It is an arresting thought that by the time of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 Stalin had already directly caused the deaths of more people in the Soviet Union than had died among all the combatant nations of the First World War. Robert Conquest sets out to explain how this came about, especially during the terrible years of 1929 to 1933, in Soviet Russia and even more tragically in the Ukraine, the North Caucasus and Kazakhstan. The author describes Lenin’s battle to subdue breakaway nations such as the Ukraine and to impose collectivisation (as a means of control) on the peasants, which resulted in the Peasant War of 1917 to 1921 and the accompanying famine. Western readers will have heard of the role of White Russian anti-Bolshevik forces in the civil war in Russia but how many are familiar with the much more widespread and prolonged Peasant War against the forces of Communism? With the impending death of Lenin we have the bid for power by Stalin and his struggle to achieve dominance over his rivals on the left and right. Coincident with this struggle for power is the suppression of the so-called ‘kulaks’ or rich peasant landlords, who had all long since been deprived of their land by the poorer peasants immediately following the revolution, so that this was a political bidding game of terror against a fictional opponent by elements in the Politburo. This directly resulted in the deaths and deportation of hundreds of thousands of innocent peasants. During this time we have the stalemate of 1921 to 1927 and the announcement of the New Economic Policy (NEP) when peasants were allowed a tiny measure of freedom to develop their own land, such was the dire shortage of food and the recalcitrance of the population. This was not to last. Finally, Stalin banished his rivals by adroitly reversing policy from time to time and using the changes to leave first his opponents and then his friends off-balance and easy to remove. On the assumption of absolute power Stalin embarked on his crash program of collectivisation and further purges of the non-existent ‘kulaks’ as scapegoats for any failure, which of course meant the entirely random deaths of innocent peasants as a matter of policy. It was as a result of these actions between 1929 and 1933 that the deaths of millions and the permanent disabling of the agricultural system in the Soviet Union came about. Some 25% of the population of Kazakhstan perished as a forced change was made from the grazing of sheep and cattle on the grasslands to failed grain cultivation. In the Ukraine the number who died as a result of repeated purges and the deliberate removal of all grain and foodstuffs as a policy of terror in order to repress nationalism was 20% of the population. Across the Soviet Union some 14.5 million perished in the villages and prison camps. A truly shocking history recounted by Conquest in forensic detail as he knew the Left would search for any pretext to try and blur the truth as they had been doing for years, and to some extent continue to do so today. (How often do you see portrayals or references to this genocide on the BBC compared to almost weekly recounting of the horrors of Nazism?). This book was published in 1986 when the Soviet Union and its East European allies still seemed to be firmly in place and information was difficult to obtain, but there has still been no better book recounting this history since better access to information has become possible. This book is especially important when we see the continuing struggles (2014) taking place in the Ukraine against the background of a terrible and bitter legacy at the hands of Soviet Russia. The very quantitative detail of this book makes for difficult reading at times and for that reason alone I have not been able to award this vital work five stars.
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