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Ukraine's Harvest of Sorrow
Hanna Zavarotnya, a survivor of the Holodomor.

Ukraine's Harvest of Sorrow

A generation ago, Stalin crippled Ukraine through famine. Robert Conquest’s 1986 recounting of the Holodomor bears somber relevance, yet again.

Josef Joffe
The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine
by Robert Conquest (Oxford University Press, 430 pp., $19.95)

Trigger warning: This book will shock and depress. Robert Conquest’s 1986 Harvest of Sorrow is about the Ukrainian “Holodomor,” Stalin’s genocide-by-starvation in the early 1930s, which claimed the lives of some five million at the low end and ten according to the highest estimate. Though published a generation ago, this meticulously researched work is as relevant (and heartbreaking) today as we watch Putin’s pitiless war against Ukrainian cities and civilians. The cruise missiles are new, the purpose is the same: breaking the country’s will to resist the Russian Behemoth next door.

An ancient poem sets the tone of Harvest:

The black earth
Was sown with bones
And watered with blood
For a harvest of sorrow
On the land of Rus.

(Rus was not “Russia,” but the multiethnic creation of invading Norsemen.)

Now listen to Lenin: “The interests of socialism are above the right of nations to self-determination.” Cut the “socialism” and you can hear Putin.

After centuries of revolt against voracious neighbors, Ukraine was at last subdued for good by the Soviets in 1920. Conquest notes that the nation “was the first East-European state to be successfully taken over by the Kremlin.” Ukraine was not the only victim of oppression across the Russian empire, yet it paid the highest price of Stalin’s murderous campaign against the kulaks, the landholding peasantry. As a 1934 Russian novel had it, “Not one of them was guilty of anything, but they belonged to a class that was guilty of everything.”

So was the nation as such. The forcible collectivization of agriculture, an ukase proclaimed, was to destroy the “social base of Ukrainian nationalism—the individual landholdings.” In Europe’s “breadbasket” there was food aplenty, but grain was piled up in the open to rot. Desperate Ukrainians who gleaned the fields or dug up potatoes were shot. An eyewitness wrote, “The most terrifying sights were the little children with skeleton limbs dangling from balloon-like abdomens.… Everywhere, we found men and women lying prone, their faces and bellies bloated.” According to the Bolsheviks, it was not the systematic terror that caused the Great Famine, but kulak sabotage of the harvest.

Conquest draws a gruesome parallel to Bergen-Belsen, with “well-fed police and party units” supervising the terror, which claimed the lives of one-quarter of the rural population. Those still alive were so weakened that they could not bury their family members, Conquest writes. Meanwhile, Ukrainian grain was being exported abroad. Fast forward to today: The Wall Street Journal reports, “Vessels linked to Russia’s largest grain trader shipped thousands of tons of stolen Ukrainian grain to global buyers, using a sophisticated system of feeder vessels and floating cranes.”

To kill was not enough. During the Great Famine, Russian peasants were moved into Ukraine’s empty villages—colonization by Russification. Ukrainians who survived were expelled and resettled throughout the vast reaches of the Soviet Union. Today, Russians are being moved into the southeastern part of Ukraine annexed by Moscow. According to press reports, thousands of Ukrainian children have been abducted to Russia where they will be taught to become upstanding Russian citizens.


So much for the bodies, dead or alive. Back then, Ukrainian national culture was wiped out, as well. Academics, theater directors, and writers were fired or shot. Today, Russia is destroying memory, tearing down monuments about the Holodomor in conquered cities. To invoke this term was counterrevolutionary treason in the Soviet Union. Today, Russians end up in jail when referring to “war” in Ukraine. The correct designation is “special military operation.” Falsification never stops. Was the Holodomor genocide, the Famine Soviet-made? Who, us? The Large Soviet Encyclopedia defines “genocide” as “offshoot of decaying imperialism.”

In 1946, the USSR’s All-Union Central Committee passed a resolution stating that, “In the fields of science and literature,” there had been attempts by “hostile bourgeois ideology to reinstate Ukrainian nationalist concepts.” Nor were the Bolsheviks the first to shred Ukrainian nationhood. In 1863, during the reign of Alexander II, an edict asserted that there was no such thing as a “Ukrainian language”—it was just a “dialect.” Ukrainian books were prohibited, schools and publishing houses were closed.

Written a generation ago, Conquest’s magnificent book curdles the mind, but it sets the stage for our time by reaching back ninety years. Today Putin claims that no civilians are being attacked. If the facts can’t be denied, they are reduced to unfortunate accidents. Back then, one politruk (political officer) was at least brutally honest about the Holodomor: “It was a fight between life and death.” The Famine had to “show them who was boss.” The purpose then was “de-Ukrainianization;” today the watchword is “de-Nazification” to pretty up naked imperialism.

Plus ça change?

“Essentialism,” the idea that a nation’s past is destiny—this is how the Russians were, this is how they will be—is of course nonsense. How to explain why the two most rapacious nations of the 20th century—Germany and Japan—are now as aggressive as pussycats? Yet piercing “essentialism” does not dispatch with the continuities, in this case between Stalin and Putin. To understand Putin’s rape of Ukraine, read Harvest of Sorrow—a story of ruthlessness, mendacity, and enslavement. It is Stalin minus Das Kapital. Sometimes, history does repeat itself—not as a “farce,” as Marx had it in The Eighteenth Brumaire, but as unbounded cruelty and cynicism.

In the 1930s,  the world did not pay attention. Today, the West imposes ever harsher sanctions on Russia, while helping Kyiv with sophisticated weapons and billions in cash. “In our days, writes the German author Christine Brinck in Berlin’s Tagesspiegel, “Ukraine has a chance, which it never had during the Holodomor.”

Josef Joffe, a member of the American Purpose editorial board, teaches international relations and political thought at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and is a fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

Photo: Hanna Zavarotnya, a survivor of the holodomor. (Flickr: Carlo Cretaro)

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