Boris Smus

interaction engineering

Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder

At a high level, Bloodlands is a deep look into a variety of organized mass killings conducted by the Nazis and Soviets from roughly 1932 to about 1953 in The Bloodlands, loosely defined as territories in Eastern Europe, centered on modern Ukraine, but including modern Poland, Belarus, the Baltic states, and western Russian regions occupied by Germany. Snyder estimates 14 million non-combatant victims, 2/3 of which were murdered by the Nazis, 1/3 by the Soviets.

I was brought up with a Russian perspective on the Great War: we carried the whole damn thing. In school, I was learned the Canadian-American perspective on World War II: we saved the day in the nick of time and owned the war in the Pacific. My Jewish background gave me a good sense for the horrors of the Shoah. I lost two great grandfathers in The Bloodlands, one murdered by Stalin in the repressions of 1938, another murdered by the Nazis as a Soviet POW in 1942.

Snyder's work integrates all of these disparate pieces and more into a coherent and truly terrifying narrative. He emphasizes the interactions between Stalin's Russia and Hitler's Germany, and the similarities between the two regimes. This view is distinct from any I had experienced. The events described are so terrible, I searched online multiple times to find a credible takedown of Snyder's work, but to no avail.

Broadly speaking, the events in the book can be separated into three parts:

  1. Pre-war Soviet Russia (1933-1939): Characterized by large scale Stalinist repressions.
  2. Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (1939-1941): Russia was allied with Germany and mostly ganged up against Poland.
  3. Allied Russia (1941-1945): Germany engaged in mass killing of Soviet POWs, then Jews and other minorities.

The breakdown of victims in these events is as follows:

  • Starvation of Ukrainians by the Soviets in 1932-33 (Holodomor): 3.3 million.
  • Great Terror of 1937-38: 300,000 people, mostly poles and Ukrainians. 400,000 more outside the Bloodlands.
  • Soviet and Nazi oppression of Poles and Balts from 1939-41: 200,000.
  • German starvation in 1941-44: 4.2 million soviet citizens.
  • Nazi Jewish killings (Holocaust): 5.4 million Jews.
  • German killings of Polish and Belorussian partisans in 1942-44: 700,000 civilians shot during the occupation of the western soviet union.

Triple occupation: Soviets, Nazis and back again. Many of the territories in question were triply occupied: first by the Soviets, then the Nazis, and back again to the Soviets.

Stalin enabled Hitler. Stalin's brutal collectivization and ensuing famines paved the way for Hitler to point to the transgressions of the communists. He rode that wave to consolidate power in Germany. This in turn reduced Comintern prestige globally and strained Russia German relations.

Jews as communists. The communist party was largely Jewish, a fact the media gleefully covered for decades in the 1920 and 1930s. When Stalin's communists began committing mass murder at an unprecedented scale, this played into the propaganda of the Nazis.

Ethnic composition of the NKVD. The founder of the NKVD, Felix Dzerzhinsky, was a Polish nobleman by birth, and Poles were highly represented in the NKVD at its foundation. Snyder claims that 40% of the NKVD were Jewish in ethnicity, which is shockingly high and somewhat controversial. Both Poles and Jews were systematically purged, and by 1940, the party was more ethnically Russian than the general population. The only more represented ethnicity were Georgians, largely because of Stalin’s nepotism.

Eastern European Nazi collaborators. Many Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Poles, Belorussians, and Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazis in their Jew killing venture. The jews were a convenient scapegoat for the ills of the Soviets. By agreeing that the Jews were at fault and needed to be purged, they saved their own skin from the wrath of the nazis.

European polarization. Europe was so polarized by 1936 that it was impossible to criticize the Soviet Union without appearing to endorse Hitlers Germany. Hitler called his enemies Marxists. Stalin called his Fascists. They agreed there was no middle ground.

Murderous troikas. A shockingly high number of people were killed by Stalinist Troikas, which consisted of three administrators from various levels of government, acting as judge jury and executioner.

Japan's role. The Russo-German alliance 1939-41 sidelined the Japanese, who were Germany's natural ally and Russia's natural enemy. What would happen, speculates Snyder, if rather than purging its own citizenry, Stalin focused on disarming Japan and preventing the War in the Pacific? The course of the war might have been altered drastically, and perhaps not for the better... Imagine no Pearl Harbor?

Mass starvation as a geopolitical strategy: Much of Ukraine suffered greatly in Stalin's attempts to convert Kulaks into collective farmers. Later, because Ukraine was still the breadbasket of the Soviet Union and supplied major Russian cities, Hitler would just starve the Russian urban elites (necessary anyway) and feed the Germans instead. This was literally called the Hunger Plan.

Gareth Jones, journalist of the Holodomor. Jones, a Welshman, described the soviet atrocities and described the widespread famine in detail. After being banned from re-entering the Soviet Union, Jones was kidnapped and murdered in 1935.

Unknown war crimes. The scale of the Stalinist program was completely unknown outside of soviet Russia. And even in Soviet Russia it was not at all widely known. (How much clandestine terror happens behind closed doors today? At what scale can such things operate in a world of internet and social media?)

Personal stories help re-humanize people: This masterwork does an impressive job of combining the birds eye view with deeply troubling personal stories. Snyder writes eloquently about the importance of the latter:

The Nazi and Soviet regimes turned people into numbers some of which we can only estimate. It is for us as scholars to seek these numbers and put them into perspective. It is for us as humanists to turn these numbers back into people. If we cannot do that, then hitler and Stalin have shaped not only our world but our humanity.

Names and history of Donetsk. Bizarrely, the city of Donetsk was founded in 1869 by Welsh businessman John Hughes, an energy magnate. It was originally named Юзовка after Hughes but by 1931 it was renamed to Stalino. It was renamed to Donetsk by Khrushev as part of destalinization in 1961.

Jews: shot and gassed. Jews living east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line tended to be shot. Those living in German Reich territory tended to be gassed. Gassing techniques were first perfected for mass euthanasia of disabled and elderly “useless eaters”. Rather than running the exhaust of a truck into its cab, they took out the ICE of trucks and put them into buildings to increase the scale of the killings. First perfected at Belzec (“Boo-jets”), this was also used in Treblinka and other death camps like Sobibor.

Let them destroy each other - The West stood by as Russia and Germany waged war on one another, hoping to let the Nazis and Communists destroy one another without lifting a finger. - The Soviets let the Poles rise up against the Nazis during the Warsaw uprising and falsely promised reinforcements.

Polish lack of control. Stalin bullied Churchill into labeling the Polish resistance as “adventurers”, and forced the rest of the Allies to do the same. This move was heavily condemned by Koestler and Orwell. Thus the Polish Home Army was not able to retain any control over Warsaw. By the end of the war Stalin finally allowed Allied powers to liberate Warsaw, but he delayed enough that the Soviets had de facto control, not the Polish government in exile.

Soviet alternative history. - According to Soviet history books, the war started in 1941 not in 1939. There could be no mention of the Nazi-Soviet alliance against Poland. - To the Soviets, Russians needed to be the main victims of the Great War, not the Jews. Thus the Holocaust could not become part of the official history of the war.

Solomon Michoels and the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee attempted to bring the plight of the Jews to the attention of the world. He petitioned Stalin to allow to publish the The Black Book of Soviet Jewry written by Red Army reporters Ilya Ehrenburg and Vasily Grossman. But this initiative was blocked. Michoels political campaigning led him to be murdered by Stalin (officially a truck accident). A surprising group of high profile activists including violinist David Oistrakh.

Death camps, not concentration camps. Snyder really drives home the point that concentration camps were just the tip of the iceberg. The vast majority of Jews killed in the Shoah had never seen one or been in one. Many hundreds of thousands were shot are gassed in death facilities. The emphasis on concentration camps probably comes from media coverage shortly after the war as well as personal accounts from survivors. Case in point, Hannah Arendt's work is mostly about Auschwitz.

Poles and Polish Jews. Polish Jews suffered the worst fate at the hands of the Germans. The worst parts of Poland were due to the Jews according to the Nazi stereotype. Polish Jews in the military were represented heavily, especially doctors, which was an affront to the Nazi world view. 90% of the Jews living in Poland were killed by the end of the war. Those that survived had no desire to return home, afraid of the displaced Poles that would resist if they they would try to retake their homes. Most fled via Germany to Israel or the United States. Before the war, 3 million Jews lived in Poland. By the end of it, and after the Polish communist anti-Semitism of the 60s, 30,000 remained. The non-Jewish Poles also suffered disproportionately compared to other non-Jewish ethnicities. Even so, a Jewish Pole was 15x more likely to die than their non-Jewish counterpart.

Jewish resistance. A unified front of armed Jews came to be known as the Jewish Combat Organization. They sought to kill heads of the Judenrat and Jewish informants. Most of the action was in the Warsaw ghetto. By 1943 they had managed to kill some Nazis too, which led to a German vendetta against the Warsaw ghetto. When the Nazis came to destroy it they were met with sniper fire and Molotov cocktails. Called by some the “Jewish German War”, this resulted in the Nazis razing the Warsaw ghetto and turning it into a concentration camp.

Resettlement: When the Nazis "resettled" Jews, this was used as a euphemism for mass murder. Resettlement from the Warsaw ghetto involved "deportation" of 250,000 Jews to the Treblinka death camp. Post-war Stalin used the same term to actually resettle people en mass. These were also brutal endeavours, and thousands died in transit, many traveling in open train cars in the bitter cold. The Germans suffered greatly after the war, dehumanized as a nation for the atrocities of the Nazis. As the Red Army pressed west, soldiers raped German women, and killed the men or took them as laborers.

"Respecting" national boundaries. After the end of the war, Stalin implemented policies which segregated nations into their own national boundaries. In some cases, these boundaries were drawn up arbitrarily. Stalin effectively moved Poland westward, annexing eastern Poland into the soviet Ukraine at the expense of east German lands given to Poland. Germany would be for the Germans once more, just like Hitler envisioned but a much smaller territory. There was a large consensus throughout the word that each nation should be defined by its own nationality living within it.

Who to surrender to? - The Poles had to decide whether to surrender to the Wehrmacht or the Red Army in 1939, when they were attacked simultaneously by Germany from the west and Russia from the east. This was a tricky choice. - The Germans had to decide when they were attacked by the Russians from the east and by other allies from the west. This was a no brainer: flee westward as quickly as possible. - It's like an especially horrifying version of You Gotta Serve Somebody.

Bloodlands, named for an Ахматова poem:

Не бывать тебе в живых, Со снегу не встать. Двадцать восемь штыковых, Огнестрельных пять. Горькую обновушку Другу шила я. Любит, любит кровушку Русская земля.

Stalin and Israel in 1948. Moscow was initially very sympathetic to Israel, seeing it potentially as fertile soil for communism. There was elation in Moscow when Golda Meir, originally from Kyiv, visited during Rosh Hashanah 1948. However Stalin quickly changed his mind, finding that Jews had more influence on the Soviet state than the Soviet state did on Israel.

Systematic Stalinist Anti-semitism. Around 1949, Stalin began a concerted campaign against the Jews of Soviet Union. Many Jewish poets writing under Russian synonyms were arrested and killed as part of the Night of the Murdered Poets (including Leib Kvitko), followed by the Doctor's Plot which was diffused only by Stalin's death. Jews were now suspected of either being "Jewish Nationalists" or being "Rootless Cosmopolitans", with their names placed in parentheses in official lists. Increasingly Israel was seen as a client state of America, which led to fundamental aversion to the country.

Molotov's wife. Molotov's wife Polina Zhemchuzhina was Jewish and accused of having Zionist ties for her support of the Jewish Anti-Fascists. A close friend of Stalin's wife Nadezhda (another murky story), she was arrested for treason in 1948, and forced into an unwanted divorce from Μolotov. She was convicted and sentenced to five years in a labor camp, released only after Stalin's death.

Body counts and overlapping identities. In a the perverted contest between nations for greater victimhood that ensued after the war ended, there is is a tendency to inflate numbers of dead. Russia still clings on to the Soviet number of dead even though for example very few Russian Jews died in the holocaust (60k) compared to those of The Baltics, Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus. Part of the exaggerated counts can be legitimately attributed to overlapping identity. The Polish Jew living in eastern Poland might have been under Soviet, German, then Soviet occupation again, before fleeing to Israel. This means she could be considered Ukrainian, Polish, Jewish, Soviet, German, or Israeli.


  • Check out Vassiliy Grossman. In my mind, at least, he seems to be in the same category as Arendt: bearing witness. Novels that might be worthwhile: Life and Fate, and Everything Flows.
  • Read more Анна Ахматова poems.