Typically, we think of World War II in terms of the Allies (the U.S., England, France, and Russia) battling Hitler’s Germany. We know there was the Holocaust, concentration camps, and the massive killing of millions of Jews.
But because British and American forces never reached nor saw any of the major killing sites, which were in the Bloodlands, a term coined by the acclaimed historian Timothy Snyder, and which refers to land that extends from central Poland to western Russia, through Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic States (Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia), the crimes of Stalinism were left to be documented only after the end of the Cold War and even now and then we tend to think they pale compared to the killing of the Jews. Neither did the British and American forces see for themselves where the Germans killed, thus limiting our understanding of Hitler’s crimes as well.
It is in the Bloodlands where both Nazi and Soviet regimes murdered 14 million people over a mere 12 year period from 1933 to 1945. This is where most of Europe’s Jews lived, not in Germany, and where Hitler’s and Stalin’s individual plans overlapped, where the German and Soviet forces fought, and where the secret police of both did most of their vile work. The victims were primarily native to these lands, not casualties of war, although they included Soviet prisoners of war killed deliberately by starvation. Most were women, children, and the aged.
As a result of our focus on the western front of World War II, we have a few misconceptions about Russia, the American ally of that war.
The eastern front of World War II was fought primarily in what was then Soviet Ukraine and Soviet Belarus, not in Soviet Russia. Five percent of Russia was occupied by the Germans. All of Ukraine was occupied by the Germans. Except for the Jews, whose suffering was the worst, the main victims of Nazi policies were not Russians, but Ukrainians and Belarusians. There was no Russian army fighting in World War II, but rather a Soviet Red Army. Its soldiers were disproportionately Ukrainian, because the Soviets suffered many losses in Ukraine and consequently recruited from the Ukrainian population again and again. The army group that liberated Auschwitz was called the First Ukrainian Front – even though former Soviets like Vladmir Putin as well as many history books don’t draw a distinction between Ukranians and Russians.
But nationalist Ukrainians do draw a distinction.
Ukraine also has a history of national suffering under the Soviets. As early as 1928 Stalin began instituting farm collectivization. This meant the Soviet regime confiscated individual Ukrainian farmers’ land for the Communist party and deported those farmers and families to the remote interior of Russia, leaving the remaining farmers slaves to production quotas which could not be met. By the late 1930s and early 1931, some 64,000 Ukrainian households had been deported. Collectivization was not working and starvation was rampant. By 1932, around 30,000 more Ukrainians were deported. By the spring of 1933, people died of starvation at a rate of more than 10,000 a day.
People were digging their own graves; some were eating their own children. And this is only scratching the surface of suffering the Ukrainians endured. The upshot, of course, is the Soviets denied any responsibility for their policies or these deaths.
The story of the Bloodlands is one of endless suffering. The Ukrainians were not the only ones. Every fact I’ve written here is documented in Snyder’s “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin,” an internationally acknowledged, multi-awarded history.
Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., is professor emerita at Western Nevada College.