Vol. 9 No. 9 · 7 May 1987

Search by issue:

Starving the Ukraine

SIR: I have only just seen your ‘review’ of my The Harvest of Sorrow, by J. Arch Getty (LRB, 22 January). Though it is largely self-refuting, there are a few assertions which an uninstructed reader might believe to be true.

First, he maintains that there is serious doubt about my figures for the casualties of the dekulakisation and the terror-famine. Fortunately I now find that the leading Soviet scholar in the field confirms, or rather increases, my estimate. My basic figure is of a Soviet population deficit of 13.5 million (from 1930) on 1 January 1937. V.P. Danilov, in an article not available to me when I wrote, gives it as 15-16 million. (Arkheographicheskiy Ezhegodnik sa 1968 god, Moscow 1970). I did describe my own as ‘conservative’: it now appears rightly so.

As to the rest, Getty takes the extraordinary position that anything written on the subject in the West during the ‘Cold War’, or by émigrés, is thereby invalidated, though in every case in fact confirmed in detail by material published before and after and by détentists and Communists too. (This aberration also occurs in his own book, which I reviewed not quite as badly as it deserved in the TLS last year – though it was indeed given a fulsome and misleading notice in your own pages by one of his sponsors.) Getty belongs to a gaggle of ‘revisionists’ who have achieved, like David Irving in another sphere, a certain notoriety. They are for some reason concerned to deny that much of a terror took place in the USSR in the Thirties, a stance only achievable by rejecting (as with the ‘Cold War’ argument above) the vast corpus of evidence to the contrary. How unfitted such minds are to understand the Stalin phenomenon is made clear, for example, in Getty’s assertion that I advance no plausible reason for Stalin to have ravaged the Ukrainian countryside. But there is nothing new in a khan ‘laying waste’ a subject territory which had given trouble: he with a sword, Stalin with starvation – a mere technical difference. This is only implausible if one imagines Stalin to have been more like Jefferson than Jenghiz. This view has not even the virtue of novelty, being a mere regurgitation of the absurdities advanced by the Webbs fifty years ago.

This stance is particularly futile when translated into a preference for Stalinist evidence. Of course all evidence, including émigré, must be used critically: but the one source which is not merely dubious but known to have produced falsifications on a gigantic scale is the then Soviet government. Try reading the hundreds of pages of the Proceedings in the Case of the Anti-Soviet Centre.

As to particulars, one cannot let pass the irresponsible libel that it was Ukrainian nationalists who carried out the Babi Yar massacres. There were indeed Ukrainian war criminals – about eleven thousand on the Israeli lists from a population of nearly forty million, a smaller proportion than some other occupied countries. The case of the Ukrainian nationalists was different. They hoped for political collaboration with the Nazis – like, and for the same reason as, the Finns. But (unlike Stalin’s collaboration of 1939-1941) this got nowhere. Their leaders went to concentration camps or underground, where their very effective partisan army fought a bitter guerrilla war against both Nazis and Communists, as Khrushchev points out in his memoirs. Several million Ukrainians were killed by the Nazis, and nearly a hundred villages got the Lidice/Oradour treatment. The greatest Soviet spokesman on Nazi crimes was the Jewish writer Vasily Grossman, author of The Hell of Treblinka and joint editor of the Soviet section of the Black Book on the Hitler terror. Not only does he make no such accusations, but he is also the most moving recorder of the sufferings of the Ukrainians in the terror-famine: giving, moreover, both the geographical limits and the mens rea of that event (both, needless to say, denied by Getty): ‘the decree required that the peasants of the Ukraine, the Don and the Kuban be put to death by starvation.’

But I am wrong in comparing Getty to David Irving. Irving, though perverse and absurd in his conclusions, does not lack a certain ability to discover and present facts. Come to that, there are pro-Soviet, even pro-Stalin writers who are, at least in this sense, qualified scholars. Getty is not among them.

Robert Conquest
Stanford, California

Seconds Away

SIR: Why does Wayland Kennet (Letters, 19 March) continue to write about END and Eastern Europe, when he clearly hasn’t bothered to find out? END has had several years of close and continuing dialogue with Charter 77, Polish ‘Peace and Freedom’ and many other groups. Of course END is ‘unilateralist’ in the sense of CND’s founding policies (see Sheila Jones – Letters, 2 April); at the same time we have been advocating in great detail for years reciprocal strategies which will break down the Cold War structures on both sides. All this is easily confirmed.

Perhaps Lord Kennet was misled by an exceedingly partisan account of the Moscow Group for Establishing Trust in the book by Mercer which he had under review? Before offering public judgment he should read other accounts including my own Double Exposure (Merlin Press). In fact, END was the first Western peace group to publicise the Moscow Group’s existence and to defend its members from repression.

I could wish that Wayland Kennet did not have this polemical itch. He is an excellent influence on certain defence issues in the House of Lords, especially in probing the Government on the Strategic Defence Initiative. He must know that, after frozen decades, the whole character of the Cold War is now becoming more fluid. This is a time for listening to each other, rather than for testy uninformed point-scoring.

E.P. Thompson
European Nuclear Disarmament, London N4

SIR: Sheila Jones’s correction of Lord Kennet’s claim (LRB, 8 January) that the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was not unilateralist when it ‘was first founded’, at the beginning of 1958, needs some amplification and clarification. He is wrong to say the CND became unilateralist ‘within a year or so’, and she is right to say that all the speakers at the inaugural public meeting on 17 February advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament, and that this policy was endorsed by the Executive Committee on 27 February: but some earlier developments should be taken into account.

CND was founded on 16 January 1958. The preliminary statement of policy which was agreed at the first Executive Committee meeting on 21 January was amended at the second Executive Committee meeting on 28 January precisely in order to avoid an unequivocal commitment to unilateralism and the consequent alienation of moderate sympathisers (especially in the United Nations Association). The result, which was issued at the inaugural press conference on 30 January, was subsequently described by the chairman, Canon John Collins, as ‘a compromise’ and by the secretary, Peggy Duff, as ‘certainly ambiguous’ and ‘not entirely unilateralist’. But this manoeuvre was not well received in the movement, the speakers and audience at the inaugural public meeting at Central Hall on 17 February ignored it, and a series of internal discussions (especially at a meeting of delegates of several groups at St Pancras Town Hall on 18 February) led to the replacement of the offending preamble with a clarificatory statement which was openly unilateralist, was endorsed at the Executive Committee meeting on 27 February, and was quietly adopted by the Campaign. The episode is described in the various memoirs and histories, and is recorded in the surviving contemporary documents (both Lord Kennet and Sheila Jones were actively involved at that time). So it is true to say that CND wasn’t definitely unilateralist for the first month of its existence, but that it has certainly been unilateralist ever since February 1958.

Nicolas Walter
London N1


SIR: In your article ‘Things’ in the LRB of 2 April you casually and fairly gratuitously refer to the ‘speeding cars of a violent Police’. How much force is right for the Police to use, and when does it become ‘violent’? Is it the idea of a state authorised to use force against its citizens to which you object in principle? Or do you object to a society the maintenance of whose laws requires the level of force ours does? Or perhaps it is the inappropriately violent tactics of the Police in certain well-reported arenas of industrial conflict? Or the abuse of force by individual officers? Or do you, perhaps, take it that your audience will be so at one with your views that they will understand without explanation? This reader does not, and therefore finds these questions of some importance. Would you be good enough to explain what was meant, so that the readers of the LRB may perhaps better understand its editorial policy in this field?

F.J. Wilkinson
London N1

Mr Wilkinson should cast his mind back over the past three years or so and ask himself how many bystanders have been killed or maimed as a result of the use of firearms by policemen. I can think without difficulty of three such people, one of them a child, and I can also think of recent deaths caused by speeding police cars. These matters do not seem to mean much to the Police Federation: but there must be many bystanders who take a different view. I would invite Mr Wilkinson to consult an article in the London Review of 20 November last year, in which Damian Grant examined the treatment received from the Police by students of Manchester University, on and after the occasion of a visit to the University by Leon Brittan, and which will be brought up to date by Mr Grant – in the light of further developments and a continuing public concern – in a forthcoming issue. Those who criticise the Police must expect to be told that they are in favour of anarchy. I am not. I know, moreover, that policemen, too, are being killed in this country, and that politicians of more than one persuasion have exposed them to attack.

Editor, ‘London Review’

Making truth

SIR: Is it not time to stop the Rorty-bashing in your columns? The latest example, by Shirrell Larsen (LRB, 17 April 1986), is especially silly and offensive. A single example of its silliness will suffice. Larsen believes that Rorty’s point of view requires giving up the notion of truth altogether: that he has ‘flushed [truth] down his philosophical toilet’, in Larsen’s typically elegant phrase. This is misunderstanding of the grossest sort. In no way does Rorty deny the importance of distinguishing truth from falsity. Rather, he has tried to show that the standard philosophical images in terms of which that crucial distinction has heretofore been represented (the metaphor of ‘correspondence with reality’, for example) have increasingly lost their power to convince; and that new images for the operation of intelligence must therefore be called into play. Truth remains the goal of inquiry: metaphysical accounts of truth must go. This would bring on ‘relativism’ or ‘nihilism’ only if an appeal to metaphysical considerations were the only way to make sense of our general agreement about what is so: and Rorty denies that it is. He may be wrong in this, of course, but that is a matter for careful, patient reflection, not diatribe.

So much for the critical interest of Larsen’s letter. The offence it gives arises from its apparently unashamed name-calling and innuendo. Rorty is called ‘The Grand Prophet of Irrationalism’; is gratuitously paired with Ronald Reagan; is accused – without support from example – of misrepresenting other philosophers and poets; is charged generally with ‘questionable interpretations, fallacious arguments, untenable contents, inconsistencies and miscellaneous verbal tricks’; is obliquely linked – through his alleged ‘irrationalism’ – to the thirty million deaths of World War Two; and so on ad nauseam. This is not merely ridiculous: it is ugly, and certainly does no good for the ‘rationalist’ tradition for which Larsen piously claims to speak. Professor Rorty is perfectly capable of defending his views against intelligent objection, and has shown himself willing to do so. He does not deserve to be subjected to this sort of thoughtless abuse, however, and certainly not in the pages of the LRB.

James Edwards

Gosse’s ‘Omphalos’

SIR: I am sorry to have miscalled Philip Gosse. G.G. Harper does right to correct me (Letters, 2 April). On dates, however, his letter is misleading. Gosse could and did know in 1857 something of what Darwin would publish in 1859, because he had been told about it. According to Gosse’s son Edmund, Sir Charles Lyell had conceived the ideal of recruiting a ‘body-guard’ of scientists for Darwin, in advance of the ‘howl of execration’ he foresaw when The Origin of Species came out. Approaches were made to Gosse, and Edmund says that it was these which led directly to the publication of Omphalos. As for ‘total discredit’, it would have been truer to say that no one credited the book at all – when it first came out. I do hope Professor Harper is not trying to tell me that it has since become a key text of ‘Creation Science’.

Tom Shippey
University of Leeds


SIR: It takes a while for the London Review to reach me, or I would have protested before. Clives James can’t have Herbert Lom as his hero (Letters, 19 February). Herbert Lom is my hero, and has been for many years. I pre-empt him, claiming seniority. Clive James himself is also something of a hero of mine, or was. Part of his charm has been a certain disreputability which has, I fear, been severely undermined by Peter Porter’s very good and very serious review (LRB, 22 January). Maybe Mr James would settle for Christopher Lee, hero of so many totally unfrightening British horror pictures.

Arthur Train
Oaxaca, Mexico

Child or boy?

SIR: I am grateful to Walter Nash for his thoughtful and positive review (LRB, 5 March) of my Dictionary of Changes in Meaning. He gently chides me, however, for omitting child (which formerly could mean ‘girl’) and let (in the sense ‘prevent’, ‘obstruct’). May I justify these apparent omissions? As Walter Nash points out, child indeed occurs in The Winter’s Tale in the sense ‘girl’ (‘A boy or a child, I wonder?’). The speaker, however, is an illterate shepherd (who admits in the next sentence ‘I am not bookish’), and Shakespeare was thus using the word in a dialect sense. (A few lines earlier in the same play, he uses child in its standard sense of ‘infant’, in the stage direction ‘Laying down Child’.) My aim was to record changes in meaning in mainstream English, not dialect and specialised usages deviating from standard English, which are many and varied, after all. That is why, for example, I also omitted gay, because its sense of ‘homosexual’ is a jargonistic one. The word has not replaced ‘homosexual’, nor has it (quite) lost its standard sense of ‘merry’. As for let this word has surely never changed its original meaning of ‘prevent’, and although now really an archaism, still survives in this sense in the noun let that is a serve in tennis or squash that has to be played again. So no change in meaning here to record! But I do take Mr Nash’s point about wardrobe, and am grateful to him for noting my literary oversight here.

Incidentally, Barbara Everett, in her letter in the same issue, perpetrates a false etymology when she supposes that ‘woman’ is ‘linguistically a derivative’ of ‘man’. It is not, at least not of ‘man’ meaning ‘adult male’. It comes from Old English wifman, whose two components mean literally ‘woman human’. See my Dictionary of True Etymologies.

Adrian Room
Petersfield, Hampshire

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences