You’ve probably read newspaper articles about the current mass starvation happening in Venezuela. Shortages of food and other necessities have actually been a near-universal feature of societies taken over by socialist and communist ideas. So today we’re going to talk about the horrific 1930s famine in the Ukraine, known as the Holodomor, as described by Soviet journalist and novelist Vasily Grossman. The text we’ll be quoting is from his panoramic novel “Forever Flowing”, the story of a former Gulag prisoner coming to terms with the last three decades of history after Stalin’s death. We’re using Thomas Whitney’s 1973 translation.
In some sense, this novel might be said to contain secondhand testimony, as we’re looking at story told through the voice of one of the characters, from a point of view that doesn’t quite match the author’s. However, since Grossman was an active journalist during the pre-World War 2 Soviet era, we can be pretty confident that most of the characters and plot lines in the novel are based on his actual experiences and conversations with his fellow citizens.
The novel contains many short vignettes about life in the Soviet Union under Stalin. We’ll be focusing today on just one chapter, chapter 14, in which the main character, Ivan Grigoryevich, falls in love with a Ukranian woman, and she feels a need to confess to him the story of her life. This story centers around the Holodomor and her own minor role in it, as a local Communist Party activist. She begins by talking about the campaign to “liquidate the kulaks”, the successful peasant farmers. This is one of the main motivations for Communism: looking around, noticing that some people are more successful than others, and deciding that this means the system is fundamentally unfair. Naturally, their success is never attributed to hard work or ability— it can only come from having cheated or exploited their neighbors.
“The campaign to liquidate the kulaks began at the end of 1929… They began to arrest the heads of families only… The arrests were carried out solely by the GPU. Party activists had no part in this at all. All those rounded up in this first stage were shot— to a man.”
“The province authorities sent the plan down to the district authorities— in the form of the total number of ‘kulaks’… And who made up the lists? … three people. Dim-witted, unenlightened people determined on their own who was to live and who was to die. Well, that makes it all clear. Anything could happen on this level There were bribes. Accounts were settled because of jealousy over some woman or because of ancient feuds and quarrels… But the evil done by the honest people was no less than that done by the dishonest ones. These lists were evil in themselves; they were unjust…”
It’s interesting to see that even within the context of their own system, the decisions were seen as arbitrary and unfair. This is a common feature of authoritarian governments: no matter how rational they try to make their strict sets of rules, they have to be implemented by actual human beings, with all their inherent flaws. When such human beings have absolute power over life and death, even at a local level, no good can result. Anyway, the description continues:
“The fathers were already imprisoned, and then, at the beginning of 1930, they began to round up the families too. This was more than the GPU could accomplish by itself. All Party activists were motivated for the job. They were all people who knew one another well, and knew their victims, but in carrying out this task they became dazed, stupefied. They would threaten people with guns, as if they were under a spell, calling small children “kulak bastards”, screaming “Bloodsuckers!”… They looked on the so-called “kulaks” as cattle, swine, loathsome, repulsive; they had no souls; they stank;… and exploited the labor of others.”
“These slogans began to have their impact on me too. I was just a young girl. And they kept repeating them at meetings and in special instructions on the radio; they kept showing them at the movies; writers kept writing them; Stalin himself, too: the kulaks are parasites, they are burning grain, they are killing children… And I too began to fall under the spell of all this, and it began to seem as if everything evil had sprung from the kulaks …. if they were destroyed a happy time would instantly ensue for the peasantry. And there was no pity for them.”
As we all know, this was not the first time, and would not be the last time, that a country used propaganda to turn the population against some minority. The story goes on to describe the unbelievable suffering endured by the kulaks after being expelled from their villages— many were transported to remote, frozen areas where no prison had yet been built, and told they would be exposed to the elements until they had constructed it. But we’ll focus more on the fate of the prisoners in future episodes of this podcast. Let’s get back to the Party activist’s story:
“And we thought, folks that we were, that there could be no fate worse than that of the kulaks. How wrong we were! … The execution by famine had arrived. By this time I no longer washed floors but was a bookkeeper instead. And, as a Party activist, I was sent to the Ukraine in order to strengthen a collective farm. In the Ukraine, we were told, they had an instinct for private property…And so I arrived there, and the people there were like everyone else.”
“After the liquidation of the kulaks, the amount of land under cultivation dropped very sharply and so did the crop yield. But meanwhile people continued to report that without the kulaks our whole life was flourishing…. It was clear that Moscow was basing its hopes on the Ukraine. And the upshot of it was that most of the subsequent anger was directed against the Ukraine… Of course, the grain deliveries could not be fulfilled…. The conclusion reached up top was that the grain had all been concealed, hidden away. By kulaks who had not yet been liquidated, the loafers!”
Here we can see the unintended side effect that universally results from demonizing and punishing the productive: whatever they were producing, grain in this case, ends up in short supply. Yet out of fear of personal consequences, nobody wants to openly point this out. In this case, the lack of food simply caused further rage against the already-dehumanized “kulaks”, who. as the reasoning went, must still be in control of the Ukrainian farms somehow.
“The instructions were to take away the entire seed fund. Grain was searched for as if it were not grain but bombs and machine guns… Cellars were dug up, floors were broken through, and vegetable gardens were turned over… They even took baked bread away from one woman, loaded it onto the cart, and hauled it off to the district. Day and night the carts creaked along, laden with the confiscated grain, and dust hung over the earth. And there were no grain elevators to accommodate it, and they simply dumped it out on the earth and set guards around it. By winter the grain had been soaked by the rains and began to ferment— the Soviet government didn’t even have enough canvas to cover it up!”
“Fathers and mothers wanted to save their children and had a tiny bit of grain, and they were told ‘You hate the country of socialism. You are trying to make the plan fail, you parasites, you pro-kulaks, you rats.’. They tried to answer but it was to no avail… I can tell you the story, but stories are words— and what this was about was life, torture, death from starvation. Incidentally, when the grain was taken away, the Party activists were told the peasants would be fed from the state grain fund. But it was not true. Not one single kernel of grain was given to the starving.”
Note here that the Party made just enough promises to enable its activists and local officials to rationalize away their cruelty, saying that the peasants would be fed, and it would be someone else’s responsibility. Sadly, despite providing this story as a moral cover, the state did not feed the peasants as promised. The narrator goes on to describe the remaining stages before the final death of the village:
“…It was when the snow began to melt that the village was up to its neck in real starvation… No dogs and cats were left. They had been slaughtered. And it was hard to catch them too. The animals had become afraid of people and their eyes were wild… Faces were swollen, legs were swollen like pillows; water bloated their stomachs… And the peasant children! Have you ever seen the newspaper photographs of the children in the German camps? They were just like that: their heads like heavy balls on thin little necks, like storks, and one could see each line of their arms and legs protruding from the skin….
"One had to be made of stone to hear all that moaning and at the same time eat one’s own ration of bread. I used to go outdoors with my bread ration and could hear them moaning. I would go farther, and then it would seem as if they had fallen silent. And then I would go a little farther, and it would begin again. At that point, it was the next village down the line. And it seemed as if the whole earth were groaning, together with the people on it.”
This tragic description is from the point of view within a single village, but as we now know, there were many such villages across the Ukraine and neighboring regions. Ultimate estimates range from 2 million to 10 million deaths overall. But even for those in the cities, where most of the confiscated grain that survived ended up, the shortages were life-changing. And that leads to our final quote, another eerie reminder of current Venezuelan news reports, describing the Party activist’s experiences after returning to the city:
“…I went to Kiev. At that time they had begun to sell unrationed bread at high prices in the ‘commercial’ stores, as they were called. You should have seen what went on! The lines were half a kilometer in length the night before the stores even opened… But these lines were of a special kind. I have never seen any like them. People held onto the belts of those ahead and clung for dear life. If one person stumbled, the whole line would shake and quaver as though a wave had passed along it. .. They were terrified of being unable to keep hold of the person in front, of their hands slipping, and losing their place. And the women began to scream out of fear.”
Anyway, that’s where we’ll stop for now. The excerpts we shared are only a small portion of one chapter— if you’re curious for more details, we would encourage you to read the book yourself. The title is translated in two ways, so you may see it as “Forever Flowing” or “Everything Flows”.
By the way, since this is a new podcast, we’d also like to hear your feedback and suggestions for this podcast; please send me an email and tell me what you thought!
This concludes your Story of Communism for today.