The Kazakh Famine of the 1930s: another “Harvest of Sorrow”

Continuing the theme of this sad day, I will share a story I just learned about.

In this video from the Library of Congress, Sarah Cameron summarizes her forthcoming book: “The Hungry Steppe: Famine, Violence, and the Making of Soviet Kazakhstan“.

There are some similarities with the Holodomor (subject of Robert Conquest’s famous book, “The Harvest of Sorrow”) in that a forced collectivization campaign led to a massive man-made famine in a region that under normal circumstances was a major food exporter.  While you could say the Ukraine was the breadbasket of the USSR, Kazakhstan was its stockyard.

Unlike the Ukrainian peasants that fells victim to the dekulakization campaign, however, the Kazakhs were nomads, whose lifestyle was adapted to raising livestock in a vast territory of marginal land. Unlike in the case of the Ukraine SSR, a desire to stamp out Kazakh national identity and aspirations does not appear to have played a role as such. Furthermore, nomads did not fit any class category in “scientific” Marxism — but eventually the know-it-all social engineers in Moscow decided that the “backward” nation needed to be modernized, the nomads forcibly settled, and animal husbandry brought more in line with “modern” practices.

The result was disastrous — the number of cattle fell by 90%, and deaths from starvation were actually a higher percentage of ethnic Kazakhs than had been reached even in the Ukraine (where absolute numbers were of course larger). Combined with the flight of about another million Kazakhs to neighboring Soviet republics or to China, this actually made ethnic Kazakhs a minority in Kazakhstan until 1999.

Eventually, the Soviets were forced to backtrack. Their satrap in Kazakhstan, erstwhile co-executioner of the Tsar and his family Filipp Goloshchekin, was made a scapegoat and dismissed, but his protégé (and alleged former lover) Nikolai Yezhov — head of the NKVD during the Great Purges, which are known in Russian as the “Yezhovshchina” to this day — ensured he stayed unharmed. Only after Yezhov’s downfall and execution did Goloshchekin’s turn come: he was eventually executed by firing squad at Kuibyshev (Soviet-era name of Samara) as part of a group of “especially dangerous prisoners”.

During the Q&A, Dr. Cameron was, of course, asked why this episode is barely known in the West, while there is at least some awareness (not enough) of the Holodomor. She attributes this to the large Ukrainian diaspora in the West vs. the barely existent Kazakh one, as well as to the fact that Kazakh nomadic culture prizes oral history over the written word and stone memorials. (Dr. Cameron recounts that, when she asked where a monument to the victims had been built, she was told “in Almaty” [the former capital] and spent days touring the city, only to find a sign indicating a such a monument would be built there in the future.) The language barrier presumably plays a role too: Russian speakers can generally read Ukrainian (the two languages are closer than Dutch and German), but the Turkic Kazakh language is another matter.

(Kazakhstan itself, meanwhile, has been transformed radically, with the discovery and exploitation of vast natural resources (including but not limited to both oil and uranium). Since the 2000s, the country has seen very rapid economic growth, slowed down recently by a dip in world oil prices.)

As great and appalling as I knew the body count of communism to be, the story of the Kazakh man-made famine was new to me. There is scholarly discussion about whether it constitutes a genocide (which implies intent to decimate or eliminate an ethnic group) or a democide (a mass killing of genocidal proportions with motivated other than ethnicity). But for the victims and their kin, it would be cold comfort that they died as the results of a colossal deadly foul-up rather than deliberate intent. Whether they died from premeditated murder or from “Depraved indifference to human life”, if you like.

UPDATE: Welcome, Instapundit readers!




Repost: Tisha be-Av

[Reposted from last year.] Today marks the fast of the Ninth of Av (Hebrew: Tisha be-Av), the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. On this day, we observe a full 25-hour fast (sundown to sundown) and observe some mourning customs. In the synagogue, the Book of Lamentations is read. Work is not forbidden (I am in fact working today), but in Israel, Tisha be-Av is an optional day off, as many find working (efficiently) difficult owing to light-headedness or dehydration (don’t forget this is high summer here).

Originally, Tisha be-Av marked the destruction of the First and Second Temples, coincidentally on the same day of the Hebrew calendar in 587 BE and 70 CE. Over the years, however, further calamities befell the Jewish people on or near that day. Below follow some of the major ones.

  • August 4, 135 OS (9 Av, 3895): the crushing of the Bar-Kochba rebellion by the Roman occupiers. The last Jewish stronghold at Betar was crushed, the site of the former Temple plowed over by order of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, and the land that was hitherto known as Provincia Judea punitively renamed Palestina. [This is, BTW, the first recorded usage of that term, taken from the seafaring people known as the Pelishtim or Philistines who used to dwell in the Ashdod/Ashkelon/Gaza region of the coastal plain.]
  • July 18, 1290 OS (9 Av, 5050): expulsion of the Jews from England
  • July 22, 1306 OS (9 Av, 5066): ditto from France
  • July 31, 1492 OS (7 Av, 5252): Gerush Sefarad: a royal decree gave the many Jews of Spain the choice between expulsion and conversion to Catholicism. Many of those who did convert (Conversos or Nuevos Cristianos) secretly continued to adhere to Jewish customs: these so-called Marranos faced torture or death when caught.  Many others found temporary refuge in Portugal, only to be faced with the same choice five years later. Sephardic Jewish communities around the Mediterranean basin, as well as in some northern European port and trading cities, were founded by refugees who left wherever ships would take them. The oldest synagogue on US soil was, in fact, established in 1654 by Marranos “come out of the closet”.

The Holocaust (Hebrew: Shoah = catastrophe) is itself linked multiple times to this date:

  • August 1-2, 1914 (9-10 Av, 5764): Germany entered World War One. While this did not directly involve or affect the Jewish people as such, the aftermath of WW I created the conditions for the rise of National Socialism, and hence indirectly led to WW II and the Shoah.
  • July 31, 1941 (7 Av, 5701): Reich Marshal (and de facto deputy Führer) Hermann Göring (y”sh) issues a written order to SD-chief Heydrich (y”sh) to “Expanding on your earlier orders […] I order you to submit to me soonest, a comprehensive plan for the organizational, practical, and material preparations for the sought-after Final Solution of the Jewish Question“. [To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time this phrase appears in an official document.]
  • July 23, 1942 (9 Av 5702):  the first deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto to the extermination camp at Treblinka took place.

Indeed, some religious Jews favor commemorating the Shoah on Tisha be-Av rather than create a separate memorial day. They had the support of Menachem Begin (prime minister 1977-1983), whose parents and brother had been murdered by the Nazis (y”sh) and who himself had narrowly escaped their clutches. However, this proposal did not gain adequate support, and thus Yom HaShoah, with its more secular complexion, continues to exist side by side with Tisha be-Av.

Finally, it is written in the Talmud (Yoma 9b) that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sin’at chinam — baseless hatred that had Jews too obsessed with factional infighting to be able to form a united front against the common enemy. I have a feeling that if the sages of the Talmud could have been put in a time machine and see the situation in the West today, that they would sadly have nodded in recognition. “Verily, there is nothing new under the sun.”


Valkyrie Day post: “The Tenth Righteous Man”

Sixty-four years ago to this day, a German general staff officer named Claus Schenk, Count von Stauffenberg led an attempt to assassinate the Führer (y”sh) and effect regime change. His attempt was the last of many, and failed through a minor coincidence. The former Bendler Street in downtown Berlin, where once the plotters worked, is today known as Stauffenberg Street: a memorial to the German anti-nazi resistance stands there now. The biography by McGill U. historian Peter Hoffmann makes for fascinating reading.

Many had tried and failed before Stauffenberg: three came within a hairbreadth of succeeding, as he himself would.

The “lone wolf” carpenter and master clockmaker Georg Elser managed to install a powerful time bomb behind the speaker’s rostrum at the hall where his target was scheduled to give an annual memorial speech for the ‘old comrades’ who fell in the attempted 1923 “Beer Hall Putsch”. (Elser had gone to work at a quarry so he could gradually purloin the required dynamite.) Only a last-minute  schedule change because of predicted foul weather thwarted the attempt: the bomb went off twelve minutes after the speaker had left, and killed at least a dozen people.

Later, two general staff officers succeeded in smuggling a time bomb aboard the Führer’s personal plane, disguised as a gift of liqueur from one general staff officer to his colleague in Berlin. The detonator failed, presumably because of the cold weather: the plotters were able to extricate their own bomb and go undetected.

The third, the attempted suicide bombing by Col. Rudolf Freiherr [=Baron] von Gersdorff, was unique in that, if it had succeeded, it would have been a ‘decapitation strike’ against nearly the entire apex of the Nazi state. I wrote a fictionalized version of this incredible tale as the first story in this anthology:

(the entire story appears in the preview). It is a classic illustration of the adage that history can be stranger than fiction. In brief: an exhibit of captured Soviet armaments had been organized in Berlin (at the building that today houses the German Historica Museum). As an additional morale booster, the grand opening was to be attended not just by the Führer himself but by Goering, Navy commander Adm. Doenitz, and SS-chief Himmler. Gersdorff (the intelligence officer of Army Group Center) managed to get himself assigned as the senior guide to the exhibition, and carried two captured British time bombs in his pocket. He set off the fuses and started guiding the VIPs on their tour, expecting the fuses to go off, killing his guests and himself. However, whether from boredom or through a long-standing habit of throwing wild-cards into his schedule and movements, Hitler left the exhibit after a few minutes. Gersdorff was quite willing to die but not to throw away his life for nothing, and thus excused himself to a bathroom where he managed to defuse his two bombs just in time. Unbetrayed by his comrades even under the vilest tortures, Gersdorff survived the war and lived to tell the tale, and to become the founder of Germany’s largest volunteer ambulance service.

[He had actually] offered his services to the Bundeswehrafter the war, but was blackballed as a ‘traitor’, being as he had sworn personal allegiance to the man-monster he had tried to murder. By our lights, he had merely tried to defend ‘against all enemies, foreign and domestic’.

[…]Gersdorff was no plaster saint: he loved the good life, particularly horseback riding, and appears to have taken the trappings of his aristocratic background for granted. On the other hand, noblesse obligewas clearly no mere phrase for him, but an ideal for which he was prepared to pay the ultimate price.

He was not merely a nobleman in title. More importantly, he was a man noble in spirit.

What makes this song great? Rick Beato on “Roundabout” by Yes

Music producer and multi-instrumentalist Rick Beato has a great series on YouTube where he picks apart — from a music theory as well as a studio techniques viewpoint — iconic rock and pop tracks. He uses either the original master tapes or artificial separates so he can illustrate individual vocal and instrumental parts and how they fit together. For illustration, he will demonstrate individual guitar and keyboard parts himself.

The series is very well worth watching, even if you don’t care for each and every song.

This time it’s the turn of one of my all-time favorites, Yes’s “Roundabout”.  Enjoy!

The myth of the starving composer

A friend of mine was told that, basically, “you’re not Beethoven and you’re never going to make a living at composing, so stop already. Besides, even Beethoven starved”. Aside from the proper answer being Sierra Tango Foxtrot Uniform or (in Yiddish) Golf Kilo Oscar Yankee, let’s address the enduring (and pernicious) myth of the starving artist/composer.
A writer blogs about it here, particularly focusing on Michelangelo — whose fortune in today’s terms would have been in the millions.

The most damaging myths are always those with a grain of truth in them. It is undeniably true that few if any of the great composers of your were able to make a living directly and exclusively off composition — but that didn’t mean they starved, or that they could not make a living in music!

Let’s start with (to me) the greatest of them all, J. S. Bach. As explored in great detail in Christoph Wolff’s scholarly biography, the surviving financial evidence suggests Bach’s income stream made him solidly middle-class, or even upper middle class, by the standards of his day — and all of it was related to music. His main incomes were as an organist, then as a Kapellmeister (music director — the modern concept of a conductor emerged only later), then as the Thomaskantor (music director and assistant principal of the St. Thomas High School in Leipzig). Some of these jobs included composing duties — Bach wrote several years’ worth of weekly church cantatas.
He had respectable secondary incomes as a private keyboard tutor (for which he was in high demand), as what we would today call a “consultant” on church organ construction, and even as an agent for the Silbermann family of harpsichord and fortepiano builders. (The instrument he was representing them for was an early fortepiano — giving the lie to another myth, that playing Bach on the piano is somehow inappropriate.)
But would Bach have been able to feed and house his large family on intermittent composition commissions? Or from publishing his works? The economics of the day didn’t work that way. Copyright as we understand it today didn’t really exist. (Nor did the modern conception of plagiarism, by the way — composers borrowed thematic material from each other, from folk tunes,… as a matter of course.) Music printing was a laborious and costly process that involved engraving by hand on copper plates, and only a handful of Bach’s works were printed during his lifetime. (The Art of the Fugue appeared posthumously but Bach arranged for, and subsidized, the publication while he was still alive — he clearly intended this Mount Everest of absolute music to be his artistic testament.)

So could he live well? Yes. Could he live well off music? Yes. Could he live solely from composition? No, but the very concept of a full-time composer did not exist in the day.

But what about Mozart, you say? Mozart actually made quite a bit of money off music. He had wealthy admirers, he was a keyboard virtuoso since childhood, staged operas that not only will endure when today’s richest Broadway composer will have been forgotten but were popular in their day,… and indeed ghostwrote music for wealthy would-be composers. (This is the true origin of the “Requiem” story. On the flip side, he was a spendthrift and thus perennially in debt, though his fortunes appeared to have turned around when he caught what appears to have been [] a streptococcal infection and died — again, there was no king or queen safe from that at the time.

Beethoven, to greater or lesser degree, was able to live primarily off composition. Despite his by all accounts volcanic temper and cantankerous personality, he had rich admirers. But crucially, as discussed e.g. in Jan Swofford’s biography, he would subsidize his “serious” output with volumes of song transcriptions and “bagatelles” (short, easy, inventive piano pieces playable by amateurs) that his publisher would pay good money for. Yes, even that “artiste’s artiste” would write unabashedly for the masses sometimes! (It is a measure of Beethoven’s genius, to me second only to Bach, that even these throwaway pieces contain some real gems of invention.)

Liszt gained fame and fortune as a legendary piano virtuoso (a “rock star” of his day whose “groupies” engaged in embarrassing displays) before retiring to focus full-time on composition of works more profound than the flashy showpieces he had written for his own use. Chopin, aside from a concert pianist, taught piano lessons to the rich and famous of his day for what are princely fees by any standard. Mahler never gained the esteem he has now as a composer during his lifetime, but held one of the most prestigious conductor positions of the day. (That he had to convert from Judaism to Roman Catholicism to get it is another story.) Bruckner, whose symphonies I have only recently started appreciating, enjoyed fame as an organist during his lifetime. The list is endless.

In fact, until the modern era, the performer and/or practical music educator was the norm among composers, and the full-time composer the exception. Pianist and organist Anthony Newman, in an interview in Keyboard Magazine that I read as a teenager, actually argued that classical music started becoming a sterile art form precisely when composers were no longer primarily performers.[*]

As we have seen above, the “starving artists” weren’t all that starving (some, like Handel, indeed got rich); the Great Composers, for the most part, were professional performers first; and the Professional Composer is a comparatively recent phenomenon that coincidentally (?) coincides with the decline of classical music as a living art form.

We are now living in an era where skilled amateurs can put their music, writings, or other creative works in front of a global audience for comparatively modest investments. The challenge now has shifted to bringing it to the attention of people, to make it stand out from the crowd. Conventional agents and publishing houses are increasingly becoming redundant or even irrelevant to the process, though I can see the role of a publicist transforming, rather than disappearing.
However, the “YouTube/SoundCloud economy”, where you compete less for money and for people’s attention and time, in some ways will be an interesting throwback to aspects of yesteryear’s composers. Bands today often don’t make any real money off albums due to illicit downloading and the overheads of legacy record labels — it is in live shows that the real money is nowadays, as people are clearly still willing to shell out money for “the live experience”. Had Bach or Handel lived today, they would probably each have millions of followers on YouTube (and have millions of people illegally downloading their music) — but Handel got rich staging his own operas and oratorios then, and would likely have to do so now. Bach would likely be able to travel in style from one sold-out-in-hours gig to the next — but he likely would be touring if he wanted more money than a faculty appointment could provide. Of course, once they got famous in our fictional world, a billionaire with good musical taste would be willing to bankroll them, but I can’t see Handel giving up the stage. Bach perhaps, because as much as he loved the good life, this deeply religious man ultimately wrote for an audience of One.

I would counsel my friend to “Keep calm and carry on”.

[*] The case of Jean-Philippe Rameau is somewhat peculiar. He first gained recognition as a music theorist (his Treatise on Harmony is a milestone in the field to this day) and considered himself a music scholar first and foremost. But he worked as a church organist for over two decades after succeeding his father, and ultimately gained fame as an opera and ballet composer, conducting his own works. Ironically, the greater ease of printing a book (rather than sheet music) in the age before digital typesetting may have contributed to his early reputation.

Unreliable witnesses

Dave Freer on “unreliable witnesses” as a fiction writing tool — and in the hands of advocacy journalists.

Mad Genius Club

“It’s all a question of point of view.”

Back in the dark ages – 1980’s in South Africa the BBC Radio News reported on a labor dispute/picket protest led by the ANC aligned organizers in a fishing town up the West Coast of the Cape. The picket line had been savagely broken up by the police with dogs (the BBC reporter of the time was a passionate promoter of the anti-apartheid cause, and as his media was not within the country could report whatever he liked without any form of censorship.) The local Afrikaans press reported on the incident too. There wasn’t a lot to report on from one horse towns on the West Coast, and the Cape Town Riot squad dispersing a protest with dogs was news, if not big news. The one set of media carried it from their point of view as a bad thing, and the…

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