America was not always a magnet. In the early 1930s, more people emigrated from the United States than immigrated to it. One Soviet trading corporation in New York averaged 350 applications a day from Americans seeking Russian jobs. Indeed, while the Great Depression was crippling America, the Soviet Union seemed to be scoring spectacular economic advances. From 1929 into 1933, when U.S. industrial output shrank by nearly half, the U.S.S.R. claimed that its production more than doubled.
But two days before Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in March of 1933, a Moscow newspaper carried a hint of trouble in the workers' paradise. Contrary to reports by what it called "enemies" of communism, Pravda stated, Soviet citizens had plenty to eat.
Tragically, the "enemies" were right. The Kremlin had set aside grain for foreign buyers and urban factory workers, but starvation was ravaging the countryside. Joseph Stalin, the Kremlin boss since 1927, was waging a war of attrition against the peasants who made up four fifths of the Soviet population, and the people who grew the grain were dying at a rate of 25,000 a day.
Only after Stalin's 1953 death did Russians dare mention the Stalin-made famine that killed millions between the spring of 1932 and the summer of 1933. Earlier, anyone implying that Soviets went hungry risked being imprisoned.
The great horror emerged from Stalin's 1929 decision to eliminate the country's most energetic peasants and herd the rest into big collective farms. He declared a class war, claiming that the "kulaks," the supposedly rich peasants who, in fact, seldom possessed more than a few acres and two or three horses and cows, were exploiting the peasants who owned less. Village commissars soon broadened the kulak label to include any peasant who hoarded grain, resisted collectivization, or looked troublesome. Once "the liquidation of the kulaks as a class" was initiated, Stalin reasoned, the other peasants would meekly join his collectives.
Gulag. Over the next two years, millions of kulaks were expelled to distant lands. Entire families were dumped in the Arctic forests and told to build their own huts, grow their own food, and remain in their new villages. Many wound up in the gulag, Stalin's vast network of concentration camps. Stubborn kids went to "children's labor colonies." Some peasants, branded as "bloodsuckers" and "parasites," were simply taken from their homes and shot.
Slower deaths awaited millions of peasants, mostly in Ukraine, driven into Stalin's new collective farms. Rather than give their cows to the state, peasants slaughtered half of the country's herd. Nor did farmers see any incentive to grow wheat. The government would get its share first, and Stalin in 1932 set that share at a greedy level that left hardly a grain for the growers. The rule was ruthlessly enforced, with tens of thousands imprisoned for such crimes as "stealing" a few ears of corn. The certain result was one of the two or three deadliest famines in modern history.
Twice a month, Marxist brigades scoured houses for hidden food. If a peasant looked healthy, the Communists searched harder. One Ukrainian returned to his village in 1933 after a year's absence and found it "almost extinct." His family lived on rabbits, bark, and grass, a brother told him, but when these gave out, "Mother says we should eat her if she dies."
Historian Robert Conquest, in The Harvest of Sorrow, his definitive account of Stalin's reign of rural terror, estimated that 14.5 million people, half of them children, perished. Dekulakization killed 6.5 million, and famine claimed most of the rest.
In 1941, when Stalin was an essential ally in the war against Hitler, Roosevelt brushed aside the dictator's murderous past. "I think if I give him everything I possibly can and ask for nothing in return . . . he won't try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace."
In 1945, the trust vanished. "We can't do business with Stalin," FDR said days before his death. "He has broken every one of the promises he made at Yalta."
This story appears in the June 30, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.