Michael R. Marrus   Globe and Mail   20-Dec-1986   Review of The Harvest of Sorrow
A page of infamy in Soviet history


University of Alberta Press
412 pages, $24.95


Stalin's war against the Soviet people during the thirties slipped out of the consciousness of the West almost as soon as the gruesome details were reported, and eventually this particular page of infamy, while vaguely known, has been supplanted in the public consciousness by the crimes of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis.  Yet it is well to remember, as Robert Conquest's powerful book obliges us to do, that the forced collectivization of agriculture decreed by the Soviet master and his party likely cost the lives of more people than perished in all countries as a result of the First World War.  According to Conquest, extrapolating plausibly from Soviet statistics, the toll may be an almost unthinkable 14.5 million some 11 million peasants killed, the majority from the Ukraine, with 3.5 million arrested and dying later in camps.  Underscoring the particularly devastating impact upon the Ukraine, Conquest estimates that the dead from the accompanying man-made famine alone approach 5 million, almost 20 per cent of the entire population of Soviet Ukraine.

What began this tidal wave of killing was a deep unease on the part of Josef Stalin and the Soviet leadership in 1928, who feared that they were about to face a severe grain shortage.  In hindsight, we can see how distorted were the perceptions in Moscow of this supposed agricultural shortfall, and how ignorant were so many of the bureaucrats who misjudged the economic performance of the rural population.  But deeply suspicious of the peasantry under the best of circumstances, and unhappy with previous failures to end individual farming and a rural market economy, Stalin and the party were ready to use force to transform the economic foundation of Soviet society.

At the end of 1929, the Kremlin decreed that millions of peasants from individually owned farms would be forced into agricultural collectives, or kolkhozes, seen in the eyes of the Politburo as pliant providers of Soviet agricultural needs.  In defiance of the facts, Soviet ideologists hammered out an appropriate Marxist terminology to explain what was going on: throughout grain-producing areas, it was said, resistance to this "scientific" scheme was being organized by so-called "rich peasants," or kulaks; with his customary brutality, therefore, Stalin decreed "the liquidation of the kulaks as a class."

The result was a catastrophic onslaught on millions of peasant households.  At first, party activists and local officials bullied and brutalized peasants, forcing them to surrender their homesteads and their possessions; deportations, arrests and killings soon followed, as terror generalized.  The violence mounted to full-scale rebellions in various places, with regular troops engaged for months for example, suppressing peasant risings.

Resistance took various forms, usually reflecting the hopeless, desperate anguish of a doomed population.  Particularly in the Ukraine there were "women's rebellions" spontaneous uprisings of peasant women who attacked the local kolkhozes to demand the return of confiscated farm products.  With a colossal impact on the Soviet economy, peasants slaughtered their animals by the millions rather than see them seized.  For two terrible years the fighting raged.

As the dreadful process of "de-kulakization" continued, Stalin ordered a further assault on the recalcitrant peasantry what Conquest calls the "terror-famine" of 1932.  Moscow, writes Conquest, knowingly decreed grain procurements from the Ukraine and elsewhere exceeding by far what the local population could produce.  Communist brigades roamed the countryside, forcing agriculturalists to disgorge the little they had been able to produce under conditions of severe dislocation.  Grain sat unused in "state reserves" while the local population starved.  By the middle of 1932, according to one estimate given by Conquest, nearly 3 million people took to the roads, desperately seeking food, pressing toward towns or cities, and occasionally attacking granaries where the food was often left to rot.

Border troops barred the way to prosperous areas in Russia proper, and the wretched population was simply left to die.  Entire villages were swept away, and towns of 3,000 to 4,000 people sometimes had only a few score survivors.

Scarcely a word of this was reported by the Soviet government, whose officials stubbornly denied there was anything amiss.  The Soviet press, even in the Ukraine, remained stonily silent.  Grim reports seeped out to the West, where newspapers carried scattered accounts of the catastrophe.  But steady denials from Moscow and a systematic campaign of false information were enough to fool many onlookers, or silence those who entertained doubts.  Conquest highlights the gullibility of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, "the doyens of Western social science," whose antipathy toward the peasantry and sympathy for the Russians' vast project of social engineering blinded them even after a visit to the country in 1932 and 1933.  And they were not alone.

Conquest's well documented book provides a crushing indictment of the Soviet experience in a measured and sober fashion.  About the terrible impact of collectivization and the terror-famine, he leaves little doubt.  But historians continue to dispute the motivation behind this terrible episode.  In Conquest's view, Stalin's mutilation of the peasantry in 1929 combined with an explicit attack on the Ukraine and its national culture resuming an effort that had been suspended after the forcible incorporation of the Ukraine into the Soviet Union in the early twenties.

Stalin's policy, according to this interpretation, was genocidal in its aims, designed to eliminate both the social basis for Ukrainian national identity and its intellectual and cultural leadership.  Against this view, others argue that the Soviet dictator was primarily inspired by his goals of industrializing the Soviet Union on a particular model.  They see Stalin as moved primarily by his desire to discipline peasants from traditional regions of agricultural surplus rather than by hostility to Ukrainian nationalism.

In Conquest's own showing, the repression and man-made famine wrought havoc outside the Ukraine in the North Caucasus, the Volga region, and Soviet Central Asia, where the proportionate impact upon the Kazakh people, for example, was even greater than upon Ukrainians.

But however assessed, there is no doubt that we are dealing with a crime of terrible proportions a continuing blot upon the Soviet leadership that has not yet acknowledged what happened.  The lasting impression from this book is of appalling waste.  "By the end of the thirties," Conquest notes in his epilogue, "the average Soviet citizen was worse off than before the revolution."

Michael R. Marrus is the author of The Unwanted: European Refugees In The Twentieth Century.