April 24, 1983

Famine proves potent weapon in Soviet policy


(The Ukrainian Weekly, March 20, 1983, No. 12, Vol. LI)

Mr. Chamberlin was the Christian Science Monitor’s Moscow corespondent for 10 years. In 1934 he was reassigned to the Far East, and upon his departure from the USSR he wrote the following account of the Great Famine in Ukraine. The story appeared in the May 29, 1934, issue of the Christian Science Monitor.

Mr. Chamberlin also writes about the famine in his book “Russia’s Iron Age” and “The Ukraine: A Submerged Nation.”

“The collective farmers this year have passed through a good school. For some, this school was quite ruthless.”

This was how President Kalinin, in a speech delivered early last summer, referred to the food situation in Ukraine and the North Caucasus. When the prohibition on travel by foreign correspondents in the rural districts was relaxed in the autumn, I had an opportunity to find out what this “ruthless school” had meant in concrete practice.

I shall never forget a scene which I witnessed in a Ukrainian village named Zhuke, which lies some 15 miles to the north of Poltava. The president of the local collective farm and a state agronome, or agricultural expert, were accompanying me on visits to a number of peasant houses. So long as my companions chose the houses to be visited I found myself invariably meeting local Communist or “udarniki” (shock brigade workers), with pictures of Lenin, Stalin and Kalinin on the walls and a fairly contented tale of their experiences.

I suddenly picked out a house at random and went into it with my companions. It was a typical Ukrainian peasant hut, with thatched roof, earth floors, benches running around the walls, an oven and rickety-looking bed as the chief article of furniture. The sole occupant was a girl of 15, huddled up on the bench. She answered a few simple questions briefly, in a flat dull voice.

“Where is your mother?”

“She died of hunger last winter.”

“Have you any brothers or sisters?”

“I had four. They all died, too.”


“Last winter and spring.”

“And your father?”

“He is working in the fields.”

“Does he belong to the collective farm?”

“No, he is an individual peasant.”

So here was one man – his name was Savchenko – whose passive stubbornness defied even Kalinin’s “ruthless school,” who refused to go into a collective farm, even after almost all the members of his family had perished.

My companions, the president of the collective farm and the state agronome, had nothing to say. Smooth-tongued officials in Moscow might assure inquiring visitors that there had been no famine, only little food difficulties here and there, due to the wicked machinations of the kulaks. Here on the spot in Zhuke, as in a dozen other Ukrainian and North Caucasian villages which I visited, the evidence of large-scale famine was so overwhelming, was so unanimously confirmed by the peasants that the most “hard-boiled” local officials could say nothing in denial.

Everywhere a tale of famine

Some idea of the scope of the famine, the very existence of which was stubbornly and not unsuccessfully concealed from the outside world by the Soviet authorities, may be gauged from the fact that in three widely separated regions of Ukraine and the North Caucasus which I visited – Poltava and Byelaya Tserkov and Kropotkin in the North Caucasus – mortality, according to the estimates of such responsible local authorities as Soviet and collective farm presidents ranged around 10 percent. Among individual peasants and in villages far away from the railroad it was often much higher.

I crossed Ukraine from the southeast to the northwest by train, and at every station where I made inquiries the peasants told the same story of major famine during the winter and spring of 1932-33.

If one considers that the population of Ukraine is about 35 million and that of the North Caucasus about 10 million and that credible reports of similar famine came from part of the country which I did not visit, some regions of the Middle and Lower Volga and Kazakhstan, in Central Asia, it would seem highly probable that between 4 million and 5 million people over and above the normal mortality rate, lost their lives from hunger and related causes. This is in reality behind the innocuous phrases, tolerated by the Soviet censorship, about food stringency, strained food situation, etc.

What lay behind this major human catastrophe? It was very definitely not a result of any natural disaster, such as exceptional drought or flood, because it was the general testimony of the peasants that the harvest of 1932, although not satisfactory, would have left them enough for nourishment, if the state had not swooped down on them with heavy requisitions.

Hidden stocks of grain which the despairing peasants had buried in the ground were dug up and confiscated; where resistance to the state measures was specially strong, as in some stanitsas, or Cossack towns, in the Western Kuban, whole communities were driven from their homes and exiled en masse, to the frozen wastes of Siberia.

State had its “squeeze”

Unquestionably, the poor harvest of 1932 was attributable in some degree to the apathy and discouragement of the peasants, subjected, as they were at the time, to constant requisitions, at inequitable fixed prices – the state was practically compelled, by the necessity for raising capital for its grandiose, new industrial enterprises, to squeeze out of the peasants a good deal more than it could give them in return – of their grain and other produce by the authorities, and driven against their will into an unfamiliar and distasteful system.

The Communists saw in this apathy and discouragement, sabotage and counter-revolution and with the ruthlessness peculiar to self-righteous idealists, they decided to let the famine run its course with the idea that it would teach the peasants a lesson.

Relief was doled out to the collective farms, but on an inadequate scale and so late that many lives had already been lost. The individual peasants were left to shift for themselves; and the much higher mortality rate among the individual peasants proved a most potent argument in favor of joining collective farms.

War is war, but –

The Soviet government, along with the other powers which adhered to the Kellogg pact, has renounced war as an instrument of national policy. But there are no humanitarian restrictions in the ruthless class war which, in the name of socialism, it has been waging on a considerable part of its own peasant population; and it has employed famine as an instrument of national policy on an unprecedented scale and in an unprecedented way.

At the moment it looks as if the famine method may have succeeded in finally breaking down the peasant resistance to collectivization. In 1921 the peasants were strong enough, acting no less effectively because they had no conscious union or organization, to force the government to give up its requisitioning and to introduce the “NEP,” or New Economic Policy, with its security of individual farming and freedom of private trade, by withholding their grain and bringing the towns close to starvation.

Now the tide of revolution has rolled beyond the NEP stage, and in 1933 the Soviet government, quite conscious of what it was doing, was strong enough to wring out of the peasants enough foodstuffs to provide at least minimum rations for the towns and to turn the starvation weapon against the peasants themselves.