The Holodomor, death by hunger, is the name given to the 1930s terror-famine in Ukraine. Leading up to the famine were the murder and exile of Ukrainian farmers, (kulaks) and the collectivization of farms under Stalin.
Robert Conquest, in his book Harvest of Sorrows, lays out the sequence of events:
A famine which struck all the grain-producing areas of European Russia, and especially Ukraine, reached a climax in the summer of 1933. It began years earlier, however, when Stalin in the winter of 1929 and 1930 dispossessed, exiled and killed millions of the more prosperous peasants and harassed the remaining peasantry into surrendering land, animals and tools into collective farms; it was made inevitable in the second and final wave of collectivization in the winter of 1930–1931, when a disorganized and disillusioned peasantry was effectively enslaved.
The death toll was beyond imaginable. Conquest writes, “Of a Ukrainian farm population of between twenty and twenty-five million, about five million died—a quarter to a fifth. The casualty rate varied considerably by area and even village, from 10% to 100%….Time after time, officials tell of entering villages with few or no survivors, and seeing the dead in their houses. In villages of 3,000–4,000 people…only 45–80 were left.”
To learn from the Holodomor, I turn to the remarkable Russian novelist and journalist Vasily Grossman. Grossman is perhaps the greatest freedom fighter you’ve never heard of. He exposed the common roots of the totalitarian horrors of communism and fascism, and he also revealed with unparalleled insights the mindset that ordinary people adopted to enable their oppressors.
His novel Life and Fate is one of the outstanding novels of the 20th century. I have explored that novel in four previous essays: Why “Good” People Enable Totalitarians, It Takes a Village of Bureaucrats to Implement Despotism, Why There is a Civic and Moral Duty to Oppose Tyrannical Bureaucracies, and A Soviet Dissident Explains American Censorship.
Until his death in 1964, Grossman was writing his last novel and testament Everything Flows. In it, Grossman delivers viscerally compelling narratives of the Holodomor. His insights reach us across time, warning of the consequences of events we can observe today. Today we must learn from the past to prevent the worst tomorrow
As you read the following excerpts from Grossman’s vivid description of the Holodomor, I offer these questions for reflection:
Today, which group(s) of people are politicians, academics, “experts,” and the media teaching us to hate? What groups may be targeted during a future economic depression?
What justification(s) for hatred are we adopting which normalizes the dehumanization of others?
What consequences do you imagine are possible when groups of people are dehumanized?
Destruction Began with a Tax
The murder and exile of the farmers began with a special tax. The kulaks believed complying with the tax would save them from further harm. Grossman writes, “They paid up; somehow they found the money. Then they were taxed a second time. Anything they could, they sold. They believed that, if they paid up, the State would be merciful.”
Special taxes were the first step. Arrests followed, beginning with selected fathers of farming families:
[T]he village soviets would then each draw up a list of names. It was on the basis of these lists that people were arrested. And who drew up the lists? A group of three—a troika. A group of three ordinary, muddle-headed people determined who was to live and who was to die. There were no holds barred. There were bribes…There were scores to be settled because of a woman, or because of some other past grievance…Often it was the poorest peasants who were listed as kulaks, while the richer peasants managed to buy themselves off.
When it came to drawing up lists, “the evil committed by the honest people was no less than the evil committed by the bad people. What matters is that the very existence of these lists was unjust and evil.”
After fathers, entire families were rounded up. The OGPU [a precursor to the KGB] couldn’t do the job “on its own, and so the Party activists were mobilized too.” Grossman tells the terrible tale:
The activists were just villagers like anyone else, they were people everyone knew, but they all seemed to lose their minds. They seemed dazed, crazed, as if they’d fallen under some spell. They threatened people with guns. They called small children’ kulak brats.’ ‘You’re bloodsuckers!’ they yelled, ‘bloodsuckers!’
The activists were ordinary villagers sympathetic to the State and convinced by State propaganda to hate their neighbors:
[F]or the main part, they [the “activists”] were people from our own village. They were, admittedly, under a spell. They’d convinced themselves that the kulaks were evil, that it was best not even to touch them. They would not even sit down to eat with one of ‘those parasites.’ The kulaks’ towels were unclean, their children were disgusting, their young women were worse than lice. The activists looked on those who were being dispossessed as if they were cattle, or swine. Everything about the kulaks was vile—they were vile in themselves, and they had no souls, and they stank, and they were full of sexual diseases, and worst of all, they were enemies of the people and exploiters of the labor of others.
Unaffected by the violence they inflicted as they drove kulaks from their homes, the activists “could just as well have been driving a flock of geese down the road.”
Through the voice of one of his characters, Grossman explains the relentless Soviet propaganda: destroy the kulaks, and utopia will follow:
[D]uring meetings and special briefings, from films, books, articles, and radio broadcasts, from Stalin himself, I kept hearing one and the same thing: that kulaks are parasites, that kulaks burn bread and murder children. The fury of the masses had to be ignited against them—yes, those were the words; it was proclaimed that the kulaks must be destroyed as a class, every accursed one of them…I too began to fall under this spell. It seemed that every misfortune was because of the kulaks; if we were to annihilate them immediately, then happy days would dawn for us all.
Some activists were driven by hatred, others merely obeyed, and still others sought to steal from their victims:
[T]here were all sorts among us activists. There were those who truly believed, who hated the ‘parasites’ and who really did do all they could for the poorest peasants; there were those with selfish aims of their own; and then there were those—the majority—who were simply obeying orders, people willing to beat their own mothers and fathers to death if that was what they were told to do. The most terrible of all were not those who believed in the happy life that would set in after the kulaks were all done away with—no, the beasts that seem wildest are not always the most dangerous. The most terrible of all were the ones with selfish aims of their own. They never stopped talking about political awareness—and all the time they were settling personal scores, stealing and plundering, destroying the lives of others. They destroyed others just to get hold of a few possessions, for a mere pair of boots.
It was chillingly easy to add a person to the list of kulaks to destroy: “just write a denunciation—you don’t even need to put your signature to it. Just say that your neighbor owned three cows, or that he had hired hands working for him—and there, you’ve set him up as a kulak.”
Villagers who survived the purging of kulaks were not prepared for what followed. “Now that there were no more kulaks, everyone was forced to join the collective farm. There were meetings that lasted all night long—with endless cursing and shouting.”
Politics swamped all life. Rights were minimal under communism, but even those rights were stripped if they were used “to the detriment of the Socialist Revolution.”
Execution by Famine
Having eliminated farmers whose knowledge and incentives produced bountiful harvests, the natural consequence was famine: “And we all thought that no fate could be worse than that of the kulaks. How wrong we were. In the villages the ax fell on everyone—no one was big enough, or small enough, to be safe.”
Grossman explains how “execution by famine” started with lies:
How did it all happen? After the dispossession of the kulaks, the area of land under cultivation dropped sharply, and so did the crop yield. But everyone kept reporting that without the kulaks, our life had immediately started to blossom. The village soviet lied to the district, the district to the province, and the province to Moscow. Everyone wanted Stalin to rejoice in the belief that a happy life had begun and the whole of his dominion would soon be awash with collective-farm grain. The time came for the first collective-farm harvest. Everything seemed in order. Moscow determined the quotas for grain deliveries from each province, and the provinces determined the quota for each district. And our village was given a quota it couldn’t have fulfilled in ten years.
Unfilled quotas triggered Soviet reprisals: “Where was it then—this ocean of collective-farm grain? It must have been hidden away! Idlers, parasites, kulaks who had not yet been liquidated! The kulaks had been deported, but their spirit endured. The Ukrainian peasant was in thrall to private property.”
State propaganda targeted a new group of peasants to hate: the subkulaks. Subkulaks were peasants labeled as “hostile to collectivization.” Grossman depicts what followed: “Mothers and fathers wanted to save their children, to put just a little grain to one side. They were told, ‘You hate the motherland of socialism with a ferocious hatred. You want to sabotage the plan. You’re nothing but vermin, you subkulak parasites.’”
Terror fell upon villages: “The authorities searched for that grain as if they were searching for bombs and machine guns. They stabbed the earth with bayonets and ramrods; they smashed floors and dug underneath them; they dug up vegetable gardens.”
Grossman’s depiction is corroborated by Robert Conquest who quotes a former activist, Lev Kopelev:
I took part in this myself, scouring the countryside, searching for hidden grain, testing the earth with an iron rod for loose spots that might lead to buried 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.
Finding grain was futile, since “there were no silos.” Instead, enforcers acted out of ignorance of farming: “The grain was simply dumped on the ground, with sentries standing guard all around it. By the beginning of winter the grain was soaking and beginning to rot. The Soviet authorities did not have enough tarpaulins to protect the peasants’ grain.”
There was no food, only more lies: “When the grain was requisitioned, by the way, the Party activists were told that the peasants would be fed by the State. That was a lie. Not a single grain was given to the hungry.”
Journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, who reported in the early summer of 1933 on the devastation, was quoted by Conquest:
On a recent visit to the Northern Caucasus and the Ukraine, I saw something of the battle that is going on between the government and the peasants. The battlefield is as desolate as in any war and stretches wider; stretches over a large part of Russia. On the one side, millions of starving peasants, their bodies often swollen from lack of food; on the other, soldier members of the GPU carrying out the instructions of the dictatorship of the proletariat. They had gone over the country like a swarm of locusts and taken away everything edible; they had shot or exiled thousands of peasants, sometimes whole villages; they had reduced some of the most fertile land in the world to a melancholy desert.
Grossman’s depiction is heart-wrenching:
No footsteps but the footsteps of famine—famine never slept. First thing in the morning, the children were crying in every hut, asking for bread. And what were their mothers to give them? Snow? There was no help to be had from anyone. The Party officials just went on repeating, ‘You shouldn’t have lazed about like that. You should have worked harder.’
Having destroyed Ukraine, the State abandoned the peasants:
The village was left to look after itself—with everyone starving in their huts, and nothing but desert on all sides. And all the various officials from the city stopped coming. There was nothing more to be taken from the starving people—so why should anyone go to the village? There was nothing a teacher could teach them—and nothing a medical assistant could do. Once the State’s squeezed all it can out of you, then you’re no more use to it. No point in teaching or healing you. “The villagers were left on their own; the State withdrew from them. People began wandering from house to house, begging from one another. Poor begged from poor; the starving from the starving. People with large families begged from people with small families, and from those who had no children at all. They still had something left at the beginning of spring, and sometimes they gave away a handful of bran or a couple of potatoes. But the Party members never gave anyone anything at all—not because they were especially greedy, or especially bad, but simply because they were frightened. And the State didn’t give the starving so much as one grain of wheat—even though the grain grown by the peasants was its very foundation.
Some villagers wondered if Stalin knew all this. Some couldn’t believe Stalin didn’t care:
Did Stalin really turn his back on all these people? Did he really carry out such a massacre? Stalin had food; Stalin had bread. It seems that he chose to kill all these people, that he starved them deliberately. They didn’t even help the children. So was Stalin, then, worse than Herod? Did he really take away people’s last kernels of grain—and then starve them? ‘No,’ I say to myself, ‘how could he?’ But then I say to myself, ‘It happened, it happened.’ And then, immediately: ‘No, it couldn’t have!’
In truth, conditions were much worse than under the tsars:
The old people talked about the famine at the time of the tsar. Then there had been help…But under a workers’ and peasants’ government no one had given them a single grain. And there were roadblocks—manned by soldiers, police, and OGPU—on every road. The starving had to stay in their villages—they were not to walk to the cities. There were guards around every railway station, even around the smallest halts. For those who fed the nation there was no bread.
The cruelty of authorities was unimaginable: “what mattered to the Soviet authorities was the plan. Fulfill the plan! Deliver your assigned quota of grain. The State comes first, and people are just one big zero.” Grossman graphically depicts the peasant’s plight:
While they still had a little strength, people used to walk through the fields to the railway. Not to the station—no, the guards didn’t let them anywhere near it—but just to the track itself. When the Kiev–Odessa express came by, they used to kneel down and shout, ‘Bread! Bread!’ Sometimes they held their children up in the air—their terrible children. And sometimes people would throw them pieces of bread or some scraps. The dust would settle, the rumble of the train would pass—and the whole village would be crawling along the track, searching for crusts. But then came new regulations; when trains were going through the famine provinces, the OGPU guards had to close the windows and lower the blinds. Passengers weren’t allowed to look out. And the peasants stopped going to the railway anyway. They no longer had the strength to go outside their huts, let alone as far as the railway.
Despite the starvation, Soviet propaganda was unrelenting. The New York Times actively covered up Stalin’s genocide. Here Grossman alludes to a visit made to Ukraine in 1933 by the French radical leader Edouard Herriot who was shown a Potemkin village:
[Herriot] was taken to the Dnepropetrovsk Province, where the famine was at its most terrible, even worse than where we were. People were eating people there. He was taken to some village, to a collective-farm nursery school, and he asked the children what they’d had for lunch that day. ‘Chicken soup with pies and rice croquettes,’ came the answer… There’s never been anything like it. Killing millions of people on the quiet and then duping the whole world.
Whole villages were dying: “First it was the children that died, then it was the old people, then it was the middle-aged. At first people dug graves for them, but then they stopped. And so the dead were lying on the streets, in the yards, and the last to die just remained in their huts. It went quiet. The whole village had died.”
A starving, desperate few struggled to get to a city:
And then there were the peasants—crawling out of their villages, crawling toward the city. The stations were all cordoned off, and the trains were constantly searched. There were army and OGPU roadblocks on every road. All the same, people were getting to Kiev, crawling through fields and bogs, through woods and open country—anything to bypass the roadblocks. It was impossible, after all, to set up blocks everywhere. The peasants could no longer walk—they could only crawl. And so people in Kiev would be hurrying about their affairs—on their way to work, on their way to a cinema…Trams would be running…And in the middle of all this, crawling about among these people, were the starving. Children, men, young girls—all on all fours. They looked more like some kind of filthy little cats or dogs. But they seemed to be trying to be like people. They knew modesty; they knew shame…But it was only the lucky few, only one in ten thousand, who managed to crawl as far as Kiev. Not that it did them any good—there was no salvation even in Kiev. Starving people lay on the ground. They begged, they tried to hiss out words—but they were unable to eat. Someone might have a crust of bread beside him but he couldn’t see it any more; he was too far gone.
Through the lessons of history, Grossman brings to life what we already know: Concentrated power combined with the dark side of human nature is a terrible brew. Many human beings will cooperate with totalitarians for personal advancement, or because they are obedient to authority, or they are full of fear, or they can’t believe their government is capable of evil.
When any person harbors hatred, their own humanity is destroyed. In Grossman’s words, “looking at his victim as other than human, he ceases to be human himself. He executes the human being inside his own self; he is his own executioner.”
There are consequences of destroying the lives of others. One’s rights are only as strong as one’s defense of the rights of others.
Imagine if hatred were to grip our country. Perhaps ten years in the future, America is mired in an economic depression, and the population is further polarized. People are suffering and gripped by fear. A future populist president will need scapegoats. Would this president label the wealthy 1 percent, or those with large retirement accounts, or cryptocurrency holders as the “cause” of the suffering? When property is seized, what other rights crumble for all?
Imagine the choices each of us would have to make to prevent our minds from being hijacked by hate-filled propaganda campaigns.
There may be one meta-choice before us. Grossman leaves us contrasting portraits, paralleling Viktor Frankl’s reports of behavior in the concentration camps in Man’s Search for Meaning:
In one hut they’re at war, checking on one another, keeping watch on one another, stealing crumbs from one another. Wife against husband; husband against wife. The mother hates her children. But in another hut they live in indestructible love. I knew one woman with four children. She could hardly move her tongue, but she kept telling them fairy tales to try to make them forget their hunger. She hardly had the strength even to lift her own arms, yet she held her children in them. Love lived on in her.
In the midst of suffering beyond belief, there is always the choice for love or hate. Let Grossman’s message sink in: Every human being is capable of acting out of great hatred. Every human being is capable of acting out of great love. Every human being has the responsibility to choose. Our future is determined by the choices we make today.