Ukraine, Russia, and the Steppes of Grief
I began to write this essay in the Fall of 1990 while watching the infinite steppes of the Black Earth Region, which runs along the border of Russia and Ukraine. I was visiting the Soviet Union as part of a team of economists assessing its economic condition on behalf of several multilateral Western financial institutions.
The visit, the first of many, had been shocking for us. The communist social order was collapsing, and nobody knew what would replace it. The economy was disintegrating. The overall environment was one of decadence. The gigantic factories were obsolete; the farms primitive, modern services did not exist.
We had left Kiev that morning, taking the road to Moscow. The highway—a main artery linking the third largest city to the capital of the country—had turned into a two-lane road plagued with potholes. Most of the roads we crossed were unpaved and were impassable most of the year because of the rains. The best season for transit was winter, when the slush froze, providing a slippery but hard surface to drive on. The farms along those roads were very poor, even if the area is known as the region of the Black Earth because of the richness of its soil. The overall picture was one of misery—the worst of all miseries, that which springs in cold regions. The children walking to school, with their ragged clothes, reminded us of those in developing countries, except that here the cold was biting.
Beyond the economic inefficiencies and the dismal infrastructure, there was a disquieting presence growing larger inside our minds: the terrible cost in human lives and suffering that had underlain the communist social order. The terror instilled by decades of repression was visible in the eyes of the people we visited, in their doubts about telling the truth about the country´s situation, in their fear that Gorbachev’s liberalization could be just a trick to entice the enemies of the regime to incriminate themselves by speaking freely. Day by day, we got used to feel the old terror surrounding us wherever we went.
Early in the afternoon of that day, my colleagues decided to inspect a slaughterhouse, which I declined to do. Instead, I stood on my own, watching the steppes. It had been a glorious, sunny morning. At about 2 p.m., however, the sky turned gray and the cold sharper, chilling the bones. There was an ominous feeling to the steppes. I felt that the tragic history of Russia—the misery, the terror, the crimes—was playing before me in that sinister change. I had an impulse to take my notebook and ease myself into a stream of consciousness to unburden my impressions of that and the previous days. I sat on a little heap of stones and began to write.
The beauty of the Russian steppes is almost abstract. They are like symphonies of straight lines that crisscross each other at orthogonal angles. The limitless horizontal plane is green, mixed with the blackest earth that can be imagined. The vertical lines are the birches—thin, white, and splashed with leaves—which go up as straight as columns in a temple of infinite height.
Even if plain, the steppes are not boring. Subtly, they shift through the seasons, and even through the days, creating an amazing variety of effects of immensity. The eeriest of these is that produced by the diffuse light of cloudy winter days. In those days, light reflects at a wide angle on the snow and flows almost uniformly through the atmosphere, giving the same silver coloration to everything in sight. The horizon disappears, and one gets the impression of being on the inside of a rounded, infinite world where life always ends in the same place where it began, regardless of where it started, because all places look the same.
The beauty of the fields is at its peak during the Fall. In this season, there are days that start as radiant as they can be. There is an invigorating breeze, an atmosphere of vitality and gaiety in the immense extensions of the steppe. The birches dance with the wind, releasing cascades of colors with their leaves.
But then, as time goes on, the sky changes its color in an imperceptible way, and the breeze shifts its character. The sky turns gray and the breeze sinister. The trees keep on dancing with the wind, but rather than proclaiming the gaiety of life, they seem to be wailing out of a deep and permanent grief. Subtly, very subtly, a malefic presence chills the environment.
In those moments you can feel that the land gets red, that the blood spilled in the terrible tragedies of Russia springs out of the earth, creating turbid lakes that cannot be contained, neither in the past nor in the immensity of the plains. Here, in these fields, under the same gray sky and under the influence of this malefic wind, the people of this country committed some of the most horrible massacres of the century, and maybe of history. Peasants like those that today walk toward the highway, carrying their produce to sell to the passing motorists, chased and were chased in an orgy of killing and hatred. Others, other millions, walked around in the aimless wanderings of the starving, dropping dead here and there to the envy of the survivors.
The steppes should have been red, indeed. In 1932-33, five million peasants starved to death there, in the Black Region, right where I was. They did not die because their crops had failed. There was plenty of grain in their fields and elevators. They perished because they resisted the collectivization of agriculture, refusing to be packed in the newly created collective farms. The communists, wanting to set an example of the consequences of opposing their decisions, taxed in kind practically all the production of the Ukrainian peasants. To enforce collections, they took hold of the land plots and did not allow the peasants to take grain from their own properties to feed their families. Peasants who tried to do that during the night were executed summarily. Communist squads patrolled the rivers to prevent fishing. The squads did not allow the peasants to enter the cities, where food was available but only for the urban population. A good part of the grain produced by the victims rotted in railway stations, forgotten by the inefficient transportation system of the country. The rest was exported to get foreign exchange needed for the industrialization of the Soviet Union. During the period, Communist Party officials had special dining rooms, where food was plentiful and cheap. However, as a final twist of evil, when the famine reached its climax in the early spring of 1933, the Communists stopped giving food to the activists that had persecuted the peasants and let them starve to death too.
Forcing five million people to starve to death may have been the most shocking of the manifestations of the destructiveness of the Communists. Yet, the Soviet genocide went much beyond it. The magnitude of the tragedies that took place in the country was as staggering as the infinite character of the steppes. From 1930 to 1935, the Communists killed between ten and fifteen million people, jailed many more millions in inhumane concentration camps, and reduced the entire population to abject slavery. To estimate the death toll, these numbers should be added to the nine million people that died during Lenin’s tenure from 1917 to 1922, and to many more victims that perished in the Stalinist Terror of 1935-1940 and later.
But the Communists were not the only ones who had spilled blood in the plains I was contemplating. Less than a decade after the mass starvation of the peasantry, Hitler’s messengers, the German Nazi legions, passed through the steppes en route to the industrial heart of the Soviet Union, spreading their darkness throughout their limitless horizons. They were completely different from the Communist squads that had sprung among the Russian peasants to massacre each other. They rode standing tall in huge, seemingly invincible tanks and armored vehicles. The worst among them wore black uniforms with the emblem of the death’s head. Their guns set the Soviet Armies and the Communist squads in flight.
Many people in their path thought that, finally, civilization had arrived to liberate them. They were tragically disappointed. Shortly after they arrived, the Germans started their own genocide, assassinating, deporting, and torturing massively. Millions of ethnic Russians, Roma and Jews disappeared into grisly trains bounded for diabolical extermination camps. Like their neighbors who had been killed by the communists, now they were killed by the Nazis—victims to two ideologies that saw themselves as enemies to each other but were identical twins in their cold-blooded destructiveness.
Three years later, after suffering terrible defeats in the depths of the Soviet Union, the Nazis came back in their retreat, fighting in Irkutsk, very close to where I was, the largest tank battle in history. As the Nazis withdrew, the Communists came back, killing and deporting to Siberia millions of Soviet citizens they suspected had collaborated with the enemy. Here, in these steppes, as well as in thousands of kilometers in every direction, deep into the Soviet and Nazi infernos, children in those days were born to a life they could have never understood, opening their eyes just to see that the sun was setting into an endless night full of terrors.
But the steppes had not been the only place where the new ideologies unleashed this terrible destructiveness. Communism killed 65 million people in China and 20 million in the Soviet Union. It also killed 4 million in Cambodia and North Korea, 1.7 million in Africa, 1.5 million in Afghanistan, one million each in the Communist states of Eastern Europe and Vietnam, and 150 thousand in Latin America (mainly in Cuba). Altogether, Communism was accountable for almost 100 million deaths during the twentieth century. Adding to these the 25 million killed in the name of Nazism, the twentieth century left about 125 million fatal victims of these ideologies of destruction.
In the end, the evilness that the Nazis and Communists unleashed against their victims turned against the perpetrators. Nazi Germany destroyed itself in its suicidal confrontation with the rest of the world. Fifty years later, as I watched the steppes, the Soviet Union was collapsing under the weight of the social sclerosis that Communism had introduced in its society. The country was sinking in the mud of its bloody past.
Now, none of the victims makes any noise. But the clamor of their suffering is as permanent as the coming and going of the seasons. When listening to this silent clamor, the question comes to your mind: could this malefic spirit still be wandering the paths of this world?
I wrote three books on this question—one that was never published, in the early 1990s, and two that were published, one ten years later (The Triumph of the Flexible Society: Resistance to Change and the Connectivity Revolution (Praeger, 2003), and the third (In Defense of Liberal Democracy: What We Need to Do To Heal A Divided America (Imagine!, 2021), almost thirty years later.
Initially, I thought that the book would be about Russians and Germans. Very soon, however, I realized that cold-blooded destructiveness does not have nationality and can happen in any society, depending on the circumstances.
Destructiveness may emerge from technological innovations for a simple reason. Profound technological advances, while opening the road for a better future in the long run, are terribly disruptive in the short term. They render obsolete the capital accumulated in physical assets, in human knowledge and skills, and, even more fundamentally, in the shape of the institutions linking together the fabric of society. People who thought they had their future assured suddenly find that their skills have been turned obsolete by the new technologies or by the new styles of life derived from them. Activities that had been for decades the mainstay of an economy suddenly become unprofitable, either because their product disappeared or because, to be profitable, they must be relocated to another part of the world. Through all these disruptions, technological revolutions create political divisiveness just as they skew income distribution: they split societies between people who take immediate advantage of the change and those who lag in their adaptation to it. This brings about all kinds of economic and social disruptions including unemployment, negative turns in the distribution of income, bankruptcies, frequent financial crises, and depression. Life becomes unstable, the future unbearably uncertain.
Through these effects, rapid technological progress threatens the very foundations of social life: that subtle web of links that introduce order in our relationships with our fellow human beings, giving shape to what we call society.
The technological innovations of the Industrial Revolution elicited two main changes in the shape of social order. The first was economic. Before the revolution started, the economy was based on rigid regulations, issued by the local landlord or the national sovereign, as the case might be, and by the guilds that organized the urban economy by sector. This could be done because the pre-industrial economy was very simple. As the industrial revolution progressed, however, the complexity of economic relations increased in terms of the variety and volume of the inputs needed for industrial activities and the outputs they produced, and the size of the markets that were needed to sustain industrial activities. The focus of economic activity shifted from the local to the national and international. The vertical control of local and national governments of the feudal age was no longer practical. The dimensions of economic life that had been controlled in the previous decades and centuries by the sovereign—prices, wages, production volumes, imports, hiring, and firing—became the subject of private contracts between private parties. The economy became more a network of equals.
The second grand response to the challenges of the Industrial Revolution was the creation of the modern democratic system, which was also a substitution of horizontal mechanisms of social control for the traditional vertical structures that had assured the social order in the past. Thus, the Industrial Revolution tended to transform societies from their previously vertical shape to horizontal networks in their economic and political dimensions.
However, the disruptions of the transformation elicited a strong resistance to change among those left behind, which included people in all social classes. Such resistance took radical forms and led to chaos, terrorism, violent revolutions, and the installation of fundamentalist regimes trying to reassert the social order of the past on the new society that was emerging. In this conflict, the truly revolutionary ideology was liberal democracy. It aimed at replacing the vertical, absolutist regimes that had prevailed in the previous centuries throughout Europe with a new horizontal, democratic society in which the power would be held by the people rather than by a single individual or group. The other two—communism and Nazi-fascism—were mutations of the same absolutist regimes they aimed at replacing, only in a much worse version, that of totalitarianism. These regimes flourished in societies that resisted change until they broke under the sway of change and chaos overtook them. Chaos led to bloody revolutions, and these to tyrannies.
Thus, the cold-blooded destructiveness of the early decades of the twentieth century had its origins in the conflicts created by a technological revolution that destroyed the existing social order. As the Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci wrote: The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear. The conflict is frequently portrayed as one between three forces: liberal democracy, communism, and Nazism, or between the center and the extreme left and the extreme right. In fact, it was between the horizontal order, represented by liberal democracy, and the vertical orders, represented by communism and Nazism.
The conflict between horizontal and vertical orders to define the regime that would rule the industrializing societies went on for more than a hundred and fifty years, from the third quarter of the eighteenth century to the middle of the twentieth. In that period, internal revolutions and external wars erupted in a pattern of violence that escalated into a thirty-year episode of collective madness, perhaps the worst in history: World War I, the establishment of communism in the Soviet Union, the Holocaust, and World War II.
This transition ended at the end of the latter. For more than half a century, the world enjoyed economic and political stability. New inventions came on stream, but they did not disrupt the social order, which had adapted to the needs of industrial societies. The uncertainties of the first half of the century seemed things of the past. The answer to the question I had posed myself in the steppes seemed to be a rotund no. Liberal democracy had won its conflict with the old autocracies, communism and Nazism.
And then, when I was almost finishing my book, I realized that a new technological revolution was starting in the early 1990s, and was beginning to create conditions similar or worse than those that led the world to the explosions of the early twentieth century. As happened 100 years ago, one social order was dying, and a new one, more horizontal, was struggling to emerge. In the struggle that is starting, the conflicting sides, again, are based on horizontal and vertical conceptions of society. As in the early twentieth century, the vertical vision is associated with resistance to change and destructiveness.
The new technological revolution was created by the marriage of computers and telecommunications. While the Industrial Revolution had multiplied the power of the muscle, the new Connectivity Revolution is multiplying the power of the mind, putting people in closer contact than ever in history—so close that it is disrupting the entire institutional setting created to channel human relations during the industrial age.
Internet, the flagship of the new revolution, is a mirror giving a distant image of the shape of the social order of the future, or, more accurately, of the challenges that societies will have to surmount to keep social order in place. Internet has become one of the world’s most important institutions. Yet, it has no hierarchy, no central server, no authority deciding on what goes in it. The value added of the Internet is in its capacity to put people in touch with each other, on a horizontal basis, equal to equal. Internet is the perfectly horizontal society.
As in the early twentieth century, income and wealth is concentrating on the people who take advantage of the new technologies, the economy has become unstable, and new inventions are destroying the predictability that life had in the second half of the twentieth century. Could these circumstances, in many dimensions identical to those prevailing 100 years ago, bring back the evil spirit that desolated the world in those years?
I wrote my first book developing these ideas in the early 1990s. Publishers found the draft interesting but thought that people were not in the mood to read about crises and the possible return of destructiveness. On the contrary. People were very optimistic because of the fall of communism. As expressed by Francis Fukuyama in The End of History and the Last Man, people thought that the history of the confrontation between liberal democracy and authoritarian regimes had been won, forever, by liberal democracy.
Moreover, I had listed in my book six symptoms as predictors of a crisis of confidence in liberal democracy: a drastic concentration of income and wealth distribution, emerged because some people take advantage of the new technologies faster than others; an increase in the frequency and gravity of financial crises, caused by the instability of rapid changes; a surge of discontentment with liberal democracy, which is blamed for these problems; a subsequent emergence of populism as a response to this discontentment; a serious fragmentation of societies, caused by the different visions of the new society that should emerge from the transformation; and, at the very end, a major, global war in which major powers incapable of adjusting diverted their frustration into a war of aggression—like the combination of the first and the second world wars. None of these symptoms were present at the time. Certainly, the distribution of income and wealth had concentrated in the previous decade, but this could have been the result of a temporary deviation. And it was only one symptom of six. Besides, people were not convinced that we were living through a technological revolution. I put my draft away. I thought that I would take him back if more of these symptoms appeared in our world.
Then the symptoms began to appear, solidly, one by one. At the turn of the millennium, the growing concentration of income and wealth had been visible for 20 years. Discontent with globalization was rising and a major bubble had collapsed on the stock exchange. I redrafted my book and submitted it for publication. This was The Triumph of the Flexible Society: Resistance to Change and the Connectivity Revolution (Praeger, 2003).
Then, in the aftermath of the 2008 crisis, the United States and several developed countries began to show symptoms of deep fragmentation, the attacks on liberal democracy and capitalism became increasingly frequent, many illiberal democracies emerged in many parts of the planet and signs of populism became quite visible in developed countries. I started to write the third book, In Defense of Liberal Democracy: What We Need to Do To Heal A Divided America (Imagine!, 2021). It was becoming increasingly clear that our times were showing eerie similarities with those that preceded the big tragedies of the twentieth century.
And then, the scariest of the symptoms of incoming destructiveness just emerged in early 2022. Eerily, it materialized in that epicenter of the destructiveness of the 1930s and 1940s: the steppes that run along the border of Russia and Ukraine. There, on February 24, 2022, a European war exploded for the first time since 1939.
Not surprisingly, the aggressor, Russia, is a very rigid society, and began this war aiming at recovering what its leader, Vladimir Putin, saw as a golden imperial past. It was the typical response of a rigid society to a technological revolution that is pointing toward a more horizontal order. Unable to adapt to the wave of changes, Russia is trying to force its return to an idealized past, an Imperial structure like the one that characterized the Tsarist Russia of the nineteenth century and the Soviet Union of the twentieth.
Putin is facing a reality that is like those faced by the last Tsars and the last Soviet leaders: in both cases, Russia was losing power relative to the Western powers, the former because it was lagging them in industrialization, and the latter because they were lagging in the new technological revolution and its economic and military consequences. Putin was unable to modernize Russia to integrate to the new horizontal, connected world, and reverted to the same imperialist policies that the Tsars put in place to compensate for his failure to lead Russia to become a modern industrial, connected, democratic state.
Thus, rather than integrating into the new horizontal, decentralized world, Russia has opted for a vertical, authoritarian regime, in search for a past that cannot and should not be revived. Russia started the Ukrainian war as a manifestation of the same resistance to change toward a horizontal society that prompted Imperial Germany and Tzarist Russia to adopt their destructive regimes in the early twentieth century. With this war, all the symptoms that led to the cold-blooded destructiveness of the Industrial Revolution are back. The olympic contempt shown by Putin and his armies toward the most elementary rights of the individual can only be compared with that displayed by Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Hitler. They all thought that the most horrible crimes were legitimate if they were conducive to meet their destructive objectives. As Lenin wrote:
“Blood? Let there be blood, if it alone can turn the grey-white-and-black banner of the old tyrannical world to a scarlet hue, for only the complete and final death of that world will save us from the return of the old jackals.” 
Lenin called his enemies jackals and thought that they didn’t deserve to live. Putin has shown that he thinks alike. He says that he is liberating the Ukrainians when he is killing them. He is attacking civilians purposely. He has bombarded buildings adjacent to nuclear power plants. He has threated the entire world with a nuclear apocalypse. He has hinted that he won´t stop in Ukraine. He will go for the reconstruction of the old Russian Empire. These actions are early manifestations of the same cold-blooded destructiveness that turned the world of 100 years ago red.
In this way, all the complications of our modern world, plus this war, have provided a definitive answer to the key question I posed to myself thirty years ago, whether the spirit that caused the terrible tragedies of the twentieth century could be walking down the paths of our world. The answer is yes. It is already around us.
But Putin is just a manifestation of the problem. Even if he is dethroned and Russia loosens its grip on Ukraine, the confrontation between horizontal and vertical modes of social order will keep on going, and not only in authoritarian societies, but also within the most horizontal of our societies. Up until today, many people have taken for granted that they will retain their freedoms and their rights even if they destroy the democratic institutions and deride the liberal principles that support the rule of law. All our developed societies, prime among them the United States, have fallen under a spirit of divisiveness that could destroy their essence. This will continue unless most of the population realizes that they will lose their country if they do not give unity priority in our times.
Thus, as in the early twentieth century, a confrontation between authoritarian and liberal democratic ideas is taking place to define the society that will emerge from the new technological revolution. As in the old times, the road to harmonious adaptation passes through sticking to the principles that underpin the horizontal social order, which preserves individual freedom and, for this reason, is flexible. As in the old times, countries sticking to the verticality of authoritarian regimes, will eventually collapse in chaos and will go from this to destructive tyrannies. Certainly, the sweeping power of change will require the change of many liberal democratic institutions. Yet, when engineering those changes, the values of a liberal democracy should be maintained. The alternative, as shown by Putin, is terrible.
 For a chilling recount of the Ukrainian tragedy see Robert Conquest, The Harvest of Sorrow, Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine, Oxford University Press, New York, 1986.
 Courtois, Stéphane; Werth, Nicolas; Panné, Jean-Louis; Paczkowsky, Andrzej; Bartosek, Karel; Margolin, Jean-Louis, The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1999.
 Lenin in an article written for Krasnyi Mech (The Red Sword, No. 1, August 18, 1919), a weekly published by the Cheka, the original KGB. Quoted in Clark, Lenin, pp. 378.