Naming the Crime
Two new books by American historians shed light on the Soviet past and those who still avoid its implications.


Andrew Stuttaford

Winter is bleak enough as it is. This year the gloom was deepened by the publication of How to Change the World: Tales of Marx and Marxism, by Eric Hobsbawm, one of Britain’s most feted historians, and, oh yes, a man who stuck with the Communist party until 1991 despite a global killing spree that took perhaps one hundred million lives. Naturally Hobsbawm’s new book has triggered the usual hosannas from the usual congregation for, to quote the Guardian, this “grand old man.”

There had, of course, been that minor unpleasantness back in the 1990s when Hobsbawm had appeared to imply that the deaths of 15 or 20 million people might have been justified had the Communist utopia actually been achieved. This ancient ogre (he is 93) is now more discreet. Reviewing How to Change the World in the Financial Times, Francis Wheen, no rightist and the author of an erudite and entertaining biography of Karl Marx, noted how Hobsbawm could not “bring himself to mention the Hitler-Stalin pact, referring only to ‘temporary episodes such as 1939–41.’ The Soviet invasion of Hungary and the crushing of the Prague Spring were [also] skipped over.”

But who are we to quibble, when, as his admirers like to remind us, Hobsbawm’s life has been “shaped by the struggle against fascism,” an excuse understandable in the 1930s (Hobsbawm, who is Jewish, quit Germany as a teenager in 1933), but grotesque more than six decades after the fall of the Third Reich.

Just how grotesque was highlighted by two books that came out last year. In the first, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, Yale history professor Timothy Snyder describes the darkness that engulfed a stretch of Eastern Europe in the mid-20th century. He leaves only one convincing response to the question that dominates the second, Stalin’s Genocides, by Stanford’s Norman Naimark: For all the unique evils of the Holocaust, was Stalin, no less than Hitler, guilty of genocide?

The first half of Professor Snyder’s grim saga revolves around the Ukrainian famine of 1932–33, a manufactured catastrophe in which zeal, malice and indifference conspired to create a horror in which, Snyder calculates, well over three million perished (there are other, much higher, estimates). It was, Snyder writes, “not food shortages but food distribution that killed millions in Soviet Ukraine, and it was Stalin who decided who was entitled to what.”

The Ukrainian countryside had already been devastated by collectivization and the killing, imprisonment, or exile of millions of its most enterprising inhabitants. Now it was to be stripped of what little it had left. The peasants were given targets for the amount of grain and other foodstuffs they were expected to hand over to the state, targets that would leave them with barely anything to live on, and often not even that. Refusal was not an option. Starvation was not an excuse. Nothing was left behind. Nobody was allowed to leave. The peasants were trapped. And they were condemned. In the spring of 1933 they died at the rate of more than ten thousand a day. “The only meat was human.”

That fall the United States extended diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union.