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A Special to the email newsletter by Taras Hunczak
The Famine of 1932-1933: A Genocide by Other Means
Revolutionary Holocaust airs Friday, January 22 at 5p ET…
The Western World – having experienced the Renaissance of humanism, which freed the individual from the Medieval spirit of conformity and, building upon that experience, proceeded to establish the principle of the natural rights of man in the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, ending the quest for individual and national freedom in the era of Romanticism of the 19th century – entered the 20th century with great expectations. Unfortunately, the 20th century witnessed great disappointments, tragedies and bloodshed the likes of which the world had never seen before.
There were two world wars, which cost humanity millions of lives and wasted great resources. Even worse, totalitarian regimes were created that destroyed millions of innocent lives. It is they – the Nazis and the Communists – who pursued the policy of ruthless oppression, which was accompanied by a policy of genocide. What a sad and tragic picture for humanity the 20th century represents when we consider the mass killings of the Armenian people or the long lines of Jews and Gypsies escorted by the Nazis to their execution.
The Holocaust is not just history, it is a tragedy that forever should remain a part of our consciousness – it is part of me since I witnessed it. Equally tragic was the genocide perpetrated against the Ukrainian people by means of the artificially created famine of 1932-1933 in which anywhere from 7 million to 10 million people perished.
The immediate origins of the tragedy could be found in Stalin’s program of "Socialism in one country," which called for economic transformation of the country, particularly of the countryside. What Stalin inaugurated was, in effect, a war on the Ukrainian villages waged by introducing a policy of collective agriculture, which was to replace individual farming thus depriving the Ukrainian farmers of their individual freedom as members of free society.
The objective was obvious – Stalin wanted to make individual farmers hostages of the Communist regime, expecting, in his own words, "to establish a system whereby the collective farmers would deliver, under penalty, to the state and the cooperative organizations, the entirety of their marketable grain."
The policy of collectivization was officially announced in November 1929. Practically, this meant that individual farmers were to surrender their land, their livestock and farming implements to the collective farms. An essential component of forced collectivization was Stalin’s policy of "liquidation of the kulaks [wealthy farmers] as a class" since they were, according to Communist propaganda, exploiters of the working class. This policy involved confiscation of property of the well-to-do farmers and their elimination as members of village communities.
Between January and March 1930 some 61,887 farms were taken over by the communists. Those who protested were executed on the spot, some were sent to concentration camps, and many families were sent to Siberia, where they were dumped often without food or shelter. Many did not survive. Some were just ordered to leave their districts. Of the more than 1 million Ukrainian farmers expropriated in the early 1930s, about 850,000 were deported in freight trains to the Russian far north.
In the meantime, collectivization was pursued – encompassing all other farmers, regardless of their status. In response, farmers rebelled in most regions of Ukraine. But the farmers were no match for the army and the secret police who were sent against them. Now collectivization was carried out by force – according to one report, the homes of the middle, and even poor peasants, were destroyed in the middle- of the night and the peasants were forced, at gunpoint, to join collective farms. Confiscated property was often stolen by urban party activists, while the militia roamed the village streets arresting anyone in sight.
These terrible conditions created artificially in Ukrainian agriculture, complicated by a drought, did not, however, cause the Famine in Ukraine. After all, even Stalin stated that "the total yield of grain in 1932 was larger than in 1931." The Famine was caused by Stalinist draconian requisition quotas imposed on Ukraine, forcing the devastated villages of the country to deliver millions of tons of grain to the state. Since the farmers could not meet the quotas, Moscow ordered that some 12,000 special brigades be sent to the villages in order to collect the "hidden" food reserves.
Overseeing Stalin’s ruthless policy of grain procurement were his closest henchmen, Viacheslav Molotov and Lazar Kaganovich, who traveled through the plundered villages, giving directions on how to rob the starving population. Their orders were effectively executed by the local collaborators who, together with the members of the special brigade and party activists, went from house to house, searching for hidden grain and other food – even taking the last loaf of bread that was on the table. As a result, already in 1932 people were dying of hunger.
But Stalin was not moved. He issued an order to "develop the grain procurement campaign … and speed it up”. The first commandment was "fulfill the grain procurements."
"Enemies of the people"
On August 7, 1932, a law was passed, personally edited by Stalin, concerning the protection of socialist property, a law that the people called the "five wheat-ear" law. Since the famine was raging in the countryside, people went to the fields gathering ears of grain that was left behind after the harvest in order to survive. According to Stalin’s law, anyone who gleaned an ear of grain or bit the root off a sugar beet was to be considered an enemy of the people subject to execution or imprisonment for 10 years. Accordingly, in the beginning of 1933 some 54,645 people were tried and condemned; of those, 2,000 were executed.
The famine raging in Ukraine, in the ethnic Ukrainian region of the northern Caucasus, known as Kuban, and in the region of the lower Volga River in 1932 reached its high point in 1933. It has been estimated that already in the beginning of the year a family of five had about 170 pounds of grain to last it until the next harvest. In other words, each member of the family had to survive on about 4 pounds a month. Lacking bread, people ate pets, rats, bark, leaves, tree bark and garbage from the well-provisioned kitchens of party members. There were numerous cases of cannibalism. According to a Soviet author, "the first who died were the men, later on the children and the last of all, the women. But before they died, people often lost their senses and ceased to be human beings" (as cited by Robert Conquest).
There are many eyewitness accounts of the genocide in Ukraine. Whiting Williams, a British journalist, published in the journal Answers in 1934 an account about his painful personal experience. He wrote: "Once I saw with my own eyes the victims of famine. Men and women were literally dying of hunger in the gutter … They (‘wild children’) sat in the streets, their eyes glazed with despair and privation, begging as I have never seen anyone beg before … There was one youngster I saw in Kharkov. Half-naked, he sunk, exhausted, on the carriage-way, with the curbstone as a pillow, and his pipe-stem legs sprawled out, regardless of danger from passing wheels. Another, a boy of 8 or 9, was sitting among debris of a street market, picking eggshells out of dirt and examining them with heartbreaking minuteness in the hope of finding a scrap of food still sticking to them … There were hordes of those wild children in all the towns. They live and die like animals …"
It might be interesting to note that the Communist Party did not want the farmers to leave the villages and for that reason new passports were issued without which one had no right to be in the city. But the passports were not given to the people in the villages. Hence, they were like the serfs of the 19th century or hostages of modern times. All that was left for them was to starve to death in their villages or to flee to other parts of the Soviet Union. But Stalin prevented this from happening. On January 22, 1933 he issued a Directive whose objective was to prevent a peasant exodus from Ukraine and from the predominantly Ukrainian Kuban region to Russia and Belarus. As a result of this Directive, according to the Russian scholar N.A.Ivnitsky, 219,460 individuals were arrested and 186,588 of them were sent back to their starving villages.
And they were starving – dying by the millions, while the Soviet government in 1932 and 1933 was selling 1.73 and 1.63 million metric tons of grain on the Western markets, and the Western liberals, such as Bernard Shaw and The New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty, were praising Stalin for the great progress that the Soviet Union was making. In his report of March 31, 1933, Duranty went so far as to say that "there is no actual starvation, but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition." And yet, he knew the truth.
In a conversation on September 26, 1933, with William Strang, the British consul in Moscow, Duranty said that "as many as 10 million people may have died directly or indirectly from the lack of food." We should note that for his reports, which deceived the American people, Duranty was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
Among Stalin’s American defense team one finds also Maurice Hindus and novelist Upton Sinclair for whom "revolution" justified even famine.
As the Famine escalated, so did the government accusation against the farmers of sabotage with political overtones, which was gradually transformed into nationalism. The question arises: Why accuse the starving peasants of nationalism? Was it just a convenient phrase, or was there a purpose behind it? I think that the answer can be found in Stalin’s concern with the rather remarkable sense of independence of the Ukrainian elite – particularly of such individuals as Mykola Khvyliovyi, Mykola Skrypnyk, Oleksander Shumskyi and many others who, while Communists, defended Ukrainian independence. To crush the sense of independence of the political elite, Stalin had to destroy the source of their strength. That source was the Ukrainian village. Stalin understood the problem. He stated it clearly in his "Marxism and the National-Colonial Question," where he wrote: "Farmers present by themselves the basic force of the national movement … Without farmers there can be no strong national movement. This is what we mean when we say that the nationalist question is, actually, the farmers’ question."
Following Stalin’s line of reasoning, his objective in the ruthless pursuit of famine becomes quite obvious: destroy the village, its infrastructure and the farmers, and you have destroyed the basis of social, cultural and political identity of the nation. Stalin’s concern with Ukraine is clearly stated in his letter to Kaganovich, of September 11, 1932, in which he affirmed that "… at this point the question of Ukraine is the most important. The situation in Ukraine is very bad … If we don’t take steps now to improve the situation, we may lose Ukraine… The objective should be to transform Ukraine, in the shortest period of time, into a real fortress of the USSR" (as cited by Yuri Shapoval).
The real objective
That the real objective of Stalin’s policy was political was clearly stated in 1933 by one of his lieutenants, Mendel Khataevich, one of the individuals in charge of the grain-procurement program, who proudly declared: "A ruthless struggle is going on between the peasantry and our regime. It’s a struggle to the death. This year was a test of our strength and their endurance. It took a famine to show them who is the master here. It has cost millions of lives, but the collective farm system is here to stay. We have won the war."[Robert Conquest,Harvest of Sorrow. Oxford Univ. Press1986, p.261]
The above statement was reinforced by Pavlo Postyshev, who was sent from Moscow to Ukraine at the end of 1932 and was given by Stalin dictatorial powers in order to implement his policies. At the November 1933 meeting of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, Postyshev reported: "Under the direct leadership and directions of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and personally of comrade Stalin we smashed the Ukrainian nationalist counter-revolution." Indeed, they crushed the body and the soul of the nation. The Italian Consulate in Kharkiv, Ukraine, reported that trough barbaric requisitions…the Moscow government has effectively engineered not so much a scarcity…but rather a complete absence of every means of subsistence throughout the Ukrainian countryside, Kuban, and the Middle Volga.(May 31,1933) In another report of July 19, 1933 the Consul General of Kharkiv reports of a tremendous population decline, particularly in the countryside. He came to a dramatic and a tragic conclusion when he wrote: The Ukrainian people area about to go into an eclipse, which could well turn out to be a night without end, because Russian imperialism, with its present tender mercies (i.e. tender communist mercies), is capable of wiping a nation – nay, a civilization – right off the face of the earth if we aren’t careful.(Report to Congress: Commission on the Ukraine Famine).
In his report Postyshev was really referring to the destruction of the Ukrainian national renaissance of the 1920s. What is noteworthy is that both Khataevich and Postyshev said nothing about their success in grain procurement, but they reported with pride about their victory over the Ukrainian people at the expense of seven to ten million innocent lives.
From the above statement it should be obvious that the purpose of the Famine, which destroyed the villages and the entire social structure together with millions of innocent victims, was – as stated by Khataevich and Postyshev – to establish the mastery of the Communist regime, at whatever cost. The famine, therefore, was an instrument of genocide by other means.
It was precisely against such crimes, as were committed against the Ukrainian people, that the United Nations adopted on December 9, 1948 the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Particularly applicable to the Ukrainian tragedy is Article II of the Convention which defines genocide as …any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group…Point “c” of Article II provides further details of the Convention definition of genocide by stating that genocide is a policy of deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.
Stalin and his henchman in Moscow and in Ukraine certainly accomplished their goal while the world was watching and doing nothing.
Taras Hunczak is a professor emeritus at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey. He has written extensively on Ukrainian history, the twentieth century in particular.