May 29, 1983

“Deliberate,” “diabolical” starvation. Malcolm Muggeridge on Stalin’s famine


(The Ukrainian Weekly, May 29, 1983, No. 22, Vol. LI)


“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.

Q: How does one rank the famine of 1933 with other great catastrophes?

A: I think it’s very difficult to make a table of comparison. What I would say with complete truth and sincerity is that as a journalist over the last half century I have seen some pretty awful things, including Berlin when it was completely flat and the people were living in little huts they’d made of the rubble and the exchange was cigarettes and Spam.

But the famine is the most terrible thing I have ever seen, precisely because of the deliberation with which it was done and the total absence of any sympathy with the people. To mention it or to sympathize with the people would mean to go to the gulag, because then you were criticizing the great Stalin’s project and indicating that you thought it a failure, when allegedly it was a stupendous success and enormously strengthened the Soviet Union.

Q: What sort of response did you encounter when you came back from the Soviet Union and published your findings, particularly from people close to you, like the Webbs?

A: The Webbs were furious about it. Mrs. Webb in her diary puts in a sentence which gives the whole show away. She says, “Malcolm has come back with stories about a terrible famine in the USSR. I have been to see Mr. Maisky [the Soviet ambassador in Britain] about it, and I realize that he’s got it absolutely wrong. “Who would suppose that Mr. Maisky would say, “No, no, of course he’s right”?

Q: This is precisely the attitude that the British government was taking at that time. L.B. Golden, the secretary of the Save the Children Fund, which had been very active during the famine of 1921-22 in Russia and Ukraine, approached the Foreign Office in August 1933. He’d received disturbing information about famine in Ukraine and the North Caucasus, but the first secretary of the Soviet embassy had assured him that the harvest was a bumper one, and so Golden asked the Foreign Office whether a public appeal should be put out. The Foreign Office told him not to do anything, and he did not. The Soviet authorities were not admitting to a famine, and therefore it was agreed that nothing should be said.

A: Absolutely true. The other day I had occasion to meet Lord March, the representative of the laity on the World Council of Churches. “Why is it that you’re always putting out your World Council complaints about South Africa or Chile?” I asked. “I never hear a word about anything to do with what’s going on in the gulag or with the invasion of Afghanistan. Why is that?”

He said, “Whenever we frame any resolution of that sort, it’s always made clear to us that if we bring in that resolution, then the Russian Orthodox Church and all the satellite countries will withdraw from the World Council of Churches.”

“Then do you not pursue the matter?” I asked. And he said, “Oh yes, we don’t pursue it because of that.” I was amazed that the man could say that. But there it was, and it’s exactly true of the Foreign Office.

Q: You published “Winter in Moscow” when you got back from the Soviet Union, and you were attacked in the press for your views.

A: Very strongly. And I couldn’t get a job.

Q: Why was that? Because people found your reports hard to believe?

A: No, the press was not overtly pro-Soviet, but it was, as it is now, essentially sympathetic with that side and distrustful of any serious attack on it.

Q: How do you explain this sympathy?

A: It’s something I’ve written and thought about a great deal, and I think that the liberal mind is attracted by this sort of regime. My wife’s aunt was Beatrice Webb, and she and Sidney Webb wrote the classic pro-Soviet book. “Soviet Communism: A New Civilization.” And so, one saw close at hand the degree to which they all knew about the regime, knew all about the Cheka [the secret police] and everything, but they liked it.

I think that those people believe in power. It was put to me very succinctly when we were taken down to Kharkiv for the opening of the Dnieper dam. There was an American colonel who was running it, building the dam in effect. “How do you like it here?” I asked him, thinking that I’d get a wonderful blast of him saying how he absolutely hated it. “I think it’s wonderful,” he said. “You never get any labor trouble.”

This will be one of the great puzzles of posterity in looking back on this age, to understand why the liberal mind, the Manchester Guardian mind, the New Republic mind, should feel such enormous sympathy with this authoritarian regime.

Q: You are implying that the liberal intelligentsia did not simply overlook the regime’s brutality, but actually admired and liked it.

A: Yes, I’m saying that, although they wouldn’t have admitted it, perhaps not even to themselves. I remember Mrs. Webb, who after all was a very cultivated upper-class liberal-minded person, an early member of the Fabian Society and so on, saying to me, “Yes, it’s true, people disappear in Russia.” She said it with such great satisfaction that I couldn’t help thinking that there were a lot of people in England whose disappearance she would have liked to organize.

No, it’s an everlasting mystery to me how one after the other, the intelligentsia of the Western world, the Americans, the Germans, even the French, fell for this thing to such an extraordinary degree.

Q: One man who didn’t fall for it was George Orwell. Did you discuss your experiences in the Soviet Union with him? I ask because Orwell mentioned the famine in his essay “Notes on Nationalism.” “Huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people,” he wrote, “have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English Russophiles.”

A: We discussed the whole question. George had gone to the Spanish Civil War as an ardent champion of the Republican side. In Catalonia he could not but realize what a disgraceful double-faced game the Communists were playing there. He was in a thing called POUM [Partido Obrero de Unification Marxista, the United Marxist Workers’ Party], which was allegedly Trotskyist. Those people were not being knocked off by the Franco armies, they were being knocked off by the Communists. And he was deeply disillusioned. He then wrote what I think is one of his best books, “Homage to Catalonia.”

And so what brought us together was that we were in the same dilemma. People assumed that because he had attacked the Communists, he must be on the Franco side. Just as people thought that because I’d attacked the Communist side, I must be an ardent member of the right wing of the Conservatives. And so we had that in common, and we became friends. He had a feeling that I also had strongly, that the Western world is sleepwalking into becoming a collectivist, authoritarian society. And that’s really what “1984” is about.

Q: Where do you think that Orwell got the idea for “Animal Farm”? His fable of the revolution betrayed is so accurate that it even portrays the famine. Food falls short, and the animals have only chaff and mangels to eat. Napoleon (Stalin) conceals the facts and orders the hens to surrender their eggs so that he can procure grain to keep the farm going. The hens rebel and Napoleon orders their rations to be stopped, decreeing that “any animal giving so much as a grain of corn to a hen shall he punished by death.”

A: It’s his masterpiece. It is one of the few books written in the 20th century that I would say will always be read. It’s a beautiful piece of writing. If you show it to children, they love it and don’t understand the other part of it. I think that he had a deep hatred of intellectuals as people. He felt that they were fortunate, and in “Animal Farm” he was illustrating how a revolution can be twisted into its opposite. It is a superb allegory of the whole thing.

But it’s difficult to explain. He wasn’t a man who discussed political theories. He had an instinct that these intellectuals were somehow double-faced, and he never tired of railing against them. If you had asked him about the Soviet Union, he would have just said, “It’s a dictatorship, and they behaved disgracefully in Spain.” So he’d write the whole thing off in that way. He still called himself a socialist.

Q: To the very end.

A: To the very end of his life. He actually went canvassing for Anuerin Bevin, and I’ve always wondered what particular line of talk he would have fallen into. He wasn’t a person with whom you could exchange ideas as such. He was kind of impressionistic in his mind.

Q: Absorbed things without actually analyzing them.

A: That’s right. And in “1984,” all that business about Newspeak and doublethink is beautifully done. And it is the kernel of the whole thing. And the terrorism and the fact that you drift into a situation in which people are in power with no program except to remain in power, which is very much the state of affairs that’s come to pass. The people in the Kremlin at this moment are not in power because they’ve got plans to do this or the other thing. All they want is a policy which will enable them to stay in power.

Q: All that you’ve said about the image of the world that liberals have and about reporting, in this case from the Soviet Union, leads to a rather large and difficult question about the reliability of the image of the world that we are given.

A: Yes, indeed. I believe that this is how posterity will see it. We are a generation of men who have become completely captivated and caught up in false images. Television and all these things are splendid instruments for keeping them going. Splendid. And I would say that the collapse of Western civilization will be much more due to that than to anything else.

Q: False images?

A: False images. And it’s enormously difficult to correct them. Children who grow up now have been looking at television and hearing the voice of the consensus, and they know nothing else. So I can’t myself believe that there’s any escape from this, except that the whole show will blow up sometime or other. But I think that Orwell’s position was rather different. He looked back on the past with nostalgia, which is peculiar in a man of his attitude of mind and temperament.

Q: He was very conservative and very English in many ways.

A: Deeply conservative. The most conservative mind I’ve ever encountered. But let’s take this much more sinister thing we were talking about now, this complete imprisonment of people at all levels into images which are fantasy, bringing about in them a kind of unanimity, a consensus, which is very dangerous and which is really the party line. For instance, I know a great many people in the BBC. I would have the greatest difficulty in finding any people there, more than a handful, who would have other than the consensus views on things like abortion, euthanasia or overpopulation. There’s a consensus, and the consensus seems to be true, and the images over which people spend a high proportion of their lives shape, color and dominate all their thoughts.

Q: What is your way to overcome these images?

A: As a Christian, I believe that you can, if you want to, find reality, which is what people call God. You can relate yourself to that reality, and as a person belonging to what’s called Western civilization you can find in the drama of the Incarnation everything that’s come therefrom, you can recover contact with reality. That is in fact the only way. The ordinary man gets up and spends four, five or six hours of his day looking into these pictures and being subjected to his fantasy view. I often think that like Caliban’s island, full of sounds and sweet airs, when we wake, we cry to sleep again. But if people ever do wake, and I don’t believe they wake much anymore, they cry to sleep again. And crying to sleep again is turning on the apparatus.

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.