Today I went to the cinema, Cineworld, a round trip of some 100 miles, to see the film Bitter Harvest, a film about the Stalin’s Terror Famine in the Ukraine in 1932/3. The film takes the form of a dramatic ‘love story’, starting in a Ukrainian village (most likely but it unspoken – Cossack) as the Bolshevik Revolution has started, and news of the Tsar’s death breaks. The Revolution seems far away in this idyll and the couple who are the heroes are young children. There is an echo of Tolkien’s shire about the place, very beautiful even if life is hard. Then Lenin dies and Stalin (called ‘Koba’ by his Comrades) comes to power. The local Commissar comes around, backed by Red Army troops, and the village is to be collectivised. All land belongs to the State, as the Commissar reminds everyone, and evidently he has some targets to meet, enemies of the people to kill, kulaks to be purged, icons to be seized (for sale) and Collective Farms to be formed. His brutality is probably only tempered only by his anxiety at which target he has the greatest need to meet, something which diverts him occasionally from the most brutal option available.
The heroes of the film are a couple Yuri and Natalka from that same village. Yuri is one of several artists, he is a painter, and all his friends in his age group are keen to go to the Big City Kiev, some eagerly noting how the State has work for artists. Eventually Yuri goes to Kiev (on his internal passport*), leaving behind Natalka. On the way to Kiev, there are encounters with the starving peasantry, a passenger talks about the famine and gets arrested by the NKVD. There is a constant theme of the starving and dying, with an unmechanised disposal system of horse and carts scouring the streets for corpses for mass burials here and there, and corpses in open train wagons. The starving flock to Kiev, simply to die in the streets. The film is simply and properly unrelentingly grim, and it does not shy from showing the brutality of the Bolsheviks.
Stalin is informed of the resistance to collectivisation and the starvation that his policy is causing, he implements Lenin’s plans but without mercy, and the greater the resistance, the higher the targets become until all food is to be seized. The official line is that there is ‘malnutrition’ but not famine, a lie that Walter Duranty and the New York Times were happy to peddle, the latter partially recanting many decades later.
Yuri in Kiev meets up with his friends, and awkwardly hints and the famine and its increasingly visible consequences. He finds himself working as a painter, with his friends all doing political work, but his art lacks the necessary ideological flavour, his boss is purged (we infer) and he is then fired, working as a ‘rag and bone man‘, sorting through the possessions of the dead for sale, the only growth industry apart from terror. His friend from the village, who has risen in Kiev to be local party chief, shows some perhaps surprising independence, before shooting himself as the NKVD close in. Yuri gets arrested after a brawl, but manages to escape. Yuri’s family have been arrested for anti-Soviet activity after realising that they are doomed in the village as it is collectivised. Yuri meets up with Ukrainian partisans, and manages to spring some of his family. The film gives the impression that there was a significant amount of resistance to the Soviets, and also that people in the early 1930s spoke more freely that you might have imagined. Perhaps this has been overlooked in the face of the apparently monolithic Soviet police state. Yuri and Natalka realise that they have to escape, and they hope to make it to Canada, (long before the Trudeaus starting fawning over Castro). They head for the Polish border before making for a break chased by shooting Soviet Border Guards.
The film is very well shot, CGI is minimal, and barely noticeable. The grimy, shrunken starving hordes are a constant presence, very well done. The clothing and fashion are convincing, and whilst the dialogue is a little forced sometimes, the message that the State is your executioner (which it was) is well put across. It also mentioned famines in Kazhakstan and amongst the Jews in Belarus. The plot feels slightly fanciful, being necessarily at the high end of expectations, not in that it obviously shows a fight-back, but that there was so much spirit in those fighting the Soviets. However, it at least tells a story that should be told again and again.
That the film has had minimal publicity is a shame, even in the cinema showing it, it was not advertised except for a partial listing. In its first and only week, 11 people came to this Sunday showing, the nearest to me at 50 miles away. I enjoyed it, I appreciated it, and it was nice to be somewhere watching an anti-Soviet film feeling pretty damn certain that I wouldn’t end up sitting next to Jeremy Corbyn.
As I write, some speeches are perhaps being polished for the Oscars. I’m sure that the people in this film heading for a border as a matter of life and death won’t feature in the minds of the speech makers, and you won’t hear an actor not called, say, Sterile Weep, making a heart-renching condemnation of the system that led to an estimated 7,000,000 to 10,000,000 deaths.
* per Wikipedia, The Ukraine only scrapped internal passports in 2016.
So said Churchill on VE Day, but in its own way, 25 years ago, 25th December 1991 was a yet greater day, the day when the Soviet Union collapsed with Gorbachev’s resignation as President of the USSR, and so it vanished after the leaders of Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus had told Gorbachev, who had by then become Lenin’s Dönitz, to go away and take what Auberon Waugh called ‘that accursed, groaning slave empire’ with him.
The events leading up to the disappearance of the USSR are recalled in an article on the BBC website, ‘How three men signed the USSR’s death warrant‘ rather lacking in nostalgia for the slaughterhouse of nations. The then leader of Belarus, Stanislav Shushkevich, was a key figure, as the article tells us:
8 December, at 09:00 the leaders (of Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus), with their prime ministers and various officials in tow, gathered for the negotiations – still apparently unclear what they were about to discuss.
The first suggestion came from a Russian adviser, Gennadi Burbulis – and it could not have been more radical.”I will remember this sentence to the end of my life,” says Shushkevich.
“It is the opening statement of our agreement, the only one which was adopted without any arguments. ‘The USSR, as a geopolitical reality, and as a subject of international law – has ceased to exist.’ And I was the first to say that I would sign up for this.”
The agreement would render the Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev irrelevant, while giving more power in Moscow to Russia’s president Boris Yeltsin.
But putting an end to the centuries-old Russian empire and its successor, the USSR, was a big step. Years later, many wondered whether the three politicians were entirely sober when taking this momentous decision?
“According to a popular myth, we drafted our agreement while drunk,” says Shushkevich. “This is completely wrong! Of course, it was a typical Soviet arrangement, and alcohol was freely available everywhere in the residence – but no-one touched it. The most we would allow ourselves was a drop of brandy every time we adopted a new article.”
In the next few hours, 14 articles in all were adopted. By about 15:00, the document confirming the dissolution of the USSR was ready. The next step was to inform the world, and the Byelorussian leader drew the short straw.
Shushkevich goes on:
“Yeltsin and Kravchuk said to me jokingly: ‘We have voted to nominate you to inform Gorbachev.’ And then I said: ‘Kravchuk and myself nominate you, Mr Yeltsin, to call your good friend, the US president George Bush.’
“I dialled Gorbachev’s office in Moscow – but they wouldn’t put me straight through, they kept passing me from pillar to post, and I had to explain who I was over and over again. Meanwhile, Yeltsin, seeing that I was on the phone to Moscow, dialled President Bush. [Andrei] Kozyrev, the [Russian] minister of foreign affairs, was on the other line, translating Bush’s comments.”
For a more sanguine review of the Soviet Union, the good people at Breitbart have provided this piece, full of details of the horrors of Soviet power.
An example of a diary entry from 1920.
The machine of the Red Terror works incessantly. Every day and every night, in Petrograd, Moscow, and all over the country the mountain of the dead grows higher … Everywhere people are shot, mutilated, wiped out of existence …
Every night we hear the rattle of trucks bearing new victims. Every night we hear the rifle fire of executions, and often some of us hear from the ditches, where the bodies are flung, faint groans and cries of those who did not die at once under the guns. People living near these places begin to move away. They cannot sleep …
Getting up in the morning, no man or woman knows whether he will be free that night. Leaving one’s home, one never knows whether he will return. Sometimes a neighborhood is surrounded and everyone caught out of his house without a certificate is arrested … Life these days depends entirely on luck.
And then there was Brezhnev’s abuse of psychiatric hospitals for those who rejected the logic of Socialism, and it wasn’t just locking people up, it was using drugs for torture.
As head of the KGB in the 1970s, Yuri Andropov (who later was General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union after Leonid Brezhnev’s death in 1982), accepted a new theory in Soviet psychiatry which said opposition to the socialist regime was a sign of mental illness.
Why? Because only the mentally disturbed would resist the logic and the truth of Marxian dialectical determinism and its “proof” that socialism and communism were the highest and most humane stage of social development. Those who criticized the system or wanted to reform or overthrow the Soviet socialist regime were mentally sick and required psychiatric treatment.
And the grim reality?
Of all the drugs administered [at the mental institution] to impose discipline, sulfazine stood at the pinnacle of pain … ‘People injected with sulfazine were groaning, sighing with pain, cursing the psychiatrists and Soviet power, cursing with everything in their hearts,’ Alexei told us. ‘The people go into horrible convulsions and get completely disoriented. The body temperature rises to 40 degrees centigrade [104 degrees Fahrenheit] almost instantly, and the pain is so intense they cannot move from their beds for three days. Sulfazine is simply a way to destroy a man completely. If they torture you and break your arms, there is a certain specific pain and you somehow can stand it. But sulfazine is like a drill boring into your body that gets worse and worse until it’s more than you can stand. It’s impossible to endure. It is worse than torture, because, sometimes, torture may end. But this kind of torture may continue for years.’
So remember when people talk of the need to reform or reduce government, it is possible for an entire State to be swept away, without bloodshed, in hours, and whilst in the Soviet Union’s case, the aftermath was economically chaotic, that was because of where they had been, not because of where they were going.
Edit: TM Lutas points out in the comments, for which I am grateful, the following regarding an apparent error in the linked article:
Sulfozinum is not sulfazine. The former is what was used in political psychiatry. The latter is actually used in legitimate medicine. Could you add the spelling variant at least to the article so people unfamiliar with the substance are not led astray? The following two links above in combination illustrate the problem.
The investigative reporters at Bellingcat have produced a very interesting report on the Russian war against Ukraine, including many incidences of the Russian army firing artillery across the international border in 2014.
From Observer (not the leftist UK newspaper, but another site):
The Washington Post reported this week that Kremlin-backed websites pushed “fake news” regularly portraying Hillary and the Democrats in a negative light. There’s really nothing new here for anybody who’s followed Russian propaganda for any length of time. Kremlin agitprop aimed at the West—properly termed disinformation—contains an amalgam of fact and fiction, plus lots of gray information somewhere in between which can be difficult and time-consuming to refute.
Back in the 1980s, when the KGB was pumping all kinds of outlandish conspiracy theories into Western media outlets to smear the Reagan administration, Washington got proficient at countering this sort of nasty deception (the Pentagon created AIDS, for instance). The Active Measures Working Group, an interagency entity stood up expressly to debunk Kremlin lies, became effective at its job, drawing on expertise from various government departments and agencies. With Cold War victory, however, it folded along with the Soviet Union.
By mid-2014, it was apparent that Moscow was up to its old disinformation tricks again, and it was obvious to anybody acquainted with the Kremlin that Washington needed to react to the torrents of lies filtering into Western media thanks to Russian intelligence and its friends in the West. Putin, that wily KGB veteran, is familiar with Active Measures, and his Kremlin has become more aggressive about employing it abroad than the Politburo ever was.
Sweden’s Tax Agency has formally declared Raoul Wallenberg to be dead.
This is long after his disappearance at the hands of the Soviets in ‘liberated’ Budapest, where Wallenberg and others had striven to defy the Nazis and the Hungarian Arrow Cross. Of course, a diplomatic passport was no defence against the NKVD, and whatever happened to Wallenberg, he will long be remembered for his heroism, as should many others be so remembered. I recall reading a book by his colleague Per Anger, who described how a Swiss diplomat, facing an Arrow Cross death squad said something like “So go ahead, kill me, but your man in Berne will hang tomorrow morning.” and they left him alone.
How very modern-Swedish for the tax authorities to be the ones who decide if you are dead or not.
Funny how this story wasn’t made into a big Hollywood movie, just a TV movie, but then again it doesn’t portray a certain cause in a shining light.
I have been familiar with some of the details of a Romanian case, which has taken a shocking turn, and it highlights the mess of the European Union’s Arrest Warrant. Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle, writes about the case. Even the more cynical out there will be shocked at the brazenness of the Romanian government in this case. And it raises a wider issue about governments co-operating to move alleged suspects from A to B and sharing data with one another about their citizens.
Consider a new anti-tax evasion regime called the Common Reporting Standard, under which certain governments swap data to catch alleged tax dodgers. With CRS, there is a presumption that the countries involved can move information around and that this will not compromise legitimate financial privacy. All I can say is “good luck with that”. Abuses will occur. (Governments in recent times have been happy to obtain data from Swiss banks via thieves, for example.)
The UK has an extradition treaty with the US and this has caused controversy at times because of the alleged lack of a need for a prima facie suspicion of guilt to be proven against a person before extradition (instead, a country has to show “probable cause”, which waters the test down marvellously). What may be a crime in the US, for existence (running an internet gambling site, for example) isn’t in the UK. And so on.
The Romanian case in question here is particularly noxious to a sense of justice because of the heavy-handed behaviour of Romania. Its attempt to bully news organisations that are covering controversies, such as arms dealing, is also outrageous – such an attack on freedom of the press hardly meets the sort of test one would have supposed is necessary for a country to be a member of the EU at all. And as long as this arrest warrant remains, I see zero chance of a country such as Turkey joining the EU.
I’d like to know what the UK government’s view is of the case, and of whether any MPs have taken this matter on. Theresa May, the Prime Minister, is not exactly a poster girl for civil liberty, but even she might be shocked at what is going on here. (When she was Home Secretary, she blocked an extradition of a person to the US.)
One way for Mrs May to prove that “Brexit means Brexit” is to ensure that the UK removes itself from the EU arrest warrant process immediately. The reasons why I am so glad the UK voted to get out of the whole wretched structure continue.
Addendum: As an aside, it is also worth noting that these actions by Romania are often typical of certain regimes seeking to crush alleged corruption. Much of the media will applaud this; I even spoke to a fund manager about Romania, who applauded the steps that the country has made against corruption. But as we have seen in countries such as China, anti-corruption sometimes means little more than score-settling or persecution of political opponents or those who are deemed to be embarrassing. (And needless to say, the ultimate case of this is Putin’s Russia, and Romania is to some extent under Russian influence.)
Private property appears to have come under attack in Georgia (Stalin’s Georgia), where a vegan cafe has reportedly been attacked by meat and sausage-throwing ‘Neo-Nazis’ (aren’t they busy, these ‘Neo-Nazis’?).
A vegan cafe in Tbilisi has appealed for public solidarity after being invaded by alleged ultra-nationalists wielding grilled meat and sausages.
More than a dozen men stormed into the Kiwi cafe in the Georgian capital on Sunday evening, the cafe said, shouting and throwing meat at patrons.
A brawl erupted but the attackers fled before police arrived.
The cafe has appealed for public support, saying it was no prank but a case of intimidation by neo-Nazis.
It’s as if Seattle had come to Georgia, and wasn’t welcome. And note the sly elision in the reporting of this incident, linking it with some other, dark forces…
The incident comes amid growing concerns about the rise of far-right nationalism in Georgia.
Last week, hundreds of nationalists marched through central Tbilisi – waving Georgian flags and anti-communist banners, reports said – to mark independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Homophobia is also commonplace in Georgia, correspondents say. The country made world headlines in 2013 when a small group of LGBT activists were attacked by a large mob led by an orthodox priest.
But wasn’t homosexuality disapproved of in the USSR?
So what are we to make of events in Tiflis, as Georgia’s capital is called by some?
Why would neo-Nazis object to vegans when you-know-who was history’s pre-eminent vegetarian?
The Facebook post of the café rounds off with the ominously dreary declaration:
“‘…café is continuing to work and is ready to accept all costumers (sic.) regardless of nationality, race, appearance, age, gender, sexual orientation, religious views etc. Equality is the most important thing for us. Animal liberation! Human liberation! ¡No pasarán!…’
But where is ‘political views‘ in that declaration of tolerance?
The local police, however, appear to have had a beef with the vegan café…
The police arrived only after the attackers had left*, but the cafe said even some of those officers behaved aggressively, “yelled with anger, said that we are guilty of what had happened”. Some cafe workers were taken in for interrogation.
Let’s hope the staff weren’t grilled too unpleasantly by the police.
* In the Facebook post, the café reports that ‘…Surreptitiously Nazis left, got away clean…’.
Reports reach me that the Czech Republic is thinking of adopting a new name for itself, Czechia. Perhaps lingering, but unarticulated resentment at the Velvet Divorce when, like certain types of yeast, Czechoslovakia split in 1993 has led to the Czech Republic hankering after a new, shorter name for itself* for everyday life, giving it a duality like ‘France’ and ‘The French Republic’.
When Czechoslovakia split, I recall one British comedian, iirc Paul Merton, quipping ‘Who gets the ‘o’?‘ at a time when less happy places were engaged in wars over secession, the lack of it, or issues arising. However the rationale for this is at once banal and quite engaging:
The Czech Republic is poised to change its name to “Czechia” to make it easier for companies and sports teams to use it on products and clothing.
How nice for a State (or perhaps a country) to actually want to make life easier for business. Will they start as they mean to go on?
Not all are happy, it seems:
Some have criticised “Czechia” as ugly, or too similar to “Chechnya”, the semi-autonomous Russian republic.
I doubt that the Chechens would lower themselves to the sort of ‘passing-off’ nonsense that we see from Greece over Macedonia.
Does a country’s name matter? I have no idea how the new name sounds to the locals, but to my ear it sounds distinctly odd and unnatural. Perhaps I should go there to see for myself.
* Yes, I know countries can’t hanker, only people, and dogs outside a butcher’s, can.
Cowardice is the main and the worst sin on Earth. Betrayal is a personal form of cowardice… All of your propaganda is working excellently. Most of the Russian population believes what they are saying: Putin is great. There are fascists in Ukraine. Russia is never wrong. There are enemies everywhere… But I also understand that there are people who are smarter—such as you, for instance, here—who support the government. You perfectly well understand that there are no fascists in Ukraine. That Crimea was annexed illegally. That your troops are fighting in Donbas… These are facts that are on the surface… the troubadours of your regime… know everything as it is, but they continue to lie. Just as you continue your work, finding some sort of rationalization within yourself. Probably, they also rationalize to themselves: “We have to feed our children; we have to do something.” But, guys, what is the point of raising another generation of slaves?
– Oleh Sentsov
Last weekend, I landed at Szczecin airport in Poland at around 11am on Saturday. I was on one of my many trips abroad, following my curiosity. I go to places, look at what is normal, look at what is not, and see how the world and the parts of the world I am most interested in are changing and evolving.
I was last in Szczecin in 2007. I even wrote about it briefly on this blog at the time, observing that it was in some ways very weird. As it happens, Poland was much more a post-communist country in 2007 than it is now. At that time a defining feature of the country was that it was an heir of the communist country it had been in 1989. Now, that is not true. Poland feels like a normal developed country. This achievement is magnificent, particularly when one compares it to the countries to its east. I cannot help but think that EU membership has helped Poland in this regard. Most dramatically, it has done this through the free movement of people between Poland and countries further west. People have come to Britain, Ireland, Sweden and elsewhere, have contributed economically to those countries, but also learned languages, skills and attitudes, and have made connections that have been useful at home. The number of people from further west who have developed connections, lives and businesses in Poland and places further west is smaller and probably less significant, but is still large enough to matter.
The journey trip in 2007 was in may ways quite surreal. The final day of it included a brief five minute period of being an illegal immigrant to Germany, and then a dramatic drive in a highly powered car along no speed limit German autobahns (legally in the country this time) later in the afternoon in a desperate and ultimately successful attempt to get to Lübeck airport in time for a flight home. However, that’s a story for another time. This journey was mainly an attempt to recap on what I saw on that surreal trip.
This time, I quickly picked up my rental car, and headed along the motorway towards the city – a port city on the Oder that was Prussian until 1945 and was known as Stettin until then. As is the case with many medium sized cities in Europe, Szczecin’s airport is a former military airfield that was later converted to civil use, and is therefore a little more distant from the city than would be an airport that was built from scratch to be a civilian airport. The drive from the airport to the city is therefore about 50 kilometres.
Leaving the airport and heading down the motorway towards town, I found myself driving past the sorts of things one normally finds oneself driving past on motorways just outside the edges of cities along airport corridors. 25 years after the end of communism, Poland in incredibly normal in respect of what one sees in such places. Warehouses, logistics facilities, light industry, lowish rent office parks, yards full of industrial equipment, rest stops with a McDonald’s a motel, and a petrol station, and…
WHAT THE HELL IS THAT????????????
I saw something strange and weird next to the motorway – so strange and weird that I immediately pulled over to the side of the road and parked illegally on the hard shoulder, put on my hazard lights, and got out of the car to take photographs.
I saw field – a yard – full of new and strange things. Aerodynamic things. Not wings. Twisted things, but twisted far too gently to be any kind of propellors or airscrews. What were they. I have seem many, many industrial things in parks outside cities, but nothing like this before.
Then, however, the full, awful truth dawned upon me. I knew what they were. Possibly this indicates that Poland has gone through being normal, and is now post-normal.
The Poles have of course been encouraged, bullied, and otherwise required by their EU partners to waste resources, skills and time on such crap when there have been much more important things to worry about, both from an economic point of view and a security point of view. From an economic point of view, this should have been obvious since at least 2008, but the crap has somehow continued. From a security point of view, this has at least been obvious since last year. The Polish government does at least have its eyes on the ball at this point. I am less sure about one or two governments of countries a little further west.
Some things take a long time to die, though. Post-normal probably isn’t good.
Bell¿ngcat has proven to be a thorn in the side of the Kremlin by debunking claim after claim about what it happening in the Ukraine. Just take a look at their latest tour de force, in which they compare Ukrainian and Russian claims about Flight MH17 and demolish the Russian Ministry of Defence’s case.
The internet is a truly marvellous thing.
Rather than engaging Russia in a futile pre-modern discourse about race and ethnicity, Ukrainians should integrate into multicultural, multiracial, tolerant Europe.
As for Russia, it would have done a lot better if after the collapse of the Soviet Union it had declared itself a new nation, born on the day it rose up to defeat the hardline communist coup in August 1991. Had it started from a blank page, the way the United States did in 1776, it might have freed itself of its damaging 19th century imperial hangups.
– Alexei Bayer