March 20, 1983

Progress report: forthcoming book on collectivization and the famine


Dr. Conquest, senior research fellow and scholar-curator of the Russian and East European Collection of the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University, is working on a book on the collectivization terror and the famine. The following is a progress report on the work, which is jointly funded by the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and the Ukrainian National Association.

In physical terms, about a third of the manuscript is now in draft, though not yet assimilated to the general narrative. I expect to have a full draft in the late fall.

The work so far has, of course, been largely one of research, reading and extracting. I was much struck by the sheer bulk of the evidence. Material bearing directly on the famine of 1932-33 is impressively large. And, in addition to what was already available, I have been the fortunate recipient of many letters and documents sent me by a number of Ukrainian correspondents on all aspects of the subject.

It has been necessary to master various diverse fields, in particular the economic side, but also to gain a broad and full understanding of the situation of the peasantry in the centuries preceding the revolution.

Yet the main problem is to consider accurately, to make a balanced assessment of the state of public knowledge of the whole matter in the West – and I mean among educated people. We have to conclude that, generally speaking, not much of it is at present known, or thought about: the most that those outside the circle of students of the Soviet phenomenon tend to know is that Stalin crushed the peasantry and that this involved a famine (and that the collective farm system thus produced is inefficient).

Even among those more closely concerned with study of the Soviet Union the remnants of myths inculcated by E.H. Carr and others persist – in particular the notion that economic rationality was applied by the Kremlin to solve, if in a tyrannical way, the agricultural problem.

Fortunately, within the much smaller circle of economists studying collectivization, there have been in the past 10 or 12 years a number of accomplished experts in economics who have yet had the sense to see the irrationalities involved. Their insights, written in a complex fashion for a professional audience, have yet to be mediated in a general book to the general Western public. This is only part of the subject, of course, yet a significant part.

Neither the expert analyses of the economic side, nor the heartrending documentation of first-hand accounts of the human suffering have so far gained, or at any rate held, the public attention. The whole famine was exposed in the most powerful fashion at the time in the American press. But such is the short memory of the public, and the long-range will to self-deception on the part of certain important formers of Western opinion, that only a history in which the facts are presented in fully assimilable form – and the evidence put forward so clearly and fully as to destroy the credibility of falsification and error – can really and finally win the day in the public arena. That is to say, the book is to be comprehensive, cumulative, readable and objective.

This is a matter both of presentation and of the evidence proper. One example of the way in which the truths we are developing are made irrefutable even to skeptics, is confirmation from Soviet sources. Every time one can produce such it destroys any residual notion in the reader’s mind that he account is from one-sided sources.

On the casualty figures, soviet demographers are implicitly confirming the death rate; on deportations, Communist Party books have published the number of “kulak” families taken to some northern oblasts; on the general results, a number of recent Soviet fiction writers and others have confirmed such things as, for example, that those put in charge in the villages were the local drunks and ne’erdo-wells.

I believe that virtually every assertion or account which might be suspect as “anti-Soviet propaganda” can now be supported by evidence published in Moscow or Kiev. The effect of this on the skeptical Western mind cannot be overestimated. And we are also fortunate, in a different vein, in having an increasing number of first-hand accounts by former 25,000’ers or komsomol members – for example that of Lev Kopelev.

I may now set down in sketch the development of the actual book.

  • My introduction begins with a brief general statement on the holocaust we shall be examining: of the whole Ukraine in 1933 turned into one vast Belsen; of millions of men, women and children dying in their villages, and millions more in exile and labor camp in the Far North; of weed-infested field and shrunken herds; of ruthless and well-fed party and police officials enforcing the terror.

  • I. I open the main narrative at the beginning of 1927. The peasantry is in reasonably good condition, and the Ukrainian nationality has gained a certain relaxation from Marxist centralism. For the peasant, the sufferings of the past years seem to have ended at last. I then develop the history on which he looks back: the peasant’s condition in the time of serfdom; the emancipation; the varieties of land holding; the special situation of the Ukrainian peasant; the Stolypin reforms; the revolution; war communism and the first “requisition famine” in 1921; the peasantry victory of the NEP (New Economic Policy).

  • II. Next we consider the history and motivations of the other element – the Communist Party. I expound the whole animus of Marxism-Leninism against the peasantry, seen as both intrinsically backward and a irremediably hostile to “socialism” and progress; and at the same time the bulwark of nationalism. I develop the way in which the Marxist view insisted on a “class struggle” in the villages where none naturally existed, and so imposed the dekulakization terror, both dreadful from the point of view of humanity and disastrous economically.

  • III. And now, as the peasant prospers, the Communist Party – in spite of a vacillating minority in the leadership – plans to recover the initiative in its unquenched determination to crush his independence. The new wave of “dekulakization” or “dekurkulization” begins. We trace the fallacious economic arguments against a free market in grain; we follow the intraparty struggle; we look at the crash decisions of 1929.

  • IV. We turn now to the villages, with scores of individual stories of the kulak executions and deportations, and the great struggle of the first month of 1930, when the peasant won this time not a victory, but at least a temporary stand-off.

  • V. We go on to the attack on religion, in both hierarchical and individual village detail, but also as the destruction of the deeper life and culture of the peasantry.

  • VI. In 1932-32 the party’s grip on the countryside strengthens again. And in 1932-33 comes the massive assault on Ukraine. We show this as a conscious decision to crush the Ukrainian people; first developing the concomitant history of the rise and destruction of the “national” Communist element, and the ravaging of the cultural institutions and elites – even of the blind bards of the countryside. We turn once more to the villages and to the central scene of the whole book, the terror-famine itself: both the general picture, authenticated by outsiders (and later Soviet accounts), but above all the scores of individual stories, the seizure of the crop, the laying waste of Ukraine and the Kuban (and we look at the special case of Kazakhstan). We readily prove by several approaches the fact, sometimes doubted, that the famine was localized in Ukraine (and a few lesser regions) as a conscious and genocidal decision of Stalin and the communist leadership. This is, as I have said, the aspect of the whole tragedy which is least understood in the West.

  • VII. We turn to the children, rehearsing the history of the “bezprizorniye” of the 1920s, and now the new wave of orphans, first starving, then dispersed, with their fate either in OGPU killings or imprisonment in “homes” or assimilation to the criminal world. And, of course, the spiritual degradation of the Pavlik Morozov type is covered.

  • VIII. Then, we review how the world saw it. There was sound reporting by many, but the secrecy or disinformation efforts of Moscow was imposed upon the Herriots and other disgraceful dupes, so that, at least among those well-affected to the Soviets, a distorted picture emerged.

  • IX. Then we estimate the death-toll, the extent of the massacre, which warrants a separate chapter. I believe it can now be proved beyond criticism that the total excess mortality of the “dekulakization” of 1929-30 and of the famine of 1932-37 must have been around 14 million, including several million children. This figure used to be considered (even by myself) a “high” one, but the evidence seems irresistable.

  • X. And so the aftermath – a view of a Soviet Union with a crippled agriculture, further devastations of Ukraine in the late 1930s and 1940s (with the 1947 famine). Finally there is an assessment of what the cold-blooded destruction of human life means in our understanding of the present Soviet regime and leadership.