A Morbid Tale

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Review of 'A Century of State Murder?' by Michael Haynes and Rumy Husan, Pluto £15.99

'A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths are a statistic.' Or so said Stalin to Churchill, apparently. The hypocrisy of the Hutton inquiry this summer is yet more evidence he may have been right. It doesn't make up for show-trials, gulags and 'socialism in one country', mind you.

But with Russia being the nexus of global politics in the 20th century such a broad scope is available to the political historian, so why focus on demography? The introduction answers this well: 'A group of historians got together to produce what they called The Black Book of Communism... an attempt... to discredit the idea of a socialist alternative. It did this by lumping together the experience of Russia between 1917 and 1991 as if it were all of one piece.' A Century of State Murder? is not an answer to that book. But it is an attempt to set the tragedy of Russia in a clearer context.

The exact nature of the Russian Revolution and life under the resulting 'Union of Soviet Socialist Republics' are still factors shaping anti-capitalist politics. If we are to 'overthrow capitalism and replace it with something nicer' then we surely have to understand the most concerted attempt to do so in history.

Nineteenth century Russia was drawn into the global capitalist system slowly. Russia's development was hampered by Tsarism. By 1913 Russia had the second lowest per capita income in Europe. Sanitation and diet were poor, housing cramped and disease rife.

After the 1905 revolution little of substance changed for the workers and peasants of Russia. Their immiseration during the First World War, 'the first of four great mortality crises' in 20th century Russia, meant the Bolshevik slogan 'Bread, land and peace' chimed with ordinary people. The demand for 'All power to the soviets' (workers' councils) had a firm basis within Russian society.

The authors point out that the civil war was 'four-sided', with the Red and White forces, the 'Green' peasant guerrillas and the Polish army. Most catastrophic was the effect of the allied blockade of Soviet Russia. With little food, fuel or medicine approximately 9 million people died from starvation and disease during the civil war. The working class in Russia shrank to just over 1 million, atomised, demoralised, declassed. Although the structure remained the basis of the revolution was destroyed.

Through the state bureaucracy, six times more numerous and many times more powerful than the working class, Stalin strangled democracy, using the workers' state to extract surplus wealth from the workers to industrialise and build a great army. It was state capitalism, effectively turning Russia into a giant factory.

After Stalin's death and with the instigation of the arms economy successive regimes loosened the vice, if only a little. For example, in 1956 Khrushchev denounced Stalin as a mass murderer while crushing the Hungarian Revolution with the utmost brutality.

The chapters on post-Stalinist Russia are truly spectacular. Under 'shock therapy' class differentials widened. The mortality rate leapt. Reasons for this are outlined clearly in sections such as 'Decline in health care expenditure', 'The key role of alcoholism' and 'Suicide and murder'. While torture and execution are illegal in 171 states, including Ukraine, they remain commonplace in Russia. With hypocrisy worthy of Khrushchev, Boris Yeltsin pontificated on the gravity of the presidential pardon while condemning more prisoners to death as a vote-grabbing exercise.

The last word justifiably goes to the war in Chechnya, by 2002 estimated to have cost the lives of 20-25,000 civilians and 8,000 Chechen fighters. Remember that Chechnya has a population of around 1 million, and you have some sense of the tragedy and horror.