Commentary Magazine

The Harvest of Sorrow, by Robert Conquest

Starvation as Policy

The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine.
by Robert Conquest.
Oxford. 384 pp. $19.95.

The Harvest of Sorrow qualifies as a monumental contribution toward an understanding of the modern totalitarian state. Its subject is one of the most shameful chapters in Soviet history: Stalin’s war against the peasants. Altogether, upward of fifteen million people died as a result of the forced collectivization campaign instituted during the early 1930’s. Yet this tragic episode has remained obscured in a thick fog of official Soviet lies and the indifference of the West. Even among those who abhor his brutal rule, Stalin is much more likely to be remembered as the man who terrorized his fellow Communists than as the “killer of peasants,” a description which was to seal the doom of the poet who wrote these words, Osip Mandelstam. The Harvest of Sorrow ranks as a significant achievement simply by presenting a thoroughly researched account of this neglected story.

What further elevates the study is the illumination it casts on Communism’s irreconcilable hostility to the independent farmer. While Stalin willingly assumed the role of executioner in the drive to destroy the traditional Russian village, it was the early Bolsheviks’ profound loathing for the peasant way of life which paved the way for the use of starvation as the ultimate expression of Soviet power. The Communists detested the peasants for two reasons. First, the peasants were perceived as the major cause of Russian backwardness. As Maxim Gorky complained, “the fundamental obstacle in the way of Russian progress” was the “deadweight of illiterate village life.” The second and more important reason was the peasant’s attachment to private property. Thus, to Lenin, the peasant was “fiercely and meanly individualistic,” and therefore an impediment to socialism.

By the end of the 1920’s, more than a decade after the Bolsheviks seized power, it was clear to all that collectivization could never be accomplished through a voluntary approach. Peasant resistance to the encroachment of state power over the countryside had repeatedly stymied the authorities, and the peasants themselves, far from directing their anger at the kulaks, or wealthy peasants, were demonstrating an impressive degree of class solidarity. Nor would half-measures work; given the slightest opportunity, the peasants would abandon collective farms for a plot of land they could call their own.

The first stage of forced collectivization was proclaimed on December 27, 1929, when Stalin announced the policy of the “liquidation of the kulak as a class.” The campaign was justified on traditional Marxist lines: the kulaks were depicted as the bourgeoisie of the village, exploiting the middle and poor peasants and systematically sabotaging the reforms proposed by the Revolution. In fact, however, the very concept of the kulak was one of Stalin’s greatest myths. The “wealthy” peasant owned perhaps two or three cows, employed several workers, harvested ten hectares of land, and earned only about 50 percent more than the poorest peasant. In addition, the kulak was far and away the most productive farmer in his village, and was probably regarded as a leader by his neighbors rather than an exploiter.

Nonetheless, Stalin’s selection of the kulak as a scapegoat proved a master stroke. By defining the kulak as the class enemy, he was able to convince gullible foreigners that the strength of the state was being exerted against selfish landowners and not honest tillers of the soil. In practice, however, the kulak label could be attached to just about anyone. A middle or poor peasant could be condemned for harboring kulak attitudes if he attended church regularly or, more to the point, actively opposed collectivization.

Dekulakization also breathed new life into the Communist party, which, after the rout of the bourgeoisie and the various counterrevolutionary armies, was desperate for new enemies. From top to bottom, Left, Right, and Center, the party greeted collectivization with approval and often with genuine enthusiasm. Thousands of young party members from the cities volunteered for the dekulakization campaign, setting about their task with a sense of mission seldom witnessed in time of peace. Typical of the exhortations delivered to the departing cadres was the following:

You must assume your duty with a sense of the strictest party responsibility, without whimpering, without any rotten liberalism. Throw your bourgeois humanitarianism out the window and act like Bolsheviks worthy of Comrade Stalin. Beat down the kulak agent wherever he raises his head. It’s war—it’s them or us! The last decayed remnant of capitalist farming must be wiped out at any cost!

The usual punishment was deportation to the more inhospitable regions of the Soviet North. Perhaps ten million members of kulak families were exiled to various labor camps, where most perished. Children were victimized along with their parents, both in the villages and later in the camps. School authorities were officially encouraged to persecute kulak children in order to persuade the parents to take a more cooperative attitude. One weakening official was upbraided: “Don’t think of the kulak’s hungry children; in the class struggle philanthropy is evil.”



From Stalin’s point of view, dekulakization was eminently successful: within several years, the transformation of Soviet agriculture from private to state ownership, a challenge which had eluded Lenin himself, had essentially been completed. The peasants’ natural leaders had been deported or killed, and the rest frightened into obedience. Nevertheless, Stalin remained unsatisfied; the peasants, he reasoned, had yet to accept fully the new realities of agricultural life. Although herded into collective entities, the peasants were not without resources for future struggles against the state. Thus Stalin unleashed the final weapon: the terror-famine.

The ostensible reason for the drastic measures instituted in 1932 was the state’s difficulty in procuring grain. The possibility of a grain shortfall was real enough. Agriculture had been severely disrupted by forced collectivization. Peasants who a few years earlier had worked as independent farmers were organized like industrial workers, paid starvation wages, and discouraged by exorbitant taxation from cultivating the small private plots permitted them by the authorities. Given this state of affairs, there was reason to predict that the peasants would produce only enough for personal consumption.

The party, fresh from its victory over the kulaks, was now mobilized to collect grain. Watchtowers were erected overlooking the fields, where armed guards were stationed with orders to shoot anyone trying to steal food. The Ukrainian press published numerous accounts of trials of peasants who had been charged with stealing food. Some were shot; most—like the woman apprehended for stealing ten onions—received lengthy prison-camp terms. To ensure that grain was not being “hoarded,” brigades of party activists made house-to-house hunts in search of concealed food, food which, for the peasant family involved, often meant the difference between life and death. The searches were repeated every few weeks, and peasants who did not exhibit the traditional signs of extreme malnutrition could expect intense scrutiny when party delegations arrived.

Although the terror-famine affected several regions of the Soviet Union, the peasantry of the Ukraine suffered the crudest fate. According to Conquest, an astonishing five million Ukrainian peasants died of starvation in 1932-33, nearly 20 percent of the Ukraine’s population. Conquest believes the Ukraine was singled out by Stalin because of a perceived threat that stemmed from the Ukrainian people’s historic nationalistic and anti-Russian sentiments, feelings which were encouraged by some of the Republic’s party officials. Thus, not only was the peasant’s attachment to the land to be broken, but the Ukrainian peasant’s sense of national identity was to be destroyed in the process. This was achieved by deliberate starvation: the Ukrainian countryside was stripped of food, and measures were taken to prevent the doomed peasants from reaching areas of more abundance. The Ukraine’s borders were sealed; Ukrainian peasants were physically turned away from Russian villages where bread was available. Mounds of grain were stored a few miles from famine-stricken villages. Although sometimes, through neglect, the grain spoiled, it was never distributed to the famine victims.



In addition to the human tragedy, the terror-famine had a transforming effect on Soviet political culture. The use of starvation as a conscious instrument of state power led, in Bukharin’s words, to the “dehumanization” of the party, for whose members “terror was henceforth a normal method of administration, and obedience to any order from above a high virtue.”

The Soviet political system, whose totalitarian features were already quite visible, was further corrupted by the necessity of denying the existence of famine, both to the Soviet people and to the outside world. Astonishingly well-organized Potemkin villages were created to convince visiting foreign dignitaries that the Ukrainian people were well fed. The word “famine” was effectively stricken from the language; those unwise enough to raise the subject risked a lengthy term in a labor camp.

More lies had to be fabricated to account for the disastrous condition of Soviet agriculture. Front and center among the scapegoats were, of course, the peasants, but many others were implicated as well. Veterinarians were purged because of the high rate of livestock mortality; meteorologists were punished on the grounds of having falsified weather predictions; agronomists were charged with sabotaging tractors and causing weed infestation. Meanwhile, to avoid embarrassing admissions about the declining harvest, a fraudulent method was concocted to count the grain: the so-called biological yield, that is, the amount of grain standing in the field, not the amount harvested.



The Harvest of Sorrow reinforces Robert Conquest’s reputation as the preeminent historian of the formation of the Stalinist system. Two earlier books, The Great Terror and Kolyma, dealt with Stalin’s purge of the Communist party and the Arctic death camps which swallowed up thousands upon thousands of political prisoners. The Harvest of Sorrow is certainly the equal of these earlier works, and quite possibly the most important. Collectivization—with its arrant disregard for human life, elaborate structure of deceit and secrecy, and quasi-genocidal campaigns against certain nationalities—established a gruesome pattern of official behavior which was to prevail for decades to come. Nor have the repercussions been restricted to the Soviet Union: in formulating their deadly policies of socialized agriculture, the Khmer Rouge and the Communist regime in Ethiopia clearly derived their inspiration from the model of Soviet collectivization. By shedding invaluable light on the Soviet experience, Conquest by implication and extension tells us about more than the Soviet example itself.



About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.

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