Tuesday, 30 October 2018

The Soviet Vacuum

I’m about two-thirds into Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar. It’s not my usual time period, as regular readers will have noticed, but I’m finding it engaging, and grimly enthralling in parts.

And yet, there’s a nagging irritation. Not with the book. It’s well-written and well worth reading, but with my own vast ignorance. Consider Yezhov and Beria. I’d venture to guess most of you have never heard of them, yet have heard of Himmler, Eichmann and/or Heydrich, the architects of the Holocaust.

It’s entirely right and proper that we remember and continue to teach younger generations about the Holocaust. That only makes it more bizarre and inexplicable that, beside the vast ocean of Nazi, Hitler, and Holocaust dramas and histories, there is very, very little about the Terrors under Stalin.

We’re not talking small numbers of casualties. In total, millions were shot, or consigned to slave labour in gulags. In stark contrast to the Nazi approach of deliberately targeting Jews (and some other groups), the Stalinist way was simply to have a quota for executions and enslavement, and then for desperately enthusiastic underlings to exceed said quotas. People weren’t killed because of a racial hatred, but to make up the numbers.

Why isn’t more said about this? Why isn’t more of it taught in schools, or portrayed in dramas and histories?

There could be an element of embarrassment. After all, the West (most obviously the UK and US) were allied to Stalin’s Soviet Union in the latter half of the war. That was necessary, but it’s never comfortable allying with a genocidal tyrant. Yet, the USSR was an enemy at the war’s start, and afterwards, so I’m not sure that argument holds water.

I asked the question on Twitter (https://twitter.com/MorrisF1/status/1056835920702390272), specifically about dramas, and received a number of interesting answers, including one that the US (when the atrocities became known) didn’t want to see another McCarthy to arise and didn’t comment much on them. (For those interested, a couple of interesting suggestions were made, including Burnt By The Sun and Stalin (Robert Duvall), and the book All Stalin’s Men by Medvedev Roy Aleksandrovich).

Might it be because we never had a conclusive climax to a hot war? The Nazis were smashed, ultimately, in a decisive defeat against the Allied powers. The USSR collapsed in the latter years of the 20th century. It wasn’t conquered by external armies, and it didn’t surrender to the Allies.

Nevertheless, the lack of media programming is still a void, a gaping chasm that should be filled with histories and dramas. There are some fools in the UK today who actually march quite happily under banners of Lenin and Stalin, the hammer and sickle flying on red flags above them.

We would not see this without excoriation it if those on the right marched beneath swastikas and Hitler banners. And those comparisons are very apt. The atrocities were, to a large extent, concurrent (1930s and 1940s), and the numbers involved were comparable.

It’s a little depressing when people know nothing of the Western or Eastern Roman Empires, or are unfamiliar with even basic dates like 1066. But when they’re totally unaware of atrocities carried out within living memory it’s alarming. Our best hope of avoiding a repetition of the tragedies of the past is if we’re aware of them.


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