I want you to think about a massacre. Look, I know I’m asking a lot. For normal people, it’s not fun to think about massacres. It’s not fun to contemplate what the victims endured. It’s not fun to look at our fellow humans and think, “How would my friend, my neighbor, my spouse, behave in such a hellscape? As the victim? As the perpetrator? As the bystander?” It’s not fun to think those thoughts while looking in the mirror.
It’s not fun to compare the social, political, and military features that engender massacres, and then to look at one’s own society. We post-World-War-II Americans are some of the luckiest people on earth. Other than in localized and temporary terror attacks like 9-11, we have not known war on our soil. That could change. Our society, too, has its fault lines. If social norms decayed just a bit more, if divide-and-conquer invaders trespass on our soil, how long before massacres follow? And which group, racial, ethnic, religious, economic, would do the killing, and which group would be killed? Would anyone record the carnage? Would anyone care?
No, it’s not fun to think these things.
But, listen. I just want you to give this massacre ten or fifteen minutes of thought. Why? I’m not sure why I want this so much. It’s a visceral reaction. When I read about this massacre, one of the most intense reactions I have is, “Who cares about these victims? Who says their names? Who cries for them? Who prays for them? Where is their monument? Where is their justice? When will the perpetrators, and their ideology, be named, blamed, and shamed? When will anyone learn the horrible lessons this massacre teaches, in boldface type ten feet high?”
I know my reaction is irrational. Nothing we do can “fix” this horror. Nothing we do can resurrect and redeem the dead. Nothing can ever erase the agony they and their loved ones endured. And yet I want this. I want you, the person reading this, to think about these victims, perhaps to shed a tear for them, to read at least one name, to feel anger at their killers, and to look at the world anew. To say, yes, the earth is covered with wounds, history is complicated, and tribal moralities exacerbate problems rather than offer any solution, and the only solution is a universalist morality that insists, against all the pressure not to say this, that all lives matter.
The massacre I want you to think about is little-known and understudied. You may never have heard of it. The upper estimate of the number of victims is 100,000. There are graphic images of massacre victims and even film footage of loved ones sobbing over the disinterred remains of their beloved. All this documentation is easily found in an internet search.
In spite of the high numbers and graphic documentation, the Wikipedia page for this massacre is a mere seven pages. In contrast, the Wikipedia page for the 1940 Katyn massacre of 22,000 Polish officers by Soviets is thirty-two pages. The Wikipedia page for the death of George Floyd is forty-one pages. A six-year-old YouTube video in which a serious scholar discusses his unique work on this massacre has fewer than six hundred views. His book has exactly one review on Amazon. Big-name historians who have published best-selling books about events surrounding this massacre in space and time have spared it few to no words.
There are concrete reasons why you may not have heard of this massacre. One is that it was part of a larger cataclysm. Of course, that’s not the entire answer. The Katyn Massacre, the Rape of Nanking, the Bataan Death March, were all part of World War II, and they are all better known. There are other reasons, and those other reasons are discussed, below.
I’m talking about the NKVD Prison Massacre of 1941. Here’s the backstory. On August 23, 1939, in Moscow, the Foreign Minister of Nazi Germany, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and the Soviet Foreign Minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. This was a non-aggression pact, and also a pact dividing up territories Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union would soon conquer as their newly annexed territory.
Hitler was, of course, an insatiable liar, and on June 22, 1941, Hitler invaded his former ally, the Soviet Union. Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union was dubbed “Operation Barbarossa.”
Most educated people know that Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. What many forget is that Soviet Russia invaded Poland on September 17, 1939. In his 1988 Princeton University Press book, Revolution from Abroad: The Soviet Conquest of Poland’s Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia, Jan Tomasz Gross wrote, “Very conservative estimates show that [between 1939 and 1941] the Soviets killed or drove to their deaths three or four times as many people as the Nazis from a population half the size of that under German jurisdiction.” To state things baldly, the Soviet Union, initially, helped Nazi Germany, and the Soviet Union committed atrocities that were initially comparable to those initially committed by Nazi Germany.
Soviet and Nazi invaders had the same immediate goals: decapitate society and divide and conquer the masses. Decapitation of society was carried out by arrests of anyone who might be a social leader. Nazis and Soviets both targeted education persons, teachers, clergy, and journalists. Stamp collectors and speakers of Esperanto were also on the Soviet lists of those subject to deportation.
When I think about the doomed Polish stamp collectors, I think about a passage from First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers.
“The Khmer Rouge are executing people perceived to be a threat … City people are killed [as well as ] former civil servants, monks, doctors, nurses, artists, teachers, students – even people who wear glasses, as the soldiers view this as a sign of intelligence. Anyone the Khmer Rouge believes has the power to lead a rebellion will be killed.”
Same totalitarian song, but a different totalitarian band covering the same totalitarian lyrics.
Historian Norman Davies described the conditions under which Poles and other political prisoners were deported en masse from the Soviet Union’s newly conquered territory to the Gulag. The deportations’
“horrors were known and published…but were largely ignored by a western public…Poles were among the foremost victims … Passengers…were packed in a standing position in sealed, windowless, and unheated cattle wagons, for a winter journey of three, four, five, or even six thousand miles … instances of derangement, frostbite, starvation, infanticide, even cannibalism occurred.”
Anyone who has spent any time in the recent past interacting with numbers of Polish people will inevitably have met Poles who themselves were on these transports, or whose loved ones were. Through social media, I met Lucja Siemienowski Adams, an almost one-hundred-year-old survivor of one such transport. Lucja’s husband was sent to Kolyma. Lucja, her mother-in-law, and her two young children were sent to a hard labor camp in Siberia. You can see her photo here.
Edward Herzbaum was a Polish Jew captured by the Soviets and sent to the Gulag. His daughter, Krystyna Mew, shared his captivity memoir with me. I review that book here. Facebook friend Krysia Jopek, daughter of another Gulag survivor, told of Polish exiles’ attempts to remain decent in indecent conditions. “We didn’t stare at the bodies they dumped” into anonymous graves was one such effort to maintain decorum.
In 1941, in what had been eastern Poland but what would become West Ukraine, as the Nazis advanced, the Soviet NKVD, or secret police, made a decision. They decided to torture and kill all of their political prisoners. This decision boggles the mind. They knew the Nazis were ruthless and genocidal killers. The Nazis would be after all Slavs in their way, but certainly would focus on the NKVD. And yet the NKVD decided to, in the midst of this frantic retreat, devote time to torturing and murdering Ukrainian, Polish, German, Jewish, and other political prisoners. Again, merely being a stamp collector could turn you into a political prisoner.
This torture, it goes without saying, had no practical purpose. The NKVD agents were not attempting to extract needed information, or to enforce compliance, or to terrorize a population. They knew they would immediately murder their victims, and then depart. Their choice to torture first, then kill, and then escape, the sheer, empty viciousness of this choice, is overwhelming.
The NKVD gauged out eyes. The NKVD mutilated genitals. They buried and boiled victims alive. They cut off breasts. They broke bones, they bayonetted prisoners, guaranteeing them a slow and painful death. The tossed grenades into cells. They burned down entire prisons with prisoners locked inside. They put prisoners into train cars, moved the cars onto a bridge, and then blew up the bridge. The cars fell into the water, below, drowning any trapped prisoners who survived the explosion. They smashed heads with hammers. They drove nails into nostrils and then into brains. They did some torturing; as Nazis approached, they ran; they received word that Nazis hadn’t yet arrived; they returned, and did some more torturing. Smaller towns, off the major routes of Nazi advance, saw leisurely torture.
Again, Nazis were advancing. Victims were buried in shallow graves. It was summer. As memoirs of the time report, the shallow, mass graves began to stink. Loved ones of those executed lived nearby. They could smell their relatives’ corpses. This detail added to the overall horror.
Researchers Ksenya Kiebuzinski and Alexander Motyl estimate that victims were 70 % Ukrainian, 20 % Polish, and 10 % other, including Jews and Germans. I wanted you to read at least a couple of names of massacre victims. I have just two. Father Ivan Kiebuz and Bohdan Hevko were among the dead. I don’t know anything about either one, but Kiebuzinski and Motyl mention them in their work. They were their relatives, and they were part of the statistics.
Kiebuzinski and Motyl report, “Joseph Stalin and his accomplices systematically destroyed the political and cultural life of Ukraine in four stages. First came the genocide of 1930-1933, during which tens of thousands of political, cultural, and religious elites were killed and about 4 million peasants were intentionally starved in the Holodomor. Then came the Great Terror of 1937-1938, during which, according to Werth, 270,000 Ukrainians were repressed and 125,000 – 130,000 were executed. Next came the Prison Massacre of 1941. The final stage came in the immediate aftermath of World War II, when hundreds of thousands of Western Ukrainians were killed or deported during the Soviet assault on the nationalist resistance movement.”
You know, it’s funny. Putin and his supporters insist that Ukrainians don’t exist as a people. And yet for decades Russians have been able to identify who is Ukrainian and who is not in order to suppress them, imprison them, and kill them.
After recounting the basic history, the methodology of atrocity, and the numbers, one asks, why haven’t we heard more about this? Especially now, when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been making headlines for months? Why does it receive so little attention? This is where things get complicated.
Most Soviet communists were not Jews, and most Jews were not communists. During the 1930s, though, Jews were disproportionately represented in the NKVD. One of the top men of the NKVD, Genrikh Grigoryevich Yagoda, was Jewish. Stalin ordered Yagoda purged. He was arrested, tried, and shot in 1938. The numbers of Jews in the NKVD dropped after the 1930s.
These are all historically significant facts. There’s a problem in stating these simple facts. There are anti-Semites who use these facts to foment hatred against Jews, and to spread the lie that Judaism and communism are virtually the same. This propaganda is false, and it complicates discussion of important historical realities.
Consider, for example, Felix Dzerzhinsky. The predecessor of the NKVD, the Cheka, was founded by Dzerzhinsky. Dzerzhinsky wrote, “We stand for organized terror. This should be frankly admitted. Terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution. Our aim is to fight against the enemies of the Soviet Government and of the new order of life. We judge quickly.” Dzerzhinsky also wrote “The Cheka is the defense of the revolution as the Red Army is; as in the civil war the Red Army cannot stop to ask whether it may harm particular individuals, but must take into account only one thing, the victory of the revolution over the bourgeoisie, so the Cheka must defend the revolution and conquer the enemy even if its sword falls occasionally on the heads of the innocent.”
Under Dzerzhinsky, morality was tribal. Guilt or innocence were of little important. Tribal identity is what mattered. If you were of the enemy tribe, your life was forfeit. One of Dzerzhinsky’s operatives explained. “We are not fighting against single individuals. We are exterminating the bourgeoisie as a class. First you must ask him to what class he belongs, what his social origin is, his education and profession. These are the questions that must determine the fate of the accused. That is the meaning of the Red Terror.” Since communists were to create a Utopia, Lenin explained, “To us, everything is permitted.” Lenin perhaps unconsciously evoked Dostoyevsky’s famous quote that if God does not exist, everything is permitted. Permitted acts included the murder of innocents.
Dzerzhinsky, responsible for the deaths of uncountable innocents, waxed poetic about “Communist Morality.” That morality allowed for mass slaughter to achieve its ends. Dzerzhinsky was a member of the Polish nobility and he was raised Catholic. Dzerzhinsky, Lenin, Stalin, Beria, etc, were not Jewish, nor were most communists. So, no, Judaism and communism, contrary to anti-Semitic hatemongers, are not identical. But, yes, the disproportionate number of Jews in the NKVD in the 1930s had historical consequences.
When the Nazis invaded Western Ukraine, the NKVD tortures and murders were mere playthings to them. Nazis photographed and filmed Ukrainians, Poles, and Germans sobbing over the desecrated bodies of their loved ones. Nazis prostituted their documentation of human grief in anti-Semitic propaganda. Nazis encouraged Ukrainians and Poles to conflate communism with Jews. Reinhard Heydrich ordered this himself. Motyl and Kiebuzinski write, “Edmund Kessler, a Jewish eyewitness highly critical of Ukrainians, goes so far as to say that ‘the Germans were the conductors of all this. They decided when to begin a pogrom, when to end it, and how long the victims should be tormented.'”
Nazis fomented pogroms. Ukrainian and Polish pogromists committed crimes against Jews. Those crimes included Jews being forced to wash the bodies of the corpses of those killed by the NKVD. In the pogroms that broke out in the immediate aftermath of the prison massacre and the Nazi invasion, estimates are that Ukrainians and Poles, in pogroms, killed thousands of Jews, with one estimate at 5,000.
As you can see, it’s complicated.
As mentioned, it’s difficult to talk about the disproportionate number of Jews in the NKVD. It’s also difficult to talk about non-Jews, in this case Ukrainians and Poles, and others throughout Eastern Europe, being goaded by Nazis into hideous atrocities. We allow all of these complications to taint the innocent dead. Again, “political prisoners” in the Soviet system were often best people in any given locale. The priests, the teachers, the persons of conscience, the stamp collectors. All the ugliness surrounding the murders of these innocent victims of NKVD terror makes us, and canonical historians, turn away. Perhaps the NKVD Prison Massacre of 1941 receives little attention because paying attention to all this is just too difficult.
But there’s another reason we don’t hear much about the NKVD Prison Massacre.
When I was still teaching, every semester, I tried to walk my students through what the words “left” and “right” mean politically. My students were constantly required to address the difference between the political left and the political right, and they were required to do this even though they had no idea what either term meant. In fact their educations, controlled by leftists, gave them the impression that the political right was the evil enemy of humanity. They also associated any position on the left with benignity.
I told my students that communism was the extreme left position. I had to explain to them what communism means. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” was a handy catchphrase. I would then demand that every student in the class surrender whatever cash he had on hand and I told them that I would divide it up equally and redistribute it according to need. They declined to do this. I insisted. They said that they would resist any attempt on my part to requisition their money. I asked them to apply that scenario to all of society. Their eyes would grow wide and they would get that wonderful “Aha” look on their faces. I would then ask,
“How many people do you think died in the imposition of communism?”
They would shrug, shake their heads. Some would guess “Hundreds.” Others, “Thousands.” None came close to guessing any number close to historical estimates. When I told them that one estimate is that communism killed one hundred million people, they would be gobsmacked.
“Why have we not heard anything about this? Why has no one told us this?”
One answer is that education and media in the US today are largely left-of-center, but I don’t know if that explains it all. It’s a question Polish friends and I ponder endlessly. Again, Poland was attacked by both Nazi Germany and Communist Russia in September, 1939. We ask, why are t-shirts with red stars or Mao or Stalin images considered benign, while t-shirts with swastikas or Hitler images are monstrous? I’ve never seen a fully satisfying answer and I suspect we’ll be asking that same question for some time.
There’s more going on here than the social acceptability of t-shirts with red stars. Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were both murderous regimes. Timothy Snyder takes on the hard task of putting Hitler and Stalin, Nazi Germany and Communist Russia, on a scale and deciding that Nazi Germany murdered more people.
But this brings me to a second reason for wanting you to think about the NKVD Prison Massacre of 1941. Yes, I want you to shed a tear for, say a prayer for, and honor the dead. But in the same way that I want everyone to learn something from the Holocaust, I want everyone to learn something from the killings that the communists carried out.
Both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia played similar games in occupied territories. They decapitated societies, going after clergy, teachers, any potential community leaders. They practiced divide-and-conquer. All societies have fault lines. The fault lines are comparable around the world. Fault lines between men and women, between rich and poor, between rural and urban populations, between people of faith and atheists, between the educated and those lacking formal education, between young and old, between people of various faiths. Both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia exacerbated these fault lines. German Nazis set Poles living in the highlands against Poles living in the lowlands. Soviet Russia worked in Poland to scapegoat Jews, students, workers, even windmill operators.
Both Nazis and Soviets were shameless and skilled liars, but when it comes to the fissures in society, they didn’t have to invent anything. They just had to apply a new morality. In interwar Poland, most Poles were poor agriculturalists, and Jews did occupy a disproportionate percentage of urban, white collar professions like professor, doctor, and lawyer. Jews were disproportionately urban. In one city, Bialystok, “By 1898, Jews owned 80 percent of the city’s large mills … Jews comprised 88 percent of the city’s shopkeepers. By 1921, Jews ran 93 percent of the city’s businesses and owned 89 percent of its factories.” Poland’s invaders expertly exploited the fissures between rural and urban, between factory owner and rural peasant.
Nazis insisted that the differential between one social group and another demanded hatred and violent abuse. It’s also true that in West Ukraine, Poles and Jews were disproportionately represented among landlords and estate managers, and Ukrainians were disproportionately represented in the peasantry. Both Nazis and Soviets exacerbated social tensions around these fault lines and set one group against the other. In German-occupied Ukraine, Ukrainians committed massacres of Poles, killing up to 100,000 Polish people.
Both German Nazis and Soviet Russians pushed tribal moralities. If a person is not of my tribe, his life is worthless, and I am entitled, no, required to harm and even kill that person. Nazis propagated tribal morality in Ukraine after the NKVD Prison Massacre. Most communists were not Jews, and most Jews were not communists, but Nazis conflated Jews with communism and instigated pogroms. Pogromists, acting on tribal morality, committed atrocities against Jews, and no doubt felt righteous in doing so.
These processes are not foreign to the United States today. In 2020, we saw violence that justified itself using divide-and-conquer, tribal morality. Citizens were robbed, beaten, and publicly tortured because of their skin color. Celebrities like Chrissy Teigen justified this behavior.
I want you to know about the NKVD Prison Massacre because I want the utterly ugly face of Soviet communism to be public knowledge. Communism’s metaphorical hands drip with human gore. I want you to know about the NKVD Prison Massacre because I want the dead to be mourned and honored. I want you to know about the NKVD Prison Massacre because I want you to learn the lessons from the victims’ agony, to recognize how evil is tribal morality. I want the victims to be honored. We honor them by rejecting tribal morality and insisting that all lives matter. Anyone encouraging us to conflate criminality with an ethnic identity – for example to conflate white skin with a slew of historical evils – is himself selling evil.
The God I believe in insists that all lives matter. One of the most moving depictions of this principle is found in the Talmud. The Israelites are escaping captivity in Egypt. They are pursued by Egyptian soldiers. God drowns the Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea. In the Talmud, angels wish to sing to celebrate this victory. “The Lord, God, said to them: ‘My creations are drowning and you are singing before me?'”
Let us live the morality that insists that all lives matter.
The full text of the 2017 Amsterdam University Press book The Great Ukrainian Prison Massacre of 1941: A Sourcebook by Ksenya Kiebuzinski and Alexander Motyl is available online here.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery.