Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Stalin's willing executioners - Pro Estonia

Now I suppose it is the influence of Burke that makes me believe that there is a built-in reflex, a built-in capability in humankind for terror and violence. It is in our blood. It can find its expression through fittingly atavistic and primitive racial or religious beliefs but it can also dress itself into stolen clothes of progress and rationality. These latter are easier for the intellectuals and media to take seriously as a motive for action: it is hard to imagine brutal violence in its chilling reality, but quite easy to see from afar that progress and enlightenment, those comfortable abstractions are necessary even at some "cost".

But extreme, wholesale violence and terror will never be just means, they will always transform themselves into ends - this call for the bloody, mad dance is too much bred in the bone, too deep in us, not to awaken and take control. This is what we witnessed in Hitler, in Stalin, in Mao, in Pol Pot during the 20th century: an ancient ritual of running amok through innocent, powerless victims. This is our age-old instinct, and whether it's awakened or not depends more on the random historical circumstances than on individuals, thus no-one can ever be completely guilty, completely innocent: history is not only a crime, it is also a punishment for a crime. We all need absolution.

I was recently reading the Finnish Civil War History Commission's report on the ethnic Russians summarily executed or otherwise perished in the disturbances in Finland during 1914-1922. 1604 names are listed in the report (see the link above). The Civil War of 1918 is still a surprisingly traumatic subject in Finland but it has been discussed and debated exhaustively and often painfully for many decades now. The once dominant White narrative has lost its prominent, official status and the losing side has had justice finally done to it. All victims are now mourned, including these Russians, often killed by the White nationalists regardless of the level of their actual revolutionary aspirations or lack of them.

Names are listed, remembered, a kind of justice is done - people ending up on the losing side are thus, belatedly, honoured. And so there starts to be a certain cartharctic understanding for all sides involved in this nightmarish storm of history. Touchy, difficult issues have been broached, motives and later narratives debated and at least partially understood. An absolution has thus been clumsily, gradually seeked, and partially also found, with countless benefits to the national discourse and atmosphere: a poison has largely been expelled from the historical memory, hateful lies and fantasies have been replaced with factual, even compassionate understanding.

It struck me that those 1604 Russians are probably the only ones to be so exhaustively reported and remembered of that horrific period. Many more Russians were killed in the revolution and civil war than perished in the First World War. Awful terror, counter-terror and famine raged throughout that wide country. Horrific, sadistic scenes were acted, millions of innocent, powerless lifes were lost. Now I guess they are forgotten, seen as necessary price for history, if seen much as anything.

For other things followed: Lenin's terror system was horrible enough but Stalin raised it to unseen heights: forced collectivization repeated the bloody visions of the civil war: terror and famine raged along with totally irrational, outlandish political repressions. Chillingly this new horror has been seen as doubly necessary in order to arm the Soviet Union for the coming Nazi attack - despite the fact that Stalin did so much himself to create that threat with the Comintern undermining all left-liberal forces in Germany during those fateful years of Hitler's rise and with Moscow stubbornly seeing the liberal-democratic West jus as bad, or for most of the time much worse enemy than Hitler.

A Finnish historian has used a brilliantly insightful metaphor to describe the Finnish Communists that survived Stalin's terror in the 1930's (mostly by being in Finnish prisons). He sees the situation as analogous to a family with history of prolonged incest: a dirty, horrible secret that must not be ever mentioned - Stalin had utterly slaughtered that brilliant generation that escaped the Whites to Russia, but he and his state had to be praised as it was one with their cherished ideology - to give up that faith would have meant seeing those innocent murdered as having lost their lives totally in vain.

So, iron entered their souls. They were rigid, orthodox, mortally afraid of straying from the correct line dictated in Kremlin. They never were a match for their flexible, quick Social Democratic enemies that could operate within the protection of the liberal democratic state, with no terror, no slaughter having been introduced to our Nordic society. In those conditions the Finnish Stalinists could not compete - and, perhaps, in the innermost reaches of their hearts, maybe they even didn't want to compete for the fear of winning...

The Russian nation would seem to have a somewhat similar relationship with Stalin - but complicated, twisted by one crucial matter: his leadership against the genocidal onslaught by Nazi-Germany (no matter that he contributed so much to that very same attack). So you have a psychopath, a murdering and torturing father as the head of an extended family: you can never be sure that you will escape his murderous, irrational rages, still many escape, and all fear. Then occurs a sudden and brutal attack by another mad psychopath with the intention of burning down your house and killing all the family. The brutal, sadistic father leads the defence of the house, and finally after awful, savage scenes and merciless sacrifices the house is saved and the attacker destroyed.

After some years of continued terror the psychopathic leader of the household then perishes peacefully in his bed: you are now all survivors, some favoured, some disfavoured, some tortured to the point of death, but all can feel pride in your common struggle against the invider that threatened you all with extinction. How could you really detach that pride from that leadership? Iron enters souls: awful, hysterical injustices can, maybe should, be accepted. And gradually the memory hardens, becomes selective, is used to benefit the regime, the abuse is not mentioned, its victims are forgotten, they are now a necessary price.

The Great Patriotic War becomes thus the central piece of the new state religion of boastful nationalism - the central foundation of modern Russia. This would seem to be the psychological narrative of the modern Russian nation and state - the moral cost is obvious, huge: millions of forgotten graves, countless acts of terror and slaughter accepted, even honoured. Millions and millions of Russians were killed through the actions of other Russians during the 20th century. Many were forced to participate in the killing, many were willing.

In 1939 Estonia had a million inhabitants, Finland with a similar age structure had 3,5 million - today Estonia still has circa one million inhabitants that are directly descended from the population of 1939 - Finland has 5,3 million. We would be missing about 2 million people had Stalin gotten here during the Second World War, though they would have been replaced by at least similar number of Soviet immigrants, mostly Russian. (Likely our losses would have been even bigger given the nature of our deeply rooted civil society and proximity to Sweden.)

Helsinki would likely have a Russian majority as would the whole of the South coast. Our cultural, economical and academic elites would have been physically liquidated. Our economy would be in ruins, as would most of our towns after 60 years of Soviet construction work. The countryside would have been unimaginably desolated and wrecked by bloody and chaotic forced collectivization. The postwar cultural classics in literature, film and art would largely be missing, replaced by soulless "socialist realism". All families would have murdered, deported or escaped members in their ranks. The new minority (a majority in many places) would see our awful, unimaginably horrific rape as "liberation" from "fascism".

This is not science fiction: all this happened to Estonia during the Soviet occupation. In 1939 it had a protected civil society without any state violence, no whole classes of people were exterminated or faced a threat of extermination. True, the political structure was of one of rather mild authoritarianism with Päts having assumed power to forestall a rightwing coup during the global depression. The process of slow, much too slow, re-democratization was interrupted by the war.

In any case there were under 100 political prisoners in the country, no executions, summary, wholesale or otherwise, no torture, no terror - people couldn't imagine a totalitarian police state, what it means to live in a society where opinions, or mere identities, can lead to state sponsored organized murder. In other words it was an unimaginably more civilized society than those two awful terror states led by the two madmen Hitler and Stalin. First Estonia was brutally occupied by the latter, then came the Nazi attack (Hitler shared an identical view of Estonian independence and cultural existence with Stalin).

There were a few genuine collaborators as in all occupied territories (including I think the Channel Islands of the UK) - and certainly much less, and much less willing, than were in the Vichy France for example. There was no Estonian state, anyone disobeying the German forces were directly disobeying Gestapo and SS. Still the overwhelming majority stayed away from the German atrocities. In those nightmarish circumstances the Estonians could not do anything but hope for a Western liberal democratic victory, for that famous "White Ship" from the West. In the meanwhile first the retreating Russians and later the hardpressed Germans forced thousands of Estonians to their armed forces.

Estonians were of course quite motivated indeed to defend their soil against the Red Army and thousands perished in heroic struggles (largely unassisted by the retreating Germans) - there was even a national government declared and the Estonian flag hoisted in Tallinn between the brief time of German flight and Soviet advance. Some people even dared to hope, there was the Atlantic Charter after all that "guaranteed" democracy and national self-determination to all nations. Maybe the West would help, the White Ship would arrive and peaceful, lawful national rebuilding would start once again after these awful experiences in the hands of the two terror systems.

It was not to happen - the Red Army reoccupied Estonia and the brutal process of Stalinization was continued: the Estonian civil society was destroyed, the agriculture was forcibly collectivized, a state of terror reigned in the country. The Bronze Soldier memorial has become to be the symbol of either "liberation" or subjugation of Estonian freedom. History can never be seen in completely neutral, objective light. But what I have described here are the facts, these things truly did happen. These events and processes can be empirically verified.

Yes, the Red Army protected the Russian nation in a heroic defence against the murderous Nazi attack. But it was representing an equally awful terror state and being led by an equally mad dictator. Once it crossed the Estonian border and didn't return after the Germans retreated, it turned into an army of occupation. Estonia was then not liberated, it was brutally raped. Estonia did not represent fascism, it represented civil society, a state free of casual governmental terror and aggression. The Red Army and the Soviet state were the closest thing to fascism in the post-war Estonia - actually a very close thing indeed.

Now I understand that Nazi-Germany can be seen as an even more awful terror system than the Soviet Union. It murdered less people but did its slaughter in a uniquely industrial manner, by a nation central to European civilization. I think it can be legitimately said that it descended even further into the heart of darkness than the Soviet Union (though I think that with these vast numbers of innocent, powerless dead it is a fairly meaningless debate, both systems are so deep in this horror that it really doesn't that much matter what, if anything, separates them). But which one was more dangerous? How many educated people, how many major powers still honour the Germany of Hitler and Goebbels? How many trendy, even politically active youths sport a swastika on their t-shirt?

Which victims are forgotten, unmourned? What do the words Solovetsk and Vorkuta connotate to you? How about Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen? Germany has undergone decades of agonizing self-reflection, painful traumas have been under a constant process of analysis - the victims of Nazis are today remembered, mourned, honoured. So, I do seriously ask: which system was more dangerous, more tempting invitation to this bloody age-old rite of violence and terror?

This is not to say anything against the magnificent Russian nation and its magnificent cultural tradition. It is exactly in the Russians' own desperate interest that this historical poison would be eradicated from the mind of the nation and it's rulers. For the victims to be properly mourned and the perpertrators be really forgiven or at least understood. But this the Kremlin won't allow: poisonous Stalinist propanganda about recent history is distributed far and wide, starting from schools and nurseries, a false national pride is created, militaristic aggression and cruelty exalted.

This is not the ordinary Russians' fault: when has the Russian nation been able to determine the leadership of the Kremlin - and when has the Kremlin pursued the vital interests of the Russian nation? If this ghost of the 1930's is not excorcized from this great European power, Europe will one day get into trouble due to its existence. Estonia already has. (This is not to say that the Estonian conduct would have been perfect during the present crisis, only that it is not based on any false and poisonous interpretation of history).

So, the macabre dance on the graves goes on: the millions of victims are not named, not listed, not honoured, not remembered, not mourned. A huge moral collapse is thus celebrated and exalted: iron has entered the centre of a great state's soul, poison lingers about its political elites and public discourse. As long as this goes on Russians will be viewed by their rulers not as individual citizens of independent value but as nameless cannon fodder of power politics, as perpetual pawns of history to be thoughtlessly sacrificed whenever needed by the morally corrupt elite organs. In this way the mad, bloody rites of the early 20th century still go on even today wounding new generations, newly reborn nations. When will we put stop to it?


Passer-by said...

Bravo, an excellent post! That was a deep, and intelligent analysis, worth linking to as many blogs and sites as possible. You and giustino have really created fascinating analysis lately :)

stockholm slender said...

Cheers - I confess to being quite shocked by the tones coming out of Moscow. Theoretically I knew that those nighmares are still celebrated in a most vile fashion by the official state, but to read and hear those views was really shocking. As if the official representatives of today's Germany would be sprouting old Nazi lies, a chilling thought... And it has been a chilling spectacle, these last couple of weeks.

Blah said...

I was wondering when you'd write another post. And when you finally did, it took six pages to print it out. Ajaj! Don't let it take so long next time. In the meanwhile...

stockholm slender said...

Nice coverage from the Far North! Yep, I got quite a bit excercized about this issue... It just is kind of unbelievable that this is still possible 70 years after the events.

Flasher T said...

Excellent post, thank you!

stockholm slender said...

Cheers! - I would describe this as an absolutely, totally pro-Russian position. It is a huge tragedy to see such nation be saddled with such morally corrupt rulers. Surely this can't be a permanent state of affairs, one day surely Russia will have a Kremlin that looks for the interests of the nation and that honours its citizens as free individuals of independent worth and deserving of human dignity. Surely one day...

Painting waves in clouds said...

Certainly, Kreml is not going to worry about its people or resources as long as both seem to come from an unlimited source. The day will come only when resources have become so scarce that the Russian Federation dissolves into its 80 separate member states, effectively getting rid of the federal government and turning all inter-Russian issues into international issues. With recent western investments and rising oil prices giving the Russian Elite renewed wealth, this is not going to happen any time soon.

stockholm slender said...

History can of course be self-reinforcing: the Czarist state with its absolutely inhuman treatment of serfs gave birth to the horrors of revolution and the Soviet Union. Cumulatively we then still have a state that couldn't care less about individual citizens and also many individuals who complement their inadequate egos with state power and "glory" (a usual situation in non-mature national states). But this circle surely will be broken one day, it surely can't go on.

Fred Fry said...

Great post!

It is hugely dissappointing that Russia has failed to advance since the fall of the Soviet Union. As you mention, I too think that the path forward for Russia includes a sincere look back into Soviet history and it's crimes.

Russia's recent activity is of a great concern since it suggests a path back to the Soviet-way of doing things.

stockholm slender said...

Yeah, I must say that I really was shocked by this crisis - exactly like if the modern German government would start sounding like the Nazis. Of course the situation in this case is that the Stalinist lies about history were NEVER really purged out of Russian public discourse, so the tradition is actually unbroken. Wouldn't it really be the time the break it, to free the society (and Europe) of this poison?

Some parts of the Western media reaction have also been quite nasty: it is truly incomprehensible to me that it is somehow acceptable to slaughter tens of millions of people if you do it in the name of progress and reason. If anything I would have thought that it would make the crime worse. But no, Stalin and his awful terror state (ever bit as nasty as Nazi Germany) get a very free pass in the Western consciousness. Inexclicable.

Nothing is Free said...

The Japs have not exactly repented, and they've done OK. I wouldn't worry about it too much. No-one idolizes him that's for sure. I had Soviet textbooks from 1950 and mid-80's. In the former, it's Stalin did this, Stalin did that, genius of all time, bla bla bla bla bla... In the latter, he was virtually unmentioned... Kinda like Mao in China's schools now.

BTW, I would disagree about Stalin being more brutal than Lenin. Fortunately syphilis intervened.

Anonymous said...

@Nothing is free:
Stalin is be gone from the textbooks, but his regime mostly gets a free pass. There have been some attempts to rehabilitate the Third Reich in part, arguing that the Hitler was bad but the Army were apolitically anticommunist, non-Nazi defenders of their Fatherland and Western civilization. Which isn't true, of course, the whole state was totally politicized and the Wehrmacht was Hitler's willing tool, actively participating in his worst crimes. Same goes for the Red Army and Stalin: you can't honestly separate them. Worship one, and you worship the other.
The Japanese managed to avoid confronting their past, yes. In part because so many people so high up would have had to be purged after 1945, it would have meant a revolution, which the US did not want. I don't know why they can't show they're sorry now that the wartime leaders are safely dead and buried, the way the Germans did, maybe they aren't sorry, maybe it's a cultural thing. It certainly doesn't help them deal with their neighbours.

stockholm slender said...

Yeah, I do not understand in any way why Stalin is either a historical blank, or even, in the Kremlin, a hero. Of all things. I don't think it is taking Hitler's crimes seriously if they are the ONLY really remembered mass slaughters in history. Of course, I understand that certain people use Stalin in order to devalue Hitler's crimes, which is reprehensible, but they both are the heart of human darkness to me. The Nazis surely went even further, but it's Stalin that seems now so much more dangerous: his - more numerous - victims have been forgotten, his crimes went excused or brushed out of the living historical memory. That is a very, very chilling state of affairs. And not only the perpetrators' but also our huge moral collapse.

Anonymous said...

I see that you are not seeking for truth but want to give certain image of situation. For example this part:

In 1939 Estonia had a million inhabitants, Finland with a similar age structure had 3,5 million - today Estonia still has circa one million inhabitants that are directly descended from the population of 1939 - Finland has 5,3 million. We would be missing about 2 million people had Stalin gotten here during the Second World War, though they would have been replaced by at least similar number of Soviet immigrants, mostly Russian.

It is most likely fact but bullshit as well. You cannot estimate population growth like that. Or with same method we can extrapolate finnish population since 1970. If previous growth rate (10%) would have continued until today, there should be 7 million finns now! But there is only 5.3 millions. We are missing almost 2 million people because of current regime. Same figure that you get with Stalin era Estonia.

Are we living under Stalin rule here?

stockholm slender said...

Well, Finland and Estonia were quite similar countries, though of course the civil society was clearly stronger here and Sweden even more approachable, so it's most likely that we would have lost even more population. My private quess would be a slight ex-Soviet majority if Finland would have been occupied and annexed in 1945 (full occupation would have needed at least that time, with the endless forests offering space for a very protracted guerilla war with its attendant atrocities).