In The Proletariat\'s Paradise
Romuald Lipinski is a survivor of the USSR, originally deported from Poland in the summer of 1941. He recalls an episode in Russia brought on by a quest for potatoes. A portion of his memoirs can be found here.
Strange, justice was, in the Soviet Russia. Soon after our deportation from Poland to Barnaul, Altajski Krai, we ran out of our food supplies brought from Poland. It was necessary to look for something to eat. Our major source of nourishment became the River Ob, which had plenty of fish. We had fish three times a day. Soon, it became necessary to find something else. A man cannot live by fish alone. Somebody told us that in one kolhoz (collective farm) there was a potato field, and that the potatoes were already dug out with many likely left on the ground. The field was not guarded, so there was an opportunity to go there and dig out some of potatoes. This was very exciting as our situation was near desperate. We were glad to have a chance to get some potatoes.
Early in the morning, a group of youngsters from our Vostochnyj Posielok (Eastern Settlement) set out for the kolhoz where the potato field was located. The weather was good, and we were in a good mood. Expecting to bring some food back to the table, we proceeded happily to our destination. We had some shovels and sacks for the potatoes with us. It was about a journey of about 10 kilometers, and we arrived to the field in about three hours. We quickly found that, indeed, there were many left in the ground after a tractor had gone through the field. We worked for about two hours digging potatoes and had our sacks half-filled, when someone yelled, “Watch out! They are coming!” I raised my eyes and noticed four or five horsemen galloping in our direction. I knew what was going to happen.
In Soviet Russia, although they claimed that land belongs to people, it was not so. The land belonged to the government. Not only the land, but people as well. One does not exist as an individual. The Revolution in 1917 abolished the class system based on hereditary aristocracy. But it introduced another aristocracy that was based on allegiance to the Party. Privileges were allocated according to the position and hierarchy occupied in the Party. Party men had special stores where they could buy everything they needed, that were closed to ordinary people. They had cars, and if they were high enough in the hierarchy, they had chauffeurs to drive them around. They were allowed in special apartments and so many other privileges that an ordinary “muzik” (Russian farmer) could not even dream about. Just to be allowed to live in a large town, especially Moscow or Leningrad, one had to have permission that was very difficult to get. People arranged their lives, their marriages, and so on, according to the privileges they could get. For example, if somebody had a permit to live in Moscow or had a nice apartment allocated to him, he was an attractive marriage partner.
So, by invading the potato field we committed an inpardonable sin - we were steeling public property. Never mind that these potatoes would have rotted in the ground. Never mind that we were hungry. Although the Party proclaimed that the land belonged to the people, this was government property and nobody could touch it. For an infraction like that, people went to court and were condemned for many years in the Gulag.
There was not a moment to lose. I grabbed my sack and hid myself with two or three boys behind bushes that were nearby. Helplessly we watched our friends being mercilessly whipped with long whips. We could see blood flowing from the face of a girl not more than 15 years old as she tried cover her face. The others were similarly whipped. Fortunately they did not arrest anybody. They yelled that they should rot in a concentration camp, but after a while they went away.
When we saw that they had gone, we came from our hiding place and helped our friends to their feet. There was not much that we could do. We shared our potatoes that we were able to hide and started on our way home. Needless to say that on the trip back home our mood was subdued. But we were glad that this incident ended up the way it did. It could have been much worse.