Issue #22/77, November 5 - 18, 1999  smlogo.gif

Book Review

Moscow Babylon
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By John Dolan

Your Artificial Famine Was Worse Than My Artifical Famine

Borderland: A Journey through the History of Ukraine
By Anna Reid
London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1999


Russia has its sexy decades in the West but Ukraine, the fat homebound sister, never gets a call. Most English speakers can barely remember to eliminate the definite article that used to preface the country's name. This is a place that seemed inviting only to invaders and slave-traders. Ukraine's distinctions are all horrors: above all, it has by far the highest number of slaughtered peasants per column-inch of publicity of any country this century. Everyone with an interest in the Slavic world has some notion that Stalin confiscated the grain of the Ukrainian peasants in the early thirties, and that millions of them died, but somehow that genocide never was sexy for the West. What was it--four million? Seven million? Something like that. Too bad.

Now, here's the interesting thing about Anna Reid's account: raise your hands anyone who can think of another artificial famine which killed millions of European peasants and got virtually no publicity at the time and is still barely remembered, especially by British writers?

Yes, you in the back with the carroty skin? Exactly right, my piebald interlocutor: Ireland. The most fascinating thing about Reid's Ukraine is that it is stalked by a horde of dead Irish peasants. They never quite gain admittance to Reid's account, but she can't quite exorcise them either, and the book is gloomier even than Reid meant it to be, since in describing one unnoticed and unmourned genocide it evokes another--one much closer to Reid's home.

Her home is in fact Europe's most prosperous fascist newspaper, The Daily Telegraph. I mean, let's be honest here: for all the avid sniffing in the basements of Berlin and Moscow, there's only been one really successful fascist leader in postwar Europe, and her name was Thatcher, a genuine brownskirt nutter by anybody's standards, spared the "fascist" label because of a sort of patronizing American "ain't they cute with their funny teeth and accent" Anglophilia (if one can even call it that).

The Daily Telegraph was one of Thatcher's most canine supporters, and Anna Reid, bold chronicler of genocide as long as it took place east of the Channel, is a former Telegraph reporter. She's not a bad writer, in fact--but then many great twentieth-century writers have been fascists... the majority, perhaps. She uses some shopworn techniques, such as the obligatory tale of her introduction to Kiev: a dark, chilly city, no shops, the despair on people's faces, etc.--and then her slow coming-to-love the place, its merry peasants, its quirky street-cleaning customs, the whimsical skin diseases of its rollicking inhabitants... you've heard all this before if you read English-language books about the Slavic world. Hell, the first book I reviewed for eXile, a contemptible American fisherman's tour of Russia, began with the same description of Moscow (Moscow, Kiev--same difference). But Reid can write, and her descriptions of Kiev are funnier and far smarter than those of the usual right-wing traveler:

"Visitors to Kiev usually hate the place, but those who stay there nearly always grow to love it. The staircase to my one-room flat might have stunk of urine and rotten cabbage, but outside raggedy black crows swung around in the poplars, shaking gobbets of frozen snow onto the rattling trams below. I liked the cobbled streets with their elaborately-stuccoed turn-of-the-century houses, so dilapidated that the city authorities strung netting under the balconies to prevent chunks of plaster from falling onto pedestrians' heads."

OK, maybe that's a bit overwritten, but it's fun to read. I liked the "gobbets" bit, and the way Reid savors the potential for casual slapstick death via snow-gobbet or stucco-chunk. Granted it's the oxymoronic decay/love template that can be imposed on any post-Soviet city, but she does it far better than most of her colleagues. And she has good taste in historical one-liners, like the Byzantine cleric who said, "Anyone wishing to shorten his life by four or five years should go to Muscovy," or the tiny pseudo-neo-fascist Ukrainian party that campaigned under the slogan, "Vote for us and you'll never have to vote again!" She has good taste in verbal violence, and that's what you need in a travel account--and she has the common sense to see that this and other "neo-fascist" parties are a joke, a Western-made Halloween mask. (One Maggie Thatcher is worth a million Zhirinovskys.)

Reid's story spirals around the country in a pretty standard manner. Beginning in Kiev, she moves in a slow circle around Ukraine, from the separatist West to the Russianized east and Crimea, blending history and travel account in predictable fashion, but doing both considerably better than most of the self-indulgent tales of suffering by Western travelers, who for some reason feel that Dengue Fever in Kenya is an aspect of sacred local culture, to be endured stoically, but have no qualms about complaining for pages if the shower in a Soviet-bloc hotel is only lukewarm. I liked puttering around Ukraine with Reid. She's not as much of a jerk as your typical Slavic-major journalist. She boasts delicately of the way she became a pop-star in Kiev, singing in English on a local hit song. Imagine a UPI reporter doing that!

But that's how it is with Brits: you can almost like some of them... and then Ireland comes up. And it comes up over and over in this book. There haven't been all that many European famines that halved the population of the affected country. Reid is uneasily aware of the Ukraine/Ireland parallels, and can't stop making them herself: "Ukrainians, like the Irish, rebelled against their Polish landlords at every opportunity; Poles, like the English, responded with a curious mixture of affection, scorn, and fear." Ummm... perhaps the mixture was somewhat light on "affection"; but never mind, the analogies continue: "Ukraine... became to Russia what Scotland and Ireland were to the English-- ... part of the irreducible centre, home...." "Like Ireland, Galicia was a byword for rural poverty."

In her chapter on the terrible Ukrainian famine of the thirties, Reid even borrows the venerable Irish euphemism as her title: "The Great Hunger." It is a bitter story, and she tells it well... until she tries to compare it with that other Great Hunger. Then she... well, to put it bluntly, she just flat-out lies. Here's the very big lie at the center of her comparison: "The term 'famine,' with its implication of natural disaster, is the wrong word for what happened [in Ukraine]. Unlike the Irish potato famine of the 1840's, the deaths [among the Ukrainian peasantry] of 1932-3 were a deliberate, man-made event."

This is clearly true about the Ukraine famine, and it's a terrible story, most of all because--then and now--nobody cares or even remembers the millions of uninteresting dead peasants. But please, Ms. Reid, don't believe for a second what your fascist masters in the Telegraph tell you about Irish history. That famine, in which the population of Ireland, which was supposedly "part of the irreducible [British] centre, home..." WAS HALVED, was every bit as artificial as the one Stalin imposed on Ukraine. In Ukraine, NKVD guards sat on piles of grain while whole villages starved to death; in Ireland, armed guards accompanied shipments of food that were exported for the profit of landlords while whole counties starved. Ireland, like Ukraine, was a net exporter of food at the time of the famine, and while the potato crop failed in France, Germany, and many other European countries, there were no deaths from starvation. Only in Ireland did genocidal authorities decide to use a crop problem to kill off a troublesome peasant population. You think I'm exaggerating here? OK, try this: it's a direct quote from Lord Trevalyan, spoken at the time this artificial famine was at its height: "This famine is a judgment of God on a stubborn and indolent people, and we must not ameliorate it."

The only difference between Trevalyan and the Stalinists is that Trevalyan was more articulate and smug; he said outright what they cloaked in progressive cant. But dead is dead, Ms Reid; and your employers at the Telegraph spewed out cant as lethal as anything the Soviet papers did. Your hands, too, run with blood.

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