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


Chapter 25. The Peasantry: The Final Solution

IN FEBRUARY 1933 Stalin told a congress of handpicked peasants that the collective farms had snatched at least 20 million of them from the clutches of the kulak and pauperdom. Each household, Stalin promised, would have one cow, once the kulaks were finished off. Stalin’s final words ring true, read with or without irony: “This is an achievement such as the world has never known before and which no other state in the world has tried to achieve.”

Stalin told Churchill that collectivization cost 10 million lives. OGPU counted the deaths by starvation and disease only for a few months; they kept records only of peasants shot, arrested, or deported as kulaks, their mortality rates, their escapes, their recapture. A few registry offices in the worst-affected areas along the Volga kept track of who died from what. In some villages and Cossack stations, abashed officials and a few courageous peasants tried to keep a toll. Today’s statisticians can estimate the losses from the age and sex structure of the generation that lived through this catastrophe. Another basis for calculation is the difference between the population predicted in 1926 for 1937 and the real figures (some 20 million less) obtained in 1937 by the census takers—they were shot for their honesty. Allowing for famine, violence, hypothermia, and epidemics caused by the disruption, the number of excess deaths between 1930 and 1933 attributable to collectivization lies between a conservative 7.2 and a plausible 10.8 million.

The surviving peasants were enslaved for two generations. On December 27, 1932, the Soviet state issued internal passports to its citizens but not to the peasants, who were left unable to leave their collective farms. For them the civil war had come back, but with no Whites or Greens to defend them. Provincial towns suffered, too: refugees brought epidemics of typhus—there were nearly a million cases in 1932. Food shortages in many cities made ration cards meaningless. Rickets, scurvy, and dysentery killed children; in many areas more than half the infants under one year old died.

The kulaks began dying the moment they were dispossessed: in trains that took them north and east, over 3 percent died of disease and privation. Despite the annual influx of deportees, the population of the “labor settlements” actually fell from 1932 to 1935. Of 1,518,524 kulaks in exile in 1932, nearly 90,000 died.38 The following year was worse: 150,000—13 percent of deportees—died and a quarter of the escapees were recaptured. Only in 1934 did mortality drop below 10 percent. The death rate in Iagoda’s labor camps gave prisoners a one-in-three chance of surviving a ten-year sentence. Not counting the victims of the Great Terror, in the 1930s, over 2 million persons were deported to labor settlements in hitherto uninhabited areas of the north and Siberia. Kulaks were followed by the inhabitants of frontier zones and other undesirables. Of the 2 million, well over 400,000 died, including 50,000 “repressed” by OGPU and the NKVD, and over 600,000 fled into anonymity or to the building sites of the Urals and Siberia (a third of these were recaptured). To the casualties of the subsequent famine, we have to add half a million kulaks who died outside the grain-producing regions.

Stalin had full reports from commissariats, party, and OGPU. All June, July, and August of 1930, 1931, and 1932 he spent recuperating on the Black Sea coast, supervising Kaganovich and Molotov by courier and telegram. In August 1933 he went south again for a two-month break, traveling slowly by train, riverboat, and car, taking a week to pass through the worst-affected regions. Stalin saw abandoned villages, victims of famine and of typhus epidemics. “Koba,” Voroshilov wrote to Abel Enukidze, “like a sponge, kept soaking it all up and there and then, after a little reflection, sketched out a series of measures.”39

Politburo members were flooded with protests: on June 18, 1932, a twenty-year-old Ukrainian Communist Youth activist wrote to Stanislav Kosior, the Ukrainian party secretary:

Imagine what is now being done around Belaia Tserkov, Uman, Kiev, etc. Enormous areas of fallow land . . . In the collective farms where there were 100–150 horses there are now only 40–50 and those are falling down. The population is starving terribly. . . . Tens and hundreds of cases when collective farmers go to the fields and vanish and a few days later the corpse is found and without pity, as if it were quite normal, is buried in a pit, and the next day they find the corpse of the man who buried the first one. . . .40

Kosior was so shaken that he held back the grain that Moscow demanded from his starving region. This damned him in Stalin’s eyes and for the time being he was demoted to deputy commissar for heavy industry.

Stalin did not relent. He gave detailed instructions to intensify the campaign: “deport from Kuban region in twenty days 2,000 rich kulak families who are maliciously preventing sowing,” he instructed Kaganovich on November 22, 1932.41 In December Stalin and Molotov told Iagoda, Evdokimov, the army commander Ian Gamarnik, and the secretary of the lower Volga region, Boris Sheboldaev, to expel from a north Caucasus Cossack station, “the most counterrevolutionary, all inhabitants except for those genuinely devoted to Soviet power . . . and to settle this area with conscientious Red Army collective farmers who have too little land or bad lands in other regions, handing them the land, the winter wheat, buildings, deadstock and livestock of the deportees.”42 Sheboldaev had to commandeer railway depots to cope with this resettlement. He complained to Kaganovich that the peasants who were starving to death were concealing grain hoards, that out of sheer malice they were letting their horses and cows die of starvation.

Stalin conceded a few adjustments to give peasants incentives to produce a surplus for the market, but the hungry were kept away from food. On September 16, 1932, Stalin’s draconian law “of five ears of corn” came into force. To stop uprooted kulaks from “shattering our new structures,” it punished by death or prison any peasant taking just a handful of grain or a cabbage from the land for themselves. Capitalism, Stalin argued, overcame feudalism by making private property sacrosanct; socialism must overcome capitalism by making public property “inviolable.” Under this law within a year 6,000 had been shot and tens of thousands imprisoned—prison at least held out the prospect of daily rations for the thieves.43

At Stalin’s behest, Menzhinsky concentrated on procuring grain from the starving regions and seeing that OGPU got it to the ports or, if there was no cover and no transport, that the peasantry were prevented from looting the piles of grain rotting in the rain. Menzhinsky’s part in the famine of 1931–3 makes him responsible for more deaths than can be laid at the door of image, Iagoda, Ezhov, or Beria. Iagoda, unlike Menzhinsky, was shaken by the enormity of what OGPU had enabled Stalin to do. On October 26, 1931, he wrote to Rudzutak, then commissar for the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate:

The sickness rate and mortality of the deportees is too great. . . . The monthly mortality equals 1.3 percent in Northern Kazakhstan and 0.8 percent in the Narym [Siberia] region. Among those that have died there are a particularly high number of younger children. Thus of those below 3 years old 8–12 percent of the group has died every month, while in Magnitogorsk it has been even more, up to 15 percent a month. It must be noted that on the whole the high mortality is not due to epidemic illnesses but to the lack of arrangements for housing and equipping these people, and child mortality climbs because of the absence of the necessary food. 44

Menzhinsky and Iagoda had from the north Caucasus figures for deaths from starvation and disease and for cannibals or corpse eaters. In March 1933 they were informed:

Citizen Gerasimenko ate the corpse of her dead sister. Under interrogation Gerasimenko declared that for a month she had lived on various rubbish, not even having vegetables. . . . Citizen Doroshenko, after the death of his father and mother was left with infant sisters and brothers, ate the flesh of his brothers and sisters when they died of hunger. . . . In the cemetery up to 30 corpses have been found, thrown out at night, some gnawed at by dogs. . . . several coffins have been found from which the corpses have disappeared. . . . In Sergienko’s apartment was found the corpse of a little girl with the legs cut off, and boiled meat. . . .45

For once, Menzhinsky and Iagoda’s men—Georgi Molchanov, who had organized terror in the north Caucasus and now headed OGPU’s secret political sector, and Genrikh Liushkov, Molchanov’s deputy and later a defector to Japan—decided not to punish the cannibals, and requested food, medicine, and doctors to be sent. In other areas, Molchanov and Liushkov found that even working collective farmers were dying: “On March 16 farmer Trigub, an activist, 175 days’ work credited, died of hunger. He applied several times to the farm administration for an issue of food, but received no help. For the same reason groom Shcherbina (185 days’ work) and carpenter Volvach died.”46

Not only the authorities were brutalized. Surviving peasants turned on each other and the starving. In summer 1933 a GPU man from the north Caucasus reported:

On Malorossiiskaia farmstead a boy was caught in a vegetable garden: he was killed there and then by the collective farmers. . . . At Ivanovskaia farmstead a cultivator and five collective farmers detained a workman on the rice farm whom they tortured, cutting off his left ear; they put his fingers in a door and broke them, then threw him alive down a well. After some time they dragged him out barely alive and threw him into another well which they filled with earth. At Petrovskaia homestead a keeper at the Stalin commune detained an unknown woman on the collective farm area for stealing ears of wheat, took her into a straw barn, tied her to a pillar and burned her and the barn. He buried the corpse where the fire was.47

Soviet intellectuals had to be blind and deaf not to know of these horrors. Very few even hinted at them.48 Osip Mandelstam, safe from censorship now that he was unpublishable, noted in a short lyric of 1933 that “Nature doesn’t recognize its own face, / and the terrible shades of the Ukraine and the Kuban [ . . . ] / On the felt earth hungry peasants / Guard the gate, not touching the handle.” Nikolai Kliuev, in his vision of starving Russia The Country of Burnt-Out Villages, had prophesied:

The day chirped with sparrows, when as if to go looking for mushrooms, the infant was called to the yard. For a piece of beef and liver a neighbor gutted the boy and salted him with gray salt along his birdlike ribs and sinews. From a joist under the beam an old woman washed away the blood with her mop. Then, like a vixen in a snare, she burst out barking in the storeroom. And the old woman’s bark was terrible, like a lullaby, or like magpies’ chattering. At midnight the grandmother’s suffering rose over the poor hut in the shape of Vasia’s head. Peasants, men and women, crowded round: “Yes, the same curls and pockmarked nose!” And suddenly the mob howled at the moon for mortal guilt. Parfion howled, so did thin Egorka, and the massive wolf echoed them on the eaten-out backyards. . . .

The Ukraine suffered worst from cannibalism, a crime for which Soviet law had made no provision. Cannibals were summarily executed by OGPU.

Stalin’s concern was to make sure the foreign press got no wind of these horrors. “Molotov, Kaganovich!” he wrote furiously in February 1933, “Do you know who let the American correspondents in Moscow go to the Kuban? They have cooked up some filth about the situation in the Kuban. . . . This must be put a stop to and these gentlemen must be banned from traveling all over the USSR. There are enough spies as it is. . . . ”49 Very few foreign correspondents saw the famine firsthand and their reports met with disbelief. Who in peacetime would destroy his country’s peasantry?

One person was able to get Stalin’s ear, and that was the young Cossack writer Mikhail Sholokhov. Stalin responded, however perfunctorily, to Sholokhov’s boldness when other interventions exasperated him. Sholokhov wrote of the horrors he witnessed at his own Cossack station, Veshenskaia: he described collective farmers left destitute after grain, clothes, and houses were taken, deportees forced to sleep in the freezing cold, children shrieking, a woman with a baby at her breast begging in vain for shelter before both died of the cold. He described mass floggings, torture in frozen pits or on red-hot iron benches, mock executions, women stripped naked on the steppe. “Do you remember, Iosif Vissarionovich, Korolenko’s sketch, ‘In a pacified village’? Well, this ‘disappearance’ was done not to three peasants suspected of stealing from a kulak, but to tens of thousands of collective farmers.”50 Sholokhov hinted that if he had no response, he would use the material in his second novel, Virgin Soil Upturned. Stalin thanked Sholokhov and sent out Matvei Shkiriatov from the Workers’ and Peasants’ Inspectorate. One or two torturers from OGPU were given nominal prison sentences. Stalin told Sholokhov, “your letters create a somewhat one-sided impression . . . you have to see the other side . . . your respected Cossack farmers were being saboteurs and didn’t mind leaving the workers, the Red Army without grain.”

The region that suffered most from Soviet collectivization was the Mongolian People’s Republic, which was in the hands of a Russian puppet, the future Marshal Khorlogiin Choibalsan, a drunken psychopath who connived at the murder of his entire Politburo. Mongolia was not just a cordon sanitaire between the Soviet Union and Japanese Manchuria; it was a laboratory in which Stalin’s antireligious and anti-kulak campaigns were tested. The Buddhist lamas, a third of the adult male population of Mongolia, were slaughtered, the cattle herders dispossessed. In spring 1932, its population reduced by a third, Mongolia revolted and Stalin had to retreat. The government was partially replaced, the rebel leaders declared Japanese agents and their followers promised an amnesty; trainloads of consumer goods were sent and a squadron of aircraft repainted in Mongolian insignia was sent to bomb the insurgents.

In Russia too there were rebellions, though remarkably few. Within a day’s journey of Moscow, on April 10, 1932, thousands in the town of Vichuga rose, burned down the police station, and occupied the party and GPU headquarters, seriously injuring fifteen police. Kaganovich came down to organize the reprisals. In the grain belt the new motor tractor stations became police headquarters not machinery centers. Together with OGPU, MTS “chekas” arrested kulaks, “disorganizers,” and “wreckers.” But even when the tractor stations had tractors available to replace dead horses and plowmen, the collective farms had no money to lease them. “I consider it impermissible,” Stalin wrote to Kaganovich, “that the state spends hundreds of millions on organizing MTS to serve the collective farms and still doesn’t know how much the peasantry is going to pay for their services.” 51

Down in the Ukraine what disturbed Stalin was not the deaths of millions of his subjects, but vacillating local leaders who grumbled that plans for grain procurement were “unreal.” “What is this? This isn’t a party, it’s a parliament, a caricature of a parliament,” he wrote to Kaganovich. His own brother-in-law Redens, he grumbled, was “not up to conducting the battle with counterrevolution in such a big and peculiar republic as the Ukraine.”52Stalin claimed to fear another Polish invasion: “Piłsudski’s agents in the Ukraine are not slumbering, they are much stronger than Redens or Kosior thinks. Bear in mind too that the Ukrainian Communist Party (500,000 members, ha-ha) contains quite a few (yes, quite a lot?) of rotten elements, conscious and unconscious agents of Petliura, even direct agents of Piłsudski.” Stalin asked Menzhinsky to remove Stanislav Redens and put in the field the most brutal GPU man available, Balitsky. The Ukraine was to be “within the shortest time a real fortress.”

By 1934 the main slaughter was over, and a relatively good harvest provided enough grain for the surviving peasants and the townspeople. Effectively, the war of Stalin, the secret police, the party, the army, and the city workers against the peasants was won. Even those who had witnessed the horror tried to put it all behind them. Sholokhov gave Virgin Soil Upturned a happy ending. Gorky, novelists, and filmmakers of the Soviet Union celebrated a countryside feeding industrial workers the calories they needed to build paradise. The only exception was Nikolai Zabolotsky, who imbued “The Triumph of Agriculture” with a Swiftian irony that misled the censor for a few years. Into a horse’s mouth Zabolotsky put the peasant’s De profundis:

All around nature is dying, the world is rocking, impoverished . . . now, bowlegged with pain, I hear: the heavens howl. Now a beast trembles, predestined to turn the wheel’s system. I beg, reveal, reveal it, friends: are all people really lords over us?

Collectivization had brutalized victims and perpetrators to such a degree that civilized society no longer existed in the USSR. The cruelty and passivity it induced in Soviet citizens made it possible for Stalin and his hangmen to proceed to an even more violent campaign in the party and among the urban population.