The Soviet Union & The First Five-Year Plan
Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan, implemented between 1928 and 1932, was supposed to force economic success through industrialization and collectivization, based on the philosophy and steps described in The Communist Manifesto. He banished “that single, unconscionable freedom—Free Trade,” and he made progressive steps towards the abolition of bourgeois private property. “He had transformed the market into the plan, farmers into slaves, and the wastes of Siberia and Kazakhstan into a chain of concentration camps.” Stalin’s infamous camps were reserved for those who opposed the Marxist Revolution, namely Christians and Jews. However, instead of creating a utopia, he achieved mass homicide. By the end of those years, “[h]is policies had killed tens of thousands by execution, hundreds of thousands by exhaustion, and put millions at risk of starvation.”[i]
In spite of the persecution of the peasants during collectivization, many of the rural societies maintained their Christian-based values. But many of the youths were “swayed by official communist atheism,” leaving home for an urban life. However, while some peasants succumbed to the lies and trends of the rulers, and while the “Orthodox Church had been suppressed by the Atheist communist regime, the peasants were still Christian believers, and many understood the contract with the collective farm as a pact with the devil.” Historian Timothy Snyder, Professor of History at Yale University, writes:
Some believed that Satan had come to earth in human form as a party activist, his collective farm register a book of hell, promising torment and damnation. The new Machine Tractor Stations looked like the outposts of Gehenna. Some Polish peasants in Ukraine, Roman Catholics, also saw collectivization in apocalyptic terms. One Pole explained to his son why they would not join the collective farm: “I do not want to sell my soul to the devil.” Understanding this religiosity, party activists propagated what they called Stalin’s First Commandment: the collective farm supplies first the state, and only then the people. As the peasants would have known, the First Commandment in its biblical form reads: “Thou shalt have no other God before me.”[ii]
In Ukraine, by 1932, Polish spies learned that “cannibalism [had] become a habit of sorts” and that “entire villages [had] died out completely.” In spite of this, Poland refrained from publicizing to the world what its diplomats knew about the tragedy as the blood of the victims was off of their hands.[iii]
The Great Terror
While The Communist Manifesto promises equality for all, the implementation of the steps described in that handbook led to extreme national persecution and mass homicide. “In 1937 and 1938, a quarter of a million Soviet citizens were shot on essentially ethnic grounds.” This occurred “in the spirit of the national operations of Stalin’s Great Terror.”
Stalin knew, from the 1937 census that he suppressed, that a majority still defied the atheism of the Soviet state and believed in God.
– Timothy Snyder, Yale Professor, and Author of “The Bloodlands.”
Stalin would never be able to take the blame for such a grand failure. Instead, the NKVD chief for Ukraine, Vsevolod Balytskyi, would put the blame on the Polish national minority. Balytskyi explained the mass starvation as “a provocation of an espionage cabal that he called the ‘Polish Military Organization.’” According to Balytskyi, this organization had infiltrated the Ukrainian branch of the communist party, backed Ukrainian and Polish nationalists who sabotaged the harvest, and then used the starving bodies of Ukrainian peasants as anti-Soviet propaganda. It had supposedly inspired a nationalist “Ukrainian Military Organization,” a doppelganger group responsible for exacerbating the famine. However, this was a grand lie because there was no Polish Military Organization in the 1930s.[iv]
Historian Archie Brown, Emeritus Professor of Politics at Oxford University, writes that Communism was to be “a mythical heaven-on-earth,” and “political religion would give way to secularization.”[v] However, the peasants retained their Orthodox heritage, clinging to a faith that the Soviets believed to be causing conflict. “Stalin knew, from the 1937 census that he suppressed, that a majority still defied the atheism of the Soviet state and believed in God.”[vi]
Belarus held some of the most infamous prison camps, where, by the end of 1941, “death rates had reached two percent per day.”
“At Stalag 352 near Minsk, which one survivor remembered as ‘pure hell,’ prisoners were packed together so tightly by barbed wire that they could scarcely move. They had to urinate and defecate where they stood. Some 109,500 people died there.”[vii]
In his book, The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn describes what it meant to be at the mercy of Communist God-haters, and what it meant for the peasants who defied the system. Communists give no due process, no right to a fair trial, and no right from cruel and unusual punishments. Should a man be suspected of being a Capitalist or a Christian, he was guilty. “That’s all there is to it! You are arrested! And you’ll find nothing better to respond with than a lamblike bleat: ‘Me! What for?’”[viii]
The God that Failed: Six Studies in Communism is a collection of six essays, each written by six different men who were Communists until their ideology turned on them and nearly got them killed. Richard Crossman, the editor, writes:
“[I]t is useless to discuss any particular aspect of politics with a Communist. Any genuine intellectual contract which you have with him involves a challenge to his fundamental faith, a struggle for his soul….The Protestant is, at least in origin, a conscientious objector against spiritual subjection to any hierarchy. He claims to know what is right or wrong by the inner light, and democracy for him is not merely a convenient or a just form of government, but a necessity of human dignity.”[ix]
Richard Wright, African-American novelist, also comments on his experience with the Communist party in The God that Failed. He writes, “It was inconceivable to me, though bred in the lap of Southern hate, that a man could not have his say. I had spent a third of my life travelling from the place of my birth to the North just to talk freely, to escape the pressure of fear. And now I was facing fear again.”[x]
Arthur Koestler, activist and novelist, therein writes, “Faith is a wondrous thing; it is not only capable of moving mountains, but also of making you believe that a herring is a racehorse.”[xi] In his 1941 novel Darkness at Noon, which takes place in the Soviet Union under the reign of Stalin, his protagonist says:
I don’t approve of mixing ideologies….There are only two conceptions of human ethics, and they are at opposite poles. One of them is Christian and humane, declares the individual to be sacrosanct, and asserts that the rules of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units. The other starts from the basic principle that a collective aim justifies all means, and not only allows, but demands, that the individual should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the community—which may dispose of it as an experimentation rabbit or a sacrificial lamb.[xii]
The survivors eventually saw the Communist party for what it was. The deaths are so numerous that we, when studying this era, sometimes forget the significance of a single human life. Snyder is right when he writes, “It is for us as humanists to turn the numbers back into people.”[xiii]
[i] Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, 24-5 (Basic Books) (2010).
[ii] Id. at 29.
[iii] Id. at 38.
[iv] Id. at 89-90.
[v] Archie Brown, The Rise and Fall of Communism, 111 (Harper Collins) (2009).
[vi] Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin at 79.
[vii] Id. at 179.
[viii] Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 4 (Thomas P. Whitney trans., Harper & Row) (1973).
[ix] Richard Crossman, The God that Failed: Six Studies in Communism, 12 (Hamish Hamilton) (1950).
[x] Richard Wright, Id. at 142.
[xi] Arthur Koestler, Id. at 53.
[xii] Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon, 160 (Daphne Hardy trans., Scribner) (1968).
[xiii] Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin at 408-9.