Putin Wants to Undo Soviet Collapse

Monday, 17 Mar 2014 03:41 PM

By George Will

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While Vladimir Putin, Stalin's spawn, ponders what to do with what remains of Ukraine, remember: Nine years before the January 1942 Wannsee Conference, at which the Nazis embarked on industrialized genocide, Stalin deliberately inflicted genocidal starvation on Ukraine.
 
To fathom the tangled forces, including powerful ones of memory, at work in that singularly tormented place, begin with Snyder's stunning book. Secretary of State John Kerry has called Russia's invasion of Ukraine "a 19th-century act in the 21st century."
 
Snyder reminds us that "Europeans deliberately starved Europeans in horrific numbers in the middle of the 20th century." Here is Snyder's distillation of a Welsh journalist's description of a Ukrainian city:
 
"People appeared at 2 o'clock in the morning to queue in front of shops that did not open until 7. On an average day 40,000 people would wait for bread. Those in line were so desperate to keep their places that they would cling to the belts of those immediately in front of them . . . The waiting lasted all day, and sometimes for two . . . Somewhere in line a woman would wail, and the moaning would echo up and down the line, so that the whole group of thousands sounded like a single animal with an elemental fear."
 
This, which occurred about as close to Paris as Washington is to Denver, was an engineered famine, the intended result of Stalin's decision that agriculture should be collectivized and the "kulaks" — prosperous farmers — should be "liquidated as a class."
 
In January 1933, Stalin, writes Snyder, sealed Ukraine's borders so peasants could not escape and sealed the cities so peasants could not go there to beg. By spring, more than 10,000 Ukrainians were dying each day, more than the 6,000 Jews who perished daily in Auschwitz at the peak of extermination in the spring of 1944.
 
Soon many Ukrainian children resembled "embryos out of alcohol bottles" (Arthur Koestler's description) and there were, in Snyder's words, "roving bands of cannibals": "In the villages smoke coming from a cottage chimney was a suspicious sign, since it tended to mean that cannibals were eating a kill or that families were roasting one of their members."
 
Snyder, a Yale historian, is judicious about estimates of Ukrainian deaths from hunger and related diseases, settling on an educated guess of approximately 3.3 million, in 1932-33. He says that when "the Soviet census of 1937 found 8 million fewer people than projected," many of the missing being victims of starvation in Ukraine and elsewhere (and the children they did not have), Stalin "had the responsible demographers executed."
 
Putin, who was socialized in the Soviet-era KGB apparatus of oppression, aspires to reverse the Soviet Union's collapse, which he considers "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century." Herewith a final description from Snyder of the consequences of the Soviet system, the passing of which Putin so regrets:
 
"One spring morning, amidst the piles of dead peasants at the Kharkiv market, an infant suckled the breast of its mother, whose face was a lifeless gray. Passersby had seen this before . . . that precise scene, the tiny mouth, the last drops of milk, the cold nipple. The Ukrainians had a term for this. They said to themselves, quietly, as they passed: 'These are the buds of the socialist spring.'"
 
U.S. policymakers, having allowed their wishes to father their thoughts, find Putin incomprehensible. He is a barbarian but not a monster, and hence no Stalin. But he has been coarsened, in ways difficult for civilized people to understand, by certain continuities, institutional and emotional, with an almost unimaginably vicious past. And as Ukraine, a bubbling stew of tensions and hatreds, struggles with its identity and aspirations, Americans should warily remember William Faulkner's aphorism: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."
 
George F. Will is one of today's most recognized writers, with more than 450 newspapers, a Newsweek column, and his appearances as a political commentator on Fox news. Read more reports from George Will — Click Here Now.
 
 
 
 

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