Eighty years ago, in the autumn of 1930, Joseph Stalin enforced a policy that changed the course of history, and led to tens of millions of deaths across the decades and around the world. In a violent and massive campaign of 'collectivisation', he brought Soviet agriculture under state control.
Stalin pursued collectivisation despite the massive resistance that had followed when Soviet authorities first tried to introduce the policy the previous spring. The Soviet leadership had relied then upon shootings and deportations to the Gulag to preempt opposition. Yet Soviet citizens resisted in large numbers; Kazakh nomads fled to China, Ukrainian farmers to Poland.
In the autumn, the shootings and deportations resumed, complemented by economic coercion. Individual farmers were taxed until they entered the collective, and collective farms were allowed to seize individual farmers' seed grain, used to plant the next year's harvest.
Once the agricultural sector of the USSR was collectivised, the hunger began. By depriving peasants of their land and making them de facto state employees, collective farming allowed Moscow to control people as well as their produce.
Yet control is not creation. It proved impossible to make Central Asian nomads into productive farmers in a single growing season. Beginning in 1930, some 1.3 million people starved in Kazakhstan as their meagre crops were requisitioned according to central directives.
In Ukraine, the harvest failed in 1931. The reasons were many: poor weather, pests, shortages of animal power after peasants slaughtered livestock rather than losing it to the collective, shortages of tractors, the shooting and deportation of the best farmers, and the disruption of sowing and reaping caused by collectivisation itself.
"How can we be expected to build the socialist economy," asked a Ukrainian peasant, "when we are all doomed to hunger?" We now know, after 20 years of discussion of Soviet documents, that in 1932 Stalin knowingly transformed the collectivisation famine in Ukraine into a deliberate campaign of politically motivated starvation. Stalin presented the crop failure as a sign of Ukrainian national resistance, requiring firmness rather than concessions.
As famine spread that summer, Stalin refined his explanation: hunger was sabotage, local Communist activists were the saboteurs, protected by higher authorities, and all were paid by foreign spies. In the autumn of 1932, the Kremlin issued a series of decrees that guaranteed mass death. One of them cut off all supplies to communities that failed to make their grain quotas.
Meanwhile, the Communists took whatever food they could find, as one peasant remembered, "down to the last little grain", and in early 1933 the borders of Soviet Ukraine were sealed so that the starving could not seek help. Dying peasants harvested the spring crops under watchtowers.
More than five million people starved to death or died of hunger-related disease in the USSR in the early 1930s, 3.3 million of them in Ukraine, of which about three million would have survived had Stalin simply ceased requisitions and exports for a few months and granted people access to grain stores.
These events remain at the centre of East European politics to this day. Each November, Ukrainians commemorate the victims of 1933. But Viktor Yanukovich, the current Ukrainian President, denies the special suffering of the Ukrainian people – a nod to Russia's official historical narrative, which seeks to blur the particular evils of collectivisation into a tragedy so vague that it has no clear perpetrators or victims.
Rafal Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish lawyer who established the concept of 'genocide' and invented the term, would have disagreed: he called the Ukrainian famine a classic case of Soviet genocide. As Lemkin knew, terror followed famine: peasants who survived hunger and the Gulag became Stalin's next victims. The Great Terror of 1937-1938 began with a shooting campaign – directed chiefly against peasants – that claimed 386,798 lives across the Soviet Union, a disproportionate number of them in Ukraine.
Collectivisation casts a long shadow. When Nazi Germany invaded the western Soviet Union, the Germans kept the collective farms intact, rightly seeing them as the instrument that would allow them to divert Ukrainian food for their own purposes, and starve whom they wished.
After Mao made his revolution in 1949, Chinese communists followed the Stalinist model of development. This meant that some 30 million Chinese starved to death in 1958-1961, in a famine very similar to that in the Soviet Union. Maoist collectivisation, too, was followed by mass shooting campaigns.
Even today, collective agriculture is the basis for tyrannical power in North Korea, where hundreds of thousands of people starved in the 1990s. And in Belarus, Europe's last dictatorship, collective farming was never undone, and a former collective farm director, Aleksandr Lukashenko, runs the country.
Lukashenko is running for a fourth consecutive presidential term in December. Controlling the land, he also controls the vote. Eighty years after the collectivisation campaign, Stalin's world remains with us.
Timothy Snyder is Professor of History at Yale University. His most recent book is Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.