Execution by Hunger

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

In 1929, the Soviet government, after eight years of tolerating private farming, ordered the total collectivization of agriculture. There was considerable resistance to this policy; such resistance appears to have been most intense in the Ukraine. What followed the enforcement of collectivization, at least in the Ukraine, was the deaths of millions of peasants from starvation. Unlike most famines in history, this one was caused not by nature, but by man.

Joseph Stalin’s successors have consistently denied that there ever was a major famine in the Ukraine in the early 1930’s or, if there was one, that the Stalin regime bore any responsibility whatsoever for its occurrence. Although the loss of life caused by German dictator Adolf Hitler’s persecution of the European Jews is well-known, the many victims of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s tyranny have not left a similar mark on mankind’s collective consciousness.

Why have Stalin’s crimes not become as widely known as those of Hitler? The fact that the man-made famine in the Ukraine occurred at about the same time as Hitler’s rise to power is one reason for the world’s lack of awareness of the former; the preoccupation of Western governments with the Great Depression is another. The principal reason for the slowness in becoming aware of the famine, however, is the continuity of the Soviet state. The Soviet Union was not defeated in war, so no trials such as those at Nuremberg could be conducted to punish those who had carried out Stalin’s inhuman policies; in addition, there was, at first, no way to broadcast the record of his tyrannical acts to the world. In the 1930’s, most of the few Western correspondents allowed in Russia failed, sometimes deliberately, to report any evidence of famine; the few individuals who did report it were ridiculed widely as sensation mongers.

In the four decades since the end of World War II, as defectors and other refugees left the Soviet Union, Westerners gained access to eyewitness testimony to the severe famine in the Ukraine in the early 1930’s and to the responsibility borne by the Stalin regime. The first important piece of such evidence came from onetime Soviet trade official Victor Kravchenko, who, after his defection to the United States, recounted in his memoirs, I Chose Freedom (1946), his experiences as a young Communist Party propagandist in the Ukrainian countryside in the 1930’s. In the early 1950’s, exiled Ukrainian nationalists gathered testimony from refugees about the famine in a book entitled The Black Deeds of the Kremlin (1953-1955). A more dispassionate group, the American investigators working for the Harvard University Refugee Interview project in the early 1950’s, also received much eyewitness testimony about the Ukrainian famine.

Thus Miron Dolot’s work adds a mounting pile of evidence concerning the horrors inflicted on the Ukrainian peasantry in the early years of the Stalin era. Miron Dolot is the pen name of a Ukrainian refugee who now teaches Slavic languages in California. He makes a valiant effort to reconstruct for the modern reader the momentous and horrifying events of 1929-1933 as he experienced them.

Dolot does not give the reader any information about the debates within the Communist high circles in Moscow that led to the decision to collectivize; instead, he plunges right into the time, the winter of 1929-1930, when the collectivization process reached his own village. At first, the central government, acting through urban-bred and Russian-speaking Party representatives (the so-called Thousanders), attempted to browbeat the peasants of Dolot’s village into voluntarily forming a collective farm. Ultimately, all resistance to collectivization was mercilessly suppressed; those peasants who refused to join the collectives found themselves treated as criminals and as enemies of the people, and they were sentenced to forced-labor camps, where many of them died from inhuman treatment.

Even those who did join the collective farms, however, were not safe. The representatives of the Party and of the State made ever more rapacious demands on the villagers for grain to fulfill ever higher delivery quotas. This pressure on the peasants culminated in house-to-house searches of peasant homes for hidden stores of grain.

Dolot has many stories to tell about the abominable behavior of the men who carried out Stalin’s policies in the village. These men include the first Thousander, Comrade Zeitlin; his successors, Comrades Cherepin and Livshitz; and the brutal chairman of the village Bread Procurement Commission, Ivan Khizniak. Dolot’s accounts show on the local level how cruel, arbitrary, and unfair were both the...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Booklist. LXXXI, February 1, 1985, p. 742.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXVII, November 25, 1985, p. 34.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, February 1, 1985, p. 125.

Library Journal. CX, March 1, 1985, p. 84.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVII, January 25, 1985, p. 80.