As with all totalitarian regimes, Bolshevik Russia looked fearfully upon any expression of national feeling among its captive peoples. Bolshevik propaganda concerning the rights of the various nationalities within the Russian orbit masked the regime’s fear of the power of nationalism.
In early 1918 Russian leader V.I. Lenin attempted to force a Soviet government on the people of the Ukraine, who just one month earlier had declared their independence. The short-lived Soviet government in the Ukraine attempted to suppress Ukrainian educational and social institutions; we even hear cases of the Cheka, an early forerunner of the KGB, shooting people for the crime of speaking Ukrainian in the streets.
Although the Ukrainian people eventually re-established their republic later in 1918, their victory was fleeting. Lenin would doubtless have wanted to incorporate the Ukraine into the Soviet system in any case, but he was particularly adamant about securing control of the Ukraine because of its great resources. In particular, the Ukraine boasted some of the most fertile soil in Europe — hence its nickname, "the breadbasket of Europe."
By early 1919, a Soviet government had once again been established in the Ukraine. But this new Soviet government was another failure. These events were occurring during the Russian Civil War, and the help of rival factions contributed to a second victory for Ukrainian independence.
Lenin’s regime learned a valuable lesson from these two failures. According to Robert Conquest, "The conclusion was reached that the Ukraine nationality and language was indeed a major factor, and that a regime which ignored this too ostentatiously was doomed to be considered by the population as a mere imposition." When the Soviets gained control over the Ukraine for a third and final time in 1920 they realized that they would be faced with ceaseless uprisings and resistance unless they made major concessions to Ukrainian cultural autonomy. And so for the next decade the Ukrainians were essentially left alone in their language and culture. But a faction of Russian communists could always be found who believed that Ukrainian nationalism was a source of intolerable division within Soviet ranks, and that sooner or later the situation would have to be confronted somehow.
Fast forward eight years. In 1928, with Joseph Stalin securely in power, the Soviet Union decided upon a policy of massive grain requisition — a sanitized way of saying that they planned to seize grain from the peasants by force. The Soviet leadership, as a result both of poor information and of their characteristic ignorance of market principles, had become convinced that the country was in the grip of a grain crisis. Requisitioning worked, in the limited sense that it provided the regime with the grain it believed it needed. But it fatally undermined the peasants’ future confidence in the system. From now on, the potential revival of requisitioning, which the peasants had hoped was a barbaric aberration of the Russian Civil War (when Lenin had called for massive grain confiscations), would forever loom in the background. The peasants, naturally, now had much less incentive to produce, knowing full well that the fruits of their toil could easily be seized by a lawless regime — the same regime that seized, in 1928, the very grain it had promised the peasants they could freely produce and sell.
It was only a matter of time before the regime decided to embark upon farm collectivization, since the abolition of private property in land was an important aspect of the Marxist program. The peasants would be herded onto enormous state-owned farms. These farms would not only satisfy the demands of Marxist ideology, but they would also solve the regime’s practical problem of ensuring that an adequate amount of grain would be supplied to the cities, where the Soviet proletariat was hard at work carrying forward rapid industrialization. State-owned collective farms meant state-owned grain.
Some experts tried to warn that Stalin’s goals, both industrial and agricultural, were entirely too ambitious, and ludicrously at odds with reality. Stalin would have none of it. One of his economists simply explained, "Our task is not to study economics but to change it. We are bound by no laws. There are no fortresses which Bolsheviks cannot storm."
Hand in hand with Stalin’s collectivization policy was a brutal campaign against the large landowners or "kulaks," who could be expected to lead any resistance to collectivization. It was a Stalinist fantasy that only the kulaks, as originally defined, opposed collectivization; the entire countryside was united against it. (Even Pravda reported an incident in which Ukrainian women had attempted to block the passage of tractors arriving to begin work in collectivized farming; the women shouted, "The Soviet government is bringing back serfdom!") Stalin spoke of his policy of "liquidating the kulaks as a class"; they were the class enemy of the countryside. As time went on, the standard for what constituted a kulak became quite expansive indeed, to the point at which the term — and the terrible penalties that applied to all those to whom it was applied — could be applied to practically any peasant at all.
A history of the Communist Party authorized by the regime recorded that "the peasants chased the kulaks from the land, dekulakized them, took away their livestock and machinery, and requested the Soviet power to arrest and deport the kulaks." As a description of the reign of terror carried out against the kulaks, that sentence does not even qualify as a bad joke. The regime, not the peasants, directed the process. Eventually, according to one eyewitness, it was enough to doom a man if he "had paid people to work for him as hired hands, or [if] he had owned three cows."
The roughly 20 million family farms that could be found in Russia in 1929 would, five years later, be concentrated in 240,000 collective farms. Throughout much of Soviet history, it was not unheard of for people to be permitted to own, here and there, a few acres of land for private use. By the time Mikhail Gorbachev took power in 1985, the two percent of privately owned Soviet farmland was producing fully 30 percent of the country’s grain — a humiliating rebuke to those who had so boorishly claimed that socialized agriculture would be more efficient than capitalist agriculture, or that they could change human nature or rewrite the laws of economics.
At the same time that Stalin turned toward forced collectivization, he also revived the campaign against Ukrainian national culture that had been dormant since the early 1920s. It was in the Ukraine that Stalin’s collectivization policy met its fiercest resistance, though the process was nevertheless largely complete even there by 1932. But Stalin considered the continuing presence of Ukrainian national feeling an ongoing threat to the regime, and decided to deal once and for all with what he saw as the problem of divided loyalty in the Ukraine.
The first stage of his policy was directed at Ukrainian intellectuals and cultural personages, thousands of whom were arrested and given a mockery of a trial. Having deprived Ukrainians of people who might have been natural leaders of any resistance movement, Stalin then moved against the peasantry itself, where the real locus of Ukrainian traditions could be found.
Even though the collectivization process was largely complete in the Ukraine, Stalin announced that the battle against the wicked kulak was not yet over — he had been "defeated but not yet exterminated." Stalin would now wage a war, supposedly against the kulak, among the few remaining individual farmers and within the collective farms themselves. Since by this point anyone who by any reasonable definition could have qualified as a kulak had long since been driven away, killed, or sent into slave labor camps, the coming campaign in the Ukraine would be directed at terrorizing ordinary peasants. They would be broken, physically and spiritually, and their identity as a people would be drained from them by force.
Stalin now began issuing delivery targets for grain that the Ukrainians could not meet without themselves dying of starvation. Failure to meet the requirements was chalked up as deliberate sabotage. Eventually Stalin authorized seizure of the peasants’ grain in order to meet the targets. A historian tells us of a woman who, for attempting to cut some of her own rye, was arrested with one of her children; after managing to escape from jail, she gathered together a few items along with her other son and lived in the woods for a month and a half. People were being given ten-year sentences for gathering potatoes, or even for gathering ears of corn from the private plots they were permitted to own.
Communist activists claimed that saboteurs were everywhere, systematically withholding food from Soviet cities and defying Stalin’s orders. They made sweeps through private homes, the kinder agents leaving a modicum of food behind for the family’s use but the more ruthless ones taking everything.
The result was predictable enough: the people began to starve, and in greater and greater numbers. A peasant who did not appear to be starving was considered suspect by Soviet authorities. As one historian recounts, "One activist, after searching the house of a peasant who had failed to swell up, finally found a small bag of flour mixed with ground bark and leaves, which he then poured into the village pond."
Conquest quotes the later testimony of an activist:
I heard the children…choking, coughing with screams. It was excruciating to see and hear all this. And even worse to take part in it…. And I persuaded myself, explained to myself. I mustn’t give in to debilitating pity…. We were performing our revolutionary duty. We were obtaining grain for the socialist fatherland….
Our great goal was the universal triumph of Communism, and for the sake of that goal anything was permissible — to lie, to cheat, to steal, to destroy hundreds of thousands and even millions of people….
This was how I had reasoned, and everyone like me, even when…I saw what "total collectivization" meant — how they "kulakized" and "dekulakized," how they mercilessly stripped the peasants in the winter of 1932—3. I took part in this myself, scouring the countryside, searching for hidden grain…. With the others, I emptied out the old folks’ storage chests, stopping my ears to the children’s crying and the women’s wails. For I was convinced that I was accomplishing the great and necessary transformation of the countryside; that in the days to come the people who lived there would be better off for it….
In the terrible spring of 1933 I saw people dying from hunger. I saw women and children with distended bellies, turning blue, still breathing but with vacant, lifeless eyes…. I [did not] lose my faith. As before, I believed because I wanted to believe.
In 1933 Stalin issued another procurement levy, to be carried out in a Ukraine that was now on the verge of mass starvation, which began around March of that year. I shall spare the reader graphic descriptions of what happened now. But corpses were everywhere, and the stench of death weighed heavily in the air. Cases of insanity, even cannibalism, are well documented. Different peasant families reacted in different ways as they slowly starved to death:
In one hut there would be something like a war. Everyone would keep close watch over everyone else. People would take crumbs from each other. The wife turned against her husband and the husband against his wife. The mother hated the children. And in some other hut love would be inviolable to the very last. I knew one woman with four children. She would tell them fairy stories and legends so that they would forget their hunger. Her own tongue could hardly move, but she would take them into her arms even though she had hardly the strength to lift her arms when they were empty. Love lived on within her. And people noticed that where there was hate people died off more swiftly. Yet love, for that matter, saved no one. The whole village perished, one and all. No life remained in it.
The number of Ukrainian dead in the famine of 1932—33 has generally been given as five million. According to Conquest, other peasant catastrophes from 1930 through 1937, including enormous numbers of deportations of alleged "kulaks," bring the grand total of deaths to a mind-numbing 14.5 million. And yet if even one percent of my students in a given year have even heard of these events, it is a small miracle.
I have referred here a number of times to Robert Conquest, an excellent historian of the Soviet Union. I urge anyone with an interest in these events to read his extraordinary book The Harvest of Sorrow. It reads like a novel — but the story it tells is all too real.
After all the charges over The Passion of the Christ, Peggy Noonan asked Mel Gibson point blank: u201CThe Holocaust happened, right?u201D
A bemused Gibson, expressing surprise that anyone would need him to affirm the historicity of any historical event, said that of course it did. He added that the twentieth century had been replete with atrocities, none of which should be forgotten. He made particular mention of the Ukrainian terror-famine, in which five million people were deliberately starved to death by the regime of Joseph Stalin.
Naturally, such a reply only confirmed Gibson’s perversity in the minds of those who already disliked him. Anti-Defamation League President Abe Foxman professed shock and disgust at Gibson’s remarks. u201CHe doesn’t begin to understand the difference between dying in a famine and people being cremated solely for what they are,u201D Foxman said. So that’s what happened in the Ukraine — people just somehow u201Cdied in a famine.u201D
Professor Thomas E. Woods, Jr. [send him mail] holds an AB from Harvard and a PhD from Columbia. He teaches history, is associate editor of The Latin Mass Magazine, and is co-author of The Great Façade: Vatican II and the Regime of Novelty in the Roman Catholic Church (2002). His next book, The Church Confronts Modernity: Catholic Intellectuals and the Progressive Era, will be published in May by Columbia University Press. A longer version of this article appeared in The Remnant.