Happy May Day

I just watched a documentary on Stalin which showed a old Ukrainian woman telling the story of the horrors her family faced when Stalin pushed them onto the collectives, stole their grain and sold it abroad to fund his industrial dreams.

She said that their house had the only nearby well and neighbors came there to fetch water. No one had any food. Everyone was starving.

Her mother had three children. The youngest was a boy around five. He had taken ill so they had put him in the warmest place, a bunk bed over the stove. The mother had nothing to feed her children save a single turnip. She boiled it up and divided it between the two oldest children. The youngest child, smelling the turnip from his bed over the stove ask for some. The woman refused. The child climbed down from his sick bed, crying, grabbing at her skirts and begging for just a bite of turnip. Seeing this, the neighbors told the woman to give the starving child just a bite of turnip.

“No,” she said, “I have to save the food for my healthy children.”

Hearing this, the boy sagged. He gave up begging and weeping bitterly, struggled back into his bed. He cried until he died the next day.

When a child dies slowly, such as from starvation, they often begin to make a particular rhythmic, low, mewing cry in their final hours.

Those unfortunate enough to have heard it describe it as being like no other sound a human makes. It’s sad and pathetic and tugs at the adult heart like nothing else. Deep in our genetic core it calls us to do something, anything, to save the child.

Did the woman have to listen to her son make that sound? Did his weeping slowly turn to that mindless mewing? Did she have to sit in her one room peasant house, listening to him for hours until he finally stilled?

The horror of this story defies quantification. What could be worse than having to decide to withhold food from your own starving child? From your own youngest child? What could be worse than seeing his face when you told him not that you couldn’t feed him but that you wouldn’t?

What hell could be worse than the hours listening to him weep and then mew until that final rattle filled the hut with a blessed silence?

In many ways, this story is far worse than horror stories from the Holocaust such as “Sophie’s Choice”. At least in that case, another human being immediately forced the choice upon the mother

In this case, no evil person stood over the woman and forced her to choose which of her children would die. She had to force herself to make that choice. She could have easily given her youngest a small chunk of turnip at the mere cost of depriving her two other children of the hundred or so calories the chunk contained. Would such a paltry amount have made a difference? At the least, she could have given her son some little comfort in his final hours.

No one would have blamed her if she had. Indeed, her neighbors urged her to do so. The easy thing to do would have been to give in, try to save the boy at the risk of losing the other two. Even if all perished, she would never have had to suffer the agony of making that choice.

She showed a terrible strength. Whether born of wisdom or madness none can say. She fought for life at a cost no soldier ever had to pay. No battlefield of any war ever fought has required the level of sacrifice nor held as much horror as did that quiet little peasant kitchen.

Did she make the right choice? None of us today who live in freedom with full bellies can judge her. Both of her eldest children survived both the Ukrainian famine, the Great Terror, the war and the remaining decades of communism.

Perhaps, then, the sacrifice of her son did allow her to save something from Stalin’s evil. Perhaps she did win some little victory of love over evil.

The women herself did not survive. She, of course, did not eat. The grave digger who came for her son carried her off as well, still alive but fading because he himself did not have the strength to make a second trip for her.

I think it a mercy she perished with her son. Had she survived, a women of her strength of will might have carried on mechanically for the sake of her surviving children, but she would have been a hollow husk, her soul burned to bitter ash. Every bite of food she took would turn to that chunk of turnip she could not give him. Every strain of music would hold his final mewing cries. Never again would she know joy.

I had more to say but find I cannot continue right now.

I will say but this: Stalin is long dead and communism and fascism are history’s dust, but the evil that birthed it all still haunts us, still pushes in on us in new guises with new rationales.

The killing arrogance of those who believe they have the knowledge to order entire societies, even the entire world, is ultimately what empowered Stalin to do what he did.

That arrogance has not abated. One need only glance at the news to see it. The intellectual descendants of the people who lectured us all about the virtues of Stalin’s regime back then, today lecture us about their own grandiose visions. They are every bit as certain in their intellectual and moral rectitude as were those who defended Stalin. If we risk letting them into power, we risk a Stalin reborn.

We must remain ever vigilant all of our days to fight against this evil that forever lurks in the core of our beings. We must all resist the urge to believe ourselves superior, to believe ourselves possessed of the one true knowledge, to believe ourselves entitled to sacrifice the living here and now for the sake of a utopia generations hence.

Should we fail, we should all pray to fate, physics or all the gods ever named that we quickly meet the peace of the grave rather than find ourselves in that brave woman’s shoes.

Happy Mayday.

23 thoughts on “Happy May Day”

  1. Stories like this, and the stories that the Vietnamese refugees that I helped resettle in 1975 have forever inoculated me against any temptation to believe in collectivism, or to worship at the feet of a great leader.
    And I despise every Western intellectual or celebrity who does. Watching them lick Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez boots is positively sick-making – even more sick-making to think of a child slowly dying of starvation.

  2. I used to interview applicants to UCI medical school. I had an office on campus although I was “voluntary” faculty. The Dean of admissions secretary told me that I was the only one who filled out the interview reports promptly and returned them. One applicant I interviewed was a young Vietnamese woman about 30 who told me of being awakened in her bed by her father who carried her out to a canoe where the rest of the family was. They paddled the canoe in the dark out several miles where they rendezvoused with a fishing boat. They spent several years in refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines until they made it to Orange County. She had graduated from UCI with BS and masters degrees in molecular biology and was working as a lab assistant.

    American children, including my own, have no idea what life is like in the countries Obama wants to emulate, although that might be too harsh.

    UCI is the most difficult UC campus to get into because it is about 50% Asian, especially the Vietnamese who live in Garden Grove and can commute from home. Berkley and UCLA are better known because of football teams, and politics in Berkley’s case, but the Vietnamese refugees have turned UCI into the Harvard of the west. Vietnam and Cuba have driven the most productive segment of their population out of the country and I fear Obama may have something like that in mind. Not the intention but the policies.

    Louis XIV drove the Huguenots from France and they took the Industrial Revolution with them. Hitler drove out the Jews who were alert enough to get out when they had a chance. They took with them the atomic bomb.

  3. And people like Franks are surprised that Kansans do not find statist policies attractive.

    And my husband’s colleagues see me as coldhearted because I don’t see the Hollywood writers who collaborated (is there any other word for some of them?) as martyrs? I grew up on stories, often described as right wing paranoia, of the gulags – and now we know those stories describe but a small percentage of the grief and death.

    So, we have a holocaust museum – and a president whose advisors find Che and Mao attractive.

    These may be interesting times, but the peace is likely but to be in ours and not our grandchildren’s.

  4. Well, we can all take comfort in knowing that respected infulential academics like Eric Hobsbawn thinks this all would have been “worth it” had the Soviet experience work … whatever that means.

  5. Shannon,

    Damn! Poetic. Powerful. True.

    That is some of the best writing I’ve read in quite some time. Thank you.

  6. Michael Kennedy,

    Louis XIV drove the Huguenots from France and they took the Industrial Revolution with them.

    I’ve always attributed the most significant intellectual source of the Industrial Revolution to the Scottish Enlightenment. Could you elaborate on your thesis?

    I ask because I am the descendant of Huguenots who arrived in North Carolina around 1720. The family is believed to have spent time in England, and before that in the Netherlands. When they left France is not known.

  7. Michael Kennedy,

    My landlord was a refugee from Vietnam who arrived with nothing but the shirt on his back and built a very successful life. He and his sister escaped.

    My I-had-walk-five-miles-to-school-in-a-blizzard-uphill-both-ways story I told my kids was me moaning that when I was kid living out in the country we only got one fuzzy TV channel. His story was that when he came to America he couldn’t sleep at night because it was to quite. He’d gotten used to falling asleep to the sound of mortar attacks.

    After the victory of the “peace movement”, his parents survived by scavenging though the garbage dumps of the former US bases and recovering plastic to be washed and resold as eating and storage vessels. The little plastic trays that cookies come in were especially prized. When he managed to bring them to the US in the 90s, they would wander through supermarkets pointing out the food packaging that had kept them alive for all those years.

    When he complains that his kids don’t know how well they have it, he really means it.

  8. Shannon – thanks for both post & comment.

    And for the reality check on a day after people marches under communism’s banner and fascism is so discredited its taint considered an argument in itself against the Arizona law. (I didn’t say good; I would say effective.)

    That communism does not have that negative weight is a sign of our inability to wrap our minds around either of your terribly moving but quite representative stories. Some attempt to tie them together with the true but less evocative “statists.” But either our imaginations have been captured by the idea of “strong men” – the bloody heroes of those Communist revolultions – or are too impoverished – or too skittish – to wrap themselves around the causes of stories like yours. Whatever the reason, you haven’t fallen prey & can help the rest of us see.

    What there is in a man that can make him admire Che when we have the model of those who have walked away, time after time, from power (those like Washington, those like our presidents throughout history with one exception who kept on until he died in office), is amazing. Often those who admire the strong men of other countries – those who commit democide – are mindlessly guilty of the kind of powerful xenophobia and sometimes racism that domestically comes from an acceptance that laws do not need to be so strictly enforced in certain parts of town.

  9. Many of my relatives were Germans who farmed the Ukraine and were exactly the type targeted by Stalin.

    I don’t have the letters but my grandmother said that they didn’t ask for food, because the Russians would just steal it, but to send needles and thread, so that they didn’t have to die in rags, because even their clothes had fallen apart. That was the end of the family tree in Russia / Ukraine.

    A different relative apparently worked higher up in the Russian government prior to the reds and they brought an oil painting of the Czar back to the US but it got thrown away somewhere along the line. Who knows what that would be worth today.

  10. I agree that the Scottish enlightenment played a major role in science. I think the effect was more in that area rather than the more mundane areas of trade and trades (Two different topics). I have been trying to work my way through Joel Mokyr’s latest book, The Enlightened Economy, a much heavier work than his other books, Lever of Riches and Gifts of Athena. Certainly both contributed. I also think the effect was worse on France than as benefit to England, which was my point. There was no Scottish Enlightenment in France, either.

    One story that has gotten very little interest thus far is the Japanese atomic bomb project. The Germans gave them help and material but, apparently, the Japanese project was quite serious and had made real advances. One reason why the second bomb was necessary, according to “Downfall” was that the Japanese scientists advised the Emperor that we could not have enough U 235 for two bombs. They were right. The second bomb was the plutonium bomb. After that, they concluded they had gotten their sums wrong and we might have many bombs, which we did not. They then advised surrender.

  11. Shannon, now imagine how the Russians feel, those over 50, still remembering their childhood, and their parents and grandparents’ stories, and knowing them to be true if horrifying, when current crop of “young stalinists” yell at every corner the old and tired lies dating from 1950s.

    See also.

  12. If you don’t think that is coming to the rest of the world, you are in for a suprise. When the parasites take too much from the producers, the producers will stop. The parasites will starve to death, or be killed trying to steal their food. This is what happens when you put progressive morons in charge of the .gov

    Oh well. The idiot libs want to teach darwinism in school, well, they are about to get a life lesson from it.


  13. Carl from Chicago,
    I too am descended from some of those hardy Germans who settled in Russia and thrived until my own direct line saw the writing on the wall and fled for the New World. Family folklore always spoke of settlements in “the Crimea” but my own personal research tells me that it was more likely along the Don River northwest of the Sea of Azov and not Crimea proper. When I took my grandfather to visit our family in Kansas I was told similar chilling stories about letters from Russia begging for help. They petered over the years as the iron grip of Stalin clenched the fate of these poor souls. They ended (like our family trees there) before the Second World War.

  14. I always get the Wends and the Roosians confused. Are either of you from one of these groups? (Only Nebraska, I think, has fast food Runza chains.) A friend studied the local Wends, who have a museum.

  15. TXL,

    The idiot libs want to teach darwinism in school, well, they are about to get a life lesson from it.

    As a point of fact, Communist did not believe in Darwinism. Marx himself explicitly rejected natural selection as a mechanism of evolution because he thought it inspired by competitive free-market capitalism. (Which is was. Darwin’s family were merchants and early industrialist. His notes show that the survival of businesses helped inspire the idea of natural selection.)

    Communist and Fascist believed that evolution occurred owing to a process called orthogenesis (“correct creation”). This was the dominant evolutionary theory up until the late 1940s. Orthogenesis held that some natural force drove species towards some perfect form. Fascist relied on this idea as the basis of the master (the most “highly” or perfectly evolved) race. Communist used it as the basis for “historical inevitability.” Indeed, teaching that natural selection was a mechanism of evolution was a state crime in the USSR under Stalin and for some years afterwards.

  16. Ginny,
    Wends were Slavs living in Germany (my family were Germans living in Slav lands). The Runza food chains you speak of serve Volga German food. Similar culture and ‘homelands’ but my family called themselves Russian Mennonites. In reality they were Prussian Anabaptists who resettled first in Imperial Russia and then East-central Kansas. None of these cultural differences made much difference to Stalin. They were propserous German farmers all and as such targeted for destruction.

  17. Jerod, funny thing – I just corresponded with a Russian Mennonite (with a German surname) who emigrated to Munich in the 00s from Orenburg in Ural region, works for a French cement company; he told me he’s been transferred to Western Ukraine as a Co’ rep and asked for some local pointers/tips.
    We just compared our childhood notes; I told him about my best school friend, a Finn, and her neighbor, a German from Kazakhstan, and how three of us used to call each other Tanchen, Ludchen and Olchen…we had a great time. That was in Tatarstan, along Kama-river, many years ago.

    He said there is a sea of differences between Russian-German expats, and that if he was in a company of three Russian Germans, one of which is a German Catholic, another – one of Mennonites’ branches, and the third – a secular ex-settler from Kazakhstan, there will be tension…

  18. My wife came from Russia 10 years ago as the Russian Federation was still eroding. She had grown up under Brezhnev and was raised by her grandmother in Siberia. Even under Brezhnev, she tells stories that are unbelievable–waiting in line for hours for a handful of sugar, even Party apparatchiks having to garden in order to eat, rampant bribery, violence, and murder (her uncle was knifed to death outside her door). And the stories her grandmother told her about being under Stalin were much worse.

    She, of course, has absolutely no patience with collectivism. She is constantly horrified at the amount of meddling and intrusiveness we allow the State in the USA. On the other hand, she and my other Russian relatives are very good at scamming the state systems (good training). They are used to a corrupt government full of greedy and mendacious civil “servants”.

  19. That brought a tear to my eyes. And re-ignited the burning flaming hatred I have for the glib intelligentsia who have always been apologists for “Great Men” and collectivist monsters like Stalin. They have not been made to apologize. They have simply carried on under new names for their ideologies.

    This story also brings under the purview of bright lights the moral theory of utilitarianism. I suppose yes that saving two children and sacrificing the third is defensible. But I loathe to contemplate any such hypotheticals. The dorm room bull-session favorite of “would you pull the lever to change the track?” to choose whether a train kills one person or two, etc always struck me as monstrous. For one, doesn’t simple enumeration of lives imply an implicit judgment of moral value egalitarianism of the various lives to choose between? Couldn’t the one child sacrificed be the next Einstein and the two children saved thieves and murderers? How can we judge ex-ante whether simple enumeration is enough to satisfy the TRUE demands of utilitarianism?

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