A Century of State Murder? Death and Policy in Twentieth-Century Russia
Michael Haynes, Rumy Husan
London, Pluto Press, 2003, ISBN: 745319319X; 280pp.; Price: £50.00
University of Amsterdam
Date accessed: 1 June, 2023
This book is about four episodes of excess mortality in Russia/the USSR: 1914-22, 1931-38, 1941-45, and the 1990s. The book is aimed at the general reader, although it may be of most use to older schoolchildren and students on many courses. It may also be useful to pro-Soviet readers (who seem to be an important part of the intended readership) because of its combination of historical facts with left-wing political sympathies. The authors have a good knowledge of the literature on the subjects they treat, and the book contains a large number of important facts and helpful references. Positive features of the text are its sympathy for the poor and oppressed who constituted the vast majority of the victims of premature death, and its stress on the sociology of mortality.
Unfortunately the book contains a number of errors or one-sided formulations. For example, the 1916 uprising was not in Turkmenistan (p. 45) but in Turkestan. The criticism by the UNDP of the results of transition is not an ‘admission’ (p. 4) by the supporters of transition orthodoxy, but simply one aspect of the long-standing conflict between the specialised agencies of the UN and the Bretton Woods Institutions about economic policy. Chapter 2 is entitled ‘The revolt against class society 1890-1928’ despite the fact that before 1905 Russia was an estate society, not a class-based one. The table on page 59 refers to the USSR, not to Russia. The description of the Kazakhs in the early 1930s as (p. 71) ‘nomadic peasants’ is a strange one. Nomads and peasants are different categories. The Poles deported in 1936-37 (p.77) were deported from the western regions, not ‘eastern’. The figure given on page 79 of 300,000 Poles who died in deportation in September-October 1939 seems exaggerated. After all, according to page 167 of the Russian book cited by the authors as one of their two sources for this information, approximately 390,000 Polish citizens were released from various Soviet places of detention in 1941-42. If they were released in 1941-42 they could not have died in September-October 1939. It is also not true (p. 92) that of the deported Soviet peoples only the Chechen and Inguish were allowed back to their traditional homelands; the Kalmyks were as well, as were the Karachai and Balkar peoples. In 2004 to read about the ‘decisive failure’ (p. 132) of the post-Soviet Russian reforms is more than a trifle strange. Russia is now in its sixth year of sustained high economic growth combined with falling and relatively low inflation, relatively low debts and rising foreign exchange reserves. It is very doubtful whether nomenklatura privileges would have satisfied (p. 208) the directors of large Western corporations: the latter are much greedier.
The strangest feature of the book is the relative attention Haynes and Husan pay these catastrophes. The worst of them – the Soviet-German war – gets only five pages (pp. 80-84). The second worst (1914-22) gets fourteen pages (pp. 43-57). The least important (the Yeltsin-Putin era) merits 83 pages (pp. 119-201). The reason for this disproportionate attention seems to be political – the wish to draw attention to the waste of life in ‘liberal’ post-Soviet Russia. Yet, from the point of view of human life, the proportions chosen are entirely inappropriate. The main demographic catastrophe in modern Russia was in 1941-45, and the second worst was in 1914-22. The authors’ treatment of the nineteen-nineties as analogous to the three previous demographic crises is at the least quantitatively misleading; the number of victims of the former is much smaller than that of even the least of the latter (1931-38).
As far as 1914-22 and 1931-38 are concerned, an important issue is periodization. Most authors writing about excess mortality in the initial Soviet period focus on 1918-22. This makes sense in comparison with the other European countries involved in World War I. All of them suffered huge casualties in 1914-17, but only in Russia did the situation worsen in 1918-22. However, Haynes and Husan want to play down the role of the Bolsheviks in causing excess deaths and therefore prefer to include 1914-17. It is of course true that the war began the brutalising process that culminated in civil war and famine; probably without the war the huge excess mortality of 1918-22 would not have occurred.
As for the nineteen-thirties, most authors separate out the famine of 1931-34 and the repression of 1937-38 as separate episodes, and this is undoubtedly correct as far as historical detail is concerned. However, for Haynes and Husan, they are both just aspects of one inhumane Stalinist policy. The reader interested in the Soviet famine of the early 1930s and prepared to read a long book would be better advised to read the recent monograph of R. W. Davies and Stephen G. Wheatcroft (The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia. Volume 5: The Years of Hunger. Soviet Agriculture 1931-1933 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2003) However, the brief treatment (pp 71-3) by Haynes and Husan is quite sensible and is knowledgeable about serious interpretations. As far as the nineteen-nineties are concerned, a valuable aspect of the treatment in this book is the combination of a discussion of the high level of ‘normal’ mortality in Russia with estimates of mortality in the two Chechen wars and also a discussion of the sad situation in Russian prisons.
One possible disadvantage of the use of this book in British educational institutions is that it may contribute to an ‘orientalist’ approach to Russia, something to which the authors are opposed. If British history were treated this way it too would seem barbaric (for example, the confinement of civilians in concentration camps in the Boer war, mass deaths in World War I, the Black and Tans, the Amritsar massacre, terror bombing of German cities in World War II, indifference to the 1943 Bengal famine, numerous post-1945 colonial and semi-colonial wars, persistent inequalities in mortality, poor prison conditions and relatively high incarceration rates). Hence many Russians will find the book one-sided.
The authors’ approach to the history of the USSR derives from the inner-party polemics of the nineteen-twenties and -thirties and is surely no longer credible. They write very positively about the Bolshevik revolution, which unfortunately subsequently ‘degenerated’.(p. 58) Naturally, in their account, the Bolshevik slogan of turning the imperialist war into a civil war, the Bolshevik dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, the Bolshevik attitude to opposition, the Bolshevik treatment of the Kronstadt uprising, of peasant uprisings, of the Tambov uprising, and of the Cossacks, the 1922 trial of the leaders of the Socialist Revolutionary party, etc all remain unmentioned. In their account of the civil war, as in Soviet accounts, the Bolsheviks’ opponents are white generals and foreign powers, with no mention of the opposition of workers, peasants, the Mensheviks, the Socialist Revolutionaries, and national movements in Ukraine, Georgia and elsewhere.
Nevertheless, the book’s stress on the role of the state in generating excess mortality is valuable, and one which contrasts favourably with many documents of UN agencies and of writers such as Amartya Sen. This emphasis is justified and important – and not only for Russia/USSR.
For some four decades, Michael Ellman has been developing a formidable reputation about things Soviet and Russian and we are therefore pleased to have escaped with such light censure of our book which we knew would be controversial, and parts of which directly cross one of his areas of expertise. We should therefore like to use this opportunity to try to clarify our intention in the book and how it leads to some serious differences with the general way in which Russia is discussed, some of which are inadvertently revealed in Michael's review.
Before we do so, however, we should like to explicitly rebut one comment. This is the suggestion that we are 'pro-Soviet'. We hope this is an example of infelicitous phrasing, no more serious than the idea of a 'nomadic peasant'. If Michael means by this that we are, in some sense, in sympathy with the regime that collapsed in 1991, then this is emphatically not so. Indeed, we explicitly state this in the book and subject the ancien regime to the severest of criticism. We did not need the events of 1989-1991 to see the light, and even now we would argue that our critique of that society is far more radical than that of those who have belatedly come to see the error of their sympathy for, or sympathetic criticism of, that regime.
So what then are we trying to do and why would we encourage readers of this discussion to take up the challenge we offer in their own thinking about Russian history?
Our aim was not to write a textbook but a work that challenges the conventional wisdom about Russia's past and present. We try to show that at all stages in the past century, Russian life has been marked by the systematic reproduction of social inequality, and this has moulded the pattern of life and death of its people. Methodologically, demographic change and especially the pattern of death need to be at the centre of attention of historians and these can help explain, and themselves be
explained, by central features of that society. We wanted to integrate the crisis phenomena with the more 'normal' pattern of death and to this end we did not see the need to treat every demographic crisis equally. We hope indeed, as Michael suggests, that the resulting work will be useful to ‘A’ Level and university students, as well as to the general and specialist reader, as a complement to existing works, pushing into areas and arguments that they often fear, or are reluctant, to take up.
We give full bibliographic guidance as well as a clear indication at each stage of the quantitative dimensions of each crisis and include a chart at the beginning of the book, which sets out the relative size of the four crises to guide readers throughout the book. But where the literature is both well-known and relatively secure we limit the discussion. This explains the more cursory treatment of the Second World War where the literature is enormous and to which one of us has recently contributed elsewhere in the journal literature – to which the reader is referred in the book.(1)
Because of the nature of our critique, we wanted to be as accurate as possible and we are glad Michael acknowledges that readers will learn much from our book. We are happy to recognize for our part the slips he identifies, and should another edition be possible, we will correct them.(2) But we would have preferred him to have separated this small number from what he calls 'one-sided formulations'. These we are less willing to concede because they derive directly from differences over how Russia should be analysed.
For example, Michael rebukes us for talking about Russia before 1905 as a class society when it was an estate one. The debate over the estate paradigm is a long-established and unresolved one. In the narrow sense, we do indeed prefer the analysis of those contemporaries – and not least those contemporary doctors – who saw economic and social inequality as a better guide to the reality of Russian society than the rhetoric of 'soslovie' or estates. But even if they, and we, are wrong, a society based on 'estates' would still seem to be a form of class society and would be so recognized by any serious sociological analysis from whatever tradition.
Michael also seems to rebuke us for arguing that 1917 was a genuine revolution
which failed because it was derailed by the horrors of the civil war whose complex dimensions we do identify (and which one of us has also discussed elsewhere, including the notorious case of Kronstadt).(3) What we were anxious to do in our discussion of this period was to rebut the current tendency of writers to underplay the extent to which the revolution was a revolt against an international system that had brought about the carnage of World War One. This same system was then heavily implicated in the subsequent civil war in Russia. Of course the civil war was wider than this, but this does not mean that we should write out western intervention in the
comforting way that is so often done today. The idea that what 'we' do is benign and we do not need to count its casualties, direct and indirect, is not a new one, but one that has too often trapped complicit western historians, as it also traps complicit politicians of our era. In regard to neglecting various policies of the Bolsheviks and their relationships with other political forces, we took the view that these were not of significant importance on a work that focused on mortality.
But perhaps the most interesting difference that illustrates why we think
the issues we raise are important arises from Michael's suggestion about the economic growth of the past six years. It is indeed true that that since the crash of 1998, Russia has experienced sustained growth. But let us get real in terms of both what is happening and its significance for ordinary Russians. In the first place, this is not evenly spread as inequality continues to widen and, in the absence of a satisfactory welfare system, poverty and hardship remain truly rife. Readers who have followed the recent reporting of the Forbes Russian list will have some sense of this.(4) Secondly, although the oil boom augmented by higher oil prices only explains a part of this growth, it is, nonetheless, a significant factor. Consequently, a sharp fall in the price of oil could be extremely damaging to the Russian economy. Thirdly – and this is the crucial point – the growth has not led to any reversal of the demographic trends. Indeed, after mortality improvements in1994-98, there has been a deterioration: Russians are continuing to die at an extraordinary rate during the so-called ‘boom years’. Our book explicitly rejects the economic calculus than ignores this situation. And we explicitly reject the approach that tries to separate the economic and demographic or, as we would see it, the human costs of transition. Given that Michael has also written persuasively on this, we are a little disappointed that he has not escaped the schizophrenic mentality that so many economists writing about Russia seem to display. Most readers will be familiar with Keynes’ comment that 'in the long run we are all dead' – the trouble in Russia is that death has also come to too many too soon in recent years, that is, 'in the short run'.
Michael is sensitive to the fact that our attempt to meticulously document Russia's history of death might appear one sided since we lack what we might call a comparative accountancy of death. We share this fear and would hope that readers would be sufficiently impressed by what we have done to apply the ideas to other countries, and not least to Britain. Michael fears we might be seen as having an ‘orientalist’ approach, likely to result in many Russians viewing our book as one-sided. We reject the charge. We believe in telling the truth, no matter how appalling, as we see it, based firmly on the evidence at hand. But we happen to be writing about Russia and there has been enough self-imposed silence about that country. Moreover, the methodology we use is explicitly cast within a general framework. In line with this, we also believe that the full barbarity of the British Empire should also be portrayed by those who write about it – and, in this regard, we are strongly critical of the sanitized version of the Empire that has gained prominence (in the media at least) by the likes of Niall Ferguson. Moreover, insofar as the more recent crisis in Russia is concerned, we also point directly to the complicity between those with power and influence in the west, and Russia's own leaders.
Here in particular we have to record with dismay the role of people from Britain. Our own Prime Minister, for example, has on occasion acted as a cheerleader for Mr. Putin. His government has turned a blind eye to much of what has gone on in Chechnya. At a time of paranoia over asylum seekers, our government has mysteriously found itself able to give asylum to Boris Berezovsky, one of the rich 'oligarchs'. The city of London and not least the Premier Football League, is open to the ill-gotten gains of others. Ironically, the oblast where Mr. Abramovich – recently celebrated as 'Britain's (sic) richest man’– is governor, has been declared bankrupt! UK lawyers, as is now being documented in the financial press, have helped key 'new Russians' set up offshore companies. Wealthy Russians are encouraged to fly in and have their children 'finished off' in the finest British public schools. And sadly, in academia, a succession of 'advisers’, great and small, have flown backwards and forwards from British universities enhancing their careers, if not their pockets, as the fin de siècle mortality crisis that has afflicted the mass of the population continues into the new century.
We may not be popular for saying what we do, but we believe that the message of our book is challenging and important.
1. M.Haynes, 'Counting Soviet deaths in the Great Patriotic War: a note', Europe-Asia Studies, 55: 2 (2003), 303-309; M. Harrison, ‘Counting Soviet Deaths in the Great Patriotic War: comment’, Europe-Asia Studies, 55: 6 (2003), 939-44; M. Haynes, ‘Counting excess deaths and actual war deaths in the Soviet Union during World War II: reply’, Europe-Asia Studies, 55: 6 (2003), 945-7.
2. In particular we must put our hands up to the following four careless slips that Michael notes. The 1916 uprising was indeed in Turkestan and is correctly given in the footnote. Table 2.8, does refer to the USSR and not Russia though as it is part of a series that can be linked we hope this would not mislead readers overmuch. Poles were of course deported from the east by the Soviets in 1939 and we are happy to be corrected about the return of the deported nations.
3. M. Haynes, Russia. Class and Power 1917-2000 (London: Bookmarks, 2002), pp. 57-58.
4. See, for example, the story in the Independent newspaper, 14 May 2004: http://news.independent.co.uk/europe/story.jsp?story=521011