Friday, December 6, 2013

difference in famine perception

An LJ friend published a review text about his paper on mortality in one of Soviet concentration camps, have a look:

I have now read your paper. It is interesting and discusses some important issues. It is good to see that there are some young Russian historians concerned about these matters. I attach some comments on the paper.
SAZLAG - Some comments
This paper has three parts:
(1) A presentation and discussion of the mortality data for SAZLAG for 1931-45.
(2) A presentation of the mortality data of Buchenwald and a comparison with SAZLAG.
(3) Attention to the fact that the terrible mortality at SAZLAG is hardly known to anyone and that the people responsible were never punished for their crimes.
(1) This is useful. I was unaware of the existence of tis camp and of its very high mortality figures. However, the high mortality is not so surprising. I myself travelled in Central Asia in 1966-67. At one time I stayed in the student hostel of Samarkand State University (SAMGU). Hygiene there was terrible. The lavatories were awful and the availability of washing facilities not very good. It is really not very surprising that mortality in SAZLAG was higher than in the Gulag as a whole. I expect that mortality in Central Asia was higher than in the USSR as a whole,. In this connection, in Figure 1 you compare mortality in SAZLAG with normal mortality in the USSR. However, really you should compare it with mortality in Central Asia. That is the relevant comparison group.
(2) The comparison with Buchenwald. I am not surprised that this is “very controversial in modern Russian historical” writing. What makes it controversial is two things. First, the unwillingness to accept similarities between the Soviet and Nazi systems. Secondly, the usual identification of German concentration camps with the German extermination camps.
You carefully point out that your comparison is not with the extermination camps, but with the ‘normal’ concentration camps in Germany. Once this is explained, this should reduce the emotional resistance to your paper, although the first argument above would remain. Personally, I think your comparison with Buchenwald is perfectly legitimate and interesting. It is a useful way of drawing attention to the scale of the inhumanity represented by SAZLAG.
Incidentally, the first modern ‘concentration camps’ were those used by the British in their war in South Africa in 1899-1901 (known in the UK as the ‘Boer War’). The British put the civilian Boer population (including women and children) in camps to deprive the male Boer fighters of the possibility of disappearing into the civilian population. There was a high mortality in these camps (I do not have the figures to hand) and this caused a big political scandal at the time. (Nowadays only a few specialists seem to know that ‘concentration camps’ were introduced by the British and not the Germans.)
I think your explanation of the difference between Buchenwald and the extermination camps is too long. Do you really need all the text on pages 31-38?
Your comparison with prison mortality in the Russian Empire is a good one. As for the USA, also relevant is the death rate among the Japanese and Japanese Americans deported from the West Coast at the beginning of 1942 and interned in special camps.
(3) Obviously the USSR/Russia did not go through any proper process of punishment for those guilty of these crimes. In addition, many people in Russia today have a rather rosy view of the Stalinist past. Russia has not condemned the past and its perpetrators in the way Germany has. Neither has it had a Truth and Reconciliation process similar to South Africa. Although it is a good idea to draw attention to this, I doubt very much whether this situation will change. In the USA, in 1988 a law was passed apologizing for the 1942 internment of Japanese Americans. The survivors (or their heirs) received financial compensation.
On page 15, bottom of the page, you refer to 1931 as “a non-famine and peaceful year”. This is not the case. Of course the peak of the famine was in 1933, and 1932-33 were the main famine years. However, there were also famine deaths in 1931-34. I usually refer in my writings to the ‘1931-34 famine’. If I remember correctly, the 1931 deaths were mainly in Kazakhstan, which of course was nearer to Central Asia than Russia or Ukraine. Besides the famine, 1931 was scarcely very ‘peaceful’ either. It is true that the USSR was not engaged in an international war, but there was a bitter struggle between the state and the peasantry. (Furthermore, in 1931 the Soviet leadership became very concerned about Japanese aggression in the Far East.)
I notice that you are an aspirant. I feel that the text you have written is more suitable as a chapter in a Memorial book than as a chapter in a kandidatskaya dissertatsiya. Personally I would advise that the chapter be a bit less polemical. Maybe by making comparisons with the British concentration camps for Boer War civilians, and the US camps for interned Japanese-Americans, you could counter criticism by ‘patriots’. (I expect, although I do not have the figures to hand, that in both cases mortality was much below that in SAZLAG.) Also, by reducing the number of pages devoted to Buchenwald, and its status in Germany, you would improve the text as a chapter in a dissertatisiya.

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