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A Geography of Murder

I earlier had meant to link over to this holocaust article by Timothy Snyder published in the New York Review of Books, which although a few weeks old, still seems relevant given yesterday’s news of the Russian government shutting down yet another history resource, www.hrono.info.  Snyder’s article explores how certain dominant works skew our understanding of Germany’s war crimes toward Auschwitz and Birkenau and those of Joseph Stalin toward only the gulags of the East (given the hostile reception to the recent film Katyn, we can see that this is still a very contentious issue).  I only excerpt a relatively short amount here – I recommend readers visit NYRB for interesting arguments on the primacy of Soviet victims of Stalin.

Yet as Auschwitz draws attention away from the still greater horrors of Treblinka, the Gulag distracts us from the Soviet policies that killed people directly and purposefully, by starvation and bullets. Of the Stalinist killing policies, two were the most significant: the collectivization famines of 1930-1933 and the Great Terror of 1937-1938. It remains unclear whether the Kazakh famine of 1930-1932 was intentional, although it is clear that over a million Kazakhs died of starvation. It is established beyond reasonable doubt that Stalin intentionally starved to death Soviet Ukrainians in the winter of 1932-1933. Soviet documents reveal a series of orders of October-December 1932 with evident malice and intention to kill. By the end, more than three million inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine had died.

What we read of the Great Terror also distracts us from its truenature. The great novel and the great memoir are Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and Alexander Weissberg’s The Accused.Both focus our attention on a small group of Stalin’s victims, urbanCommunist leaders, educated people, sometimes known in the West. Thisimage dominates our understanding of the Great Terror, but it isincorrect. Taken together, purges of Communist Party elites, thesecurity police, and military officers claimed not more than 47,737lives.

The largest action of the Great Terror, Operation 00447, was aimedchiefly at “kulaks,” which is to say peasants who had already beenoppressed during collectivization. It claimed 386,798 lives. A fewnational minorities, representing together less than 2 percent of theSoviet population, yielded more than a third of the fatalities of theGreat Terror. In an operation aimed at ethnic Poles who were Sovietcitizens, for example, 111,091 people were shot. Of the 681,692executions carried out for alleged political crimes in 1937 and 1938,the kulak operation and the national operations accounted for 633,955,more than 90 percent of the total. These people were shot in secret,buried in pits, and forgotten.

The emphasis on Auschwitz and the Gulag understates the numbers ofEuropeans killed, and shifts the geographical focus of the killing tothe German Reich and the Russian East. Like Auschwitz, which draws ourattention to the Western European victims of the Nazi empire, theGulag, with its notorious Siberian camps, also distracts us from thegeographical center of Soviet killing policies. If we concentrate onAuschwitz and the Gulag, we fail to notice that over a period of twelveyears, between 1933 and 1944, some 12 million victims of Nazi andSoviet mass killing policies perished in a particular region of Europe,one defined more or less by today’s Belarus, Ukraine, Poland,Lithuania, and Latvia. More generally, when we contemplate Auschwitzand the Gulag, we tend to think of the states that built them assystems, as modern tyrannies, or totalitarian states. Yet suchconsiderations of thought and politics in Berlin and Moscow tend tooverlook the fact that mass killing happened, predominantly, in theparts of Europe between Germany and Russia, not in Germany and Russiathemselves.

The geographic, moral, and political center of the Europe of masskilling is the Europe of the East, above all Belarus, Ukraine, Poland,and the Baltic States, lands that were subject to sustained policies ofatrocity by both regimes. The peoples of Ukraine and Belarus, Jewsabove all but not only, suffered the most, since these lands were bothpart of the Soviet Union during the terrible 1930s and subject to theworst of the German repressions in the 1940s. If Europe was, as MarkMazower put it, a dark continent, Ukraine and Belarus were the heart ofdarkness.