Military history



Nineteen thirty-three was a hungry year in the Western world. The streets of American and European cities teemed with men and women who had lost their jobs, and grown accustomed to waiting in line for food. An enterprising young Welsh journalist, Gareth Jones, saw unemployed Germans in Berlin rally to the voice of Adolf Hitler. In New York he was struck by the helplessness of the American worker, three years into the Great Depression: “I saw hundreds and hundreds of poor fellows in single file, some of them in clothes which once were good, all waiting to be handed out two sandwiches, a doughnut, a cup of coffee and a cigarette.” In Moscow, where Jones arrived that March, hunger in the capitalist countries was cause for celebration. The Depression seemed to herald a world socialist revolution. Stalin and his coterie boasted of the inevitable triumph of the system they had built in the Soviet Union.1

Yet 1933 was also a year of hunger in the Soviet cities, especially in Soviet Ukraine. In Ukraine’s cities—Kharkiv, Kiev, Stalino, Dnipropetrovsk—hundreds of thousands of people waited each day for a simple loaf of bread. In Kharkiv, the republic’s capital, Jones saw a new sort of misery. People appeared at two o’clock in the morning to queue in front of shops that did not open until seven. On an average day forty thousand people would wait for bread. Those in line were so desperate to keep their places that they would cling to the belts of those immediately in front of them. Some were so weak from hunger that they could not stand without the ballast of strangers. The waiting lasted all day, and sometimes for two. Pregnant women and maimed war veterans had lost their right to buy out of turn, and had to wait in line with the rest if they wanted to eat. Somewhere in line a woman would wail, and the moaning would echo up and down the line, so that the whole group of thousands sounded like a single animal with an elemental fear.2

People in the cities of Soviet Ukraine were afraid of losing their place in breadlines, and they were afraid of starving to death. They knew that the city offered their only hope of nourishment. Ukrainian cities had grown rapidly in the previous five years, absorbing peasants and making of them workers and clerks. Ukrainian peasant sons and daughters, along with the Jews, Poles, and Russians who had inhabited these cities for much longer, were dependent upon food they obtained in shops. Their families in the country had nothing. This was unusual. Normally in times of hunger city dwellers will make for the countryside. In Germany or the United States the farmers almost never went hungry, even during the Great Depression. Workers and professionals in cities were reduced to selling apples, or stealing them; but always somewhere, in the Altes Land or in Iowa, there was an orchard, a silo, a larder. The city folk of Ukraine had nowhere to go, no help to seek from the farms. Most had ration coupons that they would need to present in order to get any bread. Ink on paper gave them what chance to live that they had, and they knew it.3

The proof was all around. Starving peasants begged along the breadlines, asking for crumbs. In one town, a fifteen-year-old girl begged her way to the front of the line, only to be beaten to death by the shopkeeper. The city housewives making the queues had to watch as peasant women starved to death on the side-walks. A girl walking to and from school each day saw the dying in the morning and the dead in the afternoon. One young communist called the peasant children he saw “living skeletons.” A party member in industrial Stalino was distressed by the corpses of the starved that he found at his back door. Couples strolling in parks could not miss the signs forbidding the digging of graves. Doctors and nurses were forbidden from treating (or feeding) the starving who reached their hospitals. The city police seized famished urchins from city streets to get them out of sight. In Soviet Ukrainian cities policemen apprehended several hundred children a day; one day in early 1933, the Kharkiv police had a quota of two thousand to fill. About twenty thousand children awaited death in the barracks of Kharkiv at any given time. The children pleaded with the police to be allowed, at least, to starve in the open air: “Let me die in peace, I don’t want to die in the death barracks.”4

Hunger was far worse in the cities of Soviet Ukraine than in any city in the Western world. In 1933 in Soviet Ukraine, a few tens of thousands of city dwellers actually died of starvation. Yet the vast majority of the dead and dying in Soviet Ukraine were peasants, the very people whose labors had brought what bread there was to the cities. The Ukrainian cities lived, just, but the Ukrainian countryside was dying. City dwellers could not fail to notice the destitution of peasants who, contrary to all seeming logic, left the fields in search of food. The train station at Dnipropetrovsk was overrun with starving peasants, too weak even to beg. On a train, Gareth Jones met a peasant who had acquired some bread, only to have it confiscated by the police. “They took my bread away from me,” he repeated over and over again, knowing that he would disappoint his starving family. At the Stalino station, a starving peasant killed himself by jumping in front of a train. That city, the center of industry in southeastern Ukraine, had been founded in imperial times by John Hughes, a Welsh industrialist for whom Gareth Jones’s mother had worked. The city had once been named after Hughes; now it was named after Stalin. (Today it is known as Donetsk.)5

Stalin’s Five-Year Plan, completed in 1932, had brought industrial development at the price of popular misery. The deaths of peasants by railways bore a frightful witness to these new contrasts. Throughout Soviet Ukraine, rail passengers became unwitting parties to dreadful accidents. Hungry peasants would make their way to the cities along railway lines, only to faint from weakness on the tracks. At Khartsyszk, peasants who had been chased away from the station hanged themselves on nearby trees. The Soviet writer Vasily Grossman, returning from a family visit to his hometown Berdychev, encountered a woman begging for bread at the window of his train compartment. The political emigré Arthur Koestler, who had come to the Soviet Union to help build socialism, had a similar experience. As he recalled much later, outside Kharkiv station peasant women held up “to the carriage windows horrible infants with enormous wobbling heads, sticklike limbs, and swollen, pointed bellies.” He found that the children of Ukraine looked like “embryos out of alcohol bottles.” It would be many years before these two men, now regarded as two of the moral witnesses of the twentieth century, wrote about what they had seen.6


City dwellers were more accustomed to the sight of peasants at the marketplace, spreading their bounty and selling their wares. In 1933, peasants made their way to familiar city markets, but now to beg rather than to sell. Market squares, now empty of both goods and customers, conveyed only the disharmonies of death. Early in the day the only sound was the soft breathing of the dying, huddled under rags that had once been clothes. One spring morning, amidst the piles of dead peasants at the Kharkiv market, an infant suckled the breast of its mother, whose face was a lifeless grey. Passersby had seen this before, not just the disarray of corpses, not just the dead mother and the living infant, but that precise scene, the tiny mouth, the last drops of milk, the cold nipple. The Ukrainians had a term for this. They said to themselves, quietly, as they passed: “These are the buds of the socialist spring.”7


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.8

The peasant, perhaps especially the Ukrainian peasant, was unlikely to see himself as a tool in this great mechanization of history. Even if he understood entirely the final purposes of Soviet policy, which was very unlikely, he could hardly endorse them. He was bound to resist a policy designed to relieve him of his land and his freedom. Collectivization had to mean a great confrontation between the largest group within Soviet society, the peasantry, and the Soviet state and its police, then known as the OGPU. Anticipating this struggle, Stalin had ordered in 1929 the most massive deployment of state power in Soviet history. The labor of building socialism, said Stalin, would be like “raising the ocean.” That December he announced that “kulaks” would be “liquidated as a class.”9

The Bolsheviks presented history as a struggle of classes, the poorer making revolutions against the richer to move history forward. Thus, officially, the plan to annihilate the kulaks was not a simple decision of a rising tyrant and his loyal retinue; it was a historical necessity, a gift from the hand of a stern but benevolent Clio. The naked attack of organs of state power upon a category of people who had committed no crime was furthered by vulgar propaganda. One poster—under the title “We will destroy the kulaks as a class!”—portrayed a kulak under the wheels of a tractor, a second kulak as an ape hoarding grain, and a third sucking milk directly from a cow’s teat. These people were inhuman, they were beasts—so went the message. 10

In practice, the state decided who was a kulak and who was not. The police were to deport prosperous farmers, who had the most to lose from collectivization. In January 1930 the politburo authorized the state police to screen the peasant population of the entire Soviet Union. The corresponding OGPU order of 2 February specified the measures needed for “the liquidation of the kulaks as a class.” In each locality, a group of three people, or “troika,” would decide the fate of the peasants. The troika, composed of a member of the state police, a local party leader, and a state procurator, had the authority to issue rapid and severe verdicts (death, exile) without the right to appeal. Local party members would often make recommendations: “At the plenums of the village soviet,” one local party leader said, “we create kulaks as we see fit.” Although the Soviet Union had laws and courts, these were now ignored in favor of the simple decision of three individuals. Some thirty thousand Soviet citizens would be executed after sentencing by troikas.11

In the first four months of 1930, 113,637 people were forcibly transported from Soviet Ukraine as kulaks. Such an action meant about thirty thousand peasant huts emptied one after another, their surprised inhabitants given little or no time to prepare for the unknown. It meant thousands of freezing freight cars, filled with terrified and sick human cargo, bound for destinations in northern European Russia, the Urals, Siberia, or Kazakhstan. It meant gunshots and cries of terror at the last dawn peasants would see at home; it meant frostbite and humiliation on the trains, and anguish and resignation as peasants disembarked as slave laborers on the taiga or the steppe.12

The Ukrainian peasantry knew about deportations to prison camps, which had touched them from the mid-1920s onward. They now sang a lament that was already traditional:

Oh Solovki, Solovki!
Such a long road
The heart cannot beat
Terror crushes the soul.

Solovki was a prison complex on an island in the Arctic Sea. In the minds of Ukrainian peasants Solovki stood for all that was alien, repressive, and painful in exile from the homeland. For the communist leadership of the Soviet Union, Solovki was the first place where the labor of deportees had been transformed into profit for the state. In 1929, Stalin had decided to apply the model of Solovki across the entire Soviet Union, ordering the construction of “special settlements” and concentration camps. The concentration camps were demarcated zones of labor, usually surrounded by fences and patrolled by guards. The special settlements were new villages purpose-built by the inmates themselves, after they were dropped on the empty steppe or taiga. All in all, some three hundred thousand Ukrainians were among the 1.7 million kulaks deported to special settlements in Siberia, European Russia, and Kazakhstan.13

Mass deportations of peasants for purposes of punishment coincided with the mass use of forced labor in the Soviet economy. In 1931, the special settlements and the concentration camps were merged into a single system, known as the Gulag. The Gulag, which the Soviets themselves called a “system of concentration camps,” began alongside the collectivization of agriculture and depended upon it. It would eventually include 476 camp complexes, to which some eighteen million people would be sentenced, of whom between a million and a half and three million would die during their periods of incarceration. The free peasant became the slave laborer, engaged in the construction of the giant canals, mines, and factories that Stalin believed would modernize the Soviet Union. 14

Among the labor camps, the Ukrainian peasant was most likely to be sent to dig the Belomor, a canal between the White Sea and the Baltic Sea that was a particular obsession of Stalin. Some 170,000 people dug through frozen soil, with picks and shovels and sometimes with shards of pottery or with their hands, for twenty-one months. They died by the thousand, from exhaustion or disease, finding their end at the bottom of a dry canal that, when completed in 1933, turned out to be of little practical use in water transport. The death rates at the special settlements were also high. Soviet authorities expected five percent of the prisoners in the special settlements to die; in fact, the figure reached ten to fifteen percent. An inhabitant of Archangelsk, the major city on the White Sea, complained of the senselessness of the endeavor: “it is one thing to destroy the kulak in an economic sense; to destroy their children in a physical sense is nothing short of barbaric.” Children died in the far north in such numbers that “their corpses are taken to the cemetery in threes and fours without coffins.” A group of workers in Vologda questioned whether “the journey to world revolution” had to pass “through the corpses of these children.”15

The death rates in the Gulag were high, but they were no higher than those that would soon attend parts of the Ukrainian countryside. Workers at the Belomor were given very poor food rations, some six hundred grams of bread (about 1,300 calories) a day. Yet this was actually better nutrition than what was available in Soviet Ukraine at about the same time. Forced laborers at Belomor got twice or three times or six times as much as the peasants who remained in Soviet Ukraine would get on the collective farms in 1932 and 1933—when they got anything at all.16

In the first weeks of 1930, collectivization proceeded at a blinding pace in Soviet Ukraine and throughout the Soviet Union. Moscow sent quotas of districts to be collectivized to capitals of the Soviet republics, where party leaders vowed to exceed them. The Ukrainian leadership promised to collectivize the entire republic in one year. And then local party activists, with an eye to impressing their own superiors, moved even more quickly, promising collectivization in a matter of nine to twelve weeks. Threatening deportation, they coerced peasants into signing away their claims to land and joining the collective farm. The state police intervened with force, often deadly force, when necessary. Twenty-five thousand workers were shipped to the countryside to add numbers to police power and overmaster the peasantry. Instructed that the peasants were responsible for food shortages in the towns, workers promised to “make soap out of the kulak.”17

By the middle of March 1930, seventy-one percent of the arable land in the Soviet Union had been, at least in principle, attached to collective farms. This meant that most peasants had signed away their farms and joined a collective. They no longer had any formal right to use land for their own purposes. As members of a collective, they were dependent upon its leaders for their employment, pay, and food. They had lost or were losing their livestock, and would depend for their equipment upon the machinery, usually lacking, of the new Machine Tractor Stations. These warehouses, the centers of political control in the countryside, were never short on party officials and state policemen.18

Perhaps even more so than in Soviet Russia, where communal farming was traditional, in Soviet Ukraine peasants were terrified by the loss of their land. Their whole history was one of a struggle with landlords, which they seemed finally to have won during the Bolshevik Revolution. But in the years immediately thereafter, between 1918 and 1921, the Bolsheviks had requisitioned food from the peasants as they fought their civil wars. So peasants had good reason to be wary of the Soviet state. Lenin’s compromise policy of the 1920s had been very welcome, even if peasants suspected, with good reason, that it might one day be reversed. In 1930, collectivization seemed to them to be a “second serfdom,” the beginning of a new bondage, now not to the wealthy landowners, as in recent history, but to the communist party. Peasants in Soviet Ukraine feared the loss of their hard-won independence; but they also feared starvation, and indeed for the fate of their immortal souls. 19

The rural societies of Soviet Ukraine were still, for the most part, religious societies. Many of the young and the ambitious, those swayed by official communist atheism, had left for the big Ukrainian cities or for Moscow or Leningrad. Though their Orthodox Church had been suppressed by the atheist communist regime, the peasants were still Christian believers, and many understood the contract with the collective farm as a pact with the devil. Some believed that Satan had come to earth in human form as a party activist, his collective farm register a book of hell, promising torment and damnation. The new Machine Tractor Stations looked like the outposts of Gehenna. Some Polish peasants in Ukraine, Roman Catholics, also saw collectivization in apocalyptic terms. One Pole explained to his son why they would not join the collective farm: “I do not want to sell my soul to the devil.” Understanding this religiosity, party activists propagated what they called Stalin’s First Commandment: the collective farm supplies first the state, and only then the people. As the peasants would have known, the First Commandment in its biblical form reads: “Thou shalt have no other God before me.”20

Ukrainian villages had been deprived of their natural leaders by the deportations of kulaks to the Gulag. Even without the deported kulaks, peasants tried to rescue themselves and their communities. They tried to preserve their own little plots, their small patches of autonomy. They endeavored to keep their families away from the state, now physically manifest in the collective farms and the Machine Tractor Stations. They sold or slaughtered their livestock, rather than lose it to the collective. Fathers and husbands sent daughters and wives to do battle with the party activists and the police, believing that women were less likely to be deported than men. Sometimes men dressed as women just for the chance to put a hoe or a shovel into the body of a local communist.21

Crucially, though, the peasants had few guns, and poor organization. The state had a near monopoly on firepower and logistics. Peasants’ actions were recorded by a powerful state police apparatus, one that perhaps did not understand their motives but grasped their general direction. The OGPU noted almost one million acts of individual resistance in Ukraine in 1930. Of the mass peasant revolts in the Soviet Union that March, almost half took place in Soviet Ukraine. Some Ukrainian peasants voted with their feet, walking westward, across the frontier into neighboring Poland. Whole villages followed their example, taking up church banners, or crosses, or sometimes just black flags tied to sticks, and marching westward toward the border. Thousands of them reached Poland, where knowledge of famine conditions in the Soviet Union spread.22

The flight of peasants to Poland was an international embarrassment and perhaps a source of real concern for Stalin and the politburo. It meant that Polish authorities, who at the time were trying to stage a political rapprochement with their own large Ukrainian national minority, learned about the course and consequences of collectivization. Polish border guards patiently interviewed the refugees, gaining knowledge of the course and the failure of collectivization. Some of the peasants begged for a Polish invasion to halt their misery. The refugee crisis also provided Poland with a major propaganda weapon to use against the Soviet Union. Under Józef Piłsudski, Poland never planned an aggressive war against the Soviet Union, but it did prepare contingency plans for the disintegration of the Soviet Union along national lines, and did take some steps designed to hasten such a course of events. Even as Ukrainians were fleeing Soviet Ukraine, Poland was dispatching its own spies in the opposite direction, to encourage the Ukrainians to revolt. Their propaganda posters called Stalin a “Hunger Tsar” who exported grain while starving his own people. In March 1930, politburo members feared that “the Polish government might intervene.”23

Collectivization was a general policy, the Soviet Union was a vast state, and instability in one borderland had to be considered in light of general scenarios for war.

Stalin and the Soviet leaders regarded Poland as the western part of an international capitalist encirclement, and Japan as the eastern. Polish-Japanese relations were rather good; and in spring 1930, Stalin seemed most troubled by the specter of a joint Polish-Japanese invasion. The Soviet Union, by far the largest country in the world, extended from Europe to the Pacific Ocean, and Stalin had to attend not only to European powers but also to the Asian ambitions of Japan.

Tokyo had made its military reputation at the expense of Russians. Japan had emerged as a world power by defeating the Russian Empire in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, seizing the railways built by the Russians to reach Pacific ports. As Stalin well knew, both Poland and Japan took an interest in Soviet Ukraine, and in the national question in the Soviet Union. Stalin seemed to feel the history of Russian humiliation in Asia quite deeply. He was fond of the song “On the Hills of Manchuria,” which promised bloody vengeance upon the Japanese.24


So just as chaos brought by collectivization in the western Soviet Union gave rise to fears of a Polish intervention, disorder in the eastern Soviet Union seemed to favor Japan. In Soviet Central Asia, especially in largely Muslim Soviet Kazakhstan, collectivization brought even greater chaos than in Soviet Ukraine. It required an even more drastic social transformation. The peoples of Kazakhstan were not peasants but nomads, and the first step in Soviet modernization was to make them settle down. Before collectivization could even begin, the nomadic populations had to become farmers. The policy of “sedentarization” deprived the herdsmen of their animals and thus of their means of supporting themselves. People rode their camels or horses across the border into the Muslim Xinjiang (or Turkestan) region of China, which suggested to Stalin that they might be agents of the Japanese, the dominant foreign power amidst Chinese internal conflicts.25

All was not going as planned. Collectivization, which was supposed to secure the Soviet order, seemed instead to destabilize the borderlands. In Soviet Asia as in Soviet Europe, a Five-Year Plan that was supposed to bring socialism had brought instead enormous suffering, and a state that was supposed to represent justice responded with very traditional security measures. Soviet Poles were deported from western border zones, and the border guard was strengthened everywhere. The world revolution would have to take place behind closed borders, and Stalin would have to take steps to protect what he called “socialism in one country.”26

Stalin had to delay foreign adversaries and rethink domestic plans. He asked Soviet diplomats to initiate discussions with Poland and Japan on nonaggression pacts. He saw to it that the Red Army was ordered to full battle readiness in the western Soviet Union. Most tellingly, Stalin suspended collectivization. In an article dated 2 March 1930 under the brilliant title “Dizzy with Success,” Stalin maintained that the problem with collectivization was that it had been implemented with just a little too much enthusiasm. It had been a mistake, he now asserted, to force the peasants to join the collective farms. The latter now disappeared just as quickly as they had been created. In spring 1930, peasants in Ukraine harvested the winter wheat, and sowed the seeds for the autumn crops, just as if the land belonged to them. They could be forgiven for thinking that they had won.27

Stalin’s withdrawal was tactical.

Given time to think, Stalin and the politburo found more effective means to subordinate the peasantry to the state. In the countryside the following year, Soviet policy preceded with much greater deftness. In 1931, collectivization would come because peasants would no longer see a choice. The lower cadres of the Ukrainian branch of the Soviet communist party were purged, to ensure that those working within the villages would be true to their purpose, and understand what would await them if they were not. The independent farmer was taxed until the collective farm became the only refuge. As the collective farms slowly regrouped, they were granted indirect coercive power over neighboring independent farmers. They were allowed, for example, to vote to take the seed grain away from independent farmers. The seed grain, what is kept from one crop to plant the next, is indispensible to any working farm. The selection and preservation of the seed grain is the basis of agriculture. For most of human history, eating the seed grain has been synonymous with utter desperation. An individual who lost control of the seed grain to the collective lost the ability to live from his or her own labor.28

Deportations resumed, and collectivization proceeded. In late 1930 and early 1931, some 32,127 more households were deported from Soviet Ukraine, about the same number of people as had been removed during the first wave of deportations a year before. Peasants thought that they would die either of exhaustion in the Gulag or of hunger close to home, and preferred the latter. Letters from exiled friends and family occasionally escaped the censor; one included the following advice: “No matter what, don’t come. We are dying here. Better to hide, better to die there, but no matter what, don’t come here.” Ukrainian peasants who yielded to collectivization chose, as one party activist understood, “to face starvation at home rather than banishment to the unknown.” Because collectivization came more slowly in 1931, family by family rather than whole villages at once, it was harder to resist. There was no sudden attack to provoke a desperate defense. By the end of the year, the new approach had succeeded. About seventy percent of the farmland in Soviet Ukraine was now collectivized. The levels of March 1930 had been reached again, and this time durably.29

After the false start of 1930, Stalin had won the political victory in 1931. Yet the triumph in politics did not extend to economics. Something was wrong with the grain yields. The harvest of 1930 had been wonderfully bountiful. Farmers deported in early 1930 had sown their winter wheat already, and that crop could be harvested by someone else that spring. The months of January and February, when most of the country had been collectivized on paper in 1930, is a time when farmers are idle in any case. After March 1930, when the collectives were dissolved, peasants had the time to put down their spring crops as free men and women. The weather was unusually fine that summer. The crop of 1930 in Ukraine set a standard that could not be met in 1931, even if collectivized agriculture were as efficient as individual farming, which it was not. The bumper crop of 1930 provided the baseline number that the party used to plan requisitions for 1931. Moscow expected far more from Ukraine than Ukraine could possibly give.30

By autumn 1931 the failure of the first collectivized harvest was obvious. The reasons were many: the weather was poor; pests were a problem; animal power was limited because peasants had sold or slaughtered livestock; the production of tractors was far less than anticipated; the best farmers had been deported; sowing and reaping were disrupted by collectivization; and peasants who had lost their land saw no reason to work very hard. The Ukrainian party leader, Stanisław Kosior, had reported in August 1931 that requisition plans were unrealistic given low yields. Lazar Kaganovich told him that the real problem was theft and concealment. Kosior, though he knew better, enforced this line on his subordinates.31

More than half of the (nonspoiled) harvest was removed from Soviet Ukraine in 1931. Many collective farms met their requisition targets only by handing over their seed grain. Stalin ordered on 5 December that collective farms that had not yet fulfilled their annual requirements must surrender their seed grain. Stalin perhaps believed that peasants were hiding food, and thought that the threat of taking the seed grain would motivate them to hand over what they had. But by this time many of them truly had nothing. By the end of 1931, many peasants were already going hungry. With no land of their own and with little ability to resist requisitions, they simply had no way to ensure that a sufficient number of calories reached their households. Then in early 1932 they had no seed grain with which to plant the fall crop. The Ukrainian party leadership asked for seed grain in March 1932, but by that time the planting was already delayed, meaning that the harvest that fall would be poor.32

In early 1932 people asked for help. Ukrainian communists requested that their superiors in the Ukrainian party ask Stalin to call in the Red Cross. Members of collective farms tried writing letters to state and party authorities. One of these, after several paragraphs of formal administrative prose, closed with the plaintive “Give us bread! Give us bread! Give us bread!” Ukrainian party members bypassed Kosior and wrote directly to Stalin, taking an angry tone: “How can we construct the socialist economy when we are all doomed to death by hunger?”33

The threat of mass starvation was utterly clear to Soviet Ukrainian authorities, and it became so to Stalin. Party activists and secret police officers filed countless reports of death by starvation. In June 1932 the head of the party in the Kharkiv region wrote to Kosior that starvation had been reported in every single district of his region. Kosior received a letter from a member of the Young Communists dated 18 June 1932, with a graphic description that was probably, by then, all too familiar: “Collective farm members go into the fields and disappear. After a few days their corpses are found and, entirely without emotion, as though this were normal, buried in graves. The next day one can already find the body of someone who had just been digging graves for others.” That same day, 18 June 1932, Stalin himself admitted, privately, that there was “famine” in Soviet Ukraine. The previous day the Ukrainian party leadership had requested food aid. He did not grant it. His response was that all grain in Soviet Ukraine must be collected as planned. He and Kaganovich agreed that “it is imperative to export without fail immediately.”34

Stalin knew perfectly well, and from personal observation, what would follow. He knew that famine under Soviet rule was possible. Famine had raged throughout Russia and Ukraine during and after the civil wars. A combination of poor harvests and requisitions had brought starvation to hundreds of thousands of peasants in Ukraine, especially in 1921. Scarcity of food was one of the reasons Lenin had made his compromise with peasants in the first place. Stalin was well aware of that history, in which he had taken part. That Stalin’s own policy of collectivization could cause mass starvation was also clear. By summer 1932, as Stalin knew, more than a million people had already starved to death in Soviet Kazakhstan. Stalin blamed the local party leader Filip Goloshchekin, but he must have understood some of the structural issues.35

Stalin, a master of personal politics, presented the Ukrainian famine in personal terms. His first impulse, and his lasting tendency, was to see the starvation of Ukrainian peasants as a betrayal by members of the Ukrainian communist party. He could not allow the possibility that his own policy of collectivization was to blame; the problem must be in the implementation, in the local leaders, anywhere but in the concept itself. As he pushed forward with his transformation in the first half of 1932, the problem he saw was not the suffering of his people but rather the possibility that the image of his collectivization policy might be tarnished. Starving Ukrainian peasants, he complained, were leaving their home republic and demoralizing other Soviet citizens by their “whining.”36

Somewhat inchoately, Stalin seemed to think in spring and summer 1932 that if starvation could somehow just be denied then it would go away. Perhaps he reasoned that Ukraine was in any case overpopulated, and that the deaths of a few hundred thousand people would matter little in the long run. He wanted local Ukrainian officials to meet grain procurement targets despite the certain prospect of lower yields. Local party officials found themselves between Stalin’s red hammer and the grim reaper’s sickle. The problems they saw were objective and not soluble through ideology or rhetoric: lack of seed grain, late sowing, poor weather, machinery insufficient to replace animal labor, chaos from the final push toward collectivization in late 1931, and hungry peasants unable to work.37

The world as local party activists had to see it, in the Ukrainian countryside, was described far better by this Ukrainian children’s song than by the terse orders and propaganda conceits coming from Moscow:

Father Stalin, look at this
Collective farming is just bliss
The hut’s in ruins, the barn’s all sagged
All the horses broken nags
And on the hut a hammer and sickle
And in the hut death and famine
No cows left, no pigs at all
Just your picture on the wall
Daddy and mommy are in the kolkhoz
The poor child cries as alone he goes
There’s no bread and there’s no fat
The party’s ended all of that
Seek not the gentle nor the mild
A father’s eaten his own child
The party man he beats and stamps
And sends us to Siberian camps38

Around the local party activists was death, and above them was denial. Starvation was a brute fact, indifferent to words and formulas, deportations and shootings. Beyond a certain point, the starving peasant could no longer productively work, and no amount of ideological correctness or personal commitment could change this. Yet as this message traveled upward through institutional channels it lost its force. True reports of hunger from below met political pressure from the top at a Ukrainian party central committee plenum of 6-9 July 1932 in Kharkiv. Ukrainian speakers complained of the impossibility of meeting the annual targets for grain requisitions. Yet they were silenced by Lazar Kaganovich and Viacheslav Molotov, politburo members and Stalin’s emissaries from Moscow. Stalin had instructed them to defeat the “Ukrainian destabilizers.”39

Molotov and Kaganovich were Stalin’s loyal and trusted allies, and with him dominated the politburo and thus ruled the Soviet Union. Stalin was not yet an unrivalled dictator, and the politburo was still in principle a kind of collective dictatorship. Yet these two men, unlike some of his previous allies in the politburo, were unconditionally loyal. Stalin manipulated them ceaselessly, but he did not really have to. They served the revolution by serving him, and tended not to distinguish between the two. Kaganovich was already calling Stalin “our father.” In July 1932 in Kharkiv, they told Ukrainian comrades that talk of starvation was just an excuse for laziness on the part of peasants who did not wish to work and activists who did not wish to discipline them and requisition grain.40

By this time, Stalin was on vacation, having traveled in a train well stocked with fine provisions south from Moscow through the starving Ukraine to the pretty resort town of Sochi on the Black Sea. He and Kaganovich wrote to each other, confirming their shared view of the famine as a plot directed against them personally. Stalin managed a nice reversal, imagining that it was the peasants, not him, who were using hunger as a weapon. Kaganovich reassured Stalin that talk of Ukrainians as “innocent victims” was just a “rotten cover-up” for the Ukrainian party. Stalin expressed his fear that “we could lose Ukraine.” Ukraine would have to be made into a “fortress.” The two of them agreed that the only reasonable approach was to hold tight to a policy of requisitions, and to export the grain as quickly as possible. By now Stalin seemed to have worked out, at least to his own satisfaction, the connection between starvation and the disloyalty of Ukrainian communists: hunger was a result of sabotage, local party activists were the saboteurs, treacherous higher party officials protected their subordinates—all in the service of Polish espionage.41

Perhaps as late as 1931, Stalin might indeed have interpreted Polish and Japanese policies as heralding an encirclement of the Soviet Union. The year 1930 was a peak time for Polish espionage in the Soviet Union. Poland had secretly founded a Ukrainian army on its own soil, and was training dozens of Ukrainians and Poles for special missions inside the Soviet Union. Japan was indeed ever more threatening. In 1931, the Soviets had intercepted a note from the Japanese ambassador in Moscow, in which he advocated preparations for an offensive war to conquer Siberia. That year Japan had invaded Manchuria, a northeastern Chinese region with a long border with Soviet Siberia.42

In fall 1931, according to a Soviet intelligence report, Poland and Japan had signed a secret agreement concerning a joint attack on the Soviet Union. This was not the case; and insofar as there had been an incipient Polish-Japanese alliance, it was prevented by an adept Soviet foreign policy. Though Japan had declined to negotiate a nonaggression pact with Moscow, Poland had agreed. The Soviet Union wanted a treaty with Poland so that its economic transformation could be pursued in peace; Poland never had any intentions of starting a war, and was now experiencing economic depression. Its largely unreformed agrarian economic system could not support increasing military spending at a time of economic collapse. Soviet military budgets, comparable to Poland’s for many years, were now far greater. The Soviet-Polish agreement was initialed in January 1932.43

In 1932 and 1933, there could be no serious thought of Poland as a threat by itself. The Polish army had suffered massive budget cuts. The Soviet police and border guards had captured a large number of Polish spies. Polish agents had not hindered collectivization during the chaos of 1930, and were helpless to rouse a starving population in 1932. They tried, and they failed. Even the most enthusiastic Polish proponents of an aggressive policy saw summer 1932 as a time for calm. If the Soviets promised peace, it seemed best to make no provocative moves. Polish diplomats and spies were witnesses to the famine. They knew that “cannibalism has become a habit of sorts” and that “entire villages have died out completely.” But they had nothing to do with the famine’s origins, and could do nothing to help the victims. Poland did not publicize to the world what its diplomats knew about the famine. In February 1932, for example, an anonymous letter reached the Polish consulate in Kharkiv, pleading with the Poles to inform the world of the famine in Ukraine. But by then the nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union had been initialed, and Warsaw would take no such step.44

Stalin now had won far more room for maneuver in his western borderlands than he had had in 1930. Poland had accepted the status quo by signing the nonaggression pact in July 1932, and so the Ukrainian peasants were at his mercy. With pedantic enthusiasm, Stalin in August (still on vacation) offered his closest collaborators the theory that collectivization was missing only the correct legal basis. Socialism, he claimed, just like capitalism, needed laws to protect property. The state would be strengthened if all agricultural production was declared to be state property, any unauthorized collection of food deemed theft, and such theft made punishable by immediate execution. Thus a starving peasant could be shot if he picked up a potato peel from a furrow in land that until recently had been his own. Perhaps Stalin really did think that this could work; the result, of course, was the removal of any legal protection that peasants may have had from the full violence of the triumphant state. The simple possession of food was presumptive evidence of a crime. The law came into force on 7 August 1932.45

Soviet judges usually ignored the letter of the law, but the rest of the party and state apparatus understood its spirit. Often the most enthusiastic enforcers of the law were younger people, educated in the new Soviet schools, who believed in the promise of the new system. Members of the official youth organization were told that their “main task” was “the struggle against theft and the hiding of grain as well as kulak sabotage.” For the young generation in the cities, communism had offered social advance, and the world demonized in this agitation was one that they had left behind. The communist party in Soviet Ukraine, though disproportionately Russian and Jewish in its membership, now included many young Ukrainians who believed that the countryside was reactionary and were eager to join in campaigns against peasants.46

Watchtowers went up in the fields to keep peasants from taking anything for themselves. In the Odessa region alone, more than seven hundred watchtowers were constructed. Brigades went from hut to hut, five thousand youth organization members among their members, seizing everything they could find. Activists used, as one peasant recalled, “long metal rods to search through stables, pigsties, stoves. They looked everywhere and took everything, down to the last little grain.” They rushed through the village “like the black death” calling out “Peasant, where is your grain? Confess!” The brigades took everything that resembled food, including supper from the stove, which they ate themselves.47

Like an invading army the party activists lived off the land, taking what they could and eating their fill, with little to show for their work and enthusiasm but misery and death. Perhaps from feelings of guilt, perhaps from feelings of triumph, they humiliated the peasants wherever they went. They would urinate in barrels of pickles, or order hungry peasants to box each other for sport, or make them crawl and bark like dogs, or force them to kneel in the mud and pray. Women caught stealing on one collective farm were stripped, beaten, and carried naked through the village. In one village the brigade got drunk in a peasant’s hut and gang-raped his daughter. Women who lived alone were routinely raped at night under the pretext of grain confiscations—and their food was indeed taken from them after their bodies had been violated. This was the triumph of Stalin’s law and Stalin’s state.48

Raids and decrees could not create food where there was none. Of course peasants will hide food, and hungry people will steal food. But the problem in the Ukrainian countryside was not theft and deceit, which might indeed have been solved by the application of violence. The problem was starvation and death. Grain targets were not met because collectivization had failed, the harvest of autumn 1932 was poor, and requisition targets were too high. Stalin sent Molotov to Ukraine to urge comrades forward in the “struggle for grain.” But the enthusiasm of Stalin’s servants could not change what had already happened. Even Molotov was forced to recommend on 30 October that quotas for Ukraine be reduced somewhat. Stalin accepted the recommendation, but soon he was more categorical than ever. As of November 1932 only about one third of the annual target had been met.49

As reports about failed requisitions were delivered to the Kremlin, Stalin’s wife killed herself. She chose 7 November 1932, the fifteenth anniversary of the October Revolution, to shoot herself in the heart. Just what this meant to Stalin can never be entirely clear, but it seems to have been a shock. He threatened to kill himself as well. Kaganovich, who found Stalin a changed man, had to give the funeral oration.50

The next day Stalin approached the problem of the famine with a new degree of malice. He placed the blame for problems in Ukraine at the feet of Ukrainian comrades and peasants. Two politburo telegrams sent out on 8 November 1932 reflected the mood: individual and collective farmers in Soviet Ukraine who failed to meet requisition targets were to be denied access to products from the rest of the economy. A special troika was created in Ukraine to hasten the sentencing and execution of party activists and peasants who, supposedly, were responsible for sabotage. Some 1,623 kolkhoz officials were arrested that month. Deportations within Ukraine were resumed: 30,400 more people were gone by the end of the year. The activists told the peasants: “Open up, or we’ll knock down the door. We’ll take what you have, and you’ll die in a camp.”51

As Stalin interpreted the disaster of collectivization in the last weeks of 1932, he achieved new heights of ideological daring. The famine in Ukraine, whose existence he had admitted earlier, when it was far less severe, was now a “fairy tale,” a slanderous rumor spread by enemies. Stalin had developed an interesting new theory: that resistance to socialism increases as its successes mount, because its foes resist with greater desperation as they contemplate their final defeat. Thus any problem in the Soviet Union could be defined as an example of enemy action, and enemy action could be defined as evidence of progress.52

Resistance to his policies in Soviet Ukraine, Stalin argued, was of a special sort, perhaps not visible to the imperceptive observer. Opposition was no longer open, for the enemies of socialism were now “quiet” and even “holy.” The “kulaks of today,” he said, were “gentle people, kind, almost saintly.” People who appeared to be innocent were to be seen as guilty. A peasant slowly dying of hunger was, despite appearances, a saboteur working for the capitalist powers in their campaign to discredit the Soviet Union. Starvation was resistance, and resistance was a sign that the victory of socialism was just around the corner. These were not merely Stalin’s musings in Moscow; this was the ideological line enforced by Molotov and Kaganovich as they traveled through regions of mass death in late 1932.53

Stalin never personally witnessed the starvations that he so interpreted, but comrades in Soviet Ukraine did: they had somehow to reconcile his ideological line to the evidence of their senses. Forced to interpret distended bellies as political opposition, they produced the utterly tortured conclusion that the saboteurs hated socialism so much that they intentionally let their families die. Thus the wracked bodies of sons and daughters and fathers and mothers were nothing more than a facade behind which foes plotted the destruction of socialism. Even the starving themselves were sometimes presented as enemy propagandists with a conscious plan to undermine socialism. Young Ukrainian communists in the cities were taught that the starving were enemies of the people “who risked their lives to spoil our optimism.”54

Ukrainians in Poland gathered money for food donations, only to learn that the Soviet government categorically rejected any assistance. Ukrainian communists who asked for food relief from abroad, accepted by Soviet authorities in the early 1920s during the previous famine, got no hearing at all. For political reasons, Stalin did not wish to accept any help from the outside world. Perhaps he believed that if he were to remain atop the party, he could not admit that his first major policy had brought famine. Yet Stalin might have saved millions of lives without drawing any outside attention to the Soviet Union. He could have suspended food exports for a few months, released grain reserves (three million tons), or just given peasants access to local grain storage areas. Such simple measures, pursued as late as November 1932, could have kept the death toll to the hundreds of thousands rather than the millions. Stalin pursued none of them.55

In the waning weeks of 1932, facing no external security threat and no challenge from within, with no conceivable justification except to prove the inevitability of his rule, Stalin chose to kill millions of people in Soviet Ukraine. He shifted to a position of pure malice, where the Ukrainian peasant was somehow the aggressor and he, Stalin, the victim. Hunger was a form of aggression, for Kaganovich in a class struggle, for Stalin in a Ukrainian national struggle, against which starvation was the only defense. Stalin seemed determined to display his dominance over the Ukrainian peasantry, and seemed even to enjoy the depths of suffering that such a posture would require. Amartya Sen has argued that starvation is “a function of entitlements and not of food availability as such.” It was not food shortages but food distribution that killed millions in Soviet Ukraine, and it was Stalin who decided who was entitled to what.56

Though collectivization was a disaster everywhere in the Soviet Union, the evidence of clearly premeditated mass murder on the scale of millions is most evident in Soviet Ukraine. Collectivization had involved the massive use of executions and deportations everywhere in the Soviet Union, and the peasants and nomads who made up the bulk of the Gulag’s labor force hailed from all of the Soviet republics. Famine had struck parts of Soviet Russia as well as much of Soviet Ukraine in 1932. Nevertheless, the policy response to Ukraine was special, and lethal. Seven crucial policies were applied only, or mainly, in Soviet Ukraine in late 1932 or early 1933. Each of them may seem like an anodyne administrative measure, and each of them was certainly presented as such at the time, and yet each of them had to kill.

1. On 18 November 1932, peasants in Ukraine were required to return grain advances that they had previously earned by meeting grain requisition targets. This meant that the few localities where peasants had had good yields were deprived of what little surplus they had earned. The party brigades and the state police were unleashed on these regions, in a feverish hunt for whatever food could be found. Because peasants were not given receipts for the grain that they did hand over, they were subject to endless searches and abuse. The Ukrainian party leadership tried to protect the seed grain, but without success.57

2. Two days later, on 20 November 1932, a meat penalty was introduced. Peasants who were unable to make grain quotas were now required to pay a special tax in meat. Peasants who still had livestock were now forced to surrender it to the state. Cattle and swine had been a last reserve against starvation. As a peasant girl remembered, “whoever had a cow didn’t starve.” A cow gives milk, and as a last resort it can be slaughtered. Another peasant girl remembered that the family’s one pig was seized, and then the family’s one cow. She held its horns as it was led away. This was, perhaps, the attachment that teenaged girls on farms feel for their animals. But it was also desperation. Even after the meat penalty was paid, peasants still had to fulfill the original grain quota. If they could not do this under the threat of losing their animals, they certainly could not do so afterward. They starved.58

3. Eight days later, on 28 November 1932, Soviet authorities introduced the “black list.” According to this new regulation, collective farms that failed to meet grain targets were required, immediately, to surrender fifteen times the amount of grain that was normally due in a whole month. In practice this meant, again, the arrival of hordes of party activists and police, with the mission and the legal right to take everything. No village could meet the multiplied quota, and so whole communities lost all of the food that they had. Communities on the black list also had no right to trade, or to receive deliveries of any kind from the rest of the country. They were cut off from food or indeed any other sort of supply from anywhere else. The black-listed communities in Soviet Ukraine, sometimes selected from as far away as Moscow, became zones of death.59

4. On 5 December 1932, Stalin’s handpicked security chief for Ukraine presented the justification for terrorizing Ukrainian party officials to collect the grain. Vsevolod Balytskyi had spoken with Stalin personally in Moscow on 15 and 24 November. The famine in Ukraine was to be understood, according to Balytskyi, as the result of a plot of Ukrainian nationalists—in particular, of exiles with connections to Poland. Thus anyone who failed to do his part in requisitions was a traitor to the state.60

Yet this policy line had still deeper implications. The connection of Ukrainian nationalism to Ukrainian famine authorized the punishment of those who had taken part in earlier Soviet policies to support the development of the Ukrainian nation. Stalin believed that the national question was in essence a peasant question, and as he undid Lenin’s compromise with the peasants he also found himself undoing Lenin’s compromise with the nations. On 14 December Moscow authorized the deportation of local Ukrainian communists to concentration camps, on the logic that they had abused Soviet policies in order to spread Ukrainian nationalism, thus allowing nationalists to sabotage the grain collection. Balytskyi then claimed to have unmasked a “Ukrainian Military Organization” as well as Polish rebel groups. He would report, in January 1933, the discovery of more than a thousand illegal organizations and, in February, the plans of Polish and Ukrainian nationalists to overthrow Soviet rule in Ukraine.61

The justifications were fabricated, but the policy had consequences. Poland had withdrawn its agents from Ukraine, and had given up any hope of exploiting the disaster of collectivization. The Polish government, attempting to be loyal to the Soviet-Polish nonaggression pact signed in July 1932, declined even to draw international attention to the worsening Soviet famine. Yet Balytskyi’s policy, though it rode the coattails of phantoms, generated local obedience to Moscow’s policy. The mass arrests and mass deportations he ordered sent a very clear message: anyone who defended the peasants would be condemned as an enemy. In these crucial weeks of late December, as the death toll in Soviet Ukraine rose into the hundreds of thousands, Ukrainian activists and administrators knew better than to resist the party line. If they did not carry out requisitions, they would find themselves (in the best case) in the Gulag.62

5. On 21 December 1932, Stalin (through Kaganovich) affirmed the annual grain requisition quota for Soviet Ukraine, to be reached by January 1933. On 27 November, the Soviet politburo had assigned Ukraine a full third of the remaining collections for the entire Soviet Union. Now, hundreds of thousands of starvation deaths later, Stalin sent Kaganovich to hold the whip hand over the Ukrainian party leadership in Kharkiv. Right after Kaganovich arrived on the evening of 20 December, the Ukrainian politburo was forced to convene. Sitting until four o’clock the next morning, it resolved that requisition targets were to be met. This was a death sentence for about three million people. As everyone in that room knew in those early morning hours, grain could not be collected from an already starving population without the most horrific of consequences. A simple respite from requisitions for three months would not have harmed the Soviet economy, and would have saved most of those three million lives. Yet Stalin and Kaganovich insisted on exactly the contrary. The state would fight “ferociously,” as Kaganovich put it, to fulfill the plan.63

Having achieved his mission in Kharkiv, Kaganovich then traveled through Soviet Ukraine, demanding “100 percent” fulfillment of the plan and sentencing local officials and ordering deportations of families as he went. He returned to Kharkiv on 29 December 1932 to remind Ukrainian party leaders that the seed grain was also to be collected.64

6. As starvation raged throughout Ukraine in the first weeks of 1933, Stalin sealed the borders of the republic so that peasants could not flee, and closed the cities so that peasants could not beg. As of 14 January 1933 Soviet citizens had to carry internal passports in order to reside in cities legally. Peasants were not to receive them. On 22 January 1933 Balytskyi warned Moscow that Ukrainian peasants were fleeing the republic, and Stalin and Molotov ordered the state police to prevent their flight. The next day the sale of long-distance rail tickets to peasants was banned. Stalin’s justification was that the peasant refugees were not in fact begging bread but, rather, engaging in a “counterrevolutionary plot,” by serving as living propaganda for Poland and other capitalist states that wished to discredit the collective farm. By the end of February 1933 some 190,000 peasants had been caught and sent back to their home villages to starve.65

Stalin had his “fortress” in Ukraine, but it was a stronghold that resembled a giant starvation camp, with watchtowers, sealed borders, pointless and painful labor, and endless and predictable death.

7. Even after the annual requisition target for 1932 was met in late January 1933, collection of grain continued. Requisitions went forward in February and March, as party members sought grain for the spring sowing. At the end of December 1932, Stalin had approved Kaganovich’s proposal that the seed grain for the spring be seized to make the annual target. This left the collective farms with nothing to plant for the coming fall. Seed grain for the spring sowing might have been drawn from the trainloads bound at that very moment for export, or taken from the three million tons that the Soviet Union had stored as a reserve. Instead it was seized from what little the peasants in Soviet Ukraine still had. This was very often the last bit of food that peasants needed to survive until the spring harvest. Some 37,392 people were arrested in Soviet Ukrainian villages that month, many of them presumably trying to save their families from starvation.66

This final collection was murder, even if those who executed it very often believed that they were doing the right thing. As one activist remembered, that spring he “saw people dying from hunger. I saw women and children with distended bellies, turning blue, still breathing but with vacant, lifeless eyes.” Yet he “saw all this and did not go out of my mind or commit suicide.” He had faith: “As before, I believed because I wanted to believe.” Other activists, no doubt, were less faithful and more fearful. Every level of the Ukrainian party had been purged in the previous year; in January 1933, Stalin sent in his own men to control its heights. Those communists who no longer expressed their faith formed a “wall of silence” that doomed those it surrounded. They had learned that to resist was to be purged, and to be purged was to share the fate of those whose deaths they were now bringing about.67

In Soviet Ukraine in early 1933, the communist party activists who collected the grain left a deathly quiet behind them. The countryside has its own orchestra of sound, softer and slower than the city, but no less predictable and reassuring for those born to it. Ukraine had gone mute.

Peasants had killed their livestock (or lost it to the state), they had killed their chickens, they had killed their cats and their dogs. They had scared the birds away by hunting them. The human beings had fled, too, if they were lucky; more likely they too were dead, or too weak to make noise. Cut off from the attention of the world by a state that controlled the press and the movements of foreign journalists, cut off from official help or sympathy by a party line that equated starvation with sabotage, cut off from the economy by intense poverty and inequitable planning, cut off from the rest of the country by regulations and police cordons, people died alone, families died alone, whole villages died alone. Two decades later, the political philosopher Hannah Arendt would present this famine in Ukraine as the crucial event in the creation of a modern “atomized” society, the alienation of all from all.68

Starvation led not to rebellion but to amorality, to crime, to indifference, to madness, to paralysis, and finally to death. Peasants endured months of indescribable suffering, indescribable because of its duration and pain, but also indescribable because people were too weak, too poor, too illiterate to chronicle what was happening to them. But the survivors did remember. As one of them recalled, no matter what peasants did, “they went on dying, dying, dying.” The death was slow, humiliating, ubiquitous, and generic. To die of starvation with some sort of dignity was beyond the reach of almost everyone. Petro Veldii showed rare strength when he dragged himself through his village on the day he expected to die. The other villagers asked him where he was going: to the cemetery to lay himself down. He did not want strangers coming and dragging his body away to a pit. So he had dug his own grave, but by the time he reached the cemetery another body had filled it. He dug himself another one, lay down, and waited.69

A very few outsiders witnessed and were able to record what happened in these most terrible of months. The journalist Gareth Jones had paid his own way to Moscow, and, violating a ban on travel to Ukraine, took a train to Kharkiv on 7 March 1933. He disembarked at random at a small station and tramped through the countryside with a backpack full of food. He found “famine on a colossal scale.” Everywhere he went he heard the same two phrases: “Everyone is swollen from starvation” and “We are waiting to die.” He slept on dirt floors with starving children, and learned the truth. Once, after he had shared his food, a little girl exclaimed: “Now that I have eaten such wonderful things I can die happy.”70

Maria Łowińska traveled that same spring through Soviet Ukraine, accompanying her husband as he tried to sell his handiworks. The villages they knew from previous treks were now deserted. They were frightened by the unending silence. If they heard a cock crow they were so happy that they were alarmed by their own reaction. The Ukrainian musician Yosyp Panasenko was dispatched by central authorities with his troupe of bandura players to provide culture to the starving peasants. Even as the state took the peasants’ last bit of food, it had the grotesque inclination to elevate the minds and rouse the spirits of the dying. The musicians found village after village completely abandoned. Then they finally came across some people: two girls dead in a bed, two legs of a man protruding from a stove, and an old lady raving and running her fingernails through the dirt. The party official Viktor Kravchenko entered a village to help with the harvest one evening. The next day he found seventeen corpses in the marketplace. Such scenes could be found in villages throughout Soviet Ukraine, where in that spring of 1933 people died at a rate of more than ten thousand a day.71

Ukrainians who chose not to resist the collective farms believed that they had at least escaped deportation. But now they could be deported because collective farming did not work. Some fifteen thousand peasants were deported from Soviet Ukraine between February and April 1933. Just east and south of Soviet Ukraine, in parts of the Russian republic of the Soviet Union inhabited by Ukrainians, some sixty thousand people were deported for failing to make grain quotas. In 1933 some 142,000 more Soviet citizens were sent to the Gulag, most of them either hungry or sick with typhus, many of them from Soviet Ukraine.72

In the camps they tried to find enough to eat. Since the Gulag had a policy of feeding the strong and depriving the weak, and these deportees were already weak from hunger, this was desperately difficult. When hungry prisoners poisoned themselves by eating wild plants and garbage, camp officials punished them for shirking. At least 67,297 people died of hunger and related illnesses in the camps and 241,355 perished in the special settlements in 1933, many of them natives of Soviet Ukraine. Untold thousands more died on the long journey from Ukraine to Kazakhstan or the far north. Their corpses were removed from the trains and buried on the spot, their names and their numbers unrecorded.73

Those who were starving when they left their homes had little chance of survival in an alien environment. As one state official recorded in May 1933: “When traveling, I often witnessed administrative exiles haunting the villages like shadows in search of a piece of bread or refuse. They eat carrion, slaughter dogs and cats. The villagers keep their houses locked. Those who get a chance to enter a house drop on their knees in front of the owner and, with tears, beg for a piece of bread. I witnessed several deaths on the roads between villages, in the bath-houses, and in the barns. I myself saw hungry, agonized people crawling on the sidewalk. They were picked up by the police and died several hours later. In late April an investigator and I passed by a barn and found a dead body. When we sent for a policeman and a medic to pick it up, they discovered another body inside the barn. Both died of hunger, with no violence.” The Ukrainian countryside had already exported its food to the rest of the Soviet Union; now it exported some of the resulting starvation—to the Gulag.74

Children born in Soviet Ukraine in the late 1920s and early 1930s found themselves in a world of death, among helpless parents and hostile authorities. A boy born in 1933 had a life expectancy of seven years. Even in these circumstances, some younger children could manage a bit of good cheer. Hanna Sobolewska, who lost her father and five brothers and sisters to starvation, remembered her youngest brother Józef ’s painful hope. Even as he swelled from hunger he kept finding signs of life. One day he thought he could see the crops rising from the ground; on another, he believed that he had found mushrooms. “Now we will live!” he would exclaim, and repeat these words before he went to sleep each night. Then one morning he awoke and said: “Everything dies.” Schoolchildren at first wrote to the appropriate authorities, in the hope that starvation was the result of a misunderstanding. One class of elementary school students, for example, sent a letter to party authorities asking “for your help, since we are falling down from hunger. We should be learning, but we are too hungry to walk.”75

Soon this was no longer noteworthy. In eight-year-old Yurii Lysenko’s school in the Kharkiv region, a girl simply collapsed in class one day, as if asleep. The adults rushed in, but Yurii knew that she was beyond hope, “that she had died and that they would bury her in the cemetery, like they had buried people yesterday, and the day before yesterday, and every day.” Boys from another school pulled out the severed head of a classmate while fishing in a pond. His whole family had died. Had they eaten him first? Or had he survived the deaths of his parents only to be killed by a cannibal? No one knew; but such questions were commonplace for the children of Ukraine in 1933.76

The duties of parents could not be fulfilled. Marriages suffered as wives, sometimes with their husbands’ anguished consent, prostituted themselves with local party leaders for flour. Parents, even when alive and together and acting in the best of faith, could hardly care for children. One day a father in the Vynnitsia region went to bury one of his two children, and returned to find the other dead. Some parents loved their children by protecting them, locking them in cottages to keep them safe from the roving bands of cannibals. Other parents sent their children away in the hope that they could be saved by others. Parents would give their children to distant family or to strangers, or leave them at train stations. The desperate peasants holding up infants to train windows were not necessarily begging for food: often they were trying to give their children away to someone aboard a train, who was likely from the city and therefore not about to starve to death. Fathers and mothers sent their children to the cities to beg, with very mixed results. Some children starved on the way, or at their destination. Others were taken by city police, to die in the dark in a strange metropolis and be buried in a mass grave with other small bodies. Even when children returned, the news was rarely good. Petro Savhira went with one of his brothers to Kiev to beg and returned to find his other two brothers already dead.77

In the face of starvation, some families divided, parents turning against children, and children against one another. As the state police, the OGPU, found itself obliged to record, in Soviet Ukraine “families kill their weakest members, usually children, and use the meat for eating.” Countless parents killed and ate their children and then died of starvation later anyway. One mother cooked her son for herself and her daughter. One six-year-old girl, saved by other relatives, last saw her father when he was sharpening a knife to slaughter her. Other combinations were, of course, possible. One family killed their daughter-in-law, fed her head to the pigs, and roasted the rest of her body.78

In a broader sense, though, it was politics as well as starvation that destroyed families, turning a younger generation against an older. Members of the Young Communists served in the brigades that requisitioned food. Still, younger children, in the Pioneers, were supposed to be “the eyes and ears of the party inside the family.” The healthier ones were assigned to watch over the fields to prevent theft. Half a million preadolescent and young teenage boys and girls stood in the watchtowers observing adults in Soviet Ukraine in summer 1933. All children were expected to report on their parents.79

Survival was a moral as well as a physical struggle. A woman doctor wrote to a friend in June 1933 that she had not yet become a cannibal, but was “not sure that I shall not be one by the time my letter reaches you.” The good people died first. Those who refused to steal or to prostitute themselves died. Those who gave food to others died. Those who refused to eat corpses died. Those who refused to kill their fellow man died. Parents who resisted cannibalism died before their children did. Ukraine in 1933 was full of orphans, and sometimes people took them in. Yet without food there was little that even the kindest of strangers could do for such children. The boys and girls lay about on sheets and blankets, eating their own excrement, waiting for death.80

In one village in the Kharkiv region, several women did their best to look after children. As one of them recalled, they formed “something like an orphanage.” Their wards were in a pitiful condition: “The children had bulging stomachs; they were covered in wounds, in scabs; their bodies were bursting. We took them outside, we put them on sheets, and they moaned. One day the children suddenly fell silent, we turned around to see what was happening, and they were eating the smallest child, little Petrus. They were tearing strips from him and eating them. And Petrus was doing the same, he was tearing strips from himself and eating them, he ate as much as he could. The other children put their lips to his wounds and drank his blood. We took the child away from the hungry mouths and we cried.”81

Cannibalism is a taboo of literature as well as life, as communities seek to protect their dignity by suppressing the record of this desperate mode of survival. Ukrainians outside Soviet Ukraine, then and since, have treated cannibalism as a source of great shame. Yet while the cannibalism in Soviet Ukraine in 1933 says much about the Soviet system, it says nothing about Ukrainians as a people. With starvation will come cannibalism. There came a moment in Ukraine when there was little or no grain, and the only meat was human. A black market arose in human flesh; human meat may even have entered the official economy. The police investigated anyone selling meat, and state authorities kept a close eye on slaughterhouses and butcher shops. A young communist in the Kharkiv region reported to his superiors that he could make a meat quota, but only by using human beings. In the villages smoke coming from a cottage chimney was a suspicious sign, since it tended to mean that cannibals were eating a kill or that families were roasting one of their members. Police would follow the smoke and make arrests. At least 2,505 people were sentenced for cannibalism in the years 1932 and 1933 in Ukraine, though the actual number of cases was certainly much greater.82

People in Ukraine never considered cannibalism to be acceptable. Even at the height of the famine, villagers were outraged to find cannibals in their midst, so much so that they were spontaneously beaten or even burned to death. Most people did not succumb to cannibalism. An orphan was a child who had not been eaten by his parents. And even those who did eat human flesh acted from various motivations. Some cannibals were clearly criminals of the worst kind. Bazylii Graniewicz, for example, lost his brother Kolya to a cannibal. When the cannibal was arrested by the militia, Kolya’s head was among eleven found in his house. Yet cannibalism was, sometimes, a victimless crime. Some mothers and fathers killed their children and ate them. In those cases the children were clearly victims. But other parents asked their children to make use of their own bodies if they passed away. More than one Ukrainian child had to tell a brother or sister: “Mother says that we should eat her if she dies.” This was forethought and love.83

One of the very last functions that the state performed was the disposal of dead bodies. As a Ukrainian student wrote in January 1933, the task was a difficult one: “The burial of the dead is not always possible, because the hungry die in the fields of wandering from village to village.” In the cities carts would make rounds early in the mornings to remove the peasant dead of the night before. In the countryside the healthier peasants formed brigades to collect the corpses and bury them. They rarely had the inclination or the strength to dig graves very deeply, so that hands and feet could be seen above the earth. Burial crews were paid according to the number of bodies collected, which led to certain abuses. Crews would take the weak along with the dead, and bury them alive. They would talk with such people along the way, explaining to the starving that they would die soon anyway, so what difference could it make? In a few cases such victims managed to dig their way out of the shallow mass graves. In their turn the gravediggers weakened and died, their corpses left where they lay. As an agronomist recalled, the bodies were then “devoured by those dogs that had escaped being eaten and had gone savage.”84

In fall 1933, in villages across Soviet Ukraine the harvest was brought in by Red Army soldiers, communist party activists, workers, and students. Forced to work even as they died, starving peasants had put down crops in spring 1933 that they would not live to harvest. Resettlers came from Soviet Russia to take over houses and villages, and saw that first they would have to remove the bodies of the previous inhabitants. Often the rotten corpses fell apart in their hands. Sometimes the newcomers would then return home, finding that no amount of scrubbing and painting could quite remove the stench. Yet sometimes they stayed. Ukraine’s “ethnographic material,” as one Soviet official told an Italian diplomat, had been altered. As earlier in Soviet Kazakhstan, where the change was even more dramatic, the demographic balance in Soviet Ukraine shifted in favor of Russians.85


How many people were killed by famine in the Soviet Union, and in its Ukrainian republic, in the early 1930s? We will never know with precision. No good records were kept. Such records as do exist confirm the mass scale of the event: public health authorities in Kiev oblast, for example, recorded that 493,644 people were going hungry in that region alone in the month of April 1933. Local authorities feared to record deaths by starvation and, after a while, were in no position to record anything at all. Very often the only instance of state power that had any contact with the dead were the brigades of gravediggers, and they kept nothing like systematic records.86

The Soviet census of 1937 found eight million fewer people than projected: most of these were famine victims in Soviet Ukraine, Soviet Kazakhstan, and Soviet Russia, and the children that they did not then have. Stalin suppressed its findings and had the responsible demographers executed. In 1933, Soviet officials in private conversations most often provided the estimate of 5.5 million dead from hunger. This seems roughly correct, if perhaps somewhat low, for the Soviet Union in the early 1930s, including Soviet Ukraine, Soviet Kazakhstan, and Soviet Russia.87

One demographic retrojection suggests a figure of about 2.5 million famine deaths for Soviet Ukraine. This is too close to the recorded figure of excess deaths, which is about 2.4 million. The latter figure must be substantially low, since many deaths were not recorded. Another demographic calculation, carried out on behalf of the authorities of independent Ukraine, provides the figure of 3.9 million dead. The truth is probably in between these numbers, where most of the estimates of respectable scholars can be found. It seems reasonable to propose a figure of approximately 3.3 million deaths by starvation and hunger-related disease in Soviet Ukraine in 1932-1933. Of these people, some three million would have been Ukrainians, and the rest Russians, Poles, Germans, Jews, and others. Among the million or so dead in the Soviet Russian republic were probably at least two hundred thousand Ukrainians, since the famine struck heavily in regions where Ukrainians lived. Perhaps as many as a hundred thousand more Ukrainians were among the 1.3 million people who died in the earlier famine in Kazakhstan. All in all, no fewer than 3.3 million Soviet citizens died in Soviet Ukraine of starvation and hunger-related diseases; and about the same number of Ukrainians (by nationality) died in the Soviet Union as a whole.88

Rafał Lemkin, the international lawyer who later invented the term genocide, would call the Ukrainian case “the classic example of Soviet genocide.” The fabric of rural society of Ukraine was tested, stretched, and rent. Ukrainian peasants were dead, or humbled, or scattered among camps the length and breadth of the Soviet Union. Those who survived carried feelings of guilt and helplessness, and sometimes memories of collaboration and cannibalism. Hundreds of thousands of orphans would grow up to be Soviet citizens but not Ukrainians, at least not in the way that an intact Ukrainian family and a Ukrainian countryside might have made them. Those Ukrainian intellectuals who survived the calamity lost their confidence. The leading Soviet Ukrainian writer and the leading Soviet Ukrainian political activist both committed suicide, the one in May and the other in July 1933. The Soviet state had defeated those who wished for some autonomy for the Ukrainian republic, and those who wished for some autonomy for themselves and their families.89

Foreign communists in the Soviet Union, witnesses to the famine, somehow managed to see starvation not as a national tragedy but as a step forward for humanity. The writer Arthur Koestler believed at the time that the starving were “enemies of the people who preferred begging to work.” His housemate in Kharkiv, the physicist Alexander Weissberg, knew that millions of peasants had died. Nevertheless, he kept the faith. Koestler naively complained to Weissberg that the Soviet press did not write that Ukrainians “have nothing to eat and therefore are dying like flies.” He and Weissberg knew that to be true, as did everyone who had any contact with the country. Yet to write of the famine would have made their faith impossible. Each of them believed that the destruction of the countryside could be reconciled to a general story of human progress. The deaths of Ukrainian peasants were the price to be paid for a higher civilization. Koestler left the Soviet Union in 1933. When Weissberg saw him off at the train station, his parting words were: “Whatever happens, hold the banner of the Soviet Union high!”90

Yet the end result of the starvation was not socialism, in any but the Stalinist sense of the term. In one village in Soviet Ukraine, the triumphal arch built to celebrate the completion of the Five-Year Plan was surrounded by the corpses of peasants. The Soviet officials who persecuted the kulaks had more money than their victims, and the urban party members far better life prospects. Peasants had no right to ration cards, while party elites chose from a selection of food at special stores. If they grew too fat, however, they had to beware the roving “sausage makers,” especially at night. Rich women in Ukrainian cities, usually the wives of high officials, traded their food rations for peasant embroidery and ornaments stolen from country churches. In this way, too, collectivization robbed the Ukrainian village of its identity, even as it destroyed the Ukrainian peasant morally and then physically. Hunger drove Ukrainians and others to strip themselves and their places of worship before it drove them to their deaths.91

Although Stalin, Kaganovich, and Balytskyi explained the repressions in Soviet Ukraine as a response to Ukrainian nationalism, Soviet Ukraine was a multinational republic. The starvation touched Russians, Poles, Germans, and many others. Jews in Soviet Ukraine tended to live in towns and cities, but those in the countryside were no less vulnerable than anyone else. One day in 1933 a staff writer for the party newspaper Pravda, which denied the famine, received a letter from his Jewish father. “This is to let you know,” wrote the father, “that your mother is dead. She died of starvation after months of pain.” Her last wish was that their son say kaddish for her. This exchange reveals the generational difference between parents raised before the revolution and children raised thereafter. Not only among Jews, but among Ukrainians and others, the generation educated in the 1920s was far more likely to accept the Soviet system than the generations raised in the Russian Empire.92

German and Polish diplomats informed their superiors of the suffering and death of the German and Polish minorities in Soviet Ukraine. The German consul in Kharkiv wrote that “almost every time I venture into the streets I see people collapsing from hunger.” Polish diplomats faced long lines of starving people desperate for a visa. One of them reported: “Frequently the clients, grown men, cry as they tell of wives and children starving to death or bursting from hunger.” As these diplomats knew, many peasants in Soviet Ukraine, not only Poles and Germans, hoped for an invasion from abroad to release them from their agony. Until the middle of 1932, their greatest hope was Poland. Stalin’s propaganda had been telling them for five years that Poland was planning to invade and annex Ukraine. When the famine began, many Ukrainian peasants hoped that this propaganda was true. As one Polish spy reported, they clung to the hope that “Poland or for that matter any other state would come and liberate them from misery and oppression.”93

When Poland and the Soviet Union signed their nonaggression pact in July 1932, that hope was dashed. Thenceforth the peasants could only hope for a German attack. Eight years later, those who survived would be in a position to compare Soviet to German rule.

The basic facts of mass hunger and death, although sometimes reported in the European and American press, never took on the clarity of an undisputed event. Almost no one claimed that Stalin meant to starve Ukrainians to death; even Adolf Hitler preferred to blame the Marxist system. It was controversial to note that starvation was taking place at all. Gareth Jones did so in a handful of newspaper articles; it seems that he was the only one to do so in English under his own name. When Cardinal Theodor Innitzer of Vienna tried to appeal for food aid for the starving in summer and autumn 1933, Soviet authorities rebuffed him nastily, saying that the Soviet Union had neither cardinals nor cannibals—a statement that was only half true.94

Though the journalists knew less than the diplomats, most of them understood that millions were dying from hunger. The influential Moscow correspondent of the New York Times, Walter Duranty, did his best to undermine Jones’s accurate reporting. Duranty, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932, called Jones’s account of the famine a “big scare story.” Duranty’s claim that there was “no actual starvation” but only “widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition” echoed Soviet usages and pushed euphemism into mendacity. This was an Orwellian distinction; and indeed George Orwell himself regarded the Ukrainian famine of 1933 as a central example of a black truth that artists of language had covered with bright colors. Duranty knew that millions of people had starved to death. Yet he maintained in his journalism that the hunger served a higher purpose. Duranty thought that “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” Aside from Jones, the only journalist to file serious reports in English was Malcolm Muggeridge, writing anonymously for the Manchester Guardian. He wrote that the famine was “one of the most monstrous crimes in history, so terrible that people in the future will scarcely be able to believe that it happened.”95

In fairness, even the people with the most obvious interest in events in Soviet Ukraine, the Ukrainians living beyond the border of the Soviet Union, needed months to understand the extent of the famine. Some five million Ukrainians lived in neighboring Poland, and their political leaders worked hard to draw international attention to the mass starvation in the Soviet Union. And yet even they grasped the extent of the tragedy only in May 1933, by which time most of the victims were already dead. Throughout the following summer and autumn, Ukrainian newspapers in Poland covered the famine, and Ukrainian politicians in Poland organized marches and protests. The leader of the Ukrainian feminist organization tried to organized an international boycott of Soviet goods by appealing to the women of the world. Several attempts were made to reach Franklin D. Roosevelt, the president of the United States.96

None of this made any difference. The laws of the international market ensured that the grain taken from Soviet Ukraine would feed others. Roosevelt, preoccupied above all by the position of the American worker during the Great Depression, wished to establish diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. The telegrams from Ukrainian activists reached him in autumn 1933, just as his personal initiative in US-Soviet relations was bearing fruit. The United States extended diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union in November 1933.

The main result of the summer campaign of Ukrainians in Poland was skillful Soviet counterpropaganda. On 27 August 1933, the French politician Édouard Herriot arrived in Kiev, on an official invitation. The leader of the Radical Party, Herriot had been French prime minister three times, most recently in 1932. He was a corpulent man of known physical appetites, who compared his own body shape to that of a woman pregnant with twins. At the receptions in the Soviet Union, Herriot was kept away from the German and the Polish diplomats, who might have spoiled the fun with an untoward word about starvation.97

The day before Herriot was to visit the city, Kiev had been closed, and its population ordered to clean and decorate. The shop windows, empty all year, were now suddenly filled with food. The food was for display, not for sale, for the eyes of a single foreigner. The police, wearing fresh new uniforms, had to disperse the gaping crowds. Everyone who lived or worked along Herriot’s planned route was forced to go through a dress rehearsal of the visit, demonstrating that they knew where to stand and what to wear. Herriot was driven down Kiev’s incomparable broad avenue, Khreshchatyk. It pulsed with the traffic of automobiles—which had been gathered from several cities and were now driven by party activists to create the appearance of bustle and prosperity. A woman on the street muttered that “perhaps this bourgeois will tell the world what is happening here.” She was to be disappointed. Herriot instead expressed his astonishment that the Soviet Union had managed so beautifully to honor both “the socialist spirit” and “Ukrainian national feeling.”98

On 30 August 1933, Herriot visited the Feliks Dzierżyński Children’s Commune in Kharkiv, a school named after the founder of the Soviet secret police. At this time, children were still starving to death in the Kharkiv region. The children he saw were gathered from among the healthiest and fittest. Most likely they wore clothes that they had been loaned that morning. The picture, of course, was not entirely false: the Soviets had built schools for Ukrainian children, and were on the way to eliminating illiteracy. Children who were alive at the end of 1933 would very likely become adults who could read. This is what Herriot was meant to see. What, the Frenchman asked, entirely without irony, had the students eaten for lunch? It was a question, posed casually, on which the image of the Soviet Union depended. Vasily Grossman would repeat the scene in both of his great novels. As Grossman would recall, the children had been prepared for this question, and gave a suitable answer. Herriot believed what he saw and heard. He journeyed onward to Moscow, where he was fed caviar in a palace.99

The collective farms of Soviet Ukraine, Herriot told the French upon his return, were well-ordered gardens. The official Soviet party newspaper, Pravda, was pleased to report Herriot’s remarks. The story was over. Or, perhaps, the story was elsewhere.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!