"The novelty of this particular famine, what made it so diabolical, is that it was the deliberate creation of a bureaucratic mind, without any consideration whatever of the consequences of human suffering," Malcolm Muggeridge said.
He was talking about the genocidal famine that swept Ukraine in the winter on 1932 and the spring and summer of 1933.
Muggeridge was there that terrible winter and spring. As a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian in Moscow, he was one of the few Western journalists who circumvented Soviet restrictions and visited the famine regions and then honestly reported what he had seen.
Marco Carynnyk talked to Muggeridge at his cottage in Sussex, England.
Why did you decide to write about the famine in Ukraine?
It was the big story in all our talks in Moscow. Everybody knew about it. There was no question about that. Anyone you were talking to knew that there was a terrible famine going on. Even in the Soviets' own pieces there were somewhat disguised acknowledgements of great difficulties there.
I realized that that was the big story. I could also see that all the correspondents in Moscow were distorting it.
Without making any kind of plans or asking for permission I just went and got a ticket for Kiev and then went on to Rostov. The Soviet security is not as good as people think it is. If you once duck it, you can go quite a long way. At least you could in those days.
Going through the countryside by train one could sense the state of affairs. Ukraine was starving, and you only had to venture out to smaller places to see derelict fields and abandoned villages.
On one occasion, I was changing trains, and I went wandering around, and in one of the trains in the station, the kulaks were being loaded onto the train, and there were military men all along the platform.
I'll tell you another thing that's more difficult to convey, but it impressed me enormously. It was on a Sunday in Kiev, and I went into the church there for the Orthodox mass. I could understand very little of it, but there was some spirit in it that I have never come across before or after. Human beings at the end of their tether were saying to God, "We come to you, we're in trouble, nobody by You can help us."
What were you thinking and, more importantly perhaps, what were you feeling when you saw those scenes of starvation and privation in Ukraine? How does one respond in such a situation?
First of all, one feels a deep, deep, deep sympathy with and pity for the sufferers. Human beings look very tragic when they are starving. And remember that I wasn't unaware of what things were like because in India, for instance, I've been in a village during a cholera epidemic and seen people similarly placed. So it wasn't a complete novelty.
The novelty of this particular famine, what made it so diabolical, is that it was not the result of some catastrophe like a drought or an epidemic. It was the deliberate creation of a bureaucratic mind which demanded the collectivization of agriculture, immediately, as a purely theoretical proposition, without any consideration whatever of the consequences in human suffering.
That was what I found so terrifying. Think of a man in an office who has been ordered to collectivize agriculture and get rid of the kulaks without any clear notion or definition of what a kulak is, and who has in what was then the GPU and is now the KGB the instrument for doing this, and who then announces it in the slavish press as one of the great triumphs of the regime.
Given the deliberate nature of the famine in Ukraine, given the fact that food continued to be stockpiled and exported even as people dropped dead on the streets, is it accurate to talk about this as a famine? Is it perhaps something else? How does one describe an event of such magnitude?
Perhaps you do need another word. I don't know what it would be. The word ‘famine' means people have nothing whatsoever to eat and consume things that are not normally consumed. Of course there were stories of cannibalism there. I don't know whether they were true, but they were very widely believed. Certainly the eating of cattle and the consequent complete destruction of whatever economy the farms still had was true.
I remember someone telling me how all manners and finesse disappeared. When you're in the grip of a thing like this and you know that someone's got food, you go and steal it. You'll even murder to get it. That's all part of the horror.
How does one rank the famine of 1933 with other great catastrophes?
I think it's very difficult to make a table of comparison. What I would say with complete truth and sincerity is that as a journalist over the last half century I have seen some pretty awful things.
But the famine is the most terrible thing I have ever seen, precisely because of the deliberation with which it was done and the total absence of any sympathy with the people. To mention it or to sympathize with the people would mean to go to the Gulag, because then you were criticizing the great Stalin's project and indicating that you thought it a failure, when allegedly it was a stupendous success and enormously strengthened the Soviet Union.
What sort of response did you encounter when you came back from the Soviet Union and published your findings, particularly from people close to you, like the Webbs.?
The Webbs were furious about it. Mrs. Webb in her diary puts in a sentence which gives the whole show away. She says, "Malcolm has come back with stories about a terrible famine in the USSR. I have been to see Mr. Maisky (the Soviet ambassador in Britain) about it, and I realize that he's got it absolutely wrong." Who would suppose that Mr. Maisky would say, "No, no, of course he's right"?
You published Winter in Moscow when you got back from the Soviet Union, and you were attacked in the press for your views.
Very strongly. And I couldn't get a job.
Why was that? Because people found your reports hard to believe?
No, the press was not overtly pro-Soviet, but it was, as it is now, essentially sympathetic with that side and distrustful of any serious attack on it.
How do you explain this sympathy?
It's something I've written and thought about a great deal, and I think that the liberal mind is attracted by this sort of regime. My wife's aunt was Beatrice Webb, and she and Sidney Webb wrote the classic pro-Soviet book, Soviet Communism: A New Civilization. And so one saw close at hand the degree to which they all knew about the regime, knew all about the Cheka (the secret police) and everything, but they liked it.
I think that those people believe in power. It was put to me very succinctly when we were taken down to Kharkiv for the opening of the Dnieper dam. There was an American colonel who was running it, building the dam in effect. "How do you like it here?" I asked him, thinking that I'd get a wonderful blast of him saying how he absolutely hated it. "I think it's wonderful," he said. "You never get any labor trouble."
This will be one of the great puzzles of posterity in looking back on this age, to understand why the liberal mind, the Manchester Guardian mind, the New Republic mind, should feel such enormous sympathy with this authoritarian regime.
You are implying that the liberal intelligentsia did not simply overlook the regime's brutality, but actually admired and liked it.
Yes, I'm saying that, although they wouldn't have admitted it, perhaps not even to themselves. I remember Mrs. Webb, who after all was a very cultivated upper-class liberal-minded person, an early member of the Fabian Society and so on, saying to me, "Yes, it's true, people disappear in Russia." She said it with such great satisfaction that I couldn't help thinking that there were a lot of people in England whose disappearance she would have liked to organize.
No, it's an everlasting mystery to me how one after the other, the intelligentsia of the Western world, the Americans, the Germans, even the French, fell for this thing to such an extraordinary degree.