Sunday, January 14, 2018

New History of the Ukrainian Famine

This is Sophie Pinkham's review of Anne Applebaum's Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine. It's really good, dang!

(Pinkham's the author of Black Square: Adventures in Post-Soviet Ukraine.)

At the Nation, "The Candle of Memory":
In 1928, Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union had a food problem. Because of policies that gave farmers little incentive to sell their grain, the state could no longer feed the urban population. Stalin became convinced that counterrevolutionary “kulaks”—a mostly imaginary class of fat-cat capitalist peasants—were hoarding grain. He ordered requisitions that angered the peasants and discouraged production, leading to further grain shortages, which in turn were followed by even more requisitions. Stalin had quickly made his own suspicions come true: Peasants began to hoard and hide grain—in protest and as a means of survival.

In response to this crisis, the Communist Party’s Central Committee decided to collectivize agriculture in 1929. Collective farms were to function like state-owned agricultural factories, with peasant farmers transmogrified into workers. The fantasy was that scientific innovations would vastly improve productivity, providing bountiful food for the cities, with plenty left over to export in exchange for the hard currency needed for rapid industrialization.

Though some high-ranking members of the party (notably Nikolai Bukharin) opposed forced collectivization, Stalin chose to employ the most coercive and violent methods available to him. He began by having millions of “kulaks” deported to distant collective farms, depriving them of the ties to community that would aid them in a rebellion. Many peasants chose to destroy their crops and slaughter their livestock rather than turn them over to the state; some of the more religious ones came to believe that the Soviet Antichrist was ringing in the end of the world. Others, more accurately, saw collectivization as a form of “second serfdom.” Peasants lynched and murdered Soviet officials and volunteers in charge of collectivization.

The result of Stalin’s policies was a man-made famine of terrifying scale. By the spring of 1932, peasants in the grain-growing districts of Ukraine, the northern Caucasus, the Volga region, and western Siberia were starving. Applebaum draws on oral testimonies and memoirs that offer a vivid look into the transformations wrought by famine. One Ukrainian survivor described his brother as “alive but completely swollen, his body shining as if it were made of glass.” An activist from Russia remembered Ukrainian children looking “all alike: their heads like heavy kernels, their necks skinny as a stork’s…the skin itself like yellow gauze stretched over their skeletons.” Some parents abandoned or even killed their children, unable to bear watching them starve to death. There were instances of cannibalism, usually necrophagia. Though this horror was the result of Soviet policy, the police arrested those who succumbed to it. Applebaum quotes a Polish woman who wrote in her gulag memoir about being transferred to a prison island populated by “Ukrainian cannibals”:
They described how their children died of hunger, and how they themselves, very close to starvation, cooked the corpses of their own children and ate them. This happened when they were in a state of shock caused by hunger. Later, when they came to understand what had happened, they lost their minds.
People died in the streets, and no one had the strength to bury them. Peasants were forbidden to enter the cities in search of food, and the areas most affected, including Ukraine, were closed off. Policemen and party activists searched village households and confiscated any remaining animals or food they saw, even crusts of bread. Harsh penalties—execution or 10 years’ hard labor—were imposed for any kind of theft. By the end of 1932, less than six months after the new law had been passed, 4,500 people had been executed for violating it, and more than 100,000 had received 10-year sentences.

Party members, ordinary people, and cultural figures like the author Mikhail Sholokhov wrote to Stalin, describing the horrendous situation and imploring him to help. Moscow party boss Martemyan Ryutin released an opposition platform denouncing the Soviet leader and aggressively criticizing coercive collectivization and the anti-kulak terror; he and his family were soon arrested and executed. Members of the Ukrainian Communist Party pleaded with Stalin to lower the quotas and provide food aid; some quit in protest. Many paid for these protests with their lives, and others committed suicide.

In May of 1933, the Soviet authorities finally approved substantial food aid, sent in workers to help bring in the harvest, stopped the arrests of peasants (in part because the prisons and camps were overflowing), and ended the policy of food confiscation. Grain quotas were reduced. But the damage done was almost unimaginable: Between 1931 and 1934, at least 5 million people starved to death across the Soviet Union...