Sullivant on politics of collectivization and famine

by Marco Carynnyk


Q: In adopting collectivization, Stalin was actually adopting a policy that he had attacked when it was put forward by the left opposition.

A: It represented a lot of uncertainty as to what would be the right mode for agriculture in a Communist state. Marx and Lenin had both been very concerned that the traditional peasantry in Eastern Europe was an outmoded class, which would obviously disappear as the revolution moved along.

They were not nearly as clear as to what would replace it except that they seemed to talk in terms of developing a rural proletariat, so that the state would own the land and hire workers as factories hired workers in the cities. At that point there would be a rural proletariat which would have the same orientation and political approach as the urban proletariat.

Q: What did collectivization mean for the countryside?

A: I don't know that in 1927 there was any clear notion about the pace of collectivization and the agony and turmoil that might result from it, but I do think that a combination of two factors became very important in Ukraine in 1927. One was a feeling that the regime had to back away from what it was beginning to read as the excesses of Ukrainianization.

The second was the decision to introduce a radically different form of agriculture, and there would be no part of the Soviet Union where the impact of that would be as great as in Ukraine because the Ukrainians were so much a part of the countryside. In attacking the traditional forms of agriculture the regime was moving to a major attack on the Ukrainians.

Q: At about the same time the regime began to mount an attack against the intelligentsia. I have in mind the destruction of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church, the trial of the League for the Liberation of Ukraine. All this gradually built up into a formal attack on the cultural elite parallel to the attack on the countryside.

A: I suspect that there were a couple of explanations for that. One of them may have been that it was very easy for Russian and Jewish leaders in Ukraine to use the notion of Ukrainian subversion to attack Ukrainianization. They were so successful in doing this that the central leaders also became concerned that Ukrainians in the party were not loyal to the Soviet Union and that Ukrainianization was producing a separatist group, which obviously was not acceptable to Moscow or to Stalin. So the show trials may have been in part an effort to impress all of the Soviet Union that the Ukrainian movement was dangerous and had to be suppressed.

Q: If we move down from the level of policy-making to the level of policy implementation, can you give us an idea of who implemented the policies of collectivization, dekulakization and grain procurement?

A: There was a major wrench, I think, for the Soviet leaders when they began to implement collectivization in Ukraine. It rested in part on the fact that the Communist power base in the countryside was very limited and weak. Although there were party organizations in rural areas, they had very few members, and there was very little leadership that the regime could look to to carry out a policy such as collectivization. So that as collectivization moved along, reliance was placed in part on local Communists, but more and more on the city power bases, which were primarily Russian or Jewish.

This was exaggerated very sharply when the collectivization program in Ukraine appeared to be moving in an unsatisfactory way. Ukrainians resisted collectivization. Sometimes they destroyed crops or livestock rather than turn them over to the state. Collectivization was not proceeding in a way that would produce more agricultural products.

The statistics on collectivization, of course, moved ahead very rapidly because it was one thing to form a collective and announce that all these farms were part of it and to demonstrate to Stalin that collectivization had moved ahead very rapidly. It was quite something else to make sure that the collective farmers were producing crops as effectively as before.

So when it became clear in 1931 and 1932 that collectivization was failing, Stalin concluded that a direct strike into the countryside was required. He sent new leaders to Ukraine, and he established the so-called political departments to which Russians either from the cities of Ukraine or from Moscow and Leningrad were dispatched to force through collectivization. And it was the injection of this new, and alien element that produced a real chaos and turmoil in the Ukrainian countryside.

Q: It has often been argued that the cause of the famine was the Ukrainian peasants' opposition to collectivization, which was stronger than in Russia. Have you seen any evidence to show the opposition to collectivization was in fact stronger in Ukraine?

A: The official Soviet records certainly show that opposition was perceived as being stronger in Ukraine. So there was a good deal of dissatisfaction expressed at the center at the failure of collectivization in Ukraine, more, I think, than in any other region of the Soviet Union. The steps that were taken to overcome it were probably more aggressively mounted in Ukraine than anywhere else.

Q: What about resistance within the Ukrainian party to Moscow? I have in mind the party conference in July 1932, when the Ukrainian Communists tried to present Moscow with evidence that the grain quotas set for Ukraine were unrealistic, that all the produce had been swept away, as they put it.

A: I suspect that by 1932 the position of the Ukrainian nationalists in the party had weakened considerably, and the battle over collectivization furthered that process, so that people like Skrypnyk were not very persuasive when they argued that the regime had already absorbed all of the produce from the countryside and, therefore, needed to slow down its collection process.

Another important factor may have been a belief that what was needed was a radical shaking up of the countryside in Ukraine to get rid of the peasantry's old notions about the right form of agriculture.

Consequently there may well have been from the very beginning a willingness to be punitive in order to smash agricultural feelings on the part of the peasantry which were unacceptable to the regime. It wasn't merely a matter of trying to ensure the largest number of tons of wheat for the state. It was also a feeling that the traditional agricultural patterns in Ukraine had to be smashed.

Q: Weren't the Soviet authorities themselves responsible for linking the agricultural and nationalities questions by blaming "nationalists with party cards in their pockets," as they put it, for the regime's agricultural failures?

A: To Ukrainians within the party that development was a very disturbing one, and they spoke out against it, arguing that they were not associated with Petliurites or other anti-regime groups, but it was not a very effective argument. The Russians and Jews in Ukraine as well as the central leadership immediately fastened upon the argument that under the broad umbrella of Ukrainian nationalism there was emerging a group which was oriented toward the kulaks, foreign interventionists and Ukrainian nationalists who were trying to subvert Ukraine from the Soviet Union. Thus there emerged this notion that the whole Ukrainian nationalization program was failing, particularly in connection with collectivization.

Q: This desire to blame the nationalists, to link Ukrainians with foreign interventionists, was so strong that attempts were made to connect Skrypnyk with the Hitler regime. Rumors were floated that he had been secretly negotiating with Alfred Rosenberg, the chief Nazi ideologist, shortly before his suicide in July 1933.

A: It would be intriguing to view the 1932-33 period as a preliminary to the party purges that took place after 1934, when the same combination of factors was identified. The arguments of subversion, of failure of collectivization, of failure of party leadership, of failure of the Ukrainian national movement were all used to justify a smashing program.

Q: What did that smashing program mean in effect for Ukraine?

A: It meant first of all an end to a role for Ukrainian leaders. The last of them were ousted from power or committed suicide, and a lesson was firmly implanted that any political leader in Ukraine who went very far in pressing for Ukrainian national accommodations would become suspect. Consequently the emphasis on Ukrainianization died down.

The fact that other leaders were brought in from outside and were put in important positions not only at the center, but also in the countryside, meant a sharp change in the Communist Party of Ukraine itself. There were fewer indigenous leaders. More and more they were brought in from outside.

And, of course, the fact that in the countryside huge numbers of Ukrainians were deported or died in the famine meant that there was a different group of Ukrainians in 1934 than there had been in 1931 and 1932.

Q: What was Pavel Postyshev's role in the famine after his arrival in Kharkiv in January 1933 with an entourage of high party officials?

A: There is no question, I think, that as an associate of Stalin, a man Stalin had confidence in, Postyshev was sent to Ukraine to supervise the transformations that were to take place. He was an organization man, a party man of skill, perhaps not quite as skillful as Kaganovich before him, but a skilled, aggressive administrator.

Postyshev set in motion and supervised major changes in party organization work, in the political departments in the countryside and in the collective farms themselves, so that more and more the collective farms were headed by people whom Postyshev and the central leadership had sent there rather than by local peasants who had risen to positions of leadership.

Q: Could you give us a summary picture of Ukraine, the cities and the countryside after the famine and the elimination of Skrypnyk by Postyshev?

A: First, leadership for Ukrainian nationalists was gone, so that Ukrainians could not look to people such as Skrypnyk who had played a leadership role in the party.

Second, the destruction of so many peasants in the countryside by deportation, starvation and execution had a tremendous impact on the farmers themselves and their perceptions of what kind of roles they could play. The collective farm dominated by leaders from outside was totally different from the traditional peasant household before collectivization.

Q: Wouldn't it be fair to draw an analogy with serfdom? The collective farmer was not given an internal passport and could not leave his farm. He had in effect become a serf.

A: That parallel has been drawn, probably with some justice. The landowner had been replaced by a party machine which was just as alien to the Ukrainian peasant as the landowner had been. And just as under serfdom the peasant saw no alternative, so by 1934 or 1935 the average Ukrainian peasant had no alternative but to work under alien leadership on a collectivized farm.

The period of the 1930s ­ the famine, the harsh steps that were taken against the Ukrainian peasants ­ represented a trauma which it's difficult to exaggerate, not only because millions of Ukrainians were executed or deported or starved to death, but also because there was a powerful wrench to traditional Ukrainian society. Peasants were moved from one pattern to another in a way that did not allow for any significant political expression of their nationality.

That was followed very shortly by the second trauma of the political purges that ran from 1934 until the outbreak of World War II and, of course, by the trauma of the war itself, when once again all of the Ukrainian countryside was involved with military units in a way that was similarly destructive.

Q: It has been said that a factor in the Ukrainians' attitude toward the German army was the very fresh memory of the famine.

A: There's no question that many Ukrainians viewed the advent of the war and the appearance of the Germans on the horizon as a liberation from the very harsh programs of the early 1930s. It's conceivable that there might have been a much stronger relationship between the Germans and Ukrainians if the Germans had adopted different policies.

Q: What about the long-range consequences of the transformations that occurred in 1933? I have in mind demographic, agricultural and even psychological consequences, by which I mean the trauma that such a large part of the population experienced.

A: One consequence was that the intriguing experiment of the 1920s and early 1930s in which the regime said, "We are willing to explore possibilities for ethnic groups to develop their nationality and to express it in language, literature and even local economic development" ­ that experiment pretty well died.

The Russians were willing to allow certain local expressions in language and cultural traditions ­ folk dances and the like ­ but the experiment had lost the edge that it had in the 1920s when it was moving into an area of some political significance. The smashing of that approach in the early 1930s meant that the notion of a political significance to a Ukrainian nationalist movement in the Soviet Union was lost.

Second, it meant a willingness on Stalin's part to give up Ukraine as a model for showing other countries with minorities how positive the Soviet Union was. After the early 1930s it was no longer possible for the Russians to argue to minority nationalists, whether in Poland or in colonial areas of the world, that Ukraine would serve as a model for the development of nationalities and their political expression.

Marco Carynnyk's most recent publication in The Weekly was "The New York Times and the Great Famine." A version of that article will appear in the November issue of Commentary.


Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, November 6, 1983, No. 45, Vol. LI

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