Robert Conquest’s The Harvest Of Sorrow

For a brief moment, in 1917, the Russian peasantry could be optimistic about its future. With the overthrow of the tsar, Russia’s large estates were seized by peasant farmers: “108 million acres were taken from 110,000 landlords,” to the point that “89% of the cropped ploughland was in peasant hands.” The former serfs, converted into tenant farmers upon their emancipation in 1861, now stood to profit directly from their hard labour, for the first time in centuries. It was an arrangement endorsed even by Lenin, who needed the support of the masses to solidify his grip on power after the Bolshevik Revolution. But it was not to last. The doctrines of Marxism, which Lenin understood to be the pathway to a better world, necessitated collectivization, and collectivization meant, in practice, a regression to slave conditions. In The Harvest Of Sorrow, first published before the fall of the Iron Curtain, historian Robert Conquest exposed Western audiences to the murderous policies of the Soviet regime, making the argument – long before his peers – that Stalin was perpetrating a genocide.

Conquest begins by providing us with necessary background information about the relationship between Russia and the Ukraine. Unlike Poland and the nations of the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Baltic, which were regularly conquered by Russia over the years, the Ukraine was frequently viewed as a mere province of Russia, not a nation with a claim to its own sovereignty. “Even most of the liberal intelligentsia of Russia,” Conquest tells us, “totally absorbed in the struggle with absolutism, rejected the Ukraine, and generally opposed even token autonomy for the country.” Popular Ukrainian nationalists were regularly imprisoned or deported; books promoting a distinct Ukrainian identity were banned; an edict was even issued declaring that the Ukrainian language was a mere dialect of Russian. The Ukrainians, needless to say, did not agree, but when Communist doctrine conflicted with the wishes of individuals, the former always won out. Lenin, the architect of the Soviet Union, had written approvingly of nationalist determination when it suited him in attacking the old order, but walked back his prior support when the Bolsheviks took power:

There are cases when the right of self-determination conflicts with another, a higher right – the right of the working class that has come to power to consolidate that power. In such cases – this must be said bluntly – the right of self-determination cannot and must not serve as an obstacle to the working class in exercising its right to dictatorship.

According to Marxist doctrine, the “working class” is a transnational force, united by a common interest, but in practice there were very few Ukrainian communists, and even those that joined the party were loath to participate in the subjugation of their country. By 1917, then, when all pretence of private ownership of land could be dropped, the Bolsheviks found themselves with little ideological purchase in the Russian countryside, and therefore no effective means of collectivizing the land. The “solution” they hit on involved stirring up economic resentment against the minority of productive farmers, whom they portrayed as parasitical leaches profiting off of the sweat and labour of the masses.

Thus the “kulak” was born, the all-purpose enemy of the Soviet farmer, capable of absorbing the resentments of the majority. In the Central Executive Committee meeting of May 1918, Yakov Sverdlov, a Bolshevik administrator, made this tactic explicit:

We must place before ourselves most seriously the problem of dividing the village by classes, of creating in it two opposite hostile camps, setting the poorest layers of the population against the kulak elements. Only if we are able to split the village into two camps, to arouse there the same class war as in the cities, only then will we achieve in the villages what we have achieved in the cities.

The trouble, however, was that there was no significant wealth in the Russian countryside, and therefore no stark class distinctions. Everybody toiled, everybody lived a precarious, subsistence existence, and only the smallest imaginable amenities separated the “wealthy” from “the poor.” Worse, the truly poor – as even the Communists admitted – were “the lazy, the drunks, in general those least respected by the village as a whole.” And yet these were to be the foot soldiers of the Communist collectivization campaign! Agitators from the city were sent out into the villages to stir up resentment. Thugs and looters were unleashed on “kulak” estates, where they looted, raped and murdered with state-sanctioned impunity. Taxes were raised, and raised again, to increasingly ruinous levels. When the last of his property was sold, and his larder was emptied and his children starving, the kulak who could not pay his onerous taxes was sent into exile. Conquest quotes from a Communist activist, candidly describing the people whose ruin he has wrought: “He has a sick wife, five children and not a crumb of bread in the house. And that’s what we call a kulak! The kids are in rags and tatters. They all look like ghosts. I saw the pot on the oven – a few potatoes in water. That was their supper tonight.” Indeed, the kulak took on a racial quality among the Communist faithful, who were warned of all the ways he might try to disguise his “class essence.” A kulak might be stripped of all his belongings and left destitute, and yet he retained an unshakeable guilt in the eyes of the regime.

[…] by a strange logic, a middle peasant could become a kulak by gaining property, but a kulak could not become a middle peasant by losing his. In fact the kulak had no escape. He was ‘essentially’ a class enemy, a sub-human. Yet the naming of the kulak enemy satisfied the Marxist preconceptions of the Party activist. It presented a flesh-and-blood foe accursed by history; and such a target made for a far more satisfactory campaign than mere abstract organizational change. And it provided a means of destroying the leadership of the villagers, which might have greatly strengthened the resistance, strong enough in all conscience, which they offered to collectivization.

For the kulaks, this persecution was often fatal; for the wider Russian peasantry, it was catastrophic. Consider the perverse incentives created by this system of punishment: succeed as a farmer and you will have all of your land and food taken from you. Worse, still, was that by the official definition of a kulak promulgated by the Bolsheviks, kulaks constituted only “3-5% of the peasant households, [but] produced around 20% of the grain.” The result was always predictable: widespread grain shortages.

A decrease in agricultural output would not have been, by itself, sufficient to starve millions of people to their deaths. For that, it took the deliberately malicious policies of Stalin coupled with the ineptitude of an unwieldy bureaucracy. Consider that, under collectivization, the farmers still did all of the back-breaking labour necessary to cultivate a crop, but the harvest was not theirs to sell or consume; it belonged, first and foremost, to the state. “By the end of 1934 nine-tenths of the sown acreage of the USSR was concentrated in 240,000 collective farms which had replaced the twenty million odd family farms existing in 1929.” Stalin’s priorities with the harvest were not to feed the starving peasants, on whose labour he depended, but to rapidly industrialize the nation, and so the vast majority of the grain went to paying off foreign loans or purchasing machinery – even as the peasants wasted away. A state decree of August 7, 1932, entitled “On the safeguarding of state property,” targeted not foreign spies or internal enemies, nor did it protect against factories or state secrets; it was designed to apply to the peasantry, to every poor labourer who stole an ear of corn or stalk of grain. “Offenders against such property were to be considered enemies of the people,” Conquest writes, “and either be shot or, in extenuating circumstances, imprisoned for nor less than ten years, with total confiscation of property.” In the year it was issued, “20% of all sentences in the USSR were under this decree, described by Stalin as ‘the basis of revolutionary legality at the present moment.'”

The millions who died a slow and painful death by famine still do not communicate the horror of the Holodomor, the Ukrainian genocide. Conquest goes to great lengths to describe not only the bloated bellies and sunken faces of the starving, but their desperation as well. Diseased horses were eaten. The bodies of relatives, only recently buried, were exhumed and eaten. Leather goods were boiled and eaten. Party activists commonly came across homes where the adults had long ago died, saving what crumbs of food they had for their children, who roamed the property in a near-feral state. The psychic injuries inflicted on the peasantry were no less injurious. Neighbour turned against neighbour, relative against relative, even child against parent – all in the mistaken hope that to denounce another was to simultaneously shield oneself from denunciation. Honest, hard work would get you exploited and killed; theft and double-dealing became vital to survival.

One of the book’s final chapters, “The Record of the West,” made for particularly interesting reading. It details all of the reporters, politicians and public intellectuals who downplayed, denied or made excuses for the crimes of Stalin and the Soviet Union. The public memory is fatally short, but at one time, it should be recalled, it was the position of all right-thinking intellectuals that the Soviet Union represented hope and progress, a rational and compassionate approach to statecraft. Even as late as 1986, when this book was first published, Conquest was assailed as a fabulist. I consider it a victory for Conquest that the names of the people he lists in that chapter were entirely unknown to me, while his own eminence as an historian has only grown since his passing in 2015.