One of the most powerful books I’ve read in years is Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, an authoritative account (and analysis) of the horrific toil of human life taken by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in the border regions of Poland, Ukraine and Belorussia from Stalin’s starvation campaign of 1933 through World War II—usually in conflict, but from 1939-41 in cooperation.
So I have naturally been interested in Snyder’s take on current events in Ukraine, mostly at TNR, where he published an especially passionate essay this week. Like Jim Sleeper, who writes about it at Ten Miles Square today, I have been entirely persuaded by Snyder’s arguments against Russian propaganda about Ukrainian “fascism,” and less persuaded by his claims that the West must unite to halt Russian aggression or risk a return to the horrors of The Bloodlands.
Snyder’s claim that Ukraine “has revealed the turning points in the history of Europe” stops short of convincing me that Ukraine can ever actually make those turning points turn. He has helped us to see through Putin and his apologists’ claims that Ukrainian fascism is the villain in this ongoing struggle and to recognize that the real danger to a democratic Europe is Putin’s aggrieved, aggressive, and suppurating Russia. But I worry that Snyder’s passion compromises his insistence that Ukraine is really the pivot on which Europe’s destiny turns.
I’d be a bit more specific. The Bloodlands became an abattoir alternatively operated by one totalitarian system that contemplated the mass extinction of the affected population by execution or starvation (the never-quite-implemented Nazi Hunger Plan to create a vast unpopulated space for German farmers), and another determined to wipe out class and political enemies and eliminate corrupt capitalist influences (not to mention defeat the Nazis). While he offers evidence that Putin’s Russia—and the Eurasian economic bloc he purports to lead—is characterized by unwholesome antiliberal and antidemocratic impulses that you can perhaps call “fascist,” Snyder does not demonstrate Russia has the capacity or the homicidal vision to carry out the kind of mass bloodletting both Hitler and Stalin conducted—or that Russia represents a genuine economic or military threat to Europe, much less The West writ large.
So Snyder goes a long way to combat smears against Ukraine and illusions about Russia. But he has a long way to go in convincing me—or Sleeper—that the kind of enormous sacrifices it took the West to destroy Hitler’s system and outlast Stalin’s are an urgent necessity. And more than how any of us think or feel about the opposing forces in and around Ukraine, that is the crux of the matter.
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