I’m reading Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands. About how Stalin and Hitler killed 14 million civilians and prisoner’s of war in the area between Berlin, Moscow and the Black Sea between 1933 and 1945. It is not all new to me. Still, it is heavy to take in. Snyder’s style is factual with eye witness accounts. He doesn’t dwell in emotions. His examples are brief but well chosen. They make you think.
Stalin killed 700 000 during the purges of 1937-1938. I try to visualise this number. Each of these a human being with hopes, dreams and loved by someone. The scale is hard to grasp. A single page in a book is about 300 words. Snyder’s book is 450 pages. So maybe 135 000 words in the book. I try to imagine 5 human beings killed for each word I am reading.
One thing that stuck with me from reading Hans Roslin’s Factfulness is when he 25 years later visits a place he worked as a young doctor. He mentions to the locals how things have changed. The many improvements. They look at him surprised and says it has always been like it is now. When you live in the same place for a long time, you don’t see the change. Change comes gradually. We stop imagining that live was different. That life can be different. We are too busy with the here and now to spend much thought on what is not here.
Ten years ago Ukraine was on its way to sign a free trade and association agreement with EU. Victor Yanukovych was busy embezzling funds for his private residence. There were no green men on Crimea. Trump was a reality tv star. UK was a member of EU. Corona was a beer brand.
The 14 million people who met their end through deliberate policies of Stalin and Hitler saw change come suddenly. They believed in the rule of law. They believed in the good of humanity. Yet for a long while, the whims of criminals prevailed.
I watched Mr. Jones the other night. The 2019 movie is streaming on SVT Play until September 17. The movie retells the story of the young reporter Gareth Jones who witnessed the starvation of Ukraine in 1933. A famine imposed by Stalin’s war against the independent farmers of the fertile black soil of Ukraine. More than 2 million died from starvation. How can you even begin to understand what that might have been?
The movie does a good job. Gareth Jones travels to Moscow to get an interview with Stalin. He wants to understand from where the Soviet Union gets the money required for the industrialisation. He doesn’t get his interview but instead ends up in a village near Donetsk in Ukraine. Through a few well chosen scenes we learn what we need to learn. See what we need to see. Now we understand.
Jones eventually returns back to the UK, threatened to silence. When he decides to write the story, to tell the truth about the man made famine, even at great personal cost, we understand him.
We need both fact and fiction to truly understand the past and to help us see the future. Only then can we choose a better one.