The 1932-33 Holodomor was a consequence of the Bolsheviks’ efforts to completely eradicate private property
Stephen Wheatcroft and Robert Davies wrote in the preface to the Russian edition of their book about the famine Gody goloda: Selskoye khozyajstvo SSSR, 1931-1933 (Years of Famine: Agriculture in the USSR in 1931-33) that they “failed to find evidence that the Soviet authorities pursued a programme of genocide against Ukraine”. Indeed, a programme of this kind did not exist. Their book is filled with facts but ignores the most important one — the party programme to which Bolshevik leaders looked for guidance in creating an unprecedented socio-economic system. In the stormy atmosphere of 1848, Marx and Engels summarized their views in the Manifesto of the Communist Party: “The theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property”. The communist doctrine of the Russian Bolsheviks was based precisely on the revolutionary Marxism of the mid-19th century. When Lenin returned to Russia from his exile intent on transforming a people’s revolution into a communist one, he outlined in his 1917 April Theses not only a plan for the Bolsheviks to seize power but also a blueprint for further action. This included changing the name of the party (from social democratic to communist), adopting a communist party programme, creating a communal state and founding Comintern, an international organization of communist parties.
Through propaganda and terror, the Bolsheviks ousted rival parties from the Soviets and turned the latter into a clone of their own party and government bodies. Thus emerged the Soviet authorities, a symbiosis of the Bolshevik political dictatorship and the Soviet government. As a result of the party’s foundation in “democratic centralism”, the Bolshevik leaders had absolute power. The previous horizontally structured organizations upon which civil society once rested were either destroyed or verticalized. The party and governmental verticals of power were rooted in the masses through a series of “transmission belts” — an extensive system that included the Soviets, the Komsomol, trade unions and various non-governmental organizations. The Communist Party also became a “transmission belt” when it produced an internal party of leaders — the nomenklatura. The vertical of government security came under direct control of the Secretary General and, like the party and government verticals, was rooted in society through hundreds of thousands (in Ukraine) and millions (across the USSR) of “secret informers”. Unlike the traditional states—both democratic and totalitarian—that were separated from society, the communist state permeated society through all of its institutions. Such a state was necessary in order to successfully implement elements of the communist utopia, namely dispossessing society and complementing political autocracy with economic dictatorship.
The logic of communist transformations required the simultaneous obliteration of private property among large and small property owners. It proved fairly easy to remove the means of production from the bourgeoisie — though it did prompt a civil war. In the countryside, communist transformations involved setting up state farms in place of landowners’ estates and forming communes by uniting peasants’ farms. Having factories, state farms and communes at their disposal, the Bolshevik leaders were intent on doing away with the market and replacing goods circulation with direct exchange. These were precisely the changes set forth in the Russian Communist programme of March 1919.
However, peasants and soldiers mobilized from the countryside did not want to even hear about state farms and communes and demanded that land be divided fairly. The Council of People’s Commissars led by Lenin was forced to back down and, rather than implement the exchange of goods between the countryside and cities, search for other ways to provide food to workers in nationalized industries. The government banned free trade and set up mandatory procurement quotas for peasants. As a result, peasants began to limit the land they cultivated, leaving just enough to serve only their personal needs as they were unwilling to work for the state for free. Then, in December 1920, Lenin introduced sowing quotas: state agencies were set up to inform peasant households how much land each of them was supposed to cultivate and make sure they worked diligently to produce a harvest, which was then taken away by the state. However, Lenin quickly changed his mind and switched to the New Economic Policy.
After five years of tense struggle, Stalin took over the party’s top leadership and formulated two theses in the resolutions of the 15th party congress in December 1927: agriculture needed to be collectivized, and the country had to transition from goods circulation between the countryside and cities to goods exchanges.
Nikolai Bukharin wrote in the Programme of the Communists (Bolsheviks) back in 1918: “The task is not to have each individual peasant work his own tiny plot of land, crawling on it like a dung beetle on its heap of dung. Rather, the goal is to have as many poor peasants as possible engage in communal work”. It seemed that after joining collective farms, peasants would no longer be able to decide how much to sow, and the commune-state would be able to distribute agricultural products outside of the market as demanded by the guiding theory of the Russian communists. At the 16th congress of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) in June 1930, Stalin optimistically stated that the grain problem was being successfully resolved thanks to the emerging system of collective farms.
However, reality defied speculative doctrines. After meeting with resistance once again, Stalin was forced to reorganize the collective farms as semi-formal associations called artels, rather than communes. The difference was that artel members had the right to own private plots of land. When members of collective farms saw that the state was taking away their products through grain procurement campaigns, leaving nothing for the peasants themselves, they focused on their private plots. Harvest losses in collective farms dropped below a critical level. Receiving less and less from collective farms, the state was forced to scale down its grain exports, which were supposed to provide the capital with which industrial development would be financed. Cities also started experiencing famines as the state reduced ration card norms and stripped certain population groups of such cards altogether.
On 20 July 1930, Stalin wrote Kaganovich and Molotov from a resort stressing the need to adopt a law which would: a) equate the property of collective farms and cooperative societies with that of the state; b) punish theft of property by at least 10 years in prison but usually entailing the death penalty. To Stalin, without these measures, which he himself called “draconian”, it was impossible to establish the collective system of farming. In his July letters addressed to the Kremlin, Stalin demanded “finishing off and burying … the individual’s hoarding reflexes, habits and traditions”. On 7 August 1932, the Central Executive Committee and the Council of People’s Commissars adopted the resolution “On Protection of Property of State Enterprises, Collective Farms and Cooperative Societies and Strengthening Social (Socialist) Ownership” which repeated, verbatim, the penal measures spelled out by the Secretary General. The regulation was commonly known among peasants as “the law on five ears of grain”.
Grain procurement after the 1932 harvest proceeded with great difficulty. In October, Stalin set up special grain procurement commissions dispatching his top henchmen to different regions with extraordinary, even dictatorial, powers: Vyacheslav Molotov to Ukraine, Lazar Kaganovich to the North Caucasus Krai and Pavel Postyshev to the Lower Volga Krai. The Communist Party and the Soviet government issued identically-titled resolutions “On Measures to Boost Grain Procurement”. The text was written by Molotov, approved by Stalin and signed by Stanislav Kosior and Vlas Chubar. It called for “organizing the expropriation of grain which has been stolen during harvesting, thrashing and transportation”. Collective farms and farmers that failed to meet their foodstuff quotas had to pay fines in kind (with meat and potatoes). In November 1932, Vsevolod Balytsky, deputy head of the Joint State Political Directorate (OGPU) and its special authorized representative in the Ukrainian SSR, issued order No. 1 in the Ukrainian State Political Directorate which claimed that in Ukraine there was “organized sabotage of grain procurement and of the autumn sowing campaign, organized mass theft in collective and state farms, terror against the staunchest and most tested communists and activists, dozens of Petliura’s emissaries and widely distributed leaflets”. Balytsky set the following task: “Exposing and destroying the counterrevolutionary insurgency and delivering a decisive blow against all counterrevolutionary kulak elements and Peliura followers who are actively counteracting and derailing the key efforts of the Soviet authorities and the party in the countryside.”
Peasants stripped by the state of their last remaining grain as well as the urban populations that the state was unable to feed faced the possibility of famine. Even population groups that the Cheka deemed “socially close” were becoming a threat to Stalin’s team. Some second-line communist leaders began to view Stalin’s version of the party line as a threat to the party and state.
However, Stalin did not abandon his course of action. He viewed the natural unwillingness of the peasants to work without compensation as nothing less than sabotage. Their desire to salvage part of the harvest they produced (even in the case of individual farmers and their own fields) was interpreted as theft. The intention of the local authorities and collective farm management to keep some grain in order to prevent famine was deemed counterrevolutionary. On 27 November 1932, Stalin called a joint meeting of the Politburo of the Central Committee and the Presidium of the Central Control Commission to denounce a number of leaders who were held personally accountable for the failure of grain procurement. He claimed that “anti-Soviet elements had penetrated collective and state farms in order to organize subversion and sabotage”. “It would not be wise”, he emphasized, “if, considering that collective farms are a socialist economic form, the Communists failed to respond to the blow delivered by some of these collective farms and farmers with a crushing blow of their own.”
“A crushing blow”
The essence of the Cheka operation (the crushing blow Stalin had in mind) was to confiscate all available foodstuffs from the already starving peasants. The operation could take the form of simultaneous household searches. Stalin issued an order to this effect in his 1 January 1933 telegram to the leaders of the Ukrainian SSR in Kharkiv. The first point demanded calling on, through village councils, all collective and individual farmers to voluntarily hand over “previously pilfered and concealed grain”. The second point of the telegram was about those who ignored this demand: “Collective farms and farmers and individual farmers who stubbornly continue concealing pilfered and unaccounted-for grain will be subject to the severest punishment under the resolution of the Central Executive Committee and the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR of 7 August 1932”. The resolution he referred to was the infamous “law on five ears of grain”. Together, these two points forced the local authorities to search every village household.
The fact that all food reserves were confiscated during the ensuing searches supports the designation of the Holodomor as genocide. Yet those in denial demand to be shown a document. Clearly, the government would have never fixed such intentions on paper. However, eyewitnesses of the Holodomor — those who spoke to the James Mace commission and to Ukrainian researchers — described the actions and policies of the Soviet authorities in Ukraine. To date, thousands of testimonies on the total confiscation of food among peasants have been recorded and published. Harvard University is working to create an Atlas of the Holodomor that will include a map showing the geographical distribution of eyewitnesses who have confirmed total food confiscations in the Ukrainian SSR and North Caucasus Krai.
When the state confiscates not only grain but any kind of foodstuffs, its intentions should be qualified as murder — no other definition is possible. In this case, we are dealing with premeditated and professionally organized mass-murder whose victims were not only those viewed by the Kremlin as saboteurs but also children and the elderly. Searches on Stalin’s orders and the total confiscation of food were carried out by local activists and members of poor peasants’ committees and supervised by Cheka officers.
Stalin’s “crushing blow” was a secret action, even though it covered a huge territory. The lethal famine could only be mentioned in classified documents, so-called “special folders”, for use by party and government bodies. Functionaries at all levels avoided the word “famine” but were able, through “special folders” with restricted access and circulation, to implement measures that caused widespread famine.
In addition to hushing up the famine, the authorities also physically blocked the population in repressed regions. On 22 January 1932, Stalin personally (his autograph has survived) wrote a letter to the Central Committee and the Council of People’s Commissars directing them to keep peasants in Ukraine and the Kuban from moving to other regions en masse.
Therefore, we have a certain sequence of actions that turned the famine into the Holodomor: 1) Stalin set up extraordinary grain procurement commissions in three regions with high crop yields; 2) on Stalin’s initiative, legislation imposing in-kind fines on peasants who refused to surrender “pilfered and concealed grain” was introduced and enforced; 3) on Stalin’s orders, comprehensive searches were carried out to find stashes of “pilfered and concealed grain” which, in fact, did not exist; 4) all long-term storage foodstuffs were confiscated during the searches; 5) regions that were completely stripped of foodstuffs were physically blockaded; 6) a ban on using the word “famine” in reference to the 1932-33 famine was introduced, which remained in effect until December 1987. The consequence of this chain of actions was the excessively high mortality rate of the population.
After defeating the “right-wing deviation” Stalin took over party, government and Cheka leadership, but that was where his power stopped. We should not forget that Stalin as an icon, a leader beyond criticism, emerged only after the Great Famine of 1932-33 and the Great Terror of 1937-38 and the millions of deaths they caused. In 1932, control over the verticals of power gave Stalin carte blanche to do anything he pleased with the commune state and the society that was inextricably intertwined with it, but only as long as it did not trigger a social upheaval. Meanwhile, the Cheka indicated that such an upheaval was imminent. The collapse of grain procurement and the ensuing 1932-33 catastrophic famine could have cost Stalin the office of Secretary General. Thus, through his 1 January 1933 telegram, he set in motion the Cheka operation he had started preparing even before special grain procurement commissions were set up.
Stalin was always wary of Ukraine. Canadian researcher Lynne Viola published the statistics of peasant riots in 1930: 4,098 in the Ukrainian SSR, 1,373 in Central Chernozem Oblast, 1,061 in North Caucasus and 1,003 in the Lower Volga region. If we look at this data together with the grain procurement statistics, it becomes evident that the Kremlin was using grain procurement as a way to punish rebellious Ukrainian peasants. As he wrote to Kaganovich on 11 August 1932, Stalin was convinced that there were “many conscious and unwitting Petliura followers” even among the 500,000 members of the Communist Party of Ukraine (Bolsheviks).
In 1933, the Great Famine removed the threat to the integrity of the USSR that had emerged from Ukraine. Now, in 1991, the leading part in breaking up the USSR was played by Yeltsin-led Russia rather than by Ukraine.
Today the 1932-33 Holodomor is the focus of attention for many specialists. Sooner or later, under pressure of incontrovertible evidence the world community will give its legal assessment of Stalin’s terror, which was, in essence, genocide. When we insist that the victims of genocide were Ukrainians as a national group and refer to the types of groups (racial, ethnic, national and religious) outlined in the UN convention on genocide, we meet with protests from Russian researchers. It was no accident that Stalin’s diplomats prevailed in having social groups removed from the original text of the convention. A time may come when this convention will be rewritten. Meanwhile, we need to fully accept the conclusion Robert Conquest makes in his famous book Harvest of Sorrow (1986): “But whether these events are to be formally defined as genocide is scarcely the point. It would hardly be denied that a crime has been committed against the Ukrainian nation; and, whether in the execution cellars, the forced labour camps, or the starving villages, crime after crime against the millions of individuals forming that nation”.