Since WWII Jews around the world have routinely resolved to “never forget” Hitler’s brutal effort to destroy the Jewish people. So too all of us should determine to never forget the far costlier devastation visited upon Russia by Joseph Stalin. In concentration camps such as Belsen and Auschwitz the Nazis slaughtered some six million people, but a decade earlier, in the Ukraine and adjacent Cossack areas in southern Russia, the Bolsheviks killed nearly twice as many peasants—totaling more than all deaths in WWI. The late English historian Robert Conquest devoted much of his life to finding, rigorously documenting, and publishing the truth regarding what transpired in the Soviet Union between WWI and WWII. One of his most powerful treatises is Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (New York: Oxford University Press, c. 1986). The book’s title is taken from “The Armament of Igor,” a poem lamenting that: “The black earth / Was sown with bones / And watered with blood / For a harvest of sorrow / On the land of Rus.’”
For many centuries Russian peasants were serfs—working the land of aristocratic landowners who often exploited them. Reform movements in the 19th century, much like anti-slave movements in America, led to their liberation in the 1860s. While certainly harsh by modern standards, their lot slowly improved, though like sharecroppers following the Civil War in America they were generally landless and impoverished in a nation firmly controlled by the Tsar and aristocracy. Thus the Bolshevik revolution in 1917 was initially welcomed by peasants who often seized and carved up the large estates they worked on, hoping for the better life promised by the upheaval. Yet they “‘turned a completely deaf ear to ideas of Socialism’” (p. 44). As Boris Pasternak made clear, in a passage in Doctor Zhivago: “‘The peasant knows very well what he wants, better than you or I do . . . . When the revolution came and woke him up, he decided that this was the fulfillment of his dreams, his ancient dream of living anarchically on his own land by the work of his hands, in complete independence and without owing anything to anyone. Instead of that, he found the had only exchanged the old oppression of the Czarist state for the new, much harsher yoke of the revolutionary super-state’” (p. 52).
Realizing that the innate love of farmers for land ownership and free markets militated against his totalizing ideology, Lenin noted that he would ultimately “‘have to engage in the most decisive, ruthless struggle against them’” (p. 45). He’d found that Communists such as himself knew little about economics—as was evident when he tried to abolish money and banking—and quickly launched the New Economic Policy, effectively restoring important aspects of capitalism. He also had to find effective ways to encourage agricultural productivity, so he delayed collectivizing agriculture in the 1920s. By the end of that decade, however, Joseph Stalin had seized sufficient power to undertake the radical restructuring of Russian agriculture. A 1928 grain crisis prompted Party bureaucrats to mandate production quotas, taxes and distribution mechanisms. They also needed scapegoats to blame and signaled out the best, hardest working and most prosperous farmers (the kulaks who owned a few acres and a handful of animals and even hired laborers as needed) who seemed to qualify as closet capitalists and “wreckers.” As Stalin declared: “‘We have gone over from a policy of limiting the exploiting tendencies of the kulak to a policy of liquidating the kulak as a class’” (p. 115).
Stalin and the Soviet Politburo established the All Union People’s Commissariat of Agriculture, staffed by alleged “experts,” which was authorized to push the peasants into collectives and set utterly utopian, ludicrous goals for yearly harvests. Such policies (part of Stalin’s Five Year Plan) led to an “epoch of dekulakization, of collectivization, and of the terror-famine; of war against the Soviet peasantry, and later against the Ukrainian nation. It may be seen as none of the most significant, as well as one of the most dreadful, periods of modern times” (p. 116). Farmers who failed to meet their quotas or “hoarded” grain (even seed grain!) were arrested and resettled in remote regions if not shot or sent to camps. Conquest documented, in mind-numbing, heart-rending detail, this deliberate destruction of those who stood in the way of Stalin’s grand socialistic agenda. To the Party, in the words of a novelist, “‘Not one of them was guilty of anything; but they belonged to a class that was guilty of everything’” (p. 143). And in the “class struggle” intrinsic to Marxist analysis, evil classes must be destroyed. Sifting through all the documents available to him, Conquest estimates that at least fourteen million peasants perished. “Comparable to the deaths in the major wars of our time,” Stalin’s “harvest of sorrow” may rightly be called genocide.
Above all, Stalin targeted the peasants of the Ukraine, the Don and Kuban, where a massive famine transpired in the early ‘30s. Party activists (generally dispatched from the cities and lacking any knowledge of agriculture) presided over the process. One of them recalled: “‘With the rest of my generation I firmly believed that the ends justified the means. Our great goal was the universal triumph of Communism, and for the sake of that goal everything was permissible—to lie, to steal, to destroy hundreds of thousands and even millions of people, all those who were hindering our work or could hinder it, everyone who stood in the way’” (p. 233). One of the few Western journalists daring to discern and tell the truth, Malcolm Muggeridge, said: “‘I saw something of the battle that is going on between the government and the peasants. The battlefield is as desolate as nay war and stretches wider; stretches over a large part of Russia. One the one side, millions of starving peasants, their bodies often swollen from lack of food; on the other, soldier members of the GPU carrying out the instruction of the dictatorship of the proletariat. They have gone over the country like a swarm of locusts and taken away everything edible; they had shot or exiled thousands of peasants, sometimes whole villages; they had reduced some of the most fertile land in the world to a melancholy desert’” (p. 260).
Consequently, Soviet agriculture imploded. In 1954 the Nikita Khrushchev admitted that despite the more highly-mechanized farming techniques in the collectives “Soviet agriculture was producing less grain per capita and few cattle absolutely than had been achieved by the muzhik with his wooden plough under Tsarism forty years earlier” (p. 187). And what’s true for agriculture is true for the rest of the USSR under Communist rule—socialism inevitably destroys whatever it controls.
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One of the last of Robert Conquest’s books dealing with 20th century Russia is Stalin: Breaker of Nations (New York: Penguin Books, c. 1991). Benefitting from “the great flow of new information” recently available from Russian archives, he endeavored to portray one of the few men in history who harmed both his own country and much of the world. Immersed within a system rooted in “falsehood and delusion”—what Boris Pasternak described as the “reign of the lie”—Stalin was an arch-deceiver who misled and betrayed virtually all his associates and allies. Indeed, he “invested his whole being in producing illusion or delusion. It was above all this domination by falsehood which kept even the post-Stalin Soviet Union in a state of backwardness, moral corruption, economic falsification and general deterioration until in the past decade the truth became too pressing to be avoided” (p. 325). He was, as Churchill labeled him, “an unnatural man”—the personification of the “moral nihilism” basic to both Nazism and Bolshevism. Along with Hitler, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro and Pol Pot—brutal ideologues determined to shape the world in accord with their fantasies—he contributed much to one of the bloodiest centuries in history
Stalin was born in 1879 in Georgia, an ancient nation in the Caucus annexed to Russia by Tsar Alexander I in 1801. Christened Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, he assumed the name Stalin (“man of steel”) when he joined underground revolutionary activities designed to overthrow the Tsar. Periodically arrested—and sent into exile in Siberia—he gained renown for his self-discipline, party loyalty, writing skills, and ability to get things done. He was, however, a rather minor figure until after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Thereafter he proved useful to Lenin, who valued his loyalty as well as willingness to manage unpleasant tasks. In 1922, when Lenin suffered his first of several strokes, Stalin began to effectively maneuver himself into powerful positions within the Politburo, jockeying with Trotsky for preeminence. Lenin apparently distrusted him, however, and disapproved him as his successor, confiding to his wife, in a document hidden from the public for 33 years: “‘Stalin is too rude, and this defect, though quite tolerable in our midst and in dealings among us Communists, becomes intolerable in a General Secretary. This is why I suggest that the comrades think about a way to remove Stalin from that post and appoint another man who in all respects differs from Comrade Stalin his his superiority, that is, more loyal, more courteous, and more considerate of comrades . . . .’” (p. 101). According to one of his secretaries, Lenin had resolved “‘to crush Stalin politically’” but died before doing so in 1924.
Unlike Trotsky, who advocated the primacy of world-wide revolutionary struggle, Stalin determined to first establish “Socialism in One Country,” and he rallied (through cajolery, intrigue, slander) enough followers to impose his will on the USSR. Once in power, he “planned to launch the party on an adventurist class-war, policy of crash industrialization and collectivization, adventurist beyond even the most extreme of the plans hitherto rejected as beyond the pale for their Leftism” (p. 141). “Stalinism was, in part at least, the result of a simple preconception—the nineteenth-century idea that all social and human actions can be calculated, considered and predicted” (p. 322). Such policies, crafted by alleged “experts” who often knew very little about agriculture or industry or anything but Party ideology, were ruthlessly imposed and quickly impoverished virtually everyone but Party functionaries. As definitively described inConquest’s Harvest of Sorrow (Stalin’s liquidation of the Ukrainian peasantry, “the greatest known tragedy of the century” that killed some fifteen million souls) and his The Great Terror (Stalin’s elimination of all rivals within the Communist Party)—few monsters in all of history have ruled so barbarously.
When WWII broke out, Stalin did whatever necessary to further his own objectives. Thus he cheerfully aligned himself with Hitler when it looked like the two dictators would help each other, expanding their power over vast sections of Europe. Betrayed by Hitler when the Nazis invaded Russia, Stalin then turned to Churchill and Roosevelt—flattering and dissembling and manipulating these “allies” to secure invaluable materials with which to drive back the Germans and ultimately control Eastern Europe. Quite capable of charming those he encountered, he favorably impressed visitors such as America’s Vice President Harry Hopkins and Britain’s Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. President Roosevelt, though warned to be careful in negotiating with “Uncle Joe,” followed his personal “hunch” and determined to “give him everything I possibly can and ask for nothing in return,” trusting him not to “annex” any territory and “work with me for al world of democracy and peace’” (p. 245). In Conquest’s view, FDR’s naive judgment “must be among the crassest errors ever made by a political leader” (p. 245).
Following WWII, Stalin resumed his ruthless policies—waging a “cold war” abroad and purging all possible enemies to his regime within Russia—before dying in 1953. “In real terms, Milan Djilas’s conclusion stands up: ‘All in all, Stalin was a monster who, while adhering to abstract, absolute and fundamentally utopian ideas, in practice had no criterion but success—and this meant violence, and physical and spiritual extermination’” (p. 327). To understand the man and his evil deeds, Conquest’s Stalin: Breaker of Nations is a trustworthy source with which to begin.
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When Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, fled the Soviet Union in 1967, she brought with her a manuscript—Twenty Letters to a Friend (New York: Discus Books, c. 1967)—describing important aspects of her life, which became an instant best-seller published in many languages. She wrote the book in 35 days in 1963 just to put her thoughts on paper and did not envision publishing it while living in her own country. She mainly recorded memories of her mother and father, bearing witness to the insatiable longing children have to be with and love their parents, but in the process she tried to make sense of what happened around her and thus gives us insight into what took place in Russia during her lifetime, for: “The twentieth century and the Revolution turned everything upside down” (p. 30).
Several years after her father died she took her mother’s family name, Alliluyeva—a word akin to “Hallelujah” meaning “Praise ye the Lord.” She fondly remembers both her mother and her maternal grandparents. When Stalin married her mother, her grandparents became part of a nurturing extended family. Grandfather Alliluyeva was born a peasant in Georgia but became a skilled mechanic who joined the Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party in 1898 and retained an old-fashioned revolutionary idealism and personal integrity until he died in 1945. Her grandmother was also from Georgia, the descendent of German settlers, who spoke Georgian with a German accent. Reared in a Protestant church she “was always religious,” stoutly resisting the atheistic propaganda surrounding her. “By the time I was thirty-five,” Svetlana says, “I realized that grandmother was wiser than any of us” (p. 54). That wisdom, she came to believe, was nurtured by a religious perspective she ultimately shared.
Pondering her maternal grandparents’ influence, Svetlana credited their love for Georgia for instilling in her a love for the beauty of nature. “O Lord,” she wrote, “how lovely is this earth of yours and how perfect, every blade of grass, every flower and leaf! You go on supporting man and giving him strength in this fearful bedlam where Nature alone, invincible and eternal, gives solace and strength, harmony and tranquility of spirit” (p. 82). Amidst all the destruction wrought by various “madmen” who ravage the earth, its “beauty and majesty” needs to be revered. Still more: “It seems to me that in our time faith in God is the same thing as faith in good and the ultimate triumph of good over evil” (p. 83). Consequently, “By the time I was thirty-five and had seen something of life, I, who’d been taught from earliest childhood by society and my family to be an atheist and materials, was already one of those who cannot live without God” (p. 83).
Svetlana’s mother, Nadya, was born in the Caucasus but grew up in St. Petersburg, immersed in the revolutionary activities . Here she met and soon married Joseph Stalin, much older than she, whose first wife had died. Nadya was sincerely devoted to the revolutionary cause, strictly followed Party rules, and was willing to sacrifice her all for the good of the people. Thus she worked a great deal and spent limited time with her children, though when present orchestrated lots of fun and games. Stalin himself proved to be a poor husband, so: “Because my mother was intelligent and endlessly honest, I believe her sensitivity and intuition made her realize finally that my father was not the New Man she had thought when she was young, and she suffered the most terrible, devastating disillusionment” (p. 117). In 1932, following an argument with him regarding the genocidal famine taking place in the Ukraine pursuant to Stalin’s orders, she went to her room and killed herself with a pistol, though Svetlana was told she had died of appendicitis. “Our carefree life, so full of gaiety and games and useful pastimes, fell apart the moment my mother died” (p. 133). Svetlana was six years old.
“For ten years after my mother died, my father was a good father to me” (p. 133). He had always been the more affectionate parent, making sure Svetlana was well cared for in every way, including an excellent education. But when she finished her schooling and became more independent, their relationship frayed. Discovering the real reason for her mother’s death while reading an English magazine further depressed her. By now she was also aware of the growing list of classmates, friends and relatives who had been sent into exile or killed under her father’s rule. When only seventeen she met and fell in love with Alexei Kapler, a noted musician, who seemed to her to be “the cleverest, kindest, most wonderful person on earth” (p. 187). Soon thereafter Kapler was arrested and sentenced to the Gulag for five years, apparently for daring to court Stalin’s daughter! “After that my father and I were estranged for a long time.” Indeed, “I was never again the beloved daughter I had once been” (p. 192). In 1944 she married Grigory Morozov, a fellow university student. Stalin didn’t approve of him either—both Kapler and Morozov were Jews and he harbored a deep anti-Jewish prejudice. He refused to meet him . This and welcomed the news that they divorced soon after she gave birth to a son. She then married the son of a prominent Bolshevik, with whom she had a daughter. This marriage garnered her father’s approval but quickly dissolved.
Despite their estrangement, father and daughter occasionally spent time together following WWII. She found him difficult to talk with and thought the obsequious men surrounding him (Beria, Malenkov, Bulganin) odious. The Communist Party hardly resembled what was envisioned by sincere revolutionaries in 1917. It “had nothing in common with the spirit of my grandfather and my grandmother, my mother, the Svandizes and all the old Party people I knew. It was all hypocritical, a caricature purely for show” (p. 207). How superior were the simple people of the “old Russia” such as Stalin’s own mother! Her “grandmother had principles of her own. They were the principles of one who was old and God-fearing, who’d lived a life that was upright and hard, full of dignity and honor. Changing her life in any whatever was the furthest thing from her mind. She passed on all her stubbornness and firmness, her puritanical standards, her unbending masculine character and her high requirements for herself, to my father.” Still more, when Svetlana visited her paternal grandmother’s grave, she wondered how could she not think about her “without my thoughts turning to God, in whom she believed so devoutly?” (p. 214). In 1962, less than a decade after her father died, Svetlana was baptized in the Orthodox Church. For her, she explained: “The sacrament of baptism consists in rejecting evil, the lie. I believed in ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ I believed in truth without violence and bloodshed. I believed that the Supreme Mind, not vain man, governed the world. I believed that the Spirit of Truth was stronger than material values. And when all of this had entered the heart, the shreds of Marxism-Leninism taught me since childhood vanished like smoke.”
In the godless world of Stalin’s USSR, however, there was little to celebrate. For his daughter, nothing “turned out well” for those she knew. “It was as though my father were at the center of a black circle and anyone who ventured inside vanished or perished or was destroyed in one way or another” (p. 231). Yet despite it all Svetlana found reason for hope. Much about the Russian character evident in her faithful nurse, Alexandra Andreevna, “Granny,” still survives. “But what is good in Russia is traditional and unchanging” and ultimately “it is this eternal good which gives Russia strength and helps preserve her true self” (p. 232). When Svetlana’s mother died, “Granny” became “the only stable, unchanging thing left. She was the bulwark of home and family, of what, if it hadn’t been for her, would have gone out of my life forever” (p. 237). Though not conventionally religious, she retained a deeply moral perspective and faith.
No doubt influenced by both her maternal grandmother and “Granny,” Svetlana developed a deeply religious conviction. “The Good always wins out,” she said. “The Good triumphs over everything, though it frequently happens too late—not before the very best people have perished unjustly, senselessly, without rhyme or reason” (p. 242). She had witnessed how her father and his revolutionary comrades “tried to do good by doing evil” and ruthlessly “sacrificed senselessly, thousands of talented” human beings (p. 244). Yet she also knew that: “Everything on our tormented earth that is alive and breathes, that blossoms and bears fruit, lives only by virtue of and in the name of Truth and Good” (p. 245).