The Disappeared: Even the Soviet Union Eventually Acknowledged Stalin's Great Famine. Why Does China Still Hide Evidence of Its Own Mass Starvation under Mao?

By Dikotter, Frank | Foreign Policy, January-February 2013 | Go to article overview

The Disappeared: Even the Soviet Union Eventually Acknowledged Stalin's Great Famine. Why Does China Still Hide Evidence of Its Own Mass Starvation under Mao?


Dikotter, Frank, Foreign Policy


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FOR DECADES, THE Soviet Union hid its horrors behind the Iron Curtain. The worst of them was Joseph Stalin's man-made famine in Ukraine and southern Russia, the result of his program of forced rural collectivization that claimed the lives of 7 to 10 million people in 1932 and 1933. Land, property, livestock, even houses were requisitioned as farmers became state employees forced to deliver ever higher grain quotas. Those who resisted or tried to hide food were deported to the Gulag or executed. Whole parts of the Ukrainian countryside turned into death zones. Millions perished, yet Stalin managed to silence all talk of the famine, sending those who breathed a word of it to labor camps in far-off Siberia. The census data, which would have shown a huge spike in mortality rates, were locked away for half a century."

But even before the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union, Communist Party leaders in Ukraine started investigating the famine in their own party archives. They found a wealth of gruesome documentation. Some of the most shocking evidence came from photographs of starving children with skeletal heads, ribs poking through their skin, begging for a scrap of food on the pavement in Kharkov, Ukraine's capital at the time of the famine. One picture showed emaciated corpses piled onto a cart, drumstick limbs akimbo amid a tumble of bodies. These were not a few isolated snapshots--there were hundreds of images. Leonid Kravchuk, who would later become Ukraine's first democratically elected president, was one of the first to see this evidence. He was so haunted by the faces of the children killed by the famine that he persuaded Vladimir Ivashko, then the first secretary of Ukraine's Communist Party, to approve the reproduction of 350 photographs in a book released to the public in 1990. Today, the famine is officially and universally remembered across Ukraine as the Holodomor, literally "death by hunger."

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A man-made disaster of even greater magnitude shook China in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In a campaign he called the Great Leap Forward, Chairman Mao Zedong herded the countryside into giant collective farms in 1958, believing that they would catapult his country into a utopia of plenty for all. As in Ukraine, everything was collectivized: Villagers were robbed of their work, homes, land, belongings, and livelihood. The experiment ended in the greatest catastrophe the country had ever known; at least 45 million people died of starvation over four years, as I found out when I was given unprecedented access to recently opened Communist Party archives in China.

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I read through thousands of documents: secret reports from the Public Security Bureaus, detailed minutes of top party meetings, investigations into cases of mass murder, inquiries compiled by special teams tasked with determining the extent of the catastrophe, secret opinion surveys, and letters of complaint written by ordinary citizens. Some were neatly written in longhand, others typed out on flimsy, yellowing paper. Some were excruciating to read, for instance, a report written by an investigation team noting the case of a boy in a Hunan village who had been caught stealing a handful of grain. A local Communist Party cadre forced his father to bury the boy alive. The father died of grief a few days later.

Other documents presented the famine's horror in the sterile language typical of communist bureaucracy. A police report I discovered in one provincial archive listed some 50 cases of cannibalism, all in a city in Gansu, a province in northwestern China:

Date: 25 February 1960. Location: Hongtai Commune, Yaohejia Village. Name of Culprit: Yang Zhongsheng. Status: Poor Farmer. Number of People Involved: 1. Name of Victim: Yang Ershun. Relationship with Culprit: Younger Brother. Number of People Involved: 1. …

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