Seventy-five years after the end of World War II, we remain fixated on some of its worst crimes. But only some. The incessant use of Holocaust remembrance has been cynically used by some on the hard right to justify Israel’s repression of the Palestinian people and the expansion of the Jewish state.
For example, Israel’s rightist government waited until the 75th anniversary celebrations of the liberation of the Auschwitz camp by the Red Army to announce it planned to annex 30% more of the Palestinian West Bank. Few outside the Mideast took notice.
We rightfully remember the horrors of the Nazi system. But what about a far larger, more murderous system that has faded from our memory, the Soviet Gulag? Who remembers Kolyma, Magadan, the White Sea Canal, the frigid winter steppes of Kazakhstan, the BAM railroad, and Vorkuta? Or the Soviet arctic mines where prisoners had to dig lethal uranium with their bare hands.
An estimated 10 million political prisoners were murdered in the Soviet Gulag during Trotsky and Stalin’s regimes. Some leading Russians historians say up to 20 million died in the Gulag. That’s well double the number claimed to have died or been killed in Nazi camps.
This campaign of mass murder and deportation began in the 1920’s and peaked in the 1930’s, though it continued until Stalin’s death in 1953. Entire peoples like Chechen and Ingush were massacred. An estimated four million Soviet Muslim citizens died. The Baltic States were decimated. Prisoners in the Gulag were worked to death and starved. An estimated 6 million Ukrainian farmers were starved to death by Stalin’s NKVD secret police and gangs of Red thugs.
The arch criminal who directed genocide in Ukraine, Lazar Kaganovich, was presented a Soviet medal for heroism. Stalin, speaking to Roosevelt, even called him ‘my Eichmann’ after the notorious Nazi killer of Jews. At that time, according to the late KGB general Pavel Sudoplatov, whose wife was Jewish and related to Kaganovich, Soviet Jews made up a large percentage of the Secret police and the officials who ran the Gulag.
None of the major Russian criminals who ran the security services ever faced legal charges for their role in the Cheka’s terrible crimes. Some, like Yagoda, Yezhov, Abakumov and Beria, were executed, but for reasons of murderous internal politics. Kaganovich, the murderer of six million Ukrainian farmers, lived into ripe old age in Moscow.
The Gulag camps were gradually shut down after Stalin’s death. But the draconian Soviet prison system remains down to our day. An important Russian organization, Memorial, still tries to keep alive the frightful history of the Gulag, as have many Russian writers, notably the great Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
But few in today’s Russia look back. Unlike westerners who see nightly programs about Nazi atrocities, Russians don’t see much of their past except for heroic programs on World War II. At least Russians know that their nation defeated Nazi Germany. Westerners still are falsely told that the Allies won the war at Normandy.
Equally important, the war propaganda keeps on flowing. At war’s end, British propagandists began a major campaign to emphasize the horrors of the German camps in order to divert attention from the horrors of the Gulag. Now, 75 years later, very few remember the Gulag, but everyone knows what Hitler had for breakfast.
The Allies were ashamed of having been allied to a regime far more murderous and cruel than the Third Reich. So Stalin’s crimes were played down while Hitler’s were accentuated and endlessly repeated.
In fact, we still have much to learn about the 1930’s and 1940’s as they are still obscured by veils of propaganda and half-truths. Franklin Roosevelt was fond of calling Stalin ‘Uncle Joe. What a fool.
Unlike Roosevelt, Stalin was no fool but a sharp-eyed realist. He rightly noted that the death of a single person is called a tragedy while that of millions is merely a statistic. This is precisely what the Gulag and Stalinism remain: statistics.
How about a moment of silence to remember the victims of Vorkuta and Magadan or Chechnya?
An inmate, or ‘zek’ sentenced to the Gulag for ten years, was asked what his crime was. ‘Nothing,’ he replied. ‘That’s a lie’ replied another zek. ‘The sentence for nothing is twenty years.’