The Holodomor

The Holodomor is one of the great evils of the twentieth century. The facts are grim and horrific. Robert Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine was the first major historical account in English in 1986. Here is a brief summary of the history provided by Conquest to the US Congress; link. Conquest summarizes the basic facts in these terms:

The facts of the assault on the peasantry and on the Ukrainian nationality are complex. Essentially, it was a threefold blow. Dekulakization meant the deportation of millions of peasants. Collectivization meant the herding of the rest of them into collective farms. And in 1932-1933, the collectivized peasantry of Ukraine and adjacent regions was crushed in a special operation by the seizure of the whole grain crop and the starvation of the villages. We see no single and simply describable and assimilable event, but a complicated sequence.

Most important of all, a great effort was put into denying or concealing the facts. Right from the start, when the truth came out from a variety of sources, the Stalinist assertion of a different story confused the issue, and some Western journalists and scholars were duped or suborned into supporting the Stalinist version. Nor have the Soviet authorities yet admitted the facts. A recent novel published in the USSR briefly describes the terror-famine, and later notes “in not a single textbook in contemporary history will you find the merest reference to 1933, the year marked by a terrible tragedy.” (link)

Hungarian Communist, journalist, and writer Arthur Koestler (linklink) was an eye-witness to this evil. He was one of the earliest western journalists to travel in Ukraine in 1932-1933, and he describes some of his experiences in his 1954 autobiography, The Invisible Writing: 1932-1940.

The train puffed slowly across the Ukrainian steppe. It stopped frequently. At every station there was a crowd of peasants in rages, offering ikons and linen in exchange against a loaf of bread. The women were lifting up their infants to the compartment windows — infants pitiful and terrifying with limbs like sticks, puffed bellies, big cadaverous heads lolling on thin necks. I had arrived, unsuspecting, at the peak of the famine of 1932-33 which had depopulated entire districts and claimed several million victims. Its ravages are now officially admitted, but at the time they were kept secret from the world. The scenes at the railway-stations all along our journey gave me an inkling of the disaster, but no understanding of its causes and extent. My Russian travelling companions took pains to explain to me that these wretched crowds were kulaks, rich peasants who had resisted the collectivisation of the land and whom it had therefore been necessary to evict from their farms. (51)

Officially, these men and women were all kulaks who had been expropriated as a punitive measure. In reality, as I was gradually to find out, they were ordinary peasants who had been forced to abandon their villages in the famine-stricken regions. In last year’s harvest-collecting campaign the local Party officials, anxious to deliver their quota, had confiscated not only the harvest but also the seed reserves, and the newly established collective farms had nothing to sow with. their cattle and poultry they had killed rather than surrender it to the kolkhoz; so when the last grain of the secret hoard was eaten, they left the land which no longer was theirs. Entire villages had been abandoned, whole districts depopulated; in addition to the five million kulaks officially deported to Siberia, several million more were on the move…. Officially the famine did not exist. (56)

(A great deal of the ideological self-justification described by Anne Applebaum below can be detected in the words of “my Russian traveling companion” … and in the laconic words, “officially the famine did not exist”.)

Timothy Snyder treats the Holodomor as one part of the mass murder zone of central and eastern Europe in the 1930s and 1940s in Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. The deliberate waging of murderous policies against whole peoples occurred throughout the region, first by Stalin, and then by Hitler, leading to the deaths of more than ten million innocent and non-combatant people. He writes:

The mass starvation of 1933 was the result of Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan, implemented between 1928 and 1932. In those years, Stalin had taken control of the heights of the communist party, forced through a policy of industrialization and collectivization, and emerged as the frightful father of a beaten population. He had transformed the market into the plan, farmers into slaves, and the wastes of Siberia and Kazakhstan into a chain of concentration camps. His policies had killed tens of thousands by execution, hundreds of thousands by exhaustion, and put millions at risk of starvation. He was still rightly concerned about opposition within the communist party, but was possessed of immense political gifts, assisted by willing satraps, and atop a bureaucracy that claimed to see and make the future. That future was communism: which required heavy industry, which in turn required collectivized agriculture, which in turn required control of the largest social group in the Soviet Union, the peasantry. (24)

The War Against the Peasantry, 1927-1930: The Tragedy of the Soviet Countryside, edited by Lynne Viola, V.P. Danilov, N.A. Ivnitskii, and Denis Kozlov, provides a detailed and closely documented narrative of the harsh period of collectivization and de-kulakization. (It should be noted that the term “kulak” itself is politically invidious: it was used by Soviet propagandists to paint ordinary peasant farmers of the Ukraine as disloyal enemies of the Revolution and deserving of extinction.) War Against the Peasantry includes a large collection of documents from Soviet archives from the period. The book and associated documentation make it clear that these actions were part of a “revolution from above” — an effort to impose collective ownership on agriculture throughout the territory of the USSR, to create communism in one country. But these actions and strategies were also a “war” against the peasantry — a deliberate effort to destroy and exterminate a whole people. In January 1930 the Central Committee of the Communist Party pushed forward a policy of intensification of the collectivization process, and added the goal of “liquidating the kulak as a class” (205). Violence by the OGPU (secret police) intensified under the direction of Genrikh Yagoda. “‘The kulak,’ he wrote, ‘must be destroyed as a class … [The kulak] understands perfectly well that he will perish with collectivization and therefore he renders more and more brutal and fierce resistance'” (206). Arrests and mass deportations to labor camps in the North ensured, leading to mass deaths. 

Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine provides an accurate and powerful account of the famine period of totalitarian murder in 1931-33. Applebaum reviews the history of forced collectivization before turning to the agrarian and political crisis of 1930-33. Collectivization had led to a crisis in agriculture and a growing level of resistance by Ukrainian peasants; and the 1931 harvest was smaller than the prior year. Applebaum provides a detailed account of the decisions, policies, and actions in 1932 and 1933 by central and Ukrainian party officials through which the Soviet government systematically extracted all food — grain and livestock — from the Ukrainian countryside, leading to massive and growing famine over the next eighteen months. 

In the spring of 1932 desperate officials, anxious for their jobs and even their lives, aware that a new famine might be on its way, began to collect grain wherever and however they could. Mass confiscations occurred all across the USSR. In Ukraine they took on an almost fanatical intensity. Visiting the Moldovan autonomous republic that was then part of Ukraine, a Pravda correspondent was shocked to discover the lengths to which grain procurement officials would now go.36 In a private letter to a colleague, he wrote of “openly counter-revolutionary attacks” on the peasantry: “The searches are usually conducted at night, and they search fiercely, deadly seriously. There is a village just on the border with Romania where not a single house has not had its stove destroyed.” … The use of violence, the smashing of walls and furniture in search of hidden grain—these were a harbinger of what was to come. (Applebaum, 168, 169)

Massive famine ensued, on a region-wide level:

In Ukraine the situation of several villages in Odessa province was so dramatic that in March the local party leaders in Zynovïvskyi district sent a medical team to investigate. The doctors were stunned by what they found. In the village of Kozyrivka half the inhabitants had died of hunger. On the day of their visit 100 households remained out of 365, and the rest “are emptying”: “Quite a few of the remaining huts are being taken apart, the window and door frames are being used as fuel.” The family of Ivan Myronenko—seven people, including three school-age children—were surviving “entirely on carrion.” When the team entered their hut, the Myronenkos were eating boiled horsehide together with a “stinking yellow liquid” made from the broth. Nearby, the inspectors met the Koval family that had four children. On entering the hut, they found Maria Koval boiling the bones of a dead horse. An elderly woman lay on a bed, asking for medicine “in order to die more quickly.” (169)

The cruelty and human indifference that Applebaum documents are difficult to absorb. Like the peasants of Jedwabne (link), fellow villagers in the villages and towns of Ukraine denounced their neighbors, leading to arrest, confiscation, torture, and death. She speaks of the power of Party propaganda and ideology to motivate young people to engage in these horrific actions, for the sake of “the revolution”. And — as Jan Gross finds in Jedwabne — self-interest was also a motivation:

Even those who didn’t openly steal hoped to gain some advantage. As noted, informers had an expectation of reward. In some districts, activists received a percentage of what they collected outright. The 2 December law on blacklists contained an order to “issue a directive on bonuses to activists who find hidden grain.” A decision from the Dnipropetrovsk provincial council in February 1933 recommended that brigade members be given “10–15 per cent” of what they collected outright, and other provinces issued similar instructions. (235)

Mass starvation accelerated in the spring of 1933. 

Some survivors specifically recalled the many diseases of starvation and their different physical side effects. Scurvy caused people to feel pain in their joints, to lose their teeth. It also led to night-blindness: people could not see in the dark, and so feared to leave their homes at night. Dropsy—œdema—caused the legs of victims to swell and made their skin very thin, even transparent. Nadia Malyshko, from a village in Dnipropetrovsk province, remembered that her mother “swelled up, became weak and looked old, though she was only 37. Her legs were shining, and the skin had burst.” Hlafyra Ivanova from Proskuriv province remembered that people turned yellow and black: “the skin of swollen people grew chapped, and liquid oozed out of their wounds.” (243)

An emaciated person can die very quickly, unexpectedly, and many did. Volodymyr Slipchenko’s sister worked in a school, where she witnessed children dying during lessons—“a child is sitting at a school desk, then collapses, falls down”—or while playing in the grass outside.17 Many people died while walking, trying to flee. Another survivor remembered that the roads leading to Donbas were lined with corpses: “Dead villagers lay on the roads, along the road and paths. There were more bodies than people to move them.” (243)

What was the result of these deliberate policies of the Soviet state, aimed at destroying the political will of Ukraine and its people? It was massive death, by the most prolonged and tortuous process imaginable. Murder by hunger. Holodomor.

The result was a catastrophe: At least 5 million people perished of hunger between 1931 and 1934 all across the Soviet Union. Among them were more than 3.9 million Ukrainians. In acknowledgement of its scale, the famine of 1932–3 was described in émigré publications at the time and later as the Holodomor, a term derived from the Ukrainian words for hunger—holod—and extermination—mor. (xxvi)

And it is crucial to recognize that this catastrophe was entirely the result of intentional policy. It could have been prevented; it could have been alleviated; it could have been stopped. But it was not.

(Vasily Grossman’s final and unfinished novel Everything Flows provides a great deal of powerful description of the conditions of cruelty and suffering in the Ukraine during these years of Holodomor in Ukraine, his home region.)

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