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Lessons in Freedom from an 80-Year Old Hunk of Bread
While Americans break bread for the holidays and blessings of this country, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty broke some interesting news about bread. Specifically, the discovery in Ukraine of an 80-year old hunk of “bread” dated to the Stalinist-era.
Oleksiy Sorokin, a music teacher, was arrested by Soviet authorities and sent to the gulag in 1941 for having saved bread as evidence of the disastrous man-made famine resulting from Soviet collectivization policies. Those policies, as the late historian Robert Conquest documented, deliberately sought to annihilate (through death or deportation) Ukraine’s peasant class and expropriate their private lands to create collective farms. In the end, millions perished.
This includes Sorokin, who died in a Siberian prison. A letter accompanying the bread articulates his clear purpose:
In the spring of 1933, hunger hit all the Kyiv residents so hard that we used anything we could find for food…Instead of bread, we baked flatbread from acorns and potato peels with other additions. I've left that kind of bread for future generations so they would know. How terrible this hunger is! Horrible!!!
When President Donald Trump next meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin, perhaps his staff should include some notes about Sorokin and his bread in the briefing book. His story is the perfect opening to these talking points:
First, anti-market, anti-democratic policies still don’t work. Soviet leaders, some more brutal than others, presided for more than 70 years over an ultimately failed experiment in communism to advance Russian greatness. But by the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, most citizens were only sharing equally in poverty. Sorokin’s story, finally in the light, shows the lengths Soviet authorities had been willing to go to cover up the mendacity of communism’s promise.
How is it, then, that more than any other event of the 20th century, President Putin still laments the Soviet Union’s demise? When will Russian leaders realize that the cause of greatness would be better served by unlocking that country’s vast human potential within an innovative, open, rules-based, market-oriented society? Instead, the country remains best known for its corruption, disregard for individual rights, and power grabs both near and far.
Second, and speaking of power grabs, leave Ukraine alone. For all its flaws, Ukraine continues to inch its way toward democracy. Freedom House considers the country “partly free” today, in part due to sustained, widespread corruption and pressures on independent journalism. But time and again the people of Ukraine have made clear their vision for a free, peaceful, prosperous, and European-oriented society. And time and again Russia has gotten in the way.
Unfortunately, this past month has been no exception. Within a span of days in November, Russia seized Ukrainian ships and confirmed the positioning of surface-to-air missiles in Crimea along the Ukrainian border. A series of Russian cyberattacks on official Ukrainian targets appears to have occurred around the same time.
What constitutes greatness in the minds of Russian leaders has baffled me for years. Bullies aren’t great. They are weak and scared. And, really, they aren’t leaders at all.
Now, Oleksiy Sorokin—he was a great leader. He lifted spirits with the beauty of music. He risked and ultimately gave his life to preserve truth for future generations. And today, let’s hope he’s breaking bread in heaven and smiling for a mission finally accomplished.
Amanda Schnetzer serves as Fellow, Global Initiatives at the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas, Texas.
Previously, Amanda served as Director Global Initiatives after serving as founding director of the Human Freedom Initiative. In this role, she was responsible for developing innovative research, programmatic, and policy efforts to advance societies rooted in political and economic freedom and to empower women to lead in their communities and countries.
Amanda has twenty years of experience in the international arena and a background in public policy research and analysis, public affairs, and management of diverse, high-level stakeholders. As senior fellow and director of studies at Freedom House in New York, Amanda guided research for the organization’s definitive studies of freedom. She began her career at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, supporting research on U.S. foreign policy and international politics. Amanda is a published writer and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She holds degrees from Georgetown University and Southern Methodist University, where she graduated Phi Beta Kappa.Full Bio