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Context. Or How to Ignore it When Making a Documentary November 11, 2008

Posted by Garibaldy in Communism, Film and Television, History, Russia.

So this is my review of the BBC programme I flagged up yesterday, World War II Behind Closed Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West. I stress it is my review because I suspect that the other authors on Cedar Lounge Revolution might disagree strongly with my presentation of the events I am about to discuss. I was going to post it only on my own blog, but it seemed silly to flag it up here and then not publish the review here.

Tonight’s programme was the first of six analysing the history of Soviet diplomacy during World War II. It opened with a claim that Stalin had some strange friendships. Stalin telling Churchill he killed the Kulaks when Churchill asked, cutting to Churchill looking shocked; and Roosevelt stating that he did not believe the Soviets had done something, presumably bad. The voiceover was clear to stress that its reconstructions were based on archival documents. Stalin had been introduced as the supreme leader of the Soviet Union, and a tyrant responsible for the deaths of millions, with accompanying depiction of a prisoner being shoved into a cell for execution. Churchill, however, was not introduced as the prime minister of an Empire that spanned the globe, that had in the last several decades since the Bolshevik Revolution (and of course before) used terror and massacre of civilians to frustrate the democratic will of several peoples for independence, and in which Churchill had been personally involved. No mention then of the Black and Tans or Amritsar or bombing civilians in Iraq, of keeping the world’s second most populous nation and one of its most ancient cultures in subjection. We might see that as the first absence of context, but let’s be generous, and say that this might turn up in future episodes – however unlikely we know that to be.

The action then moved to arrival on August 23rd 1939 of the German Foreign Minister, Ribbentrop, in Moscow to negotiate a non-aggression pact with Stalin. One of the questions from my post on my own blog in anticipation of tonight’s show was immediately answered. Not only was there no mention of the fact that Stalin had offered France and the UK a military alliance to stop Hitler to which he was prepared to commit one million men including armour, artillery and air support, there was no mention at all of the fact that these negotiations had even taken place! Nor was there any mention of the western powers sitting on their hands during the Spanish Civil War, and attempting to frustrate Soviet efforts to help the democratically-elected Republican government, nor even of appeasement. Given that the western powers had done nothing to halt the rise of the Nazis – in fact quite the opposite, caving to them over Czechoslovakia at meetings from which the USSR was excluded, the Soviets decided to look after number one. Is it all that hard to blame them, given the known hostility of the western powers to communism, and their habit of breaking guarantees in the face of fascist aggression? Yet none of these issues – essential to understand the Pact – were mentioned. It’s hardly like the producers were unaware of them – I am sure someone on their team knows how to use Wikipedia. No, this was a deliberate editorial decision in order to sharpen the story they wanted to tell. Unfortunately it amounts to such a sin of omission as to falsify the history of the events explored. Just text, not context.

There were plenty of moments designed to make one feel queasy. Images of Nazis and Commies wining and dining themselves, celebrating their alliance in opulent splendour. In fact, pretty standard state dinners – though perhaps a little more flash than most – and filled with the usual diplomatic pleasantries and toasts. I am sure we could find similar examples involving the Germans, Italians, Spanish, Japanese, Americans, French and the British in the same period. Without this context, these incidents, especially the toasts, look much more repulsive than they were. Similarly the account of the Soviets and Germans cooperating in establishing the new border in Poland. Demarcating borders is hardly an unusual occurrence.

Nor was there any discussion of the possibility that the Pact was designed to play for time. Stalin’s hidden remarks about the USSR not allowing Germany to be put down could easily be interpreted as a move to convince them that the Soviets represented no threat, and to put off the prospect of war. Certainly, as the programme pointed out, the Germans lied to the Soviets. Why not the other way around? The fact that the USSR provided the Germans with a base is shocking. But at the same time, they clearly did the bare minimum. Denying them the base where they wanted it, refusing to allow them ashore, and rendering the base much less effective. The lack of talking historian heads in this type of documentary allows the narrative to flow more easily, but denies the opportunity to explore different interpretations, but one thing that did come out clearly was Stalin’s skill as a negotiator, forcing Hitler into doing things more on Soviet terms.

The depressing stories of the deportations from Poland of suspect populations again lacked context. While the programme makers did acknowledge that the targeting of the Polish middle class was an ideological and not racial move, they failed to mention that during World War II, the rounding up of suspect populations was par for the course – just ask Japanese-Americans. There were of course strategic implications here too in the event of an outbreak of war, and moving suspects and their families far from the border made sound strategic sense. Similarly the brutal events in Katyn and its equivalent. I am not justifying what went on here, but I am seeking to understand it properly. I feel the programme makers ought to have discussed more the fears of war, invasion and abandonment that were so central to Soviet choices at this time – they only really got mentioned after the fall of France. After all, the choice to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki is never mentioned in isolation from the fears of US deaths in Japan in such programmes. The Soviet help delivered to the Germans was delivered out of fear.

Fear it seems also played a large part Stalin’s mistake in refusing to take the advice of his generals regarding military preparations for the coming war with Germany. He did not want to provoke the Germans into launching the war. He also believed that Hitler was playing diplomatic games of the sort Stalin had used to pressurise Hitler when he moved troops closer to the USSR. It was a grave error of judgment, but the resilience of the peoples of the USSR and the leadership and reorganisation provided by the Communists, along with allied aid, prevented the collapse. We can only be grateful for that fact.

The first mention of the possibility of an alliance between the Soviet Union and the UK was at the end of the programme, which said Stalin turned to it in desperation, setting up next week’s programme. This complete lack of discussion of the dilpomatic history of the 1930s was I feel dishonest of the programme makers, and gave a completely misleading impression of why Soviet diplomacy followed the path it did, and poisoned not only this programme in the series, but will most likely poison the series itself.

Overall then, certainly an interesting programme, as all programmes that give you the words of the participants must be. Certainly I learnt more about the mistakes of the Soviet leadership, the extent of Soviet cooperation with the Germans, and the treatment of the Polish aristocracy (themselves, it must be said, no saints). Nevertheless, I was disappointed with the programme. The absence of the context, of the background to the Pact, ruined the programme for me, as I spent the rest of the time viewing it with a jaundiced eye thinking “what about this? what about that?” No programme will be perfect, but the misleading nature of this one was a big let-down.


1. Bugger Off « Garibaldy Blog - November 11, 2008

[…] Doors: Stalin, the Nazis and the West. The short version is I didn’t like it very much. Click here to find out […]


2. ejh - November 11, 2008

the sort of monstrous harlequinade in which everyone is constantly bounding across the stage in a false nose — Quakers shouting for a bigger army, Communists waving Union Jacks, Winston Churchill posing as a democrat


3. Jim Monaghan - November 11, 2008

“They did the bare minimum.”
I suggest you read Buber-Neumans autobiographical book where she tells of being sent from a Gulag to Ravensbruck.”Under 2 dictators”. Oh her crime in the USSR was being the partner of a Comintern official, in Germany iot was being a Communist. A large number of anti-fascist exiles were handed over. Interestingly before the handover they were fattened up so the Germans would not know how badly they were treated.
The propaganda line in the CPs changed as well with a definite softening on Germany and Fascism.
I adhere to a line that defence of the USSR was a good thing but the crimes of Stalinism makes me cringe at times.
Oh Let us have an explanation whuile you are at it on the guilty nations who were deported.


4. Dunne and Crescendo - November 11, 2008

How the thousands of Soviet POWs who managed to survive the brutality of the Nazis and were then put in camps in the USSR because of Stalin’s paranoia?


5. Jim Monaghan - November 11, 2008

I suppose I should further explain. I feel that there is a soft apologia for Stalinism around the place. The stuff about making omlettes. It was a cruel neccessity etc.This has the potential to be poisonous.
The reality of the USSR was awful and it was the fault of Stalinism for the most part.
The destruction of the peasants, the purges, the cooperation with the Nazis, the destruction of entire nations etc. The list could go on and on. There is an interesting book by Pauil Flewers about the western intellectual and the USSR during the 30s which I am reading at the moment. The Shaws and the Webbs left their critical faculties at home. Harry Pollitt the British CO leader did not even protest when his former lover Rosa Cohen was purged as a German agent.
It as not just a cynical deal with the Nazis, it was a lot more.


6. John Palmer - November 11, 2008

How – in 2008 – Garibaldi – (or anyone else) could possibly compare the (utterly unjust) temporary incarceration of Japanese Americans in 1941 with the massacres of thousands of Poles by Stalin after the Hiter-Stalin Pact is quite beyond me. What is clear from the Soviet archives is that Stalin thought he had a real “understanding” with Hitler. He was till refusing to recognise the reality of the Nazi incvasion days after it had started. Indeed he then had a nervous breakdown and retired to his Dacha expecting to be arrested and shot. So spineless and servile were Molotov et all that they came and begged him to return to Moscow. His “understanding” with Hitler, meanwhile, allowed allowed Stalin to transfer German communists and other anti-fascists in exile in the Societ Union to the Gestapo (as a “good will” gesture). His rhetorical anti-fascism in the 1930’s moreover did not prevent his wholesale destruction of the military cardre of the “Red” Army which laid it open to the succession of disasters during Operation Barberossa in 1941 and later.


7. ejh - November 11, 2008

At the same time, it is reasonable to ask whether imperialism is allowed a degree of historical context and understanding that Stalinism is not.


8. Seán Ó Tuama - November 11, 2008

Interesting how quickly Garibaldy abandons the moral high ground he occupies in condemning the Provos to the much boggier ground of “context” when defending Stalin’s “incidents of history”.

If the Provo’s had ever adopted anything even remotely ressembling Stalin’s line towards “suspect populations”, in the areas it dominated, against the WP and its Group B friends, there would be very few of them around today to engage in this nauseating hyprocrisy.

BTW, I lack the historical materials to establish the point, but it is arguable that Stalin butchered more Communists than Hitler did and his purge of the cream of Red Army certainly was a major factor in Hitler’s’ early successes in his invasion.

Or is this just a case of Garibaldy’s wishing to reestablish his Stalinist credentials following his recent disagreements with very justified CP attacks on the WP line on the national question.

In any case, I think that the population of West Belfast was very lucky that the WP and its friends was never in a militarliy strong enough position to deal with local “suspect populations”.


9. Garibaldy - November 11, 2008

My purpose in writing this review was not to give an account of Soviet history in this period, but to analyse the way the documentary was made and the way it presented the facts, so I did not touch on many of the issues raised here because it was not my intention to do so. I have been over the ground of Soviet history on numerous occasions, and am doing so to an extent in the comments on the post entitled Stalin Whitewashed? on my blog linked in the above review. I think rather than repeat myself here, I’ll direct people to go there to get a feeling of my attitudes to that period in time if they wish. I would direct people in particular to Baku26’s comment and my own today at 1.08pm which I feel fairly sum up my sentiments.

One other general point. The word Stalinism has cropped up here. It is a term I find has very little analytical or descriptive value. If we wish to use it solely to describe a specific set of policies in the Soviet Union at this time, then it might have a place. If we wish to use it to describe my or anybody else’s politics in this day and age, then I reject it. I have no desire or intention to recreate the choices made during the very specific set of circumstances that led to the Soviet Union following the choices it did, and becoming the society it did.

I guess I’ll try and respond to the comments in reverse order to some extent. Firstly, to Seán, context IS the key difference between NI since 1969 and the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s. Two completely different types of societies facing very different political and social challenges, and two very different eras in time. Things that are acceptable at one time and in one set of concrete historical circumstances are not acceptable at another. There is no comparison between the decision taken in South Armagh in 1976 to carry out Kingsmill or more recently to beat Paul Quinn to death and what happened in the USSR in the period I am talking about. The sectarian murders carried out in NI by all sides were unnecessary and unforgiveable. They divided the people of Ireland further and strangled the space for progressive politics (which was of course the point of the loyalist ones). Bad as Stormont was, and bad as the behaviour of the British Army was, there is no comparison between the situation faced in NI and that the USSR faced with the Nazis.

I could reverse your charge about applying empathy to one situation and not the other. Lots of people who fall over themselves to show understanding to the Provos show none to the Soviet Union at this time. To be honest I fail to see how me saying, for example, it was right for the Jacobins to guillotine their enemies in the circumstances of 1793-4 means I can’t say it would be wrong for the PCF to guillotine its opponents now. That is the logic of your charge, that I should apply a one size fits all morality. I don’t, I judge things on their context, in their concrete circumstances, as I feel a Marxist should.


10. Mick Hall - November 11, 2008

It is no good just pouring all the shit over Stalin, that much of the left refuses to look at Lenin’s responsibility for Stalinism means we have placed a road block on forward movement. Anti fascism was the worldwide core of the 1930s left; and then you have the man who at the time represented for many leftist the movements pinnacle, sending good communists who had sought sanctuary in the first workers state, to be butchered in Hitler’s concentration camps, how could this be so?

Stalin became the grave digger of the Russian revolution for no other reason than Lenin placed him in that position. True when he was ill he may have come to have second thoughts, but pathetically even these partially arose over a personal matter.

it cannot be denied when Lenin was in his prime and at the hight of his powers he thought Stalin was the bee’s knees. Until socialist intellectuals take Lenin down from on high and understand he was as flawed, if not more so than us ordinary mortals, they will continue to prattle on about democratic centralism being the most perfect type of democratic accountability human kind has come up with to-date and such twaddle.

Millions if not billions of workers eventual turned their backs on the USSR because they saw the broken egg shells but had yet to see, let alone taste an omelet. In the cold light of day this was the reason why the only people who were willing to defend the USSR just prior to its implosion, were a tiny number of the wretched bureaucrats who sipped at Stalinist trough at the working classes expense.

In other words at its end it had become little different from the capitalist societies it had first been established to destroy. Indeed in some capitalist societies workers were better off, due to bourgeois democracy.


11. KevanB - November 11, 2008

“No programme will be perfect, but the misleading nature of this one was a big let-down.”

No programme can ever take you past Junior Cert or O Level on almost any subject. To aspire to the detail you want in a series of half hours I would submit is beyond the medium. Occasionally film makers strive to make the A or Leaving Cert level; and mostly fail to, or leave their audience way behind.

Misleading? Think back to some of the half informed rubbish you got fed in school history lessons, Garibaldy.

You are asking to much of the documentary form. And you shouldn’t be surprised if the filmmakers display their prejudices in the same way that your own post displays yours. Or was this meant to be the start of of a dialectical discussion? Whose thesis and whose antithesis?


12. Garibaldy - November 11, 2008


Good to see you understand what I am trying to do here, which is ask questions about the way this documentary – and by extension much of the history of the period – was conceived and put together, and whether than concept of how the history of this period should be written is fundamentally flawed from the start. I’d also be interested to know where that quote in comment number two is from.


I was comparing the motivations behind the moving of populations and the events at Katyn and elsewhere, i.e. fears over one’s flank in the events at war. This was the same motivation that saw suspect populations locked up everywhere. I hadn’t intended to say there was an equivalence between shooting aristocrats in a forest and locking away Japanese-Americans. On your point, and Jim’s, about the handing over of communists to the Nazis, I am not going to stand over that for a second, though again it was I suspect the result of fear.

I suspect that the purges of the Red Army were motivated by a desire to remove potentially unreliable elements for the coming war with the Nazis. Stalin may have failed to grasp that the war was coming at the precise time it was, but Soviet policy for much of the time since Hitler’s rise to power was predicated on an understanding that a war was inevitable. His anti-fascism was a lot more than rhetorical.


Your point is a valid question in a discussion about the outcome of the war, but I do feel that it comes under the range of issues I was not talking about in the discussion of this programme. For what it’s worth, treating the returned prisoners in this way was wrong.


Thanks for that reference. I’ll try to look it up some time. As for the guilty nations question. As I said originally, I am not trying to defend what happened but to understand and explain it. I do think that the strategic imperative was foremost, though probably with elements of revenge as the programme suggested. At the same time, we cannot ignore that it was the Polish bourgeoisie who were moved rather than the Poles, though I know there are some who try to argue that there may have been an intention to expand the range of people moved.


13. Garibaldy - November 11, 2008


While I disagree with much of what you are saying, I do think we need to ask to what extent the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s followed the path it did because the policy choices made were the logical ones to defend the revolution. But again, I don’t want to get into that here.


I don’t think that expecting the programme makers to mention that Stalin had been asking for a military alliance with the UK and France before concluding the deal with Germany was asking for too much information. It seems to me essential, and could have been dealt with quickly at the start. Would it really have taken that much of the 58 minutes it lasted to mention that and the Spanish Civil War? The bit about Churchill and the Empire may well have been more awkward I’ll concede.


14. skidmarx - November 11, 2008

I wasn’t that impressed with the style or substance of the programme, too many reconstructions of meetings to tell us what the voiceover already had, and too much of a bias in the telling towards the new documents and interviews they had.

I think there are some common elements to stalinism that continue to make it useful as a political insult today (whether you are personally so identified or not). A belief that nationalized property relations are an indicator of socialism would seem to be number one, followed by a willingness to tolerate one party states and the historical record of Stalin and his ilk.

I remember reading the Gulag Archipelago many years ago and thinking that when Stalinism in Russia becomes utterly indefensible is when they are arresting by numbers and denying an alphabet to a people because they arrest the man who invented one for them an confiscate all his notes, but one noteworthy step on the journey was the arrest of the children of Spanish communists in case they represented a potential opposition.Note to Mick Hall, Solzhenistsyn agrees that there is a direct line from Lenin to Stalin but is too honest a reporter for the differences between trials of Mensheviks for actually supporting the fight against the government and the mass arrests and prison state later to be spottable.


15. John Palmer - November 11, 2008

Garibaldi – You suggest that – with a future war in mind – Stalin was concerned to exterminate “possibly unreliable elements.” But what was the evidence that Tukachevsky and the thousands of other army officers – many of them long standing “old Bolsheviks” – would have been “unreliable” in fighting Hitler fascism? Some – a few – may have been unreliable in the sense that they knew Stalin and his fellow mass murderers like Beria were politically undefensible. Some of the others had been complicit in Stalin’s earlier purges and may have had to be removed as witnesses of Stalin’s orders – through Yagoda, Yedzov and Beria – of the mass murders.
Mick – I agree with you about not idealising Soviet leadership prior to Stalin’s assumption of absolute power. The truth is that the elements of dictatorial degeneration and attrocity co-existed with elements of genuine liberation and popular empowerment in the period between 1917 and 1923. This is dealt with very well by Sam Farber in his ground breaking book “Before Stalin.”


16. Seán Ó Tuama - November 11, 2008

I think that it is you who is unwilling to see Provo activities in context. I am willing to both morally and tactically condemn some of the Provo campaign. When I say tactically I do not mean any fantasy about alienating a Unionist working class on the verge of uniting with their Nationalist counterparts. I mean that it alienated the working class and popular opinion in the Republic without whose support any significant progress on the national question was impossible. I must say that I was sympathetic to the old “defence and retaliation” line of the OIRA.

However, I think that the campaign must, indeed, be seen in the context of a sectarian Northern state, Loyalist pograms and a brutal British presence. it is, if anything, surprising that there not a more sectarian reaction from the Nationalist side.

I think your only valid point is that I do, in fact, lack any empathy with Stalin’s Russia, as I consider that there no socialist content left worth defending at that stage, not to mention the repression of national minorities which I think should be a matter of concern for any socialist or democrat.


17. Garibaldy - November 11, 2008

Just lost a long response, and too annoyed to type it all out again, so this will be briefer.


I think that the purges were motivated by fears of subversion from Trotskyists (and Trotsky thought there was a network within the USSR) and the old Tsarist officers who had been allowed back in under political supervision, though I doubt there were many left, and German spies. Now this seems to us pure paranoia, but it was more reasonable to them given their experiences. Regardless, the purges were a mistake.


Defending your home from a rampaging mob, or responding to army harassment with a retaliatory action is one thing. But I cannot see how sectarian murder was ever akin to either of these. Your point about southern opinion is an interesting one. It seems to suggest that a united Ireland was possible at some point over the last four decades, but I don’t believe that to be the case. It was always going to be a long-term project, and be dependent on people in the north changing their minds. As the old saying goes, you can’t bomb a million people into a republic.

I agree that there are structural reasons for sectarianism. But, at the same time, there was a great realm of choice available to people that fell short of fuelling that sectarianism. The state was transformed by NICRA, but the changes never got the chance to bed in, as was the case again in 1974. Peaceful action was making real gains. There could certainly have been more sectarian murder of protestants, but I sometimes wonder how much of that was an awareness that in any escalating situation, more catholics were likely to die. I think that was part of the calculation.


18. John Palmer - November 11, 2008

Garibaldy – You surely don’t believe all the guff about rooting out “nests of Trotskyists” etc. Any remaining left oppositionists (broadly defined) had long since been exterminated or sent to the gulag (more or less the same thing) by then. The tens of thousands purged in the late 1930s – including thousands in the army – had a long record of being loyal to the regime and even to Stalin personally. Tukachevsky – the civil war hero – was a case in point. Unfortunately no “network” of socialist oppositionists existed in the vast slaughter house which the “Soviet” Union had become in the years before the war. As I have said before – thousands of NKVD/OGPU agents who had carried out Stalin’s orders to execute Trotskyists, Zinovietes, right oppositionists (Bukharin), old Bolsheviks, long standing Stalinist loyalists, army professionals – were themselves liquidated in the aftermath of the fall of Yezhov and Yagoda. Their successor, the sexual pervert Beria, survived until just after his master’s death


19. ejh - November 11, 2008

I’d also be interested to know where that quote in comment number two is from.

Come on man, don’t tell me you didn’t look it up before asking…


20. Garibaldy - November 11, 2008


I said above I regarded it as pure paranoia, although I think the idea that there were no oppositionists outside the gulag is as hard to belive as the idea that the USSR was under serious threat from them. The point being that in looking for an explanation, irrational and escalating fear, allied to score-settling etc, seems to me to be more plausible than a vast conspiracy to remove all those who knew too much.


21. Garibaldy - November 11, 2008

I didn’t actually EJH, although I might now. I never assume that everything is on the net.


22. Garibaldy - November 11, 2008

I suspected it was Orwell. Wiki is the king.


23. ejh - November 11, 2008

On the Purges – I don’t doubt that many people believed the stories that were told them about saboteurs and the like – many people often do believe such things, in societies very different to the USSR of the Thirties. They believe them in Britian and Ireland and Spain today. But I don’t believe the people who put the stories about believed them – they knew very well that these were politically expedient lies, and that acting on them killed millions. They went ahead and did it anyway.

Now on the question of whether these people were scared – and fear for one’s life is a motive to which we can show some understanding. Well, they were scared of what might happen to them if they didn’t follow orders, yes. But were they really scared of the overthrow of the CSPA by a network of subversives within? By the Thirties? I really doubt it.

There is, I’m afraid, an unfortunate parallel with the killing of many tens of thousands of leftists (and others) by Franco’s régime after the Civil War was over. That was murder, I think: murder motivated by the desire for vengeance, in many instances, but murder nonetheless. In the USSR, how was it any different? How was it any better?


24. ejh - November 11, 2008

I actually thought I was subtly doing Orwell in my first paragraph at #23, but on looking it up it turns out to be “all the same” rather than “anyway”. Never mind.

Orwell also wrote a review, which I don’t believe is online, in which he tries to put the Soviet purges into a British context in order top show how ludicrous the stories were. If anybody knows better and the piece is online (I have in print it at home but won’t be able to locate it today) it’s worth rolling out for inspection.


25. Jim Monaghan - November 11, 2008

Barry McLoughlin who wrote on the Irish Victims also knows and wrote on the Austrians and Germans who were handed over.
Interesting and awful that neither Larkin did much on the one that they knew.
Goulds partner was still petrified decades after the events.
I think the left all varities are too uncritical of the enemny of my enemny.
The book is worth reading

Left to the Wolves
Irish Victims of Stalinist Terror
Barry McLoughlin


Between the end of the Russian Civil War in 1921 and Stalin’s death in 1953, the Soviet secret police sentenced over 4 million persons on political grounds. Over 800,000 were shot and millions died in the slave camps of the Gulag system. At the height of the mass-repression – the Great Terror of 193… Les mer

Between the end of the Russian Civil War in 1921 and Stalin’s death in 1953, the Soviet secret police sentenced over 4 million persons on political grounds. Over 800,000 were shot and millions died in the slave camps of the Gulag system. At the height of the mass-repression – the Great Terror of 1937/38 – foreigners were in great jeopardy. Knowing that a major war was coming, Iosif Stalin and his cohorts decided to rid Soviet society of all perceived or potential ‘enemies’. Among the putative ‘Fifth Columnists’ were non-Russian ethnic minorities, political refugees from fascism and foreign-born Communists. At least three of these countless victims were of Irish nationality. This book describes their social background, how and why they entered the semi-clandestine world of Communism and the reasons for their residence in the USSR. Patrick Breslin was a graduate of the International Lenin School who turned to journalism and translating. Brian Goold-Verschoyle’s visits to Moscow were periodic until his masters in the Soviet espionage service sent him to the Spanish cockpit in 1937. Finally, Sean McAteer was given political refugee status in the new Russia in 1923 after his flight from Scotland Yard. He used his language skills to proselytize sailors for the world revolution or to teach students the rudiments of English in exotic Odessa. Each man in turn knew by time of arrest that the secret police NKVD rarely released or acquitted anybody; and the fabricated charges they were faced with increased their sense of isolation and hopelessness. This realisation was all the more bitter considering the faith they had placed in the Soviet experiment. Lukk


Barry McLoughlin has taught in Germany and Ireland and worked on various projects concerning documents and archives in Austria and Moscow. He has conducted seminars on Soviet, Austrian and Irish history at Vienna University since 1999. He was the scriptwriter and associate producer of the life of … Les mer


26. ejh - November 11, 2008

Anyway, imperaialism. One reason for my mentioning it earl on is that I think it provides a refutation of the diea that twentieth-cenbtury history was all about the outrages of Left and right, which boith proved irresistably attracted to violence and dictatorship, and then in the middle you have liberal democracy, which didn’t have any of these problems. Because the trouble is, it did – and they were called imperalism (a term Orwell, by the way, used more than occasionally to describe Western capitalism) which despite the often democratic domestic natures of the governments which perpetrated it, was every bit as violent and undemocratic and destructive as the extremes which we are invited to condemn. And it weas (and to my mind, is) a mainstream politics. It was (and is) supported by just as large a proportion of people in the political mainstream and Stalinism and fascism were supported by those outside it.


27. Garibaldy - November 11, 2008

I think EJH that is a very valid point. Particularly to make today, when people are unthinkingly running around with poppies on.


28. John Palmer - November 11, 2008

Garybaldy (17) – You speak of the mass purges in which tens of thousands were slaughtered by Stalin’s killers as “a mistake”. Why do you describe them as a mistake and not a crime?


29. Jer - November 11, 2008


Some questions on your Katyn massacre – I hadn’t intended to say there was an equivalence between shooting aristocrats in a forest

The Katyn massacre was not about shooting artistocrats but rather about decapatating Poland’s military and intelligensia. To just equate it to shooting artistocrats and to give it the veneer of class warfare or social revolution is to debase leftist ideas and people’s revolutions while giving a blank cheque to what was an imperialist war.

It seems to me that the question of Stalin needs to be considered in the light of Mao.
Garibaldy I would be interested to hear your view, briefly on the legacy of Mao.


30. Garibaldy - November 11, 2008


I guess that I don’t feel that they deligitimised the USSR as an entity, so I have been careful about the language I use. But it was a crime.


I think the motives for it were mixed, like with the deportations. I’d rather do Mao another time, but I do think, as with Stalin, he was an innovative thinker who is worth consideration rather than instant denunciation. That said, I don’t think China has been a model I would seek to follow.


31. Meanwhile, in a parallel universe… « El Nuevo Pantano - November 11, 2008

[…] … at a blog that is not known for backwardness or stupidity, apparently serious attempts are being made to vindicate the memory of […]


32. D. J. P. O'Kane - November 11, 2008

Here’s another quote from the Sage of Jura, which I think is apposite:

As to the Russians, their motives in the Spanish war are completely inscrutable. Did they, as the pinks believed, intervene in Spain in order to defend Democracy and thwart the Nazis? Then why did they intervene on such a niggardly scale and finally leave Spain in the lurch? Or did they, as the Catholics maintained, intervene in order to foster revolution in Spain? Then why did they do all in their power to crush the Spanish revolutionary movements, defend private property and hand power to the middle class as against the working class? Or did they, as the Trotskyists suggested, intervene simply in order to prevent a Spanish revolution? Then why not have backed Franco? Indeed, their actions are most easily explained if one assumes that they were acting on several contradictory motives. I believe that in the future we shall come to feel that Stalin’s foreign policy, instead of being so diabolically clever as it is claimed to be, has been merely opportunistic and stupid.

‘Merely opportunistic and stupid’ – not only do I think that’s correct in the case of Spain, I also think it’s correct in the case of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. I also think it’s the only way Soviet policy could have been made, given the distortions created by the terror, the purges, the paranoia that results from making enemies out of large sections of the masses (e.g. the peasants), and the lack of pluralism in either the party or civil society (something which Lenin was fundamentally responsible for, a point that bears repeating).

I have fond memories of listening to Radio Moscow on the 50th anniversary of the pact; they were embarassed about it by then, but still argued that it was a necessary tactical manouevre to buy time. Maybe – but how then do we account (amongst other things) for the utter lack of preparedness that was revealed on the 22nd of June 1941? Opportunism and stupidity are the most likely explanatory variables.


33. entdinglichung - November 11, 2008

I would highly recommend to read Wolfgang Leonhard’s Child of the Revolution … additional someone should have in mind, that Stalin dissolved the Polish CP 1938 with most of its leadership murdered, among them Rosa Luxemburg’s comrades Jozef Unszlicht and Adolf Warski and other well-known veterans of the Polish workers movement like Maria Koszutska, Henryk Walecki, Julian Leszczyński (Lenski) and Stanisław Bobiński


34. Garibaldy - November 11, 2008


I’ve been thinking about what you were saying about the tone and substance. I agree that the reconstructions did get in the way somewhat, and I found it irritating that not all the German and Russian was translated while the voiceover talked over it. It left me wondering what was being said. It was distracting. I agree too about them making too much of the interviews, though the tale of the suicides of the NKVD men was interesting.


35. D. J. P. O'Kane - November 11, 2008

The last time I was in Galway I picked up this account of five months in 1950s Moscow by Sally Belfrage, who was the daughter of a couple blacklisted in McCarthy’s USA.

She describes a visit to a friend’s relatives where the father of the house spends the whole time drinking vodka. She’s shown photos of a family ‘holiday’ in Kazakhstan. Only later, after they’ve left, is she told that the holiday was actually a trip to scout likely locations for new concentration camps. . .


36. ejh - November 11, 2008

On the Second World War and blind spots regarding imperialism…I saw Casablanca for the nth time on Saturday night. You’ll recall the scene in Rick’s where Victor Laszlo has the band play the Marseillaise and everybody starts singing it to drown out the Germans…

…great stuff, but aren’t they actually in Morocco?


37. D. J. P. O'Kane - November 11, 2008

OTOH, Casablanca also contains this exchange:

Laszlo: Didn’t you run guns to Abyssinia, and the Spanish Republic?

Rick: And got well paid for it on both occasions.

Laszlo: The other side would have paid better.

Of course, Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia was a pretty nasty imperialist power in its own right, as Eritreans would tell you . . .


38. Garibaldy - November 11, 2008

These are both very good points. Perhaps Lawrence Rees should be made aware of them when drawing his contrasts between Winston and Joseph.


39. D. J. P. O'Kane - November 11, 2008

Actually, what are Laszlo’s politics? They’re never specified.


40. ejh - November 11, 2008

No they’re not, which might very well have been intentional. He apparently knows the leaders of the resistance in every city including Berlin, but I don’t think we need take that seriously. All we really know of him is that he’s from Czechoslovakia.


41. Renoir - November 11, 2008

I find Garibaldy’s arguments problematic. The shortcomings of the documentary are well made but his general perspective, despite the claim to contextualising, seems to me to demonstrate the degree to which he has internalised the Stalinist perspective. His choice of words gives him away again and again: his language is saturated with Sovietism.

The Polish deportations were very badly explained in the documentary. Something over 400,000 Poles (mainly Catholic Poles, but also some Jewish Poles) were deported in 1940, the great majority of whom were women and children. This is because large numbers of Polish men had already been rounded up and were in POW camps – the officers shot at Katyn were a small proportion of the Polish men incarcerated in 1939-40. They would be in prison until the general amnesty following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.

These were obviously not all members of the middle classes and historians more and more see the deportations as an act of ethnic cleansing. What the doc (and Garibaldy) didn’t note is that the territories seized under the Nazi-Soviet Pact by the Soviets were almost immediately transferred to Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine. There was no Soviet Poland until 1945. The deportations gradually worked their way down the social scale, beginning in Feb 1940 with the familes of the Katyn officers. Historians now suggest that the deportations were brought to an end by the Nazi invasion rather than the completion of a class-based policy.

Garibaldy is probably right to argue that the Soviets were driven above all by strategic calculations and they bought off Lith, Bel and Uk nationalists in order to secure their border. We might as well admit that this was great power politics and cease trying to prettify it with ideological explanations.


42. Mick Hall - November 11, 2008

with a future war in mind – Stalin was concerned to exterminate “possibly unreliable elements.


But the only unreliable elements who were ‘actually’ plotting with nazis was Stalin and his cohorts, as this TV program makes clear. Not only did he plot with nazis and make deals with them, he kept his word when dealing with this scum and then refused to believe comrades like Richard Sorge when they passed on information to him that the Nazis were going to attack the Soviet Union.

With respect I am beginning to wonder whether you have read any of Trotsky’s works, especially those which deal with the rise of German fascism. You seem to have been blinded comrade by some of the the antics of modern day Trotskyism.

Pray tell me what excuse did Stalin have for murdering his own supporters like Kossior and in all probability his close friend Ordzhonikidze, plus a number of former close comrades from the Georgian party apparatus. (yes lets use the correct word, please do not belittle yourself by using words like mistake, the murder of countless old Bolsheviks was not a mistake, it was plotted, planned and carried out with precision, all at Stalin’s behest)

Yes the duty of a socialist was to defend first workers state, but you do not do this by murdering some of its finest military personnel, civil servants, intellectuals and politicians, artists, writers, Poets, musicians scientists. take the murder of Lenin’s old comrades Kamenev and Zinoviev, they were broken men and no political opposition was going to gather around them, especially as they had betrayed the left opposition in the latter 1920s. He had them murdered for pure and spiteful revenge.

How about Stalin’s humiliation of Lenin’s widow Krupskaya. What about his promotion of scum like Andrei Vyshinsky, whilst he had a noble head like Nikolay Bukharin shot, a man who loved the workers state so much, when he could have stayed in western Europe where he was receiving medical treatment, he refused and returned home to face Stalin’s meat grinder.

No comrade the countesses quote is apt here.


43. Garibaldy - November 11, 2008


I did point earlier in comment 12 to the arguments that there might have been plans to move the Polish population per se, but as far as I can see the issue is unresolved. I will say that a great deal of the historiography on this period is motivated by a combination of sensationalism to sell books and hostility to the whole Soviet project, whether explicit or just taken as read that the USSR was a bad thing. We need to be extra-careful when reading historians on such issues, a bit like the French Revolution debates around the time of the bicentenary, or indeed our own commemorations of things like the Famine or 1798.

I didn’t note that there was no Soviet Poland in the sense of a state called Poland because I just assumed that people knew that, though perhaps I ought to have made it clear.

I do think that strategic considerations were key, though I also think that we should not write off ideological motivations too readily. The documentary showed houses being handed over to working class families. I presume that this actually happened though it may not be the case.


I have read a number of Trotsky’s works, including his stuff on France and Spain during the 1930s, though I don’t recall reading a similar collection of his stuff on Germany. I remember for example that he called for the USSR to invade Germany in 1933 when it was in no fit state to do so, and that he also said it was legitimate to sacrifice the national rights of Poland to the interest of the workers’ state. The adventurist streak in Trotsky’s thinking, especially when it came to military matters, is something we hear little about. It is also in these writings I’ve read that I’ve seen references to networks of oppositionists inside the USSR. Whether these actually existed in any significant sense or not, he thought they did. That seems to me to be of interest.

As for the murders of good Communists during the purges, as I’ve said I do not seek to defend them. I do seek to understand them, so as to work out whether they were inherent in a government based on Leninism as some suspect, or whether we can attribute them to the specific conditions from which the Bolsheviks had emerged, and the circumstances in which they were operating in the 1930s. A violent political culture encouraged a sense of us or them. And often it was right to think that that was the case, unfortunately. By the by, I think the fact that the USSR never had these types of bloody purges again suggests they were the product of certain conditions rather than any inherent tendency in the ideology of the CPSU.


44. WorldbyStorm - November 11, 2008

Hmmm… well that’s kicked off a storm…

Perhaps predictably I’m none too keen on a ‘violent political culture’ in any context. That they happened at all, and let’s not forget the USSR was no picnic in later decades even if the system ‘softened’ to some extent, is the problem. Personally I think that a one party state is inevitably going to result in that sort of outcome. And us or them being a validation? Well we can map that onto many conflicts some of them a lot closer to home.

But here’s a thought. On a certain levels this is all very interesting, but considering that two of the three geo-political units breathed their last some time ago what precisely is all the fuss about one way or another? The USSR is not going to be reconstituted in any shape or form, and neither – thankfully – is Nazi Germany. I’m no fan of Stalin or Stalinism, while appreciating the sacrifices of the USSR in World War 2, perhaps its supreme justifying moment. It’s highly problematic trying to work through any thoughts on these matters not least because I suspect few of us of whatever political hue would swap our places in this society for that one.

I actually think Mick is probably right, Leninism was I suspect an historical dead end which has occupied far too much of the energies of the left. The aftereffects of Leninism are even less useful as roadmaps to any potential future – or as George Galloway put it, supreme pragmatist he, we’re not going anywhere if we concern ourselves too deeply about the differences between dead Russians. It’s not that we can’t learn anything from Trotsky, or Moscow Communism, we can obviously – just little that is of any practical use in the context we find ourselves.


45. WorldbyStorm - November 11, 2008

I should add that that doesn’t mean that discussing why we find these discussions contentious isn’t a good exercise and one that could fruitfully be asked on the further left. And in it’s own way more interesting than even the topic of the programme.


46. Dunne and Crescendo - November 11, 2008

Its the ‘vision thing’ WBS. If you for a minute imagine that the type of society constructed in the USSR, China or North Korea was justified in the type of repression meted out to enemies, real and imagined, and particularly in terms of the lies and bullshit sold to their own working classes then you give up the hope of ever convincing the working class that socialism is a better way to run society than capitalism.


47. Garibaldy - November 11, 2008


I agree with your sentiments about the need not to be sidetracked by this, and for the left to keep itself focused on the here and now and actual improvements in the lives of workers. And as I said, I was coming at this from the angle of how history is put together, and really whether the programme was a fair-minded attempt to cover all the relevant issue. Which I don’t think it was. Although obviously Leninism is great 🙂


48. Garibaldy - November 11, 2008


My aim is to be able to discuss the decisions made in those countries at those times reasonably, to an extent pragmatically and objectively. One thing I try to keep in mind is, what would have happened if their enemies had won; and another is, what would I have done different if placed in their shoes. Once those questions are asked, I think the situation gets more complicated.


49. WorldbyStorm - November 11, 2008

Yes, but is South Korea genuinely a worse outcome than North Korea? Or East Germany better than West? I think it’s is possible to see that even with considerable sympathy – as I have – for the aims of those who established those regimes there are hugely problematical aspects to them. China is a mixed bag, but there it is possible to ascribe that to the introduction of market forces with few democratic checks and balances – hardly surprising in a one party state. The USSR is more of a mixed bag again pre and post-Stalin, but again hardly paradise. It really does come down to a position where – whatever about the enemies – those involved were working of essentially incorrect assumptions about society, politics, etc, and central to that was a lack of any sort of pluralism.


50. Garibaldy - November 11, 2008

Those are all valid questions. I won’t go into them properly but. I will though briefly point to the matter of timing. When the Korean War was fought, the DPRK was the better off, while the south was a dictatorship as it would be for decades. The reversal of the economic position and greater freedom in the south emerged probably only in the late 1970s if not later. Again with the concrete historical circumstances 🙂


51. Renoir - November 11, 2008

Garibaldy, your words:

‘though I know there are some who try to argue that there may have been an intention to expand the range of people moved.’

Your phrasing here, at best, is begrudging. The fact that the ethnic cleansing argument is ‘unresolved’ means that the assumption that the policy was in its essence an extension of dekulakisation is equally unresolved.

The importance of the Soviet erasure of eastern Poland as a state reflected the Soviet manipulation of the vicious ethnic tensions of eastern Europe. The doc makers seem entirely blind to this aspect of the history, setting up a simple tale of German, Pole and Soviet. In this regard, despite it being a hatchet job on Soviet policy, they end up presenting Soviet propaganda. Were those working class people moved into Polish-owned property Poles (ie. Polish speaking)? We don’t know and nor, I suspect, do the documentary makers. One of the lies propagated by the Soviets that the Poles were all ‘Lords’, obviously nonsense.

You’re picking and choosing which bits to credit and which to show up as inadequate and its this selectivity which highlights the subjective aspects of this apparently cool-headed contextualisation.


52. eamonnmcdonagh - November 11, 2008

“When the Korean War was fought, the DPRK was the better off, while the south was a dictatorship as it would be for decades. The reversal of the economic position and greater freedom in the south emerged probably only in the late 1970s if not later.”

While economic development in the North was probably comparable to the south till the start of the sixties after that there is simply no point of comparison. And even less is there between the level of individual freedom in the south and the north, at least after the ousting of Syngman Rhee in 1960. Getting confused about this rather puts me in mid of those who say, “Well I know Saddam wasn’t a nice man but….”


53. Garibaldy - November 11, 2008


I guess my attitude is that if the people moved were (mostly or overwhelmingly) of a certain class, then the argument that they intended to remove all of a certain nationality is far from conclusive. The balance of evidence seems to me to be in favour of the class argument. But I am open to further evidence enlightening us more.

I took the documentary to be saying it was Polish workers that were moved into those houses. But as you say it is unclear.

I am picking and choosing which bits to credit and which bits to argue were inadequate because I’m not really sure what else I can do in a review of the programme if it is not just to be a list of what it said. I do think I have not hidden from the bits that I would rather not have happened, and don’t think I have misrepresented the documentary.


54. Renoir - November 11, 2008

I’m not suggesting you misrepresented the documentary and agree that to merely reguritate what it said would be a fruitless exercise but I’m questioning the way in which you have set up this notion of contextualisation as something above the kind of moral judgement indulged by the programme makers. You are obviously far more sophisticated but, as I think others here have implied, your interventions suggest one ‘insensibly conditioned by the views of the man in whose ideas and expressions’ you have been ‘steeped for years’.


55. Garibaldy - November 11, 2008

Interesting points Renoir. Can you tell me where the quotes come from? I guess the contextualisation thing is simply a plea to look at the events in the round, and not as isolated incidents with no backstory, which I thought they were guilty of. The moral judgments were no more or less than I expected really, but the way the pact was presented as coming virtually out of the blue I thought was unacceptable.


56. Mick Hall - November 12, 2008


I am not a supporter of Trotskyism, but I do have a bit of a unique insight into how little CP members in the 1970 and early 80s understood Trotsky, as I was one of the few party members at that time who had read his work in some depth. (There were reasons for this which are not relevant here.) I had an inkling you had failed to read him as your take on this period is par for the course amongst many CP comrades.

You’re a very knowledgeable fellow and normal a clear thinker, but that you have never read Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution speaks volumes as to why you are slightly out of your depth here and I really do not mean this in a detrimental way. Here was a book written by a fine writer, even Trotsky enemies admit this, and more to the point someone who played a leading role in the 1905 revolution and then again in the 1917 October Russian revolution. You have a great interest in this period and normally you would have read such a book, possibly in one sitting;) yet due to prejudices which were passed on to you by Stalinists, I would guess you refused even to leaf through it.

The whole point about dictatorial regimes like Stalin led, is that they burn the books of their political enemies and make no mistake, when Stalin and Trotsky were both alive, Stalin had no greater, or more able an enemy than Trotsky and he new it. That is why he went to such enormous lengths to slander, vilify and eventual murder him. It is also why he had a hand in murdering both of Trotsky’s sons and his ex wife.

By the way, there is a contradiction in this book burning business, for if the likes of Trotsky’s books are the twaddle- anti soviet, pro nazi and capital that Stalin’s minnows claim, why not let all read them, as he would be exposed by his own words.

Of course they are not anti Soviet, he offers an alternative to Stalinism, indeed in his great tome The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote that within his gulag the Trotskyists were different from the other political prisoners, many victims from the great purges, as they were armed with an alternative to Stalinism which gave them great strength, the leader of the Red Orchestra Leopold Trepper said much the same.

You claim Trotsky wrote the red army should invade Germany in 1933, if you say so, but I have never come across any such thing, perhaps you are mistaken about the date, could it have been 1923?

Trotsky’s writing on Germany 1931-32/33 are amongst his finest and any worker who wishes to understand Hitler’s rise to power should read them. It was the failure of the KPD to put up any real effective resistance to the nazi grab for power that made Trotsky believe the Comintern was dead in the water as far as proletarian revolution was concerned. The fact that the KPD did not fire a single shot to stop Hitler taking power in 1933, is pretty shocking, the more so when one realized it was a mass party with its own armed militias.

Plus the KPD made no real attempt to merge with the SPD to resist Hitler as a united force; and vice versa, which was imo the main thing that led to Germanys undoing. Instead the KPD was all over the place at first taking an ultra left turn them moving to far to the right politically.

The reason we do not hear a great deal about what you call an adventurous streak that Trotsky had over military matters is because it did not exist. Indeed Lenin condemned him in his last will for being to taken up with organizational matters, although it was one of the reasons he gave Trotsky the task of building a new Red Army at the start of the civil war, even though Trotsky had no real experience of military matters.

If anything he was cautious. This was one of the reasons Trotsky and Stalin fell out during the civil war, when the Bolsheviks were at the gates of Warsaw; and Tukachevesky and Smilga felt they could take the city, however when the Poles counterattacked, Stalin instead of coming to their aid as requested by the minister of War Trotsky, continue to move westwards towards Lovov which proved disastrous.

Indeed it is interesting that Tukachevesky and Smilga along with other senior officers within their command and Trotsky all died at Stalin’s hands, he was never a man to forget a slight, nor one to leave a witness to history of his mismanagement.

It has to be said Trotsky was a poor judge of men, unlike Stalin who could spot an able toady at ten miles and in my view Trotsky often misjudged Stalin completely, as still do his so called heirs.

Whereas Trotsky was a fine writer and a great revolutionary when the class struggle was on the up, on the downside he was a poor politician, whereas Stalin was a consummate politico and thus he was able to outmaneuver Trotsky and others and bureaucratize the party by staffing it with his own kind.

The tragedy for the workers movement was that after Lenin’s death, both men were intellectually head and shoulders above their immediate circles, thus there was no one to tell them they were wrong and should think again before they acted. Trotsky could be forgiven, as he was isolated for the last years of his life, but it was the values of the Communist organizational methodology that failed to check Stalin’s brutal madness. If we learn one lesson from this period this is it.

If one wishes to understand this important period in working class history I would recommend Trotsky’s history in three volumes, plus his collection of articles which were eventually published in a book entitled Germany 1933, 1932. Deutchers three volume biography of Trotsky is a masterpiece, as well as being a great read. I cannot think of a single book from a Stalinist on this period that covers in such detail the same ground, which in itself is pretty revealing as they had access to the archive.

Whilst I am recommending books, my own favorite from this period is Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary, as it put me on the road of no master no gods and Cathy Porters Alexandra Kollontai is also worth a read.

Comradely regards


57. Renoir - November 12, 2008

I agree, it was pretty crap as history though the reenactments compelled and that poor Ukrainian woman pulling at her hair was distressing to watch.

The Russian woman impressed by the nightdress is fascinating as folk memory: it is one of those anecdotes that is important as much because everyone tells it as because everyone saw it.

Norman Gash on the biographer’s weakness.


58. Garibaldy - November 12, 2008

Hi Mick,

Thanks for that. I have actually read Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, although it took me a lot more than one sitting. Ditto Deutscher’s trilogy. I’ve even read some Victor Serge, as well as quite a lot of the material from various Trotskyist groups, some of which used to be on sale in Waterstone’s in Belfast (not that you would get that now in the glorified WH Smith’s that it has become). And that was before I knew any “Stalinists”! I am certain that I read he wanted to attack Germany after Hitler’s rise to power, but cannot now give the reference as all this was some time ago, and I don’t have the books to hand. One legacy of this was even within the last few years me being shocked at just how effusive the praise the Chinese heaped on Stalin was bceause before that I had read only Trotsky’s account of Soviet dealings with China. Anyway, I picked up fairly quickly that Trotsky’s own histories, convincing and absorbing though they were, and more particularly the versions given by his followers, were as unreliable if not more so than things produced by their opponents. My rejection of their version(s) is not based on prejudice, but on my own judgment.

Monumental mistakes were made in Germany, although I think the blame for the lack of coordinated action lies as much with the SPD as the KPD. Some form of armed resistance to the Nazis would have been sensible I agree.

One lesson socialists should certainly learn from the USSR is not to worry about censoring plays, poets, novelists, writings, history books, jokes etc in socialist states.


59. Garibaldy - November 12, 2008


Yeah watching that woman was not pleasant. And I too was struck by the nightdress. The implication being that no Pole could have made that mistake, though I wonder if a Polish peasant mightn’t have done so also. Although due to the USSR, the captain’s wife was doubtless better educated. Dresses have an interesting place in female folk memory. I remember being told a story by an historian of how when oral interviews were being conducted with women about the time of the War in an old people’s home, their main topic of conversation was clothes.

Thanks for the info on the quotes.


60. ejh - November 12, 2008

Getting confused about this rather puts me in mid of those who say, “Well I know Saddam wasn’t a nice man but….”

Not that anybody does say that, but lunging at imaginary enemies is basically Eamon’s game.

I think it’s reasonable, within limits, and probably necessary, to discuss violent and paranoid political cultures within the context of the events that produced them. We couldn’t, for instance, understand Nazi Germany without reference to the outcome of the Great War, the workers’ uprisings at the end of it, the impact of mass unemployment and so on. But we would be unable to locate any great threat to Germany or to German culture which would provide an explanation* for the Nazi persecutions. We would have, I think, to look for them in Nazi racial and political ideology, and perhaps to locate their support in the fear that propertied people have of losing their property. (I simplify, of course.)

In the case of Pyongyang, however, the country underwent the most extraordinary destruction over a three-year period – according to Bruce Cumming :

Five years later, the US joined the Korean War and carpet-bombed the North until every man, woman and child was living in a tunnel or a cave.

Of course this is far from the being the sole cause of the development of the Pyongyang régime – and these events took place over half a century now. But its extraordinary level of paranoia and intransigence cannot be unconnected to its origins in a country suffering mass airborne destruction.

Because one thing about violent political cultures is that often they’re connected to the experience of great violence. Once people have seen large numbers of countrymen or comrades die, that leaves a large impression on their minds and on their political practice: partly the feeling that they don’t need to take any lessons from anyone, partly the understanding that they fought for what they got and are going to hold on to it come what may. (I did wonder this about the Chinese repression of 1989, that even half a century after the Long March, people who had gone through that trauma – and others – felt that they weren’t prepared to lose everything because of some kids. Naturally I was on the side of the kids, but I can see, now, how the old men’s minds may have been working.)

Of course sometimes wars and civil wars are followed by peace and democracy, but I think it would be unwise to underestimate the experience of enormous violence in forming the minds and politics of people who do not find themselves segueing quite so simply into an easier and gentler kind of society.

[* note that I don’t say “justification” – it’s not that sort of enquiry, and people who claim that to seek explanations is to provide justifications are people of a persecutory cast of mind.]


61. Ken MacLeod - November 12, 2008

The closest to a call by Trotsky for an invasion of Germany that I can find on a cursory search is this:

It should be axiomatic for every revolutionary worker that the attempt of the fascists to seize power in Germany must lead to the mobilization of the Red Army. For the proletarian state, it will be a matter of revolutionary self-defense in the most direct and immediate sense. Germany is not only Germany. It is the heart of Europe. Hitler is not only Hitler. He is the candidate for the post of a super-Wrangel. But the Red Army is also not only the Red Army. It is the arm of the proletarian world revolution.

As far as I can recall, this is the passage that was cited by Monty Johnstone and by the B&ICO in critiques of Trotsky. Trotsky’s writings on Germany are now, of course, easily available to anyone with an internet connection.


62. Jim Monaghan - November 12, 2008

Could I add that amongst the repressed in the seized areas of Poland which had a largre ethnic Ukraine population was the Ukrainian and Byleorussian intelligentsia.
Oh Trotsky had some military experience. he reported on the Balkan wars and was an eyewitness of the horrors there and the military up and down of every side.


63. Mick Hall - November 12, 2008


I apologize if my post sounded a tad patronizing, it was not my intention, but on re-reading it you may have thought so.




64. Garibaldy - November 12, 2008

No bother, I didn’t find it patronising Mick. I know you are only interested in comradely discussion.


65. Garibaldy - November 12, 2008


Excellent post.


66. ejh - November 12, 2008

The Orwell review I referred to above was of Eugene Lyons’ Assignment in Utopia and the relevant passage is here.


67. eamonnmcdonagh - November 12, 2008

So it’s the US that’s responsible for North Korea being the way it is? I see, foolish of me not to have realised that


68. ejh - November 12, 2008

No, foolish of you not to read or tried to understand the whole post before making what you imagine is an ironic response to it.

Perhaps foolish of you not to grow up a little too: I would like to think, pace Pitt, that we could rely on time to remedy that, but that same time has taught be not to be so confident.


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70. P - November 19, 2008

Without meaning to start all this again (by which I of course mean, “hey, I’d like to start all this again”), one thing I don’t understand is what exactly you meant by the differing context between pre-war Russia and the various analogies offered.

A lot of the context which would lessen the nastiness of the purges/deportations etc. would appear (to me, at least), to be the creation of Stalin’s rule itself. Can a group take actions to create a culture in which further actions are thus more justified?


71. Garibaldy - November 19, 2008


I assume that is addressed to me. By differing context, I mean the concrete historical circumstances in which each situation had arisen. I guess it boils down to the unique experiences of the Bolsheviks within the USSR and the fact that it was clear that the western powers were most likely happy to let the USSR try to deal with Germany on its own if it came to that. Throw in the history of civil war, foreign intervention, Tsarist oppression etc etc, you have a particular set of circumstances that produced very specific and unrepeatable elements to the society.


72. Remembering Stalins victims annoys Russia?!?! - Page 6 - Politics.ie - July 4, 2009

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