There is no algorithm for evil, but the case of Stalin’s has for a long time weighed more heavily the ideological murders and gulag deaths that began in 1937 and played down the millions who—Snyder argues—were just as deliberately, cold-bloodedly murdered by enforced famine in 1932 and 1933.
Here is where the shock of Snyder’s relatively few pages on cannibalism brought the question of degrees of evil alive once again to me. According to Snyder’s carefully documented account, it was not uncommon during the Stalin-imposed famine in Soviet Ukraine for parents to cook and eat their children.
The bare statement alone is horrifying even to write.
The back story: While Lenin was content, for a time anyway, to allow the new Soviet Union to develop a “mixed economy” with state-run industry and peasant-owned private farms, Stalin decided to “collectivize” the grain-producing breadbasket that was the Ukraine. His agents seized all land from the peasants, expelling landowners and placing loyal ideologues with little agricultural experience in charge of the newly collectivized farms, which began to fail miserably. And to fulfill Five-Year Plan goals, he seized all the grain and food that was grown in 1932 and 1933 to feed the rest of Russia and raise foreign capital, and in doing so left the entire Ukrainian people with nothing to eat—except, sometimes, themselves.
I’ve read things as horrifying, but never more horrifying than the four pages in Snyder’s book devoted to cannibalism. In a way I’d like to warn you not to read it; it is, unfortunately, unforgettable. On the other hand, not to read it is a refusal to be fully aware of what kind of world we live in, what human nature is capable of. The Holocaust taught us much on these questions, but alas, there is more to learn. Maybe it’s better to live in denial. Better to think of human history Pollyanna-like, as an evolution upward, although sometimes I feel Darwin spoke more truly than he knew when he titled his book The Descent of Man. Certainly one’s understanding of both Stalinism and human nature will be woefully incomplete until one does read Snyder’s pages.
Here is an excerpt:
In the face of starvation, some families divided, parents turning against children, and children against one another. As the state police, the OGPU, found itself obliged to record, in Soviet Ukraine “Families kill their weakest members, usually children, and use the meat for eating.” Countless parents killed and ate their children and then died of starvation later anyway. One mother cooked her son for herself and her daughter. One 6-year-old girl, saved by other relatives last saw her father when he was sharpening a knife to slaughter her. Other combinations were, of course, possible. One family killed their daughter-in-law, and fed her head to the pigs, and roasted the rest of her body.”
According to Snyder “at least 2,505 people were sentenced for cannibalism in the years 1932 and 1933 in Ukraine, although the actual number of cases was most certainly greater.”