UNE SAISON EN ENFER: Holodomor, hell on earth
And this is still life! What an eternal damnation!
Through a daily confrontation with Ukrainian misery and Putin’s madness, the mood oscillates between fuitile anger and helpless hopelessness. What is the fundamental fault of humanity? How can any sensible person imagine that a war of aggression could cause anything but sorrow and devastation? How is it possible that great nations can submit to the will of a single individual? And what might be said about Putin’s defense of the grotesque abuses he and his henchmen are guilty of? To demilitarize and de-Nazify Ukraine? An insult to an entire people. That Ukrainians are carrying out genocide on Russians? In a nation where Russians, Ukrainians, Roma/Sinti and Jews have been subjected to what Putin now baselessly accuses their descendants of and to which they were in fact subjected to by representatives of the regime to which he is the actual heir. That he, Putin the Great, is a knight in shining armour who in the name of the Holy Mother Russia is taking up arms against morally corrupting influences from the West. That this preposterous clown is rescuing Russians from Ukrainian evil. O Sancta Simplicitas! A warlock spinning a web of deadly illusions that now are becoming materialized in the shape of war and terror.
Several parallels have been drawn between the beginning of World War II and Putin’s cynical, armed attack on Ukraine. Not least the West’s shameful way of throwing Czechoslovakia into the Nazi throat for the sake of its own peace of mind. Not to mention the German army’s unprovoked Blitzkrieg against Poland, an unprovoked attack that finally triggered the entire World War II.
At four in the morning on September 1, 1939, German bombs began without any warning to fall on the Polish city of Wielún. It was an experiment – was it possible to wipe out all defences in a short time by terror-bombing a vulnerable civilian population? Seventy tons of bombs were dropped on the defenbceless city, people fled and when German ground troops arrived there were more corpses than people among the ruins. The next day, the action was repeated over 158 Polish settlements. On the tenth of September, Warsaw was subjected to seventeen bomb raids, and so it continued until the middle of the month when the metropolis, as the first major European city to be subjected to something similar, was destroyed and the defense ceased – this after 560 tons of ”conventional” bombs, and 72 tons of “firebombs” had been raining down on Warsaw, leaving 25,000 deaths. However, in the rest of the country the Poles continued to fight on, all alone. Poland never surrendered, neither to the Germans, nor to the Russians.
Admittedly, Britain and France had declared war on Germany, though apart from the French army invading the Saar, only to retreat after a short time, no military operations were carried out to support the Poles, whose army eventually gave in after Poland had from the east been attacked by the Soviet Union’s Red Army. For the next five years, German and Russian massacres of Polish citizens continued.
From the very beginning, the battle had from the side of the attackers been overly ruthless. Neither the German, nor the Soviet army leadership considered Poland to be a “real” country and its army was thus according to them no “real army” either. Consciously the war was waged without any regard for internationally agreed conventions. Hitler advised his soldiers: “Close your hearts to pity.” Prisoners of war, as well as civilians who resisted the onslaught, were ruthlessly slaughtered by both Germans and Russians. For Poland, five years of war and German occupation resulted in between 5.62 and 5.82 million deaths, while during the year the Soviets occupied the eastern territories, 150.00 Poles were killed and 320,000 deported.
To this can be added the terror that Stalin between 1937 and 1938 had inflicted on Poles living in the Soviet Union. In Ukraine alone, 55,928 Poles (and ”Polish-friendly affiliates”) were arrested, of whom 47,327 were executed, in Belarus 17,722 Poles were executed, and in Leningrad 6,597. The contemporary poster below shows how Russian peasants approvingly watch a Soviet soldier clubbing a threatening Polish general.
The slaughter of Poles was repeated during World War II when Polish officers, intellectuals and soldiers were brought as prisoners to the Soviet Union, were they later were liquidated, among several palces in the infamous Katyn Forest – 21,892 Polish POWs were by NKVD members murdered through shots in the back of their heads. Of family members of those killed, 60,677 women, children and elderly were deported to Kazakhstan.
One of the survivors (he never understood why he had been spared) the Polish artist and reserve officer Józeph Czaspki wrote a tragic and well-worded book about how, on behalf of Soviet and Polish officers, he recruited a Polish army, which reached Italy through the Middle East to join the Allied struggle against the German armed forces. During his search for Polish volunteers, Czaspki gradually discovered the painful truth about NKVD’s murder of his Polish officer comrades. In addition to Primo Levi’s The Truce, Czaspki's book is the strangest and best written account I have come across dealing with of the fate of prisoners of war in the Soviet Union. Where Czaspki is bitter and critical, the Italian Auschwitz survivor Levi is more appreciative of the Russians.
Ignoring a long and extremely bloody history of oppression of the people of Ukraine and concerned about the threats of lower living standard and nuclear war we have now taken the seats of spectators to Ukraine’s suffering, so far supporting insufficient attempts to stop a mad leader’s cynical torment and destruction of defenceless women and children.
It hurts the soul of an ageing man with a beloved granddaughter to be confronted with images of the worried little ones, who with their dolls and teddy bears hide in basements, are placed on buses and trains, becoming deprived of all their security, their parents and even losing their tender lives.
If this meaningless and all-too-tangible nightmare, its destruction of morality and infrastructure are allowed to continue unabated. For sure one catastrophe after another still awaits. Half of Ukraine’s harvest, of paramount importance to global food supplies, is at risk of being lost due to Putin’s ruthless war. Last year, Ukraine harvested a record of 106 million tonnes of grain and 25, or even 50 percent of this amount is currently feared to be lost during this year and, most commentators add, “this is an optimistic forecast.”
This is not the first time that Ukraine, “he world’s breadbasket”, is suffering from grain shortages and, despite its wealth – devastating famine.
Amartya Sen proves that despite crop failure, there was nevertheless an adequate food supply in Bengal in 1943, though due to panic purchase, hoarding, military food storage and, above all, an economic boom that had raised food prices, it was mainly landless workers and the urban proletariat, whose wages had not followed the development, who could not obtain enough food. Bengali food production was admittedly lower than it had been the previous year, though more abundant than it had been in years befopre that, when no famine had occurred.
Amartya Sen’s studies of the Bengal famine have deepened in a way that proves him right in his conclusion that famines, generally speaking, are created by humans and can thus also be prevented, or at least mitigated, by humans. Archival studies have recently proven that Winston Churchill’s war cabinet in remote London had been repeatedly warned that a famine was brewing. At an early stage, the British Government was well aware of the fact that an excessive export of rice was likely to lead to a lethal famine, but it nevertheless chose to continue exporting undiminished quantities of rice from India to other parts of the Empire.
London turned a deaf ear when the Indians demanded a promised million tonnes of wheat in return for the exported rice. The warlords stood leaning over their maps and with a cigar in his mouth Churchill observed that the reason for the famine was actually that the Indians bred like rabbits and jokingly wondered that if the rice shortage was so immense, how come that Gandhi was still alive? The war was at the centre of these men’s thoughts and concerns, and in order to prevent the Japanese, who were approaching Bengal from Burma, from obtaining necessary food supplies, huge quantities of rice were brought away from the border areas, while thousands of boats were confiscated.
At the thought of Churchill and his associates leaning over their maps predicting and planning how the War would continue and unfold, I cannot help thinking of a poem by Anna Akhmatova, the undisputed poetess of the Soviet Union, who survived the siege of Leningrad, whose two husbands were executed and whose son spent more than ten years in Stalin’s Gulag camps. In a poem Akhmatova writes about the immense suffering behind figures, abstract data, figures and statistics:
I would like to call you all by name,
but the list has been removed
and there’s nowhere else to look.
I've woven them a shroud
prepared from poor words,
those I overheard.
I will always remember them, everywhere.
I will not forget them,
not even among new sorrows.
The cruel and emotionally cold attention with which leaders and rulers lean over maps, without a thought about the suffering they are causing through their hasty, strangely indifferent and yet fateful decisions.
According to Amartya Sen, it is the inability of those in power, or even worse – their reluctance to act in the public interest by guaranteeing freedom for food producers, which cause mass starvation. Of course, Sen has been contradicted from various quarters, but I am convinced that he was right that it is people’s general reluctance to help each other that causes starvation and a lack of understanding that it is actually a fair distribution of resources that guarantees that our general welfare may protect us from war and famine.
Amartya Sen writes about the need for a ”new human psychology”, which continuously would take into account how
politics and psychology affect each other. People can indeed be expected to resist political barbarism if they instinctively react against atrocities. We have to be able to react spontaneously and resist inhumanity whenever it occurs. If this is to happen, the individual and social opportunities for developing and exercising moral imagination have to be expanded.
Deadly hunger is among the most degrading sufferings that may affect a human being. Paralysing hunger does not lead to rebellion. Most people plagued by an all-consuming hunger are forced into an animalistic, instinctive, all-encompassing quest for survival. During a famine, people experience months of indescribable suffering, weakened by hunger pangs that might lead to insanity, paralysis, and eventually death. Entire social systems are affected not only by food shortages, but lack of morals, ”decency”, and compassion. Crime, violence, and emotional insensitivity spread throughout the social body, being replaced by a ruthless struggle of all against all, a desperate battle for your own survival.
Inside the Gulag and the killing fields of the Stalin era, as well as in nNazi death camps and occupied territories, starvation reigned, paired with freezing cold, vulnerability and the fact that people died like insects around those still able to preserve a spark of humanity. Within that glimmer of compassion there could still be a flickering belief in your own and others’ love and compassion. When you were forced to give up everything you previously thought and hoped for, could you still care for others? Some tough indivuals beacme engaged in a struggle not to disappoint yourself and forget about others for the sake of your own survival. Some clinged to a hope that everything would come to an end, a belief that you would finally make it alive. That you, and maybe even your loved ones would mange to survive and overcome Hell with so much strength and dignity left that you could endure an effort to be able to live again. I think very few were privileged to receive such a grace. Those who could tell of a miracle were the those who had survived – they knew that a miracle was the only reason why they had not perished.
Not everyone pass through hunger and torment as if they were animals, though many, probably most of them, suffer severely from hopelessness, which in addition to physical pain force them into shame and despair. It is not without reason that cynical rulers might consider hunger to be an effective means of crushing their enemies, bringing reluctant subordinates to their knees, pacifying and paralysing them through hunger and despair. Hunger is a weapon for the powerful and a bottomless shame for the destitute.
When I worked at Swedish International Development Agency (Sida), I was by my colleagues asked to be helpful in arranging an entertainment for the Agency’s Stockholm staff. I jumped at the opportunity to perform a role I always had dreamed of impersonating – The Master of Ceremonies, MC, in Kandor’s and Ebb’s magnificent Cabaret. Together with my colleagues I created a number revue as if it were a more modern variant than the one presented at the Kit Kat Klub in Berlin and we sang and danced. Before that, I had several times watched Bob Fosse’s unforgettable film version and knew every song number by heart. My absolute favourite was and still is Money, Money! which includes the lyrics:
When you haven't any coal in the stove
And you freeze in the winter
And you curse to the wind at your fate
When you haven't any shoes on your feet
Your coat's thin as paper
And you look 30 pounds underweight
When you go to get a word of advice
From the fat little pastor
He will tell you to love evermore
But when hunger comes to rap
Rat-a-tat rat-a-tat at the window
(At the window!)
Who's there? (hunger) oh, hunger!
See how love flies out the door.
The musical takes place in 1931, two years before the great famine hit Ukraine. The beginning of a monumental bloodbath that once more would wash over the constantly disputed areas between the German and Russian/Soviet empires. Tormenting the inhabitants of areas which came to be called The Blood Lands. In Bolshevik Ukraine Amartya Sen’s views could impossibly be counter-argued. There, mass starvation was for sure caused and exacerbated by an undemocratic, entirely totalitarian policy.
Around the the towns and shtetles are bandit packs, insurgents, groups, mobs, or simply peasants with pitchforks and scythes, with various slogans, with all sorts of demands, or with out all these gauze curtains [pretence]; – all of them beat, torture, mutilate Jews. There are many dozens of chieftains. Almost all of them have nicknames borrowed from the folk tales or pulp fiction.
Some grotesque and strange scenes in Sergei Eisenstein’s film The Strike from 1925, does however suggest the presence of a criminal world, in the midst of big Soviet cities. A police spy seeks out a gangster boss who with his large retinue resides in a cemetery. The whole thing is played out as a kind of farce, a bizarre and actually rather disgusting pantomime, like a social realistic overplayed Commedia dell Arte. The gangster appears as a kind of vaudeville tramp, once a common trope in music halls and movie sketches. He is courted by a submissive dwarf and “his people” living in large barrels, buried and lined up in a field, or under gravestones. They are portrayed as obscenely absurd and hardly human beings, a lumpen proletariat which willingly lends itself to spoiling the workers’ attempts to obtain decent wages and working conditions. Even if Esienstein describes it all as taking place during the old, wretched tsarist era, it nevertheless has a contemporary touch to it.