Boat on which my father and grandfather and other refugees crossed the Baltic Sea from Estonia to Sweden in September 1944 during the Second World War

Boat on which my father and grandfather and other refugees crossed the Baltic Sea to Sweden from Estonia in September 1944 during the Second World War. Other family members travelled across the Baltic on three other boats. Click on the photo to enlarge it.

The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (1999)

Stereotypes have a powerful effect in organizing our thinking and behaviour, as I’ve noted in a series of posts including one entitled:

Perceptions of warmth and competence drive our stereotypes: Cuddy et al. (2008)

Labels are a matter of life and death.


My parents fled Estonia as refugees in 1944. This fact provides a context for my comments.

The above-noted refugee exodus required extensive networking and coordination. The trip across the Baltic covered a vast amount of sea; in the summer of 2018, I travelled on an overnight ferry from Stockholm to Tallinn. The trip gave me a sense of what a length journey was involved for those who went that route in September 1944. Another route involved travel by land or sea from Estonia to refuge in countries to the south of the Baltic states.


For many years, I’ve had an interest in the history of Tibet, which serves as a case study (one among many) of terror, surveillance, and repression as central strategies of Communist governance.

A Dec. 25, 2016 Globe and Mail article is entitled: “Tibet: Behind the looking glass.”

The Great Transformation (1944)

Two studies that provide backstories related to the topics at hand include:

The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, 2nd Beacon Paperback Ed. (2001; originally published 1944)

The above-noted book offers a context for understanding many of the events that have occurred during the twentieth century, and that are occurring now.

Author Notes (from the Toronto Public Library website) for the above-noted study read:

Karl Polanyi (1886-1964) is considered one of the twentieth century’s most discerning economic historians. He left his position as senior editor of Vienna’s leading financial and economic weekly in 1933, became a British citizen, taught adult extension programs for Oxford and London Universities, and held visiting chairs at Bennington College and Columbia University. He is co-author of Christianity and the Social Revolution; author of The Great Transformation; Trade and Market in Early Empires (with C.Arnsberg and H.Pearson) and posthumously, Dahomey and the Slave Trade (with A. Rotstein).

Joseph E. Stiglitz was formerly chair of President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors, and chief economist of the World Bank. He is professor of economics at Stanford University, and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Boat on which my father and grandfather made it across the Baltic Sea in September 1944.

Boat on which my father and grandfather crossed the Baltic Sea from Estonia to Sweden in September 1944. My grandfather is furthest on the right. Click on the photo to enlarge it.

Fred Block is professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis.

Recently opened archives

A second book that warrants study is entitled:

The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (1999)

A blurb at the Toronto Public Library website reads:

Already famous throughout Europe, this international bestseller plumbs recently opened archives in the former Soviet bloc to reveal the actual, practical accomplishments of Communism around the world: terror, torture, famine, mass deportations, and massacres. Astonishing in the sheer detail it amasses, the book is the first comprehensive attempt to catalogue and analyze the crimes of Communism over seventy years.

“Revolutions, like trees, must be judged by their fruit,” Ignazio Silone wrote, and this is the standard the authors apply to the Communist experience – in the China of “the Great Helmsman,” Kim Il Sung’s Korea, Vietnam under “Uncle Ho” and Cuba under Castro, Ethiopia under Mengistu, Angola under Neto, and Afghanistan under Najibullah. The authors, all distinguished scholars based in Europe, document Communist crimes against humanity, but also crimes against national and universal culture, from Stalin’s destruction of hundreds of churches in Moscow to Ceausescu’s leveling of the historic heart of Bucharest to the widescale devastation visited on Chinese culture by Mao’s Red Guards.

As the death toll mount – as many as 25 million in the former Soviet Union, 65 million in China, 1.7 million in Cambodia, and on and on – the authors systematically show how and why, wherever the millenarian ideology of Communism was established, it quickly led to crime, terror, and repression. An extraordinary accounting, this book amply documents the unparalleled position and significance of Communism in the hierarchy of violence that is the history of the twentieth century.

Tibet: Behind the looking glass: Dec. 25, 2016 Globe and Mail article

The above text serves as an introduction to the following passage from the above-noted Dec. 25, 2016 Globe and Mail article:

On this claim hinge the full ambitions of Communist China in Tibet, from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping. But it’s at best a disputed reading of history. Even setting aside the strong military might wielded by Tibet in centuries past, the invasion of Tibet by Communist forces in the early 1950s provoked strong local political resistance. A Tibetan delegation to the United Nations pleaded that Tibetans were being “compelled by force to become a part of China against their will.”

“The decades that have followed were frequently marked by violence as China quashed local revolts, while Beijing-led development schemes imposed Chinese order on the local economy. In 1960, the International Commission of Jurists accused China of “genocidal” acts “to destroy Buddhism in Tibet.” Only 13 of Tibet’s hundreds of monasteries were still standing by the end of the turbulence and anti-religious fervour of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s, scholars say. Tibet was hit hard: Lamas and other religious leaders were marched in public wearing dunce’s hats, labourers who were branded “demons and monsters,” were fed human excrement, and families were told to destroy their religious artifacts. “The effect was to destroy Tibet’s separate identity,” Prof. Shakya writes in his book Dragon in the Land of Snows.

A blurb at the Toronto Public Library website, for the above-noted, 1999 study by Tsering Shakya, reads:

Based entirely on unpublished primary sources, this remarkable book – the first authoritative history of modern Tibet – is also the first to provide detailed accounts of:

The covert political manoeuverings in Tibet and the role of the Tibetan, Chinese and British governments;

The Dalai Lama’s escape in 1959;

The CIA’s involvement and the establishment of a secret military base in the Nepalese Himalayas;

The British government lying to the UN and Douglas Hurd’s role in that process;

The power struggles during th Cultural Revolution and the mass uprising against the Chinese that has remained secret until now.

Black Book of Communism (1999)

The following excerpt is from p. 478 of The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (1999):

[I have broken the original paragraph into shorter ones, for ease of online reading:]

The agitators began by dividing the peasantry into four group – poor, semipoor, average, and rich. Anyone outside these categories was decreed a landowner and thus became a marked man. Sometimes, in the absence of clear distinguishing factors and because it pleased the poorest villagers, the rich peasants were added to the list of landowners.

Although the destiny of small rural landowners was henceforth mapped out quite clearly, the path toward it was somewhat tortuous, though usually politically effective. It was simply a matter of ensuring the participation of the “great masses” so that they would fear the consequences of the failure of Communism; and if it was possible to give them the illusion that they had some sort of free will, too, then the government happily cooperated with their decisions. There is no doubt that it was an illusion, for everywhere, almost simultaneously, the process and the results were identical, despite the enormous variation in conditions from region to region. It is now known exactly what sort of effort was required of the activists to give the illusion that the peasant revolution was a spontaneous movement, and how they constantly had to refrain from using their basic mechanism, which of course was terror, to achieve their ends most effectively.

During the war, many young people preferred to flee to the zones held by the Japanese rather than enroll in the PLA [Peoples’ Liberation Army]. The peasants, who generally formed an apathetic mass, were ideologically quite distant from the ideals of the Communist Party and were often so in thrall to the landowners that they continued secretly to work on the landowners’ farms even after the government had reduced their size as a prologue to agrarian reform.

Among themselves, the agitators classed peasants according to their political position as activists, ordi­nary peasants, reactionaries, or supporters of the landowners. They then attempted to transfer these categories onto actual social groups; the result was a sort of Frankenstein sociology that allowed old grudges and private quarrels, such as the desire to get rid of a troublesome husband, to resurface. [48] The classification could be revised at will; to complete the redistribution of land, the authorities in Long Bow swiftly changed the number of peasants who fell into the poor category from 95 to 28 (out of 240). [49] Among the Communist cadres, civilians were generally classed as “workers,” and soldiers as “poor peasants” or “medium peasants,” despite their actual origins among the more privileged social classes. [50]

Afghan resistance

Events that occurred in Cuba, Afghanistan, and elsewhere are described in detail, in The Black Book of Communism (1999). 

Page 716 of the book, by way of example, highlights the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which began in 1979:

The atrocities committed were those to be found in all large-scale wars, and the violence born of total war and constant attrition spread throughout the country. [42] The Afghan resistance also carried out atrocities, likewise barbaric and inexcusable. Unlike other conflicts, notably the war in Vietnam, to which Afghanistan was often compared, the war received very little attention from the world press, and very few pictures of the conflict were ever released. The Afghan resistance was in fact waging a general insurrection in response to both the Communist coup d’etat and the invasion from abroad. The powers who supported the resistance fighters paid scant attention to the extent of their respect for human rights and on occasion supported some extremely unsavory groups. But on the whole, responsibility for the origins of the conflict must rest with the Communists and their Soviet allies. Government by mass terror and the system of coercion established by the Communists in Afghanistan were constants in the history of the Communist movement.”


Passages on pages 716-717 of the book highlight the refugee crisis occasioned by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan: 

The number of refugees grew constantly. At the end of 1980, it was estimated that more than 1 million refugees had fled Afghanistan. Eighty percent of the intellectuals had left by mid-1982. Early in 1983 there were more than 3 mil­lion refugees out of a total prewar population of 15.5 million . In 1984 the number passed 4 million, [43] and it reached 5 million in the early 1990s. In addition to those who had left the country, there were 2 million internal refu­gees who were forced to leave their villages to escape the war and repression. According to Amnesty International, the refugees who left Afghanistan were “the largest refugee group in the world.” [44]

More than two-thirds of all refugees fled to Pakistan; most of the rest went to Iran; a tiny number reached Western Europe or the United States. Michael Barry recalled that “in the autumn of 1985, during a secret mission on horseback in four provinces in eastern and central Afghanistan on behalf of the International Federation for the Rights of Man, the Swedish doctor Johann Lagerfelt and I made a survey of twenty­ three villages and found that 56.3 percent of the population had been dis­placed. ” [45] Over the whole territory, more than half the population was forced to move as a direct consequence of the politics of terror deployed by the Soviet Army and its Afghan assistants.”


The Black Book of Communism (1999), originally published in France, argues that Nazism and Communism have much in common.

Current realities

A Jan.1, 2016 Politico article is entitled: “Putin’s Real Long Game: The world order we know is already over, and Russia is moving fast to grab the advantage. Can Trump figure out the new war in time to win it?”

A excerpt reads: “Months later, on a different porch thousands of miles away, an Estonian filmmaker casually explained to me that he was buying a boat to get his family out when the Russians came, so he could focus on the resistance. In between were a hundred other exchanges — with Balts and Ukrainians, Georgians and Moldovans — that answered my question and exposed the new reality on the Russian frontier: the belief that, ultimately, everyone would be left to fend for themselves. Increasingly, people in Russia’s sphere of influence were deciding that the values that were supposed to bind the West together could no longer hold. That the world order Americans depend on had already come apart.”

Russian security state

The article also refers to the legacy of the Soviet security state:

“To understand the shift underway in the world, and to stop being outmaneuvered, we first need to see the Russian state for what it really is. Twenty-five years ago, the Soviet Union collapsed. This freed the Russian security state from its last constraints. In 1991, there were around 800,000 official KGB agents in Russia. They spent a decade reorganizing themselves into the newly-minted FSB, expanding and absorbing other instruments of power, including criminal networks, other security services, economic interests, and parts of the political elite. They rejected the liberal, democratic Russia that President Boris Yeltsin was trying to build.

“Following the 1999 Moscow apartment bombings that the FSB almost certainly planned, former FSB director Vladimir Putin was installed as President. We should not ignore the significance of these events. An internal operation planned by the security services killed hundreds of Russian citizens. It was used as the pretext to re-launch a bloody, devastating internal war led by emergent strongman Putin. Tens of thousands of Chechen civilians and fighters and Russian conscripts died. The narrative was controlled to make the enemy clear and Putin victorious. This information environment forced a specific political objective: Yeltsin resigned and handed power to Putin on New Year’s Eve 1999.”

Everyday life

An Oct. 9, 2003 London Review of Books article is entitled: “The Good Old Days.”

The opening paragraph reads:

“Who could ever forget everyday life in the old Soviet Union? The sheer oddness of the way the place functioned, the incongruity between functioning and pretension. The discomfort and inconvenience, the drabness, the constant shortages and roundabout ways of getting things, the ubiquity of pull and patronage, the insignificance of money, the awfulness of officials, the splendid company of friends talking philosophy around kitchen tables, the sense of being caught in a time warp that was supposed to be the future but felt like the past. When I first went to the Soviet Union as a British Council exchange student in 1966, I thought it was only foreigners who noticed the oddness of Soviet life. But it turned out that the locals, or at least the local intelligentsia, felt it too. ‘If only we could have a normal life!’ they would sigh, not just in Moscow but in Budapest and Prague as well. ‘Normal’ had once referred to the way things were before the Revolution, or in Eastern Europe before Sovietisation. By the 1970s, however, most people didn’t know what that ‘normal’ was like and redefined it in terms of a Western lifestyle and culture that was not only unattainable but also hazily understood. Normality itself became a utopian concept.”

The Transformation of the World (2014)

A Dec. 29, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “Angela Merkel and the history book that helped inform her worldview: Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World left its mark on the German chancellor, judging by her recent decisions.”

The title of the book brings to mind a previously mentioned text, namely The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, 2nd Beacon Paperback Ed. (2001; originally published 1944)

A key point in the latter study is that “laissez faire” is a “produced,” or “manufactured” state of affairs. It also underlines the fact that anti-Communism need not be invariably equated with a neoliberal worldview. A good study of the similarities, between a Soviet mindset and the mindset, by way of example, of Ayn Rand, is provided by Darryl Cunningham:

The Age of Selfishness (2015)

A graphic storytelling book, available at the Toronto Public Library, entitled: The Age of Selfishness: Ayn Rand, Morality, and the Financial Crisis (2015), warrants a close read.

A blurb for the book at the Toronto Public Library website notes:

“Tracing the emergence of Ayn Rand’s philosophy of objectivism in the 1940s to her present-day influence, Darryl Cunningham’s latest work of graphic-nonfiction investigation leads readers to the heart of the global financial crisis of 2008. Cunningham uses Rand’s biography to illuminate the policies that led to the economic crash in the U.S. and in Europe, and how her philosophy continues to affect today’s politics and policies, starting with her most noted disciple, economist Alan Greenspan (former chairman of the Federal Reserve). Cunningham also shows how right-wing conservatives, libertarians, and the Tea Party movement have co-opted Rand’s teachings (and inherent contradictions) to promote personal gain and profit at the expense of the middle class. Tackling the complexities of economics by distilling them down to a series of concepts accessible to all age groups, Cunningham ultimately delivers a devastating analysis of our current economic world.”

A previous post, touching upon related themes, is entitled:

Masters of the Universe (2012) focuses upon the analysis of neoliberalism, from the perspective of historical research

Of relevance regarding related themes is a post entitled:

We have a white extremism problem, Doug Saunders argues – Globe and Mail, Nov. 12, 2016

Life (to the extent it is possible) beyond labels and “true beliefs”

A Jan. 4, 2017 Guardian article is entitled: “The Canada experiment: is this the world’s first ‘postnational’ country?: When Justin Trudeau said ‘there is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada’, he was articulating a uniquely Canadian philosophy that some find bewildering, even reckless – but could represent a radical new model of nationhood.”

With regard to the “true believer,” I think in particular of a book by Eric Hoffer originally published in 1951:

The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (1951, 1989)

I’m pleased to end this post with the same comment that I began it with:

Stereotypes have a powerful effect in organizing our thinking and behaviour, as I’ve noted in a series of posts including one that is entitled:

Perceptions of warmth and competence drive our stereotypes: Cuddy et al. (2008)

Labels are a matter of life and death.


A Jan. 14, 2017 Guardian article is entitled: “Nobel prize winner Svetlana Alexievich quits ‘shameful’ Russian PEN: Author of acclaimed reportage joins 30 other writers leaving after expulsion of jailed journalist Sergey Parkhomenko in ‘craven violation of PEN’s founding ideals’ “.

Also of interest is a study entitled: Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962 (2012).

A May 26, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “‘Most Orwellian winner yet’: The Invention of Russia takes Orwell prize: Arkady Ostrovsky’s The Invention of Russia, an account of media manipulation and of language in modern Russia, wins UK’s top award for political writing.”

A March 2, 2017 Atlantic article is entitled: “What Putin Is Up To: And why he may have overplayed his hand.”

A March 24, 2017 Estonian World article is entitled: “The victims of Soviet deportations remembered in Estonia.”

Also of interest: The State Within a State: The KGB and its Hold on Russia – Past, Present, and Future (1994).

Topics of related interest are discussed at a post entitled:

Empathy is great provided that we use it wisely

An April 7, 2017 Atlantic article is entitled: “What Are America’s Options on North Korea?: At this point, there are only two ways to reverse its nuclear program, one expert says.”

A July 18, 2017 Politico article is entitled: “How the GOP Became the Party of Putin: Republicans have sold their souls to Russia. And Trump isn’t the only reason why.”

A July 21, 2017 Guardian article is entitled: “Svetlana Alexievich: ‘After communism we thought everything would be fine. But people don’t understand freedom’. The Nobel prize-winning author talks about the pressures of life in the Putin era, as her bestselling book on Russian women’s wartime heroism is republished.”

A July 24, 2017 BBC article is entitled: “The writers who defied Soviet censors: Underground publishers in the USSR broke rules in ingenious ways – such as hiding books in fake binding and making records on X-ray film, writes Benjamin Ramm.”

A 2016 RAND Corporation article is entitled: “The Russian ‘Firehose of Falsehood’ Propaganda Model: Why It Might Work and Options to Counter It.” You can find the article by pointing your browser to the above-noted title.

Totalitarian art

An Aug. 2, 2017 Guardian article is entitled: “Igor Golomstock obituary: Cultural historian who explored the use of similar art to promote differing totalitarian regimes.”

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