Thinking About the Holodomor: Part III

Was the Holodomor of 1932 and 1933 deliberate? The question of Soviet intentions with regard to the famine in Ukraine and elsewhere has been a fraught one for scholars. As I said in my first post in this series, at least one scholar reacting to the recent book on this subject by Anne Applebaum found Red Famine to be a valuable account but demurred from Applebaum’s conclusion that, indeed, the catastrophe was not merely collateral damage from the Kremlin’s policy of collectivization.

Applebaum shows, as did Robert Conquest before her, that the famine, and death of millions, were the outcome that Josef Stalin and his minions had in mind. “Starvation was,” she writes, “the result of the forcible removal of food from people’s homes; the roadblocks that prevented peasants from seeking work or food; the harsh rules of the blacklists imposed on farms and villages; the restrictions on barter and trade, and the vicious propaganda campaign designed to persuade Ukrainians to watch, unmoved, as their neighbors died of hunger.”

In addition, she says that Stalin sought to “physically eliminate the most active and engaged Ukrainians . . . He understood the consequences of both the famine and the simultaneous wave of mass arrests in Ukraine as they were happening. So did the people closest to him, including the leading Ukrainian economists.”

I quoted earlier from a review of Red Famine by Russia scholar Sheila Fitzpatrick. Reviewing the book for the Guardian, Fitzpatrick restated what she argued in her 1994 book, Stalin’s Peasants: that the Soviet dictator did not set out to kill millions but only to extract the maximum amount of grain from them. In a concession to Applebaum, Fitzpatrick suggests that her argument is true for the policy of collectivization in the Soviet Union in general, but that things might be different when looking at collectivization in a particular region like Ukraine.

The historical record as laid out by Applebaum will help us here.

The Path to Famine

The collectivization of agriculture in the Soviet Union began in earnest in 1927 with the policy of dekulakization, which ramped up in 1929. Under this policy, the authorities identified, deported, and sometimes murdered peasants who were designated enemies of the regime. Often these were peasants with the financial means to hire and pay a field hand, or even those who owned a few livestock. The policy was a way for the Communist Party to weaken any real or potential resistance to collectivization on the part of those who had private property at stake—or actually on anyone’s part. (It was a flexible label that was often applied to Ukrainians with few means.)

At the outset of the campaign, there were show trials for domestic enemies standing in the way of the collectivization campaign along with mass deportations to regions like Siberia and present-day Kazakhstan. The “25-thousanders” (urban activists) were sent into villages to harass and harangue the population, and to recruit locals who would be willing to assist in collectivization and, importantly, in the extraction of grain from the villages.

The aspect that Applebaum adds to previous histories is that dekulakization also included an attack on the social and moral order of the countryside in general. Holidays were banned, churches assaulted—anything related to the old ethical order of the region was targeted for destruction. (All of this, by the way, is painfully evident in reading the firsthand accounts in Semen Pidhainy’s 1953 collection The Black Deeds of the Kremlin, which I mentioned in my second post.)

A crucial moment would come, however, in 1930, when the Politburo decided to double down on its collectivization targets. The new goal was the “liquidation of the kulaks as a class.” When some Ukrainian party leaders sent letters to Moscow Central detailing the disastrous results of these policies, Stalin was unmoved. On August 7, 1932 the Central Executive Committee and Soviet of People’s Commissars issued to the entire USSR an edict that was “draconian, even by Soviet standards,” writes Applebaum. The theft of even small amounts of food could henceforth be punished by up to 10 years in a labor camp (a “tenner”). Applebaum reports that within six months of the issuance of the edict, over 100,000 people received tenners.

Activists and raiding parties continued to stream into the Ukrainian countryside and demand that peasants surrender their grain—along with any other food they had. And the Politburo continued to assert that any requisition failures could be attributed to Ukrainian nationalism and enemies of the Soviet experiment. Applebaum notes that the number of Gulag inmates almost doubled between 1932 and 1934.

In January 1933, the borders of Ukraine were closed and an internal passport system strictly enforced. That same month, Stalin sent a telegram to Communist Party leaders in Ukraine requiring that the August 7 diktat on theft also be applied to those peasants who were merely hiding grain.

Perhaps surprisingly, although some historians treat this telegram as a kind of smoking gun, Applebaum demurs. “Stalin never wrote down, or never preserved, any document ordering famine,” she notes. But the telegram did, she says, force peasants to choose one of two paths: “They could give up their grain reserves and die of starvation, or they could keep some . . . and risk arrest, execution or the confiscation of the rest of their food—after which they would also die of starvation.”

That Stalin and his associates fashioned and implemented these policies that left the peasants in this lose-lose situation cannot be disputed. That fact renders it immaterial whether or not Stalin expressly ordered the famine in some single verbal or written diktat. What Conquest wrote in this regard in The Harvest of Sorrow (1986) sums things up with admirable clarity and terseness: “The verdict must be that [Stalin and his associates] knew that the decrees of 1932 would result in the famine, that they knew in the course of the famine itself that this indeed had been the result, and that orders were issued to ensure that the famine was not alleviated, and to confine it to certain areas.” Applebaum’s account is consistent with this verdict, and she adds a wealth of evidence to suggest that the motive was indeed the destruction of Ukrainian nationalism and punishment of the Ukrainian people.

The lose-lose dilemma for the individual Ukrainian man or woman that Applebaum identified, brings us close to the core of the terror-famine. It is why her willingness to take firsthand accounts seriously is so important. She knows that it is these accounts that lend sympathetic depth to the events. By sympathetic, I don’t mean creative and compassion-inducing but rather the capacity to bring readers as close to what happened 85 years ago as possible—to enter into the choices and sufferings of those who experienced them. This is all the more important when attempting to depict events that can only strike us as far beyond the pale of ordinary human experience.

“There Is No Starvation in the Soviet Union”

One of the longer essays collected in The Black Deeds of the Kremlin, “What Happened in Hadyach County,” covers many the events in Applebaum’s account. Author S. Lozovy describes in vivid detail how “red columns” were formed to extract grain from the peasants in his part of Ukraine. In October 1932, 60 farm wagons full of the toughest men from various villages would arrive at peasant homes. The men would alight and take the grain, and the farms would be subsequently decorated with banners proclaiming that all of these patriotic farmers had voluntarily given their harvest to the state.

During the height of the famine in the spring of 1933, dread and desperation filled Lozovy’s district. On March 28, he was shocked by the news that Myron and Maria Yemets had resorted to cannibalism. Their neighbors smelled meat and noticed smoke coming from the chimney so they went to investigate. The couple had killed and eaten their children but argued that in staying alive, they would be able to have children again. Even beyond these horrifying acts, try to imagine what it would take to enable a person to enter into this train of thinking in the first place.

Olexa Woropay’s The Ninth Circle (published in London in the late 1940s and in the United States in 1983) tells the story of how Panas Tymofievych, an agricultural expert, had to send reports to the Uladiv Machine and Tractor Station near Vinnytsia to give data on the progress of the collective farms. These reports were sent by messenger. There being no horses left, the messenger was sent on foot but, as he was so weakened by starvation, he died on the way. Tymofievych was summoned by the political officer and asked to justify having sent a sick messenger.

“There are no fit ones,” Tymofievych explained. “The whole village is starving.” The political officer said, “What does this mean ‘is starving’? There is no starvation in the Soviet Union. Now remember, you are listening to rumors.”

Woropay writes that “After this outburst, he bent his head over the table, hiding his eyes like a thief. In a softer way he added: ‘Get out. And look here, mind you keep your mouth shut’.”

The performative lie coupled with the bent head and thief-like eyes are extremely revealing. No wonder it has taken authors with literary sensibilities to be fully able to convey the peculiar horrors of and fundamental truths about life under Soviet communism. Geoffrey A. Hosking, who reviewed The Harvest of Sorrow in the Times Literary Supplement when it came out 32 years ago, noted that “Soviet novelists have risen to the challenge better than the historians.” This was no knock against Conquest—quite the opposite. It was the poet and historian Conquest who had, as Hosking pointed out, taken so seriously the penetrating account of the terror-famine in Everything Flows (1970), the book that Vasily Grossman completed after the authorities suppressed his 1960 master work, Life and Fate. Applebaum follows this practice as well, and it shows.

What Boris Pasternak wrote about Stalin’s massive purge of Communist Party members throughout the USSR between (roughly) 1936 and 1939 applies equally well to the terror-famine. Here is a passage from Doctor Zhivago:

To conceal the failure people had to be cured, by every means of terrorism, of the habit of thinking and judging for themselves, and forced to see what didn’t exist, to assert the very opposite of what their eyes told them.

People not only had to dehumanize those whom they terrorized; they had to rid themselves of their own capacity for independent thought and judgment. The horrors of the 20th century like the Holodomor must be revisited to remind ourselves of our strange capacity to leave our humanity behind. For this we depend on authors like Robert Conquest and Anne Applebaum who have the analytical rigor, moral clarity, and depth of vision to attend to the peculiar evil of communism.