Adolf, Josef, and Vladimir

The two Robert Conquest classics are must-reads for anyone wishing to understand the relationship between Ukraine and Russia. As for Mein Kampf, everyone should read it. You can be sure Vladimir Putin has.

by Terry Wieland

When I was 15 years old, my cousin married a girl of Ukrainian descent, and we went to the wedding in Sudbury, Ontario. It was my first experience of Ukrainian culture, and between the rivers of rye whisky and the cabbage rolls, I was hooked. A decade later, I fell in love with a Ukrainian girl myself. Like all Canadian-Ukrainians, Debbie’s family retained close ties with Ukrainian culture and history. And, like every Canadian-Ukrainian I ever met, they hated Russians. Truly, sincerely, hated them.

By now, you are probably wondering where this is going, and what it has to do with hunting and shooting. Believe me, it’s not the piece I intended to write when I went to bed, but when I got up this morning, it seemed to me that writing about the 1853 Enfield — my intended subject — would be like getting up on the morning of September 1, 1939, and writing a piece for The Field on pheasant parasites.

I have now been shooting editor of Gray’s for almost 30 years, and during that time I have met, talked with, corresponded, and generally gotten to know many of our readers. They are, almost without exception, well-informed and well-read people, and our discussions on books and literature have often roved far beyond the merits of the 12 gauge, or what bullet weight is best for Cape buffalo. For this reason, I feel this column is justified, if only to (perhaps) head off a rush of queries in the next few days as events unfold in the Ukraine.

Also, once a journalist, always a journalist. Like a retired war horse, nibbling alfalfa in a field, hearing distant gunfire…well, you get the idea.

There is nothing new I can add about the situation in the Ukraine, which is changing by the hour, but I can offer some advice on books to read if you wish to really understand what is going on and why — and, not least, why a whole bunch of people in positions of power could have, and should have, seen this coming.

For that matter, had they read some history, they could have seen the whole plan mapped out in, at times, almost laughable detail. Vladimir Putin has been following Adolf Hitler’s playbook from the beginning. And, since he is bent on rebuilding Josef Stalin’s empire, a look at both Stalin and the Ukraine are not out of place.

Robert Conquest’s masterpiece about the Stalinist purges, The Great Terror (1968) followed by his account of the Ukrainian famine of 1931-33, Harvest of Sorrow (1986), are the cornerstones, and if you stop there, there’s not much else you really need to know. 

My favorite living historian, Anne Applebaum, read Conquest’s Terror as a teenager, was inspired to become an historian and author, and later received a Pulitzer for Gulag. Her later work, The Red Famines, also builds on Conquest, and includes a great deal about Ukraine’s centuries-long quest for independence — or at least security from such as Stalin, and now Putin.

Masha Gessen is a Russian-American journalist now living in New York, where she emigrated first with her mother in the 1980s. She returned to Russia after 1991, covered events there for some years, and returned to New York in 2013 after Putin consolidated power and began to murder political opponents and shut down opposition.

My first taste of Gessen’s work was Never Remember: The Search for Stalin’s Gulag in Putin’s Russia. Then came The Future is History, the story of Russia’s return to totalitarianism, for which she received a National Book Award, and I’m now in the midst of The Man Without a Face — The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.

Finally, Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands — Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, and its sequel, Black Earth, provide the background in all its horror, and foresee, with alarming accuracy, exactly what is happening now.

In an interview, Anne Applebaum was asked why she loved history. Her answer: “History explains everything.” She is absolutely right. Frighteningly so. America and the civilized world finds itself where it is today mainly because those who should have studied and paid attention to history did not. Alas, one must add that Vladimir Putin, once and forever a KGB operative, did study it very closely and obviously learned from it.

From the Adolf Hitler playbook: For the Austrian Anschluss, we have the seizure of Crimea. For the Sudetenland, read the Donbas, and it has everything, from alleged repression of a national minority to a faked border incident as a casus belli. Even Putin treating the French president to a six-hour unglued tirade is a repeat of Hitler’s treatment of the Czech president in 1939.

Then, as war was about to break out, Adolf Hitler was asked if he was worried about Britain and France, to which he replied: “Our enemies are worms. I saw them at Munich.” In light of the gathering held by western leaders and NATO in Munich last week, Vladimir Putin can now say exactly the same thing.

Alas, this Munich had several Chamberlains, not just one, with not a Winston Churchill anywhere in sight.


Gray’s shooting editor, Terry Wieland, would like to provide something light and witty here, but today it just ain’t possible.