When reading Anne Applebaum’s book Red famine. Stalin’s War on Ukraine, I came across the following quote from Everything Flows by Vasily Grossman:
“I’m no longer under a spell, I can see now that the kulaks were human beings. But why was my heart so frozen at the time? When such terrible things were being done, when such suffering was going on all around me? And the truth is that I truly didn’t think of them as human beings. ‘They’re not human beings, they’re kulak trash’ – that’s what I heard again and again, that’s what everyone kept repeating ...”
Appelbaum’s book treats one of the most miserable periods in the history of the Soviet Union. Here it’s not the place to go into details but in the 1930s Stalin and the leadership of the communist party had decided that agriculture in the Soviet Union had to be collectivized: Individual peasant farmers had to join big cooperative agricultural farms, if not voluntarily then by force. Applebaum describes in her book how this happened in the Ukraine, the major agricultural area of the Soviet Union. There was much opposition in the Ukraine against this collectivization. In order to break the opposition Stalin and the communist leadership decided to kill and to starve out all farmers, peasants and others who opposed the plans. As a result that millions of people died – executed, in prison camps (the “gulag”) or by starvation. In those days the richer farmers and peasants were called “kulaks”, but actually it was so that every opponent and everybody who was against the collectivization was called so. Moreover, in the communist propaganda they weren’t simply seen as people who didn’t agree and didn’t cooperate; no they were considered “trash” or “vermin” and the like.
Now it’s so that the situation described in the book is something of the past, anyway – I hope and assume – for the readers of my blogs, although I don’t want to underestimate the number of regions in the world where people still are treated in such an inhuman way. But you, readers of my blogs living mostly in comfortable circumstances, look around and watch: Isn’t it so that in your immediate environment still many people are seen a little bit as trash or even as vermin? People belonging to other groups, to “lower” groups, to “lower” classes than the one you belong to are too often looked upon with contempt. Actually, as is often thought by the “higher” people (and maybe also by you???), it is that they don’t behave as it should be. Their opinions are not the “right” ones, just because they are “lower”. In fact they are seen a little bit as trash. Especially those people are seen that way who don’t lead a regular life: poor people, street people, tramps, illegal migrants from Africa and the Middle East in Europe and from Latin America in the USA. In their hearts – and sometimes openly as well – many people see them as trash or vermin. Throw them away from your life, tread down on them. Of course, not literally. We are human and civilized and put them in camps or on islands far away or keep a watch on them in another way. We even pay their return home, in case they are immigrants and are prepared to leave. We are human, aren’t we? But in fact, a little bit of the feeling described by Vasily Grossman is still in us.
Anne Applebaum, Red famine. Stalin’s War on Ukraine. London, Penguin Books, 2018; p. 226.