Scorched Earth – Stalin’s Reign of Terror
By Jorg Baberowski
Yale University Press – £25.00
The Bolsheviks prevailed. They broke the military resistance of the Whites, crushed the unrest and strikes of the peasants, and even restored the multi-ethnic empire, which, in the early months of revolution, had largely fallen apart. In spring 1921, when the Red Army marched into Georgia, the Civil War was officially over. For the Bolsheviks, however, military victory was not the end but rather the beginning of a mission, not simply to shake the world but to transform it.
And transform it they did.
To this very day, Russia remains at the vanguard of inexorable convulsion and change; the social and political ramifications of which continue to effect the rest of the world. For better for worse. For richer for poorer. For sickness and utmost of unusually bad health; the trajectory of Russian upheaval, which let’s face it, is exactly what it is, continues to influence the West in more ways than one might care to imagine.
For instance, one need look no further than the relatively recent election of the American President, Donald Trump.
Scorched Earth – Stalin’s Reign of Terror might well be one of the most in-depth accounts of the Stalin era I have ever read. To be sure, the German scholar Jorg Baberowski has to be one of the leading experts in his field, although his work – has up until now – seldom been translated into English. A quality which is hard to fathom, considering the scholastic precision and soaring honesty with which the author writes: ”Since 2003 I have spent several years explaining to myself how it was possible for so many millions of people in the Soviet Union under to Stalin to have been killed, displaced, imprisoned in camps, or allowed to starve to death. Back then in 2003, I still believed that the theses of the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman could provide an answer. The pursuit of certainty, the overcoming of ambivalence, and the obsession with order in the modern ”gardening state,” wrote Bauman, had led to the monstrous exterminatory excesses of the twentieth century […]. The communist experiment of the New Man gave Stalin and those in power the justification they needed to murder enemies and outcasts. It did not, however, prescribe mass murder. Stalin and his companions did not speak of the brave new world when they discussed what to do with the supposed enemies of this new order. They talked instead about techniques of violence.”
It is such blatant, factual dissemination, that sets this book apart from a plethora of others on very same the subject.
To talk ”about techniques of violence,” is somewhat akin to UKIP’s twisted excuse for a human being, Nigel Farrage, to talk about England’s only friends being those who ”talk English.” A sly, calculated, yet flippant remark made just last week, which will undoubtedly do much to trigger yet more unprovoked violence on the streets of Engerland – much to the unfortunate dismay of innocent bystanders. Many of whom might happen to speak Polish.
Or dare I say it, common sense; a quality which partially explains why segments of this exceedingly well written and well researched book, wholeheartedly lends itself to the current crisis in which the world finds itself.
Obviously, what happened in Russia is incalculably idiosyncratic of among the most deplorable murder and mayhem ever known. So much so, it is hard to imagine.
BUT, much of the essence was, and remains a direct response to a tempestuous climate of fear, paranoia and scapegoatism. Sound familiar?: ”Only in a state of emergency did it become possible for a psychopath like Stalin to let his malevolence and criminal energy reign free. The dream of communist salvation was drowned in the blood of millions because the violence became detached from the original motives, and eventually was subject to the purposes of the dictator alone. In the end all that mattered was the recognition of total power, of Stalin’s total power, as master over life and death. Had it not been for the atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust, the despot would never have been able to force his will on others or make his world the one that everyone had to live in.”
While reading these words, one cannot help but think of the power obsessed and egotistically driven Donald Trump, which in and of itself, substantiates that history does indeed repeat itself. As the author of Stalin’s Genocides, Norman M. Naimark has written: Jorg Baberowski’s Scorched Earth skillfully guides the reader through the nightmarish reality of Stalin’s brutal rule of the Soviet Union. The smartly crafted narrative is full of interesting, important, and horrifying details that illustrate the diverse character of the killing. Baberowski tells a veracious story of fear and terror among Soviet citizens that is hard to forget.”
For a sure fire qualification of the truth, these 437 pages (excluding Preface, Notes and Index) are a more than complex and combustible read – which, apart from being hard to forget, equates with that of a literary memorial to the millions who died.