The Harvest of Sorrow

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Two twentieth century events have embedded themselves deeply in modern memory: the trench warfare of World War I and the massacre of the Jews during World War II. Robert Conquest wants to add a third: the staggering loss of life in the Soviet Union during the 1930’s caused by the collectivization of agriculture and the purge of the Russian Communist Party. Already well-known for his history of the purges, The Great Terror (1968), Conquest has now written The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine, an account of the collectivization of agriculture and the terrible famine that it caused. What Elie Wiesel is to Nazi Germany, Robert Conquest is to Soviet Russia.

Conquest would not find the comparison with Wiesel inappropriate. In the first sentence of his book, he compares the area of the Russian famine in the early 1930’s to a Nazi concentration camp. He makes such a comparison because he is convinced that the famine was not a natural disaster, nor even the result of human miscalculation; rather he believes that it was a “terror-famine,” a famine deliberately inflicted upon the Russian peasants to break their potential resistance to the Communist regime in Soviet Russia. Conquest calculates the total number of dead from the collectivization of agriculture and the famine at fourteen and a half million people, more than the combined death toll of all belligerents in World War I and more than double the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust. He bases this estimate on census figures, especially the census of 1937 which the Soviet government suppressed because of its appalling implications but whose total figure is referred to in scattered Soviet demographic studies during the Khrushchev era. Conquest emphasizes that his estimates are conservative and that the figures could very likely be much higher.

Despite the staggering scale of this enormous suffering, Conquest’s book has the tone of an exposé of a little-known crime. Here one confronts the crux of his problem: Although it would be an exaggeration to say that the catastrophe of collectivization and famine was little known, it certainly has not commanded the attention which has produced the mountain of literature on trench warfare or on the Holocaust. This is the case for a number of reasons. First, the Soviet Union denied that there was a famine. Conquest calls this denial a use of Adolf Hitler’s “big lie” technique. Despite an abundance of contemporary evidence and reports of famine, the official denial confused the issue and provided an opportunity for those who, consciously or subconsciously, did not want to know the truth to dismiss the reports as anti-Soviet propaganda. Although there can be little dispute that a great catastrophe occurred, the fear of anti-Soviet hysteria is still very real. There is a reluctance to emphasize the horrors of Soviet history because to do so might reinforce simplistic views of an “evil empire” and unloose a new wave of McCarthyism. Conquest’s insistence that the failure of the current Soviet regime to conduct a thorough investigation of famine makes it heir and accomplice to the crime will not assuage such fears.

Finally—and this is the point Conquest emphasizes the most in explaining Western resistance to facing up to the implications of Soviet policy in the 1930’s—the victims of this policy have not gained much sympathy. They were peasants, backward, ignorant, and superstitious. Many Westerners, fervent believers in progress, have consoled themselves with the thought that if the demise of the peasants in the Soviet Union took a form more rapid and terrible than would have been desirable, that demise was no less inevitable and necessary for the modernization of the Soviet Union.

Moreover, a large number of these peasant victims were Ukrainian. The Ukrainian claim to nationhood has never gained much support in the West. The culture and history of the Ukraine have not found a place in Western consciousness. The view of Ukrainians has generally been one of potential Nazi collaborators in World War II or fanatic anti-Communist émigrés in the United States. What will make Conquest’s book controversial is not so much his statistics on the death toll as his insistence that the deaths were not the unfortunate by-product of necessary economic change but, rather, the result of a deliberate, genocidal war against a class and a nation. The fact that Conquest is associated with the conservative Hoover Institute at Stanford University and that he draws heavily on sources with such titles as Communism: The Enemy of Mankind (1955) and The Black Deeds of the Kremlin (1953) will cause some to adopt the comfortable position that his book is merely a Cold-War polemic which need not disturb them.

This, however, would be a mistake because Conquest has carefully researched his subject and utilized a variety of sources. Surprisingly, he was able to use a large number of Soviet sources. During the thaw of the Khrushchev era, especially in the early 1960’s, a number of Soviet studies revealed new evidence about collectivization and famine, confirming that an enormous catastrophe had occurred. In addition, Conquest has found remarkably frank contemporary accounts in regional newspapers in the Soviet Union. Besides these more or less official Soviet sources, Conquest has also drawn on evidence provided by Soviet dissidents, both within the Soviet Union and without. Another important source from which Conquest draws is eyewitness accounts by émigrés from the Soviet Union. Especially important here are accounts collected and published by Ukrainian scholars and accounts deposited in the Harvard Research Interview Project. Finally, he has discovered vivid accounts of the suffering brought by collectivization in Soviet novels, which he utilizes with great effect.

These sources enable Conquest to go far beyond the abstractions of demographic statistics and generalizations. He describes collectivization and famine in vivid and horrible detail. There is an especially distressing chapter on how the famine affected children. Conquest notes in his preface that writing...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Booklist. LXXXIII, September 15, 1986, p. 98.

Kirkus Reviews. LIV, June 15, 1986, p. 903.

Library Journal. CXI, August, 1986, p. 145.

National Review. XXXVIII, September 12, 1986, p. 50.

The New Republic. CXCV, November 3, 1986, p. 34.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, October 26, 1986, p. 11.

Newsweek. CVIII, November 17, 1986, p. 95.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXX, August 1, 1986, p. 65.

The Observer. September 14, 1986, p. 26.

Time. CXXVIII, December 8, 1986, p. 91.