Starving the Ukraine

J. Arch Getty

  • The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivisation and the Terror-Famine by Robert Conquest
    Hutchinson, 347 pp, £16.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 09 163750 3

The ‘peasant question’, in some form or other, was one that Russian governments faced for hundreds of years. Although it presented itself in many aspects, the essential problem was how to harness a dispersed and backward agriculture to state needs. In the 20th century a transformation-minded Bolshevik Party wrestled with peasant traditionalism, capitalism, low agricultural output and its own ideological preconceptions in an attempt to modernise along socialist lines. Economic development and industrialisation were at the top of the Bolshevik agenda after the Russian Revolution. To meet these goals it was necessary, among other things, to accumulate investment capital for expansion while assuring the kind of expanding food supply necessary for industrial revolution. At first, they tried to do all this within the framework of a mixed capitalist/socialist economy. From 1921 to 1929, after winning a bitter and devastating civil war, the Bolsheviks retreated temporarily from their goals of nationalisation and collectivisation and allowed private land ownership and a free-market agriculture. In 1929 the position changed abruptly when the party leadership decided on a radically leftist scheme involving the ‘liquidation’ of private trade, rapid and state-planned industrialisation, and collectivisation of agriculture. Today’s five-year plans and collective farms are the legacy of that late Twenties decision.

At that time, Stalin gave his backing to radicals in the Party who saw the mixed economy of the Twenties as an unwarranted concession to capitalism. These leftists, for whom Stalin was spokesman and leader, argued that the free market in grain confronted the state with an unpredictable, inefficient and expensive food supply. The need to pay peasants the market price for grain and to subsidise food prices for their urban working-class supporters meant that there were few funds left for the Bolsheviks to use for capital investment and industrial expansion. These radical activists, who became the shock troops of the voluntarist ‘Stalin Revolution’ which swept the Soviet Union in the Thirties, were concentrated in working-class and youth groups. Enthusiastic, determined and inflexible urban agitators descended on the countryside to destroy capitalism and build socialism according to their lights.

The collectivisation of agriculture from 1929 to about 1934 proceeded in several fitful campaigns characterised by confusion, lurches to left and right, and the substitution of enthusiasm, exhortation and violence for careful planning. Hard-line officials and volunteers forced reluctant peasants into improvised collective farms. Peasants resisted by slaughtering animals and refusing to plant, harvest or market grain. Neither side would give way. By 1934 the Stalinists had won, at least insofar as the collective farm system was permanently established, but they had paid a painful price: catastrophic livestock losses, social dislocation and, in some places, famine. Millions of people died from starvation, deportation and violence.

Robert Conquest, author of The Great Terror and many other works on the Soviet Union, provides an account of these events. He begins with an informative four-chapter survey of the peasant problem and of Bolshevik attempts to solve it before 1928. Part Two, ‘To crush the peasantry’, takes the story to 1930 and deals with the campaigns to dispossess the kulaks – the well-to-do peasants whom the Stalinists blamed for withholding grain – and to implement crash collectivisation. Part Three, ‘The Terror Famine’, discusses the tragic 1932 famine in the Ukraine and offers a controversial thesis: that the famine was intentionally organised and maintained by Stalin as a conscious act of genocide against the Ukrainian people.

Conquest’s hypothesis, sources and evidence are not new. Indeed, he himself first put forward his view two years ago in a work sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute. The intentional famine story, however, has been an article of faith for Ukrainian émigrés in the West since the Cold War. Much of Conquest’s most graphic description is taken from such period-pieces as The Golgoltha of the Ukraine (1953), The Black Deeds of the Kremlin (1953) and Communism the Enemy of Mankind (1955). Conquest’s book will thus give a certain academic credibility to a theory which has not been generally accepted by non-partisan scholars outside the circles of exiled nationalities. In today’s conservative political climate, with its ‘evil empire’ discourse, I am sure that the book will be very popular.

We might profitably wonder about the resurgence of the intentional famine story just now. It seems to be part of a campaign by Ukrainian nationalists to promote the idea of a ‘terror-famine’ in the West. Efforts are under way in several US States to place the Ukrainian genocide in school curricula, and a rather lurid film with the same name as Conquest’s book is making the rounds. The not-so-hidden political message behind the campaign coincides with long-standing political agendas of émigré groups: given that the Soviets could murder so many of their own people, might they not be willing to launch a destructive nuclear war in order to spread their evil doctrine? Because the Soviets are like the Nazis, we must avoid appeasement, maintain our vigilance – and stop deporting accused World War Two war-criminals to Eastern Europe.

Conquest does not conceal his political sympathies. For him, ‘the main lesson seems to be that Communist ideology provided the motivation for an unprecedented massacre of men, women and children.’ And although he is not concerned with stopping Nazi-hunting, he argues that his terror-famine lesson ‘cannot be shrugged off as part of the dead past’ but is relevant to today’s international political situation. He admiringly chronicles the survival and growth of Ukrainian nationalism over the past half-century, and even uses Ukrainian place-names rather than their more standardised Russian versions. Is it then understandable that he should omit any mention of the Ukrainian nationalist anti-Communists who pulled the triggers at the Babi Yar death-pits and elsewhere in co-operation with the SS, and the substantial numbers who chose to follow the Nazis out of the USSR at the end of the war? Of course, it would be wrong to tar all Ukrainians (or Soviets) with the same brush, or to deny the legitimacy of Ukrainian grievances and aspirations. At the same time, scholars are obliged to eschew polemic in favour of balanced analysis.

Robert Conquest is a seductive writer and master stylist. He skilfully interweaves stories of pain and suffering (the chapters on nomads and children are particularly heart-rending) with selected passages from official sources to produce a powerful effect. The most striking tales of atrocity are generally second-hand and unverifiable; they seem to compete with one another in their body-counts and depiction of savagery. Some of them are surely true. That notwithstanding, the relentless presentation of increasingly shocking scenes creates a special effect on the reader. Conquest’s book shows that Biafra and Ethiopia have not jaded our response to suffering, and as we read, our pain turns to anger and indignation: we despise those responsible and are ready to believe anything about them.

There is, incidentally, no doubt about responsibility for the disaster. Stalin must be primarily answerable as the leading advocate of excessive demands on the peasantry and the prime backer of hard-line collectivisation. But there is plenty of blame to go around. It must be shared by the tens of thousands of activists and officials who carried out the policy and by the peasants who chose to slaughter animals, burn fields and boycott cultivation in protest. Beyond fixing blame, however, the tempting conclusion of intentionality is unwarranted: the case for a purposeful famine is weakly supported by the evidence and relies on a very strained interpretation of it.

Conquest’s argument for a planned genocidal famine in 1932 runs as follows. Stalin had been informed by Ukrainian Bolsheviks, and therefore knew that his proposed grain requisitions would produce disaster. Later, when he knew what was happening there, he maintained his course because he regarded famine as a political weapon. The USSR’s strategic military food reserves were not committed to the Ukraine and its borders were sealed to prevent mass flight from and diversion of food to the Ukraine. According to Conquest, these measures constitute genocide. At first glance, the case seems convincing. Why otherwise would Stalin have set his demands so high? Why did the Ukraine have to be sealed off?

Yet there are reasons why the majority of scholars have so far rejected the theory. First, we actually know very little about the scale of the famine. Using census calculations of excess mortality, Conquest arrives at a figure of some five million victims of the Ukrainian famine. Yet such respected economic and demographic experts as S.G. Wheatcroft, Barbara Anderson and Brian Silver have examined the same census data and have suggested that the numbers Conquest supports are much too high. Additionally, Conquest notes that the famine varied greatly from place to place in the Ukraine. According to post-World War Two interviews with Ukrainian émigrés, some places saw little or no shortage of food. What regional or local differences could explain this? Were grain quotas arbitrarily set by local officials? Did high levels of peasant resistance or boycott contribute to famine? We do not know.

Second, Conquest has failed to establish a convincing motive for genocide. Certainly Stalin was capable of vindictive cruelty and cold-hearted repression, but those who knew and dealt with him during the war and after, and they include many Westerners, agree that he was not insane or irrational. Although he certainly meant to break peasant resistance to his brand of socialism, one must wonder why any national leader would deliberately imperil the country’s survival, its military strength and thus his own security, by methodically setting out to exterminate those who produced the food – and then stopping short of completing the presumed genocide. One can, of course, minimise the importance of these considerations. Maybe we do not need direct evidence for genocide, maybe a circumstantial case will do. Perhaps the famine was of the magnitude Conquest claims; maybe Stalin was insane. Even so, our knowledge of the sources suggests that a genocidal Stalin is unnecessary to explain the events of the famine as we know them. More convincing explanations can be advanced if we consider elements of the ideology, administrative practice and political sociology of early Stalinism.

By the late Twenties, many Bolsheviks shared a particular stereotypic view of peasants and their psychology. The muzhik was seen as a crafty and stubborn sort whose native cunning, greed and hostility to change were hidden beneath a veneer of amiability and innocence. The dubious accuracy of this image (which had precedents in Russian literature) is not the question. It is clear in any event that Stalin and the party majority which sided with him accepted it. It was therefore easy to believe that kulaks and other peasants were routinely understating the harvest, hoarding grain and sabotaging the national transformation. Accordingly, those who saw peasants as mendacious connivers got in the habit of demanding 90 per cent to get 50. Complaints and protests from below were interpreted as the misplaced whinings of those who had been taken in by peasant dissimulation. Stalin displayed this perception fairly clearly in a letter to the novelist Mikhail Sholokhov: ‘the esteemed grain-growers of your district ... -carried on an “Italian strike” (sabotage!) and were not loath to leave the workers and the Red Army without bread ... the esteemed grain-growers are not so harmless as they could appear to be from afar.’ Hardship in the Ukraine thus resulted, at least in part, from an inflexible theoretical and psychological conception which came to shape policy.

Conquest’s argument for the terror-famine assumes a situation in which the Stalin leadership was always able to realise its will in the country. We might first observe that nearly all the students of the Thirties agree that Stalin’s power was not absolute even in the upper leadership until the Great Purges of 1937-1939. Any intentional genocide would have been a joint project. Second, the more scholars learn about the Thirties, the more they are struck by the limits and inhibitions on Moscow’s exercise of power in the provinces. Kremlin orders, which were vague and frequently contradictory to begin with, were routinely stalled, transformed, ignored or even reversed as they made their way down the chain of command. From the works of Lynn Viola, Peter Solomon, Sheila Fitzpatrick and others, we now have much evidence on this bureaucratic compartmentalisation, inefficiency, and local autonomy in agriculture, administration of justice, party structure and industry. Stalinist bureaucracy of the Thirties was more disjointed than efficient. Conquest himself cites numerous instances in which local implementation of collectivisation differed sharply from Moscow’s presumed intentions. In some places, Stalin’s original projections for kulak expropriation were wildly exceeded. In others, local leaders minimised or even ignored Moscow’s calls for full collectivisation.

Within rather broad and vague parameters, local party leaders ran their satrapies largely as they saw fit. Moscow was far away and the infrequent inspectors, plenipotentiaries, and threats from Moscow could often be ignored. Officials protected each other, lobbied and negotiated for themselves and their regions in Moscow, and ruled their territories arbitrarily. In the Thirties, politics and policy were made at all levels. Nils Erik Rosenfeldt has recently said that Moscow did not control very many of the information ‘gateways’, as he puts it, below the top of the structure. Insofar as the Stalinists set the broad policies of the period, they are responsible for the consequent tragedy. But we can no longer be sure that what happened on the ground accurately reflected their plans. It was surely easier to ignite a social revolution – to give uncontrollable urban militants carte blanche in the countryside, to give a radical but unclear mandate to small-time local politicians and to exhort the populace to class struggle – than it was to predict or control the results.

As Conquest points out, the Stalinists did not always know what they wanted to do. In 1929 ‘it is not clear that the leadership yet understood what it had done.’ Subsequently, there were no clear directives on the disposition of kulaks, the collectivisation of livestock, or the organisation of collective farms. Moscow’s stated goals were frequently contradictory. In January 1930, Stalin ordered crash-collectivisation, only to put the brakes on sixty days later. In August 1932, Stalin demanded heavy repression of political enemies, but in May 1933 ordered an end to mass arrests and the release of large numbers of political prisoners. It is not hard to imagine the effect of this confusion and poor preparation on local life. One unfortunate collective farm, cited by Conquest, began in early 1930 by collectivising all farm animals and tools. In June 1930, it returned tools and animals to private hands. In November, it recollectivised the tools and the following June, the livestock.

Rigid ideological preconceptions, weak administrative centralisation, bad information and a surplus of enthusiasm combined with poor planning and irresponsible leadership to produce the disaster. Argument from analogy may help to show the weakness of Conquest’s genocide story. In 1941, Stalin was informed of Hitler’s imminent attack on the USSR, just as the Ukrainians had warned him of the possibility of a food shortage in 1932. In both cases he had reason to believe that his policies or dispositions would result in tragedy, yet chose to change nothing. His suspicious nature led him to disbelieve, in the one case, his own intelligence services and, in the other, the representations of untrustworthy local interests and to press on with his flawed and reckless strategies. Yet there is no more evidence for the claim that Stalin planned to destroy the Ukraine than there is for the theory that he wanted the Germans to invade.

Once the 1932 cataclysm unfolded, the Stalinists tried to cope with what they had done. As Conquest shows, some grain quotas were lowered, highly-prized grain exports were cut to 1 or 2 per cent of the harvest, and some grain reserves were opened. Although famine was limited to certain areas, food was not plentiful anywhere in the USSR in 1932. To contain the famine, to prevent runs on meagre food supplies in non-famine areas, and to keep disaster from overwhelming the entire country, the Ukraine is said to have been partially sealed off. (The evidence for this isolation comes exclusively from memoir sources.) Such a cold, hard way to cope with the famine would resemble Stalin’s 1941 decision to strip resources from Leningrad to save Moscow from falling to the Germans. His leadership contributed directly or indirectly to both disasters, and millions of Ukrainians and Leningraders paid the price for his policies and raison d’état. But it is a long and polemical leap from this to the assertion that Stalin deliberately brought about either holocaust.

It was the Stalinists who in the Thirties developed the theory of objective guilt to convict their purge victims legally. Lacking any proof of complicity or guilt on the part of the accused, Stalin’s prosecutors reasoned that objective effect was the same as subjective intent: if the objective result of your actions was to produce harm to the state, then it could be said that you had planned the actions and were guilty of premeditation. While it might seem a tempting bit of poetic justice to apply the same standards of proof to Stalin, especially given the magnitude of the suffering involved, to do so would again sacrifice historical accuracy and cloud the lines of responsibility in the name of political expediency.