Lev Kopelev, Terror in the Countryside


The liquidation of the kulaks began in late 1929, extending through the length and breadth of the country during the winter. The confiscation of kulak property, the deportations, and the killing rose to a brutal climax in the following spring and continued for another two years, by which time the bulk of the private farms had been eliminated. By some estimates, almost five million people were liquidated. Some were driven from their huts, deprived of all possessions, and left destitute' in the dead of winter; the men were sent to forced labor and their families left abandoned. Others killed themselves or were killed outright, sometimes in pitched battles involving a whole village- men, women, and children.


The upheaval destroyed agricultural production in these years; farm animals died or were killed in huge numbers; fields lay barren. In 1932 and 1933, famine stalked the south and southeast, killing additional millions. The vast tragedy caused by collectivization did not deter Stalin from pursuing his goals: the establishment of state farms run like factories and the subordination of the rebellious and willful peasantry to state authority.


Here a militant participant in the collectivization drive, Lev Kopelev, recalls some of his experiences. Kopelev (1912-1997), raised in a Ukrainian middle class Jewish family, evolved from a youthful Stalinist into a tolerant, gentle person in later years. After trying to keep Russian soldiers from raping and pillaging in German territory in 1945, he was given a ten-year sentence for anti-state crimes. Subsequently Out of favor because of his literary protests against the inhumanities of the Soviet system, he was exiled from the Soviet Union to West Germany in 1980.


The grain front! Stalin said the struggle for grain was the struggle for socialism. I was convinced that we were warriors on an invisible front, fighting against kulak sabotage for the grain which was needed by the country, by the five- year plan. Above all, for the grain, but also for the souls of these peasants who were mired in un-conscientiousness, in ignorance, who succumbed to enemy agitation, who did not understand the great truth of communism….


The highest measure of coercion on the hardcore holdouts was "undisputed confiscation."

A team consisting of several young kolkhozniks [collective farmers] and members of the village soviet ... would search the hut, barn, yard, and take away all the stores of seed, lead away the cow, the horse , the pigs.


In some cases they would be merciful and leave some potatoes, peas, corn for feeding the family. But the stricter ones would make a clean sweep, They would take not only the food and livestock, but also "all valuables and surpluses of clothing," including icons in their frames, samovars, painted carpets and even metal kitchen utensils which might be silver.


And any money they found stashed away. Special instructions ordered the removal of gold,

silver and currency….


Several times Volodya and I were present at such plundering raids. We even took part: we were entrusted to draw up inventories of the confiscated goods.... The women howled hysterically, clinging to the bags .


"Oy, that's the last thing we have! That was for the children's kasha (cereal) Honest to

God, the children will starve!"


They wailed, falling on their trunks:


"Oy, that's a keepsake from my dead mama! People, come to my aid, this is my trousseau,

never e'en put on!"


I heard the children echoing them with screams, choking, coughing with screams. And I saw the looks of the men: frightened, pleading, hateful , dully impassive, extinguished with despair or flaring up with half-mad, daring ferocity.


"Take it. Take it away. Take everything away. There's still a pot of borscht on the stove. It's plain, got no meal But still it's got beets, taters 'n' cabbage. And it's salted! Better take it, comrade citizens! Here, hang on, I'll take off my shoes. They're patched and re-patched, but maybe they'll have some use for the proletariat, for our dear Soviet power."


It was excruciating to see and hear all this. And even worse to take part in it. ... And I persuaded myself, explained to myself. I mustn't give in to debilitating pity. We were realizing historical necessity. We were performing our revolutionary duty. We were obtaining grain for the socialist fatherland. For the five-year plan....


I have always remembered the winter of the last grain collections, the weeks of the great famine. And I have always told about it. But I did not begin to write it down until many years later. . . .


How could all this have happened? Who was guilty of the famine which destroyed millions of lives?


How could I have participated in it? ...


We were raised as the fanatical believers of a new creed, the only true religion of scientific socialism. The party became our church militant, bequeathing to all mankind eternal salvation, eternal peace and the bliss of an earthly paradise. It victoriously surmounted all other churches, schisms and heresies. The works of Marx, Engels and Lenin were accepted as holy writ, and Stalin was the infallible high priest.. . . Stalin was the most perspicacious, the most wise (at that time they hadn't yet starred calling him "great" and "brilliant"). He said: "The struggle for grain is the struggle for socialism. And we believed him unconditionally. And later we believed that unconditional collectivization was unavoidable if we were to overcome the capriciousness and uncertainty of the market and the backwardness of individual farming, to guarantee a steady supply of grain, milk and meat to the cities. And also if we were to reeducate millions of peasants, those petty landowners and hence potential bourgeoisie, potential kulaks, to transform them into laborers with a social conscience, to liberate them from "the idiocy of country life," from ignorance and prejudice, and to accustom them to culture, to all the boons of socialism . ...


[In the following passage Kopelev reflects, even more searchingly, on his own motivation

and state of mind as a participant in Stalin's collectivization drive.]


With the rest of my generation I firmly believed that the ends justified the means. Our great goal was the universal triumph of Communism, and for the sake of that goal everything was permissible- to lie, to steal, to destroy hundreds of thousands and even millions of people, all those who were hindering our work or could hinder it, everyone who stood in the way. And to hesitate or doubt about all this was to give in to "intellectual squeamishness" and "stupid liberalism," the attributes of people who "could not see the forest for the trees."


That was how I had reasoned, and everyone like me, even when I did have my doubts, when I saw what "total collectivization" meant- how ... mercilessly they stripped the peasants in the winter of 1932-33. I took part in this myself, scouring the countryside, searching for hidden grain, testing the earth with an iron rod for loose spots that might lead to buried grain. With the others, I emptied out the old folks' storage chests, stopping my ears to the children's crying and the women's wails. For I was convinced that I was accomplishing the great and necessary transformation of the countryside; that in the days to come the people who lived there would be better off for it; that their distress and suffering were a result of their own ignorance or the machinations of the class enemy; that those who sent me- and I myself- knew better than the peasants how they should live, what they should sow and when they should plow.


In the terrible spring of 1933 I saw people dying from hunger. I saw women and children with distended bellies, turning blue, still breathing bur with vacant, lifeless eyes. And corpses- corpses in ragged sheepskin coats and cheap felt boots; corpses in peasant huts, in the melting snow of old Vologda, under the bridges of Kharkov .... I saw all this and did not go out of my mind or commit suicide. Nor did I curse those who had sent me to take away the peasants' grain in the winter, and in the spring to persuade the barely walking, skeleton-thin or sickly-swollen people to go into the fields in order to "fulfill the Bolshevik sowing plan in shock-worker style." Nor did I lose my faith. As before, I believed because I wanted to believe. Thus from time immemorial men have believed when possessed by a desire to serve powers and values above and beyond humanity: gods; emperors, states; ideals of virtue, freedom, nation, race, class, party….


Any single-minded attempt to realize these ideals exacts its toll of human sacrifice. In the name of the noblest visions promising eternal happiness to their descendants, such men bring merciless ruin on their contemporaries. Bestowing paradise on the dead, they maim and destroy the living. They become unprincipled liars and unrelenting executioners, all the while seeing themselves as virtuous and honorable militants- convinced that if they are forced into villainy, it is for the sake of future good , and that if they have to lie, it is in the name of eternal truths.


... That was how we thought and acted- we, the fanatical disciples of the all-saving ideals of Communism. When we saw the base and cruel acts that were committed in the name of our exalted notions of good, and when we ourselves rook part in those actions, what we feared most was to lose our heads, fall into doubt or heresy and forfeit our unbounded faith.. . The concepts of conscience, honor, humaneness we dismissed as idealistic prejudices, "intellectual" or "bourgeois," and hence, perverse.