Research Diary: Black humor

I am writing a novel about the Ukrainian famine.

As you might imagine, that statement is a conversation killer.

“So, what are you working on?”

“A novel about the man-made Ukrainian famine.”


It only gets better when I say: “It’s a comedy.” Which it is. In places.

The usual response is an arched eyebrow. Most people have trouble picturing the topic as being funny. I find it hard to picture it as anything else. It’s a man-made famine. How could the logic of the “man” in question be anything but absurd?

Here are some examples. These are some of my research notes from one of the chapters in Robert Conqust’s The Harvest of Sorrow.

Catch-22. By late autumn, any peasant not yet swelling up from hunger was deemed suspect by the Party. His or her home was promptly searched for food. If any were found, it was taken away.

After a directive from the Politburo that any attempts to damage state agrarian property (like crops, animals, and food rotting in store houses) were to be punished by an immediate execution or a ten year sentence, a teenager was arrested for cavorting with a girl in the stable. The charges said he was disturbing the pigs.

When the villagers piled the corpses of their dead in the streets, the event was glossed as a kulak protest. The famine did not exist. The corpses did not exist. And if they did, they came from the kulaks.

Stalin wrote a letter justifying the suffering of the villagers by claiming that the “bread-workers” were the ones who had tried to murder the Red Army by hunger. The food requisitions were merely meant to stop them. I guess he figured the punishment fit the alleged crime.

Some of the requisitioned food was kept in storage houses. It began to rot. That’s when the bureaucrats took over. When the potatoes rotted, for example, they were transferred from the Potato Trust to the Alcohol Trust. I imagine there were quite a few papers for some poor cog in the machine to stamp. I also imagine that after the Alcohol Trust still did not use the rotting potatoes, transferring them eventually to the Compost Trust instead.

Last but not least, there was a Party activist who, after being pestered by center for more food from his village, told them the only way he could meet the meat quota was by requisitioning corpses. The young man disappeared shortly thereafter.

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