The death yesterday of Robert Conquest, author of The Great Terror, reminds us of the pathetic attempt by public school Stalinist hack Seumas Mine to challenge Conquest’s facts about the death-toll brought about by Stalinism.
The following article by Milne, written shortly before the final collapse of the USSR, appeared in the Guardian of March 10 1990. Until we republished it here at Shiraz (29 September 2012) it was not available anywhere else online, nor is it included in the 2012 book, wonderfully entitled The Revenge of History, made up of the “cream” of Milne’s Guardian columns. Conquest was a right-winger and virulent anti-communist: but he was an objective and thoroughly scupulous historian. Milne’s desperate attempt to challenge Conquest’s estimated death-toll (later verified as substantially correct when the Soviet archives were fully opened in 1991) is, perversely, a tribute to an honest man:
In the preface to the 40th anniversary edition of his pioneering work, The Great Terror (first published in 1968) Conquest stated that in the light of documents released since 1991 from the Presidential, State, Party and Police archives, and the declassification by Russia’s Federal Security Service of some 2 million secret documents:
“Exact numbers may never be known with complete certainty, but the total of deaths caused by the whole range of Soviet regime’s terrors can hardly be lower than some thirteen to fifteen million.”
From THE GUARDIAN Saturday March 10 1990
The figure of 25 million deaths that is being attributed to the Stalin regime should be revised in the light of glasnost reports. Seumas Milne analyses new Soviet data that records much lower gulag populations
Stalin’s missing millions
All over South-east of England billboards have appeared in the past week declaring: “Once upon a time there was an uncle who murdered 25 million of his children.” Next to this startling slogan is a photograph of the man who was the undisputed leader of the Soviet Union for a generation, hugging an Aryan-looking Young Pioneer with pigtails.
The advertisement is a trailer for Thames Television’s block-buster documentary series on the life of Stalin, which begins on Tuesday. Forthcoming press publicity will follow a similar theme, setting out the kind of absurdities which could have led to arrest and execution at the height of the Soviet Terror in the late 1930’s.
The programmes come as glasnost has provoked a stream of new information and memoirs about the Stalin era in the Soviet Union itself, 30 years after Khruschev’s secret speech denouncing his former boss led to the first phase of revelations and rehabilitations. For the most part attention in the Soviet media has turned to more pressing problems. But the flood of new horror stories has emboldened an academic and political current which is bent on overturning the consensus view of Hitler and Nazism as the supreme evil of 20th century history.
Not only is it increasingly common for Stalin to be bracketed with Hitler as the twin monster of the modern era, even in the Soviet Union, but in West Germany and Austria a significant “revisionist” academic trend — represented by historians like Ernst Nolte, Andreas Hilgruber, and Ernst Topitsch — goes on to argue that the Stalinist system was actually responsible for the Nazis and the second world war.
Central to these debates is the issue of the number of Stalin’s victims. Controversy about the scale of repression in the Stalin era has rumbled on in Western universities for many years, and has now been joined by Soviet experts who are equally divided. Thames Television, with its 25 million deaths, has opted for the furthest extreme.
Hitherto, the British writer Robert Conquest who in the 1950’s worked for the Foreign Office propaganda outfit IRD, led the field with his view that Stalin was responsible for 20 million deaths. Phillip Whitehead, one of the Stalin series producers, says he is not to blame for the advertising campaign but thinks a 25 million figure can be defended if the Soviet dead in the first three months of the Nazi invasion of 1941 are included on the grounds of Stalin’s negligence.
But even that is not enough for Thomas Methuen, publishers of of the companion book to the series, who bid up the figure to 30 million in their publicity and — in an echo of the German revisionists — describe Stalin as “the greatest mass killer of the 20th century.” The record estimate so far has been 50 million, made in the Sunday Times two years nago.
There are three basic catagories of people usually regarded as Stalin’s victims: first there are those executed for political offences, most of whom died in the Terror years of 1937-8. Then there are those who died in the labour camps or in the process of mass deportations. Finally — and almost certainly the biggest number — there are the peasants who died during the famine of the early 30s.
In the complete absence of any hard evidence from the Soviet Union, estimates for a grand total of all three have been made by extrapolating the number of “excess deaths” from census figures. This process is fraught with statistical problems, including the fact that the 1937 census was supported, and the 1939 census is thought to have been artificially inflated by terrified Soviet statisticians.. Add to that disputes about the size of peasant families and the possibilities for discrepancies multiply.
Among Soviet specialists and demographers in the West, the majority view appears to be that the kind of numbers used by Robert Conquest and his supporters are wildly exaggerated. Prof Sheila Fitzpatrick, of Chicago University comments: “the younger generation of Soviet historians tend to go for far lower numbers. There is no basis in fact for Conquest’s claims.”
Some of the most recent Western demographic analysis, by Barbera Anderson and Brian Silver in the US, estimates that the most likely figure for all the “excess” deaths — whether from purges, famine or deportations — between 1926 and 1939 lies in a range with a median of 3.5 million, and a limit of eight million.
Estimates of that order have found support across a broad range of academic work, from Frank Lorrimer’s pioneering post-war analysis to Prof Jerry Hough’s 1979 study to the 1980s research by the British academic, Stephen Wheatcroft, now at the University of Melbourne. But this growing consensus has been thrown on the defensive by Soviet specialists like Roy Medvedev, who — using the same data — have apparently backed Conquest’s position, or something like it.
When it comes to the famine deaths, an exact figure will almost certainly never be known. But suddenly, after years of working in the dark, specialists are obtainingv some hard Soviet data. Last month, the KGB published for the first time the records of the number of victims of the Stalin purges.
Between 1930 and 1953, the report states, 3,778,234 people had been sentenced for counter-revolutionary activities or anti-state crimes,of whom 786,098 were shot. From his office at the Hoover Institute in California yesterday, Conquest said it was difficult to say whether the figures were right, but he thought “they could be true.”
Even more remarkably, the records originally made by the NKVD (forerunner of the KGB) of those held in labour camps and penal colonies during the Stalin years are now becoming available. An article from a “restricted access” Soviet Interior Ministry journal has been passed to the Guardian, which lists the total Gulag populations during the 1930s and 1940s.
Originally collated for Khrushchev in the 1950s, the figures show how the camp numbers rose relentlessly from 179,000 in 1930 to 510,307 in 1934, to 1,296,494 in 1936, to 1,881,570 in 1938 at the height of the Terror. The population fell during the war, but reached its peak in 1950 when 2,561,351 people are recorded as detained in camps or colonies.
These figures published openly here for the first time are huge: but they are a long way from the 19 million camp population estimated by Robert Conquest. The Soviet report records that an average of 200,000 were released every year, and puts the death-rate in the camps at 3 per cent a year per on average, rising to more than 5 per cent in 1937-8. The camps were mostly emptied of political prisoners after Stalin’s death.
Are the figures credible? In the context of the current political atmosphere in the Soviet Union and the fact that they were in a restricted publication, it seems improbable that they have been tampered with. Of course, they do not cover the famine and other disasters. But they do begin to add credence to the mainstream academic view that the deaths attributable to Stalin’s policies was closer to 3.5 million than 25 million.
Why do numbers matter anyway? After all Robert Conquest may be out by a factor of five or 10, but the repressions were still enormous.
If, however, a figure of 20 million or 25 million becomes current currency, it adds credence to the Stalin-Hitler comparison. Already, anyone who questions these figures — even in the academic debates — is denounced as a “neo-Stalinist.”
As the Irish writer Alexander Cockburn who started what turned into a highly emotional exchange last year in the American journal, the Nation, puts it: “Any computation that does not soar past 10 million is somehow taken as being soft on Stalin.” And by minimising the quantitative gulf between the Hitler and Stalin killings, it becomes easier to skate over the uniqueness of the Nazi genocide and war.
JD adds: This last comment (“it becomes easier to skate over the uniqueness of the Nazi genocide and war”), suggesting that Conquest’s aim was to down-play Nazi genocide, is a simply despicable piece of Stalinist guilt-by-innuendo against Conquest, a proven and consistent anti fascist (which is more than can be said for the tradition Seumas belongs to). It demonstrates just how well the contemptible Milne has leaned from the filthy, lying methodology of Stalinism.
On the 29th anniversary of the Sebrenica massacre/genocide, we re-publish this important critique of the role of much the international left towards the Bosnian war at the time. First published by Workers Liberty, June 2011:
31 March 2003: Relatives of some of the 8,000 Muslim men and boys slaughtered in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre search rows of coffins next to freshly-dug graves for loved ones
Ratko Mladic, who commanded Serb forces during the Bosnian war of 1992-5, was arrested on 26 May in a Serbian village, and will now face a war-crimes tribunal in The Hague.
In July 1995, two of the areas which the United Nations declared “safe havens” in the midst of a fierce war were overrun by Serb forces under Mladic’s command. In Zepa, some 200 lives were killed, and the bulk of the population of 40,000 fled.
In Srebrenica, over 8,000 civilians were massacred. In classifying the massacre as an act of genocide the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia outlined what happened:
“They stripped all the male Muslim prisoners, military and civilian, elderly and young, of their personal belongings and identification, and deliberately and methodically killed them solely on the basis of their identity.”
Srebrenica was only the most infamous of the atrocities by Serb forces in the Bosnian war. Like the wars conducted by the Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic in Croatia in 1991-5 and in Kosova in 1999, that war was an imperialist war in the most straightforward sense: a war by a dominant power to gain control over other nations, conducted without regard to the wishes or the lives of the subject peoples.
By now Milosevic’s wars have few defenders. Although many people in Serbia mourned Mladic’s arrest, Serbia’s government is in no danger of being toppled by protest against it handing over Mladic to The Hague. In Britain, even the Morning Star has reported the arrest in a manner suggesting neutrality or approval.
At the time, though — and the scandal should be remembered, and learned from — large chunks of the left betrayed the left’s basic values of consistent democracy and freedom for oppressed nations. Some sided with Mladic and Milosevic explicitly. Others, including the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP), gave them backhanded support by way of a form of pro-imperialism posing as “anti-imperialist”. They claimed there was nothing to choose between the forces in conflict within Yugoslavia. The only “imperialist” thing, to be opposed with vigour, was the police actions against Serbia which NATO took to contain the conflict, in 1995 and in 1999. Thus they presented the Serbian state as not imperialistic, but the fighter against imperialism. Read the rest of this entry »
Above: genocide denier Chomsky
Today’s Guardian carries an excellent piece by Natalie Nougayrede calling what happened at Srebenica twenty years ago a genocide and denouncing Putin for attempting to re-write history. In 2005 the same paper bowed the knee to genocide-denier Noam Chomsky, who like much of the so-called “left” was an apologist for the genocider Mladic and his boss Milosevik:
More guilty parties: from Micharl Deibert’s blog (2011)
By Dan Katz
The Ottoman Empire existed from 1299 until its abolition by Mustafa Kemal’s Turkish nationalists in 1923. At the height of its power, during the 16th and 17th centuries, the Empire spread from the Atlantic coast of Morocco to the Persian Gulf and from southeastern Europe down to the Red Sea.
A long period of decline followed, characterised by the loss of territories, fragmenting centralised authority and attempts at reform from above. In the 19th century the backward, stagnant Empire faced the rise of nationalisms inside its European boundaries as the constituent peoples rose to national consciousness. Britain, France, Russia and Austria detached territories.In response the Ottomans attempted to reform along Western lines. They modernised the army, abolished guilds, and somewhat reformed banking and the legal codes.
But a measure of the Empire’s continuing backwardness was that the trade in slaves continued until the early 20th century.
Groups began to emerge amongst the elite demanding more radical change. In 1876 a military coup forced the abdication of the Sultan, Abdulaziz, and the new Sultan was allowed to assume power on condition he declared a constitutional monarchy and convened a parliament.
The genocide of the Armenians, which started in April 1915, was orchestrated by nationalists, but had been prepared by Islamic-Turkish domination within the old Empire.
Modern Islamist groups such as Hizb-ut Tahrir, campaigning for the refounding of the Caliphate (religious authority which existed within the Ottoman state), claim that Jews and Christians were simply obliged to pay a tax to the Ottomans in order to practice their religion freely. In fact non-Muslim religious groups were subjected not only to a special tax but to a range of discriminatory, deliberately humiliating laws:
“[Non-Muslim] men were forbidden from marrying Muslim women. Testimony [from non-Muslims] against Muslims was not accepted in court… [Non-Muslims] were forbidden from conducting their religious observance in a way that would disturb Muslims. The ringing of church bells or the construction of churches of synagogues were forbidden… [Non-Muslims] were forbidden to ride horses or carry arms and were obliged to step aside for approaching Muslims” (Taner Akcam, A Shameful Act). In some periods the non-Muslim groups were forced to wear clothes of particular colours (Armenians wore red shoes and headgear, Greeks wore black, Jews turquoise).
Armenians and others were expected to abide by this religious “agreement”, which had been imposed on them. When the Armenians and other nationalities began to demand equality in the 19th century, they were seen as violating Islamic custom.
70 years on from the Red Army’s liberation of Auschwitz, where at least a million died, Steven Spielberg’s film, which includes testimonies from survivors is essential viewing; put aside 15 minutes to watch:
The Left Unity conference on Saturday is debating Kurdistan. There is a motion which describes ISIS as having “progressive potential” because it breaks down the imperialist-drawn boundaries of Middle Eastern states and literally – literally – calls for support for a caliphate in the region, describing this as representing “internationalism”, “protection of diversity and autonomy”, “accountability and representation” and “effective control of executive authority”. I honestly don’t think I’ve misrepresented it. Luckily there are a number of other decent motions supporting the Kurds and working-class and socialist forces, including one which highlights the nature of Western imperialism but argues for the Kurds’ right to get weapons and air support in their battle against ISIS (not proposed by Workers’ Liberty funnily enough).
NB: the motion, in pdf form, is p.41, amendement Ba2
AWL statement: Solidarity with democratic and socialist forces resisting ISIS! Mobilise for 1 November!
Above: Muayad Ahmed, secretary of the Worker-communist Party of Iraq
From the Workers Liberty website:
Solidarity with democratic, workers’ and socialist forces in the Middle East resisting ISIS! Mobilise for 1 November!
The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty conference (London, 25-6 October) sends solidarity to democratic, working-class and socialist forces resisting ISIS in Kurdistan, Syria and Iraq, including our comrades in the Worker-communist Parties of Kurdistan and Iraq.
We support the people of Kurdistan in their fight for self-determination and self-rule. More broadly, people in Kobane and elsewhere are fighting a life and death battle to defend basic human freedoms, particularly freedom for women.
We are supporting and mobilising for the international day of action on 1 November. We call on the British and international left to get off the fence and support these mobilisations.
Even when they may aid a liberation struggle, we do not endorse or have trust in bombing or the sending of ground forces by the US and its allies, or by Iran. The US has bombed ISIS units attacking Kobane; but it helped create the conditions for the rise of ISIS; it continues to ally with a variety of reactionary regimes and forces in the region; and by its very nature it acts for reasons that have nothing to do with democracy or liberation.
We protest against the Turkish government’s undermining of the fight against ISIS, motivated by fear of a challenge to its rule in Kurdistan.
We call for the free movement of refugees, including their right to come to the UK.
We will build solidarity with democratic forces in the region – but particularly working-class and socialist organisations. We will continue to work with our comrades in the Worker-communist Parties of Kurdistan, Iraq and Iran; the Iranian Revolutionary Marxists’ Tendency; and Marksist Tutum in Turkey – and the workers’ and people’s organisations they are building. We invite others on the left and in the labour movement to work with us to build solidarity with these comrades and with the class-struggle left throughout the Middle East.
This Saturday, please do anything you can to support the Rojava Kurds and their allies fighting for Kobanê. Biji Kurdistan!
Some encouraging news at last:
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Kurdish forces have halted an advance by militants of the Islamic State (ISIS) on Kobane and are in control of most of the Syrian border town, Kobane’s top official said Thursday.
Anwar Muslim, head of the Kobane canton in Syrian Kurdistan (Rojava), said that the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the people of Kobane have most of the city under control. He added that morale is high.
Speaking to Rudaw by phone from Kobane, Muslim said that town officials have remained inside and will not be scared away by the ISIS.
“ISIS is using heavy weapons to bombard (the town), but YPG fighters are resisting and have halted their advance,” he said.
ISIS militants launched a fresh offensive inside the Syrian Kurdish town on the Turkish border overnight, seizing control of a market area in the east, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said earlier Thursday, after U.S.-led airstrikes appeared to have pushed the jihadists back earlier in the day.
From across the Turkish border, the sound of heavy gunfire and shelling could be heard late into the night from just across the frontier and plumes of black smoke could be seen rising from several parts of the Syrian town.
SOHR said that ISIS fighters had advanced up to 70 meters inside the eastern edge of Kobane, capturing the al-Hal market in the town’s industrial zone, after receiving military reinforcements from the outside.
Muslim pleaded to the international community and the Kurdish parties to assist the besieged town.
“I ask the countries of the world and all the Kurdish parties and the Kurdistan Region to aid Kobane and clear it of ISIS,” Muslim said.
Intensified US airstrikes all this week relieved some of the pressure on the town, which has been besieged for more than three weeks.
(From Rudaw.net; h/t Comrade Coatesy)
Above: dying YPG fighter
From today’s Times:
The hearts of the Kurds are breaking and we must heed their pleas. In Kobane, lightly armed Kurdish fighters are defending people against a genocidal enemy with tanks and artillery. If the city falls, the Da’esh fanatics will butcher the men and sell the women into sexual slavery; not even children will be safe. Meanwhile, Turkish troops sit idle on the frontier and the authorities stop Turkish Kurds from crossing to assist their comrades. The scene is eerily reminiscent of the Warsaw uprising of 1944 in which Stalin held back the Red Army to allow the Nazis to wipe out Polish resistance fighters. The world must call upon Turkey to arm the Kurdish fighters. Governments must also drop the designation of the Kurdish YPG fighters as terrorists; they are secular nationalists who pose no danger to the world, and earlier saved the Yazidis from annihilation.
DR JOHN TULLY
Senior lecturer in politics and history, Victoria University, Melbourne