Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him - Donald Rayfield (2005)


Chapter 24. Enslaving the Peasantry

And behold, seven other kine came up after them out of the river, ill-favored and leanfleshed; and stood by the . . . brink of the river. And the ill-favored and leanfleshed kine did eat up the seven well-favored and fat kine. So Pharaoh awoke.

Genesis 41: 3–4

STALIN’S CAMPAIGN of 1929 against the peasantry might be seen by a cold-blooded cynic as a long-overdue cure for an overpopulated countryside. In the nineteenth century Europe had sent surplus peasantry to its colonies. In the twentieth century Stalin had Siberia and Kazakhstan to absorb the peasants of Russia and the Ukraine who, despite the terrible mortality of the civil war, were still too numerous for the land to support. The suffering that ensued has few parallels in human history; it can only be compared in its scale and monstrosity with the African slave trade. But whereas the British, French, Spanish, and Portuguese took 200 years to transport some 10 million souls into slavery, and kill about 2 million of them, Stalin matched this figure in a matter of four years.

This was an act of unprecedented monstrosity, and the almost total silence and indifference of Europe and America to the fate of the Russian peasantry suggests that the rest of the world, like Lenin, Stalin, and Menzhinsky, considered the Russian peasant hardly human. The Nazi persecution of the Jews began as Stalin completed his genocide of the Russian peasant. We are still shocked today by Europe’s connivance at Nazi racism but, compared with Europe’s indifference to the introduction of slave labor in Russia and to the eradication of the Russian peasant, its murmurs about Nazi atrocities seem like an outcry. The Soviet authorities tried to confine journalists and diplomats to Moscow but could not stop them looking at the countryside from train windows; nor could it prevent foreign technicians working on projects in the provinces from talking. A few European journalists—Nikolaus Basseches in Germany, Gareth Jones and Malcolm Muggeridge in England—reported accurately and extensively, but their voices were drowned by the disgracefully bland reassurances of such experts as the British professor Sir Bernard Pares or the American journalist Walter Duranty that nothing untoward was happening. Some journalists, notably Duranty, had been suborned by Iagoda and retailed Stalin’s propaganda not just to secure privileged access to commissars but also to avoid unpleasant revelations about their own activities.

Stalin, the party, and OGPU were not worried. Apparently, putting a dozen foreign technologists on trial hurt Soviet prestige, but enslaving and exterminating millions of Russian and Ukrainian peasants did not. In January 1929 the Politburo instructed Menzhinsky, Nikolai Ianson (then commissar for justice), and Krylenko to combine forces, “to ensure maximum speed in carrying out repressions of kulak terrorists.”30 In May a Politburo resolution entitled “On the use of the labor of criminal convicts,” strictly secret and signed by Stalin, was addressed to Iagoda in OGPU and to Krylenko in the prosecutor’s office. It runs: “To move to a system of mass exploitation for pay of labor by criminal convicts with a sentence of less than three years in the regions of Ukhta, Indigo, etc.” 31 In July “concentration camps” became “corrective labor camps”; the GULAG came of age.

In April 1930 Stanisław Messing, Menzhinsky’s deputy and a Polish veteran of the suppression of the Kronstadt uprising, set up a vast economic empire. Its nominal head was Lazar Kogan, who had run OGPU’s border guards; Kogan’s deputies were Matvei Berman, the most ruthless exploiter of unskilled labor in history, who would at the age of thirty-four take over the GULAG, and Iakov Rapoport, one of just two GULAG pioneers who would survive Stalin.

Most of the inmates who flowed into these camps were not convicts, but “socially dangerous elements” by OGPU’s criteria: kulaks of the first category, in other words prosperous farmers who might resist dispossession. Arrests and deportations at first nearly overwhelmed the system. Menzhinsky and Iagoda atoned for their mishandling of the first show trials and of Trotsky’s departure by taking energetic measures to provide a pool of labor, albeit unskilled, for the mines of the far north. Iagoda’s strategy, which Stalin backed, was to change the raison d’être of OGPU’s empire from a political to an economic one. Political prisoners had formerly been idle playthings for sadistic, disgraced Cheka officers. As Menzhinsky sickened, Iagoda took the initiative and replaced feral camp administrations with more subservient ones; he directed prisoners’ physical strength into whatever earned, or saved, foreign currency: logging, mining, and finally massive construction projects like the White Sea canal.

Arrests and executions carried out by OGPU soared: 162,726 persons were arrested in 1929, mostly for “counterrevolutionary activity,” 2,109 were shot, some 25,000 were sent to camps and as many again into exile. In 1930 arrests doubled to a third of a million and executions increased tenfold to 20,000.32 The camps received over 100,000. By 1934 there would be half a million slave laborers. The camp economies, with their terrible mortality and relentless thirst for expendable laborers, would come to dictate the number of arrests.

Stalin’s five-year plan involved urbanization, and depopulating the countryside was the obvious method. The grain requisitioning of 1928 and the taxation that had beggared every farmer gave the peasantry no incentive to stay on the land and the state continued to pillage and terrorize the countryside. The “great turnabout” announced by Stalin in November 1929, a program of total collectivization in grain-producing regions, was the next step. Collectivization had been officially under way since 1921, but less than 5 percent of peasants had joined, even on paper, collective farms.

Skirmishes escalated into civil war in the winter of 1929–30, with hundreds of thousands of peasants armed with pitchforks and shotguns against OGPU paramilitaries with machine guns. In many areas, despite Menzhinsky’s fears about their loyalties, Red Army units used artillery and aerial bombardment. In the Ukraine, the civil war commanders Iona Iakir and Vitali Primakov led punitive raids. All resistance, even demonstrations in which communist activists were merely beaten up, was met with overwhelming force. A few army men defected to the peasantry and on one occasion pilots were shot for refusing to bomb rebellious villages. Even OGPU men revolted: in March 1930, in the Altai mountains of Siberia, Fiodor Dobytin, the district GPU plenipotentiary, arrested eighty-nine party members, shot nine of them, and liberated 400 imprisoned kulaks, whom he armed with rifles. 33

The last opposition in the Politburo, Bukharin and his liberal economists, was gagged, while the capitalist world, indifferent to the holocaust, seemed happy to sell machinery and technology for Soviet industrialization. Stalin did as he wished. Targets for collectivization were stepped up as the process became irreversible. Over 27,000 party activists were mobilized. Molotov urged Stalin to even more severe measures and in mid-January 1930 took overall charge, on a commission with Krylenko, Iagoda, and one of OGPU’s most bestial men, Efim Evdokimov.

These men were interested only in class war, in eradicating kulaks, although less than 2.5 percent of Russia’s peasantry were prosperous enough to be classified as such. But Iagoda, Evdokimov, and Krylenko marked out over 5 percent of peasants for destitution, deportation, and, in many cases, extermination. Kulaks were divided into three categories: “hostile”—to be shot or put in camps, “dangerous”—to be exiled to nonarable land in the far north or to Kazakhstan, and “not posing a threat”—to be dispossessed and released in their own region. By the end of January 1930, Molotov’s commission had put 210,000 households, 1.5 million human beings, in the first two categories. Kulaks were evicted into the freezing winter, their neighbors forbidden under pain of sharing their fate to give them food or shelter. Their money—even their savings books—was confiscated together with any property not in their hands or on their backs. Those that survived the trains to Siberia were at the mercy of one of OGPU’s most vicious chiefs, Leonid Zakovsky, who had not built even shacks to house them.

On paper the campaign was a success: by mid-February 1930 Molotov was able to report that some 13.5 million households—over half of the peasantry—had handed over land, livestock, and tools to collective farms. Given that the kulaks had left everything behind, the poor and middle peasantry should have prospered since they now had more arable land and equipment per head. Some poor peasants were given warm clothes and shoes stripped from kulaks—gifts that Iagoda hoped might win their loyalty. In fact, many collective farms existed only on paper, in regions where all that had happened was decimation of the population and disruption of the economy. The peasantry slaughtered that winter half the draft and meat animals in the country. “For the first time they are eating all the meat they want,” commented a Red Army officer. But the promised tractors had not been built, and when they were many did not work—and now there were often no horses to pull the plows.

The fate of those left on the land was grim; that of the kulaks was as horrific as the fate of Poland’s Jews under Hitler—“Auschwitz without ovens” as one survivor later put it—the only saving grace being Iagoda’s improvised tactics which left enterprising or lucky kulaks with the hope of escaping death. Iagoda’s letter to his subordinates Stanisław Messing and Gleb Bokii had a Stalinist logic: “The kulak understands splendidly that collectivization of the countryside means that he must perish, he will resist all the more desperately and viciously, which we see in the villages. From planned uprisings to counterrevolutionary kulak organizations and terrorist acts.”34 The kulak, Iagoda argued, must have “his back broken” by spring. Gleb Bokii was to organize more camps and locate wildernesses, some well above the Arctic Circle, where deported kulaks could be left unguarded to die, out of earshot or sight, of starvation, cold, and disease.

There were difficulties in moving over a million peasants. Trains of cattle trucks—each train carrying up to 2,000 deportees and watched over by guards who killed at the slightest provocation—crawled over Russia’s railways, already overloaded in a country virtually without motor roads. The inhabitants of provincial cities were horrified by the spectacle at their railway stations of crowds of starving and louse-ridden kulaks, middle peasants who had been rounded up to meet the targets, and poor peasants classified as “subkulaks” for expressing pity for the kulaks. Urban workers steeled themselves to walk over corpses on the pavements. OGPU was worried only when areas hitherto unscathed were panicked by tales of what was about to happen.

At all times Stalin knew in detail what was happening. Iagoda gathered almost daily for Stalin and Molotov statistics from all over the country on arrests, deportations, executions. Naive young communists wrote letters describing the sickening atrocities on the trains to Siberia and in the Arctic tundra. To counter resistance, more OGPU cadets and frontier guards were rushed in. Food, tools, even barbed wire failed to arrive; there was no funding. Junior OGPU officials, motivated by fear of responsibility rather than pity for their victims, complained about the Commissariat of Trade, which failed to provide food. Even the theoretical rations per adult kulak could not stave off death in unheated barracks in a Russian winter: 300 grams of bread, 195 grams of potatoes, 100 grams of cabbage, 75 grams of salt herring—1,300 calories.

In the south the liquidation of the kulaks turned into ethnic warfare as Don Cossacks who had survived the 1920 genocide were murdered as kulaks by their impoverished neighbors, Ukrainian peasants. All over the north Caucasus “spontaneous” atrocities, spurred on by OGPU, flared up: Cossacks were burned alive in cinemas, Chechen shepherds and beekeepers were gunned down as “bandits.” Frinovsky, head of OGPU’s border guards, arrived to quell national uprisings, allegedly provoked by kulaks. He reported, after putting the uprisings down, that corpses choked the rivers flowing into the Caspian Sea. A few communities were hard to crack: the million German farmers who had lived for two centuries on the left bank of the Volga rallied behind their church pastors. Not until 1941 were Stalin’s men able to dispossess the Volga Germans. Inspired by their mullahs, the Tatars also withstood attempts to separate out the kulaks, but they could not hold off OGPU, and dreadful retribution was exacted.

The Ukraine suffered worst, for anti-Muscovite feeling fueled resistance so widespread that it took Stalin two years to devise adequate reprisals. There was more violent resistance in the Ukraine than in the rest of the Soviet Union; of all kulaks deported, a quarter were Ukrainian.

There were now virgin lands in Kazakhstan on which to begin an arable experiment; they were won, like the American west, by exterminating the nomads who had lived on them for centuries. Unlike the American west, however, Kazakhstan received new settlers with no money, clothes, seed corn, or tools, and many would freeze or starve to death. Other Kazakhs fled with their animals into China. Perhaps 2 million emigrated, even though their fellow Kazakhs in China had no pasture to spare, and half of the refugees died.

The information dam erected around the country by OGPU still leaked. Until 1935, when rural post offices stopped accepting letters for abroad, Cossacks wrote to their relatives scattered from Uruguay to China. But Westerners in general were too gullible or indifferent to protest about the holocaust among the Russian peasantry and Cossacks. As one Kuban Cossack wrote to his relatives abroad: “Various delegations come from abroad, all communists of course. They are fed well and told stories. If they see people queueing and ask why, ‘our’ lot explain that these are poor people come for a free meal. And the foreigners go home and probably talk about miracles in the land of the Soviets.”

In 1930 a Terek Cossack woman described to an émigré cousin her life over the last ten years:

You reproach us for not writing to you, but we’d be glad to have a correspondence, except it’s impossible. You probably heard we were deported in 1922. . . . We were scattered over the wide world, each going where he could, to the Ingush, the Chechens, Osetians, Georgians—so that we relatives don’t see each other. . . . Your family was chased out in 1923 and on the night of December 10 outside Grozny all six were shot, but S. was killed right on the street. The next morning all your farm was looted—the house was blown up, the sheds, barns and gates went to the Chechens. . . . When we were expelled we wrote to you that many had died, they were all shot.

Our Cossack station has been divided into three categories. “Whites”—the males have been shot and the women and children scattered wherever they could save themselves. The second category is “reds”—they were deported, but not harmed. And the third, “communists.” Nobody in the first category was given anything, reds were allotted one cart per family to take everything they wanted, while communists had the right to take over all their movable property. . . . Don’t send any money, because the collective farm gets it and we just sign for it. Our deported men are in the infantry and very few come home—everyone says they’ve died.35

Ordinary peasants could write only to party bosses or the newspapers, and Soviet newspapers referred letters they did not print to OGPU. Kulaks had nothing to lose—they wrote to Stalin. For instance:

Dekulakization happens like this: 15 people come at night and take everything. They stole pickled berries, salted gherkins and even the meat from the saucepan. They ripped my only fur coat off me, I resisted and was arrested on the spot. . . . Many people perished when the kulaks were deported, at –40° they took families by horse-drawn cart to Tiumen and Tobolsk. In Tobolsk alone about 3,000 are buried, these are completely innocent victims, it is like the order that King Herod once gave to slaughter babies under six months. . . . Comrades Bukharin, Rykov, Frumkin and Tomsky are right, they know peasant life and peasant thinking better than you. 36

Molotov was well pleased with the campaign of 1929–30. All targets were exceeded, many by well over 100 percent: 140,000 had been arrested, twice the figure suggested by the Central Committee at the end of January; the far north had received 70,000 deportees for slave labor in mines and forests, twice the number budgeted for. Twice as much grain as targeted had been requisitioned, leaving even the remaining poor and middle peasants with too little to eat, let alone to sow in spring. The monetary supply was under control, by annulling kulaks’ savings and confiscating their silver.

Iagoda’s final report on liquidating the kulak, circulated to the Politburo on March 15, 1931, is a proud compilation of disgraceful figures. 37 The party and police had nearly lost control: in 1929 and 1930 thousands of anti-Soviet leaflets and posters had circulated, some 14,000 mass demonstrations and 20,000 acts of “terrorist violence” had occurred, and there had been 3,000 incidents of grain being burned rather than handed over. Resistance reached its peak in March 1930. The figures reported by Iagoda omit atrocities in the north Caucasus, the Urals, and Siberia, and OGPU’s 20,000 executions omit the slaughter of women and children in villages which offered armed resistance. In 1929 the Buriat Mongols, despite their Buddhist faith, rose up. Their own historians agree on a figure of 35,000 Buriats shot in the course of “pacification.” Figures for Bashkirs, Chechens, and Cossacks are still guesswork. To judge by OGPU’s informants, the peasantry were bewildered about what political course to take. Some shouted their support for Bukharin, Rykov, and Tomsky, acclaim which helped to doom the right in Stalin’s eyes; some called for the Industrial Party (an invention of Stalin and Menzhinsky) to assume power. In remote areas, kulaks resorted to partisan warfare against OGPU and the collective farms.

No wonder that Stalin later told Churchill in 1945 that collectivization had caused him more anxiety than the Second World War. To stem the chaos, Stalin blamed his subordinates for misleading him. Russian tsars had defused popular resentment by accusing their ministers of pulling the wool over their eyes. A desperate peasantry, unable to conceive of a mind so evil that it would deliberately inflict so much suffering, believed a god who blamed his fallen angels. There was no longer a left or right “deviation” to blame, although they would be resurrected as bogeymen and scapegoats, so Stalin blamed his overenthusiastic subordinates. His article “Giddiness from Success” in Pravdaon March 2, 1930, signaled that the worst was over. “Collective farms cannot be imposed by force. . . . Who needs these distortions, this bureaucratic decreeing of a collective movement, these unworthy threats against the peasants? Nobody but our enemies.” Then came an equally hypocritical decree from the Politburo, “On the struggle against distortions of the party line in the collectivization movement.” The peasantry were so encouraged by these texts that they deserted the collective farms. By summer 1930 the country was only 20 percent collectivized. Peasants left the collectives, even though they lost the animals and tools they had brought with them and were then allotted the worst land to farm.

The activists who had followed instructions from Stalin, Molotov, and Iagoda did not understand the shift in tactics and were nonplussed by this ungrateful disavowal. They were reluctant to apologize to the peasantry but Stalin judged that party discipline required testing the obedience of his subordinates.

There could be no real going back. Land had been redistributed (and often left fallow), houses burned, horses slaughtered, families split up, and heads of households killed. At least half a million people were facing malnutrition in camps or “special settlements,” and a million dispossessed kulaks begged for food, bribed officials for new papers, or sought work in the towns. OGPU’s own reports stressed the hopelessness in barracks in Astrakhan and Vologda, where 20,000 former kulaks were dying of typhus and hunger. Tens of thousands of victims, particularly middle peasants caught up in the waves of arrests, appealed to the judiciary. A few thousand were freed from the camps and sought work in the enormous building sites springing up in the Urals and on European Russia’s rivers.

OGPU recorded executions that followed a written sentence but left uncounted deaths with no paper trail. For want of censuses in the early 1930s, the mortality of the first collectivization campaign has to be guessed. The figures point to a catastrophe even before the terrible famine of 1932–3: a drop in the birthrate from 45 to 32 per thousand between 1928 and 1932, and a climb in the death rate with 620,000 more deaths in 1931 than in 1928. The groundwork for the famine, the greatest demographic catastrophe to hit the peasantry in Europe since the Middle Ages, was laid by Stalin in 1929, for the survivors were so weakened, physically, morally, economically, that they were doomed to die. For want of horses, women pulled plows; there was precious little grain and, with half the livestock slaughtered, no meat.

But Stalin had stepped back simply in order to advance much further. In September 1930 he told Mikoyan to force the tempo of grain exports to “establish our position on the international market” and instructed his faithful acolyte Poskriobyshev, the secretary of the secret section of the Central Committee, to receive warmly the American engineer Hugh L. Cooper, who would accept increased grain exports from the USSR in exchange for help with producing tractors. By 1931, from a starving countryside, over 5 million tons of grain was being exported to pay for turbines, assembly lines, mining machinery, and the funding of communist parties all over Europe, Asia, and America.

The silence of the West, which emerged from its economic depression at least partly as a result of orders from the Soviet Union paid for by the blood of millions of peasants, is a blot on our civilization. Diplomats and journalists may well have shared Stalin’s view that the Russian peasant was a subhuman brute; Western businessmen were eager for the contracts that Soviet industrialization was bringing their way. As the late British historian Christopher Hill said seventy years later of the Ukraine in 1933: “I saw no famine.”

The silence of the Russian intelligentsia, bludgeoned and cajoled by OGPU and the party, is more excusable. When writing about the civil war, Soviet novelists and poets could talk of atrocities on both sides and mourn the waste, but on this second civil war there was no leeway. Nevertheless, a handful of Russian poets could not blind themselves to what everyone knew was happening. The young poet Nikolai Zabolotsky lost his freedom and his health for speaking of the horrors in his ironically entitled “Triumph of Agriculture”: he let the Russian peasant protest through the mouth of a horse:

People! You are wrong to believe that I cannot cogitate, if you thrash me with a stick, after putting a breast band on my neck. A peasant, his legs gripping me, gallops, lashing horribly with the knut, and I gallop, though ugly, my hungry mouth gasping for air. All around nature is dying, the world is rocking, impoverished, flowers are dying, weeping, swept away by a blow of the legs.