"Deliberate," "diabolical" starvation

Malcolm Muggeridge on Stalin's famine

by Marco Carynnyk


"The novelty of this particular famine, what made it so diabolical, is that it was the deliberate creation of a bureaucratic mind, ... without any consideration whatever of the consequences in human suffering," Malcolm Muggeridge said. He was talking about the genocidal famine that swept Ukraine and the adjacent North Caucasus, two of the most abundant lands in all of Europe, in the winter of 1932 and the spring and summer of 1933.

The harvest of 1932 had been a fair one, no worse than the average during the previous decade, when life had seemed a bit easier again after three years of world war and five years of revolution and famine. But then, as the Ukrainian peasants were bringing in their wheat and rye, an army of men advanced like locusts into every barn and shed, and swept away all the grain. The few stores that the peasants managed to put away were soon gone, and they began eating leaves, bark, corn husks, dogs, cats and rodents.

When that food was gone and the people had puffed up with watery edema, they shuffled off to the cities, begging for bits of bread and dying like flies in the streets. In the spring of 1933, when the previous year's supplies were gone and before the new vegetation brought some relief, the peasants were dying at the rate of 25,000 a day, or 1,000 an hour, or 17 a minute. (In World War II, by comparison, about 6,000 people were killed every day.) Corpses could be seen in every country lane and city street, and mass graves were hastily dug in remote areas. By the time the famine tapered off in the autumn of 1933, some 6 million men, women and children had starved to death.

Malcolm Muggeridge was there that terrible winter and spring. As a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian in Moscow, he was one of the few Western journalists who circumvented Soviet restrictions and visited the famine regions - and then honestly reported what he had seen.

Shortly before Mr. Muggeridge's articles appeared in the Guardian, the Soviet authorities declared Ukraine out of bounds to reporters and set about concealing the destruction they had wreaked. Prominent statesmen, writers and journalists - among them French Prime Minister Edouard Herriot, George Bernard Shaw and Walter Duranty of The New York Times - were enlisted in the campaign of misinformation.

The conspiracy of silence was largely successful. For years to come Stalinists and anti-Stalinists argued whether a famine had occurred and, if so, whether it was not the fault of the Ukrainian peasants themselves. Today, as Ukrainians throughout the world (except in the Soviet Union, of course, where the subject cannot even be mentioned) commemorate the 50th anniversary of the famine, the events of 1933 are still largely unknown.

Mr. Muggeridge and I talked at his cottage in Sussex, England. I was particularly anxious to know why he, unlike other foreign correspondents in Moscow in 1933, took the trouble to investigate the famine.

* * *

Q: Why did you decide to write about the famine?

A: It was the big story in all our talks in Moscow, everybody knew about it. There was no question about that. Anyone you were talking to knew that there was a terrible famine going on. Even in the Soviets' own pieces there were somewhat disguised acknowledgements of great difficulties there: the attacks on the kulaks, the admission that the people were eating the seed grain and cattle.

You didn't have to be very bright to ask why they were eating them. Because they were very hungry, otherwise they wouldn't. So there was no possible doubt. I realized that that was the big story. I could also see that all the correspondents in Moscow were distorting it.

Without making any kind of plans or asking for permission I just went and got a ticket for Kiev and then went on to Rostov. The Soviet security is not as good as people think it is. If you once duck it, you can go quite a long way. At least you could in those days. Having all those rubles, I could afford to travel in the Pullman train. They had these old-fashioned international trains - very comfortable, with endless glasses of hot tea and so on. It was quite pleasant.

But even going through the countryside by train one could sense the state of affairs. Ukraine was starving, and you only had to venture out to smaller places to see derelict fields and abandoned villages.

On one occasion, I was changing trains, and I went wandering around, and in one of the trains in the station, the kulaks were being loaded onto the train, and there were military men all along the platform. They soon pushed me off. Fortunately, they didn't do more. They could have easily hauled me in and asked, "What the hell are you doing here?" But they didn't. I just cleared off. But I got the sense of what it was like.

I'll tell you another thing that's more difficult to convey, but it impressed me enormously. It was on a Sunday in Kiev, and I went into the church there for the Orthodox mass. I could understand very little of it, but there was some spirit in it that I have never come across before or after. Human beings at the end of their tether were saying to God: "We come to You, we're in trouble, nobody but You can help us."

Their faces were quite radiant because of this tremendous sense they had. As no man would help them, no government, there was nowhere that they could turn. And they turned to their Creator. Wherever I went it was the same thing.

Then when I got to Rostov I went on to the North Caucasus. The person who had advised me to go there was the Norwegian minister in Moscow, a very nice man, very well-informed, who said, "You'll find that this German agricultural concession is still working there. Go and see them, because they know more about it than anybody, and it'll be an interesting experience." So I went there. It was called the Drusag concession.

Q: What difference did you see between Drusag and the collective farms in Ukraine and the North Caucasus?

A: The difference was simply that the agriculture in the concession was enormously flourishing, extremely efficient. You didn't have to be an agronome, which God knows I'm not, to see that there the crops, the cattle, everything, was completely different from the surrounding countryside.

Moreover, there were hordes of people, literally hordes of people trying to get in, because there was food there, which gave a more poignant sense to the thing than anything except that service in the church. The German agronomes themselves were telling me about it. They'd been absolutely bombarded with people trying to come there to work, do anything if they could get in, because there was food there.

Q: I have read in a British Foreign Office dispatch that Drusag employed five people simply to pick up bodies of peasants who had come in and died of hunger.

A: Yes, that's what I'd heard too, if not more. The peasants staggered in and dropped dead.

Q: Were the Germans able to do anything for the peasants?

A: They could help them with a little food - they were quite charitable in their attitude - but of course they couldn't do more than that flea-bit.

Q: What were you thinking and, more importantly perhaps, what were you feeling when you saw those scenes of starvation and privation in Ukraine? How does one respond in such a situation?

A: First of all, one feels a deep, deep, deep sympathy with and pity for the sufferers. Human beings look very tragic when they are starving. And remember that I wasn't unaware of what things were like because in India, for instance, I've been in a village during a cholera epidemic and seen people similarly placed. So it wasn't a complete novelty.

The novelty of this particular famine, what made it so diabolical, is that it was not the result of some catastrophe like a drought or an epidemic. It was the deliberate creation of a bureaucratic mind which demanded the collectivization of agriculture, immediately, as a purely theoretical proposition, without any consideration whatever of the consequences in human suffering.

That was what I found so terrifying. Think of a man in an office who has been ordered to collectivize agriculture and get rid of the kulaks without any clear notion or definition of what a kulak is, and who has in what was then the GPU and is now the KGB the instrument for doing this, and who then announces it in the slavish press as one of the great triumphs of the regime.

And even when the horrors of it have become fully apparent, modifying it only on the ground that they're dizzy with success, that this has been such a wonderful success, these starving people, that they must hold themselves in a bit because otherwise they'd go mad with excitement over their stupendous success. That's a macabre story.

Q: There were kulaks throughout the Soviet Union, and they were "liquidated" as an entire class. Collectivization also took place throughout the Soviet Union. And yet the famine occurred at the point when collectivization had been completed, and it occurred not throughout the Soviet Union, but largely in Ukraine and the North Caucasus. How do you explain that?

A: Those were the worst places. They were also the richest agricultural areas, so that the dropping of productivity would show more dramatically there. But they were also places, as you as a Ukrainian know better than I, of maximum dissent. The Ukrainians hated the Russians. And they do now. Therefore, insofar as people could have any heart in working in a collective farm, that would be least likely to occur in Ukraine and the North Caucasus.

Q: Given the deliberate nature of the famine in Ukraine, the decision on Stalin's part to proceed with collectivization and to eliminate resistance at any cost and to get rid of the kulak, vaguely defined as that category was, and given the fact that food continued to be stockpiled and exported even as people dropped dead on the streets, is it accurate to talk about this as a famine? Is it perhaps something else? How does one describe an event of such magnitude?

A: Perhaps you do need another word. I don't know what it would be. The word "famine" means people have nothing whatsoever to eat and consume things that are not normally consumed. Of course there were stories of cannibalism there. I don't know whether they were true, but they were very widely believed.

Certainly the eating of cattle and the consequent complete destruction of whatever economy the farms still had was true.

I remember someone telling me how all manners and finesse disappeared. When you're in the grip of a thing like this and you know that someone's got food, you go and steal it. You'll even murder to get it. That's all part of the horror.

Marco Carynnyk has published poetry and criticism as well as edited and translated nine books, of which two recent ones are Leonid Plyushch's "History's Carnival" (1979) and Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky's "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" (1981).

He is a visiting fellow at the Kennan Institute in Washington and is writing two books and filming a documentary about the famine of 1933. Clips from this interview with Mr. Muggeridge have been shown on programs about the famine prepared by CKCF in Montreal, Radio Quebec and the CBC.


Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, May 29, 1983, No. 22, Vol. LI

| Home Page ||