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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

What is the crux of Ukraine-Russia dispute?

17 February, 2009 - 00:00

(Continued from previous issue)


On the day Stalin announced he was going to deliver a devastating blow to “individual collective farmers and farms,” he made two important appointments within the OGPU system. Yevdokimov, OGPU’s polpred (plenipotentiary representative; in this context, head of the regional OGPU directorate — Ed.) for Central Asia, became polpred for the North Caucasus, whereas OGPU deputy head Balytsky was posted as polpred to the Ukrainian SSR. Both had worked in these regions: Yevdokimov in 1924–29, and Balytsky in 1919–31. On December 1, Balytsky was co-opted onto the Politburo of the CC CP(B)U. These Cheka officers had to orchestrate an unprecedented act of terrorism sired by the secretary general. We do not know how Stalin conveyed his instructions to Balytsky , but they are easy to construe from Directive No. 1 signed by the head of the GPU of the Ukrainian SSR on Dec. 5, 1932. After lumping together sabotage of grain procurements, mass theft of grain in collective and state farms, penetration of Petliura’s emissaries from abroad, and the distribution of Petliurite leaflets in the countryside, Balytsky (Stalin, to be precise) arrived at the conclusion that “there undoubtedly exists an organized counterrevolutionary insurgent underground network in Ukraine that maintains contacts with other countries and foreign intelligence services, mostly with the Polish general headquarters.”

On the face of it, there was something strange about the directive: the state security police were told to accept a version about the activities of foreign secret agents and even their contacts with the Polish general headquarters. All the OGPU had to do was “materialize” counterrevolutionary organizations and fill them with arrested members. However, there was nothing strange about the reverse order of these actions. The Chekists had to detect possible resistance hotbeds and destroy them even before they could manifest themselves in any way. Having a staggering number of stool pigeons and agents provocateurs at their disposal, they were capable of a preemptive strike. In this case it was important for Stalin to link the possible resistance to the “devastating blow” on the part of the local party and Soviet apparat with the activities of the Polish secret police. This linkage paralyzed the local apparatchiks, making it impossible for them to resist a planned massacre of millions of people.

The next step that made Stalin’s plan even more obvious was taken by the Kremlin on Dec. 10, 1932, when a meeting of the Politburo of the CC VKP(B) summoned the political leadership of the Ukrainian SSR. Secretary General Stalin gave CC CP(B)U Secretary General Stanislav Kosior a severe dressing down for his spineless stand in combating saboteurs and accused Mykola Skrypnyk of having contacts with the “nationalist elements.” This meeting resulted in the Dec. 14 resolution “On Grain Procurements in Ukraine, Northern Caucasus, and Western Region” of the CC VKP(B) and Sovnarkom of the USSR.

This act was not so much about grain procurement (now the Ukrainian SSR’s procurements deadline was the end of January) as about Ukrainization. As a kind of indigenization policy, i.e., implanting the Soviet rule in the ethnic regions, the Ukrainization campaign was being carried out consistently and energetically. It transpired, however, that it was facilitating a rapid enhancement of national identity among the populace in the Ukrainian SSR and the Kuban region. And so, Ukrainization was divided into the Bolshevik kind and Petliurite kind. Ukrainization in the Ukrainian SSR was as the former by waging a struggle against “Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism,” which was proclaimed as the biggest threat. Outside the Ukrainian SSR, Ukrainization was prohibited. The residents of the Kuban were ordered to identify themselves as Russians. During the 1937 and 1939 censuses only those who had settled in the Northern Caucasus after the 1926 census were registered as Ukrainians.

The devastating-blow program included what Kaganovich first formulated on Nov. 1, 1932: a proposal to blacklist the villages lagging behind in terms of grain procurements. Judging by the decrees published by the press, such blacklisting did not seem a deadly threat. Officially, it boiled down to the suspension of consumer goods supplies, denying credits, demanding payments on previous loans ahead of schedule, and so on. On December 8, reporting to Stalin on six large villages blacklisted by the CC CP(B)U and the Radnarkom of the Ukrainian SSR, and that the apparatchiks in charge of oblasts had blacklisted up to 400 villages, Kosior was skeptical about the effectiveness of this punitive measure: “In-kind fines and confiscation of the homestead land produce the best results as compared to other repressive measures.”

I have no documented proof of whether Kosior’s remark was taken into account by anyone. Perhaps such documents are stored in the secret archives of Russia’s FSB. However, there are eyewitness accounts to the effect that Kosior’s remark was taken into account in the simplest possible way, by combining this punishment with in-kind fines. The blacklisted villages were cordoned off by the Cheka troops and there were constant searches for concealed grain, along with in-kind fines. Deprived of all food, people were beginning to starve to death.

The devastating blow was dealt the Ukrainian peasantry under the guise of a winter grain procurement campaign. The city, angered by the spreading hunger, had to be shown the guilty party andthe kulak saboteurs who had penetrated the kolkhozes. The peasants’ unwillingness to work without pay for the third year running could be portrayed as spontaneous sabotage. Stalin, however, wanted this to be presented in terms of class struggle, even more so as a struggle against the Petliurite underground network in Ukraine that had contacts with the Polish general headquarters. His mouthpiece Kaganovich wrote from Krasnodar on November 5: “Here the main task is to overcome sabotage which is undoubtedly organized and controlled by a single center.”

The city had to be shown the results of this struggle against sabotage, including underground “grain towns” the reporters kept writing about. True, peasants tried to conceal from the procurement teams the miserable remainder of their crops, lest they die of hunger. The Cheka [i.e., GPU: Cheka was reorganized as GPU in 1922 — Ed.] used the still existing komnezams (committees of poor peasants), the rural militia, and grain procurement officials — tens of thousands of them were herded to the rural from the urban areas — and, of course, their own numerous agents in order to search for grain buried underground. Soviet newsreels showed scenes of unearthing pits with grain, rather than scenes of starvation. Russia’s documentarians are now gladly using this footage. Balytsky told a meeting of the Politburo of the CC CP(B)U on December 20 (with Kaganovich in attendance) that since the start of December the GPU men had discovered 7,000 such pits and 100 “dark pantries” containing a total of 700,000 poods of grain. In other words, the large-scale search campaign had yielded miserable results. The amount of grain thus obtained meant nothing on the level of the state. Ukrainian peasants would later prove that there were no “towns of grain” when they starved to death.

At the said Politburo meeting, head of the Ukrainian government Vlas Chubar pointed out that the insufficient scope of in-kind fines was a shortcoming of the grain procurement campaign. Kosior, for his part, believed that comprehensive yet ineffective searches were the shortcoming. By comparing their opinions, one can infer that in-kind fines and searches were not a single repressive operation in mid-December. One ought to date the beginning of the Holodomor as November and December 1932, when searches and in-kind fines were taking place in hundreds of blacklisted and cordoned-off villages.


On Jan. 1, 1933, Kharkiv received a telegram from Stalin. It is worth quoting in full:

“Let the CC CP(b)U and the Radnarkom of the Ukrainian SSR widely inform collective farmers and independent farmers through village councils and collective farms that:

“(a) those who voluntarily hand over to the government previously stolen and concealed grain will not be subject to repressions;

“(b) as for those collective farmers, collective farms, and independent farmers who stubbornly continue to hide stolen and concealed grain, they will be subject to the severest degrees of punishment.”

What is the import of this message? No one has answered this question since 1990 when this document was published for the first time. Nor did I pay sufficient attention to this telegram when preparing for publication my first book on collectivization and the famine in 1991. I remember asking myself how the head of state could have possibly communicated with the peasants of one of the national republics through the village Soviets. It was only after the skillfully scattered fragments of Stalin’s actions in 1932 were pieced together did it transpire that the beginning of the Holodomor in Ukraine can be dated within an hour — when this telegram was received in Kharkiv. Those of my readers who know about in-kind fines and searches for grain will understand this telegram’s implicit message by simply comparing points (a) and (b). Whereas the first one demands that grain be supplied to the state, the second one threatens those who fail to comply with severe punishment. How could one determine who was ignoring Stalin’s requirement? By the good old method of searching. Stalin’s telegram signaled the beginning of mass searches. The general secretary knew from the Cheka that there were no grain reserves of state importance in the Ukrainian countryside. Then what was the need for a telegram that actually authorized searches for the sake of searches? The answer to this question is obvious: to use the law on in-kind fines and carry out a punitive operation under the guise of a grain procurement campaign, something people in the villages and cities had grown accustomed to, so as to take away all foodstuffs from the peasants following the previous confiscation of grain.

The Russian side has time and again told me (including during a debate with Prof. V. Kondrashin on the pages of Den’) that there are no documents with instructions to confiscate all foodstuffs in the Ukrainian rural areas, thus dooming the peasantry to death by famine. I agree that Stalin’s telegram cannot be qualified as direct documented evidence pointing to the Kremlin as the culprit in this case of food confiscation. It is evidence that Stalin made threats to the Ukrainian peasantry in conjunction with grain procurements. However, this telegram did signal the start of mass searches in the Ukrainian countryside. Add to this the law on in-kind fines. Finally, we all know the consequences of Stalin’s telegram. Thousands of surviving eyewitness testify that in the course of such searches all food was confiscated from the “debtors.” In many cases a family’s cow was left as the CC VKP(B)’s Resolution “On Forced Collectivization of Cattle” of March 26, 1932, was still in effect. There is no need to quote from eyewitness accounts. Some of them are found in the National Book of Memory of Holodomor Victims and in numerous other publications. Some are stored as manuscripts. Eyewitnesses state that komnezam people, led by Chekists, went through the motions of searching for concealed grain while in fact they took away not only fatback, meat, and potatoes — as envisaged by the law on in-kind fines — but also all the other foodstuffs. Is this not documented proof? Some people testify that there were no such confiscations in their villages. One should not shrug off such testimonies. The Chekist punitive operation covered a large territory, yet it did not reach as far as the villages in the borderland and remote areas in Polissia; nor did it affect the kolkhozes that had met the grain procurements quotas. According to statistics, 1,403 out of 23,270 kolkhozes had met the year’s quotas as of October 1932. Confiscating all food under the guise of grain procurements was only a part of the operation. Peasants starved to death only when this campaign was combined with a ban on information about the famine and when the starving people were blockaded. There is no documented proof of this ban on information, but it is an established fact that the Kremlin refused to acknowledge the 1932-33 famine until Dec. 25, 1987. Even top secret files contain no wording related to the famine. It was used only in a closed segment of office documents with the status “Special Folder.”

There is sufficient documented evidence of the blockade of villages were all foodstuffs were confiscated. On Dec. 22, 1933, the CC VKP(B) and the Sovnarkom of the USSR sent a coded message to the regions bordering on Ukraine. It read: “It has become known to the CC VKP(B) and the Sovnarkom of the USSR that peasants in the Kuban and Ukraine have started leaving these territories en masse ‘in search of bread,’ head for CChO, Volga, Moscow oblast, Western region, and Belarus. The CC VKP(B) and the Sovnarkom of the USSR have no doubt that this exodus of peasants, like the one last year in Ukraine, has been organized by the enemies of Soviet power, Socialist Revolutionaries, and Polish agents in order to conduct propaganda, through peasants in the northern territories of the USSR, aimed against the kolkhozes and the Soviet authorities in general.” I. Zelenin, the editor of the third volume of the collection Tragediia sovetskogo sela (Tragedy of the Soviet Village), included a comment saying that Stalin wrote it himself (the signature has been preserved) and that Molotov’s signature appeared only in a reprinted copy. A few words about Stalin’s reference to the 1932 exodus of Ukrainian peasants are in place. It is true that some three million peasants left Ukraine and headed for neighboring regions in search of food after the famine struck the Ukrainian SSR, caused by the 1931 grain procurement campaign. Confiscation of all foodstuffs practically instantly transformed peasants, who had long been starving and boiling with anger, into an inert mass. Stalindorf’s district party committee secretary Kiper informed the Dnipropetrovsk oblast Communist Party committee on Feb. 25, 1933: “The collective farmers’ despair has reached the limit; people have stopped asking for help; they are lying around in their cold unheated homes, awaiting death.” That is precisely the consequences Stalin had sought.

How long did the Cheka food confiscation operation last? It is reasonable to assume that it ended with the start of a large-scale campaign to aid the starving peasants. On February 7 the Politburo of the CC VKP(B) adopted the first resolutions providing for food aid for Dnipropetrovsk and Odesa oblast, 200,000 poods of rye in each case. This aid, however, was meant for the “party and non-partisan activists in the collective farms.” After the “devastating blow” rendered any social outbursts impossible, Stalin’s wording changed; now the “kulak saboteurs” were “non-partisan activists in the collective farms.”

(To be continued)