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The Cinema of Witness

Memories of Death and Deportation from Russia, Ukraine, and the Baltic States

(Visual Anthropology, Vol 6, pages 367—379)

“You must bear witness to our suffering, and to the injustice done to us.”

[Last words of a woman about to die, spoken in the gas chamber to the Czech Jew Filip Muller, a man who lived to survive the Auschwitz ‘special detail’. Muller is interviewed in Part Two of Shoah.]

Riga is not usually associated with the origins of anthropology. Yet perhaps the historic contribution of the capital of Latvia and the Latvians deserves to be better recognized. It was while staying there in the years 1764-1769 that Johann Gottfried Herder began to develop some of those ideas about culture which have since become so widely adopted—culture as both autonomous and unified, as incommensurable experience, as an intrinsically valuable source of identity—and it was the stimulating ethnographic environment of Riga that put these ideas in his head.

The more he saw and heard of life in the Baltic provinces of the Russian Empire the more Herder became convinced that if a choice had to be made between the French Enlightenment (which saw civilization spreading out imperially from Paris) and the virtues of not-so-civilized independent cultures, then there was a lot to be said for the latter. He and his teacher, the student of languages Johann Georg Hamann, were particularly impressed by the million or more Latvian folk songs, a lively tradition little known in Paris, Berlin and Weimar. 1

“He watched the Latvians’ love of singing and poetry”, a contemporary author wrote of Herder, “their ability to improvise, the extraordinary emotion of their love songs, into which they pour all the possible tenderness of a lover’s melancholy and describe the whole endurance of a sensitive heart in such an artistic way that we cannot but be deeply moved by their songs”.

The little tinkling Latvian bells also caught his attention; and it is therefore highly appropriate that both songs and bells, musically united in great gatherings of choirs at traditional singing festivals, are at the center of the resistance to Soviet hegemony presented in the late Yuris Podniek’s Homeland. A distinguished and original work honoring Baltic independence, his film celebrates the choral rising which took place in 1990, a form of cultural politics which contributed more than a little to securing the new-won freedom of the Baltic States. 2

Delicately tinkling bells and radiant women’s faces alternate with guns and gunfire. Human voices sing in solemn concert against images of planes and tanks. Meanwhile the accumulated force of memory and moral wrath is directed against a terrible history. Cutting to and fro between past and present, using black-and-white footage from the twenty independent years between the wars, the meaning of this history is examined—especially the consequences of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact. On 23 August 1939 Stalin said to Hitler: “You take Poland”; while Hitler said to Stalin: “You take the Baltic States”. David Low’s well-known cartoon, “Rendezvous”, summed up this unholy alliance as nothing else could.

The immediate result was the wholesale Sovietization of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, beginning in June 1940. At a time when few in the West were looking, and nobody could have done anything anyway, communist governments controlled by Moscow were set up, this being at once followed by the state seizure of all newspapers and radio stations, banks, land, urban real estate, factories and transport—without compensation of course. Meanwhile long lists of men, women, and children, all of them candidates for “‘liquidation”, were being prepared. And on June 13-14, 1941, in a single night, those listed were seized and shipped off to Siberia. In one year of Soviet occupation, June 1940-June 1941, the total Baltic population executed, deported, or conscripted by force into the Russian army has been estimated at 124,467 (this being those for whom there are definite names).

But this was only the start. Soon Germany declared war on Russia and Hitler’s war machine rolled in. The deportation and massacre of the Baltic Jews began, along with the destruction of thousands of non-Jewish Baltic people. The Nazi occupation lasted until 1944. Then, after these three grim years, the victorious Russians came back to stay. Just as the Nazis destroyed anyone they thought might have been sympathetic to the Soviets, the returning Russians set about the persecution and deportation of anyone they thought might have cooperated with the retreating Germans. At the end of it all some 800,000 people had been shipped like cattle, in hideous conditions from which large numbers died before ever reaching their destination, to Siberia, Kazakhstan, and other places in the east and north. 3

This is the tale of suffering, leading up to the 1990 Latvian Song Festival, its 358 choirs of 24,000 people, and its heart-felt singing of national songs banned for 50 years, which provides the moral dynamic for Yuris Podniek’s film. It has six main ingredients. First, a huge choral festival attended by thousands of brilliantly costumed and strikingly handsome women singers. Second, scenes of Soviet military forces on manoeuvres (large areas of the Baltic States have for decades been used for Soviet bases and army manoeuvres, the farmers having long since been turned off the land or deported).

Thirdly, footage from the past showing glimpses of the earliest days of the song festivals, and more than glimpses of the arrogant steel-clad might of this or that imperial power rolling through Vilnius, Riga, and Tallinn. Fourthly, interview material with young and old survivors. Fifthly, scenes from settlements of Baltic exiles in Siberia, showing the exhumation of the dead and the transportation home of their remains. And sixthly—and intimately continuous with the preceding—scenes of Lithuania’s Hill of Crosses, a religious shrine twice bulldozed flat by the communist regime, which in its phoenix-like capacity for renewal symbolized, like nothing else, resistance to both Marxism and the Party.

What welds this material together is the poignant use of traditional choral singing, along with a low-keyed jaggedly nervy score by Martin Braun composed for invading weaponry and troops. The different elements work to produce a film which is simultaneously political in purpose, cultural in content, and has an almost musical form. But what is the deep reason for all the choirs and singing? It is because this was the only form of nationalistic expression allowed under the Soviet regime. Free nations normally display their independence and unity by putting their armed forces on parade, but of course nothing like this was possible for the subject Balts. In its generosity, however, Moscow did allow them to parade their choirs. The contrast reveals a lot—especially about the “‘gender effects” of military domination. For what sort of a Baltic culture do these choirs portray? What is emphasized, and what seems strangely missing?

The strong immediate impression this film conveys comes from scenes of Latvian and Estonian women, either in powerful close-ups showing intense but contained emotion, or in smaller groups, or in the great massed choirs in the arena singing the national songs which provide Homeland’s irresistibly emotional “score”. Their white costumes with hand-woven red headbands and waist-sashes provide a matching visual unity for the theme of national solidarity and shared tradition.

In Homeland they and their voices represent Baltic “culture” par excellence, and they are repeatedly contrasted with Russian officers and their exaggeratedly peaked caps (the dominant male presence) or with assorted weaponry. As a result Latvian culture is strikingly feminized. There would be nothing wrong with that if the characterization was true. But in this case one feels that it is neither a Baltic tradition, nor a Latvian trait, but a profound sociological consequence of the kind of military domination which systematically removes men from effective power.

Virtually the only male characters of any significance in Homeland are (1) old, (2) broken, (3) corrupted, (4) dead. Or various combinations thereof. The presence in the film of a man who—incredibly—first conducted massed choirs before the Tsar, and who still manages to look creakily debonair, is a huge bonus: what a symbol of cultural indestructibility stands there!

But all too clearly he and other men associated with the song festival represent the tolerated and innocuous domain of Art, not the contested domain of Power. Effective male political leadership has for 50 years been co-opted, removed, or repressed. In the eyes of the regime, however, musical activities were harmless enough. One remembers the derision heaped by Moscow on the first president of newly independent Lithuania, Vytautas Landsbergis. The “music-teacher,” they called him dismissively.

Beneath the ruined rafters of what must once have been a family farm (destroyed during the collectivization of the 1950s) a man who suffered 47 years of exile sits meditating, and as he tells his story another source of Baltic male attrition becomes clear. This man had been drafted into no less than four armies: first, the Latvian force formed to defend his homeland in 1939; second, the “Popular Army”, this being the name under which the Russians took it over; thirdly, The Red Army itself; and fourthly, the German army which drove out the Russians in 1941. In each case he was conscripted against his will. We learn that during the Second World War the Nazis and the Soviets forced fully ten percent of the male population to serve in their armed forces.

This figure from the past is followed by a more shocking contemporary statistic. In a title superimposed on a funeral cortege we read that “One murdered conscript is returned to the Baltic States every third day”. No explanation for these killings is offered, but the implication is that in the Imperial Soviet Army at the end of the 1980s, with discipline deteriorating, and national tensions violently erupting within the ranks, the victimization of helpless and isolated “colonials” had reached such a point that murder was commonplace. One wonders what the complementary figure might have been for the deaths of Georgian conscripts, or those of Islamic background from Azerbaijan or Tadzhikistan.

There were also more dishonorable duties associated with Soviet occupation. Baltic men who were not yoked for service in the Army were suborned into dirtier jobs. When a political candidate in the forthcoming elections is interviewed we find that he had worked in a minor capacity for the KGB. His duties required him to open and read letters sent to and from Baltic exiles overseas. He doesn’t seem to regard this as a serious electoral disadvantage however—”everybody had to do something like this”—a fact which footnotes the pervasive moral debilitation which accompanied Moscow’s emasculation of its subject states.

An aspect of the film which assumes a growing importance with repeated viewings is the strongly Christian message, towards the end, implicit in the handling of the Lithuanian material. Here the director shifts from the “Baltic” cultural emphasis of the song festivals to a religious theme. It is a theme which is neither new nor surprising: namely, that the eschatological doctrines of Christianity have since its beginnings appealed to the oppressed and the enslaved. Solzhenitsyn and others observed the superior ability of both the “Old Believers” and the members of various Russian sects to withstand even the worst that Soviet labor camps could offer.

Presumably this is because Christians who are crucified politically, culturally, and sometimes personally, spontaneously identify with Christ. There is no small irony in the fact that the most triumphant millenarianism of our time (the Marxist Church Militant) should have been defeated on a philosophical level by the much older, purer soteriology which for seventy years it struggled aggressively to displace.

At all events, one feels that in Lithuania the symbol of the cross became, for many, a symbol of their own condition. They too had suffered innocently and they too had stoically endured. The persistently rebuilt Hill of Crosses is a symbolic memorial to both the living and the dead, and the image of it at the end of the film mist-shrouded and floating in space, is fittingly ethereal.

At an elementary level, no doubt, carving and constructing crosses to replace those destroyed by the bulldozers provided both men and women with something emotionally and physically satisfying to do. Though of different sizes, many crosses are elaborate quasi-sculptures which obviously require both muscular energy and creative imagination. At another level, however, they seem to be a concentrated moral expression of the underlying religious philosophy which enabled Lithuanian nationalism to endure.

It is noticeable that aside from the stills to be found in certain exile publications, there seems to be little extant photographic evidence of the atrocities associated with both Nazi and Soviet occupation, expropriation, and deportation, (though no doubt hidden archives are now everywhere coming to light).

Although the events described above provide an ever-present moral background there appears to be comparatively little directly picturing them which can be seen. Such events are of course shameful— sufficiently shameful for those responsible, both Nazi and Soviet, to have done their utmost to conceal their actions from public view. This is in accordance with one of the Laws of Totalitarian Information Control: the more shameful the episode, the fewer the photographs— indeed, the less the documentary evidence of any kind.

This was true of the Holocaust until, at the end of World War 11, an appalled and nauseated team of reporters and cameramen were allowed through the gates of Belsen and Auschwitz. What they filmed in the space of the next few hours and days remains etched in the memory of mankind. But suppose the photo-record they made didn’t exist? Suppose the Germans had had time both to wipe out the European Jews and erase all evidence of the crime? Suppose that not just years but whole decades had been allowed to pass before circumstances permitted open enquiry? Wouldn’t the repulsive perversities of those like David Irving (who claims the Holocaust never took place) be that much more plausible?

Such questions arise when one turns to films about the “Soviet Holocaust” of enforced collectivization fifty years ago. These are gradually appearing in the course of a post-glasnost outpouring of news and journal reports about Stalin’s terror and the lives it cost. For example, in June 1988 Russian readers learned of the 100,000 corpses found at Kuropaty, near Minsk, all shot during the period 1937-41. In March 1989 between 200,000 and 300,000 bodies in a grave near Bykovnia in the Ukraine were officially acknowledged as “victims of Stalinism”. And these examples seem to be merely the corners of a continental boneyard.

Recent assessments of the totality of human life lost under the Soviet regime are staggering: In September 1987 Yu. Poliakov, a leading Soviet demographer, estimated that during the Civil War, 1918-1922, the country’s population decreased by thirteen million. In March 1989, Roy Medvedev, a former dissident and notable historian, estimated the total number of Stalin’s victims (from 1927 to 1953) at forty million. V Pereverzev, writing in the Russite magazine Molodaia gvardiia, put the losses for the 1918-1939 period at 20.1 million..” Others have argued that these figures are too low. In June 1989 an article by 0. Marinicheva in Komsomol.’skaia pravda “estimated the total losses due to the brutality of the Soviet regime since 1917 at ninety million people’.’ [Krasnov 1991: 129-1301. 4

All such figures are estimates. But they suggest that the Soviet Holocaust was of a range and magnitude (and was directed by the Soviet government against its own citizens it should be remembered) well in excess of anything the Nazis achieved. Only a part of this colossal tragedy concerns us here—that dealt with by two films on collectivization and deportation to the labor camps, an episode in which “only” 14.5 million perished.

Since those unaware of these figures may be surprised, and will inevitably ask why it is that they are not as widely known as Hitler’s infamies (one still meets academics who seem to believe they are all invented), it is perhaps necessary to make a brief comment on this before we start. The reasons why Hitler’s murders have been so well-advertised, and Stalin’s, by comparison, so well-concealed, are quite straightforward.

First, when Hitler attacked the European Jews he attacked a literate and influential European population whose leaders were to be found in some of the most prominent positions of cultural, scientific, and commercial life. Until the outbreak of war they were able to emigrate and those who did so were able to make the Jewish predicament known outside Germany. Only in the period 1942-45 was international communication extremely difficult, and a reliable account of what was happening in the death camps all but impossible to obtain.

In contrast, when Stalin attacked Russia’s peasants he attacked a largely illiterate, powerless, rural population behind closed frontiers. They were unable to emigrate, were sent to their deaths into the vast and inaccessible silences of the north and east, and were wholly incapable of mobilising international opinion.

Secondly, Stalin’s quasi-military assault on the countryside, with its grain seizures, deportations, and genocidal man-made famine of 1932-33, was largely overshadowed by the rise of Hitler in Germany—a political drama which was at once more visible, more portentous, and of much greater immediate concern to Western opinion. Reports to the effect that a few million peasants were suffering under Stalin were easily shrugged off. After all, a weary West complained, Russia’s peasants were born to suffer. What else was new?

Thirdly, Western intellectuals were (rightly) as well-informed and alarmed about the prospect of fascism in Germany as they were (wrongly) ignorant and complacent about the murderous despotism which had evolved in post-Revolutionary Russia. Scores of communist-sympathising fellow-travellers, from George Bernard Shaw to Romain Rolland to Sidney and Beatrice Webb, kept up a chorus of praise for the Soviet regime even in the midst of its atrocities.

Anyone brave or independent enough to report what was actually happening was reviled as a crypto-fascist or worse. Large numbers of academics in the West had convinced themselves that collectivization was a good thing—whatever the cost. It was not a good thing—it was a terrible thing. Yet never have so many well-meaning intellectuals been so ready and so willing to shoot the unwelcome bearers of bad news.

Fourthly, and finally, the contrast between our knowledge of Nazi horrors and our ignorance of their Soviet equivalents is explained simply by the defeat of Germany. A victorious army marched into the Nazi death camps and exposed them to the eyes of the world. No such merciless exposure was ever visited on the numberless camps in the Gulag Archipelago (which, after all, belonged to our World War II ally) and for this reason the ‘peculiar institutions’ of the Soviet penal system have always had a more nebulous existence in the Western mind.

So it was that the entire historical episode of collectivization, deportation, and the “gulagization” of millions of Russian and Ukrainian peasants in the early 1930s passed almost without notice in the West, and whole populations went to their doom. In the Kuban, for example, a region in southern Russia which features in the film Leningradskaya Village, we are told that no less than half the total rural population either died of famine or was deported. And the question once again is this: in attempting to produce a film about something so shameful that the entire apparatus of state security was mobilized to prevent any record of it surviving, what can you do?

One answer to this question is that you can interview survivors. Memory bears spoken witness to events. Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah is the paradigm and exemplary case, and it must have been prominently in the minds of those who made the film in the Kuban. Those familiar with Shoah will remember the deceptively idyllic opening scenes of field and stream, of willows along the banks of the Narew, and of the return of Simon Srebnik to the dark pine forests of Chelmno. Srebnik is one of only two survivors out of 400,000 murdered there.

The controlled artistry with which this man is introduced to us and his history is self-revealed through prolonged silences during which the viewer is compelled to bring a more than usually serious level of attention and concern to the task of watching a TV or movie screen; through the close involvement of the audience in the painful process of recollection; and through the perfect complementarity of interviewers, interpreters, witnesses, and theme.

Even within the first ten minutes of its entire nine and a half hours it is clear why Simone de Beauvoir should have written: “1 would never have imagined such a combination of beauty and horror. True, the one does not help to conceal the other. It is not a question of aestheticism: rather, it highlights the horror with such inventiveness and austerity that we know we are watching a great oeuvre. A sheer masterpiece.” [Lanzmann 1985: x]

Leningradskaya Village is firmly in this tradition, and though its makers were plainly not aiming at anything as ambitious as Shoah, and were constrained by the one-hour program format of television, it combines with two other episodes in “The Hand of Stalin” series to present both an honorable and distinguished portrayal of aspects of the Soviet Holocaust (the other two one-hour episodes being Kolyma, about the labor camp complex in Siberia, and Leningrad, about the terror and arrests of 1937-38 in that City). 5 Comparison with Shoah is useful-it reveals the much more difficult circumstances in which “the cinema of witness” has to operate in today’s Russia than in Poland when Lanzmann made his film.

To interview a man in Poland in the early 1980s about the 1940s was to ask him to recollect events which, however vivid in memory, had long outlived the Nazi state. The Gestapo was no longer just down the street; a midnight knock on the door was no longer possible. By way of contrast, in 1989 in a Cossack village in southern Russia the claustrophobic atmosphere of state thought-control is still present, free speech is an unfamiliar novelty, and some degree of fear and suspicion regarding anyone enquiring into the fraught subject of collectivization is unavoidable.

It is therefore not surprising that the filmmakers feel obliged to explain at the outset the inhibiting context in which their interviews took place. In the Soviet Union, we are told, “by the spring of 1933 seven million had died of famine, and thirteen million had been deported. Only now, after 50 years of fear and silence, are the survivors beginning to speak.” Their diffidence is understandable. Time and again there had seemed to be a “thaw”—a relaxation of controls and a spirit of greater freedom encouraged by the regime. Time and again those who spoke out during such intervals of liberty were seized and imprisoned. Why should the Gorbachev dispensation be any different? Why should these filmmakers be trusted?

A wrinkled Party activist begins his tale by defending collectivization as “‘imperative. Collective farms were a great achievement”, he says. “How were we to feed the workers? Workers had to be fed”. True enough, but since modern analyses suggest that there is no reason whatever to think that traditional arrangements could not have fed them (see the article by Kseniia Mialo, p. 375), this is largely irrelevant. The question is: supposing that collectivization was desirable as a political goal, was it necessary to force it through at the cost of millions of lives?

For those running the USSR in 1930 the only possible answer to this question was a resounding “Yes!”. In their eyes rapid industrialization was essential, and capital to finance industrialization had to be extracted forcibly from the peasants. This was coldly and deliberately done by seizing their grain, selling it at a profit abroad, and using the income to buy Western machinery and to fund huge capital works. Meanwhile the peasants starved. For a variety of reasons this overall plan and purpose is only allusively treated in the interviews with surviving villagers (whereas it is central to the film Harvest of Despair discussed below).

Yet much can be learned from the style of the allusion itself. There is a studied reluctance on the part of all informants to ever identify those responsible—or even to name Stalin, 50 years after his death, as principal villain of the piece. Instead people say of the disasters that befell them that “they” wanted it, or “they” or­dered it, or “they” did it. It sounds like an inversion of the “we” of Zamyatin’s novel—the declamatory “we” that represents the voice of power at the Center is here seen from the submissive periphery as an anonymous “they” from whom all orders come.

No doubt there is something here of the eternal rural suspicion of distant cities and legislatures. Yet not only the peasants in Leningradskaya Village adopt this usage. Urban Party “activists” and ex-army men who came to the village in 1930 to direct the grain seizures and to round up victims for deportation also habitually refer to an anonymous “they” and their purposes. Perhaps we need some deep-thinking post-modernist to guide us here: plainly “they” is a key term in a discourse of generalized subjection and fear.

As for why it was necessary for the army men and the Party activists to do “their” bidding, starving millions, and sending more millions to their doom in the freezing wastes, we are told that both soldiers and party men were just “carrying out orders.”. And as he says this the merciless Red enforcer of yesteryear squirms, fidgets, and wrings his hands.

“We communists would meet and say ‘This is wrong’. But what could we do about it? You had to carry it out. If you’re a communist, then do it. So we followed instructions … How did I feel? I felt it was wrong. But I couldn’t do anything. I had to act wrongly, I had to. And I did so.”

It would be exaggerating to describe this cadre-leader, who ransacked the homes of starving peasants, and personally deported some 3000 of them to death and destruction, as conscience-stricken. But he does show some remorse. And the subtle difference between the taking of life for reasons of sheer racial annihilation (Nazi racism) and the taking of life in pursuit of some messianic social goal (Soviet communism) tends to soften one’s moral response.

As in Shoah the timeless beauties of field and stream, of spreading meadows and shivering poplar leaves, of flights of crows at sundown, provide a poetic counterpoint to horrific recollections which seem, against such scenes and in the light of recent events, to show the vanity of revolutionary ambitions. As in Shoah, the symbolic engines of destruction are lines of dark and faceless freight-cars, (the “ships of the Gulag” in Solzhenitsyn’s phrase), remorseless, inhuman, all iron inevitability and dismal clangs, rolling on steel rails slowly toward the east:

“It was morning” a craggy woman survivor tells us, standing in the railway yard where she had seen it happen. “They came to me and said people were being deported. Wagons were there and people were being loaded into them.” Then one of those who was being loaded takes up the tale. “We were young, and all we had were a lot of children. We were poor and barefoot. They loaded us into a wagon and off to Saratov.

The doors were locked and never opened. There were guards. The doors weren’t opened until we reached the destination in southern Kazakhstan or somewhere. There they unloaded us out onto the frozen ground. It was the start of January. We stayed to weed sugar-beet. Everyone was dying of hunger—the young, the old, everyone.”

“That’s where my four children died. ‘Look, said a doctor, ‘the children are dead, yet they walk as if they were alive. They are dead, yet still they move.’ A day or two later they too died. Every one.” The interviewer then asks whether she had any more children. “No. I didn’t want another family. I felt sorry for the children. I didn’t want any more,” she says, as her ancient face trembles with emotion and she is unable to go on. Another survivor, a man, says bluntly: “It was genocide. I had six uncles. They, with families of sometimes seven, were all deported. After a month none of them were alive. Not one.” He finds the memories too bitter to be borne, and asks that the interview be ended.

As more than one informant reports, this village was “on the blacklist”. Why? “Because there were Cossacks and kulaks, who had to be disposed of. Basically, the Cossacks had to be disposed of.” “Dekulakization”—a word almost as ugly as the brutalities it describes—we shall assume to be understood. But why were the Cossacks targeted? Both the Kuban and the Don Cossacks had strongly resisted collectivization, and reports exist of a full-scale peasant revolt which was put down by the Soviet government with heavy loss of life.

A sociological reason for this resistance is worth noting. The distinctive arrangements of the mir (or commune), involving the rotating use of strips of collectively owned land, do not appear to have been found among the Cossacks. Out on the edges of the Tsarist Empire—in Poland, Lithuania, the Ukraine, and in the southern Cossack regions—peasants tilled their land individually by households. In these non-Russian areas “each household held, either in ownership or under lease, a parcel of land which it cultivated as it pleased” [Pipes 1991: 98]. As successful independent farmers the Kuban Cossacks had no desire whatever to be collectivized. It was for this contrariness that the village was on the blacklist. This was why thousands of villagers had to be “disposed of”.

What do Russian anthropologists say today about this grim episode, now they are free to speak? Some idea can be had from the article by Kseniia Mialo, “The Thread That Was Torn: Peasant Culture and the Cultural Revolution”, which appeared in Novyi mir in August 1988. According to the summary provided by Krasnov, “the destruction of the Russian peasant way of life was a ‘cultural catastrophe’ which she likens to the Spanish destruction of the Inca and Aztec civilizations, the annihilation of the Albigensians and the Huguenots in France, and the decimation of the Indians in North Arnerica.”

In place of the blindness of Western colonizers, she sees the blind destructiveness of “Soviet ‘leftists’ who had no respect for the ‘primitive’ culture of the Russian peasantry on whom they forced both collectivization and ‘cultural revolution’, with disastrous results, not just for the peasants, but for the rest of the country.” [Krasnov 1991: 115]

Mialo “charges Soviet historians and sociologists with either ignoring the tragedy of the Russian peasantry or ‘creating a myth according to which the victim was just about the sole perpetrator of the crime’.” Nor does she find any economic justification for destroying the `primitive’ Russian peasantry: “Far from being an obstacle to modernization and industrialization” they could well have advanced Soviet agriculture on the basis of their own traditions [Krasnov 1991: 116].

Is one to assume that Leningradskaya Village is the first documentary of any significance to treat this subject? Not so. Although reports based on comprehensive interviews with the people affected, in their own villages, have been impossible until the collapse of the Soviet regime, there have certainly been other attempts to deal with the same events. One which has been made available to me is the early 1980s Harvest of Despair.

Produced by the Ukraine Famine Research Committee of Toronto, Canada, this documentary was made outside Russia, well before Gorbachev and perestroika, at a time when the very idea of conducting open on-site field research critical of Soviet policies was absurd. It also, however, makes wide use of interviews, though the men and women who speak are of a different kind to those in Leningradskaya Village: German diplomatic personnel who were present in Moscow and Kiev in 1932-33; Malcolm Muggeridge, then working as a young journalist in Russia; Lev Kopelev, whose account of his life as a zealous enforcer of collectivization in those days, The Education of a True Believer, appeared in 1981; and Petro Grigorenko, a former Soviet General.

Also heard from are a number of ordinary men and women, then living in Ukrainian villages, who have both survived and made their way to the West. What they say about the Ukraine wholly confirms and corroborates all that one can now hear said by the Cossacks of the Kuban.

The presentation is however very much more complicated and confused, since Harvest of Despair is first and foremost an impassioned pre-Gorbachev defense of Ukrainian nationalism, and a plea for cultural and political autonomy. As such it places collectivization and the famine of 1932-33 in the historical context both of Soviet nationalities policy and international relations, and it can be said that this wider frame of reference is ably handled by a writer, Peter Blow, with both a grasp of the facts and a persuasive interpretation to offer.

The narration brings out well the connection between the diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union by the United States in November 1933 (when 25,000 per day were dying of hunger in the Ukraine), and the reliance of the U.S. State Department on the systematic mendacities of the New York Times reporter Walter Duranty (according to Muggeridge, “not only the greatest liar among the journalists of Moscow—the greatest liar I ever met in fifty years of journalism”); the complicity of Germany in ignoring the famine since exports of machinery to the Soviet Union, paid for by grain, were helping to keep Germans employed; and the sinister role of a deluded collection of Western leftists, conspicuous among whom was George Bernard Shaw, in assisting the Soviets to achieve a monumental cover-up of what was happening. The thirties were a terrible time. In Harvest of Despair this especially terrible chapter is well told.

More important for our purposes however are two other aspects of the film: first, the indications it contains of a wealth of original photographic material documenting collectivization and the famine, and secondly (and regretfully) the sadly counterproductive form in which this is presented. Rarely can material of such gravity have been so compromised. Parts of this film are virtually a clinical exhibit of what not to do if the very important information you possess, and the argument you wish to present, are to be taken seriously.

It is as if the director had unresistingly succumbed to the style of the 1930s and 40s newsreels he was required to review. Everything is taken at a headlong rush. Never is there time to reflect. If an army parade is shown, a busy fragment of band music is heard; if children are starving, misery music assails the ear; and if the bodies of the dead are being taken away a burst of choral mourning tells us how to react. Scenes and moods follow one another without the viewer ever having time to digest what they contain, let alone to express an appropriate emotional response. The result, at times, is to turn a real tragedy into a comedy of unintended effects.

Others might not be as jolted as I was by the disharmony of style and subject. But just as one was grateful, years ago, that Night and Fog had brought another moral and artistic dimension to the newsreel view of Belsen and Auschwitz, one can only hope that the material on collectivization will one day find a modern Alain Resnais. What do the archives actually hold? How might it be assembled? Is there in fact anything more than is shown in such a fragmentary manner here? What do the old Soviet archives contain—or was it all destroyed? 6 Perhaps it might be a suitable subject for Marina Goldovskaya, whose remarkable The Solovki Power documents the origins of the Soviet forced labor camps.

The trivializing complained about above is the effect of a certain narrative style. It assimilates material of profound documentary importance to the story-telling conventions of old-time propaganda pieces or to the declamatory rhetoric of “Time Marches On!” But there is of course a more serious form of trivialization now popular in the universities—one which seeks to divorce the photographic image from whatever it objectively represents, and to diminish its claim as primary data for our knowledge of events, all this in the course of a general subjectivizing of epistemic issues.

As I have suggested above, it seems to me that this does little to help stiffen our resistance to the David Irvings in our midst. It is Mr. Irving’s view, regularly stated, that the Holocaust never happened and that the death camps were built as postwar tourist attractions. He continues to claim that no Jews were gassed by the Nazis during the Second World War. Speaking to the London newspaper The Independent in 1992 he said: “It’s going to be a hot twelve months, but at the end of it the gas chamber legend will have vanished once and for all”.

How does one deal with this sort of thing? There are various approaches, no doubt, but surely the best proof of the falsity of Irving’s views is provided by the stills and cine-camera footage taken during the first hours and days after the allies entered the death camps. Such photographs, used in books, films, and educational displays about the Holocaust, are widely and correctly seen as irrefutable evidence of the crime.

There will always be David Irvings, on the Left as well as the Right, just as there will always be a sizeable constituency of wishful-thinking fanatics of one persuasion or another eager to accept the frauds they offer. It is salutary to remember that innumerable apologists for the Soviet regime are still convinced that the Soviet Holocaust “never happened—or that if it did it was a minor demographic blip which certainly didn’t involve 14.5 million dead.

I even have a colleague who thinks the widespread reports of cannibalism during the famine (such behavior is matter-of-factly described by several eye-witnesses in both the films under discussion) are “just propaganda”. Keeping our heads clear on the factual nature of the photographic record, and our minds open to the extraordinary experiences related in such examples of “the cinema of witness” as Leningradskaya Village, is one way of keeping the Irvings of both Left and Right under control.


1. See Isaiah Berlin’s Vico and Herder. Herder’s stay in Riga is mentioned by Arnolds Spekke in his History of Latvia.

2. Homeland. 1991. Produced and directed by Yuris Podnieks. Executive producer, Roger James. Associate producer, Chizuko Kobayashi. Made in association with NHK, the Baltic Branch of the Soviet‑British Creative Association, and Central Independent Television. Cameramen, Andres Slapins, Gvido Zvaigzne, Yuris Podnieks. Editor, Antra Tsilinska. Music, Martin Braun. Also involved were the Riga Documentary Studio, the Latvian and Estonian Film Archives, and Panavision USSR.

Yuris Podnieks made a subsequent film, Homeland Postscript, about the attack by Soviet Black Berets on the Latvian Interior Ministry on January 20th, 1991. In the course of their work his two cameramen, Andres Slapins and Gvido Zvaigzne, were shot and killed. Yuris Podnieks himself died in what is called “”a diving accident”, in a lake not far from Riga, some time later. A useful journalistic account which complements Homeland is Clare Thomson’s [19921 The Singing Revolution: a Political Journey through the Baltic States. See also the new book by Anatol Lieven, The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Path to Independence [1993].

3. See Arnolds Spekke, History of Latvia: an Outline, chapter 18, “‘Ten Years of Foreign Occupation”. For Lithuania, see the relevant chapters of Albertas Gerutis, Lithuania: 700 Years.

4. Conquest 1976 is a good study of the whole subject of collectivization. Kopelev 1981 and Kravchenko 1989 contain the experiences and eye-witness reports of participants.

5. Leningradskaya Village. 1990. (Part 1 of “The Hand of Stalin” series). An October Films/PTV Co-Production for BBC Television. Director and cameraman, John Walker. Editors, Steve Stevenson, Kevin Ahern. Research, Liana Pornerantsev (USSR), Rebecca Penrose, Soviet Coordination in the Kuban, Pavel Tsavalanov, Boris Vergun, Sergei Grigoriev. Series producer, Tom Roberts. Series consultant, Michael Ignatieff. “With special thanks to Memorial-USSR; Dasha Chudoba, Ethnographic Museum Krasnodar.”

6. Harvest of Despair. (1984) Produced by the Ukraine Famine Research Committee, Toronto Canada. Directed by Slavko Nowytsky, Writer/Story consultant, Peter Blow. Filmmakers researching this episode of 20th Century history may find useful the list of institutional sources of still and film materials on which the editors of this film have drawn: Thorn EMI Elstree Studios, London; Cinémathèque Gaumont, Paris; Visnews Ltd., London; National Archives and Records Service, Washington; Library of Congress Motion Picture Archives, Washington; Sherman Grinberg Film Libraries, New York; The New York Times, New York; Canadian Broadcasting Corp., Toronto; Lypinsky East European Research Institute, Philadelphia; Ukrainian Orthodox Museum, South Bound Brook; Ukrainian Cultural and Educational Centre, Winnipeg; Foundation to Commemorate the 1933 Famine, Montreal.

7. The author wishes to acknowledge the assistance of Monty and Rita Rutkovskis, who drew his attention to the Latvian materials discussed above.


Berlin, Isaiah 1976 Vico and Herder. London: Hogarth Press.

Bullock, Alan 1991 Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives. London: HarperCollins Publishers.

Conquest, Robert 1976 The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine. London: Hutchinson.

Gerutis, Albertas (ed.) 1969 Lithuania: 700 Years. Baltimore, Md.: Maryland (Recovery Communication, Inc.)

Kopeley Lev 1981 The Education of a True Believer. Aldershot: Wildwood House.

Krasnov, Vladislav Russia beyond Communism: A Chronicle of National Rebirth. New Brunswick, N.J. Transaction Publications.

Lanzmann, Claude Shoah, an Oral History of the Holocaust. The complete text of the film. New York: Pantheon Books.

Lieven, Anatol The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Path to Independence. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Pipes, Richard 1990 The Russian Revolution, 1899-1919. London: Collins-Harvill.

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr I. 1974-1978 The Gulag Archipelago. (3 vols.) London: Collins-Harvill. Thornson, Clare

1992 The Singing Revolution: A Political Journey through the Baltic States. London: Michael Joseph.

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