[This article appeared in the Conservative Review, December 1992, pp. 38-44.]


From the Academy. . .


Lest We Forget (or Never Really Know):

The 60th Anniversary of Soviet Communism's

Deliberate Murder of Millions by Starvation

Dwight D. Murphey

Wichita State University


World War I was a bloodletting of almost unthinkable proportions - a war that set the stage for much that followed in the twentieth century. What many of us don't realize is that, by comparison, according to Robert Conquest, "the number dying in Stalin's war against the peasants was higher than the total deaths for all countries in World War I." The focal point of this slaughter was the winter of 1932-33, exactly sixty years ago. Millions died in a man-made famine, cut off from all food by deliberate totalitarian policy. Each of these millions was a person, every bit as real as the emaciated figures photographed recently in Somalia. In this article, Dwight Murphey tells the story of that famine, as gleaned primarily from the eye-witness testimony gathered by the Commission on the Ukraine Famine.

                        If the history of the twentieth century is written appropriately, it will be a source of undying shame for the mainstream of Western intellectual culture, and for the millions who clung to the illusions spawned by that culture out of a desire always to be comfortably in tune with intellectual fashion, that it turned its eyes away from the murderous nature of Communism.

                        After the momentous events of the recent past in which the Soviet Union first lost its grip on Eastern Europe and then  broke into pieces, it is time for reflection – and for serious study into facts that have so long been obscured.  There is much that we need to know.


Sixtieth Anniversary of One of The World’s Most Despicable Episodes

                        This winter and spring will mark the sixtieth anniversary of the Soviet horror of 1932-33.  To beat a recalcitrant peasantry into collectivization and to crush all vestiges of national aspiration among the Ukrainians and others, the Soviet regime under Stalin sealed off a vast area, sent squads of men from house to house to seize quite literally all the food, smashed millstones so that peasants couldn’t even grind such little grain as they had managed to hide, and watched while millions died, sometimes eating each other in a desperate effort to stay alive.

                        This is something that Americans understandably have a hard time grasping.  To do so, imagine that the government sealed off Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota, removed the food from all grocery stores and other sources of supply, went house-to-house to confiscate any food anyone had, imprisoned or executed people for taking anything to eat even from the fields where it was growing, wouldn’t let anyone out of those states (except those who could manage to smuggle themselves out), and wouldn’t provide any help or allow anyone else to bring in food.  Imagine further that while several million died the government officially preached, even to them, that there was no famine.  And imagine that the world intellectual community overwhelmingly ignored what was going on, and even continued to sing the praises of the “people’s democracy.”

                        No, such an enormity hasn’t been committed here.  But it was committed in the Soviet Union sixty years ago.  In his 1986 book Harvest of Sorrow, Robert Conquest estimated the deaths as between five and seven million in Ukraine, one million in the North Caucasus Territory, and one million elsewhere.

                        But there is a problem with all such figures because of the inability of our imaginations to comprehend them. How can anybody possibly have an imagination powerful enough to give a face and form to each of those countless people?  And yet they were people, each with dreams, a family and friends – and each susceptible to unspeakable suffering.  They were mostly faceless to us sixty years ago, as the world’s intellectual culture chose not to see them; and they were mostly faceless to us today.

                        Fortunately, the survivors have begun the long process of giving us what will hopefully be a complete history.  The first international scholarly conference on the Ukrainian famine was held in Montreal in 1983.

                        In 1991 a memorial book 33-Famine, compiled by the husband-and-wife team of V. Maniak and L. Kovalenko, was published in the Ukrainian language.

                        On June 27, 1992, the Society “Ukrainian” and the Writers’ Union of Ukraine helped conduct the Founding Congress of the “Association of the 1932-33 Genocidal Famine in Ukraine.”  Headquartered in Kiev, the Association will seek “international legal recognition of the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people.”

                        An exposition displaying letters written to Stalin, eyewitness accounts, and artifacts from the famine has recently been held at the Taras Shevchenko Museum in Kiev.

                        A Congressional commission headed by Representative Daniel A. Mica (D-FL) submitted its report to Congress on April 22, 1988, after taking the testimony of 57 witnesses and compiling a supplement of over 200 eyewitnesses’ statements.  The account given in this article is based primarily on those statements, as well as on Robert Conquest’s splendid book.


Draconian Decrees

                        According to Robert Conquest, the Ukrainian harvest in 1932 produced, due to “the conditions of collectivization,” only two-thirds of the 14.7 million tons that it had in 1930.  Nevertheless, Stalin ordered the delivery of 7.7 tons as Ukraine’s quota.  Knowing that they could not deliver this, the Unkrainians managed to get this lowered to 6.6 million tons, “but this was still far beyond feasible.”

                        A series of draconian decrees was put into place starting in the late summer of 1932.  On August 7, the law “On Safeguarding Socialist Property,” known among the people as “The Law of the Ear of Wheat,” was promulgated.  It provided for execution or a ten-year prison sentence whenever even so little as an ear of wheat or a sugar beet was “stolen” from the crop.  Conquest tells us that there were 1500 death sentences in one month simply from the Kharkiv court alone.”  A woman was sentenced to ten years for cutting a hundred ears of ripening corn, from her own plot, two weeks after her husband had died of starvation . . . Another woman was sentenced to ten years for picking ten onions from collective land.”  One of the Congressional Commissions’ witnesses testified about how her aunt died in prison, to which she had been sentence for finding two ears of corn on a path.

                        The Report tells how a November 17 resolution denounced “recalcitrant local organizations” as being agents of wealthy peasants and of Ukrainian exiles.  Then on November 20 a decree cancelled “the food advances to collective farmers where the sate procurement quotas had not been fulfilled.”  On December 6, yet another decree placed an “economic blockade on villages which had ‘criminally sabotaged’ the procurements.”

                        On December 27, a system of internal passports was imposed.  Passports were issued to city dwellers and not to villages.  “Starving villages,” the Reports says, “inundated train stations in the hope of traveling to areas with more food, but the trains were reserved for those with internal passports or to those who had documents” showing a work-related trip for a collective farm.

                        By now, starvation was in full swing, caused not merely by these decrees but by house-to-house seizures that I will describe in the next section.  The decrees continued on January 20, 1933, with an order from Moscow demanding full enforcement of the law of August 7.  Then on January 24 there followed the All-Union decision to condemn the Ukrainian Communist leadership for not having seized enough grain.  Ukraine was put under the control of Pavel Postyshev, a “Stalin satrap.”

                        On March 17, a law took effect “that a peasant,” according to Conquest, “could not leave a collective farm without a contract from his future employers, ratified by the collective farm authorities.”

                        A document to local subordinates of the OGPU (secret police) on May 22 dealt revealingly with cannibalism.

                        And finally, Stalin signed an order on June 17, 1933, that the Report says forbade “local officials from using grain stored in state granaries to feed the population.”


House-to-House Confiscation:  Cutting Off the Food Supply

                        While these decrees were being handed down, “agricultural procurement brigades” consisting of urban activists, known to the people as “the red broom” and as “the twenty-five thousanders,” were brought in from outside.  Searching the collective farms and individual plots, they seized everything.  The activists were helped by local members of the komnezam (the Committee of Non-Wealthy Peasants).

                        One witness testified that “every day a brigade consisting of several sturdy men headed by a Chekist (member of the Soviet political police) came to our house.  He ordered his men to pierce all the walls, ceilings and floors with long ramrods.  He threatened the men by saying that they would be arrested if they did not find any grain.”  Another witness said “they searched in the rafters.  They searched with pikes to see if there was something hidden somewhere . . . They poked the ground noisily in search of a soft spot where something might be hidden.”

                        Yet another witness told how “whatever they found – a handful of wheat – they took it; some melons – they took them.  And the cellars – where the cabbage, and pickled beets, and potatoes were kept – they were also totally cleaned out . . . Nowhere in this directive were there instructions to leave some minimal amount of food behind for families . . . And it was still seven months to the new harvest.”

                        Conquest relates that “it aroused suspicion not to be in a starving state . . . One activist, after searching the house of a peasant who had failed to swell up, finally found a bag of flour mixed with ground bark and leaves, which he poured into the village pond.”

                        Those who were employed on the collective farms were given something to eat at first, eating from a common  kitchen.  “But eventually this was discontinued as well,” we are told by the witness whose aunt died in prison. “A second aunt, my mother’s sister, also died; she, her husband, and four children died; . . . all of them died from starvation . . . Two older girls survived.  When the older girls saw hat happened, they joined the state farm.  And there in the state farm, they survived somehow.”

                        One witness’s mother worked at a collective farm, where she received “something like 200 or 300 grams of bread a day.  She would eat some of this bread, perhaps half.  Each time she got the bread, she would save some of it, which she would then pass on to us whenever she could get back home . . . But the big problem always was in eating this food before it was taken away from us.”

                        The Italian consul in Kharkiv reported to his government that in a town sixty kilometers from Kharkiv “everyone [is] dead from typhus and famine.  One Doctor Gey, who was sent there, was taken aback upon entering the village by the horrible stench of corpses in full stage of decay in the houses.”


Stopping People From Getting Out, and From Bringing Back Food

                        The Commission’s Report says “famine victims were not allowed to travel to Russia, where food was available, though some managed to do so by stealth.  Legally purchased food was confiscated at the Russo-Ukrainian border.”  It tells us that “one narrator, originally from the Poltava region, told how his father, who had become a railroad worker after his lands were seized in 1932, was able to take a train to Russia and buy bread there but had to surrender it to the militia as the train approached the Ukrainian border.”

                        The Report further says that “villages turned to eating roots, flowers, leaves, and tree bark . . . Soups and cakes were often made out of such ingredients.  People ate dogs, cats, rats, birds, insects, and grubs for meat.  Because of the slaughtering of pets and the passivity of the starving, the villages fell silent.  One account describes a case where two starving boys ripped apart a live rat and ate it raw on the spot.”

                        A Mrs. Harmash testified that she watched some peasants along a road:  “They walked very slowly, and I noticed that they were squatting frequently.  At first, I could not understand why they were squatting down, but then I understood that they were bleeding with diarrhea.”

“Hardly a single witness finished testifying,” the Report says, “without vividly recalling cannibalism, resulting from famine induced insanity.”  One witness recounted what her mother saw:  “One day my mother came to visit a sick person in the neighborhood . . . She thought that the people were ill because they did not answer the door.  When she entered the house she saw the family was sitting around the table and a baby was separated.  They cooked the baby for food.  It was 1932.”

                        Another witness was told by a child that “my mother gave me something to eat that looked like jellied meat.  And I asked her, ‘Mama, what is it?’  Mother replied, ‘Eat what I give you’ . . . I said, ‘Oh, this is Nadya we’re eating’ . . . [I thought] ‘Mama and I ate Nadya, and then my Mama will eat me.”

                        A witness who was in his early twenties at the time recalls how “hunger turns a human being into an animal.  There were instances in which human bones would be found in mounds of earth where someone had cut away all the flesh cleanly from the bone, cooked and eaten it.  I saw bones like this at one planting site.  At the marketplace in Kiev I didn’t actually see people eating people.  But I was told that if you ate a meat pie purchased at the market you could come across a human finger in it.”

                        Even among the starving, there was resistance to cannibalism.  The Italian consul in Kharkiv reported in July, 1933, that in a certain village only 40 of an original 800 people were still alive.  “Many were killed by the peasants themselves ‘because they had eaten the children of others.”


Suffering of Those Who Made It to the Cities

                        Desperate, some people managed to make it to the cities, hoping that there would be something to eat there.  Others planned to abandon their children in the cities, hoping they could survive there.  They had to dodge police who guarded “all the railway terminals and stations, all the main roads” seeking to prevent people from getting out of the starving villages.

                            Villagers were reported to have dug up graves to find valuables that they could take with them to the cities to barter for food.  But the Italian consul reported that “even if their strength enables them to reach the city, death by starvation awaits them there as well, for they have no money and there is no on e to help them.”

                            Horrible sights became common in the cities.  In Kiev, “a store was set up where bread was sold.”  When the time came to open the gate to the store, a witness testified, “the line would surge forward with such force, that some old woman would be knocked down and crushed to death, along with three or four other persons . . . The people were so hungry that they would just drop dead in the streets.  And police trucks would drive about and scoop them up, and often they would pick up a person who was still breathing and just throw him into the back of the truck with the corpses.”

                        In Kharkiv, a woman was one of many mothers begging with their children along Pushkin Street.  “That evening with a single gesture she pushed her children away, rose to her feet, and threw herself into the path of a street car coming at full speed.  Half an hour later,” the Italian consul recounted, “I saw a street sweeper scraping up the unfortunate woman’s guts.  The children had been standing there watching all the time.”

                        In another 1933 report by the Italian consul in Kharkiv, “swollen people are taken by freight train into the countryside, about fifty to sixty kilometers from the city so that no one will see them die.  The cars are filled up and then barred shut . . . A few days ago a worker assigned to the train was passing by one of the cars when he heard someone call out.  As he came closer he heard a wretched man inside begging to be let out because the stench of the corpses had become unbearable.  Opening the car, the worker found this man alone still alive.  He was then taken to another car to die, one in which those locked in were still alive.”

                        When the trains arrived at their destination, “large pits were dug and the dead were removed from the cars.  I was told that no one was terribly fussy and that often one of those thrown into the pit reawakens and moves in a final flash of life.”


Turning Children Against Their Parents

                          Fear gripped the population.  “They were so afraid that even a son didn’t tell his father anything, and a father didn’t tell his son anything . . . People were afraid of those who might report on them, especially of youngsters, “ said a witness who had been fifteen years old at the time.

                        There was a government policy of turning children against their parents. “As Mrs. Pawlichka noted, ‘They would come to school, trying to seduce the children with candies and sweetmeats, in order to get them to betray their parents, to get them to tell the authorities where they had hidden food.”

                        Robert Conquest tells of the infamous Pavlik Morozov case in the village of Gerasimovka.  It is this case that perhaps presents most graphically in microcosm the viciousness of Communism.  Morozov, who was fourteen, “unmasked” his father, who had been head of the village Soviet, as having “sheltered the kulaks” (so-called wealthy peasants).  The father was tried and sentenced, whereupon a group of peasants (which included the boy’s uncle) killed the boy and, in doing so, turned him into a Soviet martyr.  A statue and a “Pavlik Morozov Museum” later celebrated him as a model for Soviet children.  The Palace of Culture of the Young Pioneers in Moscow was named in his honor, and his name was entered, along with others, in the “Book of Honor” of the Pioneers.  Morozov was one of several children so honored by the Soviet state.


Riots to Get at Full Granaries; Exporting of Grain

                        I have already told how Robert Conquest estimated the number of deaths as from five to seven million in Ukraine, one million in the northern Caucasus, and a million elsewhere.  He tells how Stalin told Churchill that about ten million had died in the drive against the “kulaks.”  Most of the 1932-33 famine deaths occurred in March, April and May of 1933.

                        Necessarily, the exact numbers are impossible to come by.  Estimates are often made by comparing the 1939 census with earlier counts.  But the Congressional Commission points out that this is precarious:  a census was taken in 1937, but when the population was shown as having shrunk drastically, those who took the census were shot.  Needless to say, the people who later took the 1939 census were motivated to report a more optimistic figure.  The range of scholars’ estimates as to the Ukraine alone goes from three to eight million.


Why Was It Done?

                        Essentially, the famine was the Communist government’s weapon in a war between the people and the totalitarian state.

                     The years of Lenin’s “New Economic Program” had spurred the economy by reintroducing some vestiges of capitalism, but in the late 1920s a drastic switch occurred.  Even though all peasants were severely limited in what they could own, a campaign was begun against the “kulaks,” the so-called wealthy peasants, who were declared a class enemy.  “In 1929 all of the so-called kulaks, that is, the landed peasants, were deported to Siberia, and then collectivization began in earnest,’ is the summary given by one witness, who added that the elderly were left behind.  Robert Conquest makes it clear, though that it was more than just deportation:  “The first category, designated as stubborn class enemies, were arrested in the winter of 1929-30.  In Kiev jail they are reported at this time shooting 70-120 men a night.” (I think it is worth adding that the continuing Soviet reference to “kulaks” was misleading.  The drive against them continued long after there were no longer any well-todo peasants, and became a drive against all but the most declassé peasants.)

                        There was some collectivization of agriculture as early as 1924, but collectivization was put into full swing with a declaration at the XVth Conference of the Communist Party in Moscow in December 12927.  “The whole atmosphere in the country from 1928 on,” Conquest says, “was one of increasing terror and hysteria.”  The process of so-called “de-kulakization” went on simultaneously with the creation of collective farms.  A witness tells how in early 1929 members of the Committee of Non-Wealthy Peasants went from house to house seizing “all the plows, all the harrows and all the horses, and they took all of it to the collective farm.”  Conquest reports that the twenty million family farms that had existed in 11929 were converted into 240 thousand collective farms by the end of 1934.


Misstating the Case

                        All of this met strong resistance from the peasants, who didn’t take it lying down.  This is why I say that the famine was eventually used as a weapon in a war that was going on between the Communist state and the people.  Those who abhor Stalin’s genocide shouldn’t base their revulsion on the notion that “Stalin did it without provocation.”  It misstates the case to say that the Communists’ crime was that they waged a campaign of extermination against an unresisting people.  Rather, their crime was of a different sort:  that of being willing to wage war against the people at all; and of declaring, in the service of ideology, vast portions of a country’s population undeserving to live.

                        There had long been a tension between the peasants and socialist ideology.  Conquest speaks of “the Marxist-Leninist thesis that the individual peasantry was a class which a ‘proletarian’ regime intent on ‘socialism’ must defeat and subdue.”  This had a long history in Marxist thought:  “As regards the ‘backward’ national passion became manifest years later with the formation of the Ukrainian nation as soon as the Soviet Union broke up.)  The Italian consul referred to “the Moscow government’s intention to use every means at their disposal to crush every last vestige of Ukrainian nationalism . . . Ukraine used to be the sole major population center endowed with some degree of ethnic, linguistic and historical cohesiveness that was resisting Moscow’s centralization program.”


Other Soviet Atrocities

                        In this article, I have focused on the famine of 1932-3, but it isn’t my intention to minimize any other of the countless horrors committed by the Soviet regime.  One of these would be the Great Terror of 1936-8, in which in the cities of the Ukrainian intelligentsia were executed by the thousands, with entire university departments being emptied out.  Professors were shot for giving lectures in the Ukrainian language.

                        Readers who have not already done so should read the volumes of Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago with its accounts of the vast empire of Soviet slave labor camps.

                        And on the day this is written, my local newspaper carries a report that “Wednesday, a Russian official sent to Warsaw made public for the first time copies of documents signed by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin ordering the mass murder of 14,700 Polish officers in the Russian forest [of Katyn] near Smolensk 52 years ago.”

                        Even to mention these, however, runs the risk of suggesting that there weren’t many other mass atrocities.


The Shame of the Western Fellow-Travelers Who Concealed the Facts

                        Some stories of the famine got out, with several Western newspapers running accounts.  But overwhelmingly, the West’s media and intellectual culture for many years suppressed any consciousness of it.

                        Walter Duranty, whose many articles in the New Republic I remember reading from those years as part of my preparation for my book Liberalism in Contemporary America, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his accounts from Moscow.  One of several low points in the history of journalism was reached when the Pulitzer Committee declared that “Mr. Duranty’s dispatches . . . are marked by scholarship, profundity, impartiality, sound judgment and exceptional clarity and are excellent examples of the best type of foreign correspondence.”

                        The Congressional Report tells us that “at the height of the Famine, he attacked an account by British journalist Gareth Jones in an article with the self-explanatory title, ‘Russians Hungry but not Starving.”  Conquest points out that on August 23, 1933, Duranty wrote that “any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda.”  (Perhaps Duranty was counting on the technicality that there is a distinction between Russia and Ukraine, a distinction that most people would not have known of.)

                        He said that “there is not actual starvation, but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.”  It was in this connection that he made his famous statement that “to put it brutally, you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”

                        A few months later Duranty told British diplomats confidentially that he thought it quite possible that as many ‘as ten million people may have died directly or indirectly because of lack of food in the Soviet Union during the past year.”

                        Louis Fischer was another prominent figure in American “liberalism” during the Thirties, writing frequently for the New Republic.  In late 1932, he saw the beginnings of starvation, “but by February,” the Congressional Eportesyas, “he had adopted the official Stalinist view, blaming the problem on Ukrainian counterrevolutionary nationalist ‘wreckers.’”

          On May 10, 1933, at the very height of the famine, the New Republic ran an article by Joshua Kunitz painting a picture of the peasant as a greedy good-for-nothing.  It was “selfishness, dishonesty, laziness, [and] irresponsibility” that he reported to his American readers.

                        George Bernard Shaw in England traveled to the Soviet Union and, after being shown that the Communists wanted him to see, reported that “I did not see a single under-nourished person in Russia, young or old.  Were they padded?  Were their hollow cheeks distended by pieces of India rubber inside?”

                        Robert Conquest tells how the British socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb visited the Soviet Union in i1932 and 1933, did seemingly prodigious research, and then praised the drive against the “kulaks”:  “Strong must have been the faith and resolute the will,” they said, “of the men who, in the interest of what seemed to them the public good, could take so momentous a decision.”

In the midst of it all, the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the United States, though fully aware of the famine, made no public acknowledgement of it – and even extended diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union in November 1933.  The Congressional Report says that “for political reasons largely related to FDR’s determination to establish and maintain good relations with the USSR, the US government participated, albeit indirectly, in what is perhaps the single most successful denial of genocide in history.”  Roosevelt went so far as to purge the State Department’s “Russian hands,” career diplomats who didn’t go along.  The Report adds that “the British record . . . was, if anything, worse.”

But it would be a mistake to note the moral insouciance only of intellectuals and politicians.  During the entire Communist era, there were millions of other people in the United States and elsewhere who took smug pride in minimizing the horrors of Communism.  To these, anti-Communism counted as a sure sign of bigotry.  One of the refugees from Ukraine who made it to America had this to say:  “For American people, we tried to tell them, we still do, and with most of them, it would be absolute indifference . . .or they will say, oh yes, we had hunger too.  Our people had to look in the trash cans for a rotten apple.  I say trash cans?  We didn’t know what trash cans means.  Nothing was thrown away in our country.”


“I Rest My Case!”

                        A philosophy professor with whom I have kept in touch for forty years has, in recent correspondence, taken issue with the thesis I expressed in my book Understanding the Modern Predicament1 – that mankind has only part-way risen out of barbarism and into civilization-, although I know that he agrees with my thesis that modern consciousness has been warped far out of shape by the ideology of the world Left.

                        Perhaps it is with the story I have just recounted that I should rest my case.



            1 Dwight D. Murphey, Understanding the Modern Predicament (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982).