The little daughter’s on the mattress,
Dead. How many have been on it
A platoon, a company perhaps?
A girl's been turned into a woman,
A woman turned into a corpse.
It's all come down to simple phrases:
Do not forget! Do not forgive!
Blood for blood! A tooth for a tooth!
– Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Prussian Nights (1974)
In February 1945, a Soviet artillery captain deployed in Neiderburg, East Prussia amid the long, bloody march to Berlin found himself arrested by his own military. In a letter to a friend, he had been incautiously critical of the Red Army’s treatment of German civilians, and off to Lubayanka prison he went, thence to the very gulag archipelago that would make him famous. Day by day, line by line etched into a bar of soap and memorized, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn told the story of the Soviet offensive — including the terror inflicted on one family of local collaborators who had welcomed the invaders into their home, only to be accused of spying and brutalized by their guests.
Blood for blood. Not an isolated episode; a principle.
In the Baltics during the war, the Russians mounted a genocidal assault mirroring the Nazi rampage through the rest of Europe. In Estonia, Soviet “Destruction Battalions” tore through villages and towns, flattening homes and public buildings, killing thousands — including women and children — and often leaving only rubble, cinders and ash in their wake. Before losing the territory (temporarily) to the Nazis, the occupiers had reduced the population by 20% through deportation, imprisonment or murder.
The Soviet occupation of Latvia was no different. Waves of violence followed by systematic genocide. Nine months after a quisling government declared the country part of the USSR, a mass pogrom on June 14, 1941 saw thousands of citizens deported to Siberian labor camps. In Lithuania, still worse: 17,000 deported in that month alone, 300,000 during the course of the occupation. Over 10 years, 20,000 of them — including 5,000 children — would die in confinement.
And then there was Poland. Having been liberated from the Nazis, the Poles experienced deadly déjà vu with rape and plunder on a massive scale by the Red Army. Polish historians estimate the number of rape victims to be between 200,000 and two million. This is not to mention the post-war systematic political violence by the satellite Soviet regime: 6,000 “legal” death sentences, all carried out. The history is the same in Finland and Hungary. This is an excerpt from a dispatch by Swiss diplomats in the capital about the 1945 Siege of Budapest:
Russian troops looted the city freely. They entered practically every habitation, the very poorest as well as the richest. They took away everything they wanted, especially food, clothing and valuables. Looting was general and profound, but not always systematic. It happened, for instance, that a man was deprived of all his trousers, but his jackets were left to him. There were also small groups which specialized in hunting up valuables, using magnetic mine detectors in search of gold, silver and other metals. Trained dogs were also used. Looting became more general after the Russians had gutted the city, for they did not object to proletarians, who previously had been looted by them, looting the city for themselves. Thus every apartment, shop, bank, etc. was looted several times. Furniture and larger objects of art, etc. that could not be taken away were frequently simply destroyed. In many cases, after looting, the homes were also put on fire, causing a vast total loss….
Rape is causing the greatest suffering to the Hungarian population. Violations are so general — from the age of 10 up to 70 years — that few women in Hungary escape this fate. Acts of incredible brutality have been registered. Many women prefer to commit suicide in order to escape monstrosities. Even now, when order is more or less re-established, Russian soldiers will watch houses where women live and raid them at night, knocking down anybody who opposes them. The women generally are not killed, but kept for several hours, if not for days, before being liberated.
I am just getting started. As The New York Times reported in 1985 about the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the United Nations Human Rights Commission documented Moscow’s strategy of terror: “The report, in dry, often legalistic language, lists a host of abuses during the Soviet occupation, including the maiming of children by booby-trapped toys, the wholesale destruction of agriculture and the intentional bombing of hospitals. Citing Afghan witnesses, it gives four specific examples where massacres of civilians took place between 1982 and 1984.”
Civilian deaths during the ten-year Soviet occupation of Afghanistan are estimated at 2 million. This is from The Soviet Invasion and the Afghan Response, 1979-1982, by historian Mohammed Kakar:
Incidents of the mass killing of noncombatant civilians were observed in the summer of 1980. … The Soviets felt it necessary to suppress defenseless civilians by killing them indiscriminately, by compelling them to flee abroad, and by destroying their crops and means of irrigation, the basis of their livelihood. The dropping of booby traps from the air, the planting of mines, and the use of chemical substances, though not on a wide scale, were also meant to serve the same purpose. … They undertook military operations in an effort to ensure speedy submission: hence the wide use of aerial weapons, in particular helicopter gunships or the kind of inaccurate weapons that cannot discriminate between combatants and noncombatants.
This evil was perpetrated not by the army of Stalin, sociopathic murderer of seven million countrymen through violence and forced famine. It was by his successors in dictatorship, only the latest of whom is Vladimir Putin. But it is precisely such scorched-earth depredations for which he is so nostalgic — which he made horrifyingly clear from the earliest days of his power. Indeed, from the moment of his appointment in August 1999 as prime minister in the waning days of Boris Yeltsin’s presidency, he launched a campaign of indiscriminate bombing in separatist Chechnya — creating 100,000 refugees — and commenced the artillery Siege of Grozny. Over four months, that assault claimed between 5,000 and 8,000 civilian lives.
In suburban Novye Aldi, a “mop-up” operation in February 2000 consisted of house-to-house attacks by Russian riot police and mercenaries, yielding widespread arson, looting, rape and murder. Prussian Nights Redux.
We saw the same playbook in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia in 2008, as Putin’s forces collaborated with local separatist militias — in the words of Human Rights Watch’s Rachel Denber — “to engage in wanton and wide-scale pillage and burning of Georgian homes and to kill, beat, rape, and threaten civilians.” The result: 23,000 civilian deaths amid the ethnic Georgia population. And we saw the same in Syria from 2012 to 2020, when Russian planes targeted schools, hospitals and apartment buildings in Aleppo, Sarmin, Azaz, Ariha and Atarib. Among their weapons: cluster munitions and chlorine gas. The number of civilian deaths, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights: more than 8,000.
How can we understand such barbarity? In a century that has codified human rights and the Laws of War, how could a modern nation be so consistently depraved? Can it really be that Russia is the scorpion, acting according to its nature, in a world of naive frogs? It’s a compelling question. But there is also another, less reductive and much more inconvenient:
After all that we have seen, how to explain how naive and passive are we frogs?
It’s not as though we do not see what history has unfolded. Consider this observation from the President of the United States:
The international community … must bear its share of responsibility for this tragedy, as well. We did not act quickly enough after the killing began. We should not have allowed the refugee camps to become safe haven for the killers. We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide. We cannot change the past. But we can and must do everything in our power to help you build a future without fear, and full of hope.
We owe to those who died and to those who survived who loved them, our every effort to increase our vigilance and strengthen our stand against those who would commit such atrocities in the future here or elsewhere.
Thing is, those weren’t the words this spring of President Joe Biden. They were the 1998 mea culpa of Bill Clinton, who — along with democracies around the world — had sat and watched the Rwandan genocide without so much as contemplating intervention. Because, really, how was saving a half-million lives in our interest?
How was it in our interest to prevent our WWII ally Stalin from waging wars of terror on civilian populations, and to enslave eastern Europe thereafter? How was it in our interest to confront Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko over scorched earth in Afghanistan, with the sword of nuclear Damocles hanging over us? How could we, according to that calculus, intervene over Putin’s massacres in Chechnya, South Ossetia and Syria?
How can NATO come to the aid of Ukraine when that would mean World War III?
This is the toll of realpolitik. This is the toll of moral relativism. This is the toll of our own provocations and misadventures in the world: the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, Chile, El Salvador, Afghanistan and Iraq. This is the toll of Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where American bombings of civilian populations killed between 150,000 and 250,000 innocents.
As Clinton said (once it was safely too late), we do indeed “owe to those who died and to those who survived who loved them, our every effort to increase our vigilance and strengthen our stand against those who would commit such atrocities in the future here or elsewhere.”
But we shall never pay that debt. A girl has been turned into a woman and a woman has been turned into a corpse, but we flail. We know the Russian military is brutal beyond words, the still-beating heart of the Evil Empire, but we are helpless. Because the next Hiroshima will be the last.
History records that the USSR lost the Cold War. And now, as we in global horror watch a democratic nation being destroyed, the full story is finally clear: So did we.