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17 November 2018

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Book Review

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It is the great, cruel paradox of World War II in Russia that heinous, unanswered lies and crimes coexisted with truly heroic, astonishing human achievement. That – be it out of fear or love of the Motherland or self-defense – Soviets fought so bravely to defend a system that treated them like cattle, confiscating from them the land, the bread and the peace that the Revolution had allegedly been all about, shipping them and their relatives off to Siberian labor camps, sentencing soldiers unfortunate enough to have been captured in war into “penal battalions.”

Taken together, the three non-fiction books reviewed in this issue offer a stunning and deeply documented indictment of the Stalinist regime. Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands is the most unequivocal. “At a great distance,” he writes, “we can choose to compare the Nazi and Soviet systems, or not. The hundreds of millions of Europeans who were touched by both regimes did not have this luxury.” Trapped between colluding or colliding totalitarianisms, between 1933 and 1945, some 14 million Europeans perished as a result of non-combat, deliberate killing policies of the Hitler and Stalin regimes. And that is more or less a low estimate. The number could have been as high as 21 million, Snyder asserts.

The crimes, Snyder explains, were committed under cover of Big Lies, the pursuit of unattainable utopias: “Stalin’s utopia was the forced collectivization of Soviet Union in 9-12 weeks, Hitler’s was to conquer the Soviet Union in the same span of time…” When the utopias instead lead to catastrophe, Stalin and Hitler “blamed the enemy f their choice, and then used the death of millions to make the case that their policies were necessary or desirable.”

This is a harrowing history that succeeds by connecting individual tragedies with epic events and trends, drawing on an amazing breadth of research.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Sep/Oct 2011