He applied it to Ukraine, but also to Belorussia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia as well as to the eastern strip of the actual Russian Socialist Republic that came under Nazi occupation after June 1941.
Snyder’s book Bloodlands deals with the period between 1933 and 1945. During that time 14 million people were deliberately put to death in that part of the world by the armies and secret policemen and death squads of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. That slaughter was to a significant extent carried out by local collaborators who murdered, raped and stole from their neighbours under the imprimatur of the SS or the NKVD, sometimes one after the other.
To some extent the period chosen and even the demarcation is arbitrary. The Nazi terror in that part of the world began in 1939 and ended in 1945. The Communist terror dated back to 1918 and extended for a decade or so after the end of World War II even if the post war casualties were in their hundreds of thousands rather than millions.
Snyder does not include for example the between 3,500,000 and 5,000,000 Ukrainians who died during the Holodomor, the famine caused by the Soviet imposition of collectivisation and food requisitioning for the Russian cities in 1932 and 1933. The Holodomor or “death by hunger” was a direct consequence of the collectivisation of land and the seizure of food.
The Communists and their stooges in the west portrayed it as a “class war” against the Kulak land owners even though the vast majority of Kulaks were peasants – formerly serfs until the late 19th century who had taken the land from the nobility in the first part of the Russian revolution – with six or seven animals and a few acres. Some Ukrainians also claim that there was a genocidal ethnic dimension to the artificial famine.
The 14 million does include the mass killings of the Stalinist Terror, the murders of Polish and Soviet Jews by the Nazis, and large-scale ethnic cleansing under both the Reds and the Nazis. A legacy of the latter which has resonances in the current war is the fact that Crimea which is under dispute between Russia and Ukraine now has a majority Russian population of 65%, but only because up to 45% of the population were deported and killed in 1944 when Stalin decided to basically deport the entire Tatar population to the labour camps.
There are many other examples, including the killings of tens of thousands of Poles by Ukrainian Nazi collaborators in Volhynia, the post war vengeance against Germans living in the Soviet occupied zone, and the continued transportation and killings of people in Poland and in the Baltic states.
Expecting that the descendants of those people who were killed, and indeed who did the killing, to transform that time into a sepia tinted album of nostalgia to be recalled in song and parades was always a bit optimistic.
Just as is the crude attempt by some to fit it all into some ideological framework that is meaningless in the context of the history of that part of the world. This is mostly so that people who know absolutely nothing about it, truth be told – and I include myself despite having read and heard lots about it over the years – can pick a side.
To pick a side you need of course to apply some pejorative terms to the “others.” So, both the Russians and the Ukrainians have been lumped into the popular category of “Nazis” and “fash.” Just as there are aging tankie lefties here who think it is 1941 again and whose fading image of Stalin blurs into that of the man who represents the class who stole much of the economy of their once beloved Socialist Motherland; so there are Woke lefties who think Putin is a Nazi because of his LGBT policies.
Then there are their mirror images on the other side for whom Putin is a loveable enemy of the globalists, who is bent on restoring Christian order to the degenerate Ukrainians. Or who alternatively regard Putin as a reincarnation of Stalin, but in a bad way.
The truth is that there is as little chance of people in western Europe or North America understanding what is at stake in Ukraine than there was of them knowing what the genocidal slaughter in Rwanda in 1994 was about. During that horror, one English Trotskyist group was mocked for claiming that the solution lay in the unity of the Tutsi and Hutu workers.
The politics of either Russia or Ukraine simply do not fit with those of western Europe. The Communist Party of the Russian Federation has policies, including on immigration, that are not greatly different from western parties that western lefties describe as “far right.”
Zelensky’s Servant of the People party in Ukraine is a bit like the Dáil in that it probably includes people who espouse views that might be equally at home in Fine Gael or People Before Profit. In 2019 its director of elections Oleksandr Komienko told reporters: “Go 20km or 100km out of Kyiv, and nobody will understand the issue of ideology there, who is right, left or centre here.”
That disjunction was illustrated when a Moldovan speaker at a rally in support of Ukraine at Leinster House last week mocked an Irish far-left speaker for blathering on about NATO when the people in Kyiv were worried about their families at home facing Russian missiles.
Not that NATO and the EU and the geopolitics around all of this are not important. They are, and there are good reasons to question both the motivations of NATO and the EU, and the spurious deracinated liberalism that has replaced any conception of what Europe did actually stand for when it successfully opposed and defeated Nazism and Stalinism.
Putin has recognised that and we referred previously to how he has attacked western Wokeism as a flaw. In his October 2021 speech at Sochi he likened western left liberalism to the “destruction of age old values, religion and relations between people, up to and including the total rejection of family” which had been unleashed by the Bolsheviks after 1917.
This is both true and appealing to western conservatives. However, to take this at face value would be not only to accept Putin and the Russian oligarchy’s credibility on all of this, but to neglect the fact that the Ukrainians who are under missile and ground assault by the Russian army and militias above all know what the Bolsheviks brought to their country for 70 years.
Millions of deaths and subservience to a Russocentric imperialist state that may have had Jews and Georgians and even Poles in some leading positions, but which was above all else Russian. The Russian people of course are no more responsible for the horrors of socialism, in which they were often victims too, than the German people are for Nazism.
However, to expect that the ethnic and national dimensions of what took place in Ukraine under the Soviet Union will be forgotten about is naïve. That was illustrated by the almost universal severing of links between the former constituent republics of the USSR and Moscow after the Communist Party lost power in 1991.
That same historical experience underlies the fear that the peoples of the Baltic states, as well as Poland and Hungary have of Russia. It also explains why Poland, Hungary and other former Warsaw Pact states opted to join NATO and the EU, even though of course they now find themselves at odds with the left liberalism of the EU that seems intent on dragging both into their nebulous “Europeanism” that extends way beyond the original economic and strategic bases of the EU. It also, increasingly, has little connection to what Europe meant for centuries as a bastion of civilization.
So, when considering what is happening in Ukraine it is advisable not to take sides on the basis that “the enemy of your enemy is your friend.” Much of the reaction of our own liberal lefties who despise nationalism with every sinew is as vacuous as everything else about them. The same applies to the Bidens and Johnsons and Macrons and Trudeaus.
If there is an object of sympathy, then that ought to be the people of Ukraine who are being killed and driven from their homes by a regime that serves the interests of the oligarchs and secret policemen and generals who transformed themselves into a new ruling class by stealing state assets following the collapse of socialism.
Ask yourself too if Putin’s devotion to the family is that of his great compatriot Alexander Solzhenitsyn or of Don Corleone. Those who chose simplistically to side with Stalin or Hitler in the 1930s and 1940s were grievously and even criminally wrong. That too is worth bearing in mind.