In December, 1929, Joseph Stalin announced a change of policy from "limitation of the kulaks to the liquidation of the kulaks as a class"--Orwellian "newspeak" for the start of a program of forced collectivization that ended the individual peasant landholding tolerated since 1921 when peasant resistance blocked socialization.
By Robert Conquest's estimate, collectivization of Soviet agriculture cost the lives of 14.5 million peasant men, women and children--"enormous figures, comparable to the deaths in the major wars of our time." The blow fell with terrible severity upon the Ukraine, which contributed 5 million famine victims to the death toll--one of every four of the peasant population--and upon Kazakhstan, where "The regime . . . undertook to turn a nomadic culture with centuries-old roots into a settled (and collectivized) agricultural society in a few years, against the deep-seated wishes of the population." The result was "death and suffering proportionately even greater than in the Ukraine."
The book's central thesis is that Stalin's "revolution from above" aimed to crush "two elements . . . hostile to the regime: the peasantry of the U.S.S.R. as a whole, and the Ukrainian nation." Conquest traces the historical roots of Soviet policies toward the peasantry and toward Ukrainian nationalism, and then explains how the two were combined during agricultural collectivization in the Ukraine.
Socialist dogma inspired the collectivization which transformed the lives of all the peasantry, creating severe economic dislocation and suffering everywhere. Communist planners had little respect for economic laws. When their faulty price policies and grain requisitions brought shortages, they blamed hoarding by the "kulaks" (rich peasants) and forged ahead with the collectivization program against resistance by the mass of the peasantry, not by a minority of the well-to-do. The resistance brought further reductions of grain production and slaughter of livestock by peasants determined to prevent its transfer to collective ownership. Rather than a land of plenty, the Soviet Union had become a land of famine and suffering.
The special feature of the policy in the Ukraine was its link to other policies designed to crush the resistance of an entire nation--not only the peasantry, but the intelligentsia, the church, and even its Communist Party leadership--all accused of the crime of Ukrainian nationalism.
Conquest describes the early failure of the Bolsheviks to adapt to Ukrainian national feeling, noting that three tries were needed before a communist regime was successfully built, and that even during the '20s, when the Ukraine enjoyed "a considerable measure of cultural and linguistic freedom, and governments (were) concerned not to enforce Moscow's political will too crudely . . . " Stalin shared the conviction of "an important segment of the Party (which) continued to regard Ukrainian national feeling as a divisive element in the U.S.S.R. and the urge to independence as inadequately extinguished."
Such attitudes explain the severity of the measures taken in the Ukraine when collectivization brought famine. Grain requisitioning by the most brutal means continued until the famine was under way, and then the peasants were denied relief even from available grain reserves. Hence Conquest uses the term "terror-famine" to describe the policy: "Stalin seems to have realized that only a mass terror throughout the body of the nation--that is, the peasantry--could really reduce the country to submission."
Terror began with the punitive grain collection quotas of July, 1932, which the Ukrainian party leaders had resisted but upon which Stalin insisted: "A decree went out which, if enforced, could only lead to the starvation of the Ukrainian peasantry." The cruel measures used to enforce the decree and the awful suffering that resulted are amply and specifically described and documented by Conquest in a fashion that recalls Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Archipelago." The tragedy of the peasant children of the Ukraine is particularly moving.
For many specialists in Russian history--and for the informed general reader as well--the most difficult to accept of Conquest's many unsettling conclusions will probably be that Stalin used "terror-famine" consciously and purposefully as an instrument of his Ukrainian policy. The chapter on "Responsibilities" anticipates questions with careful documentation and analysis of precisely this point.
Conquest makes a convincing case that Stalin was warned of the certain consequences of his requisitions policy (and had the earlier experience of 1918-21 to call on), that he was fully informed of the progress of the famine, that there was no such famine in the Russian central agricultural region and that the Russian-Ukrainian border was guarded to prevent transport of grain to the Ukraine or Ukrainians from crossing to find grain. In sum, the famine was used to break Ukrainian resistance.