Harvest of Sorrow; Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine

Book review by Edna Boardman, Bismarck, North Dakota

Conquest, Robert. Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

This is a dark book, widely reviewed for libraries and general audiences when it was published in 1986. Robert Conquest is an English scholar who has taken an intense interest in Russian history. Here he deals with what happened in rural Russia, especially in the Ukraine, across several decades of the development of the Communist system. The book is not entirely about the Germans who lived there--the Communists were equal opportunity despoilers--but he does not ignore the plight of the Volga Germans. (He seems to have used the term Volga Germans generically to distinguish them from the Germans living in Germany. He may not have known about the distinction between the Volga and Black Sea Germans.) Because the German colonists were highly productive and so were prosperous, and later because they spoke the language of the invaders of two wars, they were seen as kulaks and enemies of "the dictatorship of the proletariat." He makes note of the expulsion of priests and ministers, the destruction of churches, and the uprooting of families from their villages during the collectivization, when farmers were forced to leave their homes and enter communes.

Conquest reveals how Communist "requisitioners" took every handful of grain from the people and branded as thieves anyone who gathered even a few kernels of grain to satisfy their hunger from what had been their own fields. Deliberate communist mismanagement triggered two famines, the first in which the people were aided by the relief societies of the world in 1922-1923, and the second, a decade later, when no help was allowed and some 140,000 Germans, in addition to untold others, died. His intent, in the book, is not especially to horrify--it is not an exploitation piece.

He does not go into detail about specific crimes. Once you have read this book, you will know very well that the west was correct to consider the Communist philosophy a terrible enemy of freedom. Conquest, from his background as historian, gives a more thorough account of the sufferings than does Joseph Height in his books. There is a tendency to question anecdotal evidence, so this makes the work of scholars expecially important. He knows by name and motivation the persons who perpetrated the horrors on innocent rural people.

Comments from Ron Vossler, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks:

Just a note to add to Edna's review of Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivizations and the Terror Famine by Robert Conquest:

During the 1933 "Terror famine" much help, though not through organized relief societies, saved many lives of German Russian villagers. My relatives, for example, sent money which saved many.

Just to clarify, it was not exactly "mismanagement" by Communist officials which created the famine in 1933. It was deliberate. There was a good harvest. Letters from my own relatives, which I've recently been translating, show there were good crops, but people weren't allowed to keep the grain because unreasonable grain quotas were imposed. (One recent letter shows my grandmother's cousin was told to come up with 3OO pud of fruit in two days. When they couldn't come up with that much fruit, all of their belongings were sold, including their house, pillows, etc., so they were penniless.) That was not mismanagement.

One more note, to clarify that it was not "mismanagement" on part of communist officials which created the 1933 famine. Here is a quote from a letter one of my relatives sent to my grandmother's brother: "The commandant of our district recently gathered us together and told us, "Wherever you insects, and your offspring live (meaning German Russians), we will hunt you down. There will be hangings, and you will freeze to death, and there will be starvation, all if you do not meet our harvest quotas."

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