Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

By Timothy Snyder

When the Soviet Union invaded east Poland in 1939, many Poles and Jews panicked and fled to the Nazi-occupied west. Nothing, they thought, could be worse than Stalin. At one bridge an SS-officer watched this in disbelief. "Where on earth are you going?" he exclaimed."We are going to kill you."

It wasn't just Poland. Millions of east Europeans were trapped between Germany and the Soviet Union, the two most murderous regimes in European history. Their story is at the heart of Timothy Snyder's outstanding book. What he calls "the Bloodlands", that huge area stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, is "where Europe's most murderous regimes did their most murderous work".

For Snyder, this period of violence begins in 1933 not with Hitler's rise to power but with Stalin's decision to starve more than three million Ukrainians to death. Then came the killing of 700,000 Soviet citizens, shot during the Great Terror of 1937-38. At this point, the Soviet Union was "the only state in Europe carrying out policies of mass killing". Before 1939, the Nazi regime "killed no more than ten thousand people. The Stalinist regime had already starved millions and shot the better part of a million."

200,000 Polish citizens were shot by the Soviets or Germans at the beginning of the Second World War. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 the atrocities escalated. Four million Soviet citizens were starved to death by the Germans, including three million Soviet prisoners of war. More than five million Jews were gassed or shot by the Germans. In total, Snyder concludes, in the middle of Europe in the middle of the 20th century, the Nazi and Soviet regimes murdered some 14 million people. This doesn't include soldiers killed on the Eastern Front. The Bloodlands were the site of the Nazi death camps, mass shootings by the NKVD and the Einsatzgruppen, campaigns of mass starvation by both the Soviet Union and the Nazis, and the scene of the worst fighting of the war. And it could have been worse. If the Nazis had won, tens of millions of Slavs would have been killed, creating a living space in the east for German colonist-farmers.

We think of the Germans as the main perpetrators. Snyder has none of this. The point is, he argues, that murdering was most intense in the countries which were occupied first by the Soviet Union, then by the Germans and then, again, by the Red Army. That dynamic is crucial. Ukrainians and Latvians welcomed Germans because they couldn't believe anything could be as bad as Stalin. Two inhuman utopian visions clashed and for those caught in between the result was catastrophe.

In addition to the mass killings, there were huge deportations. In Soviet Belarus about two million people were killed, but two million were also deported and a million more fled from the German invasion. "By the end of the war," writes Snyder, "half of the population of Belarus had either been killed or moved." Nor did it stop in 1945. Then came the ethnic cleansing and mass population movements of the post-war years. Snyder takes the story up to Stalin's death in 1953.

Bloodlands is well written, clear and accessible. The book is packed with up to date statistics -- many simply astonishing -- but there are also moving accounts of individuals. Stories like that of Jozef Sobolewski, a toddler, starved to death with his mother and five of his brothers and sisters in 1933 in the Ukraine. The one brother who survived was shot in 1937, in Stalin's Terror.

Some of this is familiar. A great deal, however, isn't. Snyder is a key figure in the new thinking about eastern Europe which is transforming the way we think about Stalinism, Nazism and the Holocaust. Any illusions you might have about the decency of the Wehrmacht or of Stalin's regime will not survive reading this book. We think of German concentration camps and the Gulag as the worst symbols of totalitarianism, but most of those who entered German concentration camps survived. 90 per cent of those who entered the Gulag left it alive. Most of the killings went on in pits, forests, death camps and "starvation zones", some gassed, most shot or starved, in east Europe and the west of the Soviet Union. Not, Snyder is emphatic here, in Russia. But in the non-Russian periphery of the Soviet Union, above all, the Ukraine, Belarus and formerly Soviet-occupied east Poland. Even Stalin's Great Terror was not concentrated in Russia. Of nearly 700,000 executions carried out for political crimes in 1937-38, few were poets or old Bolsheviks. More than 625,000 were kulaks or members of non-Russian minorities.

Snyder has pulled together a huge amount of new thinking and research, much of it not yet translated. It is a formidable work of scholarship, shattering many myths, and opening up a fascinating new history of Europe.

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Timothy Synder

Bodley Head, 544pp, £25


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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis