Why did Stalin keep the famine of 1932 a secret?

Why did Stalin keep the famine of 1932 a secret?

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The famine of 1932 took millions of lives, before the Soviet authorities took some measures to alleviate the lives of the peasants. During the whole time, and for decades afterwards, the affair was kept secret. Contrast this to the famine of 1921: Back then, the Bolshevik Government called for international aid very early. The American Relief Administration was granted wide autonomy in how to organize its aid effort and managed to save millions of children.

Why was the later famine kept secret, then? There was a precedent for a rather successful international aid effort. The chief reasons I can think of were:

  • The actual extent of the famine was not known to the highest authorities while it happened (One reason for the famine was a very good harvest the year before, that led to the authorities setting unrealistically high quotas)
  • The authorities wanted to keep the famine a secret nationally (this they actually did, by prohibiting travel among other things), and so kept it secret internationally
  • The Soviet leadership feared an imminent war with its western neighbors (western Ukraine was part of Poland at the time) and wanted to hide its weakness

But ultimately, I don't know, so why did they keep it secret?

My sources so far:
Felix Wemheuer: Der große Hunger. Hungersnöte unter Stalin und Mao
Roman Danyluk: Freiheit und Gerechtigkeit. Eine Geschichter der Ukraine aus libertärer Sicht


There are two chief interpretations of the 1932 Soviet famine, or especially the more infamous Ukrainian component, the Holodomor. That the famine was at least partially caused or exacerbated by Soviet policies is well established. The main difference between the schools of thought is the degree to which Soviet authorities perpetuated or even intentionally orchestrated the famine and its resultant immense human costs.

Regardless of your preferred interpretation, there are obvious and compelling reasons to keep quiet about the disaster. It is a constant feature throughout history for ruling regimes to take pride in their ability to govern well, or at least not horribly. This is true both institutionally and on an individual level. Causing a catastrophic famine, even inadvertently, is not the sort of thing people like to be held responsible for. And the Soviet government was responsible for this particular famine.

In the famine of 1932/1933, the policies adopted by the highest Soviet authorities had devastating effects… while Soviet citizens starved, grain was exported from their country. In Ukraine, peasants were forbidden to travel to areas of Russia where there was grain. There is little dispute today that the famine of 1932/1933 in Ukraine could have been avoided and that the Soviet regime was responsible for it.

- Curran, Declan, Lubomyr Luciuk, and Andrew G. Newby, eds. Famines in European Economic History: The Last Great European Famines Reconsidered. Routledge, 2015.

Even if the famine had been a genuinely unintentional outcome of disastrous policies, the Soviet government could quite understandably decide against owning up to its mistakes. Particularly so when the failure occurred at a time the Soviet Union was trying to convince observers both domestic and abroad of its philosophical superiority. In that case, one way to pretend there was nothing wrong with your policies, is to pretend that the catastrophe they caused isn't happening.

You obviously disagree with the other interpretation, that the famine was intentionally caused or exacerbated by Soviet policies. I'll note that being intentional does not necessarily dictate the famine was a genocide - it has also been thought to have been an attempt to break the peasantry in order to further state control.

Stalin believed that the peasants were concealing food and that local party officials were not ruthless enough in taking it from them. So Party pressure was drastically increased to teach the peasants a great lesson: The state simply took its procurement quota without regard to what would be left over… And the famine worked. It at last brought victory to the Party in the countryside. The peasants would never again have the will to defy Soviet power.

- Malia, Martin. Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia. Simon and Schuster, 2008.

The specifics are unimportant, however. It should be immediately obvious that intentionally starving your own peasants is the sort of thing governments tend to keep secret.


A commenter questioned why this was not the case for the 1921 famine. That disaster was triggered directly by droughts, but also exacerbated by the Soviet policies. By seizing all surplus from the peasants to fuel the war effort, the Bolsheviks left them with no reserves to survive on in the event of crop failures.

Note that, unsurprisingly, the Soviet leadership denied their share of the responsibility.

Quite naturally, of course, they said nothing about the famine actually being the terrible result of the Civil War. All the landowners and capitalists who had begun their offensive against us in 1918 tried to make out that the famine was the result of socialist economy.

- Lenin's speech at the Fourth Congress Of The Communist International, 13 November 1922

However, a major difference is that unlike 1932, the Soviet Union of 1921 was in an extremely precarious state. Russia, already exhausted by the First World War, had not quite finished fighting its bloody civil war. The nascent Soviet regime had defeated its main white army rivals by 1920, but remain beset by insurrections and discontent, including the Tambov and Kronstadt rebellions.

Millions of desperate, starving peasants has not generally been a recipe for stability. Stalin in 1932 could shrug off the death of millions as a statistic. To the far weaker Soviet state of 1921, however, the famine was a potentially lethal disaster. While the reluctance to take responsibility for policy failures was the same, the Soviet leader felt the famine to be an existential threat, a threat that would take foreign assistance to weather.

By March 15, 1921, no less than Vladimir Lenin himself warned the 10th Party Congress that:

If there is a crop failure, it will be impossible to appropriate any surplus because there will be no surplus. Food would have to be taken out of the mouths of the peasants… since we cannot take anything from people who do not have the means of satisfying their own hunger, the government will perish.

- Weissman, Benjamin M. Herbert Hoover and Famine Relief to Soviet Russia, 1921-1923. Vol. 134. Hoover Press, 1974.

Lenin's fears would materialise over the following rainless months. It became apparent by June that a famine was in progress, and that the central government could do very little to alleviate the stricken provinces. Lenin would later reflect that:

In 1921 discontent undoubtedly prevailed among a vast section of the peasantry. Then there was the famine… the famine was indeed a great and grave disaster which threatened to nullify the results of all our organisational and revolutionary efforts.

- Lenin's speech at the Fourth Congress Of The Communist International, 13 November 1922

Even then the Soviets remained reluctant to officially admit the famine, only allowing Maxim Gorky to make a public appeal to the West for assistance in July. Fortunately, this successfully drew in Herbert Hoover and his American Relief Association. Still, an agreement for how they could operate in Russia was only reached on 20 August.

Considering that accounts of an extremely severe famine were published in Pravda as early as 26 June, this was not really very early at all, as far as disaster relief goes. Moreover, although the ARA was ultimately given a wide berth, this only came about at Hoover's insistence that they were necessary conditions for operating the relief operation.

In fact, the sticking points are revealing of Soviet designs:

The negotiations dragged on for ten days, bogging down over the American insistence on guarantees that the aid would not be diverted to the Red Army and over Soviet reluctance to grant true freedom of action to the ARA representatives in Russia.

- McElroy, Robert W. Morality and American Foreign Policy: the Role of Ethics in International Affairs. Princeton University Press, 2014

Frankly, a very strange (in its naivete) question… I really do not want to offend.

Where did you see a bureacracy that likes to admit its errors and failings, especially on such a major scale?

Even in the best (supposedly) democracies of the modern world (say, Denmark or Norway) I cannot recall any recent headlines reading something like (fictional headline, fictional numbers)

"Swedish foreign ministry happily admits they erred in going along with decision to add 100 million more visas for refugees from Middle East. As a self-punishment, they humbly agree to lower their salaries by 0.3%"

or (similar caveat)

"British government says, oh my gosh, we were so stupid going for this Brexit thing; everyone resigns"

Of course, many governments are often happy to admit, and even to gloat over, mistakes made by their predeccessors or bad things done a long time ago - we are not talking about that here, clearly.

How Stalin Hid Ukraine's Famine From the World

In 1932 and 1933, millions died across the Soviet Union—and the foreign press corps helped cover up the catastrophe.

In the years 1932 and 1933, a catastrophic famine swept across the Soviet Union. It began in the chaos of collectivization, when millions of peasants were forced off their land and made to join state farms. It was then exacerbated, in the autumn of 1932, when the Soviet Politburo, the elite leadership of the Soviet Communist Party, took a series of decisions that deepened the famine in the Ukrainian countryside. Despite the shortages, the state demanded not just grain, but all available food. At the height of the crisis, organized teams of policemen and local Party activists, motivated by hunger, fear, and a decade of hateful propaganda, entered peasant households and took everything edible: potatoes, beets, squash, beans, peas, and farm animals. At the same time, a cordon was drawn around the Ukrainian republic to prevent escape. The result was a catastrophe: At least 5 million people perished of hunger all across the Soviet Union. Among them were nearly 4 million Ukrainians who died not because of neglect or crop failure, but because they had been deliberately deprived of food.

Neither the Ukrainian famine nor the broader Soviet famine were ever officially recognized by the USSR. Inside the country the famine was never mentioned. All discussion was actively repressed statistics were altered to hide it. The terror was so overwhelming that the silence was complete. Outside the country, however, the cover-up required different, subtler tactics. These are beautifully illustrated by the parallel stories of Walter Duranty and Gareth Jones.

In the 1930s, all of the members of the Moscow press corps led a precarious existence. At the time, they needed the state’s permission to live in the USSR, and even to work. Without a signature and the official stamp of the press department, the central telegraph office would not send their dispatches abroad. To win that permission, journalists regularly bargained with foreign ministry censors over which words they could use, and they kept on good terms with Konstantin Umansky, the Soviet official responsible for the foreign press corps. William Henry Chamberlin, then the Moscow correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, wrote that the foreign reporter “works under a Sword of Damocles—the threat of expulsion from the country or of the refusal of permission to re-enter it, which of course amounts to the same thing.”

Extra rewards were available to those, like Walter Duranty, who played the game particularly well. Duranty was The New York Times correspondent in Moscow from 1922 until 1936, a role that, for a time, made him relatively rich and famous. British by birth, Duranty had no ties to the ideological left, adopting rather the position of a hard-headed and skeptical “realist,” trying to listen to both sides of the story. “It may be objected that the vivisection of living animals is a sad and dreadful thing, and it is true that the lot of kulaks and others who have opposed the Soviet experiment is not a happy one,” he wrote in 1935—the kulaks being the so-called wealthy peasants whom Stalin accused of causing the famine. But “in both cases, the suffering inflicted is done with a noble purpose.”

This position made Duranty enormously useful to the regime, which went out of its way to ensure that Duranty lived well in Moscow. He had a large flat, kept a car and a mistress, had the best access of any correspondent, and twice received coveted interviews with Stalin. But the attention he won from his reporting back in the U.S. seems to have been his primary motivation. His missives from Moscow made him one of the most influential journalists of his time. In 1932, his series of articles on the successes of collectivization and the Five Year Plan won him the Pulitzer Prize. Soon afterward, Franklin Roosevelt, then the governor of New York, invited Duranty to the governor’s mansion in Albany, where the Democratic presidential candidate peppered him with queries. “I asked all the questions this time. It was fascinating,” Roosevelt told another reporter.

As the famine worsened, Duranty, like his colleagues, would have been in no doubt about the regime’s desire to repress it. In 1933, the Foreign Ministry began requiring correspondents to submit a proposed itinerary before any journey into the provinces all requests to visit Ukraine were refused. The censors also began to monitor dispatches. Some phrases were allowed: “acute food shortage,” “food stringency,” “food deficit,” “diseases due to malnutrition,” but nothing else. In late 1932, Soviet officials even visited Duranty at home, making him nervous.

In that atmosphere, few of them were inclined to write about the famine, although all of them knew about it. “Officially, there was no famine,” wrote Chamberlin. But “to anyone who lived in Russia in 1933 and who kept his eyes and ears open, the historicity of the famine is simply not in question.” Duranty himself discussed the famine with William Strang, a diplomat at the British embassy, in late 1932. Strang reported back drily that the New York Times correspondent had been “waking to the truth for some time,” although he had not “let the great American public into the secret.” Duranty also told Strang that he reckoned “it quite possible that as many as 10 million people may have died directly or indirectly from lack of food,” though that number never appeared in any of his reporting. Duranty’s reluctance to write about famine may have been particularly acute: The story cast doubt on his previous, positive (and prize-winning) reporting. But he was not alone. Eugene Lyons, Moscow correspondent for United Press and at one time an enthusiastic Marxist, wrote years later that all of the foreigners in the city were well aware of what was happening in Ukraine as well as Kazakhstan and the Volga region:

The truth is that we did not seek corroboration for the simple reason that we entertained no doubts on the subject. There are facts too large to require eyewitness confirmation. … Inside Russia the matter was not disputed. The famine was accepted as a matter of course in our casual conversation at the hotels and in our homes.

Everyone knew—yet no one mentioned it. Hence the extraordinary reaction of both the Soviet establishment and the Moscow press corps to the journalistic escapade of Gareth Jones.

Jones was a young Welshman, only 27 years old at the time of his 1933 journey to Ukraine.

Possibly inspired by his mother—as a young woman she had been a governess in the home of John Hughes, the Welsh entrepreneur who founded the Ukrainian city of Donetsk—he decided to study Russian, as well as French and German, at Cambridge University. He then landed a job as a private secretary to David Lloyd George, the former British prime minister, and also began writing about European and Soviet politics as a freelancer. In early 1932, before the travel ban was imposed, he journeyed out to the Soviet countryside (accompanied by Jack Heinz II, scion of the ketchup empire) where he slept on “bug-infested floors” in rural villages and witnessed the beginnings of the famine.

In the spring of 1933, Jones returned to Moscow, this time with a visa given to him largely on the grounds that he worked for Lloyd George (it was stamped “Besplatno” or “Gratis,” as a sign of official Soviet favor). Ivan Maisky, the Soviet ambassador to London, had been keen to impress Lloyd George and had lobbied on Jones’s behalf. Upon arrival, Jones first went around the Soviet capital and met other foreign correspondents and officials. Lyons remembered him as “an earnest and meticulous little man … the sort who carries a note-book and unashamedly records your words as you talk.” Jones met Umansky, showed him an invitation from the German Consul-General in Kharkiv, and asked to visit Ukraine. Umansky agreed. With that official stamp of approval, he set off south.

Jones boarded the train in Moscow on March 10. But instead of traveling all the way to Kharkiv, he got off the train about 40 miles north of the city. Carrying a backpack filled with “many loaves of white bread, with butter, cheese, meat and chocolate bought with foreign currency” he began to follow the railway track towards the Kharkiv. For three days, with no official minder or escort, he walked through more than 20 villages and collective farms at the height of the famine, recording his thoughts in notebooks later preserved by his sister:

I crossed the border from Great Russia into the Ukraine. Everywhere I talked to peasants who walked past. They all had the same story.

“There is no bread. We haven’t had bread for over two months. A lot are dying.” The first village had no more potatoes left and the store of burak (“beetroot”) was running out. They all said: “The cattle are dying, nechevo kormit’ [there’s nothing to feed them with]. We used to feed the world & now we are hungry. How can we sow when we have few horses left? How will we be able to work in the fields when we are weak from want of food?”

Jones slept on the floor of peasant huts. He shared his food with people and heard their stories. “They tried to take away my icons, but I said I’m a peasant, not a dog,” someone told him. “When we believed in God we were happy and lived well. When they tried to do away with God, we became hungry.” Another man told him he hadn’t eaten meat for a year.

Jones saw a woman making homespun cloth for clothing, and a village where people were eating horse meat. Eventually, he was confronted by a “militiaman” who asked to see his documents, after which plainclothes policemen insisted on accompanying him on the next train to Kharkiv and walking him to the door of the German consulate. Jones, “rejoicing at my freedom, bade him a polite farewell—an anti-climax but a welcome one.”

In Kharkhiv, Jones kept taking notes. He observed thousands of people queueing in bread lines: “They begin queuing up at 3-4 o’clock in the afternoon to get bread the next morning at 7. It is freezing: many degrees of frost.” He spent an evening at the theater—“Audience: Plenty of lipstick but no bread”—and spoke to people about the political repression and mass arrests which rolled across Ukraine at the same time as the famine. He called on Umansky’s colleague in Kharkiv, but never managed to speak to him. Quietly, he slipped out of the Soviet Union. A few days later, on March 30, he appeared in Berlin at a press conference probably arranged by Paul Scheffer, a Berliner Tageblatt journalist who had been expelled from the USSR in 1929. He declared that a major famine was unfolding across the Soviet Union and issued a statement:

Everywhere was the cry, “There is no bread. We are dying.” This cry came from every part of Russia, from the Volga, Siberia, White Russia, the North Caucasus, Central Asia …

“We are waiting for death” was my welcome: “See, we still have our cattle fodder. Go farther south. There they have nothing. Many houses are empty of people already dead,” they cried.

Jones’s press conference was picked up by two senior Berlin-based U.S. journalists, in The New York Evening Post (“Famine grips Russia, millions dying, idle on rise says Briton”) and in the Chicago Daily News (“Russian Famine Now as Great as Starvation of 1921, Says Secretary of Lloyd George”). Further syndications followed in a wide range of British publications. The articles explained that Jones had taken a “long walking tour through the Ukraine,” quoted his press release and added details of mass starvation. They noted, as did Jones himself, that he had broken the rules which held back other journalists: “I tramped through the black earth region,” he wrote, “because that was once the richest farmland in Russia and because the correspondents have been forbidden to go there to see for themselves what is happening.” Jones went on to publish a dozen further articles in the London Evening Standard and Daily Express, as well as the Cardiff Western Mail.

British Library via Bridgeman Images

The authorities who had showered favors on Jones were furious. Litvinov, the Soviet Foreign minister, complained angrily to Maisky, using an acidic literary allusion to Gogol’s famous play about a fraudulent bureaucrat:

It is astonishing that Gareth Johnson [sic] has impersonated the role of Khlestakov and succeeded in getting all of you to play the parts of the local governor and various characters from The Government Inspector. In fact, he is just an ordinary citizen, calls himself Lloyd George’s secretary and, apparently at the latter’s bidding, requests a visa, and you at the diplomatic mission without checking up at all, insist the [OGPU] jump into action to satisfy his request. We gave this individual all kinds of support, helped him in his work, I even agreed to meet him, and he turns out to be an imposter.

In the immediate wake of Jones’s press conference, Litvinov proclaimed an even more stringent ban on journalists travelling outside of Moscow. Later, Maisky complained to Lloyd George, who, according to the Soviet ambassador’s report, distanced himself from Jones, declaring that he had not sponsored the trip and had not sent Jones as his representative. What he really believed is unknown, but Lloyd George never saw Jones again.

The Moscow press corps was even angrier. Of course its members knew that what Jones had reported was true, and a few were looking for ways to tell the same story. Malcolm Muggeridge, at the time the correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, had just smuggled three articles about the famine out of the country via diplomatic bag. The Guardian published them anonymously, with heavy cuts made by editors who disapproved of his critique of the USSR, and, appearing at a moment when the news was dominated by Hitler’s rise to power, they were largely ignored. But the rest of the press corps, dependent on official goodwill, closed ranks against Jones. Lyons meticulously described what happened:

Throwing down Jones was as unpleasant a chore as fell to any of us in years of juggling facts to please dictatorial regimes—but throw him down we did, unanimously and in almost identical formulations of equivocation. Poor Gareth Jones must have been the most surprised human being alive when the facts he so painstakingly garnered from our mouths were snowed under by our denials. … There was much bargaining in a spirit of gentlemanly give-and-take, under the effulgence of Umansky’s gilded smile, before a formal denial was worked out. We admitted enough to soothe our consciences, but in roundabout phrases that damned Jones as a liar. The filthy business having been disposed of, someone ordered vodka and zakuski.

Whether or not a meeting between Umansky and the foreign correspondents ever took place, it does sum up, metaphorically, what happened next. On March 31, just a day after Jones had spoken out in Berlin, Duranty himself responded. “Russians Hungry But Not Starving,” read the New York Times headline. Duranty’s article went out of its way to mock Jones:

There appears from a British source a big scare story in the American press about famine in the Soviet Union, with “thousands already dead and millions menaced by death and starvation.” Its author is Gareth Jones, who is a former secretary to David Lloyd George and who recently spent three weeks in the Soviet Union and reached the conclusion that the country was “on the verge of a terrific smash,” as he told the writer. Mr. Jones is a man of a keen and active mind, and he has taken the trouble to learn Russian, which he speaks with considerable fluency, but the writer thought Mr. Jones's judgment was somewhat hasty and asked him on what it was based. It appeared that he had made a 40-mile walk through villages in the neighborhood of Kharkov and had found conditions sad.

I suggested that that was a rather inadequate cross-section of a big country but nothing could shake his conviction of impending doom.

Duranty continued, using an expression that later became notorious: “To put it brutally—you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs.” He went on to explain that he had made “exhaustive inquiries” and concluded that “conditions are bad, but there is no famine.”

New York Times via Penguin Random House

Indignant, Jones wrote a letter to the editor of the Times, patiently listing his sources—a huge range of interviewees, including more than 20 consuls and diplomats—and attacking the Moscow press corps:

Censorship has turned them into masters of euphemism and understatement. Hence they give “famine” the polite name of “food shortage” and “starving to death” is softened down to read as “widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.

And there the matter rested. Duranty outshone Jones: He was more famous, more widely read, more credible. He was also unchallenged. Later, Lyons, Chamberlin and others expressed regret that they had not fought harder against him. But at the time, nobody came to Jones’s defense, not even Muggeridge, one of the few Moscow correspondents who had dared to express similar views. Jones himself was kidnapped and murdered by Chinese bandits during a reporting trip to Mongolia in 1935.

“Russians Hungry But not Starving” became the accepted wisdom. It also coincided nicely with the hard political and diplomatic considerations of the moment. As 1933 turned into 1934 and then 1935, Europeans grew even more worried about Hitler. By the end of 1933, the new Roosevelt administration was actively looking for reasons to ignore any bad news about the Soviet Union. The president’s team had concluded that developments in Germany and the need to limit Japanese expansion meant that it was time, finally, for the United States to open full diplomatic relations with Moscow. Roosevelt’s interest in central planning and in what he thought were the USSR’s great economic successes—the president read Duranty’s reporting carefully—encouraged him to believe that there might be a lucrative commercial relationship too. Eventually a deal was struck. Litvinov arrived in New York to sign it—accompanied by Duranty. At a lavish banquet for the Soviet foreign minister at the Waldorf Astoria, Duranty was introduced to the 1,500 guests. He stood up and bowed.

Loud applause followed. Duranty’s name, the New Yorker later reported, provoked “the only really prolonged pandemonium” of the evening. “Indeed, one quite got the impression that America, in a spasm of discernment, was recognizing both Russia and Walter Duranty.” With that, the cover-up seemed complete.

Stalin’s inhumane existence

There’s nothing about Joseph Stalin that exactly screams, “humane leader.” While he ruled over the Soviet Union, Stalin attempted to “improve” Russia’s industrial and economic status through communism, yet he failed to protect his citizens on nearly every level. He stripped away their rights, their liberties, and their peace of mind, unearthing their businesses and neglecting their physical needs. As a result, tens of millions of citizens died under his watch, the majority passing away during a terrifying, man-made famine that Stalin manufactured. You read that right: man-made. But why would a leader want to see his people suffer from severe starvation? Communism, of course, and a horrifying amount of apathy.

“Mr. Jones” Remembers When Stalin Weaponized Famine

The Polish director Agnieszka Holland, now seventy-one, has toiled in many fields. “The Secret Garden” (1993) and “Washington Square” (1997) point to a predilection for bookish costume drama, yet Holland also made three episodes of “The Wire.” Her most tenacious work has centered on lone figures, as they seek to outwit, or simply to withstand, the weight of authoritarian threat. “Europa Europa” (1990) is based on the true story of a German Jewish boy who joined the Hitler Youth. “Burning Bush” (2013), a three-part series for HBO, is based on the true story of Jan Palach, who immolated himself in protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. And Holland’s new film, “Mr. Jones,” is based on the true story of a young Welshman who found a terrible tale to tell.

The man in question is Gareth Jones (James Norton), an adviser to David Lloyd George (Kenneth Cranham), formerly the British Prime Minister. It is the early nineteen-thirties, and Jones is met with condescending mirth when he tells a group of graying British high-ups that Hitler is intent on war. Jones, however, knows whereof he speaks he interviewed the Führer, on a plane, and, for his next scoop, he hopes to talk to Stalin. He therefore travels to Moscow, as an independent journalist, and although the interview never happens, the dogged Jones remains perplexed by the boom in Soviet industry. How is it being funded? “Grain is Stalin’s gold,” he is told. And where is much of the grain traditionally reaped? Ukraine. So that is where Jones goes. As Lloyd George said of him, “He had the almost unfailing knack of getting at things that mattered.”

What matters in “Mr. Jones” is the Holodomor, the famine that befell Ukraine in the years 1932-33. Current scholarship estimates that just under four million people died. They did not pass away from natural causes. The best and the most detailed English-language study of the subject is “Red Famine,” a 2017 book by Anne Applebaum, who demonstrates that starvation was a deliberate policy, enforced by Stalin through the requisition of crops and other products and the widespread persecution, deportation, or even execution of the non-compliant. His grand scheme of collectivized farming had failed, as any local farmer could have predicted, yet it was not ideologically allowed to fail. Who better than the Ukrainians, so often distrusted and demonized by Moscow, to be cast as scapegoats and saboteurs?

Dramatizing a theme of such enormity is a test for any filmmaker. Holland’s response is threefold. First, she shadows virtually every scene with a distorting darkness, as if prophesying doom, long before the action reaches Ukraine. Second, she introduces none other than George Orwell (Joseph Mawle) as a framing device. At the outset, we find him at work on “Animal Farm,” the implication being that the novel—which boasts a Mr. Jones, a farmer, in the opening sentence—was inspired, or informed, by what we are about to witness. (A curious move if, as a film director, you have faith in the strength of your narrative, why should it need an extra boost?) Later, the link is made explicit, as Jones, returned from his mission, is introduced to Orwell, though whether such a meeting ever took place is open to debate.

Holland’s third tactic, as Jones journeys through the blighted landscapes of Ukraine, is to show us only what he sees, in the hope that a deep note of universal suffering will resound through the particular. Thus, when Jones eats an orange on a train and discards the peel, his fellow-passengers lunge and scrap for the nutritious prize. Alighting at a secluded railroad station, he passes a body on the platform. Lying there, frozen and unremarked, it is meant to represent the innumerable dead who are strewn around the countryside like litter. The same goes for the scene in which a baby, though still alive and crying, is tossed onto a cart with the already deceased, to save time or the lumps of meat that are cooked and eaten by children, having been cut from the remains of their brother.

None of these monstrosities are inflated. Applebaum’s book includes a lengthy section on cannibalism. (Some parents consumed their offspring, survived, and, having woken to the realization of what they had done, went mad. By then, they were in the Gulag. How much hell do you want?) In a feature film, though, isolated horrors are liable to come across as eruptions of a foul surrealism rather than as testamentary evidence, and we don’t—or can’t—always make the imaginative leap in scale. When Jones himself grows famished, and chews in desperation on tree bark, we are scarcely moved, for the plight of one outsider, from the well-fed West, is of no consequence in the apocalypse of hunger.

This is no reflection on Norton, who is plausibly stricken as the pale and bespectacled Jones, and we share his frustration when his reports on the Holodomor, delivered after he is thrown out of the Soviet Union, have only a limited impact. They are scorned by the New York Times correspondent in Moscow, Walter Duranty, played by Peter Sarsgaard as a limping and low-lidded slimeball. (Just in case we doubt his nefarious credentials, he hosts a languid orgy at his apartment.) It was Duranty who, in brushing off Jones’s account of the atrocities, blithely explained to Times readers, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs”—one of the most shameful phrases in the history of the newspaper. The eggs were human beings.

This determination not to know, or to look away when the facts admonish our beliefs, is among our most durable frailties, and Duranty was but the first of many skeptics. As late as 1988, an article in the Village Voice, reviling “one-note faminologists” and accusing them of falsehood, bore the subtitle “A 55-Year-Old Famine Feeds the Right,” as if the urge to verify hardship and grief were no more than a Reaganite affectation. Twenty years later, Dimitry Medvedev, Russia’s President at the time, referred to the “so-called Holodomor.” Any discussion of Ukraine’s being intentionally victimized, he added, would be “cynical and immoral.” As for the valiant Jones, he was murdered in Inner Mongolia, in 1935, allegedly by Chinese bandits, though suspicions linger that the Soviets had a vengeful hand in his demise. Is it conceivable that Holland’s bleak, murky, and instructive film could prompt a change of heart in the current Russian establishment, or even a confession of crimes past? Not a chance.

The new film from Olivier Assayas, “Wasp Network,” is a mirror image of “Mr. Jones.” Instead of a Westerner entering a Communist state, we have Communists infiltrating the West—Cuban spies, dispatched undercover to Miami. The decade is not the nineteen-thirties but the nineteen-nineties. The colors have changed from crow black and slush gray to sun-warmed pastels. And a hungry man eats a Big Mac, rather than chowing down on a tree. That has to be an improvement, though vegans may disagree.

First up is a pilot, René González (Édgar Ramírez), who defects, or appears to defect, by flying solo to the United States. His true function, once he’s in Florida, is to report to his superiors, in Havana, on the activities of anti-Castro groups. The trouble is that, regardless of his motives, he has to leave behind his wife, Olga Salanueva (Penélope Cruz), and their young daughter, and the film never quite faces up to the paramount question: In what universe would any sentient creature voluntarily abandon Penélope Cruz? Assayas gives her dorky spectacles and shapeless clothes, and shows her laboring in a tannery and mopping a hospital floor, all in a vain effort to quench the flame. Olga is easily the most fervid figure in the movie, and her reaction, when she’s finally told that René is not a traitor but a loyal (if secret) patriot, is an amazing coalescence of pride, exasperation, and weepy fatigue.

But wait. Suddenly, we switch from René’s adventures to those of Juan Pablo Roque (Wagner Moura), another component of the network. He embeds himself in the expatriate community by marrying Ana Margarita (Ana de Armas), whose beauty he admires almost as much as his own. Then, later on, we turn to a third man, Gerardo Hernandez (Gael García Bernal), who is sent to Miami to command operations. Oh, and there’s a semi-related subplot, in which a hapless youth is recruited in El Salvador and paid to plant bombs in Havana’s hotels, in a bid to curb the tourist revenue on which the Cuban economy relies.

So who’s the hero? Or, to put it another way, which of these agents would be the least boring to have dinner with? Assayas has often proved his skill with ensembles, in season-ripened movies like “Late August, Early September” (1999) and “Summer Hours” (2009), but the new work, alas, lacks a dramatic core. The story can’t keep still, shifting from year to year and place to place, and, whereas “Mr. Jones” appalls you into wanting to know more, “Wasp Network” is so temperate in its political approach that you start to forget what’s at stake. The fiercest speech comes from Castro (the real thing, in a TV interview, not an actor in a beard), who brands America “the biggest spy in the world.” Touché. ♦

The Holodomor: Stalin’s Genocidal Famine that Starved Millions in the 1930s

In June 1933, a doctor in what is now Ukraine penned a letter to a friend. &ldquoI have not yet become a cannibal,&rdquo she wrote, &ldquobut I am not sure that I shall not be one by the time my letter reaches you.&rdquo And if the doctor did become a cannibal by the end of 1933, she wouldn&rsquot be the only one. At the time, the people of Ukraine were suffering through one of the worst famines in recorded history. Known as the Holodomor, or &ldquothe murder by starvation,&rdquo the famine would claim millions of lives over the space of few years.

But unlike most famines, the Holodomor may have actually been planned. At the time, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, an uneasy union of countries across eastern Europe and Central Asia, all held together in Josef Stalin&rsquos iron fist. As in many countries in the Union, there was a strong independence movement in Ukraine that threatened Stalin&rsquos control. According to many historians, Stalin settled on a simple tool to fight this Ukrainian nationalism: hunger. After all, as Soviet diplomat Maxim Litvinov once said, &ldquoFood is a weapon.&rdquo And the people of Ukraine were about to learn how devastating a weapon food can be.

Children starving during the Holodomor, Youtube.

Warnings that a famine was possible in Ukraine reached the Soviet leaders by 1930. But the Soviets made little serious effort to prevent it. In the Soviet system, food was taken from the farmers who grew it and redistributed as the party saw fit. Farmers were allowed to keep only a portion of what they worked to produce, and the industrial workers were given rations. As crops failed and food grew scarce, these rations were cut. And through it all, the party&rsquos wagons continued to pull tons of food away from farms and into government depots.

Soon, people began to notice the effects of hunger. As someone begins to starve, their body begins to burn the fat it has stored up for quick energy. Once this fat is gone, the body begins to turn to whatever other nutrients it can find. It starts with burning up the protein in the muscles, which makes it look as though the person starving is wasting away. Eventually, the body has to take protein from the muscles of the heart. Once this happens, the heart begins to grow weaker and eventually fails. Obviously, death by starvation is slow and agonizing.

People passing the corpse of a man who died of starvation in Kharkov, Wikimedia Commons.

And within a few months of the start of the famine, hundreds of thousands of people were dying. They wandered through the streets begging for food, but there was none to be had. In the cities, workers were shown films telling them that they were starving because the peasants were hoarding food in an attempt to sabotage the communist revolution. But in the countryside, the same peasants were watching as communist officials carted away what little food they had. And soon, in both the cities and the in the rural areas, the only thing left to eat was each other.

The history behind “Bitter Harvest,” dramatic movie about the Holodomor

Over the last year the Holodomor has garnered much needed additional publicity, in part due to the current situation in Ukraine but in the West discussion of it is still often met howith the look of confused faces and a great deal of general ignorance persists. But now the famine of 1932-33 is set to receive some extra publicity in the form of “Bitter Harvest”, a movie starring among others Max Irons, Samantha Barks and Barry Pepper. It tales the tale of Yuri, a native of Smila whose initial passion for being more a lover than than a fighter conflicts with his cossack heritage, but his would be love relationship with Natalka, a child sweetheart as well as relationships with the rest of his family are torn asunder by the events that unfurl around them.

Smila may have been a village then but it has since grown into a small city which alongside Uman and Cherkassy itself is one of the major population centers of what is now the Cherkassy Oblast. Few films have ever been perfect in depicting historical events but Bitter Harvest despite being a drama looks far more promising to reflect more the realities of the Holodomor than certainly the propaganda photos designed to mislead that Demchenko below was proud to pose for. Judging by the official film website, thought and research was evidently put into the production of the film and now we have the 1st official trailer out. Obviously one can only draw so much from a trailer, but this post will examine some of its apparent themes and how they depict the history of the Holodomor as it was.

“I was born in a country where anything was possible … we celebrated simple freedoms… to live and to love” – Yuri in “Bitter Harvest”.

There is a theme in Hollywood films of depicting backstories as blissful innocence or even a child-like sense of naivety which gets disrupted as the story plunges the characters and the world around them into darkness before the characters get dragged back up into the ending. It remains to be seen how much or if indeed Bitter Harvest follows this format.

But as things were, Ukraine’s pre-Holodomor state was not a golden era. It’s actually also worth understanding that Soviet ambitions over Ukraine began immediately after the October Revolution.

Grain, Grain, Grain to feed Soviet Russia

On 15 January 1918, Lenin sent a telegram to his associates calling for “Grain, Grain, Grain” to be forcibly requisitioned from Ukraine to feed Soviet Russia [1]. By 1921 after the concept of an independent Ukrainian state had been crushed by Soviet military might and partitioned between the USSR and Poland, this ambition to control Ukrainian Grain led to the 1st Soviet famine to impact Ukraine which claimed the lives of 1-1.5 million Ukrainians.

Yet discontent persisted particularly amongst Ukrainian peasants who had not given up upon the concept of preserving Ukrainian culture or the thoughts of independence. Subsequent Soviet policies such as the “New Economic Policy” (NEP) and “Ukrainization” were based on attempts to consolidate Soviet rule by appeal to the peasants but by 1928 this had been overturned by Stalin.

Officially the justification for doing so was that the NEP policies were widening a gap between the USSR and the Capitalist West and in this we find Stalin’s well known remark that “We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it, or they crush us.”

But ideologically, the reverse of the NEP and “Ukrainization” was to bring the USSR and by extension the Ukrainian SSR closer to Stalin’s own wishes based on Marxist-Leninist ideology. The NEP had allowed a modicum of agricultural private enterprise and as a result hunger in the mid-1920s didn’t become so much of an issue as being forced to conform to state whims. But Stalin’s policy reversal changed that. Lenin’s policy of forced requisitions returned and with it those farmers suspected of having profited from the NEP were punished as “Kulaks.”

With the forced collapse of the grain market, famine was quick to follow. The cry “у селян хліба немає” (“The peasants have no grain”) had been noted around Cherkasy as well as elsewhere by February 1929 [2]. By 1930 soviet repressive policy was met by a large wave of protests of which the countryside around Cherkasy and Uman formed a major of epicentre of anti-soviet resistance. Though not every Ukrainian was a participant to resisting soviet rule but to Stalin this mattered not. In the long run the ever increasingly repressive policies that characterised the Holodomor were grossly disproportionate to whatever real or alleged crimes Ukrainians were supposed to have committed.

“Ukraine must be taught to bow to our will … without its vast harvests of grain Russia cannot exist … take all their food.” – Stalin in “Bitter Harvest”.

On 6 July 1932, during the “Third All-Union Conference of the Communist Party of Ukraine”, Stanislaw Kosior, prominent Soviet politician and leader of the communist party of Ukraine until 1938 addressed his comrades about the situation around Uman:

“Comrades, many regard the extensive grain procurement plans as a major cause of the current difficulties in Ukraine … There have been a fair number of anti-party elements who have obtained party membership in Ukraine. They believe that we plunder Ukraine in favour of Moscow. They reflect kulak theories and sentiments and Petlyurite theories … It is no accident that in the Uman raion the number of mistakes was the highest. Those who are familiar with this area know that one can find the greatest number of Petlyurite and kulak elements, their agents, and counter-revolutionaries of various stripes. Our local party organisation is infected in those raions in which we have the most outrageous distortions of plans.” [3]

On July 9, it was agreed by those present and acting on Stalin’s whims that the final resolution to the conference demanded that the Ukrainian SSR must procure 6.6 million tons of grain by the years end. It was in the mad pursuit of this target that the worst phase of the Holodomor was enacted through the winter of 1932-33 but even at this time the Ukrainians were already suffering under the auspices of hunger.

Earlier in the year on April 26 Stalin received a letter from Kosior written in minimalist tone reporting that there were only “isolated cases of starvation” including involving whole villages starving blaming “only the results of bungling on the local level and [party line] deviations, especially in regard of kolkhozes [collective farms].”

But Stalin’s reply was ecstatic interpreting Kosior’s remark about “deviations” as Soviet authority no longer existing in certain parts of Ukraine Stalin rhetorically asked “Can this be true? Is the situation in villages in Ukraine this bad?” The alleged lack of Soviet control of the Ukrainian peoples as well as combatting what Stalin would later call “rotten elements” in Ukraine became the pretexts to his infamous telegram to Kaganovich on 11 August 1932 advising him to turn Ukraine into a lethal “fortress.”

Kosior’s April 26 letter is in the final analysis misleading in its information about the extent of famine in the Ukrainian SSR and Stalin’s rhetorical question was pre-empted by a tongue-in-cheek letter sent to Stalin by an Uman based Komsomol member wherein Stalin’s rule was likened to “bourgeois” serfdom rather than Soviet, and famine was blamed on quotas being too high as well as extensive searching for food in the pursuit of quotas by Soviet secret police.

The full extent of the famine around Uman was noted by Henryk Jankowski, head of the Polish consulate in Kyiv “I report …” he wrote in a report to Polish diplomats in Moscow dated 11 May 1932:

“[in] Uman each day there are cases of people being picked up from the street, having collapsed from feebleness and atrophy. The situation is supposedly worse in the countryside, where according to a reliable source, plundering and murder for food are a daily occurrence.” [5]

Reports such as this especially from the Polish diplomats who were in Ukraine at the time are very typical at describing the situation around them in general.

It is a common theme of Stalin apologetics to interpret his remarks about loss of control literally (and in essence blaming his victims). This denial is routinely extended to denial that there even was a famine, a propaganda line parroted by even the lower ranks of the NKVD at the time. “During my examination at the Smila prison,” eyewitness Marko Kruhly would later recall:

“I inadvertently mentioned the famine that raged in Ukraine in 1932-1933. When the NKVD agent heard the word “famine” he jumped from the chair, slapped my face hard and said: ‘What famine? We have no famine here, only state difficulties!’” [6]

“Who in the world will know?” – Stalin in Bitter Harvest.

It is hard to underestimate how effective Soviet propaganda has been in covering up the realities of the famine. The sort of Ukraine that Stalin wanted you to see involved happy smiling collective workers bringing in record harvests and a Ukraine completely detached from reality. To this end Stalin allowed prominent western intellectuals to be given Potemkin Village tours and used New York Times Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty to parrot Soviet propaganda in exchange for him getting closer access. But Stalin promoted the myth of Ukraine being a workers paradise within the USSR also, and even allowed certain Ukrainians to become propaganda icons for the cause, and among the most iconic of these is Maria Demchenko. Born in a small village in the Horodyshchens’kyi district in 1912 by the early 1930s she had risen to become one of the leading figures in the agricultural wing of the “Stakhanovite movement” named in honor of a Donetsk coal miner who was reported to have vastly exceeded his production quotas. Demchenko was celebrated in soviet propaganda for exceeding her quota of beet production and was more than happy to pose for propaganda photos with her alleged crop. This propaganda photo was taken on 1 September 1933.

Demchenko centre and behind the pile of beets: In reality it is more likely that all these beets were sourced from a far wider area than just a single farm. Photos like this carry little interest in contemporary Ukraine because of their obvious propaganda nature.

“I have seen people left to die … this is not a famine, this is Starvation.” – Yuri, in Bitter Harvest.

At its peak in early Spring 1933 an estimated 25-30,000 Ukrainians were perishing each day across the Ukrainian countryside. There is evidence to suggest that awareness of death on such a massive scale certainly existed. In one undated pamphlet distributed (most likely) in May 1933 calling for resistance around a village in Helm’yazivskoho we find these remarks.

Today we live in the grip of the communist party who uses hunger to stifle the working peasants. The evidence is everyday in our country 16,000 die of hunger … The communists are the death of Ukraine, several million people … Villagers, let us oppose the Communist Party and organize a united front.”

Just 5 days before he called on Kaganovich to turn Ukraine into a “Fortress”, Stalin on August 7th 1932 enacted a piece of legislation commonly known as the “5 Ears of Grain Law” stating that any “misuse” of “collective” property be met with either shooting on the spot or 10 years imprisonment. As all property was now deemed to be in the hands of the state and with “misuse” loosely defined, even collecting just handfuls of grain was enough to have you punished by death. This law was also applied to children such as Fedir Krikun born in the village of Klyuchnyky in 1923. At the age of 9 he recalled attempting to steal grain stalks from a nearby collective farm to where he lived. He was lucky to survive both the famine and a severe leg wound inflicted by an NKVD guard who shot at him. But the “5 Ears of Grain Law” was only one step in a set of policies enacted through the Autumn of 1932 which were deliberately designed to increase the level of repression.

“Ukraine must be taught to bow to our will … without its vast harvests of grain Russia cannot exist … take all their food.” – Stalin in Bitter Harvest.

“Close the borders. Keep them in.”

Arguably the most lethal repressive policy enacted through the Autumn of 1932 was the blacklist system. Any community caught in it was to be cut off from any food or supply from anywhere else. The blacklisted communities had no right to trade nor were they allowed to import any food to feed local populaces.

As a result, anyone caught within a Blacklist area was guaranteed death.

Officially the justification for the blacklist system was that it would put an end to any alleged “grain procurement sabotage organised by kulak & counterrevolutionary elements,” with the added aim of breaking the “resistance of rural Communists”, “sabotage leaders,” and “liquidating passivity and indifference to saboteurs, which is incompatible with being Party member, and ensuring the faster pace and full and unconditional completion of the grain procurement plan.”

In practice it also meant Blacklisted communities being swarmed with party loyalists and secret police tasked to find whatever meagre rations of food remained and punish anyone for hoarding it. Among the best accounts of the Holodomor in a Cherkassy village by someone who lived through it is Miron Dolot’s “Execution by Hunger”. Of the consequences of the Blacklist system, Dolot writes:

“Now it began to dawn on everyone why there wasn’t any food left in the village why there weren’t any prospects of getting any more why our expectation that the government would surely help us to avert starvation was naive and futile why the Bread Procurement Commission still searched for “hidden” grain and why the government strictly forbade us to look for means of existence elsewhere. It finally became clear to us that there was a conspiracy against us that somebody wanted to annihilate us, not only as farmers but as a people—as Ukrainians. At this realization, our initial bewilderment was succeeded by panic. Nevertheless, our instinct for survival was stronger than any of the prohibitions. It dictated to those who were still physically able that they must do everything to save themselves and their families. The desperate attempts to find some means of existence in the neighboring cities continued. Many of the more able-bodied villagers ventured beyond the borders to distant parts of the Soviet Union, mainly to Russia, where, as we had heard, there was plenty of food. Others went south, since we had also heard that there, in the coal mines and factories of the Donets Basin, one could find work with regular pay and food rations. However, few of the brave adventurers who set out for these lands of plenty reached their destination. The roads to the large metropolitan centers were closed to them. The militia and the GPU men checked every passenger for identification and destination. These courageous men and women doing their utmost to stay alive, achieved quite the contrary. We can only guess what happened to them when they were arrested it was either death or the concentration camps. If they managed to escape the verdict of death in the “people’s” courts, receiving the questionable reprieve of hard labor, they never began their sentences. The combination of hunger, cold, and neglect took their lives on the way to the camps, at the railroad stations, or in the open box cars rolling north and east, in which they froze to death. The ones who escaped the roadblocks set up by the militia and GPU often became the victims of outlaws who terrorized the railroad lines and the open markets. The lucky ones who managed to return to their villages after these terrible experiences, and those who remained in the village, gradually lost their spirit and belief in salvation from their plight. Weakened by lack of food, freezing for lack of fuel, they simply had no more stamina left. The farmers sank deeper and deeper into resignation, apathy and despair. Some were convinced that starvation was a well-deserved punishment from God for believing in Communism and supporting the Communists during the Revolution. We heard that a few of those who came back had somehow managed to acquire food—mainly flour—but few of them were able to bring their treasures home. Those provisions, obtained under great hardships, had been confiscated by the state agents, or stolen by outlaws. All of these events convinced us that we had lost our battle for life. Our attempts to escape, or to secure food from other sources, were for the most part unsuccessful. We were imprisoned in our village, without food, and sentenced to die the slow, agonizing death of starvation.” [7]

How Bitter Harvest will depict the blacklist or other policies remains to be seen, but we do know that from the trailer that it will depict mass graves and depict prison executions, it also subtly infers that Yuri will be deported.

A dispossessed family in Udachne – Donetsk Oblast, after having been forced out of their home on the basis of being “Kulaks”. The process of deporting Kulaks claimed at least half a million lives alone. Photo taken by Marko Zhelezniak in 1930

“We must Save ourselves or die.” – Ivan, Yuri’s Grandfather in Bitter Harvest.

There is one scene in the trailer in which Natalka tells her fellow villagers “we must continue the resistance” before the trailer jumps to a scene in which she is helping to set fire to a building. What you get here is an on screen echo of the way that women during the Holodomor actively participated in resisting Soviet Authorities.

One story in the Kyiv Oblast for example tells of a woman who burned down a state owned granary after party activists had threatened to take her belongings. For this, she received two years in prison (much like Natalka who in Bitter Harvest also ends up in prison presumably for her resistance activities).

Whilst a number of Ukrainian women were motivated into hiding food or disrupting Soviet authorities out of concern for their families or especially children, other incidents of resistance were arguably motivated by a sense of fatalism that death was simply inevitable.

On 1 March 1933, according to one Secret police report, a group of women in Khrystynivka attempted to stop a train after hearing rumors that it might contain some flour which they demanded be distributed amongst themselves. Fiercely desperate or desperately fierce depending on how you see it, the women were record shouting “they torture us with hunger, better to kill us all instantly – spray your gasses on us.” The situation we are told was “forcibly resolved” (the women were most likely arrested) but as the document is broken the fates of these women is unknown [8].

Holodomor deniers have made much noise about Ukrainian resistance to Soviet rule which did extend to the burning of crops. The trailer depicts one Bolshevik telling Yuri and his fellow villagers that their land “now belongs to the state” which in Soviet ideological terms also meant that the state owned all the crops.

As we have already seen with Kosior’s remarks, he reported the widespread truism held by Ukrainians that the Soviet regime was indeed plundering Ukraine in favor of Moscow as a major motivation for anti-Soviet resistance. The propensity of Holodomor deniers to believe that the Ukrainian SSR was really indeed some workers paradise and to believe Soviet propaganda that the state was simply collecting all the grain so that it could *all* be redistributed back into the peasants in line with socialist thinking, yet there is nothing to support that.

The trailer seems to suggest that the resistance will lead to explosions and cavalry charges but one can suppose that it is to be expected that this is after all a popular production. Bitter Harvest began to be produced before the current war with Russia flared up, but the conflict has added to it being a timely and relevant production. It certainly looks lovingly made, and it looks like a film worth looking out for when it gets released in 2017.


There was no famine, Duranty said, dismissing Jones’s report as part of a British government propaganda drive.

A few months later, Duranty, who lived in luxury in a Moscow apartment, went even further. ‘Any report of a famine in Russia,’ he told American readers in August 1933, ‘is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda.’

Since Duranty was better connected than Jones, many people who ought to have known better believed him. As Applebaum writes, as late as 1986, when the great historian Robert Conquest published a groundbreaking book on the famine, entitled Harvest Of Sorrow, the Left-wing London Review of Books ran a scathing review dismissing it as yet more anti-Communist propaganda.

Even today, shamefully, there are those on the Left who still make excuses for Stalin.

Chief among them, almost unbelievably, is Jeremy Corbyn’s sepulchral press chief, Winchester-educated Seumas Milne, who has rarely missed an opportunity to defend the Communist dictator.

According to Mr Milne, people should stop banging on about the victims of Stalin’s regime. Instead, they should remember ‘communism in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and elsewhere delivered industrialisation, mass education, job security and huge advances in social and gender equality’.

Jeremy Corbyn’s sepulchral press chief, Winchester-educated Seumas Milne, still makes excuses for Stalin

By any standards, this is a grotesque insult to the millions who died in the Ukrainian famine. The fact that it comes from Jeremy Corbyn’s official spokesman is simply disgraceful — and tells you all you need to know about the Labour leadership’s moral compass, or lack thereof.

But no one who reads Ms Applebaum’s book, which is based on extensive work in Russian and Ukrainian archives, can have any doubt about the hideous death toll in 1932 and 1933, or about the responsibility of Stalin and his Communist allies.

The only place her book can expect a frosty welcome is Moscow, where Mr Putin has accused the West of ‘excessive demonisation of Stalin’, which he sees as a ‘means of attacking Russia’.

Indeed, a poll of 1,600 Russians only three months ago found that fully 38 per cent considered Stalin the greatest Russian of all time, followed by Mr Putin on 34 per cent. That tells its own story.

As for the Ukrainians, they have come to see the Holodmor as the central moment in their modern political and cultural history — a symbol of their suffering at Russian hands, but also a spur to their national self-determination.

In that sense, Mr Putin, who fancies himself as Stalin’s heir and still sees Ukraine merely as Little Russia, is surely doomed to fail.

But none of this can make up for the lives lost, the starving children, the grieving parents, the mass graves, the deserted villages.

‘We cannot lie peacefully in our graves,’ the Ukrainian poet and political dissident Mykola Rudenko once wrote, looking back on the Holodmor many years later. ‘We, the dead, are unable to rest.’

We cannot bring back Stalin’s victims. But in remembering them, perhaps we can help them rest.

n RED Famine: Stalin’s War On The Ukraine, by Anne Applebaum, is published by Allen Lane at £25.

Life as a dictator

Stalin’s extreme paranoia caused him to distrust many around him. He ordered the murders of 93 of the 139 members of the Central Committee, and 81 of the 103 top military men. Propaganda was rampant, and citizens were encouraged to keep an eye on their neighbors.

Over 3,000 Russians were accused of disloyalty and were sent to labor camps in Siberia, with over 750,000 eventual deaths, BBC News reported.

Stalin had cities and roads renamed in his honor, rewrote Russia’s history of the 1917 revolution to favor himself, and had his likeness softened on propaganda posters to reduce his Georgian facial characteristics.

Stalin changed the laws dealing with treason, making arrests and executions much easier.

Prior to the revolution of 1917, Stalin played an active role in fighting the Russian government. Here he is shown on a 1911 information card from the files of the Russian police in Saint Petersburg.

Stalin had all the members of Lenin’s cabinet put to death. He had photographs of himself and party leaders that had been executed altered so no association could be inferred.

Stalin instituted Atheism as a national “religion”, had churches and synagogues destroyed, and ordered the execution of over 100,000 members of the clergy.

A group of participants in the 8th Congress of the Russian Communist Party, 1919. In the middle are Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, and Mikhail Kalinin.

When he died, Stalin shared Lenin’s Mausoleum until his successor, Nikita Khrushchev, had him removed and buried behind the Kremlin.

Access options

The authors are most grateful to Oleg Khlevnyuk for his assistance in research for this article.

1. Jasny , Naum , The Socialized Agriculture of the USSR: Plans and Performance ( Stanford : Stanford University Press , 1949 ), 757 .Google Scholar

2. See Baykov , Alexander , The Development of the Soviet Economic System ( New York : Macmillan , 1947 Google Scholar Dobb , Maurice , Soviet Economic Development since 1917 ( London : Routledge and Kegan Paul , 1948 Google Scholar Volin , Lazar , A Century of Russian Agriculture: From Alexander II to Khrushchev ( Cambridge : Harvard University Press , 1970 CrossRefGoogle Scholar Nove , Alec , An Economic History of the U.S.S.R. ( Harmondsworth : Allen Lane , 1969 .Google Scholar

3. Haslam , Jonatham , Soviet Foreign Policy, 1930–33: The Impact of the Depression ( New York : St. Martin's Press , 1983 ), 84 .CrossRefGoogle Scholar

4. Duranty , Walter , Duranty Reports Russia ( New York : The Viking Press , 1934 ), 342 .Google Scholar

5. RTsKhlDNI (Rossiskii tsentr khraneniya dokumentov noveishei istorii), f. 17, op. 162, d. 14, 11.34–5 this figure, for the agricultural year 1932/33, includes the OGPU armies. In this paper our discussion takes place in terms of the agricultural year, which ran from harvest to harvest, July-30 June.

6. Slavic Review 53, no.l (Spring 1994): 318.

7. TLS, 11 February 1994. In The New York Review of Books, 23 September 1993, he drew attention more briefly to “the figures on the millions of tons of available grain reserves” which demonstrated that “the famine of 1933 was deliberately carried out by terror. “

8. See S.G. Wheatcroft, “Grain Production and Utilisation in Russia and the USSR before Collectivisation,” Ph.D. thesis (CREES, University of Birmingham, 1980), 561–65.

9. See the grain-fodder balances in RGAE (Rossiskii gosudarstvennoi arkhiv ekonomiki), f. 1562, op. 3, d. 178, 11.49, 51, 53 and f. 1562, op. 3. d. 239, 1.8.

10. Statisticheskoe obozrenie, no. 12 (1929): 55–61 (A.Mikhailovskii).

11. KPSS v rezolyutsiiakh i resheniiakh s “ezdov, konferentsii i plenumov TsK, 7th ed, 2 (Moscow: Gospolitizat, 1953), 337.

12. Spravochnik po khlebnomu delu (2nd ed, 1932), 122.

13. Statisticheskoe obozrenie, no.12 (1929), 57 (Mikhailovskii). This figure did not, of course, include the “transitional stocks. “

14. RTsKhlDNI, f. 17, op. 162, protocol no. 86, item 6. The resolution added that the council of labor and defence should report to the Politburo on the size of the additional mobfond (mobilization fund) of food grains.

Stalin’s Holodomor in Kazakhstan, or a very brief guide to “The Goloshchekin genocide”

A mother and child, victims of the terror famine in Kazakhstan. Freezing and starving.

In 1876, in the Russian town of Nevel, a little Bolshevik figure by the name of Philip Isaevich Goloshchekin was born. The young Goloshchekin discovered Marxist radicalism quickly and joined the burgeoning Russian Social Democratic Labour Party party in 1903 to which he sided with Lenin.[1] He quickly rose through the Bolshevik ranks so that, by 1918, it was he that helped organise the execution of the imprisoned Tsar and his family in Ekaterinburg.[2] Despite this however, Goloshchekin remains a shady and little explored person, indeed as I type he does not currently even own his own English language Wikipedia page. Nonetheless, he was a very important figure in one of Stalin’s great crimes which consisted of the use of famine and national oppression but arguably is even less known than the Holodomor. To illustrate the point, the name of this crime against humanity, when it is even discussed at all, is sometimes directly called after him, the “Goloshchekin genocide,”[3] because it was he that ensured that Stalin’s policies in Kazakhstan were ruthlessly enforced.

Kazakhstan on the face of it is almost like a direct opposite to Ukraine. The Ukrainian lands are known for their fertile soils and Ukraine is often considered a “breadbasket state.” Ukraine has a lengthy history of permanent settlement across the countryside during the time when Ukraine was part of the Russian empire and the USSR, it was Ukrainians that formed the ethnic majority. Kazakhstan on the other hand, despite it being much larger than Ukraine, is mostly either desert or semi-desert with the only strip of fertile land being to the north.

Because it is located within the depths of the Eurasian continent, the Kazakh climate endures wilder temperature extremes, with the winters being colder and the summers hotter than in Ukraine. In order to survive these conditions, traditional Kazakh tribes had to keep moving with their livestock to find adequate pasturage in accordance with the seasons.

Kazakhs on the move in the early 1930s, in an attempt to escape hunger

The few settlements that there were, such as Almaty were based around the few available reliable bodies of water. Almaty is located within the basin of Lake Balkhash near the Kazakh-China border. Others, such as the current capital Astana, grew out of Russian imperial outposts during the Tsarist expansions.

Getting a culture that developed in such conditions to conform to the rigidity of collectivization was obviously going to take Stalin and his acolytes like Goloshchekin far more effort than usual. The climatic divide between North and South provided that the northern areas that could produce food were to be given special treatment, whilst the desolate south could be used to forcibly settle “Kulaks” – families that resisted collectivization, both from Kazakhstan and other parts of the USSR that Stalin took to collectivizing .During the 1930s approximately 64,000 Ukrainian “Kulak families” ended up here.

The initial collectivization drive in Kazakhstan, launched in 1929, was fraught with impossibly high demands from the outset. As in Ukraine, unrealistic requisition targets for grain were set by Stalin with demands that they be fulfilled to the letter. For example, in one letter Stalin sent to Goloshchekin on 31 January 1931, he insisted on “unconditional fulfilment” of the quotas and demanded that Goloshchekin take “all necessary measures” to ensure that they were.

Letter Stalin sent to Goloshchekin on January 31 1931. “According to the documents of the People’s commisariat of provisioning it has become clear that your message about decreasing the amounts of grain collection are untrue. It turns out that you have been guided by some street rumors. It turns out that you have unintentionally mislead the CC. The CC insists on the unconditional fulfillment of the decreased quota of 8 million poods and demands that you take all necessary measures to this effect.” CC Secretary Stalin

Stalin’s insistence on fulfilment no matter what the targets were was a cue for a barrage of secret police to ensure that all grain or livestosk that could be handed over was handed over to the state! From the evidence that we have, it seems that some Kazakhs did not take this lightly at all. Being forced to stay in one spot and to endure endless searches generated resistance from the outset:

“These policies were initially greeted with a wave of resistance in 1929 on the part of the Kazakh pastoral population that varied according to region and lasted until 1931. Insurrectionist movements (and even guerrilla activities in the Mangyshlak region) evolved into episodic rioting involving several thousand people as organized protests flared across Kazakhstan during the early years of collectivization, but these movements gradually subsided as the famine became more severe.”[4]

Not every Kazakh was a participant in these riots, but to Stalin this didn’t matter, because it gave him the pretext he wanted to fully crush the Kazakh peoples. In one encrypted telegram i’ve already quoted in the article “On Holodomor denial and fisking a denialist professor of history,” sent to the Communist leadership of Kazakhstan on 21 November 1932, he would accuse the Kazakh peoples, including even local Kazakh communists, of sabotaging his plans. In the process, he used the same set of lies that he used as a pretext to crush Ukraine. “It must be understood that under such conditions,” Stalin wrote, “the Soviet of People’s Commissars and the regional [Communist] party committee could not take any path but that of repressions, although, obviously, repressions alone will not suffice, and parallel to repressions we need a wide and systematic propaganda campaign.”

Stalin’s bloodthirsty encrypted telegram to the Communist leadership of Kazakhstan. November 21 1932

The results were as predictable as they were tragic. Religious and tribal authorities were persecuted. A dekulakization campaign was stepped up to squeeze all the food possible out of the Kazakh peoples, and because the Soviet state took more food than what could be produced, famine broke out and people got very desperate very quickly. One account reproduced here tells of daughters sold at young ages for sacks of grain.

A mother and child. Freezing and starving

Tatiana Nevadovskaya, a young Russian woman trying to help a starving Kazakh

A valuable account of that time is one of a young Russian woman, Tatiana Nevadovskaya, that tried to help a starving Kazakh. In Nevadovskaya’s own words [sic]:

“Early spring 1933, I went with someone from the staff. Had a camera with me … on the highway near our house was sitting a exhausted, famished Kazakh. He dragged himself with difficulty from the field work, exhausted, groaning, and asked to eat and drink. I handed the camera to my companion and hurried to fetch water (su…) – he drank greedily. I did not notice when my friend took a picture of me (that’s the photo). I hurried back home to bring him a piece of bread and sugar. When I approached him with the bread … he was already dead.”

Nevadovskaya was a valuable eyewitness to the catastrophe. Her memories of the early 1930s haunted her for the rest of her life.

In another account, a secret communication produced by the OGPU on 31 March 1933, we hear of a woman arrested in what is now the city of Taraz between 11-16 February 1933 because she had resorted to cannibalism – cooking the corpse of a 6-7 years old child for food.

Excerpt from the OGPU document which mentions the case of Cannibalism in Taraz

According to one estimate, this famine took the lives of approximately 1.45 million people[5], which given the sparsity of the Kazakh people at the time amounted to approximately 1/3 of the Kazakhs. In fact, this famine struck down such a great swathe of Kazakh society that it even made the ethnic Kazakhs an ethnic minority in their own lands until the 1980s. Given the “pretexts”, the modus operandi of the Soviet state in Kazakhstan and the disproportionate level of suffering, it’s not hard to see why the situation in Kazakhstan in the early 30s is compared to the situation in Ukraine in the early 30s. However, except for odd mentions here and there, there is now a great difference between Ukraine & Kazakhstan when it comes to discussion of these two great tragedies. In Ukraine, it is now completely possible to talk about Holodomor. In the light of the current crisis between Ukraine and Russia, it has now arguably become centre-stage when it comes to discussing Ukrainian history itself. In Kazakhstan, discussions seem to take the form of hushed tones when it comes to the “Goloshchekin genocide.” The question is, why?

This stone commemorating the victims of the Goloshchekin genocide was erected in 1992. It had been originally planned for it to be a part of a larger memorial, however that project has since been abandoned due to Nazarbayev’s political expedience

The answer to that question can be found in the form of the current Kazakh president, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Nazarbayev is a Yanukovych-esque dictator who has presided over his people since the dissolution of the USSR. His regime is known for its crackdown of civil liberties and political freedoms. Naturally, he is an ally of Putin and the economy of Kazakhstan is now heavily dependent on its exports of oil and minerals to Russia and imports of Russian goods, and the arms industries of both nations are heavily interlinked, so much so that it is sometimes said that these two nations enjoy a “special relationship” with each other. The influence that Moscow has over Astana would have been clearly seen when, on 29 May 2014, it was Nazarbayev (along with Belarusian dictator Lukashenko) who signed Putin’s dream of a “Eurasian customs union.” The influence of the relationship between the two authoritarians on Kazakh historiography has been quite profound. Nazarbayev has taken the same line on the Goloshchekin genocide as Yanukovych took on the Holodomor. Nazarbayev does not recognise the “Goloshchekin genocide” as genocide. As a result, there is little in the way of active memorial service in Kazakhstan to its victims and talk of it is often dismissed as “politicisation.”[6] This line of historiography has done a great deal of damage to public knowledge and perhaps it is little wonder then why even fewer people know what Goloshchekin did in Kazakhstan than what Stalin’s acolytes did in Ukraine.


  1. Cenon


  2. Eadger

    I mean, you allow the mistake. I offer to discuss it.

  3. Gagrel

    It agree, a useful phrase

  4. Faegan

    the sympathetic message

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