When Ukraine resisted Soviet attempts at collectivization
in the 1920s and '30s, the Soviet
Union under Stalin used labor
camps, executions, and starvation (Holodomor) to kill
millions of Ukrainians.
In 1933, the recently elected
administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt granted official U.S. recognition to the Soviet Union
for the first
time. Especially repugnant was that
this recognition was granted even
though Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had just
concluded a campaign of genocide
against Ukraine that left over
10 million dead. This atrocity was
known to the Roosevelt administration,
but not to the American people at large, thanks to
suppression of the story by the Western press — as we shall show.
Ukraine's Untold Tragedy
The Ukrainian genocide
remains largely unknown. After 76 years, the blood of the victims still cries
for truth, and the guilt of the perpetrators for exposure.
Many Americans are barely
acquainted with Ukraine,
even though it is Europe's second largest country after Russia, and has
been a distinct land and people for centuries. One reason for this
unfamiliarity is that Ukraine has rarely known political independence; it was
under Russia's heel throughout much of its existence — under Soviet domination
prior to 1991, and under Czarist Russia before that. Many American students heard little or nothing
in their history classes because the nation had been relegated to the status of
a Russian "province."
Stalin accomplished genocide against Ukraine by two means. One was massive
executions and deportations to labor camps. But his second tool of murder was
more unique: an artificial famine created by confiscation of all food. Ukrainians call this the Holodomor,
translated by one modern Ukrainian dictionary as "artificial hunger,
organized on a vast scale by the criminal regime against the country's
population," but often simply translated as "murder by hunger."
Ukraine was the last place one would have expected famine, for it had been
known for centuries as the "breadbasket of Europe."
French diplomat Blaise de Vigenère wrote in
is overflowing with honey and wax.... The soil of this country is so
good and fertile that when you leave a plow in the field, it becomes overgrown
with grass after two or three days. It will be difficult to find." The
18th-century British traveler Joseph Marshall wrote: "The Ukraine is the
richest province of the Russian empire.... The soil is a black loam.... I think I have never seen such deep
plowing as these peasants give their ground."
In the aftermath of the
1917 Russian Revolution, Ukraine
became part of a bloody battlefield of fighting between the Bolsheviks (the
group that eventually became the Communist Party of the Soviet
Union), Czarist Whites, and Ukrainian nationalists. Ultimately,
of course, the Bolsheviks prevailed, but Lenin shrewdly recognized that concessions
would be necessary to gain Ukraine's cooperation as a member of the unstable
young USSR. To exploit Ukrainians' long-standing resentment of Czarist
domination, he permitted them to retain much of their national culture.
Ukrainians experienced a relatively high degree of freedom extending into the
mid-1920s. The Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and non-communist
Ukrainian Academy of Sciences were allowed to operate independently. However, as the Soviet
Union consolidated its power, and Joseph Stalin ascended to the
party's top, these freedoms became expendable, and Ukrainian nationalism, at
first exploited, now became viewed as a liability.
Despite a communist push
for collectivization, Ukraine's
farms had mostly remained private — the foundation of their success. But
in 1929, the Central Committee of the Soviet Union's Communist Party decided to
embark on a program of total collectivization. Private farms were to be
completely replaced by collectives — in Ukraine known as kolkhozes. This was, of course, consistent with
Marxist ideology: the Communist Manifesto
had called for abolition of private property.
Intense pressure was placed
upon Ukrainian peasants to join the kolkhozes. Twenty-five thousand
fanatical young communists from the USSR's cities were sent to Ukraine to
compel the transition. These became known as the Twenty-Five Thousanders; each was assigned a particular locality,
and was accompanied by a weapons-bearing communist entourage, including members
of the GPU (secret police, forerunner of the KGB). A communist commission was
established in each village.
Holodomor survivor Miron
Dolot, in his book Execution by Hunger, describes what happened soon after a
commission was started in his village by its Twenty-Five Thousander, Comrade
We did not have to wait too long for Comrade Zeitlin's strategy to
reveal itself. The first incident occurred very early on a cold January morning
in 1930 while people in our village were still asleep. Fifteen villagers were
arrested, and someone said that the Checkists [GPU] had arrived in the village
The most prominent villagers were among those arrested.... This was
frightening. Our official leadership had been taken away in one night. The
farmers, mostly illiterate and ignorant, were thereby left much more
The leaders of Dolot's
village were never seen again.
Throughout Ukraine, the Twenty-Five
Thousanders held mandatory village meetings in which they demanded that all
peasants relinquish private farming and "volunteer" to join a
collective. Most peasants fiercely resisted. In principle, of course,
there is nothing wrong with farmers pooling their resources and efforts in a
cooperative venture. But this was not what the communists meant by collectivization.
On the kolkhozes, the government owned everything — the land, animals,
equipment, and produce. The
worker kept no fruits of his labor, and was at the state's mercy to receive a
pittance of pay.
Soviet collectives never succeeded. As the eminent Sovietologist Robert
Conquest noted of them, "Wherever they had existed they had, with all the
advantages given them by the regime, done worse than the individual farm."
On the kolkhozes, livestock, poorly cared for, easily died, and equipment fell
into disrepair. This was because the workers did not own them, nor did they
have any stake in the collective. This illustrated the conflict between Marxist
ideology and the reality of human nature. Making matters worse, the collectives were organized by the Twenty-Five
Thousanders, who, being urban youths, had no agricultural experience; their
ignorance of farming basics often became the butt of jokes among local
To force the villagers into
collectives, the communists threatened them with being declared enemies of the
state, to be dealt with by the GPU. Jails — unfamiliar to Ukrainian
peasants — began appearing in every village. To instill additional fear, Soviet
army units were brought in, lodging themselves in homes without permission.
Torturous punishments were devised, such as "path treading," in which
a resisting peasant would be forced to walk through the snow to the next
village, there to be interrogated by its officials, and if he still refused to
join a collective, walk to the next village. This would carry on until the
peasant either died of exhaustion or bent to the state's will. A very effective
method was to simply seize a family's food supply. Threatened with seeing their
children starve, many peasants gave in. By the summer of 1932, 80 percent of Ukraine's farmland had been
Scapegoat for Communist Failure
But since the kolkhozes failed to produce as predicted
by Marxist theory, and with many peasants still refusing to join, Stalin sought
a scapegoat. It was announced that the failure of collectivization was
due to sabotage by "kulaks." These were the more prosperous peasants.
Merely owning a cow, hiring
another peasant, or having a tin roof (instead of the more common thatched
roof) were all considered evidence that one was a kulak.
Of course, in any economy,
some people thrive more than others. This is usually owing to
industriousness and efficiency. According to Marxist doctrine, however, all
wealthier peasants (kulaks) were "bloodsuckers" and
"parasites" who had grown rich by exploiting poorer peasants and who
were now subverting collectivization. Stalin announced that the solution to better grain production was to
"struggle against the capitalist elements of the peasantry, against the
kulaks," and he proclaimed the goal of "liquidation of the kulaks as
a class." In reality, however, Ukraine had never had a distinct
social class of kulaks — this concept was a Marxist invention.
Those accused of being
kulaks were either shot, deported to remote slave labor camps in Russia, or put
in local labor details. Few survived. One could be accused of being a
kulak on the flimsiest evidence. Some peasants accused others merely out of
envy or dislike. As one Soviet writer later noted: "It was easy to do a
man in; you wrote a denunciation; you did not even have to sign it. All you had
to say was that he had paid people to work for him as hired hands, or that he
had owned three cows." Some very poor peasants were accused of being
kulaks simply because they were religiously devout. And ironically, many of the
"rich" kulaks earned less income than the communist officials
prosecuting them! "Dekulakization" slaughtered millions.
Ironically, this process
killed off the most productive farmers, guaranteeing a smaller harvest and a more
impoverished Soviet Union. The
remaining farmers did not dare take steps to improve their lands or prosper,
for fear they would be reclassified as kulaks. But Stalin accomplished his true goal:
destroying leadership that might oppose the complete subjugation of Ukraine.
This campaign extended
beyond kulaks to broadly attacking all vestiges of Ukrainian nationalism. As
Dolot notes, the Soviet Communist Party
sent [Pavel] Postyshev, a sadistically cruel Russian chauvinist, as its
viceroy to Ukraine. His appointment played a crucial role in the lives of all
Ukrainians. It was Postyshev who brought along and implemented a new Soviet
Russian policy in Ukraine. It was an openly proclaimed policy of deliberate and
unrestricted destruction of everything Ukrainian. From now on, we were
continually reminded that there were "bourgeois-nationalists" among
us whom we must destroy.... This new campaign against the Ukrainian national
movement had resulted in the annihilation of the Ukrainian central government
as well as all Ukrainian cultural, educational, and social institutions.
The Ukrainian Language Institute, Ukrainian Institute of Philosophy,
Ukrainian State Publishing House, and countless other institutions were purged,
murdered or imprisoned. So fanatical was the war on nationalism that even
the colorful embroidered national costumes Ukrainians wore were seized.
Eyewitness Yefrosyniya Poplavets recalls: "To save our embroidered shirts
we put them on under our old ragged jackets. It didn't work! They undressed us and took the shirts to
eradicate any national spirit in the household."
But perhaps the most
intense thrust was against the church, for it represented not only a form of
Ukrainian solidarity, but the Gospel whose principles inherently oppose those
of Marxism. The Communist Party declared: "The church is the
kulak's agitprop." Priests were executed or sent to labor camps; church
land was confiscated; monasteries were closed. The churches — some of them
centuries-old national monuments — were either demolished, or turned into
cinemas, libraries, barracks and other secular uses for the state. Church icons
were smashed; books and archives were burned; church bells were even sold as
scrap. By the end of 1930, 80 percent of all Ukraine's village churches had
been shut down. These measures
were applied not only against Ukraine's
Orthodox churches, but against other denominations and religions, for as Marx
had said, "Religion is the opiate of the masses."
"Murder by Hunger"
Yet the worst still awaited
By 1932, virtually all kulaks had been liquidated, but many of the
remaining poor peasants still resisted communism and collectivization. Stalin now began war upon Ukraine's
poorest — ironically those who, in Marxist doctrine, should have been esteemed
as "the proletariat."
In 1932, Stalin demanded
increase its grain output by 44 percent. Such a goal would have been
unachievable even if the communists had not already ruined the nation's
productivity by eliminating the best farmers and forcing others onto the feeble
collectives. That year, not a
single village was able to meet the impossible quota, which far exceeded Ukraine's best
output in the pre-collective years.
Stalin then issued one of
the cruelest orders of his dark career: if quotas were not met, all grain was
to be confiscated. As one Soviet author much later wrote: "All the
grain without exception was requisitioned for the fulfillment of the Plan,
including that set aside for sowing, fodder, and even that previously issued to
the kolkhozniki as payment for their
work." The authorization included seizure of all food from all households.
Any home that did not turn over all its grain was accused of
"hoarding" state property. One villager recalled the process by which
communist "brigades" invaded homes:
Every brigade had a so-called "specialist" for searching out
grain. He was equipped with a long iron crow-bar with
which he probed for hidden grain.
The brigade went from
house to house. At first they entered homes and asked, "How much
grain have you got for the government?" "I haven't any. If you don't believe me search for yourselves," was the usual
And so the "search" began. They searched in the house, in the
attic, shed, pantry and the cellar. Then they went outside and searched the
barn, pig pen, granary and the straw pile. They measured the oven and
calculated if it was large enough to hold hidden grain behind the brickwork.
They broke beams in the attic, pounded on the floor of the house, tramped the
whole yard and garden. If they found a suspicious-looking spot, in went the
Miron Dolot recalls:
They measured the
thickness of the walls, and inspected them for bulges where grain could have
been concealed. Sometimes they completely tore down suspicious walls....
Nothing in the houses remained intact or untouched. They upturned everything:
even the cribs of babies, and the babies themselves were thoroughly frisked,
not to mention the other family members. They looked for "hidden
grain" in and under men's and women's clothing. Even the smallest amount
that was found was confiscated. If so much as a small can or jar of seeds was
found that had been set aside for spring planting, it was taken away, and the
owner was accused of hiding food from the state.
Of course, to avoid starvation, nearly every family did attempt to conceal
food. But experience soon made
the brigades proficient at detecting even the most clever hiding places.
The result was mass
starvation that took millions of lives during the terrible winter of 1932-33. Food
was nearly impossible to find anywhere. Many begged neighbors for potato skins or other scraps — only to find
their neighbors equally destitute.
There was still some food
on the collectives, which the communists did not deplete like households. However,
in August 1932 the Communist Party of the USSR had passed a law mandating the
death penalty for theft of "social property." Watchtowers were built
on the collectives, manned by trigger-happy young communists. Thousands of peasants were shot for attempting
to take a handful of grain or a few beets from the kolkhozes, to feed their
Unable to get food, many
ate whatever could pass for it — weeds, leaves, tree bark, and insects. The
luckiest were able to survive secretly on small woodland animals. American
journalist Thomas Walker wrote:
About twenty miles south of Kiev (Kyiv), I came upon a village that was
practically extinct by starvation. There had been fifteen houses in this
village and a population of forty-odd persons. Every dog and cat had been
eaten. The horses and oxen had all been appropriated by the Bolsheviks to stock
the collective farms. In one hut they were cooking a mess that defied analysis.
There were bones, pig-weed, skin, and what looked like a boot top in this pot.
The way the remaining half dozen inhabitants eagerly watched this slimy mess
showed the state of their hunger.
A few people even resorted
to cannibalism, eating those who had died and, in some cases, murdering those
Many peasants attempted to
reach Ukraine's cities like Kiev, where factory
workers were still allowed a little pay and food. However, in December 1932 the
communists introduced the "internal passport." This made it
impossible for a villager to get a city job without the Party's permission,
which was almost universally denied.
Other peasants hoped to get
to Poland, Romania, or even Russia, where there was no famine. But
emigration was strictly forbidden. Ukrainian train stations were swamped with
the starving, who hoped to sneak aboard a train, or beg in hopes that a
passenger on a passing train might throw them a bread crust. They were repelled by GPU guards, who found
themselves faced with the problem of removing countless corpses of the starving
who littered these stations.
Horror of Genocide
British journalist Malcolm
Muggeridge, who secretly investigated Ukraine without Soviet permission,
was able to escape communist censorship by sending details home to the Manchester Guardian in a diplomatic bag.
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.... 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.
At the famine's height, 25,000 people per day were dying. As the winter wore
on, Ukraine became a panorama of horror. The roadsides were filled with the
corpses of those who died seeking food. The bodies, many of which snow concealed until the spring thaw, were
unceremoniously dumped into mass graves by the communists.
Many others died of starvation in their own homes. Some chose to end the
process by suicide, commonly by hanging — if they had the strength to do it.
"They just sat," writes Dolot of his fellow villagers, "or lay
down silently, too feeble even to talk. The bodies of some were reduced to
skeletons, with their skin hanging grayish-yellow and loose over their bones.
Their faces looked like rubber masks with large, bulging, immobile eyes. Their
necks seemed to have shrunk onto their shoulders. The look in their eyes was glassy, heralding
their approaching death."
The communists, on the
other hand, ate excellent rations, and party bosses even enjoyed luxurious
ones. In Robert Conquest's Harvest
of Sorrow, we read the following account of the party officials' dining
hall at Pohrebyshcha:
Day and night it was guarded by militia keeping the starving peasants
away from the restaurant.... In the dining room, at very low prices, white
bread, meat, poultry, canned fruit and delicacies, wines and sweets were served
to the district bosses.... Around these oases famine and death were raging.
But perhaps the worst paradox: although much of the confiscated grain was
exported to the West, large portions were simply dumped into the sea by the
Soviets, or allowed to rot. For example, a huge supply of grain lay decaying
under GPU guard at Reshetylivka Station in Poltava Province. Passing it in a train, an American
correspondent saw "huge pyramids of grain, piled high, and smoking from
internal combustion." In the Lubotino region, thousands of tons of
confiscated potatoes were allowed to rot, surrounded by barbed wire.
All this underscores the
true purpose of the food confiscation: genocide. Sergio Gradenigo, the
Italian consul in Moscow, wrote in a dispatch to Rome on May 31, 1933:
The famine has been deliberately planned by the Moscow government and
implemented by means of brutal requisition. The definite aim of this crime is
to liquidate the Ukrainian problem over a few months, sacrificing from 10 to 15
million people. Do not consider this figure to be exaggerated: I'm sure it
could even have been reached and exceeded by now.
While there is disagreement over how many lives the genocide claimed,
Gradenigo's figures have turned out to be rather accurate. In Harvest of Sorrow,
historian Robert Conquest, considered by many the leading authority on the
famine, put the toll at 14.5 million. About half of these deaths represent the liquidation of the kulaks, via
execution and slow death in gulags, while the famine itself claimed the lives
of approximately seven million, including three million children.
Helping Stalin Hide the Holocaust
How did a holocaust of
these dimensions remain unknown in the West? First, the Soviets
suppressed all information regarding the famine. Russia's state-controlled press was
prohibited from discussing it, and for ordinary citizens, just mentioning the
famine carried a penalty of three to five years' imprisonment.
Although some Western
observers did report the magnitude of the Ukrainians' plight, such comments
were extremely rare. During the famine, the Soviets prohibited foreign
journalists from visiting Ukraine. But just as significant was the cooperation
of influential Western writers sympathetic to communism. The Fabian Socialist George Bernard Shaw, after
receiving a tour carefully orchestrated by the Soviets, proclaimed in 1932:
"I did not see a single under-nourished person in Russia, young
But by far the worst
offender was Walter Duranty, New York
bureau chief from 1922 to 1936. Duranty enjoyed personal access to
Stalin, called him "the greatest living statesman," and even praised
the dictator's notorious show trials. To call Duranty a Soviet sympathizer
greatly understates his role. Journalist
Joseph Alsop termed Duranty a "KGB agent," and Malcolm Muggeridge
called him "the greatest liar of any journalist I have met in 50 years of
Duranty's published denials
Holodomor were perhaps the vilest
acts of his career. In November 1932, he brazenly told
his New York Times readers,
"There is no famine or actual starvation nor is there likely to be."
He denounced as "liars" the few brave writers who reported the
famine, which he called "malignant propaganda." When accumulating
reports made the massive deaths hard to dispute, Duranty switched tactics from
outright denial to downplay. He wrote in the Times in March
1933: "There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation but there
is widespread mortality from deaths due to malnutrition."
Incredibly, Duranty was
awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for "dispassionate, interpretive
reporting of the news from Russia."
Some will ask: did the Ukrainians resist the genocide? Yes! Throughout
Stalin's war, hundreds of riots and revolts, on various scales, erupted
throughout Ukraine. There are even a number of stories where groups of heroic
women overran the communist-guarded kolkhozes
and seized grain for their starving children. And it was not unusual for a village's local
party tyrant to suddenly be found dead.
However, such resistance was brutally suppressed. The Soviets had passed gun
registration decrees in 1926, 1928, and 1929, and few Ukrainians owned
effective weapons. Resistance largely constituted pitchforks against machine
guns. The GPU and Soviet army dealt with revolts; aircraft were brought in to
suppress the more serious ones. And
the famine of 1932-33 left peasants too weak to resist.
Triumph at Last, Tragedy Not
The Holodomor stands as a permanent warning of what happens when
unlimited state power destroys God-given rights. A cursory review of
America's Bill of Rights demonstrates that virtually every right mentioned was
trampled on by Stalin in Ukraine. Yet although the dictator used every means to eradicate the people's
will, the national spirit lived on unbreakably, until Ukraine gained
its independence in 1991.
Here in the United States,
Ukrainian-American organizations such as the Ukrainian Congress Committee of
America (UCCA) (www.ucca.org), Ukrainian Genocide Famine Foundation
(www.ukrainiangenocide.com), and others work diligently to maintain awareness
of the Holodomor. Last year,
they helped commemorate the genocide's 75th anniversary. And largely thanks to
their efforts, in 2008 the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution
deploring the genocidal famine. One
of UCCA's ongoing campaigns — which The
New American heartily endorses — is for the long-deserved revocation of
Walter Duranty's Pulitzer Prize.
James Perloff is the author
of The Shadows of Power: The Council on
Foreign Relations and the American Decline and Tornado in a Junkyard: The
Relentless Myth of Darwinism.
Photo: Ukrainian Congress Committee of
Friday, 06 February 2009
Written by James Perloff