Famine in

Brian Moynahan
On December 27, 1929, six days after celebrating his fiftieth birthday in what Louis Fischer of The Nation called an "orgy of personal glorification," Stalin formally unleashed a new revolution. The country's grain-producing areas were to be collectivised at once; all kulaks were to be liquidated. "We must smash the kulaks, eliminate them as a class," he said.

On January 30, 1930 the Politburo approved a resolution On Measures for the Elimination of Kulak Households in Districts of Comprehensive Collectivisation. This document has not achieved the notoriety of the Final Solution though it yields nothing to it in terms of scale and malice. It divided the kulaks into three categories. Those in the first were to be shot or imprisoned; the second, including the families of the first, faced deportation; the third were to be expelled from the kolkhoz, the collective farm, and settled on marginal marsh or forest land. In practise, those in the third category could not meet the State grain procurement from poor land, and so they were deported too. The "most hostile and reactionary" kulaks were to be sent to concentration camps in "distant areas" of the far North.

The first arrests took place at the end of 1929. These were carried out by OGPU officers and normally involved the execution of former White soldiers who had believed themselves amnestied. Mass action began at the start of 1930. It involved hundreds of thousands of families on a scale too large for the OGPU, so that Party activists were drafted in from the towns.

The novelist Vasil Bykov lived in a Belorussian village too poor to have any recognizeable kulaks. But "dekulakisation" was compulsory: top-secret letters sent out in February 1930 gave "orientation numbers" of kulaks to be deported by region. "There shall be no oscillation, no concessions to right-deviationist attitudes and no pacifism," the directive warned in socialist babblespeak. Kulaks had to be found. So one family was deported because it owned a cow and a half; another because its mare had a foal; another because a woman relative helped with the harvest. A peasant with eight acres was forced to clear railroad tracks of snow. On his return, he found all his property seized apart from a kettle, a saucer, and a spoon. He was then sent lumbering in the far North. In some villages, a Party activist would arrive from the city, produce a pistol, and say that any peasant who refused to join the kolkhoz would be sent immediately to Siberia.

Kulaks sometimes spent weeks in the cars as they rolled slowly toward their place of deportation, stacked into cattle wagons or "Stolypin cars," windowless prison transports. The legs of some did not touch the floor for days, because they were so tightly packed that they hung suspended between each other. They were fed salt herring or dried carp, sometimes Sea of Azov anchovies, and then left for hours without water.

"And thus we set out," wrote Solzhenitsyn of his own experience in a Stolypin car, "and, entangled in other bodies, fall asleep to the clacking of the wheels without knowing whether we will see forest or steppe tomorrow." Sometimes they could judge from a snatch of sun whether they were being taken east or north. They were en route for use as slave labor in a vast new system of camps, controlled by an OGPU agency, the Chief Executive of Corrective Labor Camps. Its Russian acronymn was GULAG.

The camps had some 30,000 inmates in 1928. By 1931 the figure was above two million and climbing daily as the "white coal," as the OGPU guards called the kulaks, was delivered. "In sheer size, this non-recurring tidal wave (it was an ocean) swelled beyond the bounds of anything the penal system of even an immense state can permit itself," said Solzhenitsyn. Nobody bothered simply with the head of the family. "They burned out whole nests, whole families, from the start," he noted; "and they watched jealously to be sure that none of the children --- fourteen, ten, even six years old --- got away: to the last scrapings, all had to go down the same road, to the same common destruction."

Anything between a quarter and a third of the deportees died, many of them children. A saying was that "Moscow does not believe in tears." Any sadism could be visited on the kulak, for his "class essence" rendered him a sub-human to be eliminated en masse. "You do not lament the loss of hair of one who has been beheaded," said Stalin.

The Party claimed in the spring of 1930 that half of all peasant households had been collectivized. The effects were ruinous. A quarter of the cattle, sheep, and goats, and a third of the pigs in the Soviet Union were slaughtered in 1930. The great bulk of them were killed and eaten in February and March by peasants who were determined that they should not be given to the collectives. The most productive peasants were herded off as kulaks; the wastrels and idlers who denounced them flourished; the surviving middle peasants, cowed and sullen, were in no mood to exert themselves for the State. Total collapse threatened at the start of the spring sowing season. On March 2, 1930, Stalin wrote an article in Pravda under the headline "Dizzy with Success."

Stalin ended the drive in a secret circular in the spring of 1933. The victory of the collective farm system was now won, he said, "which makes it possible, as a rule, to stop the use of mass deportations and sharp forms of repression in the countryside." By that time two-thirds of peasants had been subjected to the second serfdom; in the grain-growing areas, 90 per cent had been stripped of ownership and toiled on collectives. Special treatment was meted out to regions which Stalin suspected of nourishing nationalism. Worst among them was the Ukraine, which suffered a terrible ordeal by deportation and starvation.

In 1931, 7.7 million tons of grain was demanded by the State from a Ukranian harvest which collectivization had brought down to 18 million tons. This left the peasants on near-starvation rations. In July 1932, Stalin served a death sentence. He again ordered 7.7 million tons to be delivered to the State. By now, the ravages of collectivization had reduced the harvest to a mere 14.7 tons. The demand, even when eventually reduced to 6.6 million tons, condemned millions to death by starvation.

Requisitioning gangs of Communist activists, armed with steel rods up to ten feet long, swarmed over the Ukraine. "They searched in the house, in the attic, shed, and cellar," a victim recalled. "Then they went outside and searched in the barn, pig pen, granary, and straw pile...."

Crude watchtowers were put up in the fields, posts with a hut of wood and straw atop them. Here guards armed with shotguns would look out for snippers; those who were driven by hunger to cut off ears of corn with scissors. Those who were caught got a minimum of ten years under the Law of Seven-eighths; some were shot. One Kharkov court issued fifteen hundred death sentences in a month; a woman was given a ten-year sentence for cutting one hundred ears of corn from her own plot, two weeks after her husband had died of starvation.

The remaining chickens and pigs were eaten in the early winter of 1932. Then the dogs and cats went. "It was hard to catch them," wrote Vasily Grossman. "The animals had become afraid of people and their eyes were wild. People boiled them, but were left with tough veins and muscles. And from their heads they made a meat jelly." Only 4.7 million tons of grain had been delivered by the end of 1932. A new levy was announced. A further 17,000 activists were drafted into the political departments of Machine Tractor Stations, and 8000 into farm political departments. They made no difference; there was nothing left to take. Scapegoats, agricultural "wreckers," had to be found to explain the shortfall. Meteorologists were arrested for issuing false weather forecasts to damage the harvest. Veterinarians were shot for sabotaging livestock. Agronomists were accused of being kulaks and deported to Siberia.

Mass starvation started when the snow melted in March, 1933. People ate rats, ants, and earthworms. They made soup with dandelions and nettles. The New York Evening Journal correspondent visited a village twenty miles from Kiev. "In one hut they were cooking a mess that defied analysis," he wrote. "There were bones, pigweed, skin, and what looked like a boot top in the pot." People abandoned their villages. They squatted along rail tracks begging for crusts to be thrown from carriage windows, and inundated railroad stations. They followed troops on maneuvers. They crawled about on all fours in towns. Carts went through the streets of Kiev each morning collecting the corpses of those who had died in the night. The children had thin, elongated faces like dead birds.

Still the activists searched for grain; shot mothers who they found digging up potatoes; beat those who were not swollen up in the tell-tale sign of starvation to make them reveal their source of food. "We were realising Historical Necessity," wrote the activist Lev Kopolev. "We were performing our revolutionary duty. We were obtaining grain for the socialist fatherland. I saw women and children with distended bellies, turning blue, with vacant, lifeless eyes. And corpses --- corpses in ragged sheepskin coats and cheap felt boots; corpses in peasant huts, in the melting snow of old Vologda, under the bridges of Kharkov..."

This starvation was politically induced. There was food in the Ukraine, the old breadbasket of the Tsarist empire. It was piled, rotting and smoking from spontaneous combustion, in dumps guarded by OGPU machinegunners; it was stacked on groaning sidetables in canteens for Party officials; it was available for hard currency or precious metals in Torgsin stores, so that Roman Catholics in Zhitomir province, who buried their dead with gold rings and jewelry, now dug up the graves at night and survived; it was exported to earn foreign currency for the industrialization drive. Almost 2 million tons of grain were exported in 1932; in "Hungry Thirty-three," 1.7 million tons were sold on the international markets at knockdown, depression prices.

It was an offense, punishable at best by three to five years in a labor camp, to refer to the famine. A doctor who complained that his sister had died of hunger was sentenced to ten years "without the right of correspondence," the euphemism for a death sentence. The newspapers in the Ukraine, Arthur Koestler found, were full of pictures of smiling children whilst skeletons tottered in the streets. Word of the famine reached the West, through diplomatic reports and foreign correspondents, notably Malcolm Muggeridge of the Manchester Guardian, W.H. Chamberlin of the Christian Science Monitor, the New York Herald Tribune, and the New York Jewish paper Forwaerts. An international relief committee was set up under the archbishop of Vienna. It could do nothing, however, for the Soviet government denied that any famine was taking place.

--- From The Russian Century:
A History of the Last Hundred Years

(Pimlico - Random House)

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