9. The History of the Soviet Union Through Ukrainian Eyes


June 30th, 2020

1 hr 5 mins 25 secs

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About this Episode

Correction: I cannot find anywhere Stalin uses the phrase "internal colonization."
What Stalin did was colonization, and forcible starvation of millions of people, a world historic moral crime. There are no factual errors in the account presented here, other than this mistake about a phrase. Stalin called his crimes "collectivization," a disgusting euphemism designed to cover over his evil deed. My understanding of Stalin's thinking in this period relies on the work of Timothy Snyder, who discusses this point here at hour 1 minute 12:30 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXrqGlgufCA

There is a particular historical subject that Marxists should think through, and that subject is Poland. Poland was historically carved up between Russia in the East and Prussia in the West. It was the bellwether issue of its time, with all true progressives supporting Polish independence from autocratic Russia. Consider this passage from Marx’s inaugural address to the 1st international. The issue of Poland here is considered on equal footing with the injustice of chattel slavery in North America: ““It was not the wisdom of the ruling classes, but the heroic resistance to their criminal folly by the working classes of England that saved the West of Europe from plunging headlong into an infamous crusade for the perpetuation and propagation of slavery on the other side of the Atlantic. The shameless approval, mock sympathy, or idiotic indifference, with which the upper classes of Europe have witnessed the mountain fortress of the Caucasus falling a prey to, and heroic Poland being assassinated by, Russia; the immense and unresisted encroachments of that barbarous power, whose head is in St. Petersburg, and whose hands are in every Cabinet of Europe, have taught the working classes the duty to master themselves the mysteries of international politics… The fight for such a foreign policy forms part of the general struggle for the emancipation of the working classes” - “Inaugural Address” of the First International, 1864 [Anderson, p67] We’ve spoken about the abolition movement and Marx’s place in it, but we haven’t talked about Poland, and its importance to Marx. Our left movement has spent nearly half a century in the wilderness. If anyone reads Marx they do Capital once or twice and that’s it. They don’t know his abolitionism, and they know even less about the history of Marxist ideology and practice in Eastern Europe, in the area between Germany and Russia. This episode is an attempt to remedy this lapse somewhat and to encourage you the listener to take an active interest in this region that has more to do with history than most think. I’m going to discuss the Polish Commonwealth, some of the political consequences of its dissolution which still impact us today and then tell the story of the Russian Revolution from the point of view of one of its satellites: Ukraine.

Let’s start far enough back that we get a good idea for the circumstances that made a thing like Ukraine possible.

The Grand Duchy of Lithuania, later known as the Polish Commonwealth, was a republic that dominated Eastern Europe from the late middle ages to the early modern period. It was a republic of landed nobles with an agrarian feudal economy. The nobles voted for a parliament and a king and enjoyed certain rights and protections. The commonwealth was international: among its nobles were Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Poles and Slavs, and a large diversity of religions was tolerated. Various ethnic minorities settled in and contributed to the wealth of Poland including the Cossacks, the Tartars and the Jews. In 1772 the Commonwealth was partitioned by Austria, Prussia and Russia, with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania destined to be progressively annexed by Tsaritsa Catherine II, and Polish territory stretching as far east as Warsaw falling under Prussian administration. I’ve never quite understood why anti-colonialist studies never include Eastern Europe: it just seems to be excluded from the history altogether. The story of Poland and Ukraine is where landlocked states like Prussia, the Russians and the Austrians had their colonies, and the holocaust is the culmination of that history.

In the early days of the Commonwealth, the Ukraine had been divided between the Lithuanian lords around Kiev in the East and the Polish nobility around Galicia in the West, but in 1569 the Lithuanian areas in the south, today’s eastern Ukraine around Bratslav, Kyiv and Volyn’ were ceded to Poland. The Ukrainian territories then at the cusp of modernity were a mix of Orthodox Christianity, Slavic languages and culturally Lithuanian lords now under Polish domination. The Ukraine became a melting pot in early modern Europe, where Polish became the language of high culture, where becoming Catholic was a route into high society and where the older ways of Eastern Orthodox religion and Slavic language became the mark of a newly impoverished lower class. The best book to read on this topic is Timothy Snyder’s The Reconstruction of National. Quote Snyder: “As Germany was divided among Lutheran and Catholic princes, as France massacred its Huguenots, as the Holy Roman Emperor paid tribute to the Ottoman Sultan, and as even Spain’s formidable power was challenged in the Netherlands and undermined by the Inquisition, Poland-Lithuania alone combined religious toleration, institutional reform, and territorial expansion” (Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations [TRN], p115).

But the Commonwealth was also still a feudal domain, and Cossacks were refused recognition as lords with voting rights. So, in 1654 they joined forces with Muscovy to wage war on the Polish Commonwealth. So it always is, a nation’s sovereignty and security are always weakened by the inequalities it tolerates among its peoples. The alliance between the Cossacks and the Muscovites gave birth to the myth that Eastern Ukraine belongs to Russia. The war between the Commonwealth and Russia ended with the Treaty of Andrusovo where Russia absorbed much of Eastern Ukraine. To Ukrainians this war was the rising up of the Cossacks to defend their rights and Orthodox religion. From the Russian point of view this was the foundation of a Russian empire. The Cossacks understood their alliance with Muscovy as temporary: Muscovy saw it as a permanent establishment of a divine order. This is important because this historical alliance became the founding myth justifying the Czar’s domination of Ukraine and Crimea: it also became the justification of Putin’s meddling in Ukrainian elections and subsequent invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Because Ukrainians opposed this Russian domination, Putin needed to cast the west as his enemy and try to influence our election in 2016. For Putin all of this is necessary because of this treaty long ago in 1654.
Snyder explains to us how back in the 17th century Muscovy was changed by this encounter with the Cossacks of Kiev: “Thus the transfer of part of Ukraine exposed Muscovy to new ideas. Muscovy inherited, along with Kyiv, Orthodox churchmen formed by the controversies of the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and Union… In the second half of the seventeenth century, not before, books were translated in Moscow in large numbers. The source languages were Greek, Latin, and Polish, and the translators were churchmen from the Commonwealth… Having adapted to the cultural attraction of western Christianity in the age of Reform, Ukrainian churchmen confronted in Muscovy a state and a church with limited cultural connections to the Byzantium they claimed to embody. Although Kyivan churchmen had never before regarded Moscow as a center of Orthodoxy, they adapted quickly to the new political situation of the second half of the seventeenth century… After Andrusovo, Ukrainian churchmen sought to draw the support of their new sovereign by recasting the history of Muscovy in a way that linked church and state, and dignified their position. Their cooperation with the Muscovite dynasty involved the invention of Russian history. One Ukrainian churchman invented the idea of the ‘transfer’ of the Kyivan princely seat to Moscow, an idea which came to organize Russian national myth and historiography” (Snyder, TRN, p118). Does all of that sound very remote and unrelatable? Well, yes it is remote, but that just goes to show how dumb it is to claim Russia has a right to dominate the Ukraine based on it, but that’s the claim underlying Putin’s current war in the Ukraine.

After the partitions of Poland of 1772 and 1795 Galicia, a southern part of the Polish Commonwealth, became a part of the Habsburg Monarchy, Austria. In 1783 the Habsburg monarch Joseph II founded a seminary and a university for Greek Catholics, and in the 1830s several seminary students produced a dictionary in the local peasant dialect spoken by Ukrainians there. The Greek Catholic peasants helped suppress the revolution of 1848 in Austria, and in return they were given a limited franchise and formal legal equality. In reality, the Polish aristocracy still dominated local power politics. The Greek Catholic Church became the site of Ukrainian political longing, first for reunification with Russia and a reconnection with Russian dominated Kiev, but more and more for a united Ukrainian nation state. The 19th century saw the unification of Germany and Italy, and a dozen national minorities in Eastern Europe began to develop their own dreams of national sovereignty. At the same time, Austria actively promoted the Ukrainian national aspiration over the Russophilia many Galicians felt. Any such national movement requires a dictionary and a founding set of literary texts. Because Czarist Russia forbade the printing of any such material, the Ukrainian cause was saved by half of it’s imagined geographical area being subject to Austrian rule. Similar literary projects were happening in Polish Prussia around Lithuanian identity, but the Belorussians, who had a distinct language, were not able to produce such a tradition because their entire geography was dominated by Russia. In 1898 the founding literary work of the Ukrainian nation was published: Hrushevs’kyi’s History of Ukraine-Rus’. This book told the story of a people, and was part of a general trend towards mass politics. After the French revolution the dream of democracy, the rumor of popular participation in politics, meant that aspiring leaders of political movements had to find ways to appeal to the masses. It was no longer possible to rule for very long by divine right. The foreign rule of the Polish over the Ukrainians, like that of the Russians over the Belorussians, or the British over the enslaved and native peoples, was often justified by the notion that these peoples had no written history. The History of Ukraine-Rus’ laid out the history of the Ukrainian people. As with so many such projects, a group of intellectuals systematized the language of local people, created literary works from it and then had to try and popularize their productions all in an effort to reveal to people their supposedly innate national identities. The first generation of Ukrainian nationalists were satisfied to promote their interests by agitating for greater minority rights, but frustration with corruption in the Habsburg institutions of power led the next generation to more radical demands. The rise of nationalist ideas accompanied the arrival of socialist politics. In 1890 Ivan Franko, the son of a German blacksmith and a Polish noblewoman “cofounded a peasant Radical Party oriented toward the socialist transformation of Galicia… In 1897 he broke loudly with Polish politics (writing in German) and with Ukrainian politics (writing in Polish). Already a friend of Hrushevs’kyi, Franko now became his protege. On Christmas Eve, 1899, the two men and the other leaders of a new National Democratic party published an appeal to all classes of Ukrainian society for the general endeavor of national sovereignty… By 1900, Franko was an advocate of Ukrainian independence with what he and others of his generation called ‘ethnographic’ borders. Like Franko, many of the leading Galician Ukrainian national activists in 1900 had been socialists ten years before. This was exceedingly common in the Europe of the day, not least in Poland...The general connection between the seemingly contradictory ideas of socialism and nationalism is that the idealistic faith in the yet untried people; the particular impulse that pushed Ukrainian activists from socialism to nationalism was real competition with the Poles. Ukrainians influenced by Drahomanov believed that Ukrainian socialism would arise from the Ukrainian people, Polish socialism from the Polish people, and so on.” (Snyder TRN, pp130-131).

The Ukraine was a contested battlefield throughout WWI and the Russian Civil War. After the Russian Revolution, Ukrainians felt optimistic enough to declare the existence of an independent state, but such was not their fate. After Lenin’s failed military adventure in Poland, during which the Ukrainians fought with Poland, Poland and Russia signed the treaty of Riga, whereby the Ukraine was divided much as it had been before the war, except whereas before it was divided between Czarist Russia and the Habsburgs, it was now divided between Soviet Russia and Poland. In the middle 20s Stalin brought direction of Ukraine’s economy under the control of the central soviet. All property became state property, and all state property was managed from Moscow. As we pointed out whilst discussing the Russian Revolution as a democratic movement, Stalin was able to exploit the situation of the early 20s to consolidate absolute power. Although the left opposition represented a large part of the Russian population, it lost the contest for power, with disastrous consequences for the Ukraine. But how do we know that the Ukraine’s fate would have been any different if Lenin had lived to see the 30s, or if Trotsky of Rakovsky had gotten the upper hand in 1927? We know what difference it would have made because of Lenin’s final testament.

1921 in the USSR saw the ban on parties, but it was also the beginning of a long physical decline for Lenin. While he did not seem to comment on the need to revive democratic traditions in the party and in the soviets, Lenin was clearly repulsed by the Russian chauvinism he perceived in Stalin towards the smaller nations that had historically been part of the Russian empire, specifically in Georgia and the Ukraine (Hensman 52-63).

If Germany was an ideological blindspot for Lenin, his final writings, the so-called Testament that was largely unpublished before 1956, show a Lenin that clearly understood two things: (1) that the socialist revolution would have to spread to Asia, and (2) that the new socialist project would succeed or fail based on how it managed a transition away from Russian Empire. Later, we will discuss American attempts in the 20th century to transition away from Empire. The whole 20th century is the story of unraveling Empire. Lenin urged that Russia should protect the autonomy of Russia’s former possessions. As he declined, Stalin ascended by a series of cunning political maneuvres. As General Secretary, Stalin led a diplomatic effort to force Georgia into economic unification with Russia. In one meeting, Stalin’s envoy Ordzhonikidze, whom I assume history has forgotten bc his name is so difficult to pronounce, physically assaulted his Georgian counterpart. Rohini Hensman writes: “Alarmed by a letter from an old Georgian communist accusing Ordzhonikidze of threatening them, Lenin sent Alexei Rykov to Georgia to investigate. Rykov returned and reported back to Lenin in early December 1922, and Lenin was deeply upset by the ‘image of a Communist governor behaving like a satrap in a conquered country” (Hensman, p55). Lenin stated in no uncertain terms that Russian nationalist chauvinism was the gravest threat to the Communist effort, equal only to the threat posed by Western aggression: “We, nationals of a big nation, have nearly always been guilty, in historic practice, of an infinite number of cases of violence… That is why internationalism on the part of oppressors or ‘great’ nations, as they are called (though they are great only in their violence, only great as bullies), must consist not only in the observance of the formal equality of nations but even in an inequality of the oppressor nations, the great nation, that must make up for the inequality which obtains in actual practice. Anybody who does not understand this has not grasped the real proletarian attitude to the national question… The need to rally against the imperialists of the West, who are defending the capitalist world, is one thing. There can be no doubt about that and it would be superfluous for me to speak about my unconditional approval of it. It is another thing when we ourselves lapse, even if only in trifles, into imperialist attitudes towards oppressed nationalities, thus undermining all our principled sincerity, all our principled defence of the struggle against imperialism. “ (Lenin, Letter to the Party Conference, Dec. 30-31 1923, Hensman, p58)

Instead, Stalin set out in 1928 on a process of forced collectivization in the Ukraine, a decision that would ultimately lead to the deaths by starvation of around 6 million Ukrainians. By 1924 it was clear that the Bolshevik revolution was not going to spread into western Europe. The original Bolshevik line that the revolution would have to spread internationally to succeed seemed to have been decided, and as Stalin got rid of people like Trotsky who wanted greater democracy in the USSR, he began pursuing what was euphemistically called “Socialism in one country.” Behind closed doors Stalin called this policy “internal colonization,” because it was thought that in order for a nation to enter the industrial age it would need to exploit colonies. Because Stalin imagined the Ukraine was internal to the Soviet Union, internal colonization just meant actually colonizing the Ukraine, which of course is just regular imperialism exactly the way that Czarist Russia had occupied the Ukraine since 1772. Collectivization is the name he gave for the process of state seizure of farmland, forcing peasants to work it and then taking the crops as state property. During the Russian Civil War days, from 1918 through 1921, the Bolsheviks had fought against peasant uprisings in an attempt to secure enough food to keep starvation from killing first the factories and then the workers. Peasants who hoarded grain while the peoples of the USSR starved to death were called Kulaks, a word meaning tight fisted. The kulaks were people whose greed exacerbated the generalized starvation engulfing the Slavic world since the Czar had plunged all of Europe into WW1, and Lenin was right to fight against them on a case by case basis. Things had changed by 1930 when Stalin announced his intention of completely liquidating the Kulak class. What he meant by that was mass murder in order to impose state ownership on the whole of the agricultural output. It’s worth dwelling a moment on the nature and scope of Stalin’s crimes, because people often shrug and admit that it was bad without having any idea of how bad it was. Timothy Snyder describes what the policy meant in practice in his excellent book Bloodlands, Europe Between Hitler and Stalin [BL]: “The troika, composed of a member of the state police, a local party leader, and a state procurator, had the authority to issue rapid and severe verdicts (death, exile) without the right to appeal. Local party members would often make recommendations: ‘At the plenums of the village soviet,” one local party leader said, ‘we create kulaks as we see fit.’ Although the Soviet Union had laws and courts, these were now ignored in favor of the simple decision of three individuals. Some thirty thousand Soviet citizens would be executed after sentencing by troikas. In the first four months of 1930, 113,637 people were forcibly transported from Soviet Ukraine as kulaks. Such an action meant about thirty thousand peasant huts emptied one after another, their surprised inhabitants given little or no time to prepare for the unknown. It meant thousands of freezing freight cars, filled with terrified and sick human cargo, bound for destinations in northern European Russia, the Urals, Siberia, or Kazakhstan. It meant gunshots and cries of terror at the last dawn peasants would see at home; it meant frostbite and humiliation on trains, and anguish and resignation as peasants disembarked as slave laborers on the taiga or the steppe… All in all, some three hundred thousand Ukrainians were among the 1.7 million kulaks deported to special settlements in Siberia, European Russia, and Kazakhstan.” (Snyder, BL, pp26-27). Like Robespierre, Stalin was imposing state power on society: this was the culmination and natural outcome of a socialist movement that in the early 20s had given up on democratic organizing and given free reign to its desires to impose “utopia” on humanity from above. Party activists communicated to peasants that Stalin had a 1st Commandment: the grain belongs first of all to the state and after that can be given to the peasants. The peasants knew the 1st commandment was “thou shalt have no God before me,” and they understood the new regime as a reimposition of feudalism by the State. Other examples where the state takes over as the boss in an older labor form include the Italian Republic in southern Italy and the 13th Amendment whereby slavery was outlawed in the US unless someone went to prison. The peasants of Ukraine rose up against the new system of peonage, but the rebellion was crushed. The worst of the repression happened in 1930 after the crop had been planted, and that year’s crop was particularly bountiful. Bad weather and the mass deportation of Ukraine's best farmers assured the next year’s crop yield would be much worse. Stanislaw Kosior reported in August of 1931 that yields would be low, but his superior Lazar Kaganovich told him the problem was theft, so Kosior intensified repression. The peasants, having no choice, met their quota by handing over their seed grain: at that point they were sabotaging the next year’s yield under threat from the state. By July of 1932 party leaders in the Ukraine had successfully communicated to Stalin that a famine had begun there and that Soviet policies were going to make it worse. The documentation of these facts is now indisputable, thanks to the empirical data and private letters made available after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Stalin decided that if collectivization was failing it was the fault of the peasants, that they should be starved in collective punishment and that above all the problem should be hidden from view of the world lest the reputation of socialism should be tarnished. What a sick joke. Local party leaders in the Ukraine who complained were sacked and deported, and their calls for Red Cross intervention were ignored. Unlike Lenin, who in 1921 asked for and received international aid for famine victims in the USSR, Stalin didn’t see the people’s wellbeing as the source of his right to rule. His right to rule was his power over the truth and over life and death. “Stalin had developed an interesting new theory: that resistance to socialism increases as its successes mount, because its foes resist with greater desperation as they contemplate their final defeat. Thus any problem in the Soviet Union could be defined as an example of enemy action, and enemy action could be defined as evidence of success. Resistance to his policies in the Soviet Ukraine, Stalin argued, was of a special sort, perhaps not visible to the imperceptive observer. Opposition was no longer open, for the enemies of socialism were now ‘quiet’ and even ‘holy.’ [here Snyder quotes Stalin] The ‘kulaks of today,’ he said, were ‘gentle people, kind, almost saintly.’ [unquote] People who appeared to be innocent were to be seen as guilty. A peasant slowly dying of hunger was, despite appearances, a saboteur working for the capitalist powers in their campaign to discredit the Soviet Union. Starvation was resistance, and resistance was a sign that the victory of socialism was just around the corner. These were not merely Stalin’s musings in Moscow; this was the ideological line enforced by Molotov and Kaganovich as they traveled through regions of mass death in late 1932.” (Snyder, BL, p41). Such terribly distorted reasoning was only possible in 1932 because over the course of the previous decade the ban on factions had become a permanent institution, because public and even private debate was radically precluded, and everyone who disagreed with Stalin had been sent into exile, including nearly all of the original Bolshevik revolutionaries: Kamenev, Rykov, Rakovsky, Zinoviev and Trotsky. All of these men had opposed Stalin’s plan of forced collectivization. All of them had been labeled enemies. We are far indeed from Marx’s tenure in the garden of Epicurus where events in the heavens have a multitude of explanations, and where this whole plurality of voices is needed to reach an understanding of the world. Stalin isn’t in the same category as the socialists of the Paris Commune who demanded complete freedom of the press.

In politics we often find we have enemies, but having an enemy shouldn’t become the foundation of our politics. When we replace the foundation of love for the people with the foundation of hatred for our enemies, we end up in this place where Stalin is, we end up justifying any sacrifice, even the people we supposedly love, and we lose our most important ability: to change our mind when confronted with new evidence. What’s more, when we are absolutely set on defeating an enemy rather than on gaining for our loved ones, the logic of the absolute enemy takes over our enemies as well, making compromise impossible. The mass starvation of the Ukraine became a talking point in Hitler’s political campaigns, and fed his rise to power. Stalin would later use the fact that the USSR was invaded by Hitler, and had beaten Hitler back, to retroactively justify the famine in the Ukraine.

At this point the historical ties between Ukraine and Poland become important. Many Ukrainians began to flee the Ukraine to Poland where they pleaded with Polish authorities to get the word out to the rest of the world and to do something. 85,000 ethnic Poles were murdered in the Soviet Union between 1937 and 1938, under suspicion of plotting against socialism. Foreign nations were considered to exist on the other side of a class line: if someone had a connection to Poland they were thought to have a loyalty to global capitalism as such. This may sound outlandish, but later when we dig into the politics of the Party for Socialist Liberation, the PSL, we will find this same kind of reasoning involving proletariat and bourgeois nations. Though Stalin imagined Poland was plotting against him and against the socialist revolution, Poland was actually trying to find a politics that would let them live side by side with the USSR in peace. Poland didn’t sound the alarm about the Ukrainian famine because they had just signed a nonaggression pact with Stalin, who in 1939 repaid them by splitting Poland down the middle, taking the eastern half and letting Hitler take the western half in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. In order to cover up the world historical crime of causing the starvation of 6 million Ukrainians, Stalin then tried to liquidate the Polish intelligentsia. In Poland, Hitler and Stalin pursued the same policy on different sides of the border: they murdered anyone who could take part in Polish state building: doctors, lawyers, politicians, professors, writers, scientists. They were fighting a war against reason itself in the name of political projects based not on political compromise but on zero sum thinking where success could only mean the annihilation of one’s enemy. The most well known, since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, of these massacres was at Katyn, where 22,000 Poles were systematically slaughtered by an NKVD that had been forged in the forced starvation of Ukraine.
It’s easy when one talks of millions of deaths to lose all sense of the loss involved. Some half a million Poles were murdered by Stalin in the latter half of the 1930s, and each one of them was a human being with a life and a place in the world. We should tell the story of at least one of them to communicate a little what a catastrophe this was. One of the Poles who was arrested and sent to Stalin’s camps was Jozef Czapski. Czapski was taken because he was an artist and from an aristocratic family. He had the remarkable good luck in his youth to discover Proust as an aspiring artist in Paris starting in 1924. There he encountered and befriended many of the people who had inspired the characters in Proust’s novel “In Search of Lost Time.” In the camp where Czapski was taken the inmates, who were mostly scholars of one sort or another, taught each other classes. Czapski taught a class on Proust’s Search for Lost Time. These class notes were later collected, and an English translation was published in 2018. In them Czapski tells the story of the death of Bergotte, a character in Proust’s novel. Bergotte was a writer of popular trash fiction. One day as Bergotte is wandering through an art exhibit he is struck by a painting by the then unknown Vermeer. It is a landscape of several houses on a beach, and Bergotte is particularly taken back by the exquisite attention the artist paid to a certain patch of yellow roofing. The artistic perfection on display, produced in utter isolation and a lack of recognition, confronts Bergotte with the rude realization that the novelist sacrificed the quality of his own art in order to have public appeal. He feels he has cheated himself and his art, and then he dies. The image of Vermeer, the artist committed to creating something of high value in the context of utter isolation closely parallels Czapski’s own experience there in the camps. Czapski would survive the camps and live to a ripe old age. Many other brilliant people did not.

Hitler’s political project, which we explore in detail elsewhere, involved using the German state to destroy the states of Eastern Europe so that his German people could colonize those lands. He explicitly referenced the history of America’s genocide of native peoples as an example to the Germans of how a great people acts, and he specifically identified the Ukraine as the key to the success of his political enterprise. Ukraine was to become the breadbasket of the new German empire, and it’s people were to be for Germany what Black enslaved people were to the United States. When Hitler’s forces arrived at the furthest East places they could conquer, Lithuania, Belorussia and the Ukraine, they found lands that had already suffered Stalin’s so called “internal '' colonization. The people in those nations who had collaborated with Stalin then very actively collaborated with the Nazis, by a vast majority. The crimes of the NKVD were in everyone’s very recent memory, and the Jews were an easy scapegoat. Communists and Nazis both agreed the Jews were to blame, and the former commisar’s in Stalin’s bureaucracy almost every last one of them participated in and often initiated the mass shootings that started the Holocaust. In 1942 Hitler became aware that he would not be able to take Moscow, and he also became aware of the mass shootings of Jews that was being organized by Lithuanian nationalists. It was at that moment when he gives up the idea of sending all the Jews to Siberia or to Mauritania, which had been his idea up to that moment, and settles upon the “final solution.” The image we have of the holocaust, of the death camps, touches on a reality, there really were death execution sites, though typically they did not include barracks or “camps.” The story we get from Hollywood is falsely comforting. The story in popular culture is of death camps and of heros who save Jews from those camps. Half of the people who died in the holocaust were shot, then dumped in mass graves, and the majority of people who had an opportunity to save Jews did not because doing so would put their own lives at risk. It’s crucial that we understand that ordinary people, people like you and me, allowed the holocaust to happen and participated in it because of decisions made that created the situation of the holocaust. Hitler set up camps for his political enemies and for diabled people as part of a eugenicist project in 1933, nearly a whole decade before the holocaust begins. If we think that camps of immigrants in the US are harmless, it is because we have forgotten or never knew this history.

The Ukraine is the center of WW2, though we remember it being a secondary character or an extra in the drama. More Ukrainians died fighting German fascism than did Americans. Timothy Snyder in this excellent speech (
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OTJwCCAF2lA ) from 2017 about Germany’s historical responsibility points out that 3.5 million Ukrainian civilians were murdered by German forces in WW2. Three million Ukrainians died fighting in the Red Army. The Ukraine was the center of Hitler’s colonial project. With the subjugation of the Ukraine under Russia and the mass famine of 1932 fresh in their personal memories, Ukrainian nationalists volunteered to join Fascist gangs in committing the holocaust in order to get the arms to fight later for a Ukrainian nation state. That is not to excuse their crimes, but to understand them. Much of this history was not understood in the West until the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, but Ukrainians would have remembered them as lived experience following WW2. We rarely ever understand the cold war, or the founding of NATO in this context, as world changing events that ended the destructive Russian domination of Poland that had gone on for several centuries. Instead, the left thinks of NATO as western imperialism embodied. Again, this is not to provide apologetics for the hamfisted antics of the CIA in Eastern Europe, but to understand them. Stalin was objectively an evil man doing evil things, and it was easy to justify illegal actions to fight him. It wasn’t easy to tell that the habit of illegal CIA operations could only undermine America’s claims to legitimacy as a world power and claims to being a democratic society. If time allows, a whole series of podcasts should be done about the history of US interventions in the 20th century. For now, we note these issues in passing, finish briefly telling the history of Ukraine to date, and discuss why it’s important today that the international community defend Ukrainian sovereignty. Considering this long history of Russian and German colonization of the Ukraine, and its terrible consequences, it is stunning to witness the current indifference to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that started in 2014! Yeah, I’m calling you out Michael Moore. How dare you belittle the impeachment of Trump, talk about it as though it had no importance, without even mentioning Ukraine, when Ukrainian lives were on the line, when the entire postwar peace in Europe is on the line. We’ll come back around to that.

Inevitably, a discussion of Ukraine has brought us to the question of what to do in the aftermath of the empire? Hitler and Stalin both sought to found an empire by first dominating the Ukraine. Now Putin is attempting the same thing. After WW2 the Soviet Union annexed large parts of Poland, Eastern Germany, all of Lithuania, Czechoslovakia and Romania. In the early 1950s Stalin began gearing up a purge of Jewish people, but to do so parts of the bureaucracy had to be turned against each other in a cycle of mutual recrimination where each party hopes to save themselves by throwing their fellow bureaucrats under the bus. This was the precise mechanism that had led to the Polish purges of the late thirties. By the early 1950s the bureaucrats in the soviet system understood this game, that it meant their doom, and they wisely declined to play it. This does not mean the danger wasn’t real, or that things couldn’t have gone another way. We’ll speak at some length in a later podcast of the shameful role French intellectuals in particular played in providing rhetorical cover for the purges and show trials. Suffice it to say that chief among these traitors was Sartre, who had some idea that a Jewish purge was developing just as he was beginning a strong turn towards support of the Communist cause around 1952. Sartre’s hypocritical silence on this issue is all the more striking because of his previous attention to the problem of European anti-semitism (Judt, Past Imperfect, p184). Timothy Snyder’s account of the rise of fascist ideology we face today, the excellent book The Road to Unfreedom [TRU], includes a vital condensed telling of Ukrainian history under Soviet rule. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians resisted Stalin, it must be admitted with the help of the CIA, throughout the 40s and 50s and were then sent to the gulags. Most of those who survived to see Khrushchev take power in 1953 were released. The Ukraine became a populous center of Soviet industrial production. In the seventies Brezhnev declared that Russia had “really existing socialism” implying that all national differences within the Soviet Union had been transcended, and Ukrainians who resisted cultural erasure in the 70s often were sent to mental hospitals. In 1986 one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters occured in the Ukraine because of the culture of the suppression of the truth that reigned in the Soviet System. If you haven’t watched the HBO miniseries on Chernobyl, you should go and do that after this podcast episode. In order to save the USSR from humiliation Gorbachev needlessly exposed millions of Ukrainians to dangerously high doses of radiation. The discussion of this crime among Ukrainians led to a national discussion of the mass starvation of a generation prior, which very similarly had been forced on them to “save the reputation of socialism.” When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Ukrainians overwhelmingly voted for independence from the Soviet Union. And this is where we begin to encounter associates of Donald Trump in the story about Ukraine.

In earlier podcasts I spent a great deal of time discussing the Russian Revolution, and I did that because in Russia socialists came to power and in wielding power found themselves directly in contradictions that we in the USA have not faced. Wielding power as Marxists, as Socialists and as Communists posed the question of what we are willing to sacrifice to our ideals, because sitting in power always demands trade offs and sacrifices. Even if the Russian revolution because of when and where it happened could only have ended in tragedy, especially so, we must learn from it. In tending to these historical issues we can gradually redeem our movement and the socialist project as such. The inability to come to terms with this past has left us vulnerable in the present moment in ways I want to discuss later in this podcast once I’ve developed the background some. We have to reflect on the crimes of Stalin, because we should know our faults better than our opponents do and because those crimes are a part of socialism that we cannot simply disown. I hope that much has been made clear in previous podcasts. The worst crimes were committed from what Tony Judt has called “retroactive necessitarianism,” which is the idea that because we know how history ends, any sacrifice is justified in accelerating our trip there. In conversation with Timothy Snyder, Tony Judt describes the embrace of such ideas in the 20th century as the infinite breaking of eggs in the making of an impossible omelette.

“This, in my view, is the intellectual sin of the century: passing judgement on the fate of others in the name of their future as you see it, a future in which you may have no investment, but concerning which you claim exclusive and perfect information...All the same, for much of the past century many social democrats who would have been horrified to think of themselves as anything other than Marxist - much less as ‘liberal’ - were unable to make the ultimate move into retroactive necessitarianism. In most cases, they had the good fortune to avoid the choice. In Scandinavia, accession to power was open to social democrats without any need to overthrow or repress existing authorities. In Germany, those who were not willing to compromise with constitutional moral constraints took themselves out of the social democratic consensus. In France, the question was irrelevant thanks to the compromises imposed by republican politics and in England it was redundant thanks to the marginality of the radical left. Paradoxically, in all these countries, self-styled Marxists could continue t o tell themselves stories: they could persist in the belief that the Marxist historical narrative informed their actions, without facing the implications of taking that claim seriously. But in other places - of which Russia was the first and exemplary instance - access to power was indeed open to Marxists precisely because of their uncompromising claims upon history and other people. And so, following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, there was a sharp and enduring schism between those who would not digest the human consequences of their own theories, and those for whom these same consequences were nasty in just the way that had thought they would be, and all the more convincing for that reason: it’s really hard; we’ve really got to make the difficult choices; we have no choice but to do bad things; this is a revolution; if we are in the omelette making business, this is not the moment to coddle the eggs… The kind of truth that a believer was seeking was not testable by reference to contemporary evidence but only to future outcomes. It was always about believing in a future omelet that would justify an infinite number of broken eggs in the present. If you ceased to believe, then you were not simply abandoning a piece of social data which you had apparently misread hitherto; you were abandoning a story that could alone justify any data one wished so long as the future payoff was guaranteed. (Thinking the Twentieth Century. pp. 91,94,97).

Here at the end of a long meditation on the outcome of a very specific type of socialism, Bolshevism, in a very specific context, Ukraine in the 20th century, right here, this is where I want to situate a discussion of Capital.

As Tony Judt explained, there’s a version of Capital that reads like a holy text. According to this reading it lays out an inevitable series of events. The story goes something like this. Capitalists are greedy: they need more and more profit. To get more profit they will improve the means of production, automate as much as possible and drive down the value of labor. As labor gets devalued, the wage will fall and living standards will become unsurvivable. The workers will choose to defend their lives, and they will rise up. When the workers rise up they will form a council government that will organize production democratically. The moral of this story is that we should sacrifice everything to accelerate the arrival of these events. What’s even better, since we personally only have one life to live, is that we force as many other people as possible, through persuasion or violence, to sacrifice themselves to accelerate the coming of these events. I have been developing a stronger version of Marx than this: the Marx who wrote Capital to reject the commodification of humanity, but we have to deal with this other Marxism, for which humans are just fodder for the engine of history.

Finally, let me lift up Victor Serge again. Victor Serge spent his youth as an anarchist in Paris, the son of exiled Russian revolutionaries. Anarchism in Paris at that time was taken by the idea of propaganda of the deed. That meant individual acts of terrorism and/or assassinations of political figures. Several of Serge’s friends received the death penalty for conspiracies, and he was sentenced to 5 years of solitary confinement, though it seems he was guilty of nothing more than having guilty friends. He served 3 years of his sentence and then as German forces threatened France in WW1 he was released. He moved to Spain immediately to take part in the attempted revolution there. In 1919 he moved to Russia to help build the Soviet Union. In the 20s he joined the Left Opposition, and in 1933 he was arrested by the NKVD, an organization he had served in. He spent two years in a gulag in Orenburg, plenty of time to ponder the dark timeline that he had been swept into, plenty of time to ponder the failure of the Bolshevik project. Copyrighted in French in 1939, first appearing in translation in 1981, and then reprinted in 2015 by the New York Review of Books, Midnight in the Century is a stream of consciousness novel about the experience of the left opposition in the gulags. In this book we find the Bolsheviks waxing nostalgic for the days “when there was still freedom in the revolution.” (102). It’s a beautifully written book of historical fiction, full of sadness and hope, and in it the Russian Siberian wilderness plays an important role. Victor Serge is essential reading for understanding how that generation of Bolsheviks who made the revolution, then survived Lenin and were betrayed by Stalin, how they understood their own defeat and what it meant for Europe.

The book is a personal document about Serge’s experience in the gulag, but it is also a political polemic, explicitly echoing Trotsky’s jeremiads warning Europe about Hitler. For instance, he speaks directly to the idea he knows is pushing the German KPD to boost the German Nazi party against the Social Democrats: the idea that if Nazis get into power then the communists can ride the pendulum back to replace them. As I read this passage I imagine that instead of the Social Democrats he’s describing making a common front with the Democratic Party to kick out Trump. “The only chance for salvation is a common front with Social Democracy and the Reformist trade-unions. It’s madness to expect to win the masses away from their leaders, cough Joe Biden cough when the proletarian spirit has become stabilized within the old parties. And when you yourselves are hardly much better than the people you’re denouncing! Bernie Sanders ... There are still some imbeciles who say that Hitler should be allowed to take power, for he’ll use himself up rapidly, go bankrupt, dissatisfy everybody, open the way for us… The time to fight to the death is before he takes over. Once Hitler has power, he will keep it… Stalin gave Hitler his strength by driving the middle classes away from Communism with the nightmare of forced collectivization, famine, and terror against the technicians. Hitler, by making Europe abandon the hope of socialism, will strengthen Stalin. These grave-diggers were born to understand each other. Enemies and brothers. In Germany, one is burying an aborted democracy, the child of an aborted revolution. In Russia, the other is burying a victorious revolution born of a weak proletariat and left on its own by the rest of the world. Both of them are leading those they serve - the bourgeoisie in Germany, the bureaucracy here at home - toward a catastrophe.” (p. 76).

In everything I’ve read about the oppositionists, even when they were in the Gulag, is that they never gave up on the power of collective organization and collective thought, aka free expression, to transform the world. And if they were to be buried in Siberia, they were certain that they were the seeds of trees a future generation would shelter under. Before Stalin’s determination to destroy even the memory of them, they remained defiant. Here is one telling bit of dialogue between oppositionists that must surely be based on a real or on several real conversations: “‘We’re right, comrades. Right, like stones are right to be hard, like the grass is right to grow, for the Revolution doesn’t want to die out. Without us, there would be nothing left of it but reinforced concrete, turbines, loudspeakers, uniforms, victims of exploitation, humbugs adn informers. Now you see it, now you don’t! But we’re here - like the ocean floor, and the trick is spoiled!... Let’s rest in the sunshine for a while. Maybe tonight they’ll lock us up int eh cellar of the Security building. Keep that in mind and you’ll savour this sunshine all the more. I’m teaching you wisdom! One day you’ll die down on a cot ina disheartening darkness. Then remember the sunshine of this moment. The greatest joy on earth, love apart, is sunshine in your veins.’ ‘And thought?’ asked Rodion. ‘Thought? Ah! Right now it’s something of a midnight sun piercing the skull. Glacial. What’s to be done if it’s midnight in the century?’ ‘Midnight’s where we have to live then,’ said Rodion with an odd elation.” (pp. 117,118)

It’s hard to imagine, but I’m telling you, Victor Serge wrote a stream of consciousness novel about men and women doomed to die unremembered who were convinced their cause would win in the end, and he convinces us in the telling that history will vindicate them. Under the Siberian sky, in a kind of enormous garden, Serge’s writing invokes not despair but the infinite potential in nature, the fact that no matter how dark the path may be the natural world holds up for us the image and example of absolute freedom. There is an infinite series of events of which we make up a finite part. Serge writes about the sky as though he were intentionally orienting us towards infinity. One of the novel’s oppositionists is Ryzhik, and I want to end this episode with a passage where Ryzhik describes the Siberian countryside: “‘On the Yenisey,’ said Ryzhik, ‘it was even more beautiful than here. The earth seemed to light up from within. Even before the snows had melted the grasses came to life and light filtered into the tiniest twig, the tiniest streamlet. You walked on light. The flowers have cool, light colours. Only the stars resemble them. You leave the house one morning, you go out onto the plains, straight ahead, for there’s nothing anywhere, nothing but the horizon and the same horizon beyond the horizon. You’re alone, alone like… Ah! I can’t really say like whom, like what. Well, like a stone at the bottom of a well, and you don’t know what’s happening to you. You want to sing, you feel the earth is on a spree. It’s something marvellous, unique; anything might happen. That’s it, you’re going to turn around, just like that, and there right in front of you, in the emptiness, will be a great happiness. What kind? You have no idea, but it's possible, that’s sure. And you do turn around and you see birds arriving. They’re coming through the sky in clouds. They’re coming with great flapping wings, and the light is climbing, the stones have a luminous polish, there are flowers, the steppe is singing in silence. Nothing happens to you, of course, but everything is possible.” (p. 70).


Anderson, Kevin B. Marx at the margins: on nationalism, ethnicity, and non-western societies. University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Czapski, Józef. Lost time : lectures on Proust in a Soviet prison camp. New York Review of Books, 2018.

Hensman, Rohini. Indefensible: Democracy, Counterrevolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism. Haymarket Books, 2018.

Serge, Victor. Midnight in the Century. New York Review of Books, 2014.

Snyder, Timothy, and Tony Judt. Thinking the twentieth century. Random House, 2013.

Snyder, Timothy. Black earth: The Holocaust as history and warning. Seal Books, 2015.

Snyder, Timothy. Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. Random House, 2011.

Snyder, Timothy. On tyranny: Twenty lessons from the twentieth century. Tim Duggan Books, 2017.

Snyder, Timothy. The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999. Yale University Press, 2002.

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