Friday, March 21, 2014

The Destruction of the Ukrainian Peasantry: Kapuściński

Ryszard Kapuściński was a Polish author and journalist of some renown, and remains one of the most translated of Polish writers.  He is known in the West primarily for his remarkable expanse of travels beginning in 1956 and his commentary thereon, and his talent lay in his ability to find arcane snippets of life in the variety of cultures and draw from them social commentary subtly recognizable to his audience.  He was fluent in several languages and learned English while living in India, starting with reading Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls with the aid of a dictionary.

Ryszard Kapuściński (Billewicz)

I became aware of him many years ago through his writings from Africa, within which he moved about and returned to several times, primarily through his reportage of the early savage cataclysm of the civil war in the Congo (which has never really ended).  He said that he felt comfortable in Africa, with its hungry and discalced people, because the poverty reminded him of his childhood in what is now Belarus and Poland under Communism.  He was also one of the translators of Ché Guevara's Diary of his time in Bolivia.

I appreciated Kapuściński for his artful turn of phrase and the lens he used to view others, though I often disagreed with him politically, e.g., in 9/11 he said that we have missed an opportunity for meaningful dialogue (with whom? and for how long? and to what end? and with fanatics?) on a subject too complex to contemplate (yet we should still talk while they kill and continue their social genocide, concerning a subject on which they refuse to budge).  True, it is a complex subject which we should strive to understand, but on our terms and not strictly through their accommodation.

But Kapuściński was an equal-opportunity critic, comfortable in taking on both sides of the former bi-polar world, and I found his writing thought-provoking and challenging.

Yet his observations have returned to me with the turn of events in the near abroad of Russia, with the incursions into Ukraine and the annexation (or re-taking to the mind of the Russians) of Crimea, while they passively threaten other areas nearby.  His writings on the massive famine throughout Ukraine on the 1930s under Stalin, the Holomodor, have come again to light for me, from his famous chronicle of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Imperium, which speaks of Stalin's exquisite strategy:
To break that spirit, Stalin must destroy the peasantry.  At the time, there were around thirty million Ukrainian peasants.  Technically, one could have annihilated a significant portion of them by building a network of gas chambers.  But that is an error Stalin did not commit.  He who builds gas chambers bears all the blame, brings the disgrace of being a murderer down upon himself.  Instead, Stalin saddled the victims of the crime with all the guilt for it:  You are dying of hunger because you do not want to work, because you do not see the advantages of the kolkhoz.  Furthermore, he complained, because of you the inhabitants of the cities are going hungry, women cannot nurse because they have no milk, children cannot go to school because they are too weak.
The Ukrainian countryside died in silence, isolated from the world, gnawing on the bark of trees and on the leather laces of its own shoes, looked upon with contempt by people from the cities, who stood in the streets in unending lines for bread.
A cadaver draws the curiosity of a group in Kharkiv, Ukraine, 1933 (Weinerberger)

(H/T to Gerard van der Leun, for bringing him back to mind.)


  1. Funny how that works. Neither side can "see" the other, though they depend on them.

    1. It appears to me to be a more lethal example of the American Sophisticati's attitude about "fly-over territory".


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