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June 16, 1985|JACK MILES | Times Book Editor

Last January, the Book Review received a review copy of "Afghan Refugees: Five Years Later," a 24-page booklet available free from the U.S. Committee for Refugees, 815 15th Street NW, Suite 610, Washington, DC 20005. Though the booklet was too short for review, I thought it worthy of mention: Information on Afghanistan was scarce enough that 24 pages seemed much.

When I read the booklet, I found something more than I had expected. "Over the past five years," wrote Allen K. Jones, its author, "the Soviets, along with forces of the current Afghan government, have been somewhat successful in gaining control of the cities and the roads linking them, but the resistance holds sway in the countryside. This balance could shift dramatically in favor of the Soviets, however, as they intensify their tactics of killing off the civilian support population, terrorizing and driving off the survivors, and creating famine conditions."

Creating famine conditions. These last words caught my eye, for another, longer book, dealing with another Soviet famine, lay stalled on my shelf. I decided to read it.

"Execution by Hunger, the Hidden Holocaust" (Norton: $16.95; 231 pp.) is the first book-length, eyewitness account of the 1932-33 planned famine in Ukraine. The author, Miron Dolot, was 15 at the time. He describes the event as he lived through it.

Briefly, the Soviets induced a famine by confiscating the entire Ukrainian crop after the 1932 harvest--everything, down to the seed grain--and then sealing the border. Across the border, in the rest of the Soviet Union, there was no famine. But Ukrainians who tried to cross into Russia--that is, into the adjacent Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic--were stopped at the border. Those who made it across were forcibly repatriated.

In Ukraine itself, confiscation of the crop was not the only measure taken. A "Bread Procurement Commission" conducted house-to-house searches-- repeated house-to-house searches--for hoarded grain or other provisions, digging up floors, demolishing ovens and fireplaces, flushing out and seizing any farm animals or fowl that remained in private hands. Their logic was that if the crop had been confiscated and yet the people were still alive, then they must be hiding food somewhere. When the people turned to eating cats and dogs, it was declared that the state had urgent need of dog and cat skins; and the GPU--forerunner of the KGB--went on hunting expeditions.

How many died in this border-to-border death camp? The count can be made only indirectly, and different ways of doing it yield different results. The lowest estimate is 4.8 million, the highest 10 million. The book jacket speaks of 7 million.

Why did the Soviets do it? A full explanation must wait on the first full-dress scholarly treatment of the famine, a book to be published in England next year (at Hutchinson) by Robert Conquest and James Mace, under the auspices of the Ukrainian Research Institute of Harvard University. Another Harvard scholar, Adam Ulam, contributes an introduction to "Execution by Hunger" in which he surveys the factors that must figure in any explanation, among them the Soviets' need to generate capital, their need to provision a vast internal police force, and Stalin's will to crush Ukrainian resistance to his collectivization of agriculture. These factors were operative elsewhere in the non-Russian Soviet Union, however. Only in Ukraine was the violence of the famine-weapon found necessary.

Why? Because only Ukraine (Dolot and other Ukrainians writing on this topic never say, as if their homeland were merely a region, " the Ukraine") was both large enough and nationalistic enough to challenge Russia itself. Once called, demeaningly, "Little Russia," as distinct from the "Great Russia" that grew outward from Moscow, Ukraine was and is a nation comparable to France in both area and population. Today, it constitutes 20% of the Soviet population and, thanks to fertile soil and a climate tempered by the Black Sea, grows 25% of the Soviet agricultural product.

After the fall of the czar, Ukraine declared its independence and was reconquered by the Red Army only with difficulty. In the 1920s, Soviet rule was tolerant; but with the rise of Stalin, russification and collectivization began with a vengeance. Ukrainian resistance grew apace, and the result was a struggle that Stalin told Churchill was more difficult for him than World War II. The climax of this struggle, Russia's climactic victory over Ukraine, and the definitive federation of the two most important nations in the Soviet Union came with the famine of 1932-1933. With the intelligentsia dead or deported to Siberia and the rest of the population prostrate, Ukrainian resistance was at an end by spring, 1933. Stalin had won.

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