[bas relief by Oleh Lesiuk]
The Manchester Guardian. 25 March 1933. (Pages 13 &14).
THE SOVIET AND THE PEASANTRY
An Observer's Notes
FAMINE IN NORTH CAUCASUS
Whole Villages Exiled
[The writer of this article, and of two which are to follow, recently visited the North Caucasus and the Ukraine in order to see for himself, and to record, how the collectivisation of agriculture in Soviet Russia was affecting the lives of the peasants.]
(From a Correspondent in Russia.)
Living in Moscow and listening always to statements of doctrine and of policy, you forget that Moscow is the centre of a country stretching over a sixth of the world’s surface and that the lives of a hundred and sixty millions of people, mostly peasants are profoundly affected by discussions and resolutions that seem, when you hear them or read of them in the press, as abstract as the proceedings of a provincial debating Society. “We must collectivise agriculture”, or “We must root out kulaks” (the rich peasants). How simple it sounds! How logical. But what is going on in the remote villages, in the small households of the peasants? What does this collectivisation of agriculture mean in practice in the lives of the peasantry? What results has the new “drive” produced? What truth, if any, is there in the gloomy reports that have been reaching Moscow? That is what I wanted to find out. I set out to discover it in the North Caucasus and the Ukraine.
If you fall asleep in Moscow and then wake up and looking out of a railway carriage window, find yourself in the Ukraine you suddenly feel gay and light-hearted. There are great sweeps of country, and you realise that Moscow is sombre and shut in. Now you breathe again; now you see a horizon. Only, the way to go over the glistening snow would be not in an over-heated railway compartment, with a gramophone playing state jazz music, but in a sledge drawn by swift horses, with silver bells round their necks and with the cold wind against your face.
A MARKET TOWN
A little market town in the Kuban district, of the North Caucasus suggested a military occupation; worse, active war. There were soldiers everywhere - in the railway station, in the streets, everywhere, - Mongols with leaden faces and slit eyes; others obviously peasants, rough but not brutal; occasional officers, dapper, often Jews; all differing notably from the civilian population in one respect. They were well fed, and the civilian population was obviously starving I mean starving in its absolute sense; not undernourished as, for instance, most Oriental peasants are undernourished and some unemployed workers in Europe, but having had for weeks next to nothing to eat. Later I found out that there had been no bread at all in the place for three months, and such food as there was I saw for myself in the market. The only edible thing there on the lowest, European standards was chicken— about five chickens, fifteen roubles each. No one was buying. Where should a peasant, get fifteen roubles? For the most part, chickens, the few that remain - are sold at the railway stations to passengers on their way to the mountains in the south for a holiday or for a rest cure in a sanatorium.
The rest of the food offered for sale was revolting and would be thought unfit, in the ordinary way, to be offered to animals. There was sausage at fifteen roubles the kilo; there was black cooked meat which worked out, I calculated, at a rouble for three bites; there were miserable fragments of cheese and some potatoes, half-rotten. A crowd wandered backwards and forwards eyeing these things wistfully, too poor to buy. The few who bought gobbled their purchases ravenously then and there.
“How are things with you?” I asked one man. He looked round anxiously to see that, no soldiers were about. “We have nothing, absolutely nothing. They have taken everything away,” he said and hurried on. This was what I heard again and again and again. “We have nothing. They have taken everything away.” It was true. They had nothing. It was also true that everything had been taken away. The famine is an organised one. Some of the food that has been taken away from them—and the peasants know this quite well - is still being exported to foreign countries.
A STRICKEN LAND
It is impossible adequately to describe the melancholy atmosphere of this little market town; how derelict it was; the same sense of hopelessness pervading the place and this not just because of famine but because the population was, as it were, torn up by the roots. The class war has been waged vigorously up in the North Caucasus, and the proletariat represented [word unclear on micro-fiche] by the G.P.U. (State Political Police) and the military, has defeated and utterly routed its enemies, amongst the peasantry who tried to hide a little of their produce to feed themselves through the winter. Despite hostile elements, however the North Caucasus distinguished itself by being 90 per cent collectivised, and then, this year, by fulfilling its grain delivery plan.
As a result, this double effort has turned it into something like a wilderness—fields choked with weeds, cattle dead, people starving and dispirited, no horses for ploughing or for transport, not even adequate supplies of seed for the spring sowing. The worst of the class war is that it never stops. First individual kulaks shot and exiled; then groups of peasants; then whole villages. I walked from street to street watching the faces of people, looking at empty shops. Even here a Torgsin shop; good food offered for gold; useful for locating any private hoards that organised extortion had failed to detect.
The little villages round about were even more depressing than the market town. Often they seemed quite deserted. Only smoke coming from some of the chimneys told that they were populated. In one of the larger villages I counted only five people in one street, and there was a soldier riding up and down on— rare sight now in the North Caucasus - a fine horse. It is literally true that whole villages have been exiled. In some cases demobilised soldiers have been moved in to take the places of the exiles; in some cases the houses are just left empty. I saw myself a group of some twenty peasants being marched off under escort. This is so common a sight that it no longer even arouses curiosity. Everywhere I heard that the winter sowing had been miserably done, and that in any case the land was too ‘weed-ridden' to yield even a moderate crop. Though it was winter, in some places weeds still stood — taller than wheat and growing thickly. There was no cattle to be seen, and I was assured that, in that part of the North Caucasus at least, there were none at all. They had been killed and eaten or had died of starvation.
Occasionally along the road I met with little groups of peasants with rifles slung over their shoulders; men in fur caps, rough-looking; a kind of armed militia that has also been mobilised for service on the kulak front. I wanted to find out about future prospects; whether the change from forced grain collections to a more moderately assessed tax-in-kind was going to make things better; what chances there were even now of retrieving the blunders of the last two years. It is difficult however, to get people who are starving and who know that, whatever happens, they must go on starving for at least three more months, and probably five, to talk about or take any great interest in the future. To them the question of bread, of how to get enough food to keep just alive to-day and to-morrow, transcends all others. Starving people are not, in a general way, loquacious, particularly when to talk may be to qualify as a kulak and so for exile or worse. I was shown a piece of bread from Stavropol. It was made, I was told, of weeds and straw and a little millet. It seemed inconceivable that anyone could eat such bread; actually it was in the circumstances a rare delicacy.
The peasants in this region had to provide exports to pay for the Five-year Plan; they had to be— to use an expression of Stalin’s in a lecture on the peasant question— “reserves of the proletariat”; and the “reserves” had to be mobilised, made accessible—that is, collectivised. It was not difficult for the Soviet Government to make collectivisation, in the quantitative sense, an enormous success, so enormous that even the Communist party grew a little anxious and Stalin issued a public warning against “dizziness from success”. In the event about 60 percent of the peasantry and 80 per cent of the land were brought into collective farms; Communists with impeccable ideology were installed as directors of them; agronomes were to provide expert advice, tractors to replace horses, elevators to replace barns, and the practice of America combined with the theory of Marxism was to, transform agriculture into a kind of gigantic factory staffed by an ardently class-conscious proletariat.
As things turned out the Communist directors were sometimes incompetent or corrupt, the agronomes, despite their scientific training, were in many cases a failure in dealing with the actual problems connected with producing food; horses, for lack of fodder, died off much faster than tractors were manufactured, and the tractors were mishandled and broken; the attitude of the peasants varied from actual sabotage and passive resistance to mere apathy, and was generally, to say the least, unhelpful; altogether, in the qualitative sense, collectivisation was a failure. The immediate result was, of course, a falling off in the yield of agriculture as a whole. Last year this falling off became acute. None the less the Government quota had to be collected. To feed the cities and to provide even very much reduced food exports it was necessary for the Government’s agents to go over the country and take everything, or nearly everything, that was edible. At the same time, because the policy could not be wrong and therefore individuals, classes, must be at fault, there took place a new outburst of repression, directed this time not only against kulaks but against every kind of peasant suspected of opposing the Government’s policy; against a good number of the Communist directors and the unfortunate agronomes. Shebboldaev party secretary for the North Caucacus, said in a speech delivered at Rostov, on November 12:
"But, you may urge, is it not true that we have deported Kulaks and counter-revolutionary elements before? We did deport them, and in sufficiently large numbers. But at the present moment, when what remains of the kulaks are trying to organise sabotage, every slacker must be deported. That is true justice. You may say that before, we exiled individual kulaks, and that now it concerns whole stanitzas (villages) and whole collective farms. If these are enemies they must be treated as kulaks …The general line of our party is to fight dishonesty by means of the extreme penalty, because this is the only defence we have against the destruction of our Socialist economy,"
It is this “true justice” that has helped greatly to reduce the North Caucasus to its present condition.
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