By |Published On: August 3rd, 2020|Categories: Cannibalism, Communism|

The horrors that transpired under the rule of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong were reminiscent of never-ending nightmares. Beyond the well-known crimes of Communist regimes—the Gulags, the executions, the torture, and the concentration camps—there remains another dark secret: cannibalism was widespread during the Holodomor in Ukraine as well as during the Great Leap Forward in the People’s Republic of China. What led up to these two specific events was a slow and destructive process carried out through extreme trepidation.

The October Revolution of 1917 ushered in a reign of terror that proved to be unparalleled until Lenin’s successor Joseph Stalin took over years later.[1] The Bolsheviks from the start wasted no time. The Cheka, formed in December 1917, was a secret police force used to aid in the harassment, kidnapping, and execution of opponents of the regime.[2] By August 1918, concentration camps appeared which were intended to lock up dissenters,[3] though these labor camps weren’t fully legalized till the decree on April 15, 1919. The number of executions and hostages ranged from 10,000 to 15,000 by the end of 1918 alone,[4] while the number of individuals imprisoned in these labor camps rose from 16,000 in mid-1919 to over 70,000 by late-1921.[5] Between September to October 1918, the overall death toll of the Red Terror ranged from 50,000 to 2 million.[6]

What resulted from Lenin’s attempt to transform the country into a Communist superpower, aside from the monstrous death toll, was best summed up by Lenin himself:

At the beginning of 1918. . . we made the mistake of deciding to go over directly to communist production and distribution. We thought that under the surplus-food appropriation system the peasants would provide us with the required quantity of grain, which we could distribute among the factories and thus achieve communist production and distribution.[7] Between 1918 to 1921, Lenin decided to embark on a new strategy during the Russian Civil War—War Communism. “Surplus food” was continually seized to aid the Red Army.[8] In one telegram, Lenin ordered that they publicly hang kulaks to instill fear into the citizens, while also taking the grain and publishing the names of the rest.[9] Nearly 60% of the food consumed in 1918 and 1919 came from the black market as a result of the ban on free trade,[10] while the amount of grain stored dropped from 641,000 tons in November 1917 to 2000 tons by June 1918.[11] In 1921, Lenin introduced his New Economic Policy which was also a colossal failure. Despite the return of private ownership to several smaller industries, this was all at the expense of state centralization in banking, foreign trade, and other large industries.[12] Even the reintroduction of money in 1922—which had previously been abolished under War Communism—couldn’t reverse the damage that had been done.

In December 1922, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), consisting of 15 republics, was formed. It was around this time that General Secretary Stalin began to stack the cards in his favor while Lenin attempted to recover from three separate strokes. By the time Vladimir Lenin died in January 1924, the Bolsheviks had already managed to bring about hell on Earth, and what was to follow was something straight out of a horror movie.


The Holodomor in Ukraine

Holodomor is Ukrainian for “to kill by starvation.” Between 1932 to 1933, Stalin’s failed attempt at exporting large amounts of grain and other resources to Western Europe led to famine so severe that it would defy logic to assume it was anything other than a purposefully induced genocide, the death toll of which ranged from three to seven million in a matter of a year.[13] While the Red Brigades consistently raided farms and villages, the result was summed up gruesomely in one study by Steven Béla Várdy and Agnes Huszár Várdy:

Hungry peasants tried to stay alive by eating grass, straw, and their draft animals. Then came the dogs and cats, and finally, in some instances, even the children of the village. Some peasants, driven by hunger, fell into temporary insanity and began to feed on the dead bodies of their own and their neighbor’s children.[14] Life became so unbearable, so quickly, that the Soviets—as if it was some sort of sick joke—began to put up posters that stated “To eat your own children is a barbarian act.”[15] This wasn’t exactly new to the Soviets though. A famous poster during the Russian famine of 1921-1922 proclaimed that “People who eat one other because of the famine are not cannibals. Cannibals are those who don’t redistribute the church’s gold to the starving.”[16]

It was also common for escapees to bring along unsuspecting guests who would later be used as a food source. Here is one story among many:

This was what happened in one of Vorkuta’s notorious forced labor camps, when two murderers persuaded a well-fed cook to escape with them. The cook did not suspect that he was simply the “walking food supply” for the two bandits. But when their regular food ran out, it was the cook who came to be served up as their food.

But the path to freedom turned out to be much longer than expected. They finished with the cook before reaching their destination. This was followed by days of hunger. Soon they began to eye each other. Fear crept into their minds. Neither of them dared to fall asleep, for fear of being killed by his partner. After a while, however, one of them did fall asleep. The other one took advantage of the opportunity and slit his partner’s throat, and then sliced him up for food. He did not get very far, however. Two days later he was caught. His bag was still filled with fresh “meat”—the body parts of his erstwhile partner.[17]

Another chilling story went as follows:

One sleepy afternoon, filled with expectations, suddenly the whole camp burst into commotion. Running guards were driving everyone into the courtyard. By the gate, in the midst of a group of guards, and surrounded by a ‘curious’ multitude, there stood a bearded prisoner in ragged clothes. When everyone was assembled, upon the bidding ofthe guard commander, the bearded man reached into his sack, removed a hairy human head, and lifted it up for everyone to see. Then slowly and in a tired voice he began to speak…. His colorless voice faltered, revealing the felling that ‘nothing matters anymore’…. He described how they escaped together with his friend (the one whose head he held in his hands). To escape their pursuers they fled into the taiga (primeval forest), where they had to face autumn, and then winter…. They hoped that they would be able to continue their journey in the spring. They dug a hovel into the ground, and managed to survive until real winter set in…. They hoped that they would be able to trap some animals. But luck was against them. Their traps remained empty…. Finally the days of hunger were upon them.[18]

Living in a constant state of paranoia was the rule and not the exception under these circumstances. Imagine a situation where human meat was being used as a pie filling to be sold on the market. Though it may be hard to come to grips with, this was indeed a reality:

Every night the bodies of 205 people who died of hunger or typhus are collected. Many of these bodies had their livers removed, through a large slit in the abdomen. The police finally picked up some of these mysterious ‘amputators’ who confessed that they were using the meat as filling for the meat pies they were selling in the market.

Lajos M., whom Várdy described, said in his own words that:

Eating human flesh is not uncommon. When there isn’t anything else, you have to eat that too. Do you know what the year 1933 was really like? In Ukraine? You haven’t heard about it? An old Ukrainian told me about it up in Novaya Zemlya. You could really trust the words of those Ukrainians. They were all very religious. They would cross themselves many times even during meals. The rest only laughed at them. Once a Russian tried to cheat this old Ukrainian out of his soup. He sat down next to the old man while he was praying and spat in his soup. The old man just tossed it out with his spoon and went on eating. The Russian couldn’t faze the Ukrainian. He was gentle, peaceful old fellow. Well, this old Ukrainian had been sentenced to life, and had been here since 1933. he was the one who told us about the agricultural reorganization, when the kolkhozes [collective farms] were established. Stalin just wiped their food supplies clean. The village didn’t have one kernel of com left. They had been surrounded by barbed wire and armed units. With nothing to eat, the villagers began to eat their children. They had to eat something! They began with their dogs and cats, and continued with their own children. And their neighbors’ children. Or whoever they could get hold of They would grab them and eat them. They couldn’t just die of hunger! He was not alone. Many, most did the same! They were then scattered all over Siberia as a form of punishment.[19]

These horrifying events Várdy described were the new normal at least until Stalin died in 1953:

Stories about cannibalism in the famine-affected areas of Ukraine and neighboring regions are rampant, and they come in various shapes and forms. These include parents eating their own children, people trapping and eating the children of others, children eating the bodies of their parents, and in one case a mother telling her children that upon her death they should eat her: “Mothers says we should eat her if she dies,” reported a teenager to his activist older brother upon the latter’s return from a collectivization campaign in Siberia.[20]

The Great Leap Forward in the People’s Republic of China

Between 1958 to 1962, the Great Leap Forward led to the deaths of upwards of 45 million people. Few, however, are aware that cannibalism was prominent in China as well:

As pointed out by Mao Zedong’s most recent biographers, the women “were worked for about eleven hours a day and most who did not find extra food died within several months.” Others, who could not find regular food to supplement the meager official calories and wanted to survive, “resorted to cannibalism.’” One of the post-Mao scholarly studies on this topic that was promptly suppressed points out that in Anhui Province’s Fengyang County officials recorded sixty-three cases of cannibalism in the spring of 1960. And these are only the recorded cases of a small county in the world’s most populous country. Among these recorded cannibals, there was “a couple who strangled and ate their own eight-year-old son.” And this is only the tip of the iceberg. There were thousands of such cases throughout the country. In one of the counties of Gansu Province, for example, fully one-third of the population died of hunger, and cannibalism was an everyday event. One of the village party officials lost his wife, his children and his sister, all of whom became victims of the famine. This same party official stated that “many people in the village have eaten human flesh.” And then pointing to a group of peasants in the center of the village, he said: “see those people squatting outside the commune office sunning themselves? Some of them ate human flesh…. People were just driven crazy by hunger.”[21]

The Cultural Revolution between 1966 to 1974, as Várdy noted, accounted for fewer deaths relative to the Great Leap Forward, yet “the level of violence and the application of brute force to the population increased significantly,” even in the form of “human flesh banquets”:

In the course of the eleven days between July 26 and August 6, 1968, in Binyang County alone, 3,681 were beaten to death. During the previous two years of the Cultural revolution “only” sixty-eight suffered death. In consequence of this frenzy killing, around 100,000 people lost their lives in the southern province of Guangxi.

Communist party leadership was in the forefront of this campaign of brutality through the “model demonstrations of killings.” They wanted to show to the masses how to apply maximum cruelty to the prospective victims. This became a widespread forced massacres, which culminated in “obligatory cannibalism.” This process began with the accusation and denunciation of the selected “class enemies,” continued with their bludgeoning and dismembering, and ended with their partial consumption. After having been bludgeoned to death, some of their organs—their hearts, livers, and occasionally their genitals—were cut out, sometimes even before the victims died. Then these body parts were cooked and eaten by the assembled dignitaries in what were labeled “human flesh banquets.”

These “banquets” were particularly widespread in the Province of Guangxi, where even the minor children of the former ruling classes were tortured and killed. As an example, a sixty-eight-year-old peasant caught the minor son of the former landlord, slit his chest open in front of everyone, and watched the boy die in agony. When questions about his deed by an investigating reporter, he boastfully declared: “Yes, I killed him…. The person I killed is an enemy…. Ha, ha! I make revolution, and my heart is red! Didn’t Chairman Mao say: ‘It’s either we kill them, or they kill us?’ You die and I live, this is class struggle!”[22]



[1] John M. Thompson, Revolutionary Russia, 1917, p. xi.

This occurred on October 24 and 25, 1917, under the old calendar. . .The same series of events took place on November 6 and 7, 1917, according to the modern calendar, and outside the Soviet Union it is frequently referred to as the “November Revolution.”

[2] The goal of the Cheka was clear:

We stand for organized terror. . .Our aim is to fight against the enemies of the Soviet government. . .We judge quickly. In most cases only a day passes between the apprehension of the criminal and his sentence. – Felix Dzerzhinsksy, interviews in Novaia Zhizn (July 14, 1918).

[3] Stéphane Courtois, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Panné, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartošek, Jean-Louis Margolin, The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 73.

On 9 August, Lenin sent a telegram to the Executive Committee of the province of Penza instructing them to intern “kulaks, priests, White Guards, and other doubtful elements in a concentration camp.

[4] Ibid., pp. 73-80.

[5] Ibid., p. 80.

[6] Alexey Timofeychev, “How many lives did the Red Terror claim?,” Russia Beyond, September 7, 2018,

[7] Vladimir Lenin, Lenin’s Collected Works, 2nd English Edition, Volume 33 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965, pp. 60-79.

[8] Stéphane Courtois, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Panné, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartošek, Jean-Louis Margolin, The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, pp. 71-72.

[9] Ibid., p. 72.

[10] Mikhail Heller and Aleksandr M. Nekrich, Utopia in Power: The History of the Soviet Union from 1917 to the Present (New York: Summit Books, 1986), 61.

[11] Nikolai D. Kondratiev, The Grain Market and It’s Regulation During the War and Revolution (Moscow, 1922), pp. 238-245.

[12] Robert Conquest, The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purge of the Thirties (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1968), pp. 5-9.

[13] Stalin’s first Five-year plan between 1928-1932 sought to rapidly industrialize the USSR. In 1928, less than 100,000 metric tons of grain was exported; by 1930, 4.84 million metric tons was exported; by 1931, 5.18 million metric tons was exported. See The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression, 146-148.

[14] Steven Béla Várdy and Agnes Huszár Várdy, “Cannibalism in Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China,” East European Quarterly 41, no. 2 (June 2007): 223-238.

[15] Ibid., 225.

[16] See Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library, “People Eating Each Other from Hunger are not Cannibals,” New York Public Library Digital Collections.

[17] Várdy, “Cannibalism in Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China,” 227.

[18] Ibid., 227.; This story was described in Sandor Adorjan’s memoirs titled In the Shadow of Death

[19] Ibid., 231.

[20] Ibid., 232.; Also see Robert Conquest, The Harvest of Sorrow (England: Oxford University Press, 1987), 258.

[21] Ibid., 233.

[22] Ibid., 234-235.

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