LETTER FROM AMERICA, by Alstaire Cooke
BBC NEWS, Programmes, UK, Monday, 23 June, 2003
Soon after I first arrived in the United States I was invited to stay with a
Boston family that I'd met on the ship coming over, the good ship Laconia.
A fine, I should have said then, middle-aged couple - they were not a day
under 40 - with an adorable, blonde, 16-year-old daughter and a small,
sassy, jeering, 12-year-old son, the like of which I had never met till then
Once he was sent away from the table for making a rude sound, which startled
me, and when he came back he said to me: "You mean you never gave your
headmaster a raspberry?"
I'm sure he turned out to be a fine young man but he was then simply a brat
at an impossible age.
He dawdled with his food and he finally pushed it aside.
"Chester," his mother scolded, "finish your plate. Think of the starving
I never gave this episode a thought until it must have been 1990 - 13 years
ago - when I saw on television a rather shocking domestic scene.
It was a family around a dinner table with folded hands, the tots glancing
at their elders for the cue to the speech or the prayer they seemed to be
It was, we were told, a vow of ill-will, to put it mildly, towards the Turks
for generations to come.
What I was seeing was something I'm sure I couldn't have seen in England, it
was a gathering of Americans of Armenian extraction commemorating and
bemoaning the 75th anniversary of what was simply described in the history
books as "The Turkish massacres".
It's a terrible story.
Armenia has been throughout its history a chaos of parties, religions,
tribes, nationalist movements all kept in ferment by intruding powers - the
Romans, the Russians, the Greeks, in 1915 - the year of the massacres - by
1915 was a fierce and bloody time during the First World War. The Turks
were fighting on the German side and suspected that the Armenians had many,
too many, agents, too much sympathy for the Allies - Britain, France, Russia
So the Turks decided on a breathtaking move of Roman audacity - they
ordered and ran the removal of the entire Armenian population - about one
and three quarter millions - from their own country into Syria and what is
Need I say the resistance was as fervent as it was unavailing. Along the
enforced road 600,000 Armenians were massacred.
The thunder of this dreadful event was still rumbling through American life
20 years later and the American Red Cross was still trying to save from
starvation another half million Armenian refugees.
All this, scarcely heard about by the average Briton, was at the back of the
mind - in my early days - of any American parent urging a child to "finish
I don't believe this memory would have been awakened if it had not been
suddenly roused by a piece in the paper this week about a protest parade by
a nationwide group I frankly didn't know existed - the Society of Ukrainian
Like the Armenians, commemorating with similar public show and anger, they
were commemorating a more dreadful event still.
This past week it seems marked the 70th anniversary of the forced starvation
of what we then called The Ukraine.
What is a forced starvation? Ask the untroubled spirit of Josef Stalin, the
dictator of the Soviet Union for almost 30 years.
By the late 1920s, Stalin was ready and all-powerful enough to put into
practice a plan, two plans.
One was the modernising of industry and the second was making every farmer,
big or small, prospering or failing, surrender his property to collective
That's to say every farm was to be nationalised and the party - the
Bolsheviks in Moscow through their regional chiefs - would convert every
farmer into an indentured servant, labouring for the common harvest which
would be then apportioned according to your loyalty to the party.
From the beginning this was a personality problem for Stalin.
Since his youth he'd been paranoid. From his first days in the party he had
his eyes alert, his ears cocked, all his senses psychotically roused to spot
In practice this meant that in a factory a poor timekeeper, a man who
couldn't quite handle new machinery, anyone whose machine broke down
was identified as a traitor and shot.
The farm collective plan had a mightier obstacle - more than 70% of the
so-called proletariat were peasants, most of whom hated losing their farms
to a local bureaucrat.
The Ukraine was a very bounteous region, the wheat bowl for half the
Soviets. Its tough, independent farmers instigated a massive revolt against
Stalin knew exactly what to do - no negotiations, no compromise - he simply
ordered the army to seize the peasants' food and their stored seed.
1933 was the first year of Stalin's triumph in enforcing his collectivist
In shorter words - in that year 4.2 million Ukrainians starved to death,
another 1.7 millions were driven away to outdoor threadbare camps and left
for the perishing winter to kill them off.
No Western reporter that I've heard about managed to get a word about the
Ukraine through to his/her paper.
We did read of public trials of journalists, party officials, intellectuals,
who were said to have conspired against the party and some of them certainly
had but all of them were - as the polite word had it - liquidated.
In London Mr Bernard Shaw commented: "Stalin was quite right, he was
surrounded by enemies."
Stalin could not have agreed more, he was obsessed by the fear of
At Yalta, whereas Roosevelt had two bodyguards and Churchill one detective,
Stalin lived and travelled with an entire Russian division of soldiers and
He slept by day - daylight was too risky a time to expose oneself.
He arose in the early evening, sat down and - sipping his first vodka -
began, what I once called, his twilight signatures - execution orders: today
a brother-in-law, tomorrow burn up six villages, next day on a tip from an
ambassador that two Russian officers were plotting together, just to be on
the safe side, Stalin wrote an order condemning 2,000 officers above the
rank of colonel to be shot at dawn and so they were.
Some time after the second war foreign offices began to compute just how
many humans Stalin had ordered killed. Nothing to do with World War II
The British guessed perhaps seven, eight millions.
Progressive liberal people in both Britain and America were reluctant to
believe that he'd ever executed anybody except genuine, dangerous party
The US State Department, of course riddled with its fear of Communism, its
guess was 20 millions. What rubbish.
Not until the collapse of Communism in 1991 did the Russians open up their
own archives. The correct, Kremlin figure was 27 millions.
How did it come about then that ordinary, decent, well-informed Americans
and Britons who were not rampaging Tories came to share a common view
of the two dictators?
Hitler seen as a madman and a monster, Stalin as a very strict and - yes -
perhaps a ruthless leader whenever conspirators were involved but a man
not capable of Hitler's hideous holocaust.
This view was held among decent, progressive, liberal people throughout the
30s, 40s and 50s, and among many people it was held right through until the
collapse of the Soviet Union.
I believe there were two reasons - especially during and after the second
war - for Stalin's appearing as a rather frightening disciplinarian rather
than, which he was, the maddest and most criminal of tyrants.
The sheer scale, the magnitude of Stalin's crimes once rumoured about
defied sensible belief.
But more so than anything else, I think, was his propaganda triumph about
an absolute rule can be broken only on pain of instant death.
No film, no photographs of conditions anywhere could be published until
Everything must be locked away - every image of the slave labour camp,
torture chamber, execution squad, even pictures of the daily, dreary life of
the people, the daily bread and soap queues, everything except the model
farms dolled up for showing off to foreign visitors.
In the end, put it this way: is there a listener who has not seen a hundred
sickening times the clanking skeletons of Dachau, Buchenwald, Auschwitz?
But have you ever seen a single picture of a company of colonels dead on the
ground, of a whole horizon of burning villages and their smoking corpses, of
the execution of a favourite general, a son-in-law, of any of the Kremlin's
listed 27 millions?
In the result we see Hitler with his mad, sincere vision of a perfect Nordic
By comparison with Stalin - the paranoiac of the century - Hitler was a
demented boy scout.
LETTER FROM AMERICA, by Alstaire Cooke
BBC NEWS, Programmes, UK, Monday, 23 June, 2003
For Personal and Academic Use Only