Ellman - The Role of Leadership Perceptions and of Intent in the Soviet Famine of 1931-1934

The Role of Leadership Perceptions and of Intent in the Soviet Famine of 1931 – 1934 MICHAEL ELLMAN [Lenin in 1891 – 92] spoke out sharply and definitely against feeding the starving. His position, to the extent that I can now remember it, and I remember it well since I frequently argued with him about it, was as follows. The famine is the direct result of a definite social system. While that system exists such famines are inevitable. To e
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  The Role of Leadership Perceptions and of Intent in the Soviet Famine of 1931–1934 MICHAEL ELLMAN [Lenin in 1891–92] spoke out sharply and definitely against feeding the starving. Hisposition, to the extent that I can now remember it, and I remember it well since I frequentlyargued with him about it, was as follows. The famine is the direct result of a definite socialsystem. While that system exists such famines are inevitable. To eliminate famines is possible,but only by destroying this system. Being in this sense inevitable, the current famine is playingthe role of a progressive factor. By destroying the peasant economy and driving the peasantfrom the country to the town, the famine creates a proletariat and facilitates theindustrialisation of the region, which is progressive. Furthermore the famine can and shouldbe a progressive factor not only economically. It will force the peasant to reflect on the basesof the capitalist system, demolish faith in the tsar and tsarism, and consequently in due coursemake the victory of the revolution easier... Psychologically all this talk about feeding thestarving and so on essentially reflects the usual sugary sentimentality of our intelligentsia.V.Vodovozov (1925) 1 The grain procurements are a lever with the help of which we achieve the socialist re-education of the collective farmer. We teach him to think differently, no longer as the ownerof grain but as a participant in socialist competition, consciously and in a disciplined wayrelating to his obligations to the proletarian state. The grain procurements are that part of our work by which we take account of the collective farmer... and put the peasant in thechannel of proletarian discipline.Speaker at the June 1933 plenum of the Lower Volga  kraikom 2 I T HAS LONG BEEN DEBATED  whether the victims of the Soviet famine of the early1930s died due to a  conscious policy  of starvation or whether they were  unintended  victims of unfavourable natural conditions and policies aimed at other goals.Although the difference was of no importance for the unfortunate victims, it is of considerable importance for historians. In their recent monograph, Davies &Wheatcroft, on the basis of detailed study of the sources—many of them previouslyunused archival documents —and an enviable knowledge of the period, come downstrongly on the ‘unintentional’ side. 3 Their argument combines structural andconjunctural aspects. They argue that the structural factor was the decision toindustrialise this peasant country at breakneck speed, which led to the state’s rapidlygrowing need for grain to feed the towns and the army, and to finance imports of industrial equipment. 4 The conjunctural factor was two successive bad harvests (1931 EUROPE-ASIA STUDIES  Vol. 57, No. 6, September 2005, 823–841 ISSN 0966-8136 print; ISSN 1465-3427 online/05/060823-19  ª  2005 University of GlasgowDOI: 10.1080/09668130500199392  and 1932). The first bad harvest was caused by a drought. The second was also largelycaused by unfavourable weather whose effects were worsened by the decline in thenumber of horses. 5 Although foolish policy (neglect of crop rotation and the attemptto socialise livestock rapidly and completely) worsened the situation, as did grainexports, and the failure to obtain foreign assistance contrasted with policy in 1891–92,1921–22, 1941–45 and 1946–47, 6 the  intention  was not to starve the peasantry. Infact the famine was unexpected and undesirable. In evaluating the situation one has totake account of the fact that the policy makers were poorly educated people with littleknowledge of agriculture. Similarly, in his useful and informative study of the Kazakhfamine, Pianciola also supports the ‘unintentional’ interpretation. 7 The Davies & Wheatcroft interpretation is powerful, and there is much evidence tosupport it. Unlike much writing on this topic it is also numerate, with extensivestatistical data to back it up. However, is it  complete ? Is it really the case that nopeasants were deliberately starved to death? The fact that no document has been foundin which Stalin explicitly orders starvation is not by itself conclusive. Discussing thevexed question of Stalin’s possible role in the Kirov assassination, Khlevnyuk sensiblyremarked that it is unlikely that the question can be settled by explicit documentaryevidence since ‘assassinations are planned in strict secrecy and instructions for themare not given on headed paper’. 8 Hence it is necessary not just to consider whether ornot explicit instructions to use starvation as a weapon in the grain procurement drivescan be found, but also to consider weaker evidence.In order to understand the situation in 1932–33 it is necessary to look closely notonly at the impersonal structural and agronomical factors on which Davies &Wheatcroft concentrate but also at the  perception  of the situation by the  vozhd’  himself. In his well known correspondence with Sholokhov (which remainedunpublished for decades and the Khrushchevite partial publication of which wasdistorted to blacken Stalin), Stalin argued that the peasants were waging war againstSoviet power with such weapons as starvation. The crucial passage reads: ‘theesteemed grain growers of your region (and not only your region) carried out a sit-down strike (sabotage!) and would not have minded leaving the workers and the RedArmy without bread. The fact that the sabotage was quiet and apparently harmless(bloodless) does not alter the fact that the esteemed grain growers were basicallywaging a ‘‘quiet’’ war against Soviet power. A war by starvation ( voina na izmor ), dearcom. Sholokhov...’. 9 In other words, the first person to accuse people of deliberatelystarving other people was Stalin himself—not his various later critics. (We excludehere the peasants at that time, many of whom seem to have suspected or believed thatthe starvation was deliberate. 10 ) This is a factor of some importance. It can beexamined from both a propaganda and a psychological point of view.In his study of publicity and propaganda Mucchielli drew attention to the role inpolitical propaganda of ‘accusation in a mirror’. 11 ‘This consists in imputing to theopponents one’s own intentions, i.e. the actions which one is planning oneself. It is likesomeone who is about to launch a war declaring his peaceful intentions and accusinghis enemy of warmongering, or like someone who is using terror accusing the enemy of using terror. The advantages of accusation in a mirror are numerous. Apart from the(undeserved) saintly image one gains ( Outre l’aure´ ole que l’on en retire  a contrario),one deprives the enemy of his arguments and develops in the listeners and naı ¨ve souls824 MICHAEL ELLMAN  the conviction that, in the face of such opponents, honest people find themselves actingin  self-defence , and everyone should support the ‘‘just cause’’’. In other words,‘accusation in a mirror’ is a propaganda technique in which the perpetrators of certainactions (war, terror, genocide etc.) ascribe those actions to their enemies and see theirown actions as self-defence.The idea of ‘accusation in a mirror’ has not remained confined to books but hasbeen consciously used by propagandists/spin-doctors in recent conflicts. In her studyof the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, Forges explained the use in that catastrophe of ‘accusation in a mirror’. 12 One of the propagandists of the Rwanda genocideformulated two techniques to win support. ‘The propagandist calls his secondproposal ‘‘Accusation in a mirror’’, meaning his colleagues should impute to enemiesexactly what they and their own party are planning to do. He explains ‘‘In this way,the party which is using terror will accuse the enemy of using terror’’. With such atactic, propagandists can persuade listeners and ‘‘honest people’’ that they are beingattacked and are justified in taking whatever measures are necessary ‘‘for legitimate[self–] defence’’’. 13 Not only do evil–doers use ‘accusation in a mirror’ as a propaganda weapon, theyfrequently actually believe it themselves. It is well known that evil-doers tend to seetheir own actions as reprisals for actions against them. As Baumeister has pointed out,what to outside observers appears to be unjustified cruelty frequently appears to theperpetrators as a response to attacks on them. 14 Hence, if we apply the logic of Mucchielli, the anonymous propagandist cited byForges, and of Baumeister, we might consider Stalin’s accusation of the use of starvation by his enemies as ‘an accusation in a mirror’. The accusation would meanthat it was actually he himself who was using starvation as a weapon but that hewished to transfer the blame for it to his enemies. 15 Is it plausible to apply ‘accusation in a mirror’ to Stalin? Are there any otherexamples which can be interpreted as ascription by him of his own crimes to others?Are there other cases where Stalin uses ‘accusation in a mirror’? If so, that wouldstrengthen the idea that this is a reasonable way of interpreting the extract from theStalin–Sholokhov correspondence cited above.There are, in fact, a number of such cases. They include his speech at the concludingsession of the February–March Plenum (1937), the 17 November 1938 decree endingthe terror, his 1939 telegram justifying torture and his response to accusations aboutthe Katyn massacre.In his speech at the concluding session of the February–March (1937) PlenumStalin said,  inter alia , ‘Naı ¨ve people may think that between them [i.e. the bourgeoisstates], states with the same system, there exist only good relations. But only naı ¨vepeople think like that. In actual fact, relations between them are very far from goodneighbourly relations. It is as certain as two times two equals four that bourgeoisstates send to each other’s rear their spies, wreckers and saboteurs, and sometimes alsomurderers, giving them the task of infiltrating institutions and enterprises of thesestates and there creating their network, so that when the time comes they will blow uptheir rear, in order to weaken them and undermine their power’. 16 It would indeed benaı ¨ve to ignore the intelligence gathering, planting of agents and murders carried outby bourgeois states. 17 Nevertheless, it seems that this passage is also an example of anTHE SOVIET FAMINE OF 1931–1934 825  ‘accusation in a mirror’. It was the USSR which was most active in sending murderersto other countries. In 1930–40 the killing of the ROVS leaders Kutepov and Miller,the liquidation of the POUM leadership in Catalonia, the assassination of the OUNleader Konovalets, the killing of Ignacy Reiss, the murder of the Fourth Internationalsecretary Klement, the assassination of Trotsky etc. were all carried out by Sovietmurderers sent to other countries by the Soviet leadership. As for sending spies toinfiltrate other countries’ institutions and enterprises, the USSR was notorious for justthat. 18 Another example concerns Stalin’s ending of the terror in November 1938.According to the decree of Sovnarkom and the CC of 17 November 1938 which endedthe terror, many of the arrests during it were a result of ‘enemies of the people andspies for foreign intelligence, who made their way into the organs of the NKVD at thecentre and in the localities, and who continued to carry out their subversive work,striving by all means to muddle up the investigative and information-collecting work,consciously perverting Soviet laws, carrying out mass and unfounded arrests’. Afterlisting various ‘defects’ in the work of the NKVD during the period of the terror, thedecree concluded that ‘All these absolutely unacceptable defects in the work of theorgans of the NKVD and the Procuracy were only possible because the enemies of thepeople who made their way into the organs of the NKVD and the Procuracy tried inevery way to tear the work of the organs of the NKVD and Procuracy away from theparty organs, to escape from party control and leadership, and in this way make iteasier for themselves and their accomplices to continue their anti-Soviet subversiveactivity’. 19 It is clear that, in these passages, Stalin ascribes the consequences of hisown orders to ‘enemies of the people’. The NKVD and the Procuracy had not ‘escapedfrom party control’. They had faithfully carried out Stalin’s orders. The ‘massoperations’ had not been ordered by Stalin’s opponents in cahoots with foreignintelligence services but by Stalin himself. 20 A similar, but not identical, case is Stalin’s notorious telegram of 10 January 1939 justifying torture. In the winter of 1938–39 local party and procuracy bodies werelooking into the activities of the NKVD in 1937–38. It was necessary to inform themthat there had been some wrongful arrests, some people needed to be rehabilitated,many  chekisty  themselves needed to be arrested, and that generally ‘excesses’ needed tobe corrected. However, torture itself was not an ‘excess’ but perfectly legitimate. Infact, it had been authorised by the leadership in 1937 21 and could continue to be usedwith full official authorisation (‘in exceptional cases’). Stalin argued that ‘It is wellknown that all bourgeois intelligence services use torture (  fizicheskoe vozdeistvie ) onrepresentatives of the socialist proletariat, and use it in the most varied forms. Thequestion arises: why should socialist intelligence be more humane in relation to agentsof the bourgeoisie, the enemies of the working class and the collective farmers?’ 22 Although in this case Stalin explicitly recognised his use of torture, he considered itfully justified because the enemy had long used it on a large scale, whereas he had onlyrecently begun using it and then only ‘in exceptional cases’. This is a clear case of Stalin accusing his enemies of doing what in fact he himself had been doing on a largescale for some time.After authorising the Katyn massacre, when accused by the Polish government inexile and by the Nazis of doing so, Stalin indignantly denied it and blamed it on the826 MICHAEL ELLMAN
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