that controlled a network of labor camps. The favourite trope of anti-Soviet historians is to overstate the number of prisoners in GULAG and make an emphasis on the fact that their labour was used, thus drawing the USSR as some sort of slave state. Their dream is smashed to bits by archive data. In the 30s, the total number of prisoners fluctuated around 1 million people, sharply rising in 1938. The record was set in 1950, when all Soviet prisons and camps contained 2,760,095 inmates. (for the sake of comparison, there were 2,304,115 prisoners in the USA in 2008). The death rate in camps was slightly higher that the country’s, spiking in the years of famine and the hardest period of war.

Speaking of Stalin’s economic and social achievements, they were truly tremendous. The Soviet Union went from the ruins of at best the sixth economy in Europe in 1923 to the third economy in the world in 1940 (after the USA and Germany). This growth was not only limited to heavy industry, common people enjoyed a rapid increase of the real incomes as well; compared to 1913 they had grown almost threefold (1940). Stalin introduced free health care and education systems with mass coverage: under his rule the country overcame illiteracy and mass epidemics. Life expectancy had grown from 30.5 years in 1913 to 67-69 years in the 60’s. Soviet science also was at its zenith, solving the main among Russia’s problems for many years – a constant menace of large invasions – by creating the nuclear shield. All that, along with active propaganda, was the reason why the Soviet society hadn’t been split by the repressions. Seeing constant improvement in their lives, people believed that everyone who was arrested was guilty, even knowing the preposterous charges. It’s fair to say that of all Soviet leaders, Stalin best understood the great importance of a solid economy; he managed to create a system that combined the advantages of a planned economy and private initiative. Those who worked hard received high wages, but the price of mistakes was very high. The Soviet Union was doomed after Stalin’s death: Khrushchev’s mistakes ensured that.

But the foremost reason for Stalin’s enduring popularity lies, in my opinion, in the tragic events of WW2. The Eastern front of it (the Great Patriotic War) was drastically different for Russia than for any other Western country. The German plan “Generalplan Ost” left no doubts about Russia’s probable future: most of the people were to be destroyed. While occupying the European part of Russia, Nazis killed nearly 14 million civilians, and they didn’t even have enough time to give the task their full attention. The future of Russia itself was at stake. While Stalin’s decisions in the military sphere are debatable (and there is a lot of debate), the performance of the Soviet economy was extraordinary. Despite losing the most developed region, the USSR outdid Germany in the production of every type of military equipment. By different estimates, the share of the military sector quickly rose to more than 50 percent. One of the most impressive efforts was the state evacuation program. Giant plants were dismantled under constant bombing, transported to Siberian regions and unloaded into frozen wilderness. And they began producing the so-needed shells and rifles for the front within a month, often manned by women and children. Nowadays there is a popular notion that Soviet people won the war DESPITE Stalin. This is the most schizophrenic thought I ever heard; the Stalinist USSR certainly was a totalitarian state and had a planned economy. And by definition, a totalitarian state controls every sphere of society’s life, which shows the role of Stalin in the victory. The country was united then; tremendous efforts of the people were put to good use by the government. To my mind, only the Stalinist system could have withstood Nazi Germany’s attack, and many people share this view. The salvation of Russia redeemed Stalin.

I hope I was able to show how controversial the figure of Stalin is. Should we file him under the “benevolent ruler” category? I personally can’t extol the virtues of a man who overlooked the murders of thousands of innocent people. But I can’t condemn a man to whom we owe the lives of millions of people – including my own – either. Allegedly, in 1943, Stalin said: “I know that after my death they’ll heap a lot of garbage on my grave, but the wind of history will mercilessly scatter it.” I think we owe him that: to inseparably study Stalin’s crimes with Stalin’s achievements. Today, Stalin’s fame among young Russians is growing, despite his constant vilification on state television. That clearly shows how lopsidedly propaganda works. As nothing makes you want to vote for Putin more than reading the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, one can hardly resist the desire to buy Stalin’s portrait after watching the deceitful hysteria of some “historians”. A more balanced view on Stalin is absolutely essential.”

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77 Responses to Stalin, in the Eye of the Russian Beholder

  1. rkka says:

    Viewed in terms oftheir demographic impact, Stalins mistakes/crimes, and breaking up/reforming the USSR have been comparable.

    However, Stalin endowed the Soviet peoples with a priceless asset, the heavy/military industrial complex that ensured that Hitler’s war of racial extermination against Slavic untermenschen would fail.

    For the price the post-Soviet peoples paid, they mostly just got looted.

    • kovane says:

      Yes, I agree. By the way, the population of the RSFSR (the territory of modern Russia) grew from 92 million people in 1926 to 117 millions in 1959, even despite famines and the war.

  2. Great work as usual, kovane!

    I found myself nodding my head in agreement on most issues. As with you, my own attitude towards Stalin is one of “radical ambiguity” (I wrote about it here). That said, I don’t agree with you on some of the minor points, which I’ll list below. Don’t take the relative length of the disagreements wrong – I do agree with your overall assessment.

    (1) The 1932-33 famine, with c. 5mn excess deaths (that’s my favored estimate) was far worse than any of the late Imperial famines, the worst of which was the 1891-92 one in which there were c. 0.5mn excess deaths. The collectivization famine was worse by an order of magnitude. Even the 1946-47 famine was bigger, at 1.0mn excess deaths.

    (2) The achievements of Stalinist industrialization & modernization are somewhat inflated by Bolshevik propaganda about the backwardness of the late Russian Empire. Oh, it was backward all right, but not to the extent that it was portrayed. Let’s take literacy as an example. By 1913, it was estimated at c.41%; some 90% of boys and 70% of girls had access to (minimal) schooling. In practice, the Russian Empire had already done all most of the “heavy lifting” in eradicating illiteracy amongst the youngest generations. And in fact by 1926 it was found that the most literate age group was amongst those 25-35 years old, while it was about 10% points lower amongst those a decade younger because of the disruption of education during the Civil War.

    (3) Likewise with the economy. Russia had Europe’s highest industrial growth rate in 1905-1916, and had it not been for the 12 years it took to re-achieve peak Imperial output levels, Russia would have arguable had a significantly more developed industrial base in 1941 than it did in reality.

    Re-“To my mind, only the Stalinist system could have withstood Nazi Germany’s attack, and many people share this view.” Whether the higher industrial output would have compensated for an inferior system for waging total war than the Stalinist machine is the real question.

    (4) Very skeptical about this: “This growth was not only limited to heavy industry, common people enjoyed a rapid increase of the real incomes as well; compared to 1913 they had grown almost threefold (1940)”. Sources?

    (5) Re-“Today, Stalin’s fame among young Russians is growing, despite his constant vilification on state television.” It’s my gathered impression from reading the polls that Stalin’s popularity peaked around the mid-2000’s and has been slowly slipping since. E.g., one poll recorded a 47% positive and 29% negative view. This one from 2010 had 32% expressing positive emotions, 24% negative, 45% don’t care.

    • kovane says:

      Thank you, Anatoly, for your incisive remarks. I’ll try to answer them.

      1) That’s true. The reason behind that is much larger urban population in the USSR. The Bolsheviks chose to save city population consisting of qualified workers. If you’re interested in reading about the famine, I can recommend this

      2) I’ve never bought the premise that Russian Empire was backward and didn’t develop. The problem was that its development was plagued by constant peasant uprisings (the consequences of unresolved “agrarian question”) and clumsy internal and foreign policies. As for literacy, yes, there was some basic education in the Russian empire, but the process was disrupted by the years of anarchy ( 1917-1923). I think they would solve the problem eventually. Besides, the Bolsheviks organized schools for adults and gave better elementary education; that allowed to almost completely eradicate illiteracy.

      3) Maybe. But Russia didn’t continue to develop and was dragged into a war and two revolutions. So we’ll never know how it would have turned out by 1941. And the Bolsheviks came into prominence not in 1913, but in 1917, when there wasn’t much economic growth left. Let me recommend you an excellent book on pre-Revolution Russia. Also, not everything was so bright in the economy of the period you’re referring to. What about ( 🙂 ) the overwhelming prevalence of German capital then? That greatly contributed to Russia’s involvement in the war. Here’s another needle in Russian Empire.

      As for advantages of the Stalinist system in the war, I quote data, the Bolsheviks managed to quickly put the economy on military rails, more than 50% of the economy was producing goods for the front within a year. That’s exactly the situation when a planned economy shines.

      4) That’s data from a book by economist Sharapov. I’ll try to find it online. A compilation of facts about the period of time you can find here
      Quote: “Реальные доходы рабочих к 1940 году увеличились по сравнению с 1913 г. в 2,7 раз, крестьян – в 2,4 раза.”

      5) You’ve got me there. It my personal impression based on observations; I’ve got no data to corroborate that statement. I’ll try to find poll with an age breakdown. As for Stalin’s popularity, it rises when economic hardships appear.

  3. Misha says:

    So there’s no misunderstanding, “Russophobes” don’t have a monopoly in opposing Stalin.

    On the deaths of thousands of Red Army personnel in Polish captivity, the Poles answer along the lines of the view that the 1930s famine in Ukraine was an unintended occurrence.

    This note is made from a stance that’s (comparatively speaking to some others) not so quick to give Poland a pass on historical virtue.

    Having a bias within reason shouldn’t be confused with a slant making little, if any of an attempt at even-handedness.

    Regarding the late 1800s famine in the Russian Empire, this study in the form of a book makes a case that the degree and effectiveness of the Russian government’s relief efforts were more extensive than what has been suggested by some:

    The author of that study finds that the positive efforts of the political center was often thwarted by some of the local officials.

    • kovane says:


      “So there’s no misunderstanding, “Russophobes” don’t have a monopoly in opposing Stalin.”

      Please understand that I’m by no means a Stalinist, and I’m all for objective criticism, especially since there are so many reasons for it; but also for an objective description of the achievements.

      “On the deaths of thousands of Red Army personnel in Polish captivity, the Poles answer along the lines of the view that the 1930s famine in Ukraine was an unintended occurrence.”

      I’m sorry, I don’t understand this sentence. How the deaths of thousands of Red Army personnel in Polish captivity is connected with the 1930s famine in Ukraine? My view is that there are many skeletons in Russian-Polish relations, but nowadays only Russia’s ones are brought into light.

      “Having a bias within reason shouldn’t be confused with a slant making little, if any of an attempt at even-handedness.”

      True. But in the end of the day, the only thing that matters is whether your facts and conclusions are correct, right?

      “The author of that study finds that the positive efforts of the political center was often thwarted by some of the local officials.”

      I’ll try to read some of those books, thank you.

      • Misha says:

        Kovane, a quick reply to some of your points as I’m about to leave cyber for now.

        The Polish view I’ve read presents the take that the imprisoned Red Army personnel were struck with disease during a time when it was difficult to provide proper care. In addition, there’s the suggested notion that the Poles were taken by surprise at the sudden number of captured of Red Army personnel.

        I’m interested in studying this matter in greater detail. Accepting the Polish position at face value acknowledges unintended fatalities as opposed to what happened at Katyn.

        Without checking back on another point of yours, you say Stalin saved your life. Excuse if I misinterpret. (Like I said, I’m on the run.)

        Are you referring to the outcome of WW II. For me, I honor the citizens of the USSR who made that result possible. I loosely liken Stalin to the coach of a team with great assets to afford him/her the opportunity for success.

        I close by noting the considerable Russian government and non-government opposition which de-railed the plan of having 10 Stalin bill-boards in Moscow during this past Victory Day holiday.

        • kovane says:

          “The Polish view I’ve read presents the take that the imprisoned Red Army personnel were struck with disease during a time when it was difficult to provide proper care. In addition, there’s the suggested notion that the Poles were taken by surprise at the sudden number of captured of Red Army personnel.”

          That’s an outrageously offensive point of view. Let me remind you that Polish soldiers that were held captive in Soviet prisons lived through the awful famine of 1932-33. Would it have been OK if Stalin had them starved to death in 1933 instead of executing in 1940? As long as the Polish side continue to bring forward such rubbish, any degree of mutual understanding is out of question. Please read former Polish prisoners’ accounts of their captivity; they were treated much worse than cattle. And suddenly they all got ill. Who could have known!

          Yes, of course I’ m referring to the outcome of WW2. Please, read any unbiased book on the USSR’s economy before and during the war. The comparison of Stalin to a mere “coach” will fade then.

          I close by noting the considerable number of supporters that brought forward the idea. It’s just that the current government tries to tread carefully in historical matters. Besides, I don’t see how this is relevant. Even if 100% of the Russians hated Stalin today, that wouldn’t changed any fact about him in the past.

          • Misha says:

            The current government was in agreement with a considerable number of the Russian public when it came to de-railing the 10 Stalin bill-boards.


            It seems that a number of “Russophobes” trump up the pro-Stalin mood in Russia for the purpose of creating an inaccurate and negative stereotype of Russia. One can also find pro-Stalin sentiment among elements outside of Russia.

            IMO and that of others, the peoples of the USSR who opposed the Nazis are the greater heroes of WW II than one man – who made a key mistake in the lead-up to that war.

            Thanks for the follow-up on the Polish view of the Red Army prisoners.

  4. rkka says:

    “Yes, of course I’ m referring to the outcome of WW2. Please, read any unbiased book on the USSR’s economy before and during the war. The comparison of Stalin to a mere “coach” will fade then.”

    indeed. The political, economic, diplomatic, and military aspects of the Soviet war effort were all in his hands.

    Every day, he got a briefing on the status and operations of each of the ~70 field armies at the front. And he retained it. After seeing him work at the Yalta conference on the issues involved with bringing the USSR into the war against Japan, Field Marshal Alan Brooke, Chief of the (British) Imperial General Staff concluded that Stalin had “…a military mind of the highest calibre.”. The American financier Averell Harriman, who had vast experience of men and affairs prior to being appointed as US Ambassador in Moscow, and who worked closely with each of the Big Three, concluded that Stalin was the best informed, most effective decisionmaker of them all, who prevailed in their discussions because of his prodigious grasp of a vast body of all the varied information essential to running a war effort. You need only note the records of the 1943 conference at Tehran. There Stalin systematically and irresistably cornered Churchill into specifying a date and naming a commander for Operation Overlord (the Normandy invasion), which Churchill did not want to do.

    There is no doubt that Stalin was a great war leader, probably the greatest of the 20th Century.

  5. Yalensis says:

    kovane: Thanks for a great post. Very scholarly, unbiased, and full of interesting facts. I admit that your arguments have changed some of my prior opinions about Stalin, so I will need to sit down and do some re-thinking. Quick note on Stalin’s early years in the party, I recommend Trotsky’s “Revolution Betrayed”, published in 1937. Gives Trotsky’s inside view (admittedly self-serving) of the power struggle that ensued after Lenin’s death. Lots of plots twists, including Krupskaya’s feud with Stalin, Lenin’s “secret will”, the role of Kamenev/Zinoviev/Bukharin, etc. Fascinating stuff for early Kremlinologists. Also, you didn’t much mention Stalin’s role in the “nationalities” issues. In my opinion, Stalin’s expertise on the “national question” was a key to his rising power within the Bolshevik party. Understandable, since the Bolsheviks came to prominence right after WWI, a war that tore Europe apart based on ethnic and national divisions. The Bolsheviks built the Third International based on the right of national self-determination as the solution for Europe’s checkerboard of nationalities. Then, after coming to power in Russia, they had to reassemble the Russian Empire, the “prison house” of countless nations and ethnic groups. Stalin’s early specialty within the party was that, as a Gruzian (actually half-Ossetian) he was an “expert” on the Caucasian nationalities. When the USSR was founded, Stalin had the job of re-drawing ethnic boundaries and (with a couple of notable exceptions) he actually showed quite a flair for this task. Later, after WWII he showed his talent again by re-drawing some borders in Eastern Europe. Most notably, he gave modern Poland an excellent and stable set of borders. (Not that the Poles show any gratitude!)

    • kovane says:

      My pleasure, yalensis. Most scaring thing about Trotsky is that, with all his negative qualities, he was unquestionably a very astute man with tremendous talent. What amazes me is how accurately he predicted future cause of the USSR’s fall; How Russians say: there’s no prophet in one’s own fatherland.

      • Yalensis says:

        Well, I don’t know how good a “prophet” he was. Trotsky had predicted that the Soviet working class would organize trade unions and revitalized soviets to overthrow the Stalinist bureaucracy in order to build a truly socialistic government. George Orwell proved to be a better prophet: in “Animal Farm” Orwell predicted that the farmers (=capitalists) and pigs (=Stalinist nomenclature) would eventually merge into one species!

        • kovane says:

          If all his prophecies came true, I would certainly become a monk of Trotsky cult. I meant this one:

          “Что касается социального баланса сталинистского государства, то он непрочен.… Группы менеджеров не будут постоянно удовлетворяться потребительскими привилегиями. Рано или поздно они попытаются сформироваться в новый имущий класс, экспроприируя государство и становясь владельцами-акционерами трестов и концернов. Привилегии имеют лишь половину цены, если их нельзя оставить в наследство детям. Но право завещания неотделимо от права собственности. Недостаточно быть директором треста, нужно быть пайщиком. Победа бюрократии в этой решающей области означала бы превращение ее в новый имущий класс… Превращаясь в новую буржуазию, бюрократия, следовательно, по необходимости вступит в конфликт со сталинизмом”

          That is from Deutscher’s “The Prophet Outcast”. Show exactly what happened after Stalin’s death in 1953, and later, in 1989-91.

          • kovane says:

            By the way, that’s an excellent topic for one of my future essays, Putin called the USSR’s dissolution a biggest geopolitical catastrophe not without reason.

    • Misha says:

      On that last subject, I’ve experienced a measured view among Poles.

      Many of them have a sentimental spot for Lviv/Lwow/Lvov/Lemberg and Wilno/Vilnius, while acknowledging the former German territory Poland received after WW II.

  6. Yalensis says:

    Yes, you’re right, that is a very prophetic quote indeed! As Trotsky remarked, “Privileges have only half their value if you can’t leave them as inheritance to your progeny…” Yeltsin/Gaidar fixed that problem when they sold state-owned resources for pennies to the oligarchs, then allowed them to bequeath this ill-gotten wealth to their gilded offspring. Trotsky goes on to predict that the bureaucratic caste, transforming itself into a new bourgeoisie, will come into conflict with the Stalinist government. I suppose you could say that happened when the Yeltsinites dispersed Parliament and defeated the Communist Party. Almost by the book… Now here’s the scary part: toward the end of his life, with Hitlerism on the rise, Trotsky made his famous prediction: “Socialism or barbarism.” By that he meant that if socialism doesn’t win, then the civilized world (i.e., Europe, in his eyes) would regress to a horrible form of barbarism. Since socialism obviously did not win, does that mean that barbarism will inevitably prevail in our lifetime? Trotsky had fascism in mind, but I suppose you could also include medievalist Islamic fundamentalism (like the victory of Al Qaeda) as a possible form of triumphal barbarism. Foo! I just scared myself silly…

    • kovane says:

      Well, we should discount this particular prophecy slightly, as Mr. Trotsky is very biased here. His wet dream was a proletarian revolution in European countries, not in backward Russia. So he gives the world a classic false choice, not mentioning that a third option exist: reasonable development. Barbarism is certainly not possible in any outcome.

    • Misha says:


      The people credited with founding the neo-conservative movement had Trotskyite ties at one time.

      One can see an adventuristic parallel between neocon foreign policy aims and what Trotsky advocated.

      Regardless of a changed course, a similar mindset can nevertheless linger on.

      • Yalensis says:

        Misha: I have to defend Trotsky here from the classic slander that “all Troskyites go on to become neo-con imperialists.” I know exactly what that argument is, because I’ve heard it a thousand times: the “Trotskyite” mind-set of forcible incitement to revolution inevitably transforms itself into forcible incitement to American imperialist domination, yada yada. And then they name some egregious example like Christopher Hitchens. But this argument is simply not fair. (Russian nationalists usually also tack on the juicy fact that Trotsky was a Jew, and then they go into this anti-Jew tirade about internationalist cosmpolitans who hate Russia…)
        The fact is, any educated intellectual, including Christopher Hitchens, has the luxury of picking whatever side they please in any ongoing war, and also switching sides at will, as it suits them. Many former Communists/Stalinist intellectuals also abandoned their youthful convictions and became shills for the American right; one example is Arthur Koestler, who wrote “The God that Failed”, in which he denounced his former communist views and declared his new alliegiance to the capitalist West. Also, it’s a stereotype that Trotsky was some kind of ferocious Che Guevara who wanted to set the world aflame. It is true that his life’s goal (as was Lenin’s) was a socialist revolution in Germany, as they felt that would give the world proletariat their best shot at success.

        • Misha says:

          Yalensis, so there’s no misunderstanding what you’ve in quotes doesn’t come from yours truly. On that particular, I never said anything about Jews or the notion that all neocons are former Trotskyites.

          Of possible interest:

          Between Trotsky and Stalin, I sense the latter being the more pragamtic on geopolitical issues. Trotsky didn’t have the long term position Stalin held to make a solid “in action” comparison. Stalin made several reasonably good diplomatic moves.

  7. Yalensis says:

    Hello again, everyone, I am so sorry for appearing to dominate this post, but kovane has stimulated many interesting discussions, and I do have to raise one other hot topic: Katyn. I have to confess the fact that I am a “Katyn denier”. Before you jump all over me, let me explain: My father (now deceased) was 100% ethnic Russian, but was raised in Poland as a boy before returning to Russia as a young man, therefore he considered himself half-Polish. He spoke Polish probably better than Russian and adored Polish literature and culture.
    Therefore I consider my father to be relatively unbiased and give credence to his firm convinction that, in the case of the Katyn, it was the Nazis “who dunnit”. As an avid student of Polish history, he had read a great deal about this crime, and so did I. I had access to Western as well as Soviet propaganda versions of the story, and it always seemed to me that the preponderance of evidence pointed to the Nazis, not the Soviets as the perpetrators. Hence, I was a “Katyn denier” for many years.
    Then Yeltsin/Putin came along and “opened the archives”, and bingo! it turned out it was Stalin/Beria all along. This was a bitter pill for me to swallow, but, hey, you can’t argue with the facts, can you? After all, those archives contain real, actual historical documents…
    Then I came upon this website:
    This guy appears to have a lot of credibility. He has done a huge amount of research into every little detail. He thinks that most likely the Russians killed around 3,000 or 4,000 Poles, then they left, the Nazis arrived, and finished off the rest, creating a propaganda bonanza for themselves. After reading all this material, I became a “Katyn denier” again.
    I know, I know what everybody will say: even Putin says the russkies did it, and Putin wouldn’t lie, would he? To that I say: Much as I admire Putin’s achievements as Great Savior of the Russian Nation (I am being completely sincere), one can’t forget that Putin’s mentor was the Great Traitor of the Russian Nation (also being sincere). So, yes, I do think that Putin is lying about this. Yeltsin started the lie, as part of his campaign of ideologically destroying the USSR and capitulating to the West. Leaving Putin with no choice except to stick to the story.
    I apologize again for monopolizing conversation, but this is great forum, and we are discussing really important issues…

    • Misha says:

      Offhand, didn’t all of the Polish corpses have on winter uniforms, indicating that it was a Soviet action, based on the time when Nazi forces were there versus the Soviet presence? As you note, post-Russian officialdom hasn’t (at least to my knowledge) accepted what you reference. With the Holodomor issue in mind, the official post-Soviet Russian stance on historical issues doesn’t seem to be “capitualationist.” As for the suggestion of Putin being soft on some issues because of the standing he had with Yeltsin, note among other things the difference between the (apparently Lozansky coined) KGB (Khodorkovsky, Gusinsky and Berezovsky) during Yeltsin’s presidency versus Putin’s.

      You note an interesting family background. Denikin, who was born in the Polish part of the Russian Empire and whose mother was an observant Polish Catholic was someone seeking improved relations with Poland. Some further info. on that and related matters:

      • Giuseppe Flavio says:

        Offhand, didn’t all of the Polish corpses have on winter uniforms, indicating that it was a Soviet action, based on the time when Nazi forces were there versus the Soviet presence?
        I disagree for two reasons:
        1) According to the “Soviets did it” version, the executions took place between March-April 1940, while in the “Nazis did it” one the executions happened in Autumn 1941. So winter uniforms on Polish corpses fit with the latter version, not with the former.
        2) Unless we assume that the prisoners took their military wardrobes with themselves, the uniform type denotes the time they were captured, not the time they were executed.

        • marknesop says:

          Yes, this is a powerful point – the uniforms on the corpses denote the time of capture, and not necessarily the time of execution. However, prisoners typically have little to say in the matter of their execution, and can be made to wear chicken suits if that is their captor’s pleasure. The pillar of the argument is that they would likely have had access only to the uniforms in which they were captured, and coming up with an out-of-season uniform for everyone, which fit them reasonably well, just so they could be shot in it is a bit of a reach to say the least.

          Regardless who did it, it was a horrible, evil thing to do, and any admission to a part in it is a necessary acknowledgement that such evil is not a part of war for anyone who wishes to coexist with the vanquished when it is over. I believe Mr. Putin did the right thing in admitting to it even if Russia is not wholly guilty; it brought the Poles some measure of peace, and if still-to-be-unearthed evidence later proves the Nazis were partly responsible, Mr. Putin’s gesture will assume a degree of nobility.

    • kovane says:


      Well, let’s admit Katyn denial is not such a grave crime as Holocaust denial, as it’s still an open historical issue. I consider myself Katyn agnostic, there are a lot of loose ends in this case. Unfortunately, so much sand was drifted by Goebbels, Soviet and Perestroika propaganda, that I suppose it’s impossible to ascertain the truth for a layperson or even a historian without full access to GosArchives. The documents that were released are extremely suspicious; Katyn deniers torn them to pieces. And considering the great turmoil of Perestroika, anything is possible, including the boldest conspiracy theories. If you really interested in the matter, here’s a real book bonanza.


      ” With the Holodomor issue in mind, the official post-Soviet Russian stance on historical issues doesn’t seem to be “capitualationist.””

      Saying that refusing to accept Yushchenko’s crazy theory, not substantiated by ANY evidence at all, doesn’t seem to be “capitulationist” is like saying that the Jews are not “capitulationist” because they haven’t admitted to killing Christian babies to add blood to matzo. I already mentioned that the Kremlin took a very cautious stance on all historical issues, avoiding any confrontational points, often sacrificing the historical truth for possible diplomatic gains. A prudent position, but it doesn’t say much whether one or another theory is correct. By the way, I still don’t understand, can you read/speak Russian?

      • Misha says:

        On the Katyn matter, you suggested that Putin was holding back on account of his prior ties to Yeltsin. I gave some examples where that’s not the case. IMO, it stands to reason that the Russian government wouldn’t be off base to acknowledge what’s being suggested at this thread in relation to Katyn.

        Your end point, in conjunction with your delivery and views are a very good impersonation of Chris Doss.


        That point you bring up can be applied to many others. I note Sean Guillory openly relying on translation as one of many examples. If Ethan Burger is a fluent Russian speaker, note that he was nevertheless in error about what the term “New Russia” means.

        These two examples show how very easy it is to take swipes at others. Such manner shouldn’t get confused with staying on the topic of the specific issues being discussed.

        There’s no need to be hypocritical in a spiteful way that gets off topic. This has been discussed before elsewhere. Please stay on topic without trolling and any multiple character puppet shows and/or the intro. of cowardly cyber goons.

        Carrying on like La Russophobe under another set of beliefs is counter-productive.

        There’re a number of fluent Russian speakers unaware of a number of points regarding Russian foreign policy, sports and history. That aspect isn’t an exclusively Russian issue, given the number of Americans unfamiliar with these subjects relative to the US.

        There’re well educated and fluent Russian speakers asking me about a number of former Communist bloc issues on a regular basis.

        I look forward to discussing the actual subjects intended for discussion.

        • kovane says:

          Wow, where does that come from?

          “On the Katyn matter, you suggested that Putin was holding back on account of his prior ties to Yeltsin.”

          No, that isn’t what I suggested, please don’t put words in my mouth. I’m saying that at this point there are not too many option to prove one theory or another. And it’s more reasonable just to accept that Stalin ordered to execute the Polish officers. That gives a good prospect of improving the relations with Poland, which I’m strongly for. Mark voiced the same opinion here.

          “Your end point, in conjunction with your delivery and views are a very good impersonation of Chris Doss.”

          Sorry, I don’t have a slightest idea who Chriss Doss is. You disagree with my opinion on the 1932-1933 famine?

          And finally, I just asked a question, without implying that your views are deficient in any way because you know or don’t know Russian. There’s no need to be so defensive about it.

          “There’s no need to be hypocritical in a spiteful way that gets off topic. This has been discussed before elsewhere. Please stay on topic without trolling and any multiple character puppet shows and/or the intro. of cowardly cyber goons.”

          Please, point out the parts where I’m hypocritical in a spiteful way that gets off topic. And sorry, are you saying that I use many characters?

          And I agree with you that knowing Russian doesn’t guarantee any understanding of Russian politics, history, etc.. It’s just makes more sources available for study.

          And please believe that I didn’t mean to be offensive or disrespectful.

          • Misha says:

            “Wow” where’re you coming from?

            I was addressing points made by Yalensis.

            Are you also Yalensis?

          • marknesop says:

            Boys, boys!!! I have a hose full of cold water here, and I’m not afraid to use it!!

            • Misha says:

              I’m cool Mark.

              At this juncture, I sense the discussion can be civil.

              Concerning the subject matters:

              Are there any Polish sources giving credence to the view that a noticeable portion of the Katyn massacre was committed by the Nazis?

              In answer to how I view the Holodomor, I don’t think it was an intended genocide of Ukrainians. The Ukrainian SSR wasn’t dissolved. During WW II, a rather famous Red Army detachment was specifically identified as Ukrainian.

              • kovane says:

                “I don’t think it was an intended genocide of Ukrainians.”

                Then our views are not so different after all. 🙂

    • marknesop says:

      I promised myself I would stay out of this discussion, but it’s sucking me in. Isn’t it possible Putin is just making a grand gesture, and means to mark an end to the bitterness – a start point from which to move on? It seemed to be well-received by the Poles. It’s very difficult to provide any evidence now which will be broadly believed, since faking of photographs using PhotoShop and similar editing progranms has become so good as to be nearly undetectable. Document faking has likewise come a long way, if that’s the correct way to put it, and rebuttals have become really esoteric – “Hey, that’s a Uniball No. 8 font; that wasn’t available on the IBM ball until 1962. This document is a fake!!”

      Mr. Putin impresses me as a man of bold ideas and broad strokes. It seems to me at least possible that he means to end the Katyn discussion once and for all, knowing the evidence will always be doubted by some.

      • kovane says:

        Yes, I completely agree, this is the version I support. Sometimes, it’s just better to move on.

      • Misha says:


        The grand gestures you mention should be carefully done on account of how some might take advantage of them.

        I respectfully caution against admitting fault when it’s not an accurate admission. In such a scenario, the ramifications can unfairly work against the party trying to tone down a tense situation.

        On the Holodomor matter, it has been suggested that if Russia were to go along with the opinion of an intended genocide against the Ukrainians, Russia could get sued.

        On this particular subject, there’s another factor at play having to do with other Russia unfriendly and inaccurate views being lobbied for by some elements in Ukraine and elsewhere. At issue is having a generation of individuals getting fed with a negative, unfriendly and inaccurate perception, which can result in the potential for greater conflict at some future point.

        In short, grand gestures (of the kind under discussion) should be in line with actual reality.

        • marknesop says:

          It was my understanding from the careful phrasing that Putin essentially admitted Russian (Soviet) responsibility without admitting fault. In fact, his speech might have been partially lifted from the reference Yalensis provided, it was that close in its flat correlation between the Katyn murders and the high mortality of Red Army prisoners in Polish custody. Therefore if it was a grand gesture (only speculation on my part, I have no facts to back it up), then I submit it was carefully done. Russophobes naturally seized on it as a personal admission of guilt, but it was nothing of the sort.

          Turning to the Holodomor: indeed, on Leos Tomicek’s site (as you’re evidently aware), there is just such a suggestion – that Russia should offer compensation to the descendants of those who died in the Holodomor. It’s not quite a threat to sue, but it’s not far from it. Russia will never admit it was deliberate genocide, because there is ample evidence it was not, unless Stalin was so cold that he would kill thousands of his own countrymen by the same method in the hope of getting as many Ukrainians as possible. There’s absolutely nothing in his previous behavior to suggest anything of the kind. I’m not counting the repressions here, as there is no reason to believe they were ethnically motivated.

          Ukraine remains one of the arrows in the quiver of western destabilizers, which is why they love to portray Yanukovych as an inarticulate, ignorant bohunk who can’t form a sentence. However, sometimes politics is simple for all it complications, and agitators who are bucking a positive economic trend have their work cut out for them. Under the Great Liberal Orange Reformer Yuschenko, Ukraine’s economy contracted better than 15%.

  8. Yalensis says:

    It would be fantastic thing to finally reconcile Russian and Polish peoples. However, the search for historical truth is greater good. The Poles deserve closure, but not based on forged documents, if indeed they were forged. Maybe let their best experts examine documents too and see what they think. I like Putin a lot and am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. However, if it turns out that Yeltsin knowingly forged those documents, then they need to dig his corpse up and toss it out onto a heap of dog-crap.

    • marknesop says:

      You probably know Yeltsin much better than I, but to me he was always just a dotty old drunk who barely knew what was going on around him. When Yeltsin led Russia, I didn’t have the interest in Russia I have now, which comes entirely from my relationship with my Russian wife. In fact, as I have a military background, Russia was still The Enemy then. I was always a great admirer of the Russian navy (still am), but not because we were friends. I couldn’t help but notice how much the west adored Yeltsin, but I probably wasn’t sufficiently curious to look behind the suggestion that Russians loved him, too – he was just a big, jolly papa who made everybody happy by giving them what they wanted. Westerners got peace with a country they liked to believe was always lurking under their bed waiting to kill them just as soon as they backed off on the military budget, and Russians got all the blue jeans they wanted and no more standing in line 3 hours to buy a cabbage. I was ignorant, and didn’t know any better.

      However, I still can’t reconcile that dozy old boozebag with the kind of shrewd, far-seeing mind it would take to plant evidence implicating the Soviets. Not unless he planned to move to Los Angeles right after it went public. I’m not suggesting the documents weren’t fabricated; it’s quite possible they were. Furr’s information is compelling, and another instructive study in the research of document forgery was provided in the circumstances of the man (I forget his name now) who dummied up the documentation that allegedly proved George W. Bush faked his National Guard service; that was the story that broke Dan Rather. He resigned soon after the documents were found to be faked. Anyway, the breakdown of the documents was where I first heard of all the methods used to date typewriter fonts and such, I had no idea such a knowledge base even existed.

      • kovane says:


        it’s a big mistake to view Yeltsin as a half-wit drunk controlled by some puppet masters, the real picture is very far from that. Until 1996, he was a shrewd politician easily giving an order to shoot the Parliament without any remorse. And looking at his ascension in 1980-1991 leaves no doubt about his qualities; he was willing to do or sacrifice anything in order to reinforce his personal power. Before the 1996 elections, Yeltsin suffered a heart attack. and his drinking finally caught up with him. During the second term, he became a shell of a person.

        Besides, nobody’s ever accused Yeltsin of forgery, the implication was that hardcore anti-Communist from Gorbachev team, like Yakovlev, did it. The Soviet Union was firmly on the hook of international creditors, so, basically, anything was possible then.

        • marknesop says:

          Well, as I say, you know him much better than I. It’s still a bit beyond my understanding why Anti-Communists would deliberately destroy their own country just to appease western interests. And that’s exactly what selling off national industries to wealthy private interests almost did. There seems to be fairly credible evidence that some of the documents were forged or altered, but I can’t imagine why anyone in Russia would make the case that Soviets did it, even if they hated the Soviet system. It’s implicating the entire nation in something disgraceful.

          As you well know, westerners don’t really get an accurate picture of what the Russian electorate really thinks of its political players and candidates. This is, after all, the same media that canonizes Boris Yeltsin as a virile blend of Antonio Banderas’s face and figure and Napoleon’s instincts, carrying on his brave fight day after day against his shriveled, cruel Kremlin opponents on behalf of those who would breathe free. Their characterization of Yeltsin as a confused, semi-pickled old fool didn’t really gather steam until he’d served his purpose. Until then, he was the great liberator.

          • Yalensis says:

            Why would anyone sell out or try to destroy their own country? The usual reason: $$$$

            • marknesop says:

              Yes, provided they don’t have to live in it afterward. I’m sure Yeltsin didn’t plan to die, and if he planned to flee to the west, he was a pretty good actor for an alcoholic.

          • Giuseppe Flavio says:

            If my memory serves me well, in the early ’90 the Russian archives seemed to be like a shop where one could get the “documents” he wanted. At the time there were a lot of revelations from those archives (or falsely attributed to some purported document), all pointing at how bad the USSR was, ranging from the credible to the absurd. Like the story about Gagarin assassination by the PCUS.
            These revelations slightly touched Italy when an Italian historian (well, actually a propagandist) in 1992 falsified a 1943 letter by Togliatti to score some political point.

            but I can’t imagine why anyone in Russia would make the case that Soviets did it, even if they hated the Soviet system.
            Imagine a Russian version of Alex Jones and other conspiracy theorist on 9/11. Please note that I’m not saying the Soviets didn’t kill the Polish prisoners, but that there are persons that may hate their country with all their hearts.

      • Misha says:


        This book might interest you:

        The Cold War upbringing of many was premised on the notion that the USSR and the US were geopolitical rivals with ideological differences being the major contributing factor.

        Some highlight the idea of Russia as a historic rival of the West regardless of Russia’s form of government. I don’t buy into that idea, while noting how some (stress some) are biased against Russia regardless of the form of Russia’s government.

        The West hasn’t always been united with itself. There’ve been a number of past instances of Russia getting along well with a number of Western nations.

        I sense many are still not ready to fully acknowledge the end of the Cold War. Keep in mind how a number of people negatively viewed Germany and Japan in the early years after WW II. Over the course of time, that negativity declined.

        You know that saying about how time heals.

        • marknesop says:

          Indeed, as Eugene pointed out in another post, the Cold War never ended in some minds, and most of them are western. It’s true that hostility against the “Nips” and the “Krauts” eventually faded away (at least the overt prejudices), but many westerners saw the early potential for turning both into powerful western allies and springboards for the advancement of a western agenda. I doubt there’s any such train of thought in this case. Rather, the west would like to stick a straw in Russia’s head and suck it dry of resources while making no great committments, much as early entrepreneurs bought a fortune in furs for handfuls of glass beads. That can’t happen with a nationalist government in power, which is why (a) the west doesn’t like Putin, and (b) why the west loved Yeltsin. Hey, I’m learning!

          That said, I need some serious reading in as many books on the subject (by non-partisan researchers) as I can get my hands on.

          • Misha says:

            The more partisan types serve a purpose as well.

            For the purpose of acquiring a better understanding, it’s key to not readily believe them, while fully understanding their views.

            As for the less partisan types, all of us in varying degrees have biases. The idea is to be as reasonably even-handed as possible.

    • grafomnka says:

      From what I remember the bulk of documents about Katyn is still kept secret in Russian archives. One can only wonder what is in those documents and why are they being kept away from the public.
      I must say that the theory that ; 1) Yeltisn forged the documents to make it look like the Soviets did it and 2) Putin is playing along with this, seems incredibly far-fetched (also they would have to be incredibly cynical and really hate Russia to do something like this)

      • marknesop says:

        You may be right, but it was my impression that not a lot of secrets remain in Russian archives – at least where Katyn is concerned. Yeltsin is said to have opened them in the 90’s without much regard for access control, and is alleged to have sent several top-secret documents to the U.S. Library of Congress without declassifying them. One of the individuals fingered for possibly injecting forgeries into the archives to support a position that the Poles murdered at Katyn were all killed by the Soviets was Alexander Yakolev, who is quoted here as having said, “…we must do everything in order for the Western world to renounce the Soviet Union”. Such an aim would certainly provide a powerful motive for implicating the Soviets, and it appears he wasn’t the only one to hold such views.

        I didn’t mean to imply Putin was “going along with it” in order to hurt Russia – quite the opposite. I speculated he might do such a thing out of a desire to forge closer ties with Poland, and to put the Russian federation in the role of honest confessor with a motive to move forward and an investment in seeing such things never happen again.

        • grafomnka says:

          Well apparently there is a lot of files concerning Katyn that have been classified as containing “state secrets” by Russian investigation. Polish historians have no access to them (tho Medvedev has promised that they will be declassified at some point in the future). As much as it pains me to admit it, I think they are classified because they contain further evidence of nazi-soviet collaboration in fighting Polish resistance (and maybe some people implicit in those crimes are still alive). If those files were to surface this would be an extremely bad for Russia especially in the times where Baltics and many in the west are making nazi=soviet holocaust comparisons.
          As for Russia-Poland relations, Polish view is something along the line of ‘they’ve been pretending it’s Germans for years and now they are only reluctantly admitting the truth at the same time keeping documents secret from us, not even apologising officially for anything.’ My feeling is that if there was any shred of evidence that it wasn’t the Soviets, Putin would be stupid to tell Poland otherwise.

          • marknesop says:

            Well, you could be right. It’s difficult to say any more, now that document forgery has become such an art that it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference except for the testimony of eyewitnesses. In the end, people will believe what they want to believe or what their parents/grandparents tell them is true, regardless what evidence suggests. Where Russia made a big mistake was in not better controlling access to the documents, which is the only real way to preserve their integrity. Even then, even if you can show that nobody ever had access to the documents unless they were supervised by a custodian who watched everything they did, there will be some doubt. If you get an expert to authenticate the document and his judgment is that it’s not a fake, some people will suggest that “they got to” the expert. Now that document forgery has gone far beyond what the untrained eye can easily pick up, it has made it easier to assume everything you see is a lie – especially if that’s what you want to believe in the first place. Succeeding generations will have to contend with PhotoShopped evidence and electronic text that wasn’t available in the 30’s and 40’s, and will not even have things like typewriter fonts to guide them – it’s getting so you don’t even have to be that accomplished to fake modern evidence convincingly.

            Maybe everyone would be better off to just observe that what happened at Katyn was a terrible offense against humanity – that shooting defenseless people is not war, but murder – and that it is believable that either the Nazis or the Soviets did it because both showed themselves capable of such savagery. In fact, I can’t think of any country off the top of my head for which the immediate reaction would be, “Oh, no – they would never do that “. Everybody is capable of acts of wanton savagery and, under the right circumstances, will carry them out.

            • kovane says:

              While it’s very possible to forge several documents, a falsification of multiple cases is very unlikely. Archive documents are interrelated in a very complex way, the cost and quality of such undertaking make it absolutely futile. This is, by the way, the strongest argument for the validity of Soviet archive data, any mass-scale statistics manipulation is very hard.

              Only the release of the rest of the Katyn documents will douse historical arguments.

              • marknesop says:

                Well, yes; that’s a good point, too. If you forge a given document, it has to make sense with other documents that already exist in archives, possibly some that are only peripherally related to the subject but which could reveal an anomaly.

  9. Yalensis says:

    To Misha and Kovane: I got very confused in the earlier thread, where did this flame war suddenly come from? Please, gentlemen, I hope I can be “friends” with both of you, as you both have very interesting things to say. If the two of you can’t even get along, how can we ever expect Poles and Russians to reconcile?
    Misha: I assure you I am not the same person as kovane. On Adomanis’ earlier blog kovane and I used to debate with each other all the time. At one point Adomanis almost threw me off his blog because I had made an inappropriate joke about guillotining the British monarchy; and on that occasion kovane supported Adomanis and practically ripped me a new one (which I admit I deserved)! So, how could we be the same person? Also, kovane’s blog about Stalin (and his earlier blog on Russian politics) was so scholarly and so impressive, I am not capable of that level of historical research. That proves that we are two different people.
    I realize there are a lot of trolls on the internet, it is easy to become suspicious. I myself just use the one “nik”, Yalensis, I have no other personas in blogworld. Speaking of which, I do have a yalensis account on INOSMI, and I was able to attach a cool avatar thumbnail to my nik there. But I can’t figure out how to do that in so I have to settle for the pink swirly abstract-design avatar that they gave me. I notice that Natalie has a thumbnail when she appears, and so does Sublime. Does anyone know how they do that?

    • kovane says:

      “and on that occasion kovane supported Adomanis and practically ripped me a new one”

      That’s a bit of exaggeration, I only pointed out a historical inaccuracy then. I don’t think that I have the moral high ground to preach to other people what is right or wrong.

      As to avatars, maybe this will help.

    • marknesop says:

      Yalensis – don’t sell yourself short. Your command of the English language is impressive; probably better than Kovane’s, although his improvement is staggering. Your comments reveal a restless, inquiring mind and a longstanding interest in world affairs, and you have apparent talent for research. In fact, you have everything you need to write great blog posts of your own, and I remain hopeful that you will guest one here. Kovane’s Stalin post was indeed excellent, but you must know of a subject that is of deep and abiding interest to you that would appeal to a broad audience and that you would be comfortable defending against assault – either by virtue of superior knowledge or superior research.

      Anyway, I think you have to have a wordpress profile to get a picture for your avatar. I can do it; I’ve just never bothered. I was going to get my picture taken wearing my bright-red Sochi 2014 T-Shirt just to annoy Russophobes, but I never got around to doing it. But wordpress is always offering (through note reminders) to show me how to resize the image and get a photo avatar for my wordpress profile. I’m pretty sure that’s how it’s done. I don’t think you have to have a blog to have a wordpress profile.

  10. carpenter117 says:

    Ok, my 2 kopecs.

    kovane – great post, really! But, hey, I’m sure – pretty much anyone in Russia know that Stalin is not “Hitler+Comminism”, as some westerners like to describe him. So, you aimed at foreign audience? You know, I actually had conversations with Stalinists – with fellows of my age, even younger. For them “Uncle Joe” was everything – great war leader, patriot, visionary etc. So, stop that apologysing thing, like “I’m not a Stalinist, no!”. It’s just western stereotypes – if you are not agreeing with the 100% true theory, that Stalin (later – Putin) singlehandedly killed buzzilion innocents, then you are despicable Stalinist/Putinist!

    I’m not a fan of Stalin. For me, he was just a bandit, robber, gangster, who by the whim of Destiny (and Judicial System of Russian Empire) met some Bolsheviks and become indoctrinated into the RSDRP(b). Just like Nestor Makhno was “lucky” to have anarchist cellmate. ‘Course Stalin was also very smart, clever and crafty person – ideal “Bolshevik” to survive 20-s and emerge as sole leder of Russian Soviet State. It was ultimately he, who abandoned (for time being) utopia idea of world revolution. Stalin was a relist, pragmatist and a cynic. He was paranoid schizophrenic also. He was unforgiving. He wasn’t really good at warfare, military tactics and strategy (his Lviv offense during Bolshevik-Poland campaign of 1920 was a disaster).

    No one (I repeat – none, nobody) of my huge family was repressed during Stalin’s reign. 21 of them fought in the Great Patriotic War – only 2 of them survived (Stalingrad’s veteran and military sailor, who defended PQ17 convoy). My grandmother’s father was chief engineer (though he was of peasant descent) in Ural’s military factory during The War – he was exempt from the Draft by special decree. In 1945 he was awarded golden medal by Stalin’s decree – and immediately threw it into furnace. Yep, I guess, that’s my family attitude to Stalin. He wasn’t “good”, he was cruel, petty, wistful, envious. even stupid and shortsighted sometimes. But he wasn’t some “monster”, he wasn’t “Hitler Lite”. And those westerners who continue to insist in such claims has nothing but contempt from me… and many other Russians, whose ancestors lived, fought and survived that horrible period.

    • kovane says:

      Thanks for the comment and your opinion, carpenter!

      When I’m saying that I’m not a Stalinist, I mean that I don’t think that shooting people solves all problems in a country, and that Stalin was Jesus’ second reincarnation only with mustaches, not a beard. I’m not ashamed by the Stalinist period in any way, and I view it as just a part of Russia’s troubled history. And the more impartially we study our past, the clearer our present and future will be.

      Of course I was aiming at foreign audience, why else would I write in English?

      I guess that Stalin will become something like Vlad Tsepes in Romania: a kind of controversial national hero in his homeland and a bogeyman in the rest of the world.

    • Misha says:

      The Soviet planning in the war with Finland left something to be desired as well. There has been considerable second guessing of the lack of Soviet readyness for the Nazi attack against the USSR, which saw Soviet goods getting shipped to Germany as the Nazis attacked the USSR. There’s reference to Stalin not believing his intell. and the West that the Nazis were about to attack.

      Stalin had a pragmatic side as a geo-strategist.

      He offered a strategic land swap with Finland instead of going to war. Stalin offered this on the notion that at some point Germany and the USSR would come in conflict with Finland as a Nazi ally.

      At the end of the war, Stalin lived up to his agreement with the West by pulling the Soviet military out of Austria. Had the Soviet forces remained there, I’m not so sure of the options the West had to get them removed. Austria was slated to have a neutral status in the post-WW II era. On that matter, Stalin seemed to reason that it wasn’t reasonable to extend Soviet forces in situations that weren’t so strategic.

      He also seemed relatively comfortable with a post-WW II Finland which wasn’t in either NATO or the Warsaw Pact.

      Getting back to the subject of the Holodomor, while it wasn’t an intended genocide of Ukrainians, is there not room to be critical of the Soviet government’s handling of that crisis?

      • kovane says:

        “is there not room to be critical of the Soviet government’s handling of that crisis?”

        I agree completely, the government’s actions were extremely clumsy and ineffective, nobody argues that. I mentioned that in passing in the article. Please feel free to add any objective criticism.

    • marknesop says:

      Welcome back, Carpenter; I wondered if you had disappeared, you were quiet for such a long time. It’s good to see you again.

      • carpenter117 says:


        You know, how it’s sometimes in Internet – some really good post and… you have nothing to reply, other than “kewl job, dude! rulz!”. Well, if I can’t write smth other than that as kind a feedback to other user work I just write nothing.

        Except when I want to play an epic home-made online-RPG NetTroll: The Pipetz (a storytelling game of personal cretinism) versus LR, Julia “Kosher CIA approved Opinion” Ioffe and Gergian\Baltic “Stop Russia!” sites. Unfortunately, these bastards\bithces cheat – and ban me. DAMN! %)))))

      • Yalensis says:

        Yes, welcome back, carpenter! My respect to you and your family and what they sacrificed in the war.

  11. Pingback: Parlez-vous français? Так, я кажу українських. | The Kremlin Stooge

  12. Foppe says:

    Have you read Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands?

  13. Foppe says:

    I found it a very interesting and informative book, especially because it looks at and discusses the contributions to the suffering of the people living in what he calls the Bloodlands (primarily poland, ukraine, belarus, baltic states) by both Hitler and Stalin.
    I appreciate your article, and I have no intention of disputing the general tenor, but I found the suggestion that ‘because famine was widespread, it wasn’t genocidal against Ukrainians’ a bit too quick. Even if it might not have been genocide by that name ( and I find the term generally unhelpful), the policies Stalin created were bound to clash very strongly with local customs and history, and the soviet response to the famine wasn’t simply due to bad communication and the problems inherent in bureaucracy. I’ll quote a few paragraphs that seem relevant; apologies if the post is a bit long because of them:
    Perhaps even more so than in Soviet Russia, where communal farming was traditional, in Soviet Ukraine peasants were terrified by the loss of their land. Their whole history was one of a struggle with landlords, which they seemed finally to have won during the Bolshevik Revolution. But in the years immediately thereafter, between 1918 and 1921, the Bolsheviks had requisitioned food from the peasants as they fought their civil wars. So peasants had good reason to be wary of the Soviet state. Lenin’s compromise policy of the 1920s had been very welcome, even if peasants suspected, with good reason, that it might one day be reversed. In 1930, collectivization seemed to them to be a “second serfdom,” the beginning of a new bondage, now not to the wealthy landowners, as in recent history, but to the communist party. Peasants in Soviet Ukraine feared the loss of their hard-won independence; but they also feared starvation, and indeed for the fate of their immortal souls.
    The rural societies of Soviet Ukraine were still, for the most part, religious societies. Many of the young and the ambitious, those swayed by official communist atheism, had left for the big Ukrainian cities or for Moscow or Leningrad. Though their Orthodox Church had been suppressed by the atheist communist regime, the peasants were still Christian believers, and many understood the contract with the collective farm as a pact with the devil. Some believed that Satan had come to earth in human form as a party activist, his collective farm register a book of hell, promising torment and damnation. The new Machine Tractor Stations looked like the outposts of Gehenna. Some Polish peasants in Ukraine, Roman Catholics, also saw collectivization in apocalyptic terms. One Pole explained to his son why they would not join the collective farm: “I do not want to sell my soul to the devil.” Understanding this religiosity, party activists propagated what they called Stalin’s First Commandment: the collective farm supplies first the state, and only then the people. As the peasants would have known, the First Commandment in its biblical form reads: “Thou shalt have no other God before me.”
    Ukrainian villages had been deprived of their natural leaders by the deportations of kulaks to the Gulag. Even without the deported kulaks, peasants tried to rescue themselves and their communities. They tried to preserve their own little plots, their small patches of autonomy. They endeavored to keep their families away from the state, now physically manifest in the collective farms and the Machine Tractor Stations. They sold or slaughtered their livestock, rather than lose it to the collective. Fathers and husbands sent daughters and wives to do battle with the party activists and the police, believing that women were less likely to be deported than men. Sometimes men dressed as women just for the chance to put a hoe or a shovel into the body of a local communist.
    Many collective farms met their requisition targets only by handing over their seed grain. Stalin ordered on 5 December 1931 that collective farms that had not yet fulfilled their annual requirements must surrender their seed grain. Stalin perhaps believed that peasants were hiding food, and thought that the threat of taking the seed grain would motivate them to hand over what they had. … Then in early 1932 they had no seed grain with which to plant the fall crop. The Ukrainian party leadership asked for seed grain in March 1932, but by that time the planting was already delayed, meaning that the harvest that fall would be poor.

    The threat of mass starvation was utterly clear to Soviet Ukrainian authorities, and it became so to Stalin. Party activists and secret police officers filed countless reports of death by starvation. In June 1932 the head of the party in the Kharkiv region wrote to Kosior that starvation had been reported in every single district of his region. Kosior received a letter from a member of the Young Communists dated 18 June 1932, with a graphic description that was probably, by then, all too familiar: “Collective farm members go into the fields and disappear. After a few days their corpses are found and, entirely without emotion, as though this were normal, buried in graves. The next day one can already find the body of someone who had just been digging graves for others.” That same day, 18 June 1932, Stalin himself admitted, privately, that there was “famine” in Soviet Ukraine. The previous day the Ukrainian party leadership had requested food aid. He did not grant it. His response was that all grain in Soviet Ukraine must be collected as planned. He and Kaganovich agreed that “it is imperative to export without fail immediately.”
    Stalin, a master of personal politics, presented the Ukrainian famine in personal terms. His first impulse, and his lasting tendency, was to see the starvation of Ukrainian peasants as a betrayal by members of the Ukrainian communist party. He could not allow the possibility that his own policy of collectivization was to blame; the problem must be in the implementation, in the local leaders, anywhere but in the concept itself. As he pushed forward with his transformation in the first half of 1932, the problem he saw was not the suffering of his people but rather the possibility that the image of his collectivization policy might be tarnished. Starving Ukrainian peasants, he complained, were leaving their home republic and demoralizing other Soviet citizens by their “whining.”
    Somewhat inchoately, Stalin seemed to think in spring and summer 1932 that if starvation could somehow just be denied then it would go away. Perhaps he reasoned that Ukraine was in any case overpopulated, and that the deaths of a few hundred thousand people would matter little in the long run. He wanted local Ukrainian officials to meet grain procurement targets despite the certain prospect of lower yields. Local party officials found themselves between Stalin’s red hammer and the grim reaper’s sickle. The problems they saw were objective and not soluble through ideology or rhetoric: lack of seed grain, late sowing, poor weather, machinery insufficient to replace animal labor, chaos from the final push toward collectivization in late 1931, and hungry peasants unable to work.

    Around the local party activists was death, and above them was denial. Starvation was a brute fact, indifferent to words and formulas, deportations and shootings. Beyond a certain point, the starving peasant could no longer productively work, and no amount of ideological correctness or personal commitment could change this. Yet as this message traveled upward through institutional channels it lost its force. True reports of hunger from below met political pressure from the top at a Ukrainian party central committee plenum of 6-9 July 1932 in Kharkiv. Ukrainian speakers complained of the impossibility of meeting the annual targets for grain requisitions. Yet they were silenced by Lazar Kaganovich and Viacheslav Molotov, politburo members and Stalin’s emissaries from Moscow. Stalin had instructed them to defeat the “Ukrainian destabilizers.”

    • kovane says:

      I haven’t read the book, but I’m well familiar with the author; he is dead set on equating Hitler and Stalin and not very troubled if facts get in the way.Unfortunately, Snyder is more of a ideologue than a historian, very much like Robert Conquest or Antony Beevor.

      I’ll try to address the points you made. You said that “suggestion that ‘because famine was widespread, it wasn’t genocidal against Ukrainians’ a bit too quick.” and then presented a large excerpt from the book. The problem is it doesn’t say anything that proves that Ukrainians were singled out somehow or the famine was intentional. Without that any accusations of genocide are unfounded at best.

      The procurement quota for Ukraine was lowered three times, in total by 30%, IIRC. The state quickly stopped grain export as soon as the catastrophic situation became evident and also helped peasants with seed grain after famine. There are much more facts that Snyder leaves out to create a picture pleasing to his eye and then he resorts to a time-proven device: getting into Stalin’s head.

      His first impulse, and his lasting tendency
      Stalin seemed to think

      Apparently, he can speak with dead people.

      His attempt to dump the blame on collectivization doesn’t hold water as well – it started in 1929, and was continued after 1932, but famine happened only once. Whether he likes it or not, but collectivization was successful after all – it provided the stable source of food for the country even in the most desperate time – WW2.

      To summarize, did the way collectivization was carried out contribute to the famine? Yes.
      Could the famine be handled more efficiently? Without a doubt.
      Was it an act of genocide against Ukrainians or anyone else? There is absolutely no evidence of that.

      If you want more objective view on the famine I can recommend the following books:
      M. Tauger, “The 1932 harvest and the famine of 1933″
      S. Wheatcroft, R. Davies, “Years of Hunger”

      At least they try to ascertain facts, not to build a case against Stalin and the USSR.

      • Foppe says:

        I have no way of knowing whether or not he’s an ideologue, and it may be that there’s a systematic spin present that’s unreasonable, but it seems to me you’re a bit too set on dismissing everything he says based on that argument, and based on the fact that my excerpt was incomplete.
        Again, I have no real interest in the question whether it was genocide per se, or simply a malicious response to a plan that didn’t work, and which he discontinued only after lots of peasants died and it became clear that the policy really was counterproductive. Snyder also notes that the policy failed because the bumper crop of 1930 was set as a realistic target; what he’s trying to argue is that the subsequent history was not simply due to bureaucratic inertia, but also, and substantially, due to moscow (and particularly Stalin) responding in a spiteful manner to that fact.
        So to quote a bit more in response to your suggestion that “The state quickly stopped grain export as soon as the catastrophic situation became evident and also helped peasants with seed grain after famine,” see the following, especially points 5-7:
        He could have suspended food exports for a few months, released grain reserves (three million tons), or just given peasants access to local grain storage areas. Such simple measures, pursued as late as November 1932, could have kept the death toll to the hundreds of thousands rather than the millions. Stalin pursued none of them.
        Though collectivization was a disaster everywhere in the Soviet Union, the evidence of clearly premeditated mass murder on the scale of millions is most evident in Soviet Ukraine. Collectivization had involved the massive use of executions and deportations everywhere in the Soviet Union, and the peasants and nomads who made up the bulk of the Gulag’s labor force hailed from all of the Soviet republics. Famine had struck parts of Soviet Russia as well as much of Soviet Ukraine in 1932. Nevertheless, the policy response to Ukraine was special, and lethal. Seven crucial policies were applied only, or mainly, in Soviet Ukraine in late 1932 or early 1933. Each of them may seem like an anodyne administrative measure, and each of them was certainly presented as such at the time, and yet each of them had to kill.1. On 18 November 1932, peasants in Ukraine were required to return grain advances that they had previously earned by meeting grain requisition targets. This meant that the few localities where peasants had had good yields were deprived of what little surplus they had earned. The party brigades and the state police were unleashed on these regions, in a feverish hunt for whatever food could be found. Because peasants were not given receipts for the grain that they did hand over, they were subject to endless searches and abuse. The Ukrainian party leadership tried to protect the seed grain, but without success.
        3. Eight days later, on 28 November 1932, Soviet authorities introduced the “black list.” According to this new regulation, collective farms that failed to meet grain targets were required, immediately, to surrender fifteen times the amount of grain that was normally due in a whole month. In practice this meant, again, the arrival of hordes of party activists and police, with the mission and the legal right to take everything. No village could meet the multiplied quota, and so whole communities lost all of the food that they had. Communities on the black list also had no right to trade, or to receive deliveries of any kind from the rest of the country. They were cut off from food or indeed any other sort of supply from anywhere else. The black-listed communities in Soviet Ukraine, sometimes selected from as far away as Moscow, became zones of death.
        4. On 5 December 1932, Stalin’s handpicked security chief for Ukraine presented the justification for terrorizing Ukrainian party officials to collect the grain. Vsevolod Balytskyi had spoken with Stalin personally in Moscow on 15 and 24 November. The famine in Ukraine was to be understood, according to Balytskyi, as the result of a plot of Ukrainian nationalists—in particular, of exiles with connections to Poland. Thus anyone who failed to do his part in requisitions was a traitor to the state.
        Yet this policy line had still deeper implications. The connection of Ukrainian nationalism to Ukrainian famine authorized the punishment of those who had taken part in earlier Soviet policies to support the development of the Ukrainian nation. Stalin believed that the national question was in essence a peasant question, and as he undid Lenin’s compromise with the peasants he also found himself undoing Lenin’s compromise with the nations. On 14 December Moscow authorized the deportation of local Ukrainian communists to concentration camps, on the logic that they had abused Soviet policies in order to spread Ukrainian nationalism, thus allowing nationalists to sabotage the grain collection. Balytskyi then claimed to have unmasked a “Ukrainian Military Organization” as well as Polish rebel groups. He would report, in January 1933, the discovery of more than a thousand illegal organizations and, in February, the plans of Polish and Ukrainian nationalists to overthrow Soviet rule in Ukraine.
        The justifications were fabricated, but the policy had consequences. Poland had withdrawn its agents from Ukraine, and had given up any hope of exploiting the disaster of collectivization. The Polish government, attempting to be loyal to the Soviet-Polish nonaggression pact signed in July 1932, declined even to draw international attention to the worsening Soviet famine. Yet Balytskyi’s policy, though it rode the coattails of phantoms, generated local obedience to Moscow’s policy. The mass arrests and mass deportations he ordered sent a very clear message: anyone who defended the peasants would be condemned as an enemy. In these crucial weeks of late December, as the death toll in Soviet Ukraine rose into the hundreds of thousands, Ukrainian activists and administrators knew better than to resist the party line. If they did not carry out requisitions, they would find themselves (in the best case) in the Gulag.

        5. On 21 December 1932, Stalin (through Kaganovich) affirmed the annual grain requisition quota for Soviet Ukraine, to be reached by January 1933. On 27 November, the Soviet politburo had assigned Ukraine a full third of the remaining collections for the entire Soviet Union. Now, hundreds of thousands of starvation deaths later, Stalin sent Kaganovich to hold the whip hand over the Ukrainian party leadership in Kharkiv. Right after Kaganovich arrived on the evening of 20 December, the Ukrainian politburo was forced to convene. Sitting until four o’clock the next morning, it resolved that requisition targets were to be met. This was a death sentence for about three million people. As everyone in that room knew in those early morning hours, grain could not be collected from an already starving population without the most horrific of consequences. A simple respite from requisitions for three months would not have harmed the Soviet economy, and would have saved most of those three million lives. Yet Stalin and Kaganovich insisted on exactly the contrary. The state would fight “ferociously,” as Kaganovich put it, to fulfill the plan.63Having achieved his mission in Kharkiv, Kaganovich then traveled through Soviet Ukraine, demanding “100 percent” fulfillment of the plan and sentencing local officials and ordering deportations of families as he went. He returned to Kharkiv on 29 December 1932 to remind Ukrainian party leaders that the seed grain was also to be collected.646. As starvation raged throughout Ukraine in the first weeks of 1933, Stalin sealed the borders of the republic so that peasants could not flee, and closed the cities so that peasants could not beg. As of 14 January 1933 Soviet citizens had to carry internal passports in order to reside in cities legally. Peasants were not to receive them. On 22 January 1933 Balytskyi warned Moscow that Ukrainian peasants were fleeing the republic, and Stalin and Molotov ordered the state police to prevent their flight. The next day the sale of long-distance rail tickets to peasants was banned. Stalin’s justification was that the peasant refugees were not in fact begging bread but, rather, engaging in a “counterrevolutionary plot,” by serving as living propaganda for Poland and other capitalist states that wished to discredit the collective farm. By the end of February 1933 some 190,000 peasants had been caught and sent back to their home villages to starve.
        7. Even after the annual requisition target for 1932 was met in late January 1933, collection of grain continued. Requisitions went forward in February and March, as party members sought grain for the spring sowing. At the end of December 1932, Stalin had approved Kaganovich’s proposal that the seed grain for the spring be seized to make the annual target. This left the collective farms with nothing to plant for the coming fall. Seed grain for the spring sowing might have been drawn from the trainloads bound at that very moment for export, or taken from the three million tons that the Soviet Union had stored as a reserve. Instead it was seized from what little the peasants in Soviet Ukraine still had. This was very often the last bit of food that peasants needed to survive until the spring harvest. Some 37,392 people were arrested in Soviet Ukrainian villages that month, many of them presumably trying to save their families from starvation.
        As for some of the citations to this section:
        54 Quotation: Kuromiya, Freedom and Terror, 174. On the family interpretation (Stanisław Kosior), see Davies, Years, 206.
        55 For similar judgments, see, for example, Jahn, Holodomor, 25; Davies, Tauger, and Wheatcroft, “Grain Stocks,” 657; Kulczycki, Hołodomor, 237; and Graziosi, “New Interpretation,” 11.
        56 Sen, Poverty and Famines, quotation at 7; see also 154-155. A convincing national interpretation of the famine is Martin, “Ukrainian Terror,” at 109 and passim. See also Simon, “Waffe,” 45-47; and Conquest, Harvest, 219. On Kaganovich in November 1932, see Kulczyski, Hołodomor, 236.
        57 Graziosi, “New Interpretation,” 8; Kuśnierz, Ukraina, 143; Maksudov, “Victory,” 188, 190; Davies, Years, 175 and, on seed grain, 151.
        58 On the meat penalty, see Shapoval, “Proloh trahedii holodu,” 162; and Maksudov, “Victory,” 188. Quotation: Dzwonkowski, Głód, 71. For the example described, Dzwonkowski, Głód, 160; see also 219. On the general decline of livestock, see Hunczak, Famine, 59.
        59 Shapoval, “Proloh trahedii holodu,” 162; Maksudov, “Victory,” 188; Marochko, Holodomor, 171; Werth, Terreur, 123.
        60 Shapoval, “Holodomor.”
        61 Davies, Years, 190; Marochko, Holodomor, 171.
        62 Snyder, Sketches, 107-114.
        63 Quotation: Davies, Years, 187. Regarding 20 December, see Vasiliev, “Tsina,” 55; Graziosi, “New Interpretation,” 9; and Kuśnierz, Ukraina, 135.
        64 Davies, Years, 190-192.
        65 On the interpretation of starving people as spies, see Shapoval, “Holodomor.” On the 190,000 peasants caught and sent back, see Graziosi, “New Interpretation,” 7. On the events of 22 January, see Marochko, Holodomor, 189; and Graziosi, “New Interpretation,” 9.
        66 On the 37,392 people arrested, see Marochko, Holodomor, 192. See also Davies, Years, 161-163

        • kovane says:

          I’m not very fond of labeling people and dismissing their arguments based only on that – it’s just that it often helps to put everything in context. Let’s talk facts then.

          whether it was genocide per se

          Well, why did you couch your interest in the form “suggestion that ‘because famine was widespread, it wasn’t genocidal against Ukrainians’ a bit too quick”?

          So to quote a bit more in response to your suggestion that “The state quickly stopped grain export as soon as the catastrophic situation became evident and also helped peasants with seed grain after famine”

          Here’s the USSR’s grain export by the month in 1931-1933 (sorry, it’s in Russian, but very simple, use Google Translate)

          He could have suspended food exports for a few months, released grain reserves (three million tons), or just given peasants access to local grain storage areas.

          If you look at the figures I provided you’ll see that the export was brought to a halt. The problem is that the state didn’t have reliable methods of determining a future harvest at the time, so the full scale of tragedy became apparent only by the end of 1932. You forget that the government didn’t have much grain reserves (here’s a table showing the amount of reserves, grain loans and procurement by the year) and it had to keep them as seed grain and for loaning. All procurements were carried out to sustain growing city population, so they were also necessary. That’s the gist of the problem: drained reserves due to high export in previous years, extremely bad harvest in 1932-33 and large cities.

          though collectivization was a disaster everywhere in the Soviet Union

          Wow, wow, let’s not start with idealogical cliches, like Gulags and everything. Facts, please. As I said, collectivization was successful evidently, as it provided much needed food for industrialization and economical growth. The execution of it was terrible in the beginning, that’s true.

          Eight days later, on 28 November 1932, Soviet authorities introduced the “black list.”

          I quote:
          «В отношении станиц, занесенных на чёрную доску, применить следующее:
          а) немедленное прекращение подвоза товаров и полное прекращение кооперативной и государственной торговли на месте и вывоз из кооперативных лавок всех наличных товаров;
          б) полное запрещение колхозной торговли, как для колхозов, колхозников, так и единоличников;
          в) прекращение всякого рода кредитования и досрочное взыскание кредитов и других финансовых обязательств;
          г) изъятие органами ОГПУ контрреволюционных элементов, организаторов саботажа хлебозаготовок и сева.

          Предупредить жителей станиц, занесенных на чёрную доску, что в случае продолжения саботажа сева и хлебозаготовок краевыми организациями будет поставлен перед правительством вопрос об их выселении из пределов края в северные области и заселении этих станиц добросовестными колхозниками, работающими в условиях малоземелья и на неудобных землях в других краях».

          Once again, my apologies that the text in Russian. In short, the hamlets that were blacklisted were forbidden from organizing market trade and receiving loans. Where did you find “surrendering fifteen times the amount of grain”?

          Even after the annual requisition target for 1932 was met in late January 1933, collection of grain continued.

          That’s not true. Initial targets were never met, the quotas were lowered several times. Grain requisition stopped in Ukraine in January 1933, after that only the grain intended for sowing was procured.

          As of 14 January 1933 Soviet citizens had to carry internal passports in order to reside in cities legally.

          Once again, not true. Here’s the original decree. It introduced passports only for citizens of Moscow, Leningrad and Kharkov.

          I agree, peasantry was treated extremely harshly during the famine, basically it was sacrificed instead of city population, but Ukraine recieved no special treatment. In the end what matters is how much grain were procured in Ukraine compared to other regions. Here’s you’ll find all the figures:

          • Foppe says:

            I get the feeling you’ve confused Snyder’s quotes with my statements a bit, but thanks for the reply and the links.
            See the following amazon review for a nice discussion of the points discussed:
            What I found most frustrating reflecting on the book after I’d finished it was the fact that Snyder’s discussion of the German context is rather more detailed than his discussion of the Soviet one; but I figured it was mostly due to the lack of source material available. This review suggests that there might be a bit more to it, though the reviewer isn’t quite sure what to make of it himself.

            I have no idea where Snyder found the “15 times” amount, but the footnote at the end of the paragraph lists these sources: Shapoval, “Proloh trahedii holodu,” 162; Maksudov, “Victory,” 188; Marochko, Holodomor, 171; Werth, Terreur, 123.

            • Foppe says:

              (Mind you, I simply do not have the necessary background to judge how factual the review I linked to is, so it may well be that this review by Kunikov is unfair in other ways; though I agree with him that Snyder is a bit too fond of comparisons, and says relatively less about the baltics. But again, I have no idea why that might be: death of sources or something else. In conclusion, I would suggest that this is a frustrating area of scholarship. :))

              • kovane says:

                Yes, sorry, my understanding was that your comment was a compilation of material from different books, as you presented references in the end. You mean that it’s a direct quote from Snyder’s book? Well, as I said, the aspiration to present WW2 and all its attendant horrors as the child of two monstrous evil empires and two dictators keeps awake at nights many politicians, and there’s no lack of Cold War warriors to answer the call. Snyder seems to be one of them. Unfortunately, the USSR was rather a reticent country and some bits of solid information began to appear only after 1989, and that gave wide scope to different speculations and blatant lies. Stalin was an absolutely ruthless dictator, but he always pursued rational goals that were beneficial to the country (or at least he thought that they were). I have no idea how the death of 8 million people would have been of use to Stalin, and if it somehow was, why did he stop only on one famine?

                I noticed that Snyder heavily relies on the research of other authors, but that’s a very slippery path, especially given the scarcity of information about the Soviet period. But I guess he is not worried about that. I don’t think that particular area of scholarship is frustrating, it’s just greatly politicized, that’s all.

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