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Carl Blazina

Eighty years ago, Joseph Stalin enforced a policy that changed the course of history and led to the deaths of tens of millions across the decades and around the world. In a violent and massive campaign of "collectivization," he brought Soviet agriculture under state control.

Stalin pursued collectivization despite the massive resistance that had followed when Soviet authorities first tried to introduce the policy. The Soviet leadership had relied then on shootings and deportations to the Gulag to pre-empt opposition. Yet, Soviet citizens resisted in large numbers; Kazakh nomads fled to China, Ukrainian farmers to Poland.

In the autumn of 1930, 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 Soviet Union was collectivized, 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.

But control is not creation. It proved impossible to make Central Asian nomads into productive farmers in a single growing season. Beginning in 1930, about 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 lose it to the collective, shortages of tractors, the shooting and deportation of the best farmers, and the disruption of sowing and reaping caused by collectivization 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 collectivization famine in Ukraine into a deliberate campaign of politically motivated starvation. He 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.

The Communists, meanwhile, 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 the starving couldn't 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 Soviet Union 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 collectivization into a tragedy so vague 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.

Collectivization 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 1948, Chinese Communists followed the Stalinist model of development. This meant that some 30 million Chinese starved to death between 1958 and 1961 in a famine very similar to that in the Soviet Union. Maoist collectivization, 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, Alexander Lukashenko, runs the country.

Mr. Lukashenko is seeking a fourth consecutive presidential term in December. Controlling the land, he also controls the vote. Eighty years after the collectivization campaign, Stalin's world remains with us.

Timothy Snyder is a professor of history at Yale University. His most recent book is Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin .