What were the motives of the men and women who carried out this brutal war against the peasantry? Most of the collectivizers were conscripted soldiers and workers – people anxious to carry out orders from above (and in some cases, to line their pockets). Hatred of the ‘kulaks’ had been drummed into them by their commanders and by propaganda which portrayed the ‘kulak parasites’ and ‘bloodsuckers’ as dangerous ‘enemies of the people’. ‘We were trained to see the kulaks, not as human beings, but as vermin, lice, which had to be destroyed,’ recalls one young activist, the leader of a Komsomol brigade in the Kuban. ‘Without the kolkhoz,’ wrote another collectivizer in the 1980s, ‘the kulaks would have grabbed us by the throat and skinned us all alive!’
Others were carried away by their Communist enthusiasm. Inspired by the romantic revolutionary passions stirred up by the propaganda of the Five Year Plan, they believed with the Bolsheviks that any miracle could be achieved by sheer human will. As one student in those years recalls: ‘We were convinced that we were creating a Communist society, that it would be achieved by the Five Year Plans, and we were ready for any sacrifice.’ Today, it is easy to underestimate the emotional force of these messianic hopes and the fanaticism that it engendered, particularly in the younger generation, which had been brought up on the ‘cult of struggle’ and the romance of the Civil War. These young people wanted to believe that it was their calling to carry on the fight, in the words of the ‘Internationale’, for a ‘new and better life’. In the words of one of the ‘25,000ers’ – the urban army of enthusiasts sent into the countryside to help carry out the collectivization campaign: ‘Constant struggle, struggle, and more struggle! This was how we had been taught to think – that nothing was achieved without struggle, which was a norm of social life.’
According to this militant world-view, the creation of a new society would involve and indeed necessitate a bitter struggle with the forces of the old society (a logic reinforced by the propaganda of the Five Year Plan, with its constant talk of ‘campaigns’, ‘battles’ and ‘offensives’ on the social, economic, international and internal ‘fronts’). In this way the Communist idealists reconciled the ‘anti-kulak’ terror with their own utopian beliefs. Some were appalled by the brutal violence. Some were even sickened by their own role in it. But they all knew what they were doing (they could not plead that they were ignorant or that they were simply ‘following orders’). And they all believed that the end justified the means.
Lev Kopelev, a young Communist who took part in some of the worst atrocities against the Ukrainian peasants, explained how he rationalized his actions. Kopelev had volunteered for a Komsomol brigade which requisitioned grain from the ‘kulaks’ in 1932. They took everything, down to the last loaf of bread. Looking back on the experience in the 1970s, Kopelev recalled the children’s screams and the appearance of the peasant men – ‘frightened, pleading, hateful, dully impassive, extinguished with despair or flaring up with half-mad daring ferocity’:
It was excruciating to see and hear all this. And even worse to take part in it … And I persuaded myself, explained to myself. I mustn’t give in to debilitating pity. We were realizing historical necessity. We were performing our revolutionary duty. We were obtaining grain for the socialist fatherland. For the Five Year Plan!