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Famine of 1932–1933

FAMINE OF 19321933

The famine began in the winter of 1931 and 1932, peaked between the fall of 1932 and the summer of 1933, and subsided with the 1933 harvest. Mortality was highest in rural areas of Ukraine, the North Caucasus, and the central and southern Volga Basin, but increased in most rural and even urban areas.

The famine affected all of Soviet society. Not only peasants, but also industrial workers and other townspeople desperately sought to supplement their inadequate food rations. Officials and managers responsible for production, transport, and distribution faced disastrous labor conditions from the subsistence crisis. The OGPU (Soviet security police), grain procurement agencies, and Soviet leaders, in their efforts to obtain grain and other supplies from the villages at all costs, minimized or ignored the pleas and starving conditions of the peasants.

The causes of the famine are disputed. The conventional view, that it was a human-made famine imposed by Joseph Stalin on Ukraine and certain other regions to suppress nationalist opposition, has been challenged. Conclusive new evidence shows that the harvests of 1931 and especially 1932 were much smaller than claimed by the Soviet government or later memoir and eyewitness accounts, that they were reduced by natural disasters, and that famine mortality was not limited to specific national regions or even to rural areas. New sources also show that the regime had inadequate reserves yet provided peasants limited famine relief, including relief from imported sources, in addition to supplying more than forty million people in towns, the army, and others on the rationing system in 1932-1933.

The famine developed in the wake of collectivization campaigns in 1930 and 1931 that reorganized most villages into collective or state farms. By this means the regime sought to increase food production and procurement to feed towns and industrial sites, which were growing rapidly because of the First Five-Year Plan and were dependent on government rationing systems, and to export in order to earn hard currency for purchases of producer goods. Collectivization allowed procurement agencies to obtain substantially more grain from the villages than during the 1920s, even considering what the peasants would have sold voluntarily. This left many peasants short of food as early as 1930. A drought in 1931 in the Volga region, Ukraine, the Urals, Siberia, Kazakhstan, and elsewhere reduced the harvest drastically. Yet the authorities procured more from this harvest than from that of 1930 (22.8 million tons vs. 22.1 million tons), often taking the last reserves from many farms. Peasants were left in desperate circumstances, and their mortality increased. Hundreds of thousands fled the drought regions seeking food.

Soviet leaders acknowledged the drought and returned grain to farms for food and seed. They introduced new labor organization rules in the collective farms to reduce evasion of responsibility for farm work. Laws in May 1932 legalized private trade in food products in an effort to increase production and improve urban food supplies. Unfortunately, 1932 was worse than 1931. Weakened by starvation and often resentful of procurements and collectivization, some peasants worked poorly or not at all. The new labor system encountered confusion and resistance and often had little effect. Crops were planted later than in previous years and with less seed. A complex of natural disasters drought, heavy rains, infestations, soil exhaustion drastically reduced the harvest. Yet agricultural and statistical authorities minimized or overlooked these problems and projected output matching or even exceeding that of 1931.

The harvest shortfall became evident early: July procurements were only 470,000 tons compared to 950,000 tons in July 1931. Statistical and OGPU reports convinced Stalin and other Soviet leaders that the 1932 harvest was normal and that procurements collapsed because peasants withheld grain from procurements to sell on the free market at astronomical prices and because local officials mismanaged procurements. The leadership changed its approach from incentives to extreme coercion in procurements and distribution. One part of this shift was the decree of August 7 that imposed harsh penalties for "theft of socialist property." In the following year, in the Russian republic alone, more than 200,000 people were arrested and more than 8,000 executed under this law. Simultaneously, the authorities conducted an intensive procurement campaign that lasted into the spring of 1933 in some regions. Procurement agents came from towns almost as famished as the villages, and their desperation led them to irrational actions they found difficult to explain in memoirs written later. They dug up peasants' yards to find concealed hoards, though the amounts they found were miniscule; they took prepared meals away from peasants. Starving peasants (and to a lesser extent townspeople) tried to survive on surrogates, and some resorted to cannibalism.

The authorities repeatedly reduced procurement quotas, ultimately obtaining fifteen percent less grain from the 1932 harvest (18.5 million tons) than from the 1931 harvest, but at a much greater cost in life and disruption. Even with reduced procurements, the small harvest left practically nothing to be sold on the market. By January 1933, most of the USSR was in a state of famine, and millions of peasants and townspeople fled their homes seeking subsistence. The Politburo attempted to control this situation by establishing an internal passport system, by directives to prevent starving peasants from fleeing the main agricultural regions and return to their farms those who had fled, and by establishing political departments in the state farms and machine-tractor stations to remove opposition officials and improve work organization.

The regime allocated much more food for relief and seed from the 1932 harvest, 5.7 million tons, than it had from the 1931 harvest, with rations doled out to peasants in return for their work. Still, farm work in the spring and summer of 1933 proceeded under desperate conditions, and many peasants died of starvation or related diseases while working. Moreover, the regime exported more than 300,000 tons of grain during the first half of 1933 to meet contractual commitments and cover loan payments. Purchasing countries received diplomatic reports about the famine but did not raise the issue and continued imports at dumping-level prices. Soviet officials at all levels denied the famine publicly, refused aid from foreign organizations, and tried to concealed the famine from foreign visitors.

Improved agricultural conditions and desperate work by all concerned led to a substantially greater harvest in 1933 that ended the famine in most areas by the fall of 1933. Estimates of mortality range from five million to eight million lives, mostly peasants but also townspeople and others, yet government aid in supplies, equipment, and organizational measures helped agriculture to recover and produce large harvests soon after the famine. This tragedy could have been substantially mitigated had Soviet leaders been less distrustful of and hostile toward the peasants, more skeptical of their own personnel and knowledge, and more open to outside aid.

See also: agriculture; famine of 18911892; famine of 19211922


Conquest, Robert. (1986). Harvest of Sorrow. New York: Oxford University Press.

Osokina, Elena. (2000). Our Daily Bread: Socialist Distribution and the Art of Survival in Stalin's Russia. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Tauger, Mark. (2001). "Natural Disaster and Human Actions in the Soviet Famine of 19311933." The Carl Beck Papers in Russian and East European Studies, no. 1506. Pittsburgh: Center for Russian and East European Studies, University of Pittsburgh.

Mark B. Tauger

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Famine of 1921–1922

FAMINE OF 19211922

This devastating famine, comparable only to that of 1932 and 1933, most seriously affected the Volga provinces, Ukraine, and the Urals, and to a lesser extent several other regions, from late 1920 to mid-1923. At its peak in the summer of 1922, some thirty million people were starving (statistics from this period are uncertain), in towns as well as villages. One of the largest relief efforts in history, including foreign and Soviet agencies, reached most of these people despite enormous logistical and ideological obstacles.

Severe droughts in 1920 and especially 1921, as well as locusts and other natural disasters, most directly caused the famine. One-fourth of the crops failed overall, and many other areas had low yields. Agrarian developments during World War I and the Civil War also contributed to the crisis. The peasants' subdivision of landlord estates, the collapse of industrial production, and massive inflation led increasing numbers of peasants to orient production toward subsistence. From 1918 to 1920, many peasants sold or bartered food to townspeople despite Bolshevik efforts against private trade, but these sales declined because of requisitions by tsarist and provisional governments, the German-Austrian occupation in Ukraine, and the White armies and Bolsheviks, which depleted peasants' grain reserves. With insufficient seed, draft forces, and deteriorating equipment, peasants in 1921 succeeded in planting only two-thirds to three-fourths of the cropland farmed prior to the wars and much less in some regions. Yet even this would not have caused the disaster that occurred without the droughts of 1920 and 1921.

The Bolshevik government responded to the 1920 drought by ceasing requisitions from the central provinces and, in February 1921, by forming a commission for aiding agriculture in the affected regions, distributing food relief and seed, and importing grain. By late May 1921 it was clear that the country was in the midst of a second drought even more severe than that of 1920. Peasants resorted to eating weeds and other food surrogates, and cannibalism, trying to save their seed for the fall planting. Thousands of peasants fled from famine districts to Ukraine and other regions, often with government assistance, which sometimes spread famine conditions.

During the summer of 1921, the Bolshevik government distributed limited seed and food relief to famine regions, often by curtailing rationed supplies to towns, and appealed for food relief at home and abroad. Many groups responded. The International Red Cross set up an International Committee for Russian Relief, under the leadership of Fridtjof Nansen. Other agencies offering help included the International Committee of Workers' Aid, the American Friends Service Committee, and the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

By far most aid came from the American Relief Administration (ARA), headed by Herbert Hoover. In the Riga agreement of August 1921, the Bolsheviks allowed the ARA to distribute its own relief. Investigation of the Volga region led the ARA to attempt to aid as many people as possible until the 1922 harvest. Hoover persuaded the U.S. Congress to allocate $20 million for food supplies; these were shipped and distributed in a "corn campaign," conducted from January to August of 1922, which had to overcome the catastrophic disrepair of the railroads and the incompetence and ideologically motivated resistance of some local and central government officials. By the summer of 1921, some eleven million people received food from foreign relief agencies.

The ARA also organized medical aid and international food remittances, many sent to Ukraine. In October ARA personnel went to Ukraine and found famine conditions that the Moscow Bolsheviks had not mentioned, as well as a Ukrainian government that refused to accept the Riga agreement. Only after negotiations in December was Ukraine brought into the relief effort. The ARA and other groups also provided medical aid that reached more people than the food relief.

By the summer of 1922, Soviet government food relief had reached some five million people in the Volga, Ukraine, and elsewhere. Many ordinary Soviet citizens also contributed to famine relief. Soviet and foreign seed aid supported a 1922 harvest. Although grown on an area about 20 percent smaller than that of 1921, the 1922 harvest was much larger than that of the previous year because normal rainfall had returned. Still, famine conditions continued in many regions and especially among abandoned children (besprizorniki ). The ARA continued relief into mid-1923 against intrusive Soviet efforts to limit its operations. A few small relief programs continued, but the 1923 harvest basically ended the famine.

Estimates of famine mortality vary, with the most widely accepted being five million deaths, most resulting from typhus and other epidemics spread by refugees. So vast was the famine that the combined relief efforts at their peak in the summer of 1922 encompassed at most two-thirds of famine victims, despite substantial imports. The ARA imported some 740,000 tons of food; the Bolshevik government supplied more than one million tons of grain.

The famine weakened armed resistance to the Bolshevik regime, and some argue that this was intentionally manipulated. It also, however, delayed national economic recovery for at least two years. The fact that Vladimir Lenin and other Soviet leaders agreed (however ambivalently) to foreign relief indicated a fundamental shift in their attitude toward the peasants and their orientation toward private production. This shift was reflected in the New Economic Policy of 1921, which legalized free trade and abolished the requisition policies of the Civil War and in the regime's food imports during famines in 1924 and 1928. The 1921 famine also convinced Soviet leaders that Soviet agriculture needed significant modernization, which underlay the decision to collectivize agriculture nine years later.

See also: american relief administration; famine of 18911892; famine of 19321933; famine of 1946


Edmondson, Charles M. (1977). "The Politics of Hunger: The Soviet Response to Famine, 1921." Soviet Studies XXIX (4):506518.

Patenaude, Bertrand M. (2002). The Big Show in Bololand: The American Relief Expedition to Soviet Russia in the Famine of 1921. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Mark B. Tauger

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Famine of 1891–1892

FAMINE OF 18911892

The famine of 18911892 was one of the most severe agricultural crises to strike Russia during the nineteenth century. In the spring of 1891 a serious drought caused crops to fail along the Volga and in many other grain-producing provinces. The disaster came on the heels of a series of poor harvests, its impact worsened by endemic peasant poverty and low productivity. The population of the affected areas had few reserves of food and faced the prospect of mass starvation.

Beginning in the summer of 1891, the imperial Russian government organized an extensive relief campaign. It disbursed almost 150 million rubles to the stricken provinces, working closely with the zemstvos, institutions of local self-government responsible for aiding victims of food shortages. The ministry of internal affairs established food supply conferences to coordinate government and zemstvo efforts to find and distribute available grain supplies. When massive backlogs of grain shipments snarled the railroads and threatened the timely delivery of food, the government dispatched a special agent to remedy the situation. The heir to the throne, the future Nicholas II, chaired a committee designed to encourage and focus charitable efforts. Many public-spirited RussiansLeo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Vladimir Korolenko and othersrushed into the countryside on their own initiative, setting up a large network of private soup kitchens and medical aid stations.

The relief campaign was remarkably successful. More than 12 million people received aid, and starvation was largely averted. Mortality for 1892 rose in the sixteen famine provincesabout 400,000 deaths above normalmuch of it due to a simultaneous cholera epidemic. But compared to contemporary Indian and later Soviet famines, this loss of life was minimal. Still, the famine aroused public opinion. Many blamed the government's economic policies for causing the disaster, and its relief efforts were often unfairly criticized. Consequently, the famine proved to be an important turning point in Russian history, beginning a new wave of opposition to the tsarist regime.

See also: famine of 19211922; famine of 19321933; famine of 1946


Robbins, Richard G., Jr. (1975). Famine in Russia, 18911892: The Imperial Government Responds to a Crisis. New York: Columbia University Press.

Simms, James Y., Jr. (1977). "The Crisis of Russian Agriculture at the End of the Nineteenth Century: A Different View." Slavic Review 36:377398.

Wheatcroft, S.G. (1992). "The 189192 Famine in Russia: Toward a More Detailed Analysis of its Scale and Demographic Significance." In Economy and Society in Russia and the Soviet Union, 18601930: Essays for Olga Crisp, eds. Linda Edmondson and Peter Waldron. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Richard G. Robbins Jr.

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