Starving Ukranian children photographed in 1922.

Past weeks I thought it interesting to look at some natural and constructed borders. Whether long ago or today none walk across the Mississippi or Lake Superior unaided, barriers real today as was the boundary of prime fur territory.

Our local history includes the first travels into the US interior (Du Luth and La Salle). We’re seldom reminded of these same as we rarely speak of facing personal barriers/challenges. Happens lots of ways, such as a relationship going suddenly awry. I was once told by someone that I wasn’t sincere. They left, but I love them yet, a feeling neither distance nor death has destroyed.

A person can, as I was, be near destroyed by such as that. I was fortunate to slowly crawl back to the light. I was lucky. It is maybe such experience gives perspective by slapping down the know-it-all arrogance of a person like me.

Personal suffering gives better education than a university. Stabbed in the heart, I grew a broader notion of human connections, fragile yet enduring.   Being me, I’ll take that preamble as a leap to consider some other borders. Big leap, but it’s to the Ukraine I’m heading. Not that I don’t care, but I won’t say “for as long as it takes.”

I sense too well how long that might be and the woeful suffering of then and now. Our few hundred years of increasingly contentious US history is a pip compared to the Ukrainian world covering a thousand plus years of Mongols, Tatars, Hungarians, Ottomans, Poles and Lithuanians, French, Russian, Viking and German; major players in conquest gaming. The area was pillaged for its resources and slaves, lots of them taken to give one explanation for the use of Slav to describe a people resilient despite significant grief. Not easy to be a Ukrainian. Lots of nations wanted their produce and labor.  

Some are rankled when I present WWII as the great socialist war. I do so only because the three big players were the newly formed socialist nations, German (National Socialists), Russian (Soviet Socialist) and Italian Fascist (also socialist). These three saw the early part of the last century as their time. They saw Great Depression proving Marx was right. Capitalism was dying. It was the turn of socialism to make things right with equitable societies. I’m aware of some (I suspect more) Northlanders who joined the fight as a good cause. It was, but mostly in theory or on paper because worthy socialism required proper workers. Almost immediately (100 years ago) Slavic farmers fell outside the worker ideal. What? Well, think it through. The ideal was a factory worker living in an urban apartment. These were the exploited taking control, but posing no actual threat of doing so.  

Sounds cynical, but true? The worker was largely dependent on the state for food, housing and so on. Not so farmers (who’d struggled with landlords for centuries to gain land and freedom). They were self-reliant and resourceful; grew their own food and knew how to make and fix things from rebuilding homes to repairing wagons. Political decision were made to craft a better state with no place for independent farmers. Think the Nazi’s had camps? The Soviets had near 500 to handle the volume of farmers kicked off their land (essentially for being successful independent producers).

A benefit of the plan was those being starved in work camps didn’t deserve food needed by politically sympathetic urban workers. News from the socialist world was good (attracting idealistic Northlanders), but good news was faked. Moscow did OK. The Ukrainian capitol seat had an influx of hungry landless farmers and kids left behind by those sent to camps or by parents hoping their child might fare better without them. The police daily picked up children, but not to help or feed them. They put them out of sight to slowly starve in barracks and warehouses.

A child among hundreds of others locked in a barrack endured a misery of slow death with one wish; to die in the open with fresh air. A simple desire none was granted until the dead were taken away for disposal. At times up to 20,000 children were held. Too small and weak to work in a camp, their contribution was to die among the dying for a greater good.  

Sound horrible? It was. As bad, officialdom’s response to starvation. The starving were state enemies, reactionary capitalists part of a plot to destroy the ideal state. The starving were criminal, deserving of no support or sympathy because they were traitors. Being rid of millions of peasant farmer families relieved the food shortage, temporarily, until new workers (usually Russian replacements) could be brought in under central management. Seems to me socialism invented big agri-business when it collectivized what were independent peasant farms. Bad as old landlords and nobility were, the new masters were worse ruthlessly destroying ethnic populations for the sake of a theory.   What occurred in the Ukraine over centuries and more recently is beyond me to cover or current policy to redress. How do reasonable people comprehend starvation so common the police dealt with thousands of cannibalism cases yearly? (How many unreported?) Imagine a good parent discussing the eating of their own dead. Picture starvation (by criminal traitors to the state) so common the sight of dying infants trying to suckle a dead mother got the expression “buds of the new (or socialist) spring.” The obedient (dependent) worker knew they had to keep the party line or face the consequence. The starving were traitors to the cause, traitors so extreme they’d starve to destroy the ideal state. It was a merciless world, and one I’d describe as utterly materialistic in its approach.  

The thing I’d say for the Ukraine, foremost stop the fighting by not supporting it. A landscape haunted by deportations, mass starvation, state police, cannibalism and quotas isn’t healed by bullets.