Written by Vladimir Moss



     The descent of the True Church of Russia into the catacombs coincided with an important change in Soviet economic policy. The New Economic Policy, introduced by Lenin in 1921, had ended requisitioning, legalized private trade, and abandoned the semi-militarization of labour. The results were good: “Harvest yields of the 1920s were 17 per cent higher than those of the 1900s… The Soviet economy grew rapidly between 1921 and 1928. Industry did well, arguably achieving higher rates of growth than in the 1930s.”[1]

     “The NEP entailed a reprieve for the remnants of ‘bourgeois culture’ which the revolution promised to eliminate but could not yet do without. It brought a halt to the war against the professional class – the ‘bourgeois specialists’, technicians, engineers and scientists – whose experience was needed by the Soviet economy. It also meant a relaxation in the war against religion: churches were no longer closed or the clergy persecuted as they had been before (or would be afterwards). Under Lunacharsky, the Commissar of Enlightenment, the Bolsheviks adopted a permissive cultural policy. The artistic avant garde of Russia’s ‘Silver Age’, the first two decades of the century, continued to flourish in the third, when many artists took inspiration from the revolution’s promise to create a new and more spiritual world.


     “The NEP, however, did not mean a halt in the war against bourgeois customs and mentalities (what they called byt). With the ending of the Civil War, the Bolsheviks prepared for a longer struggle on this cultural front. They saw the revolution’s goal as the creation of a higher type of human being – more collective, more actively engaged in public life – and set about the liberation of the personality from the individualism of the old society. The Communist Utopia would be built by engineering this New Soviet Man.


     “From Marx the Bolsheviks had learned that consciousness was formed by the environment. So they set about their task of human engineering by forming social policies to alter modes of thinking and behaviour…”[2]


     However, these results had not satisfied Stalin, who wanted to return to the “real” communism of the Civil War years, and had plans for a still more radical reshaping of human nature and culture. One of his targets was Russian national feeling. Already in his speech to the 12th Congress of the Party in 1923 he had shown opposition to NEP because it supposedly encouraged Russian nationalism: “The national question is significant for us… In these last two years we have introduced the so-called NEP, and in connection with this Great Russian nationalism has begun to grow and get stronger… Thus in connection with NEP, a new force is being born in our inner life – Great Russianв chauvinism, which nests in our institutions, penetrating not only into Soviet, but also party institutions, pacing throughout every corner of our federation and leading to a situation in which, if we do not give a decisive rebuff to this new force, if we do not cut it off at the root – and NEP conditions foster its growth – we risk finding ourselves before the picture of a schism between the proletariat of the former ruling nation and the peasants of the formerly oppressed nations, which will mean the undermining of the dictatarorship of the proletariat.”


     By 1927 the situation was still worse in Stalin’s mind. It was time to “cut off at the root” the Russian and Orthodox mentality of the ordinary Russian…


     “Two events occurred in 1927 to turn Bolshevik opinion against the NEP. The first was another breakdown in the supply of grain to the cities. A poor harvest coincided with a shortage of consumer goods, and as the price of manufactures rose the peasants reduced their sales of grain. The state’s procurements from the peasantry that autumn were half what they had been the previous year. The second incident was a war scare. The press reported false rumours that the British were about to launch an ‘imperialist war’ against the Soviet Union. Stalin exploited these reports to attack the United Opposition, accusing its leaders, Trotsky and Zinoviev, of undermining the unity of the Soviet state at a time of great danger. The two issues – the ‘kulak’ grain strike and the threat of war with the capitalist states – were connected in his view.


     “Trotsky and Zinoviev opposed raising the procurement price. They favoured a gradual return to requisitioning to secure the stocks of food needed by the state to boost production of consumer goods. That in turn would give the peasants more incentive to sell their grain. At this point Stalin sided with Bukharin against Trotsky and Zinoviev, who were defeated at the Fifteenth Party Congress in December 1927. But after that he turned against Bukharin and the NEP. His Machiavellian tactics show a complete disregard to ideology in the pursuit of power.


     “Returning to the violent language of the Civil War, Stalin called for a new battle for grain to industrialize the Soviet Union in a Five Year Plan. The war scare played into his hands, enabling him to push for the NEP to be abandoned on the grounds that it was too slow as a means of industrial armament, and too uncertain as a means of procuring food in the event of war…


     “Stalin’s call for a return to the class struggle of the Civil War appealed to a broad section of the Party’s rank and file, among whom there was a growing sense that the NEP represented a retreat from the revolution’s goals. His rhetoric of industrial progress had a powerful appeal to all those lower-class Bolsheviks who as young men had fled the peasant world of icons and cockroaches, and who saw the revolution as an overturning of this legacy of poverty. Most of them had joined the party in the Civil War and had been promoted by Stalin. They were practical people, without much grasp of Marxist theory, whose allegiance to the Bolsheviks was intimately linked with their own identity as ‘proletarians’. They identified with Stalin’s simple vision of the Five Year Plan as a new revolutionary offensive and make it a great industrial power in the world.


     “Stalin’s fighting words also had a special attraction to younger Communists – those born in the first two decades of the century – who were too young to have fought in the Civil War but who had been educated in the ‘cult of struggle’ based on stories about it…”[3]


     So in 1927 the first Five-Year Plan was introduced, which turned out to be both the next stage in the “progress” of Communism, and God’s punishment of His Church, which in July, 1927, as we have seen, had bowed down to the Soviet god in the Declaration of Metropolitan Sergei…




     “The initial results,” writes Sir Geoffrey Hosking,  “were encouraging: a good deal of grain was discovered, stored away for alcoholic distillation, feeding to livestock, or the advent of better prices. There was short-lived abundance in the state shops. But in 1929 things got much worse. Reading the signals from the Urals, peasants reduced their sowings to what was needed for subsistence. Why produce what would merely be confiscated? The state responded as in 1918, by setting up committees of poor peasants to ‘unleash class war in the village’ and to help requisition teams find hidden produce. Village assemblies were instructed to hold meetings at which their members were labelled ‘poor peasants’, ‘middle peasants’ or ‘kulaks’: very heavy taxes and delivery targets were imposed on the latter.”[4]


     This showed that the private producers of grain, the peasants, still held power. But the peasants were not going to sell their grain on the open market when the Five-Year-Plan for industry offered them so few goods to buy in exchange. Stalin announced that he would not allow industry to become “dependent on the caprice of the kulaks”, the richer peasantry…


     “Collectivization,” writes Figes, “was the great turning-point in Soviet history. It destroyed a way of life that had developed over many centuries - a life based on the family farm, the ancient peasant commune, the independent village and its church and the rural market, all of which were seen by the Bolsheviks as obstacles to socialist industrialization. Millions of people were uprooted from their homes and dispersed across the Soviet Union: runaways from the collective farms; victims of the famine that resulted from the over-requisitioning of kolkhoz grain; orphaned children; ‘kulaks’ and their families. This nomadic population became the main labour force of Stalin’s industrial revolution, filling the cities and industrial building-sites, the labour camps and ‘special settlements’ of the Gulag (Main Camp Administration). The First Five Year Plan, which set this pattern of forced development, launched a new type of social revolution, a ‘revolution from above’, that consolidated the Stalinist regime: old ties and loyalties were broken down, morality dissolved, and new (‘Soviet’) values and identities were imposed, as the whole population was subordinated to the state and forced to depend on it for almost everything – housing, schooling, jobs and food – controlled by the planned economy.


     “The eradication of the peasant family farm was the starting-point of this ‘revolution from above’. The Bolsheviks had a fundamental mistrust of the peasantry. In 1917, without influence in the countryside, they had been forced to tolerate the peasant revolution on the land, which they had exploited to undermine the old regime; but they had always made it clear that their long-term goal was to sweep away the peasant smallholding system, replacing it with large-scale mechanized collective farms in which the peasants would be transformed into a ‘rural proletariat’. Marxist ideology had taught the Bolsheviks to regard the peasantry as a ‘petty-bourgeois’ relic of the old society that was ultimately incompatible with the development of a Communist society. It was too closely tied to the patriarchal customs and traditions of Old Russia, too imbued in the principles and habits of free trade and private property and too given over to the ‘egotism’ of the family ever to be fully socialized.


     “The Bolsheviks believed that the peasants were a potential threat to the Revolution, as long as they controlled the main supply of food. As the Civil War had shown, the peasantry could bring the Soviet regime to the verge of collapse by keeping grain from the market. The grain crisis of 1927-8 renewed fears of a ‘kulak strike’ in Stalinist circles. In response, Stalin reinstituted requisitioning of food supplies and engineered an atmosphere of ‘civil war’ against the ‘kulak threat’ to justify the policy. In January 1928, Stalin travelled to Siberia, a key grain-producing area, and urged the local activists to show no mercy to ‘kulaks’ suspected of withholding grain. His battle-cry was backed up by a series of Emergency Measures instructing local organs to use the Criminal Code to arrest any peasants and confiscate their property if they refused to give their grain to the requisitioning brigades (a wild interpretation of the Code that met with some resistance in the government). Hundreds of thousands of ‘malicious kulaks’… were arrested and sent to labour camps, their property destroyed or confiscated, as the regime sought to break the ‘kulak strike’ and transform its overcrowded prisons into a network of labour camps (soon to become known as the Gulag).


     “As the battle for grain intensified, Stalin and his supporters moved towards a policy of mass collectivization in order to strengthen the state’s control of food production and remove the ‘kulak threat’ once and for all. ‘We must devise a procedure whereby the collective farms will over their entire marketable production of grain to the state and co-operative organizations under the threat of withdrawal of state subsidies and credits’, Stalin said in 1928. Stalin spoke with growing optimism about the potential of large-scale mechanized collective farms. Statistics showed that the few such farms already in existence had a much larger marketable surplus than the small agricultural surpluses produced by the vast majority of peasant family farms.


     “This enthusiasm for collective farms was relatively new. Previously, the Party had not placed much emphasis on collectivization. Under the NEP, the organization of collective farms was encouraged by the state through financial and agronomic aid, yet in Party circles it was generally agreed that collectivization was to be a gradual and voluntary process. During the NEP the peasants showed no sign of coming round to the collective principle, and the growth of the kolkhoz sector was pretty insignificant. After 1927, when the state exerted greater pressure through taxation policies – giving credits to collective farms and imposing heavy fees on ‘kulak’ farms – the kolkhoz sector grew more rapidly. But it was not the large kommuny (where all the land and property was pooled) but the smaller, more informal and ‘peasant-like’ associations called TOZy (where the land was farmed in common but the livestock and the tools were retained by the peasants as their private property) that attracted the most peasant interest. The Five Year Plan gave little indication that the Party was about to change its policies; it projected a moderate increase in the land sown by collective farms, and made no mention of departing from the voluntary principle.


     “The sudden change in policy was forced through by Stalin in 1929. The volte face was a decisive blow against Bukharin, who was desperately trying to retain the market mechanism of the NEP within the structure of the Five Year Plan, which in its original version (adopted in the spring of 1929 but dated retroactively to 1928) had envisaged optimistic but reasonable targets of socialist industrialization. Stalin pushed for even higher rates of industrial growth and in the autumn of 1929, the target figures of the Five Year Plan had been raised dramatically. Investment was to triple; coal output was to double; and the production of pig-iron (which had been set to rise by 250 per cent in the original version of the Plan) was now set to quadruple by 1932. In a wave of frenzied optimism, which was widely shared by the Party rank and file, the Soviet press advanced the slogan ‘The Five Year Plan in Four!’ It was these utopian rates of growth that forced the Party to accept the Stalinist policy of mass collectivization as, it seemed, the only way to obtain a cheap and guaranteed supply of foodstuffs for the rapidly expanding industrial labour force (and for sale abroad to bring in capital).


     “At the heart of these policies was the Party’s war against the peasantry. The collectivization of agriculture was a direct assault on the peasantry’s attachment to the village and the Church, to the individual family farm, to private trade and property, which all rooted Russia in the past. On 7 November 1929, Stalin wrote an article in Pravda, ‘The Year of the Great Break’, in which he heralded the Five Year Plan as the start of the last great revolutionary struggle against ‘capitalist elements’ in the USSR, leading to the foundation of a Communist society built by socialist industry. What Stalin meant by the ‘great break’, as he explained to Gorky, was the ‘total breaking up of the old society and the feverish building of the new’.


     “From the summer of 1929, thousands of Party activists were sent into the countryside to agitate for the collective farms… Most of the peasants were afraid to give up a centuries-old way of life to make a leap of faith into the unknown. There were precious few examples of good collective farms to persuade the peasantry. A German agricultural specialist working in Siberia in 1929 described the collective farms as ‘candidates for death’. Very few had tractors or modern implements. They were badly run by people who knew little about agriculture and made ‘crude mistakes’, which ‘discredited the whole process of collectivization’. According to OGPU, the perception of the peasants was that they would ‘lose everything’ – their land and cows, their horses and their tools, their homes and family – if they entered a kolkhoz. As one old peasant said: ‘Lecturer after lecturer is coming and telling us that we ought to forget possessions and have everything in common. Why then is the desire for it in our blood?’


     “Unable to persuade the peasantry, the activists began to use coercive measures. From December 1929, when Stalin called for the ‘liquidation of the kulaks as a class’, the campaign to drive the peasants into the collective farms took on the form of a war. The Party and the Komsomol were fully armed and mobilized, reinforced by the local militia, special army and OGPU units, urban workers and student volunteers, and sent into the villages with strict instructions not to come back to the district centres without having organized a kolkhoz. ‘It is better to overstep the mark than to fall short,’ they were told by their instructors. ‘Remember that we won’t condemn you for an excess, but if you fall short – watch out!’ One activist recalls a speech by the Bolshevik leader Mendel Khataevich, in which he told a meeting of eighty Party organizers in the Volga region: ‘You must assume your duties with a feeling of the strictest Party responsibility, without whimpering, without any rotten liberalism. Throw your bourgeois humanitarianism out of the window and act like Bolsheviks worthy of comrade Stalin. Beat down the kulak agent wherever he raises his head. It’s war – it’s them or us. The last decayed remnant of capitalist farming must be wiped out at any cost.’


     “During just the first two months of 1930, half the Soviet peasantry (about 60 million people in over 100,000 villages) was herded into the collective farms. The activists employed various tactics of intimidation at the village meetings where the decisive vote to join the kolkhoz took place. In one Siberian village, for example, the peasants were reluctant to accept the motion to join the collective farm. When the time came for the vote, the activists brought in armed soldiers and called on those opposed to the motion to speak out: no one dared to raise objections, so it was declared that the motion had been ‘passed unanimously’. In another village, after the peasants had voted against joining the kolkhoz, the activists demanded to know which peasants were opposed to Soviet power, explaining that it was the command of the Soviet government that the peasants join the collective farms. When nobody was willing to state their opposition to the government, it was recorded by activists that the village had ‘voted unanimously’ for collectivization. In other villages only a small minority of the inhabitants (hand-picked by the activists) was allowed to attend the meeting, although the result of the vote was made binding on the population as a whole. In the village of Cheremukhova in the Komi region, for example, there were 437 households, but only 52 had representatives at the village assembly: 18 voted in favour of collectivization and 16 against, yet on this basis the entire village was enrolled in the kolkhoz.


     “Peasants who spoke out against collectivization were beaten, tortured, threatened and harassed, until they agreed to join the collective farm. Many were expelled as ‘kulaks’ from their homes and driven out of the village. The herding of the peasants into the collective farms was accompanied by a violent assault against the Church, the focal point of the old way of life in the village, which was regarded by the Bolsheviks as a source of potential opposition to collectivization. Thousands of priests were arrested and churches were looted and destroyed, forcing millions of believers to maintain their faith in the secrecy of their own homes.”[5]


     In 1930 there were 13,754 peasant uprisings…[6]


     “In January 1930, a Politburo commission drew up a target of 60,000 ‘malicious kulaks’ to be sent to labour camps and 150,000 other kulak households to be exiled to the north, Siberia, the Urals and Kazakhstan. The figures were part of an overall plan for 1 million ‘kulak’ households (about 6 million people) to be dispossessed and sent to labour camps or ‘special settlements’. The fulfillment of the quotas was assigned to OGPU and Party organizations )which frequently exceeded them to demonstrate their vigilance). The rural Soviet, Komsomol and Party activists drew up lists of ‘kulaks’ for arrest in each village. In many the peasants chose the ‘kulaks’ from their own number (isolated farmers, widows and old people were particularly vulnerable). In some they drew lots to decide.


     “It is difficult to give accurate statistics for the number repressed as ‘kulaks’. At the height of the campaign the country roads were jammed with long convoys of deportees, each one carrying the last of their possessions or pulling them by cart. One eyewitness in the Sumy region of Ukraine  saw lines  stretching as far as the eye could see in both directions, with people from new villages continuously joining’, as the column marched towards the collecting point on the railway. By 1932, there were 1.4 million ‘kulaks’ in the ‘special settlements’, mostly in the Urals and Siberia, and even larger numbers in labour camps attached to Gulag factories and construction sites, or simply living on the run. Stalin called this social holocaust the ‘liquidation of the kulaks as a class’.”[7]


     Piers Brendon writes: “Stalin declared war on his own people – a class war to end class… Brigades of workers conscripted from the towns, backed by contingents of the Red Army, and the OGPU (which had replaced the Cheka), swept through the countryside ‘like raging beasts’. They rounded up the best farmers [as Zinoviev said, ‘We are fond of describing any peasant who has enough to eat as a kulak’] and their families, banished them to the barren outskirts of their villages or drove them into the northern wastes. Often they shot the heads of households, cramming their dependents into ‘death trains’ – a prolonged process owing to a shortage of the blood-coloured cattle trucks known as ‘red cows’. While they waited, women and children expired of cold, hunger and disease. Muscovites, at first shocked by glimpses of the terror being inflicted on the countryside, became inured to the sight of peasants being herded from one station to another at gunpoint. A witness wrote: ‘Trainloads of deported peasants left for the icy North, the forests, the steppes, the deserts. There were whole populations, denuded of everything; the old folk starved to death in mid-journey, new-born babies were buried on the banks of the roadside, and each wilderness had its crop of little crosses of boughs or white wood.’ The survivors of these ghastly odysseys were concentrated in primitive camps which they often had to scratch with their bare hands from taiga or tundra. They were then sent to work at digging canals, lumbering and other projects, Stalin having recently been dazzled by the prospect of ‘constructing socialism through the use of prison labour’.


     “Whatever Stalin may have envisaged, the assault on the kulaks was less like a considered piece of social engineering than ‘a nation-wide pogrom’. Often the urban cadres simply pillaged for private gain, eating the kulaks’ food and drinking their vodka on the spot, donning their felt boots and clothes, right down to their woollen underwear. Moreover the spoliation was marked by caprice and chaos since it was virtually impossible to decide which peasants were kulaks. Peasants of all sorts (including women) resisted, fighting back with anything from sporadic terror to full-scale revolt. There were major uprisings in Moldavia, the Ukraine, the Caucasus, Crimea, Azerbaijan, Soviet Central Asia and elsewhere. To quell them Stalin employed tanks and even military aircraft, unusual adjuncts to agrarian reform (though Lenin had also used poison gas). Some units refused to kill their countrymen and these he punished. Where troops did not mutiny their morale was shattered. ‘I am an old Bolshevik,’ sobbed one OGPU colonel to a foreign writer. ‘I worked in the underground against the Tsar and then I fought in the civil war. Did I do all that in order that I should now surround villages with machine-guns and order my men to fire indiscriminately into crowds of peasants? Oh, no, no!’


     “Some kulaks fled from the holocaust, seeking refuge in the towns or the woods and selling as many of their possessions as they could. Braving the machine-guns of the blue-capped border guards, others crossed into Poland, Romania, China or Alaska, taking portable property with them, occasionally even driving their flocks and herds. Some tried to bribe their persecutors. Some committed suicide. Some appealed for mercy, of all Communist commodities the one in shortest supply. Like the troops, some Party members were indeed horrified at the vicious acts which they were called upon to perform. One exclaimed, ‘We are no longer people, we are animals.’ Many were brutes, official gangsters who revelled in licensed thuggery… Still others were idealists of a different stamp, convinced that they were doing their ‘revolutionary duty’. They had no time for what Trotsky had once called the ‘papist-Quaker babble about the sanctity of human life’. According to Marx’s iron laws of history, they shed the blood of the kulaks to achieve the dictatorship of the proletariat. Without this sacrifice the Soviet Union could not modernise and socialism could not survive. As one apparatchik expressed it: ‘When you are attacking there is no place for mercy; don’t think of the kulak’s hunger children; in the class struggle philanthropy is evil.’ This view, incidentally, was often shared by Western fellow-travellers. Upton Sinclair and A.J.P. Taylor both argued that to preserve the Workers’ State the kulaks ‘had to be destroyed’.


     “Whether facing expropriation and exile or collectivisation and servitude, masses of peasants retaliated by smashing their implements and killing their animals – live beasts would have to be handed over to the collectives whereas meat and hides could be respectively consumed and concealed. In the first two months of 1930 millions of cattle, horses, pigs, sheep and goats were slaughtered. Many others starved to death because grain was lacking or the collective farmers neglected them. A quarter of the nation’s livestock perished, a greater loss than that sustained during the Civil War and one not made up until the 1960s. It was ironic, therefore, that on 2 March 1930 Stalin should call a halt in an article in Pravda entitled ‘Dizzy with Success’. This declared that over-zealous local officials had made mistakes and that peasants should not be forced to join collectives. Under the spur of coercion no fewer than 15 million households (numbering over 70 million souls, or 60 per cent of all peasants) had already done so. But now, within a few weeks, nine million households withdrew from what they regarded as a new form of serfdom. Processions of peasants marched round villages with copies of Stalin’s article blazoned aloft on banners. As a foreign journalist recorded, Russia’s muzhiks had live under ‘lowering clouds of gloom, fear and evil foreboding… until the colour of them seemed to have entered their very souls’. Now, thanks to Stalin, the pall had lifted and the reign of terror had ended.


     “It was a false dawn. Stalin was retreating the better to advance…


     “… In the autumn of 1930 he resumed the policy of forcible collectivisation. Peasant anguish was fed by rumours that women would be socialised, that unproductive old people would be prematurely cremated and that children were to be sent to crèches in China. Such fears did not seem extravagant, for the authorities themselves were offering peasants apocalyptic inducements to join the collectives: ‘They promised golden mountains… They said that women would be freed from doing the washing, from milking and cleaning the animals, weeding the garden, etc. Electricity can do that, they said.’ Under the hammer and sickle all things would be made new.


     “In 1930, Year XIII of the Communist era, a new calendar was introduced. It began the year on November 1 and established a five-day week: Sundays were abolished and rest days rotated so that work could be continuous. The anti-God crusade became more vicious and the church was portrayed as the ‘kulaks’ agitprop [agitation and propaganda agency]’. Priests were persecuted. Icons were burned and replaced with portraits of Stalin. The bells of basilicas were silenced, many being melted down for the metal. Monasteries were demolished or turned into prison camps. Abbeys and convents were smashed to pieces and factories rose on their ruins. Churches were destroyed, scores in Moscow itself. Chief among them was the gold-domed Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer, Russia’s largest place of worship and (according to the League of Militant Atheists) ‘the ideological fortress of the accused old world’, which was dynamited to make way for the Palace of Soviets on 5 December 1931. Stalin was unprepared for the explosion and asked tremulously, ‘Where’s the bombardment?’


     “The new Russian orthodoxy was instilled through everything from schools in which pupils learned to chant thanks to Comrade Stalin for their happy childhood to libraries purged of ‘harmful literature’, from atheistic playing-cards to ideologically sound performances by circus clowns. An early signal that the Party was becoming the arbiter of all intellectual life was the suicide of Vladimir Mayakovsky: he was tormented by having turned himself into a poetry factory; he had stepped ‘on the throat of my own song’. (Even so he became a posthumous propagandist: as Pasternak wrote, ‘Mayakovsky began to be introduced forcibly, like potatoes under Catherine the Great. This was his second death. He had no hand in it.’) Of more concern to the average Soviet citizen was the socialist transformation of everyday life: the final elimination of small traders and private businessmen, the establishment of communal kitchens and lavatories, the direction of labour, the proliferation of informers (a marble monument was raised to Pavel Morozov, who supposedly denounced his father as a kulak), the purging of ‘wreckers’ and the attempt to impose ‘iron discipline’ at every level. Stalin called for an increase in the power of the State to assist in its withering away. Like Peter the Great, he would bend Russia to his will even if he had to decimate the inhabitants – as he had once presciently observed, ‘full conformity of views can be achieved only at a cemetery’.


     “Destroying the nation’s best farmers, disrupting the agricultural system and extracting grain from a famished countryside in return for Western technology – all this had a fatal impact on the Soviet standard of living. By 1930 bread and other foodstuffs were rationed, as were staple goods such as soap. But even rations were hard to get: sugar, for example, had ‘ceased to exist as a commodity’. The cooperative shops were generally empty, though gathering dust on their shelves were items that no one wanted, among them French horns and hockey sticks. There were also ‘tantalisingly realistic and mouth-watering’ wooden cheeses, dummy hams, enamelled cakes and other fake promises of future abundance. On the black market bread cost 43 roubles a kilo, while the average collective farmer earned 3 roubles a day. Some Muscovite workers shortened the slogan ‘pobeda’ (victory) to ‘obed’ (food), or even to ‘beda’ (misfortune).’…”[8]


     Once the following conversation took place between Stalin and Churchill on the collectivization of the early 1930s.


     “Tell me,” asked Churchill. “Is the tension of the present war as severe for you personally as was the burden of the politics of collectivization?”


     “Oh no,” replied “the father of the peoples”. “The politics of collectivization was a terrible struggle.”


     “I thought so. After all, you had to deal then not with a handful of aristocrats and landowners, but with millions of small peasants.”


    “Tens of millions,” cried Stalin, raising his hands. “It was terrible. And it lasted for four years. But it was absolutely necessary for Russia to avoid famine and guarantee tractors for the countryside…”[9]





     With the peasantry destroyed, Stalin proceeded to industrialize the country at breakneck speed, herding millions of dispossessed peasants into the building of huge enterprises for which there existed as yet not even the most basic workers’ living and working conditions.


     Perhaps the most famous of these was the building of the White Sea Canal under the supervision of the Gulag…


     “One of the prisoners at Solovki,” writes Figes, “was Naftaly Frenkel, “a [Jewish] businessman from Palestine arrested for smuggling contraband to Soviet Russia. Shocked by the prison’s inefficiency, Frenkel wrote a letter setting out his ideas on how to run the camp, and put it in the ‘suggestions box’ (they had them even in prisons). Somehow the letter got to Genrikh Yagoda, the fast rising OGPU boss. Frenkel was whisked off to Moscow, where he explained his Darwinian plans for the economic use of prison labour to Stalin. Prisoners, he said, should be organized by their physical abilities and given rations only if they met their work quota. The strong would survive and the weak would die, but that would improve efficiency and rations would not be wasted.


     “Frenkel was released in 1927 and placed in charge of turning SLON into a profit-making enterprise. The prison’s population expanded rapidly, from 10,000 in 1927 to 71,000 in 1931, as SLON won contracts to fell timber and build roads, and took over factories in Karelia…


     “The first major Gulag project was the White Sea Canal (Belomorkanal), 227 kilometres of waterway between the Baltic and the White Sea, which employed 100,000 prisoners by 1932. It was a fantastically ambitious project, given that the planners intended to complete it without machines or even proper surveys of the land. Critics argued that the huge construction costs could not be justified given the little shipping on the White Sea. But Stalin was insistent that the canal could be built both cheaply and in record time – a symbol of the Party’s will and power in the Five Year Plan – as long as OCPU supplied sufficient prison labour to dig it all by hand.


     “Frenkel was in charge of construction. The methods he had used in Solovki were re-employed on the canal, as were many of the prisoners. To save time and money, the depth of the canal was reduced from twenty-two feet to just twelve, rendering it virtually useless for all but shallow barges and passenger vessels. Prisoners were given primitive hand tools – crudely fashioned axes, saws and hammers – instead of dynamite and machinery. Worked to exhaustion in the freezing cold, an estimated 25,000 prisoners died during the first winter of 1931-32 alone. Their frozen corpses were thrown into the ditch.


     “In August 1933 the canal was opened by Stalin. A few weeks later it was toured by a ‘brigade’ of leading Soviet writers, who sang its praises in a volume commissioned by OGPU to celebrate its completion. Edited by Gorky, who had recently returned from exile to the Soviet Union, the book’s chief theme was the redemptive power of physical labout. It was a propaganda victory. Western socialists were taken in (Sidney and Beatrice Webb called the canal ‘a great engineering feat’ and a ‘triumph in human regeneration’). In the Soviet Union a new brand of cigarettes (Belomorkanal) was launched to mark this great breakthrough. Built on top of bones, the canal was a fitting symbol of the Stalinist regime, whose greatest propaganda successes were achieved with total disregard for the millions of lives they cost.”[10]


     “Egalitarian ideals were scrapped,” writes Brendon, “to increase productivity. For example, skilled workers received extra incentives in the shape of higher pay, better food and improved accommodation – at the massive steel plant of Magnitogorsk in the Urals there was a whole hierarchy of canteens. But Stalin favoured the stick rather than the carrot and those infringing industrial discipline were harshly punished. Men were tied to their machines like helots. Those arriving late could be imprisoned. Dismissal might mean starvation – the loss of a work cared resulted in the denial of a food card. Diligence was kept at fever pitch by the arrest and execution of large numbers of economic ‘wreckers’, plus well-publicised show trials of ‘spies’ and ‘saboteurs’. Morbidly suspicious, Stalin seems to have persuaded himself of their guilt; but even if they were innocent their punishment would encourage the others. His solution to the shortage of small coins, hoarded for their tiny silver content because the government had printed so much paper money to pay for its own incompetence, was to shoot ‘wreckers’ in the banking system, ‘including several dozen common cashiers’.


     “In 1931 Stalin also tried to squeeze the last valuables, particularly gold, from Russian citizens in order to purchase more foreign equipment. Among the methods of torture used were the ‘conveyer’, whereby relays of interrogators deprived prisoners of sleep; the sweat- and ice-rooms, to which victims were confined in conditions of intolerable heat and cold; the tormenting of children in front of their parents. Alternatively the OGPU might just beat their prey to death with a felt boot full of bricks. These bestial practices were theoretically illegal but their employment was an open secret. When a defendant at one show trial protested over-indignantly that he had suffered no maltreatment in the Lubyanka it was too much even for a court which had solemnly swallowed stories of a conspiracy masterminded by the likes of President Poincaré and Lawrence of Arabia: everyone simply roared with laughter. The Lubyanka, the tall grey OGPU headquarters (formerly the office of the Rossiya Insurance Company) in Dzerzhinsky Square, was a place ‘fraught with horror’. Appropriately it was embellished with a sculpture representing the Greek Fates cutting short the threads of human life. Stalin saw himself as the atavar of destiny, the embodiment of the will of history, the personification of progress…


     “The achievements of Stalin’s revolution were almost as staggering as the costs, even when propagandist fictions are discounted. Although its targets kept growing in the making, the first Five Year Plan was anything but ‘Utopian’. Initiated in 1928, its purpose was to transform the Russian economy at unprecedented speed. As the British Ambassador reported, it was ‘one of the most important and far reaching [experiments] that has ever been undertaken.’ Between 1928 and 1932 investment in industry increased from two billion to nine billion roubles and the labour force doubled to six million workers. Productivity too nearly doubled and huge new enterprises were established – factories making machine tools, automobiles, chemicals, turbines, synthetic rubber and so on. The number of tractors produced rose from just over 3,000 to almost 50,000. Special emphasis was placed on armaments and factories were established out of the reach of invaders – by 1936 a plant at Sverdlovsk in the Urals was actually turning out submarines, which were transported in sections to the Pacific, the Baltic and the Black Sea. In just four years, by a mixture of heroic effort, ‘economic patriotism’ and implacable coercion, the foundations of Soviet industrial greatness were laid. Cities had grown by 44 per cent. Literacy was advancing dramatically. By the mid-1930s Russia was spending nearly twice as much as the United States on research and development; by the end of the decade its output was rivalling that of Germany.


     “In this initial stage, of course, progress was patchy and the quality of manufactured goods was poor. There were many reasons for this, such as the unremitting pressure to increase quantity and the fact that (as Sukhanov had said) ‘one only had to scratch a worker to find a peasant’. The novelist Ilya Ehrenburg described new factory hands as looking ‘mistrustfully at the machines; when a lever would not work they grew angry and treated it like a baulking horse, often damaging the machine’. After visiting Russia David Low drew a cartoon of a dairymaid-turned-engineer absent-mindedly trying to milk a steam-hammer. Managers were little help. They were terrorised from above: an American specialist sharing a hotel bedroom with his mill boss was woken by ‘the most ghastly sounds imaginable’ as the man ground his teeth in his sleep, tormented by stark, primitive ‘fears that none but his subconscious mind could know’. Managers in their turn were encouraged to behave like ‘little Stalins’: as the Moscow Party chief Lazar Kaganovich said, ‘The earth should tremble when the director is entering the factory.’


     “The atmosphere of intimidation was hardly conducive to enterprise even if management had been competent, which it generally was not. At the Gorky automobile plant, which had been designed by engineers from Detroit, several different types of vehicle were made simultaneously on one assembly line, thus making nonsense of Ford’s plan to standardise parts and performance. In the Urals asbestos ore was mined underground when it could have been dug from the surface by mechanical shovel far more safely and at a tenth of the cost. Everywhere so many older managers were purged that inexperienced young men had to be promoted – one found himself head of the State Institute of Metal Work Projects two days after he had graduated from Moscow’s Mining Academy. Vigour could compensate for callowness. Foreign experts, often Communists and others fleeing from unemployment in the West, were impressed by the frenetic enthusiasm and hysterical tempo with which their Russian colleagues tried to complete the Five Year plan in four years, a task expressed in Stalinist arithmetic as 2+2=5. They were even more impressed by the suffering involved. In the words of an American technician who worked at Magnitogorsk: ‘I would wager that Russia’s battle of ferrous metallurgy alone involved more casualties than the battle of the Marne.’


     “Magnitogorsk, situated on the mineral-rich boundary between Europe and Asia, was a monument to Stalin’s gigantomania. Built to American designs, it was to be a showpiece of ‘socialist construction’ and the largest steelworks in the world. It was also the most important project in the Five Year Plan. So between 1928 and 1932 250,000 people were drawn willy-nilly to the remote ‘magnetic heart’ of the new complex. There were horny-handed peasants from the Ukraine, sparsely-bearded nomads from Mongolia, sheepskin-clad Tartars who had never before seen a locomotive, an electric light, even a staircase. There were Jews, Finns, Georgians and Russians, some of them products of three-month crash-courses in engineering and disparaged by the American and German experts as ’90-day wonders’. There were 50,000 prisoners under OGPU supervision, including scientists, kulaks, criminals, prostitutes and child slave-labourers swept up from the gutters of Moscow. There was even a brigade of long-haired, bushy-bearded bishops and priests wearing ragged black robes and mitre-like hats.


     “To accommodate this labour force a rash of tents, earthen huts and wooden barracks sprang up on the rolling steppe. These grossly overcrowded refuges were verminous and insanitary, especially during the spring thaw when Magnitogorsk became a sea of mud and there were outbreaks of bubonic plague. Moreover they afforded scant protection against the scorching summers and freezing winters. The same was true of the rows of porous, box-like structures for the privileged, set up with such haste that for years the streets lacked names and the buildings lacked numbers. These were the first houses of the socialist city which was to rise out of chaos during the 1930s, a city which would boast 50 schools, 17 libraries and 8 theatres but not a single church. There was, however, a Communist cathedral – the steel plant itself. No place of worship was built with more fervour or more labour. Its construction involved the excavation of 500 million cubic feet of earth, the pouring of 42 million cubic feet of reinforced concrete, the laying of 5 million cubic feet of fire bricks and the erection of 250,000 tons of structural steel.


     “Ill-clad, half-starved and inadequately equipped, the workers were pitilessly sacrificed to the work. Driven by terror and zeal, they were also the victims of incompetence. They lacked the tools and the skill to weld metal on rickety scaffolding 100 feet high in temperatures of -50 Fahrenheit. Countless accidents occurred, many of which damaged the plant. Confusion was worse confounded by gross management failures. American experts were horrified to find that Party propagandists rather than engineers were determining priorities – tall, open-hearth stacks were erected earlier than they should have been because they ‘made a nice picture’. But despite every setback the stately blast furnaces rose from their concrete beds, to the tune of ‘incessant hammering, resembling machine-gun fire’. By 1 February 1932 the first pig-iron was produced. Although less than half built by 1937 (its target date for completion), Magnitogorsk was already one of the biggest metallurgical works on earth.


     “To the faithful it was a huge crucible for the Promethean energies unleashed by Russia’s man of steel. Enterprises such as Magnitogorsk symbolised Stalin’s successful ‘break’ with the past (perelom) and Russia’s great leap forward. It was a leap in the dark. But the shape of future terrors could be discerned and even committed Communists feared that too much was being sacrificed to the industrial Moloch. In the final speech at his show trial Nikolai Bukharin likened ‘our huge, gigantically growing factories’ to ‘monstrous gluttons which consumed everything’. What they certainly consumed was vast quantities of grain, both directly to feed the workers and indirectly to exchange [export] for the sinews of technology. In the 2 years after 1928 government grain requisitions had doubled and only a good harvest in 1930 enabled Stalin to commandeer 22 million tons (over a quarter of the total yield) from a countryside devastated by collectivisation and ‘dekulakisation’. Yet in 1931 he took slightly more grain even though the harvest was poor. The result was massive rural famine. It was the largest organised famine in history until that of Mao Tse-tung in 1959-60…”[11]


     The building of Magnitogorsk provided ideal conditions for the fulfilment of one of the main aims of Leninism – the destruction of the family. For the provision of housing was given a relatively low priority, which downgrading was justified ”as an aspect of social engineering: breaking down the ‘bourgeois family’. As a Magnitogorsk newspaper explained in 1930, ‘The family, the basic cell… of capitalist society… loses the economic basis of its existence in the conditions of socialist society. As a result, expedients had to be devised. Families no longer fitted individual apartments…


     “As millions of immigrants poured into the towns, they were squeezed into existing accommodation, a whole family to a room, or even to a barricaded corner of a large room, without consideration for social or gender distinctions, everyone sharing a common kitchen, bathroom, toilet and corridor. The wealthy and cultured were exposed to domestic violence, foul language, and lack of elementary hygiene such as they had never experienced before. They were also trapped in a milieu where any neighbour could easily spy on their most private behaviour and report it to the authorities…


     “Meanwhile the upper ranks of the nomenklatura began to prepare retreats for themselves: private apartments, where they could live more secluded lives, surrounded by chintz curtains and polka-dotted cups. During the 1930s the accumulation of privileges of this kind became far more significant than monetary rewards, for there was little the latter could buy in a state-controlled economy of scarcity. Instead the calibrations of the nomenklatura hierarchy gave access to meticulously graded benefits: apartments, dachas, holiday homes, superior health care, cars – chauffeur-driven for those at the top – so that officials did not have to struggle with late buses and queues at state shops or rapacious prices in the markets, good-quality produce was provided cheaply in special stores for those who had access to them.”[12]




     The historian Sergius Naumov writes: “One of the most horrific crimes of the God-hating communist regime was the artificially contrived famine in the Ukraine and the South of Russia in 1932-1933. As a result, in the Ukraine alone more than nine million people died within two years[13], while as a whole in the USSR more than thirteen million died. The blow was deliberately directed against the age-old strongholds of Orthodox culture and tradition in the people for the defence of the Faith and the Church. This sin, the responsibility for this inhuman crime lies like an ineradicable blot on all the heirs of communism without exception. In the Ukraine this campaign for the mass annihilation of the Orthodox peasantry was carried out from the centre by the apparatus of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Ukraine under the leadership of Lazarus Moiseyevich Kaganovich.

     “Kaganovich personally headed the campaign for the forcible requisitioning of all reserves of bread from the Ukrainian peasantry, which elicited the artificial famine of the 1930s. Thus on December 29, 1932, on the initiative of Kaganovich, the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Ukraine adopted a directive in which the collective farms were required to give up ‘all the grain they have, including the so-called seed funds’. It was ordered that all available funds be removed immediately, in the course of five to six days. Every delay was viewed as the sabotage of bread deliveries with all the consequences that ensued from that… (Istoria SSSR, 2/1989, p. 14). Or one more characteristic example, which helps us to understand much. At the January [1933] united Plenum of the Central Committee and the TsKK of the Communist Party one of its participants cried out during Kaganovich’s speech: ‘But you know, they have begun to eat people in our area!’ To which Kaganovich cynically replied: ‘If we give rein to our nerves, then they will be eating you and us… Will that be better?’ Nothing needs to be added to this cannibalistic revelation. Although, it must be said, already at the dawn of the Bolshevik dictatorship, ‘Trotsky, on receiving a delegation of church-parish councils from Moscow, in reply to Professor Kuznetsov’s declaration that the city was literally dying from hunger, declared: “This is not hunger. When Titus conquered Jerusalem, the Jewish mothers ate their own children. Then you can come and say: ‘We’re hungry.’”’ (“Tsinichnoe zaiavlenie”, Donskie Vedomosti (Novocherkassk), N 268/1919).

     “One should point out that the famine artificially organized by the Bolsheviks in 1932-1933 was a logical step in the long chain of genocide of the Slavic Orthodox population of the country. Long before the year 1937 that is so bewailed by Memorial, G.E. Zinoviev (Ovsej-Hershen Aaronovich Radomyshelsky) defined the task directly: ‘We must keep ninety million out of the one hundred that populates Soviet Russia. We don’t need to talk to the rest – they must be annihilated’... The control figure of those marked for annihilation by Zinoviev was reached with interest already before the forcible collectivization of the countryside began. Collectivization and ‘dekulakization’, in the carrying out of which the People’s Commissar for Agriculture, Yakov Arkadyevich Yakovlev (Epstein) and the president of the collective farm centre, Gregory Nakhumovich Kaminsky particularly distinguished themselves, brought fresh millions of peasants to their deaths. To suppress the numerous peasant rebellions, on the orders of Over-Chekist Genrikh Girshevich Yagoda (Ieguda) ‘individually selected GPU soldiers accustomed to civil war, the guardians of present order,’ were thrown in. ‘Machine guns were wheeled out, cannons were stations, balloons of poison gas were unscrewed… And often there was nobody you could ask: what was in this village? There was no village. None of those who lived in it were alive: neither the women nor the children nor the old men. Nobody was spared by the shells and the gas…’ (Dmitrievsky S., Stalin, Berlin, 1931, p. 330).

     “The famine of 1932-1933 was specially organized so as finally to crush the active and passive resistance of the Orthodox peasantry to collectivization. To break their resistance to their forcible regeneration from an Orthodox people into a faceless mass, the so-called ‘collective farmers’ and homo sovieticus. That explains what at first sight appears to be the paradoxical fact that the boundaries of the famine coincided with the boundaries of the bread baskets of the country, which were always regions of agricultural abundance and strongholds of Orthodoxy. As the member of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Ukraine, Mendel Markovich Khatayevich, said: ‘There had to be a famine, in order to show them who is boss here. That cost millions of lives, but we won.’…”[14]

     “The Bolsheviks dekulakized about one million peasant household (5-6 million people), and in the ten pre-war years about four million people were subjected to exile from their native lands. In the period from 1930 to 1940 inclusively, on the way during the stages of ‘kulak exile’ and in distant places of special habitation – unfit for human life – no less than one million dekulakized peasants and members of their families perished from deprivation, frost, hunger, diseases, the cruelty of the guards and in flight.

     “In reply to the authorities’ collectivization and dekulakization the countryside replied with desperate resistance and sabotage of the building of collective farms. So as to break this resistance, Stalin and the members of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party at the end of 1932 sanctioned the carrying out of total bread-collections. In Ukraine, in the Middle and Lower Volga, on the Don and in the Kuban, and in Western Siberia, the Soviet and party activists swept the bread out ‘under a broom’. The nomadic animal-herders of Kazakhstan suffered cruelly.[15]

     “As a result of the Stalinist policies, in the winter of 1933 in the above-mentioned regions of the USSR an artificial famine began: without wars, drought or elemental catastrophes, 25-30 million people were starving. Moreover, the Golodomor [as it was called] became de facto a state secret. On January 22, 1933 Stalin signed a directive forbidding the removal of the population from the regions struck down with famine. According to his declaration, the elemental peasant migration was organized by SRs and Polish agents in order to carry out anti-collective farm and anti-Soviet agitation. In total, no less than 6.5 million people starved to death in torments. Only in 2008 did the State Duma of the Russian Federation officially recognize the death of ‘about 7 million people’.”[16]

     “The fertile Ukraine,” writes Brendon, “where Stalin was already persecuting anyone suspected of local nationalism, suffered worst. But other regions were also affected, notably Kazakhstan where about 40 per cent of the 4 million inhabitants died as a result of the attempt to turn them from nomadic herders into collective farmers. As early as December 1931 hordes of Ukrainian peasants were surging into towns and besieging railway stations with cries of ‘Bread, bread, bread!’ By the spring of 1932, when Stalin demanded nearly half of the Ukrainian harvest, the granary of Russia was in the grip of starvation. While peasants collapsed from hunger Communist shock brigades, supported by units of the OGPU in their brown tunics and red and blue caps, invaded their cabins and took their last ounces of food, including seed for the spring sowing. They used long steel rods to probe for buried grain, stationed armed guards in the fields and sent up spotter planes to prevent the pilfering of Soviet property. This was now an offence punishable by death or, to use the jargon of the time, ‘the highest measure of social defence’. The OGPU suspected anyone who was not starving of hoarding. It also attempted to stop peasants from migrating in search of food; but by the summer of 1932 three million were on the move. Some Communist cadres tried to avoid carrying out their task. One rebellious Party man reported that he could fulfil his meat quota, but only with human corpses. He fled, while others like him were driven to madness and suicide. But most activists were so frightened for their own skins that they endorsed Stalin’s ukase.


     “So the Ukraine came to resemble ‘one vast Belsen’. A population of ‘walking corpses’ struggled to survive on a diet of roots, weeds, grass, bark and furry catkins. They devoured dogs, cats, snails, mice, ants, earthworms. They boiled up old skins and ground down dry bones. They even ate horse-manure for the whole grains of seed it contained. Cannibalism became so commonplace that the OGPU received a special directive on the subject from Moscow and local authorities issued hundreds of posters announcing that ‘EATING DEAD CHILDREN IS BARBARISM’. Some peasants braved machine-guns in desperate assaults on grain stockpiles. Others robbed graves for gold to sell in Torgsin shops. Parents unable to feed their offspring sent them away from home to beg. Cities such as Kiev, Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk, Poltava, Odessa and Belgorod were overrun by pathetic waifs with huge heads, stunted limbs and swollen bellies. Arthur Koestler said that they ‘looked like embryos out of alcohol bottles’. Periodically the OGPU rounded them up, sending some to brutal orphanages or juvenile labour colonies, training others to be informers or secret policemen. Still others became the victims of ‘mass shootings’.


     “Meanwhile adults, frantic to follow the slightest rumour of sustenance, continued to desert their villages. They staggered into towns and collapsed in the squares, at first objects of pity, later of indifference. Haunting the railway stations these ‘swollen human shadows, full of rubbish, alive with lice’, followed passengers with mute appeals and ‘hungry eyes’. A few managed to get out of the region despite the guards (who confiscated the food of Ukrainians returning to help), but for the most part these ‘miserable hulks of humanity dragged themselves along, begging for bread or searching for scraps in garbage heaps, frozen and filthy. Each morning wagons rolled along the streets picking up the remains of the dead.’ Some were picked up before they died and buried in pits so extensive that they resembled sand dunes and so shallow that bodies were dug up and devoured by wolves. In the summer of 1932 Stalin increased his squeeze on the villages, ordering blockades of those which did not supply their grain quotas and blaming kulak sabotage for the shortfall. It may well have been over the famine that on 5 November 1932 his wife Nadezhda Alliluyev committed suicide. Certainly she had lost any illusions she might have possessed about her husband. Some time before her death Nadezhda yelled at him: ‘You are a tormentor, that’s what you are! You torment your own son… you torment your wife… you torment the whole Russian people.’


     “The better to control his victims Stalin reintroduced the internal passport.[17] Communists had always denounced this as a prime instance of tsarist tyranny. Now it enabled them to hide the famine, or at any rate to render it less visible, by ensuring that most deaths occurred outside urban areas. This is not to suggest that Stalin was prepared to acknowledge the existence of the tragedy. When a courageous Ukrainian Communist gave details of what was happening Stalin replied that he had made up ‘a fable about famine, thinking to frighten us, but it won’t work’. It is clear, though, that Stalin was deliberately employing starvation as an instrument of policy. Early in 1933 he sent Pavel Postyshev to the Ukraine with orders to extract further deliveries from the barren countryside. Postyshev announced that the region had failed to provide the requisite grain because of the Party’s ‘leniency’. The consequence of his strictness was that, over the next few months, the famine reached its terrible climax. Entire families died in agony. Buildings decayed, schools closed, fields were choked with weeds, livestock perished and the countryside became a gigantic charnel-house. About a quarter of the rural population was wiped out and the mortality rate only began to decline in the summer of 1933, after it had become clear that no more grain could be procured and the State’s demands were relaxed…”[18]




     Let us look more closely at the Bolsheviks’, and in particular Stalin’s, motivation for creating the famine. As Anne Applebaum retells the story, the root motivation was fear that Ukraine might rise in rebellion against the Soviet authorities as it had done in 1919.


     “Russian unease about Ukraine goes back to the very beginning of the Soviet Union, in 1917, when the Ukrainians first tried to set up their own state. During the civil war that followed the revolutions in Moscow and Kiev, Ukrainian peasants — radical, left wing and anti-Bolshevik all at once — rejected the imposition of Soviet rule. They pushed out the Red Army and, for a time, had the upper hand. But in the anarchy that followed the Red Army’s retreat, Polish armies as well as the Czarist White Army re-entered Ukraine. One White general, Anton Denikin, crossed into Russia and came within 200 miles of Moscow, nearly ending the revolution before it really got underway.


     “The Bolsheviks recovered — but they were stunned. For years, they spoke obsessively of the ‘cruel lesson of 1919.’ A decade later, in 1932, Stalin had cause to remember that lesson. That year, the Soviet Union was once again in turmoil, following his disastrous decision to collectivize agriculture. As famine began spreading, he became alarmed by news that Ukrainian Communist Party members were refusing to help Moscow requisition grain from starving Ukrainian peasants. ‘I do not want to accept this plan. I will not complete this grain requisition plan,’ an informer reported one saying before he ‘put his party card on the table and left the room.’


     “Stalin sent a blistering letter to his colleagues: ‘The chief thing now is Ukraine. Things in Ukraine are terrible. ... If we don’t make an effort now to improve the situation in Ukraine, we may lose’ it. He recalled the Ukrainian national movement, and the Polish and White Army interventions. It was time, he declared, to make Ukraine a ‘real fortress of the USSR, into a genuinely exemplary republic.’ To do so, harsher tactics were required: ‘Lenin was right in saying that a person who does not have the courage to swim against the current when necessary cannot be a real Bolshevik leader.’


     “Those harsher tactics included the blacklisting of many Ukrainian towns and villages, which were forbidden from receiving manufactured goods and food. They also prohibited Ukrainian peasants from leaving the republic and set up roadblocks between villages and cities, preventing internal migration. Teams of activists arrived in Ukrainian villages and confiscated everything edible, not just wheat but potatoes, beets, squash, beans, peas, farm animals and even pets. They searched barns and closets, smashed open walls and ovens, looking for food.


     “The result was a humanitarian catastrophe: At least 5 million people perished of hunger between 1931 and 1934 across the Soviet Union. Among them were nearly 4 million of 31 million Ukrainians, and they died not because of neglect or crop failure but because their food had been taken. The overall death rate was 13 percent, but it was as high as 50 percent in some provinces. Those who survived did so by eating grass and insects, frogs and toads, shoe leather and leaves. Hunger drove people to madness: Previously law-abiding people committed theft and murder in order to eat. There were incidents of cannibalism, which the police noted, recorded and sent to the authorities in Moscow, who never responded. (In acknowledgment of its scale, the famine of 1932-33 is known in Ukraine as the Holodomor, a word derived from the Ukrainian for hunger, ‘holod,’ and for extermination, ‘mor’.)


     “After the famine, Stalin launched a new wave of terror. Ukrainian writers, artists, historians, intellectuals — anyone with a link to the nationalist governments or armies of 1917-1919 — was arrested, sent to the Gulag or executed.


     “His goal was no mystery: He wanted to crush the Ukrainian national movement and to ensure that Ukraine would never again rebel against the Soviet state. He spoke obsessively about loss of control because he knew that another Ukrainian uprising could thwart the Soviet project, not only by depriving the U.S.S.R. of grain but also by robbing it of legitimacy. Ukraine had been a Russian colony for centuries; the two cultures remained closely intertwined; the languages were closely related.


     “If Ukraine rejected Soviet ideology and the Soviet system, Stalin feared that rejection could lead to the downfall of the whole Soviet Union. Ukrainian rebellion could inspire Georgians, Armenians or Tajiks. And if the Ukrainians could establish a more open, more tolerant state, or if they could orient themselves, as so many wanted, toward European culture and values, then why wouldn’t many Russians want the same?


     “Like Putin many decades later, the Bolsheviks went to great lengths to hide the true nature of their policy in Ukraine. During the civil war, they disguised their Red Army as a ‘Soviet Ukrainian liberation movement.’ Stalin — commissar of nationalities at the time — created fake mini-states in Ukrainian provinces, designed to undermine the Ukrainian government in 1918, much like the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ seeks to undercut the Ukrainian government today.


     “In the aftermath of the 1932-33 famine, a drastic information blackout was imposed. The deaths of millions were covered up and denied. It was illegal to mention the famine in public. Officials were told to alter the causes of death in public documents. In 1937, a Soviet census that revealed too many missing people in Ukraine and elsewhere was repressed; the heads of the census bureau were shot. Foreign journalists were pressured to conceal the famine, and with a few exceptions, most complied.”[19]


     The monstrous tragedy of the Holodomor could not be concealed. And yet many western journalists and writers tried to do just that, pandering to western governments that were eager to do business with Stalin, or simply refusing to face facts that contradicted their own socialist convictions.[20] A notorious example was George Bernard Shaw, who wrote: “Stalin has delivered the goods to an extent that seemed impossible ten years ago. Jesus Christ has come down to earth. He is no longer an idol. People are gaining some kind of idea of what would happen if He lived now…”[21]


     No less egregious was the example of the Reverend Hewlett Johnson, the “Red Dean” of Canterbury. As Robert Service writes: “In a decade when Stalin was exterminating tens of thousands of Orthodox Church priests, this prominent English cleric declared: ‘The communist puts the Christian to shame in the thoroughness of his quest for a harmonious society. Here he proves himself to be the heir of the Christian intention.’ Johnson’s visit to the Soviet Union in 1937 left him permanently transfixed by its achievements; and as Vice-President of the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR he spoke up for the communist spirit of the times more fervently than for the Holy Spirit…”[22]


     In the middle of the 1930s, in consequence of his new national policy, Stalin began to ease up in his unprecedentedly savage war on the Russian and Ukrainian people. There was less need for it now: the God-haters had triumphed, and a new, godless civilization was being built to replace the old one of Holy Russia. But the reign of fear continued, and the violence would be ratcheted up yet again…


November 14/27, 2020.


[1] Figes, Revolutionary Russia, p. 194.

[2]Figes, Revolutionary Russia, pp. 195-196.

[3]Figes, Revolutionary Russia, pp. 201-202, 203

[4] Hosking, Russia and Russians, London: Penguin, 2012, pp. 448-449.

[5] Figes, The Whisperers, London: Allen Lane Press, 2007, pp. 81-86.

[6] S.A. Smith, Russia in Revolution, p. 371.

[7]Figes, Revolutionary Russia, pp. 211-212.

[8] Brendon, The Dark Valley, London: Pimlico, 2001, pp. 202-206.

[9] Berezhkov, “Memoirs”, chapter 6, in Voennaia Literatura,

[10] Figes, Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991, London: Pelican, 2014, pp. 221, 222-223.

[11] Brendon, op. cit., 208-211.

[12] Hosking, Russia and the Russians, pp. 457, 477-478.

[13] Estimates of the number of those killed in the artificially-created Ukrainian famine range from two million to ten million souls (V.M.)

[14] Naumov, “Golodomor, 1932-33 godov”, Na Kazachem Postu, N 4 2004,

[15] “’Archival data show that the number of Kazakh households declined from 1,233,000 in 1929 to 565,000 household in 1936’ as a result of the drastic collectivization imposed in the first three years of this period, during which four-fifths of the cattle belonging to the still largely nomadic Kazakhs were destroyed” (Lieven, Nicholas II, London: Pimlico, 1993, pp. 240-241). (V.M.)

[16] Kirill Alexandrov, “Stalin i sovremennaia Rossia: vybor istoricheskikh otsenok ili vybor buduschego?” (Stalin and contemporary Russia: a choice of historical estimates or a choice of the future?), report read at the Russian Centre, San Francisco, February 3, 2017.

[17] Many True Orthodox Christians refused to take passports, and from this time the “passportless” movement begins. See Mervyn Matthews, The Passport Society, Oxford: Westview Press, 1993, chapter 3; E.A. Petrova, “Perestroika Vavilonskoj Bashni (The Reconstruction of the Tower of Babylon)”, Moscow, 1991, pp. 5-6 (samizdat MS). (V.M.)

[18] Brendon, op. cit., pp. 211-213.

[19] Applebaum, “Why does Putin want to control Ukraine? Ask Stalin”, The Washington Post, October 20, 2017.

[20] See Anne Applebaum, “How Stalin Hid Ukraine's Famine From the World”, The Atlantic, October 13, 2017,

[21] Shaw, The Rationalization of Russia, 1931.

[22] Service, Comrades, London: Pan Books, 2007, p. 205.

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