38 percent of Russians show poor understanding of history

No less an authority than Alexander Solzhenitsyn understood that a considerable dissimilarity existed between Russia and the West. He lived in both, saw the good and bad in both and believed both had something to offer mankind.

What he wouldn’t have understood is that a sizeable percentage of Russians hold former Soviet dictator and mass murderer Joseph Stalin in high regard.

Russians have picked Stalin as the greatest figure in history, beating out President Vladimir Putin and poet Alexander Pushkin, according to a poll released today.

The poll, conducted in April by the Levada Centre, asked Russians to pick the greatest individuals of all time.

Stalin came out on top with 38 percent, while Putin shared second place on 34 percent with Pushkin, Russia’s beloved national poet.

Stalin’s predecessor Vladimir Lenin, Tsar Peter the Great and first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, came next in the list, with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in last place at 6 percent.

The list includes included just three foreigners: Napoleon Bonaparte, Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton.

Stalin is believed responsible for the deaths of as many as 25 million individuals, some executed during his political purges and many more dying in the Gulag, the vast prison camp systems, or through mass starvation such as the Holodomor.

Stalin was a monster on par with Hitler and Mao, and the fact that more than one-third of Russians consider him the greatest figure in history points out either great deficiencies in the Russian educational system, a voluntary myopia among many Russians regarding their past, or a combination of the two.

(Top: A cemetery for victims of the one of Stalin’s gulags in Vorkuta, in Russia’s Far North.)

Proof of Turkish complicity in Armenian genocide revealed

Genocide stains the annals of the 20th century like a macabre decoration – from the Holocaust to Stalin’s forced starvation of Ukrainians to Pol Pot’s killing fields to slaughter in Rwanda.

The first official genocide of the last century began with the organized killing of Armenians by the then Ottoman Empire in 1915, an event that claimed as many as 1.5 million Armenians, or about 75 percent of all Armenians in what is today Turkey.

The liquidation – carried out under the cover of World War I – was implemented in two phases: the wholesale killing of the able-bodied males through massacre and forced labor, followed by the deportation of women, children, the elderly and the infirm on death marches to the Syrian desert in which victims were deprived of food and water, and subjected to robbery, rape and massacre.

Turkey, the successor to the Ottoman perpetrators, has long denied a state role in the killing of Armenians. Despite the testimony of thousands of Armenian survivors, it has resisted the word genocide, saying that the suffering of the Armenians occurred during the chaos of a world war in which Turkish Muslims faced hardship, too.

Turkey also claimed that the Armenians were traitors, and had been planning to join with Russia, then an enemy of the Ottoman Empire. That position is deeply ingrained in Turkish culture with a majority of Turks sharing the government’s position.

Recently, however, Taner Akcam, a Turkish historian at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., said he has discovered a “smoking gun” that implicates the Turks, an original telegram introduced as evidenced in the 1919-20 trials connected to the deaths of the Armenians, in an archive held by the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem, according to the New York Times.

Akcam, who has studied the genocide for decades by piecing together documents from around the world to establish state complicity in the killings, said he hoped the evidence would remove “the last brick in the denialist wall.”

“The story begins in 1915 in an office in the Turkish city of Erzurum, when a high-level official of the Ottoman Empire punched out a telegram in secret code to a colleague in the field, asking for details about the deportations and killings of Armenians in eastern Anatolia, the easternmost part of contemporary Turkey,” according to the Times.

A deciphered copy of the telegram was used to help convict the official, Behaeddin Shakir, for planning the organized killing of Armenians in trials held shortly after the end of World War I.

Turkish officials attempted – successfully – to place blame during the trials on a small number of officials, rather than the deaths being correctly expressed as a statewide effort. Those found guilty were either in hiding or given light sentences.

Soon after the trial most of the original documents and sworn testimony disappeared, leaving researchers to rely mostly on summaries from the official Ottoman newspaper. Turkey has been able to deny the genocide partly because so many of the records of the court proceedings were destroyed or somehow vanished, leaving only historians’ accounts and journalists’ accounts, which could be dismissed as biased.

“What we were missing in Armenian genocide is the so-called smoking gun because all relevant documents were taken out from Ottoman archive or all these materials – telegrams, eyewitness accounts, they were all gone,” Akcam told National Public Radio. “We didn’t know whereabouts of all these documents. And mainly, the denial strategy was ‘show us the originals.’ So I discovered in a private archive this telegram.”

The telegram would likely have remained forever lost were it not for Akcam’s sleuthing.

As Turkish nationalists were about to seize the country in 1922, the Armenian leadership in Istanbul shipped 24 boxes of court records to England for safekeeping, according to the Times.

“The records were kept there by a bishop, then taken to France and, later, to Jerusalem. They have remained there since the 1930s, part of a huge archive that has mostly been inaccessible to scholars, for reasons that are not entirely clear,” the publication added. “Mr. Akcam said he had tried for years to gain access to the archive, with no luck.”

He did, though, find a photographic record of the Jerusalem archive in New York, held by the nephew of an Armenian monk, now dead, who was a survivor of the genocide.

“The telegram was written under Ottoman letterhead and coded in Arabic lettering; four-digit numbers denoted words. When Mr. Akcam compared it with the known Ottoman Interior Ministry codes from the time, found in an official archive in Istanbul, he found a match, raising the likelihood that many other telegrams used in the postwar trials could one day be verified in the same way,” the Times wrote.

For historians, the court cases were one piece of a mountain of evidence that emerged over the years – including reports in several languages from diplomats, missionaries and journalists who witnessed the events as they happened – that established the historical fact of the killings and qualified them as genocide.

While many countries, including France, Germany, Greece and the Vatican, have recognized what happened to the Armenians in 1915 as genocide, the United States has refrained from using that term, not wishing to alienate Turkey, a NATO ally and a partner in its fight against terrorism in the Middle East.

Akcam told NPR that the Turkish government must now develop new strategies to deny the Armenian genocide.

“They cannot deny as they have been denying over the years,” he said. “It is over now. There is no way to escape. They have to face this reality. This is a telegram with an Ottoman letterhead and we with the Ottoman coding system.”

(Top: Armenian mother kneeling beside her dead child near Aleppo, Syria, one of many who died crossing the Syrian desert during the Armenian genocide.) 

Stalin: Bad, very bad. No, even worse than that …

gulag railroad

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953. His demise did not end the Soviet internal reign of terror that had gripped the nation for decades, but it would eventually bring a lessening of the effects of the murderous regime.

A commonly accepted figure for the number of individuals Stalin murdered while in power is 20 million.

However, as Rudolph J. Rummel, the late professor emeritus of political science at the University of Hawaii, wrote a decade ago, that figure woeful undercounts the number of Soviets and foreigners who met their demise as a result of Stalin’s rule.

According to Rummel, the 20 million figure comes from a 1968 book by Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties.

“In his appendix on casualty figures, (Conquest) reviews a number of estimates of those that were killed under Stalin, and calculates that the number of executions 1936 to 1938 was probably about 1,000,000; that from 1936 to 1950 about 12,000,000 died in the camps; and 3,500,000 died in the 1930-1936 collectivization. Overall, (Conquest) concludes: ‘Thus we get a figure of 20 million dead, which is almost certainly too low and might require an increase of 50 percent or so, as the debit balance of the Stalin regime for twenty-three years.’”

Part of the problem is that Conquest’s qualification adding another 10 million lives to Stalin’s total is rarely mentioned, although over the past 10 years this has happened a little more often.

In addition, Rummel, who spent his career assembling data on collective violence and war with a view toward helping their resolution or elimination, wrote that Conquest’s estimate was incomplete:

Conquest did not include labor camp deaths from 1922 to 1936 and between 1950 to 1953, executions between 1939 and 1953; the vast deportation of the people of captive nations into the camps, and their deaths 1939-1953; the massive deportation within the Soviet Union of minorities 1941-1944; and their deaths; and those the Soviet Red Army and secret police executed throughout Eastern Europe after their conquest during 1944-1945 is omitted. Moreover, omitted is the deadly Ukrainian famine, the Holodomor, Stalin purposely imposed on the region that claimed killed 5 million in 1932-1934.

Rummel estimated Stalin murdered about 43 million citizens and foreigners.

Hitler, by comparison, usually gets credit for about 30 million deaths, while Mao Zedong is said to have murdered 60 million.

Other well-known historical bad dudes include King Leopold II of Belgian, who was responsible for the deaths of approximately 8 million Congolese; Hideki Tojo of Japan, 5 million; Pol Pot of Cambodia, at least 1.7 million; Saddam Hussein, approximately 600,000; and Idi Amin of Uganda, as many as 500,000.

Consider that Chile’s Gen. Augusto Pinochet, reviled as a murderous despot, is said to be responsible for approximately 3,000 deaths, making him a mere piker by the standards of those listed above. That is, of course, small consolation to the families of those he made “disappear.”

And mere numbers, no matter how large, are an abstraction. For anyone wanting to get a fuller idea of the Soviet death machine in action, consider picking up The Gulag Archipelago; The Voices of the Dead: Stalin’s Great Terror in the 1930s; Stalin’s Genocides; and Gareth Jones: Eyewitness to the Holodomor.

(Top: A rail line being built through snow by Gulag prisoners, possibly from the Solovki prison camp, on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea .)

Srebrenica’s dead still being recovered, two decades later

srebrenica cemetery

The efficacy of the United Nations has long been a hot-button issue, particularly among US conservatives, but the entity’s shortcomings haven’t helped its cause.

Take the conflict in Bosnia in early- to mid-1990s: Srebrenica was a UN-protected area, but United Nations troops offered no resistance when Serbs overran the Muslim-majority town on this date 19 years ago, then rounded up and killed approximately 8,000 men and boys.

The slaughter was described as the worst crime on European soil since World War II.

Srebrenica had been attacked and besieged off and on for three years by the summer of 1995, as chaos reigned in many parts of the former Yugoslavia during the Bosnian War.

Although the UN had declared the enclave of Srebrenica in northeastern Bosnia a “safe area,” a United Nations Protection Force of 400 Dutch peacekeepers failed to prevent the Bosnian Serb army from attacking the town on July 6, 1995.

Three days later, emboldened in part by early successes and the absence of any significant reaction from the international community, the Serbs decided to press forward and take Srebrenica.

With the town’s residents weakened by siege, starvation and short on tools of resistance, Srebrenica fell quickly. Within a couple of days, the mass killings began.

Almost to a man, the thousands of Bosnian Muslims prisoners captured following the fall of Srebrenica were executed, according to the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia: Continue reading

Campaign begun to find last Nazi war criminals

operation last chance poster

Nearly 70 years after the end of World War II, a campaign has been inaugurated in Germany to track down the final remaining Nazi war criminals and bring them to trial.

Some 2,000 posters featuring the entrance to the Auschwitz death camp are being displayed in Berlin, Hamburg and Cologne.

They ask individuals with information to contact the Simon Wiesenthal Center, according to the BBC.

The US-based Wiesenthal Center estimates there are five dozen war criminals – ranging from death camp guards to members of Einsatzgruppen, mobile death squads responsible for mass killings – still alive in Germany and fit to stand trial.

“Unfortunately, very few people who committed the crimes had to pay for them,” according to Efraim Zuroff, a leading international Nazi hunter and the center’s Jerusalem branch director. “The passage of time in no way diminishes the crimes.”

As part of its “Operation Last Chance II” project,” the center is offering rewards of as much as $33,000 for information which helps in the prosecution of war criminals in Germany.

Continue reading

Vasili Blokhin: The ultimate henchman

moscow show trials

It’s likely that all of us, at some point in our lives, aspire to be the best at something. When one is young, it sometimes doesn’t matter what that “something” is; the goal is simply to be No. 1.

Vasili Blokhin achieved such prominence, even if many don’t recognize his name.

He was Joseph Stalin’s executioner for decades and personally killed tens of thousands of individuals between the 1920s and early 1950s. Today, he is recognized as the most prolific official executioner in recorded world history.

Blokhin, who served in the Russian army in World War I, joined the Cheka, the notorious security arm of the Bolsheviks, in 1921. He quickly gained the notice of Stalin and before long was heading up the department that handled clandestine torture and executions.

In 1926, Stalin personally chose Blokhin as chief executioner for the Soviet secret police.

During Stalin’s tenure, this arm of government, which later became known as the NKVD, is conservatively estimated to have executed more than 800,000 individuals.

Blokhin not only oversaw mass executions, but personally pulled the trigger on every high-profile execution.

Continue reading

Nazi commander found residing in Minnesota

 Galician SS-Volunteer Infantry Division

Inserted in the opening paragraph of Slate magazine’s story about a Nazi collaborator who was discovered last week to have been living in the US for the past 60-plus years were these two sentences, which would be slightly amusing if not representative of a grave injustice:

“Michael Karkoc now lives in Minnesota and when he entered the United States in 1949 told authorities he had not performed military service during World War II. That wasn’t really accurate.”

No, indeed it wasn’t. Karkoc was a founding member and an officer of the SS-led Ukrainian Self Defense Legion and later was an officer in the SS Galician Division.

There appears to be plenty of evidence that the company Karkoc commanded massacred civilians, including burning villages filled with women and children, and that he was at the scene of the atrocities, even if there’s no proof Karkoc himself didn’t actually participate.

The Associated Press broke the story about Karkoc on Friday and provided an exhaustive report on not just the fact he’s been living in the United States for decades, but included background between groups allied with the Nazis and how many individuals avoided being brought to justice under the guise of fighting communism.

It will be hard for Karkoc to plead mistaken identity; in 1995 he published a Ukrainian-language memoir that stated he helped found the Ukrainian Self Defense Legion in 1943 to fight on the side of Germany – and wrote that he served as a company commander in the unit, which received orders directly from the SS, through the end of the war.

The memoir is available at the US Library of Congress, according to The Associated Press.

(Above: A 1944 photo shows head of the SS Heinrich Himmler, center, reviewing troops  of the Galician SS-Volunteer Infantry Division, of which Michael Karkoc was a  member.)