Last January, the Book Review received a...
Last January, the Book Review received a review copy of “Afghan Refugees: Five Years Later,” a 24-page booklet available free from the U.S. Committee for Refugees, 815 15th Street NW, Suite 610, Washington, DC 20005. Though the booklet was too short for review, I thought it worthy of mention: Information on Afghanistan was scarce enough that 24 pages seemed much.
When I read the booklet, I found something more than I had expected. “Over the past five years,” wrote Allen K. Jones, its author, “the Soviets, along with forces of the current Afghan government, have been somewhat successful in gaining control of the cities and the roads linking them, but the resistance holds sway in the countryside. This balance could shift dramatically in favor of the Soviets, however, as they intensify their tactics of killing off the civilian support population, terrorizing and driving off the survivors, and creating famine conditions.”
Creating famine conditions. These last words caught my eye, for another, longer book, dealing with another Soviet famine, lay stalled on my shelf. I decided to read it.
“Execution by Hunger, the Hidden Holocaust” (Norton: $16.95; 231 pp.) is the first book-length, eyewitness account of the 1932-33 planned famine in Ukraine. The author, Miron Dolot, was 15 at the time. He describes the event as he lived through it.
Briefly, the Soviets induced a famine by confiscating the entire Ukrainian crop after the 1932 harvest--everything, down to the seed grain--and then sealing the border. Across the border, in the rest of the Soviet Union, there was no famine. But Ukrainians who tried to cross into Russia--that is, into the adjacent Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic--were stopped at the border. Those who made it across were forcibly repatriated.
In Ukraine itself, confiscation of the crop was not the only measure taken. A “Bread Procurement Commission” conducted house-to-house searches-- repeated house-to-house searches--for hoarded grain or other provisions, digging up floors, demolishing ovens and fireplaces, flushing out and seizing any farm animals or fowl that remained in private hands. Their logic was that if the crop had been confiscated and yet the people were still alive, then they must be hiding food somewhere. When the people turned to eating cats and dogs, it was declared that the state had urgent need of dog and cat skins; and the GPU--forerunner of the KGB--went on hunting expeditions.
How many died in this border-to-border death camp? The count can be made only indirectly, and different ways of doing it yield different results. The lowest estimate is 4.8 million, the highest 10 million. The book jacket speaks of 7 million.
Why did the Soviets do it? A full explanation must wait on the first full-dress scholarly treatment of the famine, a book to be published in England next year (at Hutchinson) by Robert Conquest and James Mace, under the auspices of the Ukrainian Research Institute of Harvard University. Another Harvard scholar, Adam Ulam, contributes an introduction to “Execution by Hunger” in which he surveys the factors that must figure in any explanation, among them the Soviets’ need to generate capital, their need to provision a vast internal police force, and Stalin’s will to crush Ukrainian resistance to his collectivization of agriculture. These factors were operative elsewhere in the non-Russian Soviet Union, however. Only in Ukraine was the violence of the famine-weapon found necessary.
Why? Because only Ukraine (Dolot and other Ukrainians writing on this topic never say, as if their homeland were merely a region, “ the Ukraine”) was both large enough and nationalistic enough to challenge Russia itself. Once called, demeaningly, “Little Russia,” as distinct from the “Great Russia” that grew outward from Moscow, Ukraine was and is a nation comparable to France in both area and population. Today, it constitutes 20% of the Soviet population and, thanks to fertile soil and a climate tempered by the Black Sea, grows 25% of the Soviet agricultural product.
After the fall of the czar, Ukraine declared its independence and was reconquered by the Red Army only with difficulty. In the 1920s, Soviet rule was tolerant; but with the rise of Stalin, russification and collectivization began with a vengeance. Ukrainian resistance grew apace, and the result was a struggle that Stalin told Churchill was more difficult for him than World War II. The climax of this struggle, Russia’s climactic victory over Ukraine, and the definitive federation of the two most important nations in the Soviet Union came with the famine of 1932-1933. With the intelligentsia dead or deported to Siberia and the rest of the population prostrate, Ukrainian resistance was at an end by spring, 1933. Stalin had won.
Our ignorance of a nation that we commonly dissolve in the equation of Russia and Soviet Union is such that it is difficult to speak of Miron Dolot’s book without speaking first, as I have, of history and geography. And yet the book remains deeply personal. Indeed, in a most striking way, it remains a boy’s book. The author is now 70 years old. His tone of voice is fully, calmly adult. Nonetheless, he confines himself to reporting what the intelligent, observant 15-year-old that he was could take in. Precisely because the Soviets were endlessly propagandizing, young Dolot attended endless obligatory political meetings. He learned what one could learn of adult politics in that way, and he saw what no one could fail to see. At the beginning, as a spontaneous political demonstration tore the steeple from the cherished village church, he saw what was spontaneous and what was not. At the end, as the fields, the roads, the railway stations lay strewn with corpses, against an account made official not just in the rest of the Soviet Union but even in Ukraine itself, he saw what was alive and what was dead.
Dolot’s story has a natural and compelling structure. It opens in the prosperous, still largely undisturbed agrarian culture of his village, proceeds quickly through the fear and violence of the collectivization, climaxes with the horror of the famine, and ends with a rapid denouement: his life after May, 1933; his ultimate escape to the West.
Dolot (a pseudonym) writes a steady, unadorned prose. He lets the awful events speak for themselves. And yet he is not concerned to maintain a blank, emotionless pose. When he cried, and he did, he tells us: It’s a part of the story. And then he moves on. Once, once only, he tells us that he is weeping as he writes. The man knows what he is doing.
“One...Spring day we heard gunshots reverberating some distance from us. The sounds were coming from the east, and as the shooting approached closer, it was accompanied by the loud barking, whining, and yelping of dogs. At the same time, we heard some men shouting and laughing. This sounded very strange at a time when all the people in the village were downcast and silent. Suddenly, shots rang out in our own backyard, somewhere behind the barn, followed by the sound of a dog yelping and whining. We immediately recognized our dog, Latka. I ran out, and as I came to the place, I saw our Latka lying on the ground in a pool of blood, dead. Three gunmen stood beside her, looking down at her, talking and laughing. I broke out crying and tried to pet my dead dog. But my lamentations made no impression on the killers. One of them pushed me aside, took our Latka by her tail, and dragged her to the main road where a horse-driven cart already loaded with the bodies of other dogs and cats waited. Then all three of them mounted the car and drove away. After a while, we heard the sounds of more shouting in the distance, and of animals crying out in their death throes.”
This little incident, however marginal to the main story, is told to near perfection. You must take my word that Dolot is no less equal to his more demanding material.
The harrowing core of the book covers the period from December, 1932, through April, 1933. Ukrainians did not at first believe that when all their crop was taken, none would be brought back for them. They retained that much trust in the state distribution system. The state had been harsh before, but it had never attempted--they could not believe it would attempt--extermination. Dolot’s family survived by the ruse of burying a cache of food on government land, where the GPU would least expect it. Others were less resourceful; and as a winter of murderous cold and waist-deep snow set in, the smoke disappeared from one chimney after another.
With the first thaw, Dolot’s mother sent Miron and his brother, Mikola, to the homes of families for whom she feared. In cottage after cottage, they found the body of a child, sometimes more than one child, neatly laid out as for burial-- and the body of a mother hanged from the roof beam. Typically, the man of the family had long since been sent to Siberia.
It was too late for the Dolot brothers to do more than bury the dead. It is too late for us to do even that much. At the time, there were a few scattered newspaper reports of the Ukrainian holocaust, as there were of the later Jewish holocaust. But the Jews were killed by the nation that lost World War II, the Ukrainians by one of the nations that won. Tens of thousands of books have been written about Germany’s “ultimate solution” to its Jewish problem. Only now are the first books being written about Russia’s solution to its Ukrainian problem. And yet, as we learned recently at Bitburg, memory, even late, has its power.
Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and Rep. James Florio (D-N.J.) succeeded in tacking $400,000 for a Ukrainian famine study commission to a major appropriations bill last October. President Reagan has named some of its members; others have yet to be named. Will this commission, will Dolot’s or Conquest’s book, will Harvard’s Ukrainian Research Institute or a new film on the famine (screening in Los Angeles June 30, 2 p.m., 4315 Melrose) do any good? The question is not easily answered. It might be asked, these days, with particular urgency in Afghanistan.