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.