Today’s selection — from Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder. Joseph Stalin wanted to build his country and advance the cause of communism. Central to that was his desire to build industrial factories in cities. But to do that he needed to make a massive investment in large-scale machines, purchasing them in large part from more advanced countries. The only way to afford these machines was to sell surplus grain, which required collectivizing and squeezing a surplus from the primitive farming communities in the vast and fertile lands of the Ukraine. Over time, this effort led to the death of millions of Soviet citizens:
“[After an initial attempt at collectivization that failed,] Stalin maintained that the problem with collectivization was that it had been implemented with just a little too much enthusiasm. It had been a mistake, he now asserted, to force the peasants to join the collective farms. The latter now disappeared just as quickly as they had been created. In 1930, peasants in Ukraine harvested the winter wheat, and sowed the seeds for the autumn crops, just as if the land belonged to them. They could be forgiven for thinking that they had won.
“Stalin’s withdrawal was tactical. Given time to think, Stalin and the politburo found more effective means to subordinate the peasantry to the state. In the countryside the following year, Soviet policy preceded with much greater deftness. In 1931, collectivization would come because peasants would no longer see a choice. The lower cadres of the Ukrainian branch of the Soviet communist party were purged, to ensure that those working within the villages would be true to their purpose, and understand what would await them if they were not. The independent farmer was taxed until the collective farm became the only refuge. As the collective farms slowly regrouped, they were granted indirect coercive power over neighboring independent farmers. They were allowed, for example, to vote to take the seed grain away from independent farmers. The seed grain, what is kept from one crop to plant the next, is indispensible to any working farm. The selection and preservation of the seed grain is the basis of agriculture. For most of human history, eating the seed grain has been synonymous with utter desperation. An individual who lost control of the seed grain to the collective lost the ability to live from his or her own labor.
“Deportations resumed, and collectivization proceeded. In late 1930 and early 1931, some 32,127 more households were deported from Soviet Ukraine, about the same number of people as had been removed during the first wave of deportations a year before. Peasants thought that they would die either of exhaustion in the Gulag or of hunger close to home, and preferred the latter. Letters from exiled friends and family occasionally escaped the censor; one included the following advice: ‘No matter what, don’t come. We are dying here. Better to hide, better to die there, but no matter what, don’t come here,’ Ukrainian peasants who yielded to collectivization chose, as one party activist understood, ‘to face starvation at home rather than banishment to the unknown.’ Because collectivization came more slowly in 1931, family by family rather than whole villages at once, it was harder to resist. There was no sudden attack to provoke a desperate defense. By the end of the year, the new approach had succeeded. About seventy percent of the farmland in Soviet Ukraine was now collectivized. The levels of March 1930 had been reached again, and this time durably. …
“By autumn 1931 the failure of the first collectivized harvest was obvious. The reasons were many: the weather was poor; pests were a problem; animal power was limited because peasants had sold or slaughtered livestock; the production of tractors was far less than anticipated; the best farmers had been deported; sowing and reaping were disrupted by collectivization; and peasants who had lost their land saw no reason to work very hard. …
“More than half of the (nonspoiled) harvest was removed from Soviet Ukraine in 1931. Many collective farms met their requisition targets only by handing over their seed grain. Stalin ordered on 5 December that collective farms that had not yet fulfilled their annual requirements must surrender their seed grain. Stalin perhaps believed that peasants were hiding food, and thought that the threat of taking the seed grain would motivate them to hand over what they had. But by this time many of them truly had nothing. By the end of 1931, many peasants were already going hungry. With no land of their own and with little ability to resist requisitions, they simply had no way to ensure that a sufficient number of calories reached their households. Then in early 1932 they had no seed grain with which to plant the fall crop. The Ukrainian party leadership asked for seed grain in March 1932, but by that time the planting was already delayed, meaning that the harvest that fall would be poor.
“In early 1932 people asked for help. Ukrainian communists requested that their superiors in the Ukrainian party ask Stalin to call in the Red Cross. … Ukrainian party members bypassed [General Secretary Stanislav] Kosior and wrote directly to Stalin, taking an angry tone: ‘How can we construct the socialist economy when we are all doomed to death by hunger?’
“The threat of mass starvation was utterly clear to Soviet Ukrainian authorities, and it became so to Stalin. Party activists and secret police officers filed countless reports of death by starvation. In June 1932 the head of the party in the Kharkiv region wrote to Kosior that starvation had been reported in every single district of his region. Kosior received a letter from a member of the Young Communists dated 18 June 1932, with a graphic description that was probably, by then, all too familiar: ‘Collective farm members go into the fields and disappear. After a few days their corpses are found and, entirely without emotion, as though this were normal, buried in graves. The next day one can already find the body of someone who had just been digging graves for others.’…
“That Stalin’s own policy of collectivization could cause mass starvation was also clear. By summer 1932, as Stalin knew, more than a million people had already starved to death in Soviet Kazakhstan. … Stalin, a master of personal politics, presented the Ukrainian famine in personal terms. His first impulse, and his lasting tendency, was to see the starvation of Ukrainian peasants as a betrayal by members of the Ukrainian communist party.”