Stalin’s Two Famines

The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror–Famine

by Robert Conquest
Oxford University Press, 412 pp., $19.95

Robert Conquest is one of those rare gifted beings who can combine in one book the results of research, documented and footnoted, with the haute vulgarisation thereof. So The Harvest of Sorrow is a very good book “in both kinds”—and let no mere academic say which is more honorable.

The story of Stalin and Soviet agriculture is an often told and deeply depressing one, and Conquest gets it straight. It starts with the liberation of the serfs in 1861, and the curious substitution, as local agents for the government, of the (preexisting) village councils for the feudal landlords. During the free peasant period, between 1906 and 1928, the peasant could dispose of his own land and sell his own crop in the market. There was, however, the horrible but brief interruption of “War Communism” (1918–1921), when the peasant was left with his private land but could not market his crop, which government posses simply “procured,” usually for nothing. In 1928 came collectivization, artificial famine, and the victory of the new system.

To my knowledge there is no great new truth in the story Conquest tells, until he deals with the famines: he merely tells the story better and gives many more quotations from the actors on the scene. He does not omit the scandalous behavior of the Western press, whose correspondents sat, and were allowed by their superiors to sit, in Moscow, reporting official denials while the Ukrainians starved to death. G. B. Shaw, incidentally, a “Western medium” all by himself, proved rumors of the starvation false from the banquets he had personally struggled to ingest in Moscow. But this story too has been told before, by Eugene Lyons and Malcolm Muggeridge.

Before coming to Conquest’s real contribution, his account of the “administration” of the famines, we must warn readers that he is not a natural statistician. He has taught himself the rules of statistics, but his heart is not in it, and when he’s away from the subject of the two famines in the Ukraine and Kazakhstan, he simply ignores them. For example, real wages were not, in 1933, one tenth of what they had been in 1926 and 1927. Otherwise the population of the cities would have died; while only Ukrainian and Kazakh peasants were dying. Conquest’s source has used only the free-market price index, leaving out the stable prices in the state shops, still a major source of supply. Again Conquest’s estimate of 6 million deaths from the various peasant uprisings between 1918 and 1920 is far too high. The figure is a residual from various data on deaths from other causes, and includes deaths from natural causes—about 6 million in themselves. People would not have been immortal if they had not been at war. Again Conquest provides no tables, perhaps in the absurd belief that prose is clearer.

What was “collectivization”? It arose from Engels’s late realization that the concentration of capital did not work in agriculture. The …

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Letters

Harvest of Sorrow’ July 16, 1987