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Wednesday, April 1, 1987

A Reviewers Notebook: Harvest of Sorrow

Robert Conquest is a Senior Research Fellow and Scholar-Curator of the East European Collection at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. Among his numerous books on Soviet studies and foreign policy is The Great Terror. which recounts the Soviet mass purges of the 1930s.

Robert Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (New York: Oxford University Press, 412 pp. $19.95) vividly recalls for me the episode that first turned me against the so-called Russian experiment.

I think I was one of the first persons in the United States to learn about the big man-made terror famine that starved seven million people in 1932 and 1933 and sent many more to the gulag in the Siberian taiga. It was Walter Duranty, the New York Times Moscow correspondent, who made a casual remark in the Times elevator to editorial writer Simeon Strunsky and myself that three million (he was short by four million) peasants had perished at Stalin’s whim. When I slipped Duranty’s figure into a book review of Tatiana Tchernavina’s now-for-gotten Escape From the Soviets it got Duranty into trouble. To protect his visa he denied having said anything. If Strunsky hadn’t been in the elevator with me I would have been in trouble myself.

Subsequently William Henry Chamberlin and Gene Lyons did expose the genesis and extent of the famine. But they had to quit their Moscow posts to do it.

Cut off from Russian research sources, neither Cramberlin nor Lyons could do thorough follow-ups in their accounts of what had happened in Russia’s grain-growing regions. It is only now, after more than fifty years, that we have the full story of the famine in Conquest’s incredibly detailed book.

The overwhelming conclusion to be drawn from Conquest’s complicated interweaving of harrowing deportation stories and starvation-to-death statistics, garnered in good part from the anti-Stalin revelations of Khrushchev’s time, is that Communism lives as a system by cheating. Lenin, more of a pragmatist than Stalin, was appalled by what had happened in the Russian countryside when, prematurely, he tried to herd the peasants into collectives just after the Bolsheviks had taken power. Backtracking, Lenin proclaimed his New Economic Policy, or NEP. The peasants, who had accepted the Revolution with a promise that they would get land, were told to enrich themselves. Nobody was to be forced into state farms (sovkhozes) or cooperatives (kolkhozes). The factory farm idea was not abandoned by Lenin, but it was put off to the far future.

What happened was a seven-year period of peace and prosperity throughout the countryside. The more competent peasant farmers who in 1919 had been derided as kulaks (the word comes from “fist”) became comparatively wealthy. They had their own horses and cattle, and could afford hired help. Steel plows were just coming into use along with tractors, but the kulaks made do with wooden plows and hoes where it was necessary. In time they would have had their own tractors if the NEP promises had been kept.

The Ukraine, Russia’s breadbasket in Czarist times, was the biggest benefactor of NEP. Ukrainian nationalists who had been imprisoned or exiled just after the revolution were pardoned. And cultural nationalism among the Ukrainians was allowed to flourish (the Ukrainians have their own language.)

NEP pleased at least eighty per cent of the Russian people. But it didn’t sit well with the ideologues. Lenin’s death was followed by a power struggle in which Stalin, siding at first with rightists who wanted socialism in one country, eliminated Trotsky from the leadership. Then, shifting to the left, Stalin took over Trotsky’s policy of world revolution.

At the end of the Twenties Stalin decided that the time had come to move against the kulaks who had taken Lenin at his word. Quotas were established for forced grain collections. Ten million peasants who happened to own up to twelve acres were deported in 1929 to the sub-Arctic and told to reproduce conditions of Ukrainian or North Caucasus plenty in a climate where such hopes were a mockery. Naturally the young perished in the bitter cold of the taiga and the tundra.

The poorer peasants who had been left on Ukrainian and North Caucasus farms, threatened with immediate collectivization, killed their cows, horses, and sheep and left their grain to rot in the fields. Millions died—in all, the death toll in the forced 1929-33 famines exceeded the number who had died in World War I. Conquest estimates that fifteen million died either directly or indirectly.

Stalin, a Georgian, had a particular animus against the Ukraine. He closed the borders between the Ukraine and Russia proper. Moscow and Leningrad had food, but the country around Kiev had nothing.

The Kazakhs of inner Asia were another special problem for Stalin. In 1930 a Stalinist minority on the Kazakh Central Committee decreed that 544,000 semi-nomadic Kazakh households out of 566,000 should be “settled” (i.e., collectivized) by the end of the Five-Year Plan. Since Kazakhstan is mainly fit only for grazing, the Kazakhs resisted. They killed their cattle, hid the meat in cold ravines, and died by the thousands when the meat had been used up.

The Kazakhs are in the news once again. They have been demonstrating against Gorbachev’s attempt to put non-Moslem Russians in positions of local authority.

Gorbachev, in comparison to Stalin, is trying to run “nice” reform program to eliminate industrial and agricultural deficiencies. It won’t work without a new NEP. Is Gorbachev prepared for that? []

“The question whether the present leaders of the U.S.S.R. would be willing to kill tens of millions of foreigners, or suffer a loss of millions of their own subjects, in a war is sometimes canvassed nowadays. That fact that the older leaders were direct accomplices in the actual killing of millions of Ukrainians and others, in order to establish the political and social order prescribed by their doctrine, and that the young leaders still justify the procedure, may perhaps be regarded as not without some relevance. Thus, . . . the events described in this book cannot be shrugged off as part of the dead past, too remote to be of any current significance.”

—Robert Conquest,

The Harvest of Sorrow

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.