“Every scarecrow secretly desires to terrorize.”
—Stanislaw Lee

When, from time to time, a responsible official in the United States suggests we employ our abundance of food as a “weapon” in our struggle with Communist totalitarianism, a clamor of protest arises from one end of the country to the other. But when the Communists wield food—or its lack—as a lethal instrument, then the West organizes entertainment extravaganzas to assist them. Skillfully exploiting the humane instincts of decent people abroad. Communist governments are using them to support cynically brutal wars upon their own citizens at home.

The Harvest of Sorrow is a detailed investigation of one of the most horrendous and least-known crimes of a Communist regime—Stalin’s war against two major internal groups which he viewed as a threat: the peasants and the Ukrainian nation. With meticulous care, extensive historical sources, and the best available statistics. Professor Conquest has etched a horrifying picture of Soviet government’s genocide against its own people in the 1920’s and 30’s.

Conquest tells his story of the “terror-famine” against an appropriate historical background. He points out that the Communist Party was extraordinarily weak among the vast peasant majority in pre-revolutionary Russia—before 1917 there were fewer than 500 Bolshevik peasants in the entire country. Although Lenin established what he called a workers’ and peasants’ government, the peasants instinctively understood his urban dictatorship meant them no good. During the civil war (1918-1922) the Communists faced peasant rebellions which were so extensive that in the spring of 1921 Lenin privately admitted his party’s grip on power was extremely tenuous. Although the Bolsheviks emerged finally victorious militarily, the political and economic pressures remained so great that Lenin had to take “one step backwards” and introduce the so-called New Economic Policy (NEP). This “tactical move” permitted a considerable degree of private enterprise, especially in the countryside, giving the peasantry a breathing space for a few years in the 1920’s.

After Lenin’s death in 1924, Stalin consolidated his power by moving against the kulaks, or wealthy peasants, as a class. But his genuine intent was to eliminate the peasantry itself by destroying its political and economic consciousness. This policy began in early 1930 with “class warfare” against the kulaks in the villages, followed by forced collectivization, designed to liquidate private property in land and thus bring the rural population under the direct control of the party. The campaign succeeded, but at such an economic and human cost that in March of 1930 even Stalin beat a temporary retreat on the issue.

This brief respite was only another tactical maneuver, however, and the Soviet regime soon returned to the assault on its own people. Justifying his actions with the argument that the peasantry would deprive the State of food if only it could, Stalin felt entitled to use the same weapon and starve the peasantry into submission first. This campaign, which reached its peak in the terror-famine of 1932 and the early part of 1933, was directed not only against the farmers but also against the rebellious Ukrainians, who for years fought for self-determination within the Russian Empire. The famine was centered in the fertile Ukraine; that it was imposed deliberately may be seen from the fact that stored grain in the region was not released to the peasants; also, the peasants were forcibly prevented from entering the cities, where small bread rations existed, and from crossing into the Russian Republic, where there was no hunger. All that while the Soviet authorities officially denied there was any starvation in the afflicted areas.

The evidence Conquest presents, then, makes an overwhelming case for believing that Stalin consciously used famine as a weapon for a mass destruction of what he considered a class enemy. Using the best statistics available to him. Conquest concludes that some 14.5 million people either died in 1930-37 of unnatural causes or were sent to camps where they perished not much later. Of these, about 6.5 million died during the anti-kulak campaign, and about seven million during the famine of 1932-33. We should keep these figures in mind when we are told, as we so often are, that the Soviets would never want another war because they lost 20 million people in their conflict against Hitler.

Statistics lack the human appeal which case histories can provide, and Harvest of Sorrow quotes many witnesses to the human suffering in this holocaust. In fact, a famine of this sort is even worse than a war. Conquest cites a “former activist” as saying:

On a battlefield men die quickly, they fight back, they are sustained by fellowship and a sense of duty. Here I saw people dying in solitude by slow degrees, dying hideously. without the excuse of sacrifice for a cause. They had been trapped and left to starve, each in his home, by a political decision made in a far-off capital around conference and banquet tables.

So great was the misery of the victims of this frightful extermination that some were driven to cannibalism:

One activist who had been working on the collectivization campaign in Siberia came back to the Ukraine in 1933 to find the population of his village “almost extinct.” His younger brother told him that they were living on bark, grass, and hares, but that when these gave out, “Mother says we should eat her if she dies.”

Is it possible that a tragedy of such mammoth dimensions could have occurred without the knowledge of the outside world? In a certain sense it is, for “credible” Western observers visited the area and then joined Soviet officialdom in denying there was any widespread starvation in the Ukraine. Some, like Edouard Herriot, were perhaps deceived by skillful manipulation; others, like Sir John Maynard and Beatrice and Sydney Webb, deceived themselves; while New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty consciously lied to his readers (in 1932 he received a Pulitzer Prize for “dispassionate, interpretive reporting of the news from Russia”). Such was the power of this deception that it has taken almost half a century for the truth to emerge and be generally, if reluctantly, accepted.

And yet even those who perhaps will admit Stalin used famine as a weapon in 1932-33 find it difficult to accept the notion that this may be a standard instrument in the arsenal of Communist regimes. To the objective eye the record is indisputable. We need only recall the Cambodian holocaust of a decade ago, when famine helped decimate a proud people; in Afghanistan, now, the Soviet invaders are intentionally destroying crops and livestock and moving populations to areas where there is little food; in Ethiopia today similar things are going on—yet when we hear of foodstocks sent by the West rotting on Ethiopian docks, we find it hard to believe this could be government policy instead of mere inefficiency. In Against All Hope, his horrifying memoir of his imprisonment in Castro’s Cuba, Armando Valladares reports on hunger as a device used to break. down Cuban prisoners’ resistance.

Despite all these witnesses, it still seems difficult today for normal people of goodwill to believe the Communists are using famine as a lethal weapon. Half a century ago, it was even more difficult. At that time. Conquest points out, there were those who told the truth about the terror-famine in the Ukraine: Malcolm Muggeridge, Eugene Lyons, William Henry Chamberlain, Gareth Jones. But their evidence was widely rejected because it was too unsettling. There were also those inevitable countervailing observers who said things people were much more willing to accept.

It may be that the vast majority of human beings everywhere cannot believe such horrors exist until they themselves actually experience them. If one day—God forbid—we should encounter such disasters in this land of plenty, we cannot say we were not warned repeatedly and eloquently. Robert Conquest is one of those who has strived most energetically to speak to those with ears to hear.


[The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine, by Robert Conquest (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press) $19.95]