From kulaks to Mariupol

Anne Applebaum starts with Stalin’s genocide of the “kulaks” in Ukraine in 1932-3.

Ukrainian peasants, deprived of food, ate rats, frogs, and boiled grass. They gnawed on tree bark and leather. Many resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. Some 4 million died of starvation.

But it was all ok, because there was a story to explain why they deserved it.

Soviet propaganda had repeatedly told them that supposedly wealthy peasants, whom they called kulaks, were saboteurs and enemies—rich, stubborn landowners who were preventing the Soviet proletariat from achieving the utopia that its leaders had promised. The kulaks should be swept away, crushed like parasites or flies. Their food should be given to the workers in the cities, who deserved it more than they did.

And the Stalinist segment of the Left bought into the propaganda and tried to persuade everyone else to buy into it too, for years. There’s a grim shadow history of the Left in which way too many people allow themselves to be persuaded or coerced to believe utter bullshit.

Years later, the Ukrainian-born Soviet defector Viktor Kravchenko wrote about what it was like to be part of one of those brigades. “To spare yourself mental agony you veil unpleasant truths from view by half-closing your eyes—and your mind,” he explained. “You make panicky excuses and shrug off knowledge with words like exaggeration and hysteria.”

He also described how political jargon and euphemisms helped camouflage the reality of what they were doing. His team spoke of the “peasant front” and the “kulak menace,” “village socialism” and “class resistance,” to avoid giving humanity to the people whose food they were stealing.

See: Orwell, passim.

There was a brief window of time when Russians could and did read about this history, but that window closed long ago.

Instead of declining, the Russian state’s ability to disguise reality from its citizens and to dehumanize its enemies has grown stronger and more powerful than ever.

And, staring at that sentence, it occurs to me that the same thing is happening here in the US, with “the Russian state” replaced by whatever we want to call the Trumpist movement.

Putinism doesn’t bother with genocides, because it doesn’t have to. Now the putins and trumps can just lie on social media and get the same result.

Although Soviet leaders lied, they tried to make their falsehoods seem real. They got angry when anyone accused them of lying, and they produced fake “evidence” or counterarguments. In Putin’s Russia, politicians and television personalities play a different game, one that we in America know from the political campaigns of Donald Trump. They lie constantly, blatantly, obviously. But if you accuse them of lying, they don’t bother to offer counterarguments.

They just throw out a lot of competing stories, all of them absurd.

This constant stream of falsehoods produces not outrage, but apathy. Given so many explanations, how can you know whether anything is ever true? What if nothing is ever true?

This is a world in which the shiny new trans dogma is right at home. Men can be women. Men can be women better than women can. Men are the only real women.

Instead of promoting a Communist paradise, modern Russian propaganda has for the past decade focused on enemies. Russians are told very little about what happens in their own towns or cities. As a result, they aren’t forced, as Soviet citizens once were, to confront the gap between reality and fiction. Instead, they are told constantly about places they don’t know and have mostly never seen: America, France and Britain, Sweden and Poland—places filled with degeneracy, hypocrisy, and “Russophobia.”

Oh lord. Putin is taking notes.

Hate speech doesn’t always lead to genocide, but genocide is always preceded by hate speech.

The modern Russian propaganda state turned out to be the ideal vehicle both for carrying out mass murder and for hiding it from the public. The gray apparatchiks, FSB operatives, and well-coiffed anchorwomen who organize and conduct the national conversation had for years been preparing their compatriots to feel no pity for Ukraine.

They succeeded. From the first days of the war, it was evident that the Russian military had planned in advance for many civilians, perhaps millions, to be killed, wounded, or displaced from their homes in Ukraine. Other assaults on cities throughout history—Dresden, Coventry, Hiroshima, Nagasaki—took place only after years of terrible conflict. By contrast, systematic bombardment of civilians in Ukraine began only days into an unprovoked invasion.

(I think London should have been in that list, and before Dresden.)

All of this—the indifference to violence, the amoral nonchalance about mass murder, even the disdain for the lives of Russian soldiers—is familiar to anyone who knows Soviet history (or German history, for that matter). But Russian citizens and Russian soldiers either don’t know that history or don’t care about it. President Zelensky told me in April that, like “alcoholics [who] don’t admit that they are alcoholic,” these Russians “are afraid to admit guilt.” There was no reckoning after the Ukrainian famine, or the Gulag, or the Great Terror of 1937–38, no moment when the perpetrators expressed formal, institutional regret. Now we have the result. Aside from the Kravchenkos and Kopelevs, the liberal minority, most Russians have accepted the explanations the state handed them about the past and moved on. They’re not human beings; they’re kulak trash, they told themselves then. They’re not human beings; they’re Ukrainian Nazis, they tell themselves today.

Beware what you tell yourself.

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