Three reasons to read (and not to read) “Scorched Earth”, by Jörg Baberowski

The book “Scorched Earth”, by Jörg Baberowski contains an exhaustive description of the tool set of violence used by the most successful practitioner of Communism, Iosif Stalin.

German historian Jörg Baberowski was a Communist in his youth. He learned Russian, specialized in Russian imperial history, and is now recognized as one of the leading experts on Stalinism. His approach to the issue of politically motivated violence earned him a hate on the part of German leftist groups who call him a “right-wing extremist“.

In his book Scorched Earth: Stalin’s Reign of Terror, Jörg Baberowski analyzes the preconditions and driving forces for the reign of terror installed by the Bolsheviks during the first decades of the Soviet rule.

Three reasons to READ the book

  1. The book is a true fountainhead of quotes about Communism, Russia and Soviet Union coming from a dizzying array of personalities–from the dissident poet Joseph Brodsky to obscure Soviet functionaries. Many of the quotes are quite controversial. If you want to stir an epic discussion in an online forum with a lot of Russians and/or Communists, you find here much potent fuel to pour into the ideological flames.
  2. The book provides an exhaustive, albeit sometimes too verbose, description of the tool set of totalitarian violence every aspiring dictator needs in order to stay on the top of the game.
  3. Many years of anti-Stalinist research in the midst of the left-leaning European academia has taught the author to pick the words and arguments that have a lot of punch. For such a heavy subject, the book is an easy read.

Three reasons to SKIP the book

  1. Either it’s the author’s Catholic roots, or the remorse of his Communist past–either way, the text seems way too judgmental to my taste. “Stalin was a murderer who took pleasure in destruction and harm,” Baberowski writes. This moral indignation may compromise his approach if you want to look at the issue of violence from a revolutionary’s point of view.
  2. As a meticulous researcher, Baberowski find few details too small to add to his narrative.
  3. Violence in a land of a triumphant Communist revolution is a gory affair–especially in Eastern Europe. The wealth of horrendous details from the basements of Stalin’s secret service and his killing fields in the book is simply too tiring.

Quotes from the book:

People who know nothing but dictatorship develop different standards of valuation than people who were once free and then lose their freedom. After the reign of terror there were no longer any competing interpretative elites, no church as a moral institution, no emigration with a voice, no reminders of the time before communism, no Western television, no “brothers and sisters” abroad, and no occupiers to blame for the misery and oppression. There was nothing but the dictatorship, either in the present or in the past.

“Stalin is not dead. The ax outlives its master.

Scorched Earth: Stalin’s Reign of Terror, by Jörg Baberowski
Scorched Earth Stalin's Reign of Terror Jorg Baberowski
Cover of the German original of “Scorched Earth: Stalin’s Reign of Terror”, by Jörg Baberowski

Three reasons to read (and not to read) “A Dirty War”, by Anna Politkovskaya

The Dirty War, by Anna Politkovskaya is a book about the second Russian military campaign in Chechnya that brought to Putin the fame of an effective statesman

Anna Politkovskaya was an independent reporter killed in 2006 in Moscow. She made her name known in the 1990s by investigative reports that exposed government’s corruption and incompetence.

The book of Politkovskaya “A Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechnya” (2003) was published at the tail end of the second Chechen War that resulted in a defeat of separatists and Islamists, and the rule of the Kremlin-backed strongmen Akhmad Kadyrov and later his son Ramzan Kadyrov.

Three reasons to READ the book

  1. This is a solid piece of field reporting from a seasoned journalist. As a native, she could access the areas and locals in Chechnya few foreign reporters could reach. Even her haters struggled to fault her books on factual errors.
  2. The book offers describes a repeatable pattern of interplay that often happens in areas of ethnic unrest between (1) the anti-insurgent troops; (2) insurgents; (3) high-level criminals and corrupt officials with good connections to both parties of the conflict; (4) low-level criminals and (5) civilians who do what they can in order to survive amid the chaos, blood and misery.
  3. The author convincingly shows how the growing disillusionment and apathy on the part of the Russian public, and the steely, ruthless resolve of Putin’s men tilted the second Chechen war in favor of the Kremlin.

Three reasons to SKIP the book

  1. The author openly defied the government’s narrative behind the Chechen war. If you are a convinced Russian nationalist, or share the Kremlin’s point of view on the Chechen insurgency as a ragtag of terrorists, Islamic fundamentalists and gangsters, you find her work very biased.
  2. As a native, Politkovskaya has filled her text with a plethora of details that make it very vivid and riveting for Russian readers, especially from older generations. For foreign audiences though, this may be too overwhelming and confusing.
  3. Don’t read the book if you are too impressionable. You might not find much life’s inspiration in this book. For most people, this would likely be an old, sad tale of greed, cruelty, death and misery.

Quote from the book:

“Yesterday there was a meeting of the villagers. The men decided that we would move to another place and build there. We can’t remain where we are any longer. We must wait for the prefabricated houses that Putin promised. The old Ansalta is gone for ever.”

This was the worst news anyone could have expected. In the southern mountainous area of Daghestan a family home is a potent symbol and someone without their own house is the most wretched of all human beings. A man who cannot put a roof over the heads of his wife and children is no longer a man. Until the last minute the women of Ansalta just like their sisters from the other villages obliterated in the August fighting (Rakhata, Tando and Shadroda) – could not believe their men would take this decision. Too many generations had toiled to build the massive houses now bombed out of existence. Too many tears and too much sweat had been mixed with the foundations of these fortified buildings that, it seemed, would last for ever. And now they had just got up and left, carrying only their children.”

The Dirty War, by Anna Politkovskaya
The Dirty War Anna Politkovskaya 2003 Cover
A Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechnya, by Anna Politkovskaya (2003). Cover