Posts Tagged ‘Stalin’

Naimark, Snyder, and Applebaum: When is murder genocide?

Friday, November 12th, 2010

An indecently incongruous setting for a discussion of genocide

On one of those legendary California afternoons, full of sunshine and overlooking the magnificent San Francisco Bay, I sat on the patio of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, talking with Norman Naimark about genocide.  It seemed a incongruous way to spend an afternoon in the crisp air and almost oppressive sunlight, but so it was.

Naimark’s contention, in his controversial new book Stalin’s Genocides: We need a much broader definition of genocide, one that includes nations killing social classes and political groups. His case in point: Stalin. He argues that the Soviet elimination of a social classes (e.g., the kulaks), as well as the mass execution and exile of “socially harmful elements” as “enemies of the people” were, in fact, genocide.  We miss the big picture when we treat these as discrete episodes.

I had wondered at the time, and still, about the role technology in the last century’s explosion of genocidal episodes. Clearly, incidents within archaic society — for example, the Old Testament “bans” where every man, woman, child, and even livestock were killed to remove every trace of a people — show genocidal intent.  But mass communication and mass transportation have made it possible to coordinate deportation and organize killing on a scale previously unimaginable (even in Rwanda, where the weapons-of-choice were pre-tech machetes, radio was used to incite mobs and track victims) – hence the proliferation of genocide in the 20th century.  Often official enablers act on a genocidaire’s momentary whim, rather than the determined aim to obliterate a people.  So what does “intent” matter, under such circumstances?

The subject has come up again with Anne Applebaum‘s  provocative article, “The Worst of Madness,” in the current New York Review of Books.  She reviews Timothy Snyder‘s  Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin as well as Stalin’s Genocides.  She calls Naimark’s argument “authoritative, clear, and hard to dispute.” Snyder studies the people caught between Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia, suffering two and sometimes three wartime occupations: “Between 1933 and 1945, 14 million died there, not in combat but because someone made a deliberate decision to murder them,” writes Applebaum.

She takes the notion of genocide a step beyond motive, examining how two dictators, Stalin and Hitler, played off each other in their hatred of the people in the “Bloodlands” — Ukrainians, Poles, and the Baltic states. The sum of the parts was more than the whole.  The two genocidaires used a synergy of murder to kill more, and more hideously, than either nation would have done alone:

Applebaum: Complicating memory

“To the people who actually experienced both tyrannies, such definitions hardly mattered. Did the Polish merchant care whether he died because he was a Jew or because he was a capitalist? Did the starving Ukrainian child care whether she had been deprived of food in order to create a Communist paradise or in order to provide calories for the soldiers of the German Reich? Perhaps we need a new word, one that is broader than the current definition of genocide and means, simply, ‘mass murder carried out for political reasons.’ Or perhaps we should simply agree that the word “genocide” includes within its definition the notions of deliberate starvation as well as gas chambers and concentration camps, that it includes the mass murder of social groups as well as ethnic groups and be done with it.”

She finally questions the whole notion of “remembering” genocide — an argument which reveals how powerfully language can shape the way we think about reality.  Genocide has come to mean pretty exclusively the Jewish Holocaust, shaping and carving and in many cases eliminating from memory what happened to millions of others:

“Finally, the arguments of Bloodlands also complicate the modern notion of memory—memory, that is, as opposed to history. It is true, for example, that the modern German state ‘remembers’ the Holocaust—in official documents, in public debates, in monuments, in school textbooks—and is often rightly lauded for doing so. But how comprehensive is this memory? How many Germans ‘remember’ the deaths of three million Soviet POWs? How many know or care that the secret treaty signed between Hitler and Stalin not only condemned the inhabitants of western Poland to deportation, hunger, and often death in slave labor camps, but also condemned the inhabitants of eastern Poland to deportation, hunger, and often death in Soviet exile? The Katyn massacre really is, in this sense, partially Germany’s responsibility: without Germany’s collusion with the Soviet Union, it would not have happened. Yet modern Germany’s very real sense of guilt about the Holocaust does not often extend to Soviet soldiers or even to Poles.”

The implications of her reading are many:  For the U.S., World War II was the “good war,” against all the ambiguous or “bad wars” that followed—Vietnam, Iraq, Korea.  For Americans, WWII begins with Pearl Harbor and ends with the atomic bomb.  But Western peace was won by selling out whole nations to our murderous ally. “This does not make us bad,” writes Applebaum, “there were limitations, reasons, legitimate explanations for what happened. But it does make us less exceptional. And it does make World War II less exceptional, more morally ambiguous, and thus more similar to the wars that followed.”

And for Western Europe:  “When considered in isolation, Auschwitz can be easily compartmentalized, characterized as belonging to a specific place and time, or explained away as the result of Germany’s unique history or particular culture. But if Auschwitz was not the only mass atrocity, if mass murder was simultaneously taking place across a multinational landscape and with the support of many different kinds of people, then it is not so easy to compartmentalize or explain away.”

Postscript on 11/15:  Speaking of genocide…  “On Wednesday, al Qaeda militants launch a synchronized bombing attack on 11 Christian communities throughout Iraq, killing six and wounding more than 30. That attack followed on the heels of the ghastly assault last month on Christian worshippers attending a service at Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad, in which 58 people were brutally murdered and another 60 wounded. …  the Iraqi government has done absolutely nothing to protect the besieged Christian community from further attack, despite a promise from al Qaeda in Iraq that ‘all Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers, are legitimate targets for Mujahedeen wherever they can reach them.’  Americans of all faiths must band together and pressure the State Department to do something about the wanton murder of Iraqi Christians before there are no more Christians in Iraq to protect.”  At the Daily Beast here.

Norm Naimark makes his case in the video below:

The curious and complicated history of Lenin’s brain

Sunday, September 5th, 2010

Joseph Stalin slaughtered millions, but even genocidal totalitarian despots need to catch a break.

After all, everyone needs a hobby.  And he had one.  Lenin’s brain.

It’s not like the two leaders had been the best of buddies.  The friction between the two men had become so toxic that Vladimir Lenin, dying from his fourth stroke (possibly complicated by syphilis) in 1924, warned on his deathbed that Stalin should be jettisoned as the party’s General Secretary.

Too late.  And Stalin got his brain instead.

Not exactly buddies

This riveting story is told in 2008’s  Lenin’s Brain and Other Tales from the Secret Soviet Archives.  On his way back to Houston, author Paul Gregory had pressed it into my hands as a thankee after my article on his current book, Politics, Murder and Love in Stalin’s Kremlin: The Story of Nikolai Bukharin and Anna Larina.  One thing I learned after listening to Paul speaking about the book last summer: He’s a great storyteller.  He summarizes the Soviet situation:

The Institute of Lenin served as a repository for Lenin’s writings and for other Lenin memorabilia.  Among its most unusual items was Lenin’s brain, preserved in a formaldehyde solution in a glass jar.  This is the story of the study of Lenin’s brain from early 1925 to 1936 as told by the sixty-three-page secret collection of documents from the Central Committee’s special files.  It is not necessarily a tale about Stalin, although Stalin’s guiding hand can be seen throughout. … Throughout the story Stalin was either acutely aware of what was going on or was guiding events.

The display of Lenin’s embalmed body and the publication of this writings was a PR move to raise the fallen hero to the Immortals — but a team of physicians insisted that his brain receive scientific study.  Not surprisingly, Russians needed scientific proof that Lenin was a genius. This was decided while the body was still warm.

A specimen of the brain was sent to a leading neurologist, Oskar Vogt, at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin.

Embalming: A kind of immortality

Their bad:  “Whether Lenin was a genius or dullard would be decided by a foreigner!” Gregory exclaimed.  Their worst fears were realized.  In 1932, one party hack wrote that the fragment of Lenin’s brain was being kept under intolerable security conditions, without guards, and that no work was being done on the brain in Berlin.

Moreover, “Vogt’s presentations are of a questionable nature; he compares Lenin’s brain with those of criminals and assorted other persons.”  One of the “indices” associated the structure of Lenin’s brain with mental retardation.

Voices were raised against Vogt, bearing the hallmarks of Stalin’s operations. But how to get rid of Vogt without creating an international scandal?

Enter Adolf Hitler.

The Russians had been holding out for their own “Institute of the Brain” — and they got one.   A delegation was sent to Berlin, ostensibly to beg Vogt to lead the new institute – but actually, to put the kibosh on him, while blaming Hitler.

It really does look like a walnut

Vogt had already fallen into disfavor with the the Führer, and his apartment had been searched, his telephone bugged, and any visa to Moscow out of the question (not that he’d been to Russia much in the last few years).  Mission accomplished!  But don’t cry:  Vogt, too, had kind of a happy ending, as much as could be expected in the circumstances.  The German government punished him by drafting him into the army (although he was in his 60s), but he was discharged after six weeks.

Meanwhile, the Moscow Institute of the Brain had not been sitting idly on its hands.  It had managed to collect better brains from better people.  No more would Lenin’s brain be compared with the man in the street, but instead he would be ranked alongside poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, Alexander Bogdanov, and even Nobel laureate I.V. Pavlov, who had died in February 1936 and whose brain could now be added to the collection.

The Institute built the case it needed to:  “Its report cites the indices proving the extraordinary nature of Lenin’s brain, while pointing out that the Institute could provide even more convincing evidence if the Politburo awarded it new funds and new premises.”  Just like academics everywhere.

Meanwhile, the 1936 report concluded with a resounding recommendation:  “The final point is an order to the Central Executive Committee to organize a specialized equipment for the the preservation of the brains of leading personalities.”

A happy ending for everyone, really.

Nikolai Bukharin: The Movie

Monday, July 5th, 2010

A torn picture of Nikolai Bukharin is the only original photo of him at Hoover archives. After his execution, the government confiscated all his records. (Photo: Hoover Archives)

July 1928.  Nikolai Bukharin rose to contradict Stalin at every point.  Stalin’s extraordinary measures had caused grain output to plummet wherever they had been implemented.  Eventually they resulted in a famine that would cost 6-7 million lives, but the immediate effect was unrest among the peasants.  The kulak — Stalin’s favorite scapegoat — was not to blame. The popular leader Lenin had dubbed the “Golden Boy of the Revolution” concluded:

BUKHARIN:  “We must immediately remove extraordinary measures which were historically justified and correctly enacted. They have outlived their time. But we now face a wave of mass unrest. There have been some 150 different uprisings throughout the union and dozens of terrorist acts [he described them].  Middle peasants are deserting to the camp of the kulaks. … We were victorious in gaining Soviet power, but we can also lose it.”

Stalin’s stooge Lazar Kaganovich, party head where much of the Ukrainian unrest occurred, protested that the Bolshevik leader was exaggerating.

BUKHARIN:  I could cite still more such examples given at the Central Committee plenum of Ukraine.

KAGANOVICH:  There were other speeches there.  You should cite them as well.

VOICE FROM THE CROWD, A BUKHARIN ALLY:  And the former general secretary of Ukraine, Comrade Kaganovich, comes here and doesn’t say anything about this?

KAGANOVICH:  Give me two hours like Comrade Bukharin, and I will tell you all and cite speeches.

BUKHARIN:  When Lenin encountered panic-mongers, he said they must be shot to maintain a united front.  But he never said that we should keep quiet about facts. … I don’t know whom I am contradicting.  I only know that I learned about this widespread peasant unrest yesterday.

This is an excerpt from Paul Gregory’s Politics, Murder, and Love in Stalin’s Kremlin, which I wrote about here.  If it sounds like a screenplay — well, you’re not the first one to think so.

“Almost without exception, readers, including my editor, came independently to the conclusion that their story would make a great film — a kind of Darkness at Noon/Zhivago combination,” Paul Gregory told me.  “I sent the book to two producers, both of whom read the book and concluded it should be a movie. An appealing feature for filmmakers is that at least two of the roles — Anna and Stalin — would be exceptional roles for major actors. Their concern, however, was that Hollywood was not financing ‘good’ films these days and was only interested in sequels, comic books, and special effects. They felt it would either have to be made as an independent film or by cable TV concerns like HBO or SHO.”

The reason for the astonishing transcripts, said Paul, is the emergency of a huge amount of formerly secret documents, released from the Soviet archives beginning in the early 1990s; many exist on microfilm at the Hoover Institition, where Paul Gregory did his research.  They include the transcripts of Central Committee plenums (like the excerpt above), stenograms of the Politburo, transcripts of interrogations, correspondence.  (Irma Kudrova’s compelling Death of a Poet also made use of new documents — I reviewed it here.)

“This story is non-fiction fiction. It seems too good a story to be real,” he said.   “I have ten years of experience and could not have written this book without that ten years.  I may have been the only one with sufficient patience to make my way through all these records. I would classify among the more important finds the original transcript of Bukharin’s last statement to the court with Stalin’s edits in pencil, the official record of the carrying out of his execution, his ‘hunger strike’ speech before the Central Committee in February of 1937, his arrest warrant.”

Not new is his final letter to his beloved wife, Anna Larina, which she received 50 years late.  Neither of them ever lost faith in the revolution that executed Bukharin in 1938.

Anna Larina got his last letter 50 years late

Dear Sweet Annushka, My Darling!

I write to you on the eve of my trial…with a special purpose, which I emphasize three times over: no matter what you read, no matter what you hear, no matter how horrible these things may be, no matter what might be said about me or what I might say–endure everything courageously and calmly. Prepare the family. Help all of them. I fear for you and the others, but most about you.

Don’t feel malice about anything. Remember that the great cause of the USSR lives on, and this is the most important thing. Personal fates are transitory and wretched by comparison. A great ordeal awaits you. I beg you, my dearest, muster all your strength, tighten all the strings of your heart, but don’t allow them to break…. Regardless of what happens and no matter what the outcome of the trial, I will see you afterwards, and I will be able to kiss your hands.

Good-bye my darling, Your Kol’ka
January 15, 1938