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I’ve taken a break from the wooden mendacity of Karl Marx to read Red Famine by Anne Applebaum, a history of the Holodomor, the deliberately created Ukraine famine between 1931 and 1934. Extremely grim reading but another reminder of how appalling the Soviet regime was. A reminder of how appalling its apologists were and still are too, but that’s another issue.

At the height of the crisis, organized teams of policemen and party activists, motivated by hunger, fear and a decade of hateful and conspiratorial rhetoric, entered peasant households and took everything edible: potatoes, beets, squash, beans, peas, anything in the oven and anything in the cupboard, farm animals and pets…

The result was a catastrophe: At least 5 million people perished of hunger between 1931 and 1934 all across the Soviet Union. Among them were more than 3.9 million Ukrainians. In acknowledgement of its scale, the famine of 1932–3 was described in émigré publications at the time and later as the Holodomor, a term derived from the Ukrainian words for hunger – holod – and extermination – mor.

Much later, a few former communist activists admitted that they had used propaganda mantras to suppress the reality of mass starvation and the merciless way they enforced it. They refused to see what was in plain sight, the propaganda being so forceful and persuasive that they were able to use it as a veil between perceptions and actions.

Many urban activists were entirely unfamiliar with the reality of peasant farming. It was not the vicious nest of counter-revolutionary landowners they had been led to expect. Yet they had been persuaded to see the peasants as ‘former people’ to be justifiably swept away by a brave new communist world they were trying to block for base and selfish reasons.

What the activists found wasn’t what they had expected of course, but still with unimaginable cruelty many did everything they could to enforce the impossible demands of Moscow.

It is a reminder of how easily activists, informers and a secret police force may be recruited to even the most disgusting regimes. Students and young professional people seem particularly liable to discard all civilised values in favour of the most ignoble actions and implausible causes. It is still chilling to consider how willing they were trample on and destroy what ordinary Russians had built and what they valued.

To an important degree vicious political activism seems to be a weakness of large populations. If only 0.1% of a population are disposed to become political fanatics that is 1000 people in every million. Give those people the resources to recruit a further 1% who can be persuaded into the ranks and the job is done.

Rather like pyramid selling, the benefits go to early recruits and they are generally the ones who knew the score to begin with – or were willing to gamble on it. Build the narrative, promote it in the right way to the right people and you attract first the 0.1% then the next generation of fascist recruits. Identify the enemy, hammer home the call to action and that’s it – catastrophe here we come.

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