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.

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