Remembering Zmievskaya Balka

August 11, 2017 § Leave a comment

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the massacre at Zmievskaya Balka, a ravine in Rostov-on-Don, Russia.  The literal meaning of Zmievskaya Balka is ‘ravine of snakes.’  It was here on 11-12 August 1942 that the Jewish men of Rostov were marched out to the ravine, just outside the city, and shot.  The women, children, and the aged of the Jewish population were gassed, and their bodies dumped at Zmievskaya Balka.  Communists and some Red Army soldiers met the same fate, along with their family.  All told, 27,000 people were massacred.  At least 20,000 of them were Jewish.

This massacre is one of the forgotten ones of World War II and the Nazis.  My guess is no one reading this post will have ever heard of it.  Soviet and Russian authorities have done their best to make sure the massacre, or at least the Jewish fact of it, is forgotten due to the on-going anti-Semitism of the state.

In 2004, activists managed to get a memorial plaque erected that identified one of the massacre sites and noted the Jewishness of the victims.  In 2011, approaching the 70th anniversary of the massacre, this plaque was removed. It was replaced with a more banal commemoration of the “peaceful citizens of Rostov-On-Don and Soviet Prisoners of War.”  This erases the primary act of the Nazis in Rostov 75 years ago: the eradication of the city’s Jewish population.  And, it obscures the Nazis murderous anti-Semitism.

This morning, organizers held a march to the sites of the massacre in Rostov, to remember this brutal massacre.  We owe it to them to hold the memory of these victims in our

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Gentrification: Plus ça change

September 14, 2016 § 1 Comment

I’m reading a book that is, for the lack of a better term, a biography of the Kremlin.  I am at the part where the Kremlin, and Moscow itself, gets rebuilt after Napoléon’s attempt at conquering Russia.  Moscow had been, until it was torched during the French occupation, a haphazard city; visitors complained it was Medieval and dirty. And it smelled.  And not just visitors from Paris and Florence, but from St. Petersburg, too.

In the aftermath, Moscow was rebuilt along Western European lines, in a rational manner.  And the city gentrified, the Kremlin especially:

This was definitely a landscape that belonged to the rich and the educated, to noblemen and ladies of the better sort.  It is through the artists’ eyes that we glimpse the well-dressed crowds: the gentlemen with their top hats and shiny canes, the ladies in their bonnets, gloves, and crinolines.  They could be leading citizens of any European state, and there is little sense of Russia (let alone romantic Muscovy) in their world.

Leaving aside the fact that there were no citizens of any European state in 1814, this sounds remarkably familiar.  This is the same critique I have written many times about Griffintown and Montreal: as Montreal gentrifies, it is becoming much like any other major North American city.

But it is also true of gentrification in general.  There is a part on the North Shore of Chattanooga, Tennessee, I really like.  It finally dawned on me that it is because it reminds of me Vancouver architecturally, culturally, aesthetically, and in the ways in which the water (in this case the Tennessee River, not False Creek) is used by the redevelopment of this historically downtrodden neighbourhood.  But.  I could also be dropped into pretty much any North American city and see similarities: Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal, New York, Boston, Seattle, Portland (Oregon), Cincinnati, Cleveland, Buffalo, Chicago, Atlanta, Nashville.  These are all cities (amongst others) where I have seen the same tendencies.

And, obviously, one aspect of gentrification is the cleansing of the city of danger and vice.  Just like Moscow was cleaned up in the aftermath of 1812.

Olympic Geography

February 19, 2014 § Leave a comment

I have seen a fair amount of Olympic critiques from the American left in the past week or so, or, well, since the Olympics began.  And aside from what you’d expect, about Russia’s horrendous human rights records, Putin’s disgusting homophobia, another trend has been criticising the Winter Olympics as essentially a party for wealthy northern nations.  Comparisons are made between the Winter and Summer Olympics and where athletes are from, and the size of the delegations and the like.  Aside from large northern sporting nations (the US, Russia), the geographic distribution of competing nations in the Summer Olympics is necessarily much larger than for the winter variety.  Of course, the Summer Olympics is also a much larger event than the winter variety.

But I have a fundamental problem with this critique.  The Sochi Winter Olympics medal standings right now is topped by the Netherlands and the USA, followed by Russia, Norway, and Canada.  In Vancouver in 2010, the standings went: United States, Canada, Germany, Norway, and Austria.  In contrast, in London in 2012, the standings went like this: United States, China, Britain, Russia, South Korea.  Four years earlier in Beijing: United States, China, Russia, Britain, Australia.

In both winter and summer Olympics, the medal standings are dominated by the USA and Russia (with the exception of Vancouver 2010).  The other nations in the top five vary.  In the winter, it is the Dutch, Norwegians, Canadians, Germans, Swiss, and Austrians.  In the summer, the other nations are: China, Britain, South Korea, and Australia.  All are wealthy northern nations, depending on how you want to classify China and Russia, who are at the very least at the BRICS level of emerging economic powerhouses.  There are no poor nations from the Global South.  In other words, both summer and winter Olympics are dominated by wealthy northern nations (ok, Australia’s in the South, but you get the point).

Of course, there is still the simple fact that there are athletes from the Global South in the Summer Olympics, and not the Winter Olympics (aside from token representation, such as Jamaican bobsledders and the three Indians in Sochi).  But this is also simply a reflection of geography. Winter sports are played in cold, northern nations.  And the alpine sporting disciplines that feature at the Olympics tend not to be TV ratings champions outside of Olympic years.  In other words, of course the Norwegians are going to ski and skate and the Jamaicans are going to play soccer and do track.

So what to make of this American leftist critique of the Winter Olympics? From what I’ve read, it seems this is simply a case of “We Are the World,” and it’s more an American critique of American chauvinism at the Olympics. Yet, those who make this critique are wonderfully un-self aware that they are just as chauvinistic as the chauvinism they are criticising. Ain’t life grand?

The Truth and How to Deal With it When Studying History

November 19, 2013 § 6 Comments

In two of the books I’ve read recently I found myself incredibly frustrated by the authors’ insistence on “The Truth” and the “True Story.”  It is worth noting that neither book was written by a professional historian, despite the fact that both dealt with historical subjects.  So I began to think about how we historians are trained to think about “truth” in graduate school, how we deal with various truths in the documents, and by obvious attempts at obfuscation by historical actors.  And how we deal with gaps in the sources.

Each author deal with these problems differently.  In Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, I was troubled by Weatherford’s inability to deal with at least one of his sources critically.  Weatherford makes great use of a source called “The Secret History”, which covers the early history of the Mongols in Temujin’s (Chinggis Khan) rise.  I found myself continuously wondering if The Secret History was actually verifiably true, or if it was something to be taken with a grain of salt, which is what my sense was in reading Weatherford’s book.

But the bigger problem came in C.J. Chivers’ The Gun.  Chivers was understandably frustrated throughout his research and writing process by the varying story of the development and proliferation of the AK-47 in the Soviet Union.  Mikhail Kalashnikov himself has published multiple autobiographies, both during the Soviet era and after, and has given countless interviews to the media, both before and after the fall of the USSR.  And in almost everyone of them, he gave different versions of his own biography, of his development of the AK-47 and so on.  I would’ve been frustrated in Chivers’ shoes.

For example, Kalasknikov’s brother, Nikolai, was sent to a Stalin-era prison camp when they were young.  Chivers is frustrated in figuring out what Nikolai’s sentence was.  At the end of the day, I found myself wondering “who cares”?  I am less interested in what sentence Nikolai Kalashnikov received than the fact that he was sentenced to a labour camp in the first place.  And I felt that Chivers spent too much time and space in the book expressing his frustration and inability to get to the fact of the matter there to the detriment of a discussion of the Kalashnikov family’s status as kulaks during Collectivisation during the Stalin era.

Chivers also spends the most time and effort complaining about Kalashnikov’s biography.  He also is downright naïve in expressing his frustration with Soviet-era sources and the multiple truths of the era, as if nothing like that ever happened in the US or any other Western nation.  At any rate, Chivers goes on a long rant about Kalashnikov co-operating with Soviet authorities in the re-crafting of his biography (Chivers prefers the term “white-washing”, which, while being accurate is ahistorical).  Kalashnikov’s family were kulaks, enemies of the state.  They were exiled to Siberia.  No kidding Kalashnikov needed a new biography when he became the inventor of the AK-47, which Chivers makes a strong and compelling argument as the greatest invention of the USSR.  His background as the son of kulaks had to be deleted from the story and a new version be created for public consumption.  To criticise Kalashnikov for participating in this process is almost laughable.  Obviously he had to participate.  He didn’t have a choice in a totalitarian dictatorship.  At least not if he wanted to keep living.

At any rate, it just so happens that, as a public historian, this is the kind of thing I study.  Public historians spend a lot of time looking at how stories get created, whether they are wider cultural stories or individual ones.  If Chivers thinks that what Kalashnikov participated in only happened in totalitarian communist states, he’s deeply, deeply mistaken.  Manufactured histories are part and parcel of almost daily life in Canada and the USA.

But the question of truth is what I’m interested in here.  Fact.  Statistics don’t speak for themselves.  Numbers don’t speak for themselves.  A picture is not worth a thousand words.  Facts are simple things.  Fact: Canadian Confederation happened on 1 July 1867.  But why? And what did it mean?  The why can be answered in many ways, both narrowly and widely.  It can be answered looking at what was happening in the United States, it can be answered looking at British colonial politics.  Or by what was happening in Canada.  Or a combination thereof.  The standard interpretation of what it means is that it was the birth of Canada.  But Canada in 1867 was four provinces, comprised of three colonies.  That’s about it.  It didn’t mean that Canada now had control of its own internal affairs.  That happened in 1848.  It didn’t mean that Canada gained control of foreign affairs.  That happened in 1931.  There was no such thing as Canadian citizenship until 1948.  Nor was the Supreme Court of Canada the highest court of appeal until then.  Canada did not control its own constitution until 1982.  So, in short, facts only cover a very simple corner of the story.  Interpretation is necessary.

To use an example from The Gun: The Ak-47 was developed in 1947.  Or was it?  Chivers does a wonderful job teasing out the details of the weapon’s creation in the late 1940s, to say nothing of the massive re-tooling of the gun that continued into the 1950s.  Even nailing down 1947 as the date of the gun’s creation isn’t as straight-forward as one would think, at least according to Chivers.

So, the truth.  Or the true story.  In my experience, rarely is something billed as the “true story” actually that.  Truth is a messy concept.  And this is what we historians are trained in.  We recognise that the honest truth isn’t necessarily a possibility (or even desirable) in telling a story.  Other things are more important, such as in the case of Nikolai Kalashnikov’s trip to the gulag.  Again, the actual sentence doesn’t interest me as much as why he was sent to the gulag.  In other words, there are varying shades of grey in sorting out the historical story.  And sometimes the actual straight truth isn’t that important to the story.  In the end, Chivers’ story is made all the more interesting for all the work he does in developing and elucidating the various stories of the development of the AK-47 and the various biographies and stories to be told about its inventor (or maybe he wasn’t the inventor, another version of the story could just as easily been that the gun was the result of a collective team), Mikhail Kalashnikov.

Remembering Zmievskaya Balka, Rostov-On-Don, Russia, 1942

February 15, 2012 § 2 Comments

My sister-in-law’s husband is spear-heading this campaign.  Please circulate this widely.  The actions of the Rostov-On-Don city council are disgusting and an attempt to erase history and are thinly veiled anti-Semitism.  Let us ensure they cannot get away with this:

Please disseminate the following press release by the committee organizing the 70th Anniversary Commemoration of Zmievskaya Balka – “Russia’s Babi Yar.”   Scheduled events will commemorate a series of mass executions by Nazis just outside the city of Rostov, Russia between 1942 and 1943.  While grassroots commemorative initiatives have taken place since the early 1990s by Rostov’s small Jewish community, 2012 marks the first major effort to commemorate the Holocaust in Rostov publicly.

The planning process takes place amidst conflict over the recent decision by Rostov government officials to take down a memorial plaque that was erected in 2004, identifying most of the 27,000  Zmievskaya Balka victims as Jewish.  The replacement plaque does not mention Jews, but rather the “peaceful citizens of Rostov-on-Don and Soviet prisoners-of-war.”  Having struggled for decades to battle exclusionary nationalism and anti-Semitism in the construction of public memory of the events at Zmievskaya Balka, Rostov’s  Jewish community and the diaspora it has yielded have been spurred to action and are seeking support as well as information, donations of artifacts and broad participation in the commemorative activities.  

70th Anniversary Commemoration of Zmievskaya Balka – “Russia’s Babi Yar”

Rostov on Don, Russia,  August 12-14, 2012

Organizing Committee Announcement

August 2012 marks the 70th anniversary of the beginning of mass executions of Jews by the Nazis in Rostov on Don, Russia, in the  Zmievskaya “balka” – a huge ravine on the edge of this southern Russian city of over one million residents. Here more than 20,000 people were killed. The greatest number of victims, including poisoned children,  died on August 11 and 12, 1942. For Russia, this place holds the symbolic importance of Ukraine’s Babi Yar. There is no place in Russia where a greater number of Holocaust victims lost their lives. Others were also killed here: Soviet citizens of other nationalities, prisoners of war, resisters, psychiatric hospital patients, and others.

In 1975, a memorial was erected at the Rostov “Zmievskaya Balka” and a small museum was built there.

This anniversary of the Rostov tragedy, dedicated to the memory of the victims, deserves attention on an international level, as this place has relevance for many famous people connected with the history of the Holocaust. Among those executed here was world-renowned psychoanalyst Sabina Spielrein (about whom several feature films have been made). Both before and after the war Alexander Pechersky lived in Rostov. Pechersky was the organizer of the only successful mass escape from a Nazi death camp — the escape from Sobibor. A British film about his exploits was well received.

Two other prominent Jewish leaders are connected to Rostov: Fedor Mikhalchenko, rescued in Buchenwald as a child and later to become Chief Rabbi of Israel, and Meir Lau, present day chairman of the Board of the museum “Yad Vashem.” Meir Lau, who is planning to attend the rememberance events, will be one of the honored guests. Government delegations, including the U.S. and Israel, are being invited.

Please note that August 11, 2012 falls on a Saturday (the Sabbath), which means that no memorial services will be held on this day.

August 12-14, 2012

Planned memorial /educational activities in Rostov-on-Don include the following:

– A memorial evening in one of the city’s largest halls on August 12th ;

– A ceremony at the Zmievskaya Balka on the morning of 13th August;

– Opening of a new exhibit at the Museum of the “Zmievskaya Balka” (August 13);

– International conference in memory of Sabina Spielrein  on the “Fate of Scientists during the Holocaust” (August 12th -13th );

– A seminar for teachers of Russia, CIS and the Rostov Region, “Lessons of the Holocaust –  the path to tolerance” (12th -14th August);

– A Holocaust Film Festival to feature both documentary and feature films;

We are seeking support from colleagues and interested parties across the globe.

How You Can Help:

–       Join the organizing committee.

–       Donate money to help us hire organizers and researchers.

–       If you have any information about the victims of Zmievskaya Balka or their relatives or descendants, please contact us.

–       Do you read Russian?  When searching for the names of the dead, we found the miraculously-preserved records of the Rostov synagogue circa 1850-1921.  Please help us translate these records, as well as other research articles on the events at Rostov, from Russian into English so that they may be more widely disseminated.

–       Contribute to memorial books or consider donating to the exhibit.

–       Spread the word: disseminate this press release widely. 

Please contact us for more information.

 Ilya Altman:  +79169064998, altman@holofond.ru

Yuri Dombrovskiy:  +79037553043, yuri.domb@gmail.com

Web links:

http://holocaust.su

http://www.rememberingrostov.com/

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