Monday, February 21, 2005

Applebaum and Soviet nationalities

I saw Anne Applebaum interviewed on tv today. Like her book Gulag: A History (which cites me a number of time) I found her talk almost completely avoiding the issue of nationalities, race, ethnicity or whatever one wishes to call the Soviet legal catagorization of people based upon their biological descent from specific cultural groups. I personally prefer to call a spade a spade and note that since it was inherited at birth, immutable during life and passed automatically to the next generation that nationality in the Soviet parlance is in fact code for race. Instead she merely talked about the total number of people to pass through the Gulag camps and colonies (18-20 million) and the number to die as a result (3 million). While this has the advantage of giving big numbers it is also misleading. This is like talking about the 11 million people murdered by Nazi Germany without ever mentioning that some people such as Jews and Gypsies were far more likely to perish than others. The fact that Russia and Russians do not pay too much attention to the Gulag (a fact lamented by Applebaum) can be better understood when one recognizes that the percentage of Russians killed by Stalin was pretty small. There are no exact figures on this, but Stalin probably murdered about 15 million people of which maybe 3 million were Russians, about 3% of their population.

Contrary to popular belief it was the non-Russian nationalities that bore the brunt of Stalinist terror and they do remember and memorialize the losses. The Ukrainians come in first numerically with about 7 million losses, mostly from the 1932-1933 famine (Holodomor). This represents about 20% of the Ukrainian population or more than six times as great a per-capita loss as the Russians. Among the small nationalities deported in their entirety to special settlements the losses are truly astronomical in percentage terms. The Chechens and Crimean Tatars probably each lost over 30% of their population due to the deadly conditions of exile in special settlements from 1944 to 1948. This is equal in proportional terms to Hitler's reduction of the world's Jewish population. Almost every Chechen knows what happened on 23 February 1944 and virtually every Crimean Tatar can recite the story of 18 May 1944, even three generations after these horrific events.

To give a total number of Stalin's victims without a breakdown by nationality and then to infer that most of them were Russian is not only inaccurate it allows the Russians to avoid responsibility for their role in the Soviet state. It would be as I mentioned above like referring to 11 million victims of Nazi terror with no reference to Jews and Gypsies and then compounding matters by giving the impression that most of the 11 million were Germans. Such manipulation would clearly be seen as Holocaust denial. I am not sure why otherwise bright people who are clearly critical of Stalin can not understand this.

1 comment:

Alex(ei) said...

Not being a historian, I can't disprove your estimates. I can only say I doubt that Russian casualties of the Bolshevik regime were as low as 3 million. If one applied to the Russian population the estimation method that produced the seven million victims for Ukraine, I have little doubt one would get a far larger number. Definitely so if one does not isolate the 1930s but looks at the whole Bolshevik timeline from 1917 to 1953 or 1985. One could also argue that Russia bore the bulk of the overall burden of terror in the early Bolshevik years but it shifted somewhat to non-Russian ethnic groups under Stalin.

Another important consideration is the damage done to Russia's human capital stock. It would be hard to deny that the terror against Russians was severely dysgenic, targeted both against the educated, talented and creative elite, and against the peasantry, once the nation's foundation. While the percentage of Russians who perished is certainly lower than that of Chechens, the long-term damage of the great terror is obvious to anyone who has lived in Russia and among Russians. Not so for the Chechens: despite the losses, they returned to Chechnya in the 1950s and the 1960s as united and vibrant a people as ever.

My take on this is that Russians tend to downplay the destruction of their nation by Bolshevism, as if indeed they had only lost three million and nothing else. (Plus, Russians are bad at playing the victim.) This may be connected with a popular illusion that Russia was a beneficiary of Stalin's imperialism.