Yet the greatest crime in modern history, and the bloodiest genocide, have almost vanished from our collective memory. This week marks the 70th anniversary of the Great Terror in the Soviet Union in which tens of millions were murdered or imprisoned.
Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, at least commemorated for the first time what he termed ‘colossal’ Soviet crimes by attending a memorial service at a killing ground near Moscow where the Soviet secret police shot 20,000 ‘enemies of the people.’ It was interesting watching Putin, a former head of the FSB security service, denouncing crimes of its direct predecessors, KGB and NKVD. This was also the same Putin who recently called the Soviet Union’s collapse a ‘tragedy.’ Still, we applaud his long-overdue recognition of Communist-era crimes.
The Soviet terror began in the 1920’s when Lenin ordered the extermination of Cossacks and opponents of the Bolsheviks. Next came Catholics of White Russia, and resisters to communism in the Baltic states and Moldova. Stalin then ordered liquidation of two million small farmers, known as ‘Kulaks.’
In 1932-33, Stalin unleashed genocide against Ukraine’s independent-minded farmers. Six to seven million Ukrainians were shot or died of starvation in a famine created by NKVD. The man who directed this genocide, Lazar Kaganovitch, the Soviet version of Nazi exterminator-in-chief Adolf Eichmann — was made Hero of the Soviet Union and died peacefully in Moscow in 1991. Neither he nor any of the other surviving officials who committed mass murder and torture ever prosecuted for their crimes.
When Communist Party bureaucrats were slow to obey Stalin’s orders to transform the Soviet Union from a backwards rural society into a modern industrial powerhouse, ‘Koba,’ as he was called, had NKVD shoot 700,000 party members. Thereafter, his orders were promptly obeyed. Almost all the party and military hierarchy were executed during the Great Purges of 1937-38, which culminated in the notorious Moscow Show Trials.
From 1934-1941 alone, some seven million victims were sent to the system of concentration camps known as the ‘gulag,’ including nearly one million Poles, hundreds of thousands Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians, and half the entire Chechen and Ingush people. Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars, Bashkirs, Kalmyks followed. Stalin’s gulag did not need gas chambers: cold, disease and overwork killed 30 per cent of inmates each year.
To this day, Russian and foreign historians are unsure of the number of Lenin and Stalin’s victims. Estimates range from 20-40 million deaths from 1922 to 1953 — not including war dead.
Stalin committed his worst crimes well before Hitler’s major atrocities got under way. Germany did not alone begin World War II, as most believe. Germany and the USSR jointly did by invading Poland in 1939; Stalin then invaded Finland. Two years later, Britain and the USSR invaded neutral Iran. History indeed remains the propaganda of the victors.
If we keep demanding Germany and Japan admit guilt for events of the 1930’s and 40’s, is it not time the United States, Britain and Canada admit their own guilt in becoming allies of Stalin, a monstrous criminal who killed over four times the number of Hitler’s victims?
What’s more, Stalin’s concentration camps were operating a decade before Germany’s. The murder of millions of Ukrainians and Balts took place 6-7 years before World War II. The foolish Franklin Roosevelt, who hailed Stalin as ‘Uncle Joe,’ and the cannier Winston Churchill both knew they were allied to the biggest mass murderer since Genghis Khan. They used a larger devil to fight a smaller, less dangerous one — then paid his price by handing over half of Europe to the Soviet Empire. We should remember this when today’s neocon warmongers wax poetic about the glories of World War II — and call for WW III against the Muslim World.
Western powers should practice what they piously preach to Germany, Japan and, lately, Turkey, by at least apologising for their sordid collaboration with Stalin. Which was every bit as immoral as if they had made a deal with Hitler, as Stalin long feared they would, to destroy the Soviet Union.
Eric S. Margolis is a veteran American journalist and contributing foreign editor of The Toronto Sun.
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