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26 November, 2012  ▪  Bohdan Tsioupine

Turning a Blind Eye

Some renowned Western intellectuals thought of the Famine as a justified step to the Soviet Union’s radiant future

On November 24, Ukraine commemorated the victims of the 1932-1933 Famine. Thousands of people came to memorials and central squares in Kyiv, Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, Ternopil, Zhytomyr, Zaporizhia, Kharkiv and Donetsk, to mourn those killed. Following the moment of silence at 4 p.m. by the Famine Memorial in Kyiv, the memorial service began and countless candles flickered by the monuments and in the windows as part of the nationwide Light the Candle of Memory campaign. 80 years ago, however, some renowned Western intellectuals thought of the Famine as a justified step to the Soviet Union’s radiant future

In one of his articles, the British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm who died on October 1, 2012 wrote: “… the fall of the Soviet Union is traumatic not only for communists, but for socialists everywhere.” When asked whether he would stick to the Communist cause, had he known of the mass murder in the Soviet Union in an interview on BBC Radio 4 in 1995, Hobsbawm said: “Well, in the first place, we didn’t know the extent of it. In the second place, insofar as people told us, we didn’t believe them. Didn’t want to believe them perhaps.” “So, you’re saying that such was your commitment and dedication (to Communism – Ed.) that, if there was a chance of bringing about this Communist utopia which was your dream, it was worth any kind of sacrifice – even the sacrifice of millions of lives?” “Yes, I think so… Well, that’s what we felt we had fought WWII for, didn’t we?” he replied. “Is there a difference between killing someone in war and killing your own?” Lawley asked. “We didn’t know that. Dead is dead,” was the answer.

This interview cast doubt on assessments of Hobsbawm by a number of well-known British intellectuals who claim that his general historical analysis deserves recognition since its content is not linked directly to Marxism. His best work is known to be a series of historical research that includes The Age of Revolution: 1789–1848; The Age of Capital: 1848–1875, The Age of Empire: 1875–1914, andThe Age of Extremes: 1914–1991. Yet, when reading these works, it is important to keep in mind that there were some significant things which the renowned historian “did not know”… or did know, but refused to admit due to ideological barriers.


Eric Hobsbawm was not the only influential Western European intellectual who possessed an extraordinary mind, profound knowledge and creativity alongside cynical forgiveness of individual cases of genocide. Under his ideology, it was necessary to direct the masses and allow their leaders to sculpt anything they needed out of the people while discarding excessive “clay”. An average uneducated man is a cruel fool in social and state affairs, claimed the well-known British writer Herbert Wells. Apart from being the father of science fiction, he was one of the best known political and social commentators in the interwar English-speaking world. In the 1920s, he traveled to meet Vladimir Lenin and in the 1930s, he personally talked to both President Roosevelt and Stalin. Herbert Wells, too, combined concern for mankind with the idea that sacrificing a number of innocent people for the greater good was not a problem. He did not particularly like Stalin, perhaps because he politely made it clear that he was not going to follow Wells’ ideas, including those about the need to drop class conflicts in favour of social Darwinism or, in other words, ideas about social natural selection of the best people. Still, Wells praised Stalin in an article for the British magazine The New Statesman: “I have never met a man more fair, candid, and honest", claiming that these traits, and not anything gloomy and sinister, brought him his huge and undeniable influence in Russia where nobody was afraid of him and everyone trusted him.

Western intellectuals who went on organized trips and had privileged meetings with Stalin in the 20s and 30s included French writers Romain Rolland and Henri Barbusse. After his visit to the Soviet Union in 1935, Rolland, who had been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1915, praised Stalin for his "modesty and humanism". Only after the ban on the publication of his private diaries expired in 1985 did the world see his writing that was more critical about those days in the Soviet Union. He thought that hiding the truth was important for the protection of “the cause of Communism” from its ideological opponents of the time. His peer and compatriot Henri Barbusse went far enough into Soviet themes to retreat from Trotsky and become a professional glorifier of Stalin in Stalin: A New World Seen through One Man. Barbusse died unexpectedly in Moscow from a disease in 1935, the same year that the book was published.


Stalin’s probably most ardent supporter and whitewasher of his bloody crimes, including the Famine in Ukraine, was playwright and civil activist Bernard Shaw. He travelled to the Soviet Union in 1931, attended a reception with Stalin and was taken on an excursion to Stalin’s version of a Potemkin village. In 1933, as the Famine tormented Ukraine, Shaw wrote in a preface to his play On the Rocks: “…I must not suggest that this has occurred all over Russia; for I saw no underfed people there; and the children were remarkably plump. And I cannot trust the reports; for I have no sooner read in The Times a letter from Mr Kerensky assuring me that in the Ukraine the starving people are eating one another, than M. Herriot, the eminent French statesman, goes to Russia and insists on visiting the Ukraine so that he may have ocular proof of the alleged cannibalism, but can find no trace of it. Still, between satiety and starvation mitigated by cannibalism there are many degrees of shortage; and it is no secret that the struggle of the Russian Government to provide more collective farms and more giant factories to provide agricultural machinery for them has to be carried on against a constant clamour from the workers for new boots and clothes, and more varied food and more of it: in short, less sacrifice of the present to the future. As Stalin said quaintly, ‘They will be demanding silver watches next’".

Just like Herbert Wells, Bernard Shaw called himself an evolutionary socialist. Thanks to his efforts, the British organization of progressive intellectuals known as the Fabian Society had much more social and political weight in the early 20th century than it deserved to have, given the relative scarcity of its membership. The Fabian Society was the ground for today’s Labour Party. Back then, it protected social justice and opposed violent class conflict. Members of the Society believed that socialism in Britain should have developed through evolution. Why then were British intellectuals, from Herbert Wells to Eric Hobsbawm, ready to turn a blind eye to the terrible crimes of Stalinism and deny the genocide by famine in Ukraine?

Perhaps they thought their ideas were progressive enough to entail the policy of an iron fist towards the uneducated class, especially in countries as remote and unknown as the Soviet Union. With regard to these, they felt free to claim that making its peasants obey the rulers had been right indeed. “In dealing with untameable persons who are constitutionally unable to restrain their violent or acquisitive impulses, and have no compunction about sacrificing others to their own immediate convenience - to punish such persons is ridiculous: we might as reasonably punish a tile for flying off a roof in a storm and knocking a clergyman on the head. But to kill them is quite reasonable and very necessary,” Bernard Shaw mused in his doubts about the sacredness of a human life.

What Western intellectuals saw as theoretic reflections, Russian Bolsheviks took as a call to action. Since millions of Ukrainian peasants had acquisitive impulses regarding their land and “taming” them was impossible, Stalin thought they should be killed by hunger instead. All for the greater good, of course.

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