Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder
Snyder begins his examination of this horrendous time and place – Central and Eastern Europe crushed by and between Stalin and Hitler – with the Soviet famines, and especially the famines in Ukraine; the same Ukraine with some of the most fertile soil in all of Europe.
There was famine in the cities:
People in the cities of Soviet Ukraine were afraid of losing their place in breadlines and they were afraid of starving to death.
There was famine in the countryside:
…the Ukrainian countryside was dying. City dwellers could not fail to notice the destitution of peasants who, contrary to all seeming logic, left the fields in search of food.
Why famines? Stalin took the grain; he required the grain to be collected: “it is imperative to export without fail immediately.” Stalin required the grain to export, to generate funds necessary to quickly transform the Soviet Union via purchases of products and weapons from the west.
Snyder offers many anecdotal stories – long bread lines; thousands of starving children being sent to beg; women on the farms beaten, stripped, and raped by party activists; cannibalization.
The mass starvation of 1933 was the result of Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan, implemented between 1928 and 1932. In those years, Stalin had taken control of the heights of the communist party, forced through a policy of industrialization and collectivization, and emerged as the frightful father of a beaten population. He transformed the market into the plan, farmers into slaves, and the wastes of Siberia and Kazakhstan into a chain of concentration camps.
The farmer didn’t go along with this transformation easily: “He was bound to resist a policy designed to relieve him of his land and his freedom.” The first targets were the “kulaks,” who were to be “liquidated as a class.”
Who were the “kulaks”?
Kulaks…were a category of relatively affluent farmers in the later Russian Empire, Soviet Russia, and early Soviet Union. The word kulak originally referred to independent farmers in the Russian Empire who emerged from the peasantry and became wealthy following the Stolypin reform, which began in 1906. The label of kulak was broadened in 1918 to include any peasant who resisted handing over their grain to detachments from Moscow. During 1929-1933, Stalin's leadership of the total campaign to collectivize the peasantry meant that "peasants with a couple of cows or five or six acres more than their neighbors" were being labeled "kulaks".
That is the sanitary definition; according to Snyder “In practice, the state decided who was a kulak and who was not.”
Things started small:
The police were to deport prosperous farmers, who had the most to lose from collectivization. In January 1930 the politburo authorized the state police to screen the peasant population of the entire Soviet Union.
For each locality, a group of three people – made up of a member of the state police, a local party leader, and a state prosecutor – were empowered to decide the fate of each peasant brought before them.
Although the Soviet Union had laws and courts, these were now ignored in favor of the simple decision of three individuals. Some thirty thousand Soviet citizens would be executed after sentencing by the troikas.
Those not executed would end up in concentration camps, “special settlements”:
The special settlements were new villages purpose-built by the inmates themselves, after they were dropped on the empty steppe or taiga.
Some three-hundred-thousand Ukrainians, along with over a million Soviet kulaks from other republics, were deported to these “special settlements” during this time.
By 1931, such punishment was combined with forced labor into a single system, known as the Gulag – a system eventually to include “476 camp complexes, to which some eighteen million people would be sentenced, of whom between a million and a half and three million would die during their periods of incarceration.”
One of the first touted “successes” of this forced labor system was the Belomor, a canal between the White Sea and the Baltic Sea. The White Sea Canal was opened in August 1933:
The canal was constructed by forced labour of gulag inmates. During its construction by a total of 126,000 workers, about 12,000 died, according to the official records, while historian Anne Applebaum's estimate is 25,000 deaths.
The canal was dug using simple hand tools – hand tools in the frozen netherworld of the northernmost reaches of the Soviet Union. The canal never proved to be of significant use, beyond its use as propaganda – demonstrating the “success” of the Soviet system to the outside world.
Death rates in the Gulag were high, but eventually the death rates in the Ukrainian countryside would match these. Farms were collectivized by force, of course, as the typical farmer did not yet fully comprehend the glories to be brought via this Marxist dream:
Threatening deportation, [local party activists] coerced peasants into signing away their claims to land and joining the collective farm. The state police intervened with force, often deadly force, when necessary….By the middle of March 1930, seventy-one percent of the arable land in the Soviet Union had been, at least in principle, attached to collective farms.
Rural Ukraine was, at the time, still relatively religious. Many understood “the contract with the collective farm as a pact with the devil. Some believed that Satan had come to earth in human form as a party activist…”
With few guns and poor organization, resistance in place was difficult if not impossible; many chose to resist with their feet…
…walking westward, across the frontier into neighboring Poland. Whole villages followed their example, taking up church banners, or crosses, or sometimes just black flags tied to sticks, and marching westward toward the border. Thousands of them reached Poland….
Polish officials interviewed the refugees; they sent spies the other way in order to encourage a Ukrainian revolt. From Stalin’s viewpoint, Poland was the western part of an international capitalist encirclement – with Japan serving as the eastern.
Further complication was to be found in Soviet Central Asia, especially in largely Muslim and nomadic Soviet Kazakhstan. These nomads were forced to settle down, and they didn’t agree – many riding into bordering China. Stalin feared these nomads as agents of Japan, the dominant foreign power when it came to internal conflicts in China.
Collectivization was not going as planned during this first five-year plan. Instead of bringing order, it brought destabilization to the borderlands, and suffering everywhere else. Stalin then decided to place strict border restrictions, deported those that he felt brought internal risk (e.g. Soviet Poles), and focused on “socialism in one country.” In 1930, Stalin even beat a tactical retreat from collectivization, in order to buy breathing room for an even more complete implementation in the coming year.
Given time to think, Stalin and the politburo found more effective means to subordinate the peasantry to the state. In the countryside the following year, Soviet policy proceeded with much greater deftness. In 1931, collectivization would come because peasants would no longer see a choice.
The farmer was taxed so extensively that he saw collectivization as the only refuge. Collective farms were authorized to take the seed-grain from independent farmers. Fearing the Gulag, farmers understood it was better to suffer at home than die in Siberia – they acquiesced to the collectivization scheme.
Stalin was effective the second time, as he now firmly succeeded in collectivizing the farms. He went on to set quotas, quotas for harvest that were difficult or impossible to meet and that left nothing for the farmer’s own needs. Every failure was blamed on theft by the farmer – if threatened sufficiently, he would give up his storehouse. Eventually he would give up his seed-grain. His future was fully mortgaged, yet the quotas would not be diminished.
The starvations were inevitable; Ukrainian party members wrote directly to Stalin: “How can we construct the socialist economy when we are all doomed to death by hunger?”
And they were most certainly doomed:
In June 1932 the head of the party in the Kharkiv region wrote to Kosior that starvation had been reported in every district….”Collective farm members go into the fields and disappear. After a few days their corpses are found…”
The blame was placed everywhere but upon the policies behind the starvation; a betrayal by members of the Ukrainian communist party, theft by the farmers, laziness, etc.
Raids and decrees could not create food where there was none…The problem was starvation and death. Grain targets were not met because collectivization had failed, the harvest of autumn 1932 was poor, and requisition targets were too high.
Stalin convinced himself that the starvation was a plot directed against him personally! It was disloyalty of the Ukrainian communists, and this disloyalty was in service of Polish espionage. But by January 1932, the Soviets and Poles initialed a non-aggression pact; Poland, knowing of the famines, did not publicize this fact – out of respect to the treaty. Stalin used this opportunity to further strengthen his hold on the eastern borderlands.
Socialism, he claimed, just like capitalism, needed laws to protect property. The state would be strengthened if all agricultural production was declared to be state property, any unauthorized collection of food deemed theft, and such theft made punishable by immediate execution…The simple possession of food was presumptive evidence of a crime. The law came into force on 7 August 1932.
Hundreds of watchtowers were constructed, in order to keep watch over this newly-created state property: food. Individual and collective farms that failed to meet requisition targets were denied access to products from the rest of the economy. A new troika was established, to hasten the sentencing and execution of party activists and peasants who were (supposedly) responsible for sabotage. Starvation was seen as resistance – saboteurs’ hatred of socialism led them to intentionally allow their families to starve. More deportations.
According to Stalin, stories of the famine in Ukraine were a “fairy tale.” He refused aid from outside – no aid was needed when there was no starvation.
In the waning weeks of 1932, facing no external security threat and no challenge from within, with no conceivable justification except to prove the inevitability of his rule, Stalin chose to kill millions of people in Soviet Ukraine. He shifted to a position of pure malice, where the Ukrainian peasant was somehow the aggressor and he, Stalin, the victim.
During this time, Stalin initiated several crucial policies applied primarily toward, and in some cases exclusively toward, Soviet Ukraine:
· 19 November 1932: peasants in Ukraine were required to return grain advances that they had previously earned by meeting requisition targets.
· 20 November 1932: meat penalties were introduced; if grain requisitions could not be met, a special tax was to be paid in meat. Cattle and swine were now lost.
· 28 November 1932: the “black list” was introduced; collective farms that failed to meet their quotas were charged a penalty of fifteen times the quota.
· 5 December 1932: Stalin’s handpicked security chief for Ukraine, Vsevolod Balytskyi, presented the idea that the famine was a plot of Ukrainian nationalists – exiles connected to Poland. Anyone who failed to do his part was, therefore, a traitor to the state. This was applied retroactively, to anyone who supported earlier Soviet policies intended to develop a Ukrainian state. Charges were fabricated; those who aided in the defense against the charges were then also charged.
· 21 December 1932: one-third of the remaining grain collections due by January 1933 throughout the entire Soviet Union were to be collected from Ukraine – with its already starving population. According to Snyder, “…a death sentence for about three million people…grain could not be collected from an already starving population without the most horrific of consequences.”
· First weeks of 1933: with starvation raging through Ukraine, Stalin closed the borders of the republic such that the starving couldn’t flee, and closed the cities such that the starving couldn’t beg. As of 14 January, citizens were required to carry internal passports. The sale of long distance tickets to peasants was banned.
There was nothing left to requisition. There was no way out. The results were inevitable:
In Soviet Ukraine in early 1933, the communist party activists who collected the grain left a deathly quiet behind them…Ukraine had gone mute.
Peasants had killed their livestock (or lost it to the state), they had killed their chickens, they had killed their cats and their dogs. They had scared the birds away by hunting them…people died alone, families died alone, whole villages died alone…the alienation of all from all.
Starvation led not to rebellion but to amorality, to crime, to indifference, to madness, to paralysis, and finally to death.
In the face of starvation, some families divided, parents turning against children, and children against one another. As the state police, the OGPU, found itself obliged to record, in Soviet Ukraine “families kill their weakest members, usually children, and use the meat for eating.”
At least 2,505 people were sentenced for cannibalism in 1932 and 1933 in Ukraine, though the actual number of cases was certainly much greater.
People in Ukraine never considered cannibalism to be acceptable. Even at the height of the famine, villagers were outraged to find cannibals in their midst, so much so that they were spontaneously beaten or even burned to death.
Dead in bed, dead in a stove, dead in the marketplace, dying at the rate of more than ten thousand per day.
Children turned against parents – the eyes and ears of the party inside the home, occupying the watchtowers, reporting on their parents.
The dead from famine numbered in the millions – Stalin’s own demographers concluded that the 1937 census for the Soviet Union found eight million fewer people than projected. Stalin had the responsible demographers executed. Perhaps 5.5 million died from starvation, with something close to half of these from Ukraine. Some estimates are lower, some higher.
The facts of the famines were disputed. Walter Duranty, Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the New York Times, did his best to undermine any factual reports coming out of the Soviet Union on this topic – this despite knowing that millions had starved to death, shading it because he thought that the starvation served a higher purpose.
By 1933, the story was known outside of the Soviet Union. Five million Ukrainians lived in Poland, and they petitioned the Polish government – yet even they did not know of the extent until May 1933. In the autumn of 1933 they reached Franklin Roosevelt directly, but he was too busy being the first president to diplomatically recognize the Soviet Union; just one step in allying with this monster Stalin over the coming decade.
The Holodomor: death by hunger. A few say it never happened, or that it was not a result of deliberate policy. Some call it genocide, others mass murder against Ukrainian and other peasants; whatever you call it, the result was millions deliberately crushed by Stalin in order to reach his revolutionary desires.
This concludes Snyder’s examination of the famine. Next, the terror.