Robert Conquest, The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (University of Alberta Press, 1986).


Fifty years ago as I write these words, the Ukraine and the Ukrainian, Cossack and other areas to its east -- a great stretch of territory with some forty million inhabitants -- was like one vast Belsen. A quarter of the rural population, men, women and children, lay dead or dying, the rest in various stages of debilitation with no strength to bury their families or neighbours. At the same time, (as at Belsen), well-fed squads of police or party officials supervised the victims.

This was the climax of the 'revolution from above', as Stalin put it, in which he and his associates crushed two elements seen as irremediably hostile to the regime: the peasantry of the USSR as a whole, and the Ukrainian nation.

In terms of regimes and policies fifty years is a long time. In terms of individual lives, not so long. I have met men and women who went through the experiences you will read of as children or even as young adults. Among them were people with 'survivors' guilt' -- that irrational shame that they should be the ones to live on when their friends, parents, brothers and sisters died, which is also to be found among the survivors of the Nazi camps.At a different level, what occurred was all part of the normal political experience of the senior members of today's ruling group in the Kremlin. And the system then established in the countryside is part of the Soviet order as it exists today. Nor have the methods employed to create it been repudiated, except as to inessentials.


The events with which we deal may be summed up as follows: In 1929-1932 the Soviet Communist Party under Stalin's leadership, for reasons that will emerge in the course of our narrative, struck a double blow at the peasantry of the USSR as a whole: dekulakization and collectivization. Dekulakization meant the killing, or deportation to the Arctic with their families, of millions of peasants, in principle the better-off, in practice the most influential and the most recalcitrant to the Party's plans. Collectivization meant the effective abolition of private property in land, and the concentration of the remaining peasantry in 'collective' farms under Party control. These two measures resulted in millions of deaths -- among the deportees in particular, but also among the undeported in certain areas such as Kazakhstan.

Then in 1932-3 came what may be described as a terror-famine inflicted on the collectivized peasants of the Ukraine and the largely Ukrainian Kuban (together with the Don and Volga areas) by the methods of setting for them grain quotas far above the possible, removing every handful of food, and preventing help from outside -- even from other areas of the USSR -- from reaching the starving. This action, even more destructive of life than those of 1929-1932, was accompanied by a wide-ranging attack on all Ukrainian cultural and intellectual centres and leaders, and on the Ukrainian churches. The supposed contumaciousness of the Ukrainian peasants in not surrendering grain they did not have was explicitly blamed on nationalism: all of which was in accord with Stalin's dictum that the national problem was in essence a peasant problem. The Ukrainian peasant thus suffered in double guise -- as a peasant and as a Ukrainian.

Thus there are two distinct, or partly distinct, elements before us: the Party's struggle with the peasantry, and the Party's struggle with Ukrainian national feeling. And before telling of the climaxes of this history, we must examine the backgrounds of both. This we do in the first part of this book.

The centre of our narrative is nevertheless in the events of 1929 to 1933. In this period, of about the same length as that of the First World War, a struggle on the same scale took place in the Soviet countryside. Though confined to a single state, the number dying in Stalin's war against the peasants was higher than the total deaths for all countries in World War I. There were differences: in the Soviet case, for practical purposes, only one side was armed, and the casualties (as might be expected) were almost all on the other side. They included, moreover, women, children and the old.

There are hundreds of histories and other works on the First World War. It would not be true to say that there are no books on the collectivization and the terror-famine. Much has in fact been published, but it has almost all been either documentary or of a specialist nature (and I have been greatly indebted to both). But no history in the ordinary sense of the word has previously appeared.

The purpose of this book is thus a strange one. It is to register in the public consciousness of the West a knowledge of and feeling for major events, involving millions of people and millions of deaths, which took place within living memory.

But how is it possible that these events are not already fully registered in our public consciousness?

There are, I think, three main reasons.

First, they seem far removed from Western experience. The very word 'peasant' is strange to an American or a Briton, referring to a condition in distant lands, or in times long past. And indeed, the story of the Russian or Ukrainian peasant is very different from that of the British or American farmer.

The Ukraine, too, does not declare itself as a nation in the Western consciousness as Poland or Hungary or even Lithuania do. In modern times it had a precarious and interrupted independence for only a few years. It has appeared on our maps for two centuries as merely part of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union. Its language is comparatively close to Russian -- as Dutch is to German, or Norwegian to Swedish -- not in itself a touchstone of political feeling, yet tending to appear so in the absence of other knowledge.

Finally, one of the most important obstacles to an understanding was the ability of Stalin and the Soviet authorities to conceal or confuse the facts. Moreover, they were abetted by many Westerners who for one reason or another wished to deceive or be deceived. And even when the facts, or some of them, percolated in a general way into the Western mind, there were Soviet formulae which tended to justify or at least excuse them. In particular, the image was projected of the exploiting 'kulak' -- rich, powerful and unpopular, purged (even if a trifle inhumanely) as an enemy of the Party, of progress, and of the peasant masses. In fact this figure, to the extent that he had existed at all, had disappeared by 1918, and the word was used of a farmer with two or three cows, or even of a poorer farmer friendly to the first. And by the time of the terror-famine, even these were no longer to be found in the villages.


These actions by the Soviet government were interlinked. On the face of it, there was no necessary connection. Logically, dekulakization could have taken place without collectivization (and something of the sort had indeed happened in 1918). Collectivization could have taken place without dekulakization -- and some Communists had urged just that. And the famine need not have followed.

The reasons why the regime inflicted each and all of the components of this triple blow will emerge in our text.


A further element in the story is that there are social and economic implications, and matters of intra-party doctrinal dispute.

The economic side, though covered as sparingly and digestibly as possible, is indeed dealt with here; though in their essentials the problems, and the struggles, were not economic ones in the normal sense. Fifty years later it would be hard to maintain that economic forces are properly understood even in the West where the study has flourished without constraint. In the Soviet Union in the 1920s understanding was at a far lower level. Moreover, the available information and statistics were erroneous or inadequate to a marked degree. The Party's economic theorists held views which had even then been long superseded in serious academic circles. But, above all, the Party thought of genuine economic trends as obstacles to be overcome by the power of State decrees.

Most useful recent work has appeared in the West by skilled economists who have lately studied the themes fully, and are yet not inclined -- as most of their predecessors were -- to seek an economic rationality, or a reliability of official figures, in areas where neither apply. (There are, indeed, a number of questions on which specialists hold various opinions. In many cases the story can be told in a way general enough to avoid controversial points; in others I advance the alternatives, or take a view and explain why. But this is, in any case, a minor element in the story, and it is not our purpose to chew on economic detail).

The other theme of the period on which much has been written is the factional struggle within the Communist Party, and Stalin's rise to power. This too is covered here, but mainly to the degree that it is relevant to the vaster events in the countryside; and even then not, as has been so often done, taking the various arguments at their ideological face value so much as in the context of the prospects actually facing the Party mind.

For the events we recount here were the result not simply of an urge to power, an insistence on suppressing all autonomous forces in the country, but also of a set of doctrines about the social and economic results achievable by terror and falsehood. The expected results did not emerge: but it may in any case be thought that to make such sacrifices in the name of hitherto untested dogma was a moral as well as a mental perversion. And this is even apart from the unstated or unconscious motivations to be met with here as elsewhere.

That is, not merely at the level of personal advancement, of personal vendetta, of personal gain, but even more profoundly in the sense which Orwell so clearly saw it, the Communists 'pretended, perhaps they even believed that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal', but in reality, 'Power is not a means, it is an end'.

Whatever view be taken of this, (and even accepting the Stalinists' motivations at their face value), it is at least clear that, at more than one level, the sort of rationality sometimes allowed even by critics opposed to the programme was not really much in evidence, or only at a shallow level inappropriate to the complexities of reality.

Stalin looms over the whole human tragedy of 1930-33. Above all, what characterizes the period is the special brand of hypocrisy or evasion which he brought to it. These are not the necessary concomitants of terror. But in this case, deception was the crux of every move. In his campaign against the Right, he never admitted (until the last moment) that he was attacking them, and compromised, if only verbally, when they protested; in the dekulakization, he pretended that there really was a 'class' of rich peasants whom the poorer peasants spontaneously ejected from their homes; in the collectivization, his public line was that it was a voluntary movement, and that any use of force was a deplorable aberration; and when it came to the terror-famine of 1932-3, he simply denied that it existed.


It is a very appropriate moment to establish the true story beyond controversy. For we now have so much evidence, and from such a variety of mutually confirmatory sources, that no serious doubts remain about any aspect of the period.

Our types of evidence maybe summed up. First, a great deal of material directly bearing on these events became available, often in driblets inserted into masses of orthodox sentiment, from Soviet scholars -- though more in the Khrushchev interlude, and especially the early 1960s, than later.1 (Indeed after Khrushchev's fall attacks were made on those scholars who, while keeping within prescribed limits, had endeavoured to show some of the errors, and the terrors, of the Stalin approach to peasants).2

Soviet scholars also in effect rehabilitated and made public the basic figures of the suppressed 1937 census. So we can now compare them with Soviet estimates of the 'natural rate of growth' of the period; and thus, with reasonable accuracy, estimate the huge death roll of 1930-33. (It may be added that even accepting the figures of the falsified census of 1939, this remains devastating).

Then, official evidence contemporary with these events includes some extraordinarily frank material in the Soviet press, in particular that outside Moscow, some of it only recently available. In addition, a number of confidential documents at a local level have reached the West, in the 'Smolensk Archives' now at Harvard, and in other ways.

Then, we have the testimony of former Party activists who took part in the infliction of the regime's policies on the peasantry. These include such distinguished dissidents, now in exile, as General Petro Grigorenko and Dr Lev Kopelev.

Another important source is the accounts of some of the foreign correspondents then in Russia (even though at the time they were considerably hindered in their efforts, and outflanked, by others concerned to placate, or even become accomplices of, the regime -- as we shall examine in Chapter 17). There are the reports of foreign citizens visiting their original homes and of foreign Communists working in the USSR. There are letters written from villagers to co-religionists, relatives, and others in the West.

Above all, there are a great number of first-hand reports by survivors both of the deportations and of the famine. Some of these come in individual books or articles; many more in the devoted work of documentation by Ukrainian scholars who actively sought testimony from witnesses scattered the world over. In addition, a great number of individual accounts are to be found, for example, in the Harvard Research Interview Project. And as the acknowledgements in the Preface inadequately indicate, a great deal of scattered information from all over the world has been made available to me. The most remarkable feature of such testimony, especially from peasants themselves, is the plain and matter-of-fact tone in which terrible events are usually narrated.

It is especially gratifying to be able to confirm and give full credit to this first-hand evidence. For a long time testimony which was both honest and true was doubted or denounced -- by Soviet spokesmen, of course, but also by many in the West who for various reasons were not ready to face the appalling facts. It is a great satisfaction to be able to say that these sturdy witnesses to the truth, so long calumniated or ignored, are now wholly vindicated.

Then there is fiction, or reality appearing in fiction. One of the world's leading scholars in the field of Soviet economics, Professor Alec Nove, has noted that in the USSR 'the best material about the village appears in the literary monthlies'.

Some fiction actually published in the USSR is clearly autobio­graphical and veridical. Mikhail Sholokhov's Virgin Soil Upturned, published in the 1930s, even if somewhat restrained by his Communist point of view, already contains remarkably frank and clear accounts of the events in the villages.

In more recent times, fiction published in the USSR in the Khrushchev period, and another cycle of work by the new 'country writers', appearing before 1982, give very frank accounts.

One modern Soviet author published in 1964 an account of the famine and its reasons: 'In accordance with one order or another, all the grain and all the fodder were taken away. Horses began to die en masse and in 1933 there was a terrible famine. Whole families died, houses fell apart, village streets grew empty . . .'3 In 1972 the same writer could complain: 'one thing is striking: in not a single textbook on contemporary history will you find the merest reference to 1933, the year marked by a terrible tragedy'.4

Unpublished samizdat work is, of course, franker and more overtly condemnatory. We must note above all Forever Flowing by the Stalin Prize-winning novelist Vasily Grossman, whose chapter on the collectivization and the famine is among the most moving writing on the period. Grossman, himself Jewish, was co-editor of the Soviet section of the Black Book on the Nazi holocaust (never published in the USSR), and the author of a terrible documentary work, The Hell of Treblinka.

In general, two things should be noted. First, the sheer amount of evidence is enormous. Almost every particular incident in the villages recounted here could be matched by a dozen, sometimes even a hundred, more.

More important yet, the material is mutually confirmatory. The accounts of the emigre survivors, which might have been thought distorted by anti-Soviet sentiment, are exactly paralleled in the other sources. Indeed, the reader will in many cases probably find it hard to guess whether testimony is Soviet or emigre.

This mutual reinforcement of evidence is clearly of the greatest value; and in general one can say that the course of events is now put beyond question.


This was not the only terror to afflict the subjects of the Soviet regime. The death roll of 1918-22 was devastating enough. The present writer has elsewhere recounted the history of the 'Great Terror' of 1936-8; and the post-war terror was little better. But it remains true that the rural terror of 1930-33 was more deadly yet, and has been less adequately recorded.

The story is a terrible one. Pasternak writes in his unpublished memoirs, 'In the early 1930s, there was a movement among writers to travel to the collective farms and gather material about the new life of the village. I wanted to be with everyone else and likewise made such a trip with the aim of writing a book. What I saw could not be expressed in words. There was such inhuman, unimaginable misery, such a terrible disaster, that it began to seem almost abstract, it would not fit within the bounds of consciousness. I fell ill. For an entire year I could not write'.5 A modern Soviet author who experienced the famine as a boy, similarly remarks, 'I should probably write a whole book about 1933, but I cannot raise enough courage: I would have to relive everything again.'6

For the present writer too, though under far less direct impressions, the task has often been so distressing that he has sometimes hardly felt able to proceed.

It is for the historian to discover and register what actually happened, to put the facts beyond doubt and in their context. This central duty done, it cannot mean that he has taken no view of the matters he describes. The present writer does not pretend to a moral neutrality; and indeed believes that there can be few nowadays who would not share his estimate of the events recorded in the pages which follow.



1. Janusz Radziejowski has written a most useful paper on Soviet sources of the period: Journal of Ukrainian Studies no. 9, 1980, pp. 3-17.

2. Pravda 8 October 1965; Selskaya zhizn 29 December 1965, 25 February 1966; Kommunist no. 11, 1967.

3. Mikhail Alekseev, 'Khleb - imya sushchestvitelnoe,' Zvezda no. 1, 1964, p. 37.

4. M. Alekseev, 'Seyatel i khranitel,' Nash sovremennik no. 9, 1972, p. 96.

5. Quoted by Roy Medvedev in Robert C. Tucker, ed., Stalinism, New York, 1977, p. 212.

6. Alekseev, 'Seyatel i khranitel,' p. 96.