Stalin’s systematic slaughter by famine and control of movement of more than ten million people was the worst mass atrocity in Europe before World War II.
In November 1932, Joseph Stalin launched a campaign of terror against the farmers of the Ukraine to force them into joining a system of collective farming. The peasants, especially the owners of small farms, often referred to as the kulaks, opposed the plan for collective farming, so Stalin decided to starve them into submission by taking away their grain, their main source of food. Millions died from starvation in the year that followed.
In the aftermath of the Communist Revolution of 1917, peasants seized land from the owners of the big farms and Lenin allowed them to do this. He saw a period of small-scale free enterprise as a useful intermediate stage on the path to dictatorship. This stage went on for some time and farmers continued to work their land for profit. After Lenin died, Stalin came to power and, by the end of the 1920s, he decided it was time to abolish all private ownership of land and establish collective farms.
This decision was part of a much bigger plan to double the nation’s industrial output, a plan that was fully realized by 1932 at a time when the Western World’s economies were in disarray due to the collapse of the world’s stock markets. Stalin’s plan required total control of the country’s agricultural resources so that he could get adequate food supplies for the busy industrial cities at low prices, not the prices charged by the farmers.
The focus of his plan was the Ukraine where the best agricultural land of the nation was found and where he soon encountered the strongest opposition. The small-scale farmers, the kulaks, were determined to retain possession of their farms, and when they saw that Stalin was determined to create collective farms they decided to resist.
They killed off all their stock for food and held back as much of their grain crops as they could. In less than a year these moves began to starve the cities of their food supplies and Stalin’s drive for industrialization was threatened. In the two or three years before 1932 about twelve million new workers had joined the industrial enterprises around Moscow and farther east and most of these additional workers came from rural areas. Stalin felt he had to take drastic action.
Tensions between Russia and Ukraine have a long history. Historically, they were separate countries and after the Communist Revolution of 1917, which was a Russian revolution, Lenin was determined to make sure that Ukrainians supported the new dictatorship in Moscow. As early as 1918 a quarrel involving some Ukrainian farmers led to a response along the following lines from Lenin: These kulaks must be mercilessly suppressed. Find a hundred of their richest and hang them.
Publish their names as a warning to others. Stalin’s campaign took forms far worse than Lenin ever envisaged and it became even more violent after an incident in the Kremlin during the November 1932 anniversary celebration of the 1917 revolution. In the course of the evening his young wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, criticized Stalin publicly, an unthinkable act in that society at that time.
The reason for her criticism arose from her contacts with students who had been forcibly sent to the Ukraine to help with collectivization. Stalin had permitted her to study textiles at a technical school and there she met students returning from the Ukraine. She reported what she heard to Stalin—the mass terror, starvation, the bands of orphaned children begging for bread, even cannibalism. One student reported that he had to arrest two men who were selling corpses.
Alliluyeva was anxious to do what she could to alleviate the suffering and when she saw that her husband was not interested she criticized him in front of his closest colleagues. She did not know that Stalin was well aware of all that was happening and had deliberately instigated it. He told her she had been collecting gossip, that these stories were all lies. Determined to prevent news of the atrocities reaching the rest of the country he immediately arranged for the execution of all the students who had been working in the Ukraine.
Alliluyeva knew at once that she had violated the code of secrecy surrounding Ukrainian matters when she spoke out in the Kremlin. Shortly afterward she was found dead, shot either by her own hand or that of another’s. The evening’s celebration ended abruptly. Later, all who had been in attendance were shot except for one young woman who happened to visit the party for a short time on an errand, unknown to Stalin, and who was able to leave quickly after the news of Alliluyeva’s death.
Many more executions followed. Stalin’s whole character seemed to change. He acted in the most violent way against the slightest opposition from any- one. He intensified the campaign against the kulaks in a way that can best be described as extermination.
Stalin’s drive to complete collectivization of farms was speeded up. The slightest opposition meant either instant death or banishment to Siberia. The quantity of grain to be given to the government was suddenly doubled at a time when the existing quota was at the starvation level. What was left for the people of the Ukraine was insufficient to sustain life. Any who tried to hold on to grain and hide it were also killed.
Military units assisted by the secret police searched homes and the areas around them and shot anyone found guilty. These military units also guarded the government’s quota of grain, stored locally in elevators. Within one month of the incident in the Kremlin, Stalin instituted a new passport system in order to keep tight control of everyone living in the Ukraine, especially to prevent starving peasants going elsewhere in search of food. Those who tried to leave without permission were shot.
Other rules accompanied the passport decree. Not only was a Ukrainian unable to leave his territory to look for the essentials of life, he was not permitted to leave the collective farm and seek work in the big industrial enterprises without permission from the local party official. The high death rate and the large numbers that had been banished to Siberia left the collectives with a shortage of labor. No party official would allow a worker to leave for the city.
Alongside the needs of labor were the demands from Stalin to maintain secrecy about the devastation that had occurred and these demands were best met by isolating the Ukraine. Both the Ukrainian peasant as well as the former kulak, the owner of a small farm, had become serfs with no rights and no ownership of anything, just like the old days under the czar.
The New York Times reporter in Moscow in 1932, Walter Duranty, described the passport laws as popular and valuable in his dispatches to the United States. While he recognized that Westerners would see them as a shocking infringement of individual rights and freedom, in his view the Soviet worker sees them as a vigorous step toward the improvement of living conditions. Duranty, in his reports, stressed the value of the passports for preventing large numbers of agricultural workers leaving their communities.
That was exactly why they were introduced by Stalin, but Duranty failed to include the real reason, to prevent starving peasants finding food. In his reports to the New York Times he goes so far as to identify some of these people. He lists some as class enemies, such as kulaks who are opposed to the good work being done by the government. This was the kind of reporting that gave him a Pulitzer Prize, yet at that very time he knew that many millions had already lost their lives due to the forced famine.
Duranty blamed the famine stories of 1932 on people who were hostile to the Soviet Union and wanted to prevent the United States from recognizing the new Communist Government. Whatever may have been his motives in falsifying facts the results were very favorable to Stalin and he was duly rewarded with special privileges not granted other correspondents. His reports carried a lot of weight in the United States because of the newspaper he represented.
When, a short time later, the United States recognized the Soviet Union as the authentic government of the country, Walter Duranty’s news reports were described as enlightening and dispassionate. The worst case of falsification came later, in the 1940s, when Hollywood produced the film “North Star,” a Soviet collective farm run by well-fed happy peasants.
In the reality of 1932, village after village saw their infrastructures taken away as part of Stalin’s method of total destruction. Churches were set on fire because they were symbols of the old Russia, a relic of the past that might compete with the new Russia if left standing. Bureaucrats from the Communist Party were put in charge of huge farms, deciding what to plant and where, what machinery to buy and how to use it, all without any expertise.
The only sources of wisdom for this work were either dead or in Siberia. The inefficiency of the new system and its new managers, especially in the short term while the collectives were being organized, meant less grain for the cities. Hence Stalin demanded higher quotas and the cycle of starvation and death deepened. Cannibalism appeared here and there.
Students from the Soviet School of Mines in Moscow and other colleges like the one attended by Alliluyeva were sent to assist in the collectives because there were no peasants to do the work. Each group was allocated to a particular village but, as they traveled through the Ukraine, they noticed that there were no people anywhere. Sometimes they would arrive at a place that the map said was a village but nothing was there, only some bricks and weeds.
At one destination where they were expected to stay a group found only one young girl, the only survivor in the village. She was in a state of dehydration, barely alive, and beyond medical help. She was anxious to tell the students as much as she could. The only regular food they had for some time was a kind of pancake made from beet and cherry leaves. In other villages the students met similar devastation. Here and there they met individuals who were insane through hunger and were attacking anyone and everyone they met. Any student who reported in Moscow what he saw was immediately shot.
As hunger spread the violence increased. Whole villages were wiped out and their inhabitants shot at the slightest provocation. Hundreds of thousands were banished to Siberia to work in mines or forests. The slaughter could almost be termed a genocide because a whole ethnic group was seen as the enemy of the Soviet State. Millions died from starvation. The number is uncertain but many estimates give five million as the likely number, half of that number being children. It was similar to the Nazi Jewish Holocaust as far as numbers of people are concerned.
The reason the West knew so little about this holocaust compared with the German one is due to Stalin’s effective propaganda. No foreign correspondent was allowed to visit the Ukraine. He arranged special conducted visits for distinguished foreigners who were supportive of socialist ideas and made sure that they only saw what he wanted them to see. George Bernard Shaw, the well-known British playwright, was one of those. He returned to Britain and announced that reports of starvation and forced collectivization were, in his words, “nonsense.”
Certain villages with model collective farms were set up for the special visitors where everyone was well fed and well housed. Edouard Herriot, twice premier of France and also a strong socialist, spent five days in the Ukraine and stated that there was no famine there. Sir John Maynard Keynes, one of the world’s greatest economists of his time and an expert on Russian agriculture, visited the Ukraine and told everyone in Britain when he returned that reports of famines were totally unfounded.
Sidney and Beatrice Webb, British social scientists, spent a lot of time in the Ukraine in 1932 and afterward published a massive volume on their research. In it the peasants are described as greedy and cunning, subject to drunkenness and laziness. They are seen to be hostile toward the good work of a government that only wants to see resources shared equally by all. With allies like these Stalin made sure that the West knew little about the terror-famine, the name given to the catastrophe by Robert Conquest in his book The Harvest of Sorrow.