Savage, unthinking mass executions. Unimaginable cruelty and apparent immunity to remorse or even second-thinking, on the behalf of the murderers. AndSavage, unthinking mass executions. Unimaginable cruelty and apparent immunity to remorse or even second-thinking, on the behalf of the murderers. And to murder millions, it took millions of complicit actions, it took millions of people who woke up for work the next morning and went to the killing floor and did it again.
Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler And Stalin examines the period between the War To End All Wars in 1914, and the onset of the Cold War after WWII. Author Snyder concentrates very narrowly on the kinds of national programs that slaughtered so many in the famines and state-sponsored killings undertaken by the Nazis and the Soviets in the regions between them. Belarus, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and the Ukraine. The connected aspect of the Gulags in Russia's east is not neglected, but not the subject here.
This was one of the most grueling books I've ever read. I would not recommend this to the reader whose interest might be described as 'casual'. One way to say that is that Snyder very dutifully steers clear of atrocities-for-effect, and singles out only predominant or telling detail in this very grisly matter--and the telling is still harrowing, disturbing on each sitting. This is hard, cold-case history, not a Huffington Post article. And yet. I would be very surprised to learn of even a well-versed reader who doesn't find new information here, new aspects that stun and appall in this already very infamous narrative.
The reasons for the murders were many, ranging from sadism, suspicion, failure, greed, score-settling and paranoia-- but none of that mattered on any given day. The simple overriding fact was that the programs, whether Nazi or Soviet, were ordered from above, nearly neutralizing any other action but the requirements of quotas and yep, "orders". Soldiers and police who failed to comply were generally shot right away.
The methods were also many, and particular emphasis is placed on starvation and famine, which went a long way toward setting the stage, making life cheap, and making life-taking a mere functionality of the state. For both Nazi and Soviet programs, the Orwellian mechanisms of informants, deceptive assurances, bribery and false accusation were intrinsic. The fear mongering that accompanies any society with secret police circulating throughout-- was fully operational. Orwell's doublespeak terminology originated in these programs, like the now-chilling phrase, "transport and resettlement".
Coming on Treblinka, realizing slowly what had happened, Russian journalist Vasily Grossman wrote that he found himself "walking on earth that is unsteady as the sea". He was stumbling over bone, ash, rags, sacks of hair and some photos, of "children from Warsaw or Vienna" in the remains.
Snyder points out an interesting historical fact regarding the origin of the Cold War. When the Nazis invaded Russia, their non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union went down in flames; one of the Soviet efforts following this reversal was their covert support for anti-Nazi partisans, and the rebels of the Warsaw Uprising, aimed at causing mayhem and uncertainty in the Nazi flank. The Nazis of course retaliated brutally against these Poles and Jews in the Warsaw ghetto and in the partisan areas, killing them on sight, killing their families, burning their houses.
The unanticipated second act to this tragedy came when the Soviet Red Army had come through and re-occupied the region. In due course the survivors were identified, and then efficiently executed by the Soviet NKVD, working on the assumption that any actors in a nationalist "uprising" of any kind were apt to be unreliable Soviet citizens in the years ahead. This was the logic of Stalinist Russia, and unimpeachable, in its way. The western allies in Britain and the US took a dim view of their new Soviet comrade's actions, but had wars of their own to fight, on other fronts, and so ignored the arbitrary executions. That the NKVD had executed western-leaning partisans and jews, nominally the allies of the West--as Poland was-- set the stage for the immediate return to antagonism that would characterize the Cold War.
The record on all of this murderous clusterfuck is still not complete. The twists and turns in the narrative are myriad and, as always, left to the telling of the survivors. Snyder warns of the deceptive nature of these tellings, noting for example that a "deportation" or even an "arrest" or "mandatory evacuation"-- can mean many things to many people, but can still be collated as statistics in service of unknown agendas. Especially by people who may have somehow avoided the war, or at least retained their resources. Or perhaps increased their holdings, land and resources after the conflict, as many did.
The falseness of "closure", writes Snyder, is a "siren song masquerading as a swan song". To which the authorities in the aggressor regimes in the book, I am certain, would issue orders, to find, identify and execute all swans....more
This is a history, really, not an essay. But reporter Masha Gessen somehow manages to make a 3oo page recent-events history feel as streamlined and naThis is a history, really, not an essay. But reporter Masha Gessen somehow manages to make a 3oo page recent-events history feel as streamlined and narrative as an essay, which is definitely no small thing.
It's also a Vladimir Putin biography, which by definition must span the disintegration of the Soviet empire and the reformation of whatever it is we're calling modern Russia these days. With her reporter's sense of what matters, Gessen runs thru the dirty wars in Chechnya, the gross incompetence of the sinking of the submarine Kursk, the Moscow apartment bombings, the Beslan school hostage fiasco, and the incredibly mismanaged Moscow theater siege in 2oo2. Putin's learning curve, you might call it, or just Putin's scorecard. It is an astounding record for what is meant to be a first-world country in the modern era.
Also carefully noted are the means and levers to power, notably the money scams, the shell companies, the media lockouts, extra-legal maneuvers, backstage switches and rule changes that have brought about Modern Russia. The claustrophobia of the surveillance-and-vendetta program as per the Kgb. Also the Litvinenkos and Politkovskayas, murdered outright, in cold blood, in the methodical enforcement of the regime.
"I had written an article... and it was illustrated with the document that I had found--the one signed by Putin. Next thing I knew, there was a man on a ladder parked outside my apartment door--twenty-four hours a day. "What are you doing here?" I would ask every time I opened the door to find him there. "Fixing," he would growl. A few days later, my home phone was turned off. The phone company claimed to have nothing to do with it ..."
The two most interesting factoids for this reader: first, that Putin verifiably plagiarized his dissertation for a graduate degree in economics. Maybe not momentous given the fast, fraudulent climate of 90s Russia, but in light of later developments certainly a valuation of the character of the man. Second, (and fascinating in what we are seeing in his grooming of casino man Donald Trump)-- the fact that Putin very early grasped the value of the casino business in St. Petersburg, where he was waist-deep in that most-slippery of businesses :
When his biographers asked him about the nature of his work in St. Petersburg, Putin responded with the lack of subtlety that had come to characterize his answers to sensitive questions. He had tried to take over the casinos, he said. "I believed at the time that the casino business is an area where the state should have a monopoly," he said. "My position ran opposite to the law on monopolies, which had already been passed, but still I tried to make sure that the state, as embodied by the city, established control over the entire casino industry." To that end, he said, the city formed a holding company that acquired 51 percent of the stock of all the casinos in the city, in the hopes of collecting dividends. "But it was a mistake; the casinos funneled the money out in cash and reported losses every time," Putin complained. "Later, our political opponents tried to accuse us of corruption because we owned stock in the casinos. That was just ridiculous..."
If you're a reader of Masha Gessen in her columns in Slate, NY Review Of Books or Paris Review, you will want to absorb this one, if only to see where she's coming from, as if you didn't know. Worthwhile to see it charted though, in chapter and verse, especially in our increasingly-Russian era....more