Nineteen thirty-three was a hungry year in the Western world. The streets of American and European cities teemed with men and women who had lost their jobs, and grown accustomed to waiting in line for food. An enterprising young Welsh journalist, Gareth Jones, saw unemployed Germans in Berlin rally to the voice of Adolf Hitler. In New York he was struck by the helplessness of the American worker, three years into the Great Depression: “I saw hundreds and hundreds of poor fellows in single file, some of them in clothes which once were good, all waiting to be handed out two sandwiches, a doughnut, a cup of coffee and a cigarette.” In Moscow, where Jones arrived that March, hunger in the capitalist countries was cause for celebration. The Depression seemed to herald a world socialist revolution. Stalin and his coterie boasted of the inevitable triumph of the system they had built in the Soviet Union.
Yet 1933 was also a year of hunger in the Soviet cities, especially in Soviet Ukraine. In Ukraine’s cities—Kharkiv, Kiev, Stalino, Dnipropetrovsk—hundreds of thousands of people waited each day for a simple loaf of bread. In Kharkiv, the republic’s capital, Jones saw a new sort of misery. People appeared at two o’clock in the morning to queue in front of shops that did not open until seven. On an average day forty thousand people would wait for bread. Those in line were so desperate to keep their places that they would cling to the belts of those immediately in front of them. Some were so weak from hunger that they could not stand without the ballast of strangers. The waiting lasted all day, and sometimes for two. Pregnant women and maimed war veterans had lost their right to buy out of turn, and had to wait in line with the rest if they wanted to eat. Somewhere in line a woman would wail, and the moaning would echo up and down the line, so that the whole group of thousands sounded like a single animal with an elemental fear.
People in the cities of Soviet Ukraine were afraid of losing their place in breadlines, and they were afraid of starving to death. They knew that the city offered their only hope of nourishment. Ukrainian cities had grown rapidly in the previous five years, absorbing peasants and making of them workers and clerks. Ukrainian peasant sons and daughters, along with the Jews, Poles, and Russians who had inhabited these cities for much longer, were dependent upon food they obtained in shops. Their families in the country had nothing. This was unusual. Normally in times of hunger city dwellers will make for the countryside. In Germany or the United States the farmers almost never went hungry, even during the Great Depression. Workers and professionals in cities were reduced to selling apples, or stealing them; but always somewhere, in the Altes Land or in Iowa, there was an orchard, a silo, a larder. The city folk of Ukraine had nowhere to go, no help to seek from the farms. Most had ration coupons that they would need to present in order to get any bread. Ink on paper gave them what chance to live that they had, and they knew it.
The proof was all around. Starving peasants begged along the breadlines, asking for crumbs. In one town, a fifteen-year-old girl begged her way to the front of the line, only to be beaten to death by the shopkeeper. The city housewives making the queues had to watch as peasant women starved to death on the side-walks. A girl walking to and from school each day saw the dying in the morning and the dead in the afternoon. One young communist called the peasant children he saw “living skeletons.” A party member in industrial Stalino was distressed by the corpses of the starved that he found at his back door. Couples strolling in parks could not miss the signs forbidding the digging of graves. Doctors and nurses were forbidden from treating (or feeding) the starving who reached their hospitals. The city police seized famished urchins from city streets to get them out of sight. In Soviet Ukrainian cities policemen apprehended several hundred children a day; one day in early 1933, the Kharkiv police had a quota of two thousand to fill. About twenty thousand children awaited death in the barracks of Kharkiv at any given time. The children pleaded with the police to be allowed, at least, to starve in the open air: “Let me die in peace, I don’t want to die in the death barracks.”
Hunger was far worse in the cities of Soviet Ukraine than in any city in the Western world. In 1933 in Soviet Ukraine, a few tens of thousands of city dwellers actually died of starvation. Yet the vast majority of the dead and dying in Soviet Ukraine were peasants, the very people whose labors had brought what bread there was to the cities. The Ukrainian cities lived, just, but the Ukrainian countryside was dying. City dwellers could not fail to notice the destitution of peasants who, contrary to all seeming logic, left the fields in search of food. The train station at Dnipropetrovsk was overrun with starving peasants, too weak even to beg. On a train, Gareth Jones met a peasant who had acquired some bread, only to have it confiscated by the police. “They took my bread away from me,” he repeated over and over again, knowing that he would disappoint his starving family. At the Stalino station, a starving peasant killed himself by jumping in front of a train. That city, the center of industry in southeastern Ukraine, had been founded in imperial times by John Hughes, a Welsh industrialist for whom Gareth Jones’s mother had worked. The city had once been named after Hughes [Yuzovka (Юзовка)]; now it was named after Stalin. (Today it is known as Donetsk.)