This week’s book is an important one. When it was first published, Robert Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow broke new ground in revealing details of the famine which struck parts of Kazakhstan, southern Russia, and Ukraine in 1932-33. Conquest suggests that the famine was a) a deliberate act of policy, and b) specifically targeted against Ukrainians. Conquest did not have access to archival sources. More recent archive-based research, such as that of R.W. Davies and Stephen G. Wheatcroft, has come to rather more nuanced conclusions, but Conquest’s thesis still has supporters. The debate continues to this day.
Three headlines have caught my eyes this week, all of them deserving a short commentary:
- Russia claims the North Pole. The Russian government has just submitted a revised claim to parts of the Arctic Ocean, including the North Pole, in accordance with the process laid out by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). You can read the executive summary of the claim here. To my surprise, so far the media here in Canada have been remarkably fair in their coverage of the issue. The Ottawa Citizen, for instance, cited Arctic affairs expert Professor Michael Byers saying that, ‘Russia showed surprising restraint in its new Arctic claim compared with Denmark’s provocative bid last year, and diplomats should be relieved that Russia has chosen to follow to international rules in its submission and not create tension in the area.’ Indeed, in putting forward its claim, Russia is following the procedure laid out by UNCLOS, and the matter is now in the hands of the United Nations. There is no cause for alarm.
- Russians are dying more and giving birth less. The last decade saw a significant improvement in Russia’s demographic situation, with Russians living longer and having more children. But, according to the Russian statistical service Rosstat, this trend has now been reversed. The death rate in the first quarter of 2015 was 5.2% more than a year previously, while the birth rate was 5.7% less. According to the Deputy Minister of Health, Veronica Skvortsov, ‘This is not because the population is getting older. The death rate is increasing among young people, aged 30 to 45 … For the first time in years the number of suicides and alcohol poisonings … have increased. This is a big problem.’ It is not clear yet whether this is a one-off or the start of a new negative trend, but either way it is undoubtedly bad news.
- Robert Conquest has died. During the Cold War, when the true nature of the Soviet Union’s communist regime remained disputed, the works of British historian Robert Conquest were revelatory. Books such as The Great Terror, The Nation Killers, and The Harvest of Sorrow exposed the enormous extent of Stalinist repression, and ensured that public opinion in the West would remain resolutely anti-Soviet. Like many other Cold Warriors, however, Conquest didn’t manage the transition to the post-Soviet era very well. Documents from newly opened archives revealed that some of his claims were exaggerated, but rather than accept this, he clung to his original position. As a result, his reputation suffered somewhat. Still, despite its faults, his work provided the foundation on which a generation of historians built. As a young man, I found his books enthralling, and they helped to inspire me to become a historian myself. Conquest was one of the giants of Soviet studies, and his death is a great loss to the field.
Russia, the West, and the world