Wednesday, March 2, 2022




Vladimir Putin and others insist on our understanding the rape of Ukraine in a certain context. The context consists of components including the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe, and Putin’s high anxiety.

If anyone has supplied the context from Ukraine’s perspective, I missed it. I doubt that it’s ancient history in Ukraine. Ukraine’s subjugation by the the Soviet Union was an unhappy experience. Although he chides Stalin for being too generous with Ukraine, Putin thinks that Stalin was quite a guy. He has sought to rehabilitate his reputation. He seeks to restore the glory of Stalin and the Soviet Union under his rule.

Ukrainians see Stalin in a somewhat different context. They recall that Stalin inflicted the so-called Holodomor (“hunger extermination”) on them in 1932-1933. Stalin of course did what he could to suppress the story.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty was happy to help out. As the Times’s man in Moscow, Duranty covered up Stalin’s terror famine in the Ukraine.

Reflecting in the first volume of his autobiography on his experience working for the Manchester Guardian alongside Duranty in Moscow, Malcolm Muggeridge wrote: “If the New York Times went on all those years giving great prominence to Duranty’s messages, building him and them up when they were so evidently nonsensically untrue . . . this was not, we may be sure, because the Times was deceived. Rather it wanted to be so deceived, and Duranty provided the requisite deception material.”

The terror famine is one of the horrors of the twentieth century. The great Robert Conquest was the first historian I know of to reconstruct the story, as he did in The Harvest of Sorrow (1987). Conquest implied that Stalin killed 5.5 million ethnic Ukrainians out of a population of 34.1 million at the beginning of the trouble, or 16 percent.

Peter Wiles reviewed Conquest’s book for the New York Review of Books. They engaged in an exchange about the numbers in a subsequent issue.

Most recently, Anne Applebaum reconstructed the story in Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine (2017). According to Applebaum, Stalin’s terror famine killed nearly 4 million Ukrainians. Applebaum explained that the numbers have been difficult to calculate because the Soviet system tried to cover up the famine immediately after it happened, even going to the extent of covering up and hiding a census that was taken in 1937 (because it showed the large numbers of deaths).

Putin’s anxiety to the contrary notwithstanding, you can see why Ukrainians might not want to be colonized again by Russia or to become Putin’s subjects.

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