If the name Timothy Snyder is familiar to you, it’s likely because of the pamphlet-size book by this Yale historian called On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. When it was published in 2017, shortly after Donald Trump took office, it sounded a loud alarm for those of us who feared that his time as president would undermine the foundations of our democracy. As it turned out, we couldn’t even begin to imagine how serious that threat would turn out to be.
Snyder’s book spoke directly to those fears, based on what we know about how authoritarian regimes, especially Nazi Germany, exploited the democratic process to impose its will on an unprepared populace. For example, the first of Snyder’s Twenty Lessons is “Don’t obey in advance.” As he says, “These first heedless acts of conformity could not then be reversed.” The book(let) makes for scary reading. As we work through the twenty lessons, we are left with the chilling sense of how far down the road to tyranny we have already traveled. That alarm bell is ringing more loudly than ever.
As absolutely essential as it is to heed Snyder’s lessons, Tyranny is not his magnum opus. I would argue that Bloodlands deserves that title. It’s another one of those long books that I avoid reading for as long as I can because I know what it will take me to work through the author’s detailed account and how it will challenge my powers of concentration. My delaying tactics were abetted by the long list of readers who had reserved the book ahead of me at our local public library.
But my number was finally called, and I am currently absorbed in the book in ways I would like to share with you. The problem with reading reviews of books like Bloodlands is that you’re likely to feel that the reviewer has already offered you the gift of summarizing the basic premises of the book, absolving you of the responsibility of actually reading it. Based on those reviews, I knew before breaking the cover that the book’s title referred to a wide swath of territory in Central and Eastern Europe, covering portions of what we now call Poland, Soviet Ukraine and Soviet Russia. Within its area, more than 14 million civilians died by the actions of authoritarian leaders between 1930 and 1945. This number does not include the soldiers killed in combat in this same area and time period. No other periodin world history included this many deaths that were the result of government-mandated policies as opposed to, say, natural disasters.
The portion of this Bloodlands history that is most familiar to us is the Holocaust. It is also the portion of Snyder’s account that caused the greatest controversy because of his contention that the primary reason behind Hitler’s aggressive actions was not the extermination of the Jews but the need for lebensraum, the expansion of space under German control that would ultimately be needed to feed his people. The fertile farmland of Soviet Ukraine was particularly attractive for these purposes, as was Poland.
Much less well-known but almost a match for the Holocaust’s tragic deaths was the mass starvation of the Ukrainian people, the result of Stalin’s policy of collectivization of peasant land, beginning in 1930. I first learned of this under-remembered atrocity fifteen or twenty years ago and immediately ordered the classic book on the subject, The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine by Robert Conquest. The book ultimately defeated me with its mountains of detail on how Stalin’s vision for Soviet Ukraine ultimately starved to death between three and four million Ukrainian men, women and children, plus countless others who died in distant places to which they were deported and yet others who were shot because of their real or imagined opposition to the collectivization efforts. (In a later chapter, Snyder reports the astonishing figure of the almost 400,000 enemies of the state, many of them Ukrainians who were executed as a result of Stalin’s fevered paranoia.)
It is this atrocity to which Snyder devotes the first chapter of Bloodlands but reading it now in his more concise account and at that this moment in history imparts to it a different resonance than it had a decade or two ago. This is the same Ukraine that monopolizes our headlines every day; Russia’s desire to dominate the region links the two time periods. It’s important for American readers to understand that the events of more than 90 years ago are alive in today’s war. Although few who experienced the starvation remain, the memory of its horror endures.
Putin and Stalin are united in the delusions about Ukraine that drive their actions. Stalin believed that the millions of dying Ukrainians were so committed to defeating communism and collectivization that they were willing to give their lives for the cause. Putin believes – or pretends to – that it is alleged fascists who stand between him and his dream of a reborn Russian empire. Both are/were willing to destroy Ukraine in order to bring it to heel, either by bombs and artillery or by the equally lethal confiscation of the previously abundant crops the region is known for. Stalin set impossible quotas for the amount of wheat the region had to yield for export, even confiscating the seeds set aside for the next planting to meet that quota, a sure death sentence for farmers. Yet, Putin expected the Ukrainians to greet his invading armies with open arms. The past is not so easily erased.
My wife and I both claim a parent who identified their country of origin as Russia. It’s only since the dissolution of the Soviet Union that we’ve come to understand more precisely that one was from Belarus and the other from Ukraine. It is my wife’s mother who was born in Ukraine, although Jews would never describe themselves as either Russian, Belarussian or Ukrainian. Although rooted in those regions for centuries they were first and foremost Jews. Because they were not allowed to own land, they might nothave been targeted by Stalin during this period of collectivization, but the starvation touched every level of the population.
My mother-in-law and her family were safely established in the United States by 1930 but hundreds of thousands of other Jews remained, many of them to become victims of the next Bloodlands saga – the mass extermination of Jews by the invading Nazi armies. In a bizarre link between past and present, early in the current invasion, Putin’s missiles landed near the site of Babi Yar, outside of Kyiv. It was here that as many as 100,000 Jews were shot and flung into a ravine, the largest mass killing outside the concentration camps.
The current assault on Ukraine and its wanton killing of innocent civilians is a tragic return to the Bloodlands events described by Snyder. The past is never past and today’s deaths should lead us to remember and memorialize the many others who died at the hands of deluded tyrants many decades ago.
After reading this far, my wife posed the following related questions:
Does it make a difference whether we know/remember this or not?
Does/should that past inform policy? Should we be (or are we) cowed by all we don’t know of history like this?
Is there something inevitable about seeing this kind of repetition play out again?
My answer returns me to Snyder’s On Tyranny booklet where he argues that there’s nothing inevitable about the birth and consolidation of authoritarian governments. We must understand the forces that brought them into being and take steps early on to see that those conditions are aborted before they take hold and become irreversible. Contrary to what leaders on the right like Governor DeSantis contend, we need more, not less, “wokeness.” We are in danger of failing to recognize the extent to which we’re drifting into the early stages of authoritarianism which, as Snyder argues, cannot be reversed once they go unchallenged.
We tend to think of the Bloodlands as something remote geographically and temporally, something that couldn’t happen here, but how many times in recent years has that phrase “it can’t happen here” been proven wrong. It can – if we don’t stay woke.