US magazine Jacobin veers into atrocity denialism


Social media users across the Baltic states have ridiculed a recently published article in Jacobin for its poorly researched overview of Baltic history and society, as well as its denialism of atrocities committed during the Soviet occupation. Some wondered whether the author, a China-based academic called Adam J Sacks, had ever even spoken to anyone from the region before posing as an expert on it.

Jacobin describes itself as a radical left-wing magazine, although “not quite as tied to the Cold War paradigms that sustained the old leftist intellectual milieux”, according to its founding editor. Despite that, it is still prone to repeating Soviet propaganda that even the Soviet Union eventually disowned, as is the case in this article.

The article focuses on the removal of occupation monuments from public spaces in the Baltic countries, while making a broader argument that criticism of the Soviet occupation by ‘overemotional Eastern Europeans’ somehow undermines criticism of Nazi ideology. In reality, opposition to Soviet occupation in the Baltic states, which culminated in re-independence, was based on a rejection on both Nazi and Soviet ideologies and the awareness that both powers had conspired to carve up Europe between them, resulting in the illegal annexation.

Occupation denial

The author appears to indicate that he visited museums of occupations in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania while writing his article.

Despite this, he doesn’t acknowledge the reality of occupation, which he refers to in quote marks, and instead refers to the “Baltic Soviet Republics”, which he claims benefited enormously economically from Soviet rule and were “spared from cultural repression” such as through “freely available books”. He then proceeds to dismiss Soviet terror, claiming that the Baltic states were wrong to talk about it “as if [it] had a racialized character, aimed at the destruction of children and the aged, rather than just political opponents”.

These assertions are profoundly ignorant – with no mention of the evidence to the contrary even though it was on display at those museums. The starkest example of Soviet terror in the Baltic states was the mass deportations, which were overwhelmingly targeted at women, children (including babies), and the elderly. They were snatched from their homes and dispersed to remote corners of the Soviet Union. Many died on the way in appalling transport conditions. Many died prematurely after arrival due to the bleak conditions there, which often included hard labour. As with other forced population transfers across the Soviet Union and Soviet occupied territories, the specific intent was to decapitate independent society and attempt to dissolve national identities, which could ferment resistance to Soviet rule. Although, it has to be said that even targeting political opponents, especially in an independent nation being occupied, is also profoundly criminal.

Cultural repression within the Baltic states was also extensive and included the mass destruction of books in the Baltic states that no longer conformed to Soviet narratives. As for the economy, the trajectory of the Baltic states veered sharply below its European neighbours from the point of occupation and only began a rapid recovery half a century later after it ended. Numerous credible researchers have documented how Soviet occupation negatively impacted the economies of the Baltic states. There is, of course, a reason why the Baltic states first pushed for economic independence before achieving full political independence. Jacobin’s red-tinted assessment is no different to colonial apologism for any other type of imperialism.

Soviet ruler Nikita Khrushchev later denounced these mass deportations and cultural repressions against entire nations as a contradiction of the Soviet Union’s publicly claimed ideology. Even official Soviet documents later made public reveal the brutal extent of deportations aimed at national groups. During the later period of glasnost, the mass deportations and cultural repression was able to be criticised more openly.

Jacobin may claim it’s a progressive publication that has moved on from the Cold War era, but even if they just repeated cold war era Soviet positions then it would have been more progressive and closer to reality than the Stalinist era propaganda they are now repeating.

Attitudes to Tsarism

The most laughably bizarre assertion in the article is that the Baltic states only use the phrase “occupation” to refer to Soviet rule, rather than “the almost two-and-a-half centuries of Russian rule during the autocratic tsarist empire.” The author’s insinuation is that the Baltic states aren’t really against imperialism in general, but only when it is communist in nature.

This could have been clarified for the author through a short conversation with anyone in the Baltic states. Lithuanians do always refer to Tsarist rule as occupation because their state predated it, while Estonians and Latvians generally don’t because their independence began in 1918 after Tsarist rule ended and they were able to establish their states’ existence in international law. However, this semantic nuance does not at all reflect any fondness for Tsarist imperialism. It is just the nature of the English language, which the author it supposed to be fluent in, and the reality of international law.

As a side point, Tsarist rule in the Baltic states actually lasted between just over a century and just under two centuries, which again shows the poorly researched nature of the article.

Occupation monuments

After denying the occupation, the author addresses his main grievance in writing the article, which is the removal of Soviet monuments in the Baltic states. He claims the aim is to vilify the Soviet period, ignoring the fact that it is real memories and historical facts that already do that.

He indulges in patronising pseudo-intellectual analysis, first claiming that “the wish to erase all signs of communism comes from a deep wellspring of obsessive emotionalism, an almost Oedipal style conflict with the bad parent”. He then says that “these acts of historical negationism hearken back to the damnatio memoriae of ancient times to posthumously condemn and remove unpopular elites and emperors from the public record”. He proceeds to say, however, that this ancient practice didn’t aim to entirely eradicate the memory, however, because the absence of these statues was left visible to show that they had been removed, whereas the “this recent wave [in the Baltic states] reflects a deeper desire and perhaps a more completist agenda of entirely eradicating historical evidence.”

There are two aspects of this that are nonsensical.

Firstly, the author omits the fact that many of the key occupation monuments in the Baltic states are not destroyed but simply relocated from prominent public spaces where they are unwanted to museums where their history can be explored more deeply in context. In addition, having a free society with freedom of speech and media, as well as historical museums, certainly is not comparable – let alone “more completist” – than an ancient civilisation purging the historical record.

Secondly, it is odd that Jacobin chose an obscure ancient comparison rather than more recent and obviously comparable monument removals, such as the removal of Nazi statues in Germany and across the Europe, which everyone can agree with. This is all the more bizarre considering that the article repeatedly references Nazi ideology. In addition, Jacobin has itself repeatedly written articles arguing in favour of removing historical monuments, such as to Confederate leaders in the US. “Tearing down statues doesn’t erase history,” Jacobin claimed then, “it makes us see it more clearly.”

But, back to the case of occupation monuments in the Baltic states, the author then contradicts himself by claiming that the removal of monuments “is also a profound symptom of the poverty of imagination” and instead suggests that they could just be adapted such as by “colorfully paper-macheed as with the Bismarck statue recently in Berlin’s Tiergarten”. In fact, there are numerous examples of Soviet monuments in the Baltic states that have been creatively reinterpreted, but the Soviets built a lot of monuments in public spaces and there is no shortage of creative opportunities in more forward-looking ways here. It is unlikely that the author raised the idea to anyone living near the statues that they could just paper mache over their trauma, but we can imagine the response.

Finally, the author sums up the monument removals as “posthumous vengeance, deeply antidemocratic despite supposedly celebrating democratic values.” He does not explain though what is undemocratic about democratic governments making a decision with the overwhelming support of the public.

Russian speakers

The author also tries to speak on behalf of Russian speakers across the Baltic states, despite seemingly not speaking to any of them either. He says that the monuments were removed despite the explicit desires of most of the Russian-speaking community. The truth is a bit more nuanced. The only polling on the topic to specifically seperate the Russian speaking community shows more mixed opinions, as would be expected from a diverse community with significant levels of integration, as opposed to the monolithic stereotypes often repeated in Kremlin propaganda (and too many journalists elsewhere). Somewhere around half of Russian speakers don’t disagree with the removal occupation monuments and over a third are in favour.

The author goes on, however, to claim that Russian speakers have “been denied basic citizenship rights, as well as cultural and educational autonomy, since independence via an arcane set of requirements and surveillance that resembles a repression of those deemed second-class.”

This is a long way from the reality in which Russian speakers enjoy full civic freedoms, the accommodation of the Russian language in state services and the media, as well as the equal right to apply for citizenship, which most have now done. It is closer to Kremlin propaganda, except the term “surveillance” is an extreme claim that we haven’t seen anyone else make before (including by Russian speakers who can of course speak for themselves and could have helped the author research a better article).

The author also does not provide any context for why the Baltic states have such significant Russian-speaking populations and why those who settled during the occupation apply for citizenship.

Jacobin’s Nazi apologism

Jacobin’s Soviet apologism soon inevitably veers into Nazi apologism too.

Most disturbingly, the author attempts to defend the Nazi-Soviet Pact and their secret protocols to divide the sovereign nations of Eastern Europe between both powers. It “only emerged out of a fraught and desperate chain of events,” he says, before blaming other agreements that the West had made – even though their policy of appeasement is widely regretted, didn’t involve allying with the Nazis to jointly invade other countries, and that the West actually began fighting the Nazis while the Soviets remained in alliance with them for a further two years. The author does not clarify that the illegal annexation of the Baltic states was a direct result of that pact, nor explain the brutality with which it was forcibly imposed.

The author then claims that Eastern European nationalists used to swallow their pride and accept that at least the Soviets fought the Nazis but that the removal of Soviet occupation monuments had removed that memory. This is a very flawed statement. Firstly, as elsewhere in the article, the author is confusing the civic nationalism in the Baltic states that forms the basis for re-independence with the extreme nationalism that has been on the rise across Europe. These are two very different things as one is committed to a law-based, democratic values and supports Ukraine and the other is the polar opposite. In addition, the idea that the re-independence movement at least respected the Soviets for fighting the Nazis is a very Western-centric assumption. In reality, as already explained, the rejection of the Nazi-Soviet Pact that resulted in the illegal Soviet annexation – combined with the rejection of both Nazi and Soviet ideologies – formed the basis for that re-independence movement. The author also claims that the “peoples of the Soviet Union” bore the brunt of fighting the Nazis, even though people in the Baltic states and other occupied territories were conscripted into the Soviet Army too.

If the author genuinely wants to join us in highlighting and condemning Nazi terror, then not defending the Nazi-Soviet Pact and its consequences is one way to start.  Understanding the reality of the Nazi-Soviet pact – nor the Soviet occupation that resulted from it – doesn’t minimise understanding of the Nazis. Quite the opposite. It unites more people in a better understanding and total rejection of totalitarian horror inflicted on anyone, as happened here in the Baltics. Telling people whose families experienced brutal Soviet terror that they are supporting Nazism if they talk about that history, as the author does, is an attempt to encourage neo-Nazism. Fortunately, most people reject that.

Jacobin should apologise for its atrocity denialism.