The Night of the Murdered Poets: Remembering One of Stalin’s Forgotten Killing Sprees

Power kills. Absolute power kills too many to count. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin spoke with personal authority on the subject when he famously said, “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

To write about any one or more massacres for which Stalin was responsible, one must first answer the question, “Which ones?” There are many. The slaughter of the kulaks during his collectivization campaigns of the 1930s. The Ukrainian Holodomor of 1932-33. The Great Purge of 1937. The killing of 22,000 Polish military officers and prisoners of war in the Katyn Forest in 1940. The mass deportations of various nationalities, accompanied by countless deaths, that he orchestrated throughout his 30 years in power. On and on. “Uncle Joe,” as Franklin Roosevelt called him, ranks as one of the top five mass murderers of the millennium.

One of Uncle Joe’s almost forgotten killing sprees took place on August 12, 1952 and is known in the history books as the Night of the Murdered Poets. On its 70th anniversary, let us remember both the victims and the larger lesson, namely, that concentrated and unrestrained power is ghastly, criminal business.

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How ‘The New York Times’ Helped Hide Stalin’s Mass Murders in Ukraine

The question of truth is at the heart of the story Holland tackles—the deadly famine, engineered by Stalin’s regime, that swept through Ukraine, the Volga Basin, the Kuban and Don regions of the North Caucasus, and Kazakhstan in the winter of 1932-1933. In Ukraine alone, where it is known by its Ukrainian name of Holodomor and often referred to as the terror-famine, it took an estimated 4 million lives. In this exceptionally fertile land, Stalin imposed impossible production demands, expropriating all available grain and livestock and using the ensuing starvation to break the back of the peasantry, whose resistance to collectivization threatened to undermine his industrialization efforts.

But Stalin’s crime was only one face of the story. The other face was the extraordinary failure on the part of the world to report and acknowledge the facts. Many were complicit in this failure, but the starring role undoubtedly belonged to the Moscow-based Western journalists, who misreported, underreported, and failed to report about what was plainly happening under their noses. Walter Duranty, the New York Times’ man in Moscow, outright lied about the events, deliberately misleading his readers. In 1932, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for reporting. Holland’s exploration of the complicity of the press in one of Joseph Stalin’s greatest crimes lends the film an unexpected relevance to our current moment, when the role and purpose of the media and of journalism itself seem to be under attack—from both would-be dictators and people for whom virtue is the arbiter of truth.

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