In the Ukrainian language, the famine of 1932 and 1933 famine is called "holodomor," which means extermination by starvation. It is also referred to as the "artificial famine," "terror famine," and "terrorgenocide." Until the end of the 1980s, however, the Soviet Union dismissed all references to the famine as anti-Soviet propaganda. Denial of the famine declined after the Communist Party lost power and the Soviet empire disintegrated. With the declassification and publication of Western and Soviet historical documents, it became impossible to continue to deny the occurrence of the now well-attested catastrophe. The controversy did not abate, however, despite newly uncovered evidence. Instead, new disputes arose over whether the famine was Ukrainian or Soviet, whether its victims should be regarded primarily as Ukrainians or as peasants, and if it was appropriate to call the famine genocidal.
The Surge of Recurrent Famines
During the first three decades of communist rule, Ukraine experienced a series of food crises. The first widespread famine began in the summer of 1921, and lasted two years. It affected one-third of the Ukrainian population, and killed approximately one million people. Possibly three or four times more people died in Russia, which also suffered a famine during that time. Little information and no mortality data are available for the shorter starvation periods, which occurred from 1924 to 1925 and from 1928 to 1929. The most costly in human lives was the great famine of 1932 and 1933. It is also this famine for which the classification of genocide is claimed.
Later, fatal food shortages were experienced during World War II, but they occurred mainly in the cities and thus form a separate category. After the war, Ukrainians again faced famine conditions in 1946 and 1947, notably in the central and southern regions of the country. Victims numbered in the hundreds of thousands. In each instance, food shortages were not exclusive to Ukraine. Concomitant famines took place in Russia and other parts of the sprawling Soviet empire.
Peasants constituted the majority of victims in all the famines, except during the war. The common features of all the famines were adverse climatic conditions, poor crop yields, mismanagement, corruption, and waste. The main cause of starvation, however, was excessive grain procurements ordered by the government. The state extracted exorbitant amounts of foodstuffs from the peasants, with the full knowledge that it was condemning them to annihilation.
The readiness of the allegedly proletarian state to sacrifice the interests of the peasantry, which comprised three-quarters of its population, was evident throughout the whole of the Soviet Union, but the origin and handling of food shortages in Ukraine had specific features that distinguished them from the situation elsewhere in the USSR. This is because the Russocentric government was mistrustful of Ukrainians, many of who resented the loss of their bid for national independence after the Revolution.
Moscow responded to the 1921 drought and ensuing famine that swept the Volga valley and Northern Caucasus in Russia and the southern steppe lands of Ukraine with two very different policies. Food taxation was suspended in the famished provinces of Russia, famine relief was organized, and requests were sent for Western aid. Meanwhile, however, Ukraine's dire situation was ignored; in fact, the country was obliged to send some of its own meager crop to help Russia. Western aid began arriving in September 1921, and by the end of the year the American Relief Administration (ARA) was providing meals for one million people. The Ukrainian famine was finally acknowledged and the country opened to foreign aid only at the beginning of 1922. Even that only occurred after the ARA put pressure on Moscow at the behest of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which had received alarming news about Jews starving in southern Ukraine.
At the height of its operations in 1922, the ARA fed over eight million people in Russia, with funds provided by the U.S. Congress, and nearly one million people in Ukraine, with the aid of funds supplied mainly by the JDC. Both famines received wide publicity in the Western media, and photographs and films were made for the purpose of raising funds. Even after recognition of the famine situation in Ukraine, starving Ukrainian provinces continued to be taxed and food trains continued to be sent not only from northern Ukraine, which were blessed with a reasonably good harvest, but also from the starving southern provinces. As late as May 1922, Western observers were baffled and scandalized to see southern Ukraine sending foodstuffs to Russia. In addition, Ukraine was obliged to give refuge to hundreds of thousands of Russian refugees, and to numerous Red Army units.
Drought and poor harvests occurred again in 1922, but this time Moscow decided to export grain rather than retain its crop to feed its own people. Shocked, Western relief organizations protested, but to no avail. To counter bad publicity, on October 15, 1922, Moscow declared that the famine had ended. Trapped by their own humanitarian convictions, Western relief agencies kept their soup kitchens open for another year, even though the Soviet government continued to export grain. Strikes by port workers and even the burning of grain elevators in the Ukrainian port of Mykolaiv had no effect on Soviet export policy. The Soviet authorities did not engineer mass starvation in 1921, but once the famine broke out, the government quickly recognized its utility as a tool of state policy. In Ukraine, in other words, the famine was seen as an effective way to physically weaken nationalist and anarchist elements, which had challenged Moscow's rule over Ukraine until the autumn of 1921.
After the famine, while Party leaders fought over Lenin's mantle in Moscow, Ukraine acquired a certain amount of autonomy. To make their rule more palatable, and to placate Ukrainian national feelings, the victorious Bolsheviks began their rule by promoting policies of "indigenization" and "Ukrainization." The party and the state recruited native Ukrainians, even former members of defunct Ukrainian national parties. The use of Ukrainian language was promoted in the republic's schools and administration. The main beneficiaries of these new policies were Ukrainian intellectuals and farmers. The former began to create nationally conscious socio-economic and political elites, whereas the latter took advantage of the liberal "New Economic Policy" (NEP) to recover from the famines of previous years. An influx of rural populations into the urban centers helped to Ukrainianize the previously Russified towns and cities. The country was undergoing a wide-ranging national renaissance. Such a national revival rekindled old fears in the Kremlin, however, and Ukraine was once again perceived as presenting a challenge to the hegemony of the government and a threat to the integrity of the multinational empire.
Stalin's Revolution from Above
Ten years after the Bolshevik seizure of power, Stalin's ascendancy over the USSR was complete. As the party's chief theoretician and decision maker, Stalin could now take up Lenin's unfinished job of eliminating the last vestiges of capitalism and pursue his personal ambition of transforming the rich but backward empire into a powerful socialist state. In order to become a fatherland for the world proletariat and a vanguard of world revolution, the USSR had to undergo an industrial revolution, for which agriculture was the only available source of capital. The party's left wing had long advocated agricultural collectivization as a way of bringing socialism to the countryside and giving the state direct control over farm production. Stalin took the leftist platform and pushed it to the extreme.
The collectivization of agriculture was approved in December 1927, and was made part of the latest Five Year Plan, the cornerstone of the NEP. Five months later, Stalin rationalized his abandoning the NEP. He argued that, with almost equal yields, Russia nonetheless produced twice as much market grain in 1913 as the Soviet Union did in 1926. Large-scale farming, run by rich landlords in 1913, and by sovkhozes (state farms employing agricultural workers) and kolkhozes (collective farms organized as cooperatives) in 1926, sent 47 percent of their produce to the market, while kulaks (rich farmers) sold 34 percent of theirs before the revolution and only 20 percent after it. But while the first two categories of farm enterprises accounted for half of all grain production in 1916, their share in 1926 was only 15 percent. The seredniaks ("middle," or subsistence farmers) and the bedniaks (poor farmers) increased their share of crop production from 50 to 85 percent, but reduced their sales from 15 to 11 percent in 1926. The problem was clear: the middle and poor peasants had become the main grain producers, but they consumed most of their crop. The solution to grain shortages, Stalin argued, lay in the "transition from individual peasant farming to collective farming." Large-scale farming was also supposed to increase production by taking advantage of "modern machinery and scientific knowledge," but above all, Stalin insisted, it was a system that was "capable of producing a maximum of grain for the market."
Collectivization was expected to meet with stiff opposition from the kulaks—because they had the most to lose—and Ukrainian peasants, who were not familiar with the Russian tradition of obshchina (commune). Stalin launched his struggle against these hostile elements with the call to "liquidate the kulaks as a class." The drive for "dekulakization" was launched in December 1929, and, like collectivization, was subordinated to state planning. The most intense period of dekulakization was from January to March 1930, and coincided with the main push for collectivization. As a result of dekulakization, deportation, and other upheavals connected with collectivization, 282,000 peasant households disappeared in Ukraine between 1930 and 1931. By the end of that period there were no real kulaks left in the region.
In theory, kolkhozes were voluntary organizations. Many bedniaks and batraks (landless farm workers) freely signed up, expecting a better life. Most peasants, however, preferred to stick to individual farming. The scope and tempo of collectivization were regulated. To meet their monthly quotas, peasants were coerced to join collectives by the levy of exorbitant taxes on individual farm incomes, false accusations, administrative intimidation, and physical violence. The peasants resisted, however, and by June 1929 only 5.6 percent of households had joined kolkhozes in the Ukraine.
Grain producing regions in Ukraine and the Northern Caucasus, especially the rich and predominantly Ukrainian Kuban' region, were specially targeted for rapid collectivization. In October, 10.6 percent of Ukrainian peasant households were in kolkhozes. In the steppe region, the figure was 16 percent. Mismanagement, insufficient farm machinery and draught power (horses and tractors), and other woes continued to undermine the institution. Peasants fled and the kolkhozes collapsed. Undaunted, on November 7, 1929, Stalin declared the collectivization movement a great success and bolstered his claim by ordering 25,000 specially selected industrial workers to be sent to the countryside to continue to help with the organization and management of kolkhozes. Additional cadres were periodically dispatched, and by the spring of 1930, the Ukraine had 50,000 activists with special powers to organize, punish and intimidate, and terrorize the peasants.
Reinforced state violence produced the desired results. By the end of February 1930, more than half of all individual households in the USSR had been collectivized, and in Ukraine the number reached 68.5 percent. The government's success was achieved with unbridled violence and at the cost of many peasant lives. Terror reigned in the villages. To protect their men, women often took over their role in opposing the formation of kolkhozes and in their dismantling. Resistance peaked in the early spring of 1930, when the OGPU (state police) recorded 6,528 mass peasant uprisings, with 2,945, or 45 percent, taking place in Ukraine.
As kolkhozes collapsed in Ukraine and the North Caucasus, Stalin was forced to sound a temporary retreat. On March 2, 1930, the newspaper Pravda published Stalin's essay "Dizzy with Success," in which collectivization was once again declared a success, with certain excesses being blamed on overzealous activists. Stalin once more reaffirmed the principle of voluntary adhesion to the kolkhozes. The peasants took him at his word and began to leave the collectives. By September, only 21 percent of peasant households remained collectivized in the USSR; 34 percent in Ukraine. If this was a new NEP, as some had hoped or feared, it was of short duration. Renewed collectivization began in October 1930. By August 1931 the Ukrainian steppe was wholly collectivized, and by the following year, three-quarters of Ukrainian peasants were working in kolkhozes.
Collectivization was at the heart of a revolution aimed at solving several other problems besides economic ones. In ideological terms, the termination of the NEP meant the triumph of socialism, although the kolkhozniks called it the return of serfdom. Politically, it meant the extension of party control over the countryside by means of reliable personnel in newly established Machine and Tractor Stations that were created to service the kolkhozes with machinery and to supervise them politically. The principal loser was to be the peasant, demoted from independent producer to agricultural worker, akin to the city worker but bound to the more primitive conditions of country life.
The Ukrainian Famine of 1932–1933
Dekulakization and deportation deprived Soviet agriculture of its ablest and most conscientious farmers. Productivity declined while wastage increased. It has been claimed that three million tons of grain were lost in Ukraine during the 1931 harvest. This is probably an exaggeration, but together with unfavorable weather conditions, it helps to explain why Ukrainian harvests of 1931 and 1932 were lower than the official figures used by Moscow to set its procurement plans. The Kremlin, insisting on high quotas, had great success. It took in 7.5 million tons of grain in 1930 and more than 7 million tons in 1931, and planned to match the latter figure in 1932. State procurement claimed a very high proportion of Ukrainian production: 30 percent in 1930 and 41 percent in 1931.
By the summer of 1932, however, Ukrainian leadership realized that it would not be able to deliver the exorbitant amount it had originally agreed to provide. Ukrainian party leaders pleaded with Stalin for a reduction in the quota. In June 1932 Vlas Chubar and Hryhorii Petrovsky, members of the Ukrainian party's Central Committee, wrote the Kremlin about the menace of wide-scale starvation. In the fall of 1932, the boss of the Kharkiv region, informed Stalin of the famine in his province, only to be ridiculed for telling "fairy-tales." The original plan for grain procurement for the 1932 harvest was ultimately reduced three times, but the state still managed to extract 4,270,000 tons of grain, enough to feed at least 12 million people for an entire year. Workers and other citizens of Ukraine, whose food needs at that time were supposed to be met by the government, numbered about eight million.
It was not only the confiscation of foodstuffs, but also the way the confiscation was carried out that created hardships for Ukrainian peasants. In theory, the land worked by the kolkhoz belonged to the state, whereas the harvest belonged to the kolkhoz. But the kolkhoz could divide the crops among its members only after the state took its share and reserves were set aside for the next sowing. In the meantime, kolkhozniks were supposed to fend for themselves. Many tried to take an "advance" for their work by cutting a few sheaves of unripened wheat or competing with mice for the gleanings that the harvesters left behind. On August 7, 1932, however, Stalin imposed a new law that made the "plunder of state property" a crime punishable by death or, in extenuating circumstances, ten years' imprisonment.
Fifty-five thousand people were soon arrested for pilfering grain that they themselves had cultivated, and 2,000 individuals were condemned to death. In November, a blacklist was introduced to punish kolkhozes that failed to meet their monthly grain deliveries. A blacklisted collective lost the right to all commercial transactions, including the sale of such basic necessities as salt, matches, and kerosene, and the kolkhoz administration that harbored such criminals was usually purged. In early 1933, 200,000 kolkhoz employees were inspected, and one-fourth of them were dismissed or otherwise purged. Included in these numbers were 11,420 kolkhoz chairmen, of whom 6,089 were purged.
Individual peasants who were in arrears in meeting their quotas were subjected to food fines and confiscations, which often meant the confiscation of everything edible, including the bread or vegetables found on their kitchen tables. Groups of activists, comprised of city workers or members of local "committees of poor peasants," went from house to house, prodding the earthen floors with metallic spikes to uncover hidden food reserves. To prevent peasants from fleeing the village or even merely seeking provisions outside their village, a passport system was introduced on December 27, 1932. Only city dwellers were entitled to passports. The peasants were thus confined to the village. As they had been in the days of serfdom, the peasants were once more bound to the soil. Peasants wandering in the cities were rounded up: the luckier ones were sent home, while others were punished for the crime of speculation.
Left with insufficient food, the peasant population starved. Famine broke out in the winter of 1931 and 1932, and reached a high point that spring. Hundreds of thousands of people died before the new harvest brought some relief. A new phase of food shortages began in the fall of 1932 and peaked the following spring. Foreign eyewitnesses and native survivors, who either escaped or outlived the Soviet regime, have described the horrors of this famine in contemporary accounts. Starving peasants consumed domestic animals, including dogs and cats, together with various food surrogates like tree buds, weeds, and herbs. Some resorted to cannibalism, and dug up human corpses and the carcasses of dead animals. A nearby forest or river saved many an amateur hunter or fisherman. People died by the hundreds and thousands. Just how many died from starvation in Ukraine will never be known. Deaths due to malnutrition were not recorded. Deductions made from the official censuses of 1926 and 1939, and the suppressed census of 1937, have given rise to various interpretations and conclusions. Estimates for Ukraine vary from four to ten million. Six million was the figure a Kharkiv official gave an American newspaper editor in 1933—it still seems the most plausible.
Was the Ukrainian Famine Genocide?
By the end of the 1980s, British, Italian, and German diplomatic archives provided the definitive evidence necessary to establish the historicity of the great Ukrainian famine. It is more complex to resolve the question of the genocidal nature of the catastrophe. Scholars have had reservations in judging Stalin's intent, as required by the United Nations Convention on Genocide. A conclusive assessment of the Soviet leader's motivations had to await the opening of Soviet archives. Over time, however, four approaches to the problem were developed. Some scholars flatly rejected the notion that the famine was genocide, others avoided the problem of classification by using descriptive terms such as "great famine," "artificial famine," or "man-made famine." Still others accepted the idea of genocide, but saw its victims primarily as the kulaks, or peasants; and, finally, some scholars recognized the famine as a genocide that was specifically directed against the Ukrainian nation. Russian and Ukrainian scholars use the term holod (golod in Russian, meaning hunger, starvation, or famine) or holodomor (golodomor), which is emotionally close to the notion of genocide, but without the legalistic overtone.
Stalin was not only well informed about the famine, he was its chief architect and overseer. He sent Molotov and Kaganovich to the Ukraine and the Northern Caucasus to organize and enforce the grain procurement that made the tragedy inevitable. The word famine was banned from the media and official documents, but it was used openly in high party circles. The Secretary-General himself used the word in a letter to Molotov, sent in June 1932, in which he blamed local mismanagement for a "state of ruin and famine" in a number of Ukrainian regions. If the party leadership had made a mistake in planning the grain procurement, it could have corrected its errors once it realized the magnitude of the famine. There were more than three million tons of grain reserves in the USSR in January 1933, enough to feed well over ten million people. The government could have organized famine relief and accepted help from outside, as it did in 1921. Instead Moscow rejected foreign aid, denounced those who offered it, and exported its own foodstuffs abroad. More than a million and a half tons of grain were sold abroad in 1932 and again in 1933, enough to feed five million people during both years. Such behavior is more than callous; it shows a direct intent on the part of the perpetrators to destroy a part of the population by starvation.
The "peasantist" interpretation of the Ukrainian famine either accepts or rejects the idea of genocide, but emphasizes that the victims were peasants, rejecting the association of victimhood with Ukrainian ethnicity. In his Black Book of Communism, Stephane Courtois insists on the similarity between the Stalin regime's deliberate starvation of a child of a Ukrainian kulak, and the Nazi regime's starvation of a Jewish child. In this literary construct, there is no clash between the Ukrainian peasant's two identities, even if the reference to his kulak class gives the false impression of the victims of the famine, for by that time there were no kulaks left in Ukraine. Nicolas Werth, whose long study of the Soviet Union is included in Courtois's Black Book, openly poses this question, but after presenting arguments for the "ethnicist" and "peasantist" interpretations, Werth settles on an explanation that embraces the ethnicist approach, blaming the deaths on an ethnically oriented policy of, if not genocide, than certainly willful extermination. For Mark Tauger, this ethnic orientation is unacceptable. He argues that there was no Ukrainian famine, only a Soviet famine in which peasants in Ukraine were also victims.
Of Georgian background, Stalin had a keen awareness of the "nationality question" in the multiethnic Russian and then Soviet empire. On August 11, 1932, he intimated to an associate that, unless proper measures were taken, Ukraine could be lost. The half-million-strong Communist Party of Ukraine, he complained, was full of "conscious and unwitting Petliurists," "agents of Pilsudski," and other "rotten elements." Stalin argued that the Polish dictator, Pilsudski, was not dozing.
His associate, Kaganovich, concurred, adding that local Ukrainian activists had become convinced that their grain procurement quota could not be met, and that Ukrainians were being punished unjustly. Kaganovich detected a sense of "solidarity and rotten mutual guarantee," not only in the middle echelons but even in the top levels of the administration. Stalin was also irritated that, when Chubar and Petrovsky had pleaded to have Ukraine's quotas lowered, Kossior did not react. This exchange between Stalin and Kaganovich suggests that they were aware that the imposition of unreasonably high procurement targets was creating a dangerous situation in Ukraine, where peasant and national factors intermingled. The Polish dictator, Pilsudski, could become a threat only if he could find allies in the disgruntled Ukrainian political apparatus and a disaffected Ukrainian peasantry. Political purges could eliminate the first danger, and just as in 1921 and 1923, food could be used to transform revolting peasants into an obedient rural proletariat.
Despite the passport system, Ukrainian peasants left their villages and went to Belarus and Russia, where the food situation was much better than in Ukraine. On January 22, 1933, Molotov and Stalin signed a secret directive to stop this practice. Railways were forbidden to sell tickets to Ukrainian peasants, and the OGPU was ordered to be more vigilant. The directive referred to a mass movement to undermine the Soviet state by the agents of Pilsudski and other enemies. The ban on travel also applied to the Kuban okrug in the North Caucasus. A primary grain producing region, Kuban had also been ruthlessly dekulakized and exorbitantly taxed, and had fallen behind the procurement schedule. With 61 percent of its 1.5 million population Ukrainian, Kuban became a prime target of Skrypnyk's efforts to Ukrainianize the 3 million Ukrainians living in North Caucasus. Individuals promoting Ukrainization were called counterrevolutionary agents and directly blamed for the local sabotage of grain deliveries. Ukrainization in the North Caucasus was brought to an end.
The vast majority of famine victims during 1932 and 1933 were Ukrainians, primarily living in the Ukrainian SSR, but also in adjacent regions of Russia. The high number of Ukrainian deaths stands in sharp contrast to the low number of Russian deaths, both in absolute terms and in relation to their populations. The correlation between the ethnic and social identities of the group forming the vast majority of famine victims is inescapable. The peasantry had been the raison d'être of the Ukrainization policy and the mainstay of the Ukrainian national revival. Now both were linked by the authorities to peasant sabotage, and they were attacked. Ukrainian cultural elites were decimated, and by 1933 Ukrainization ground to a halt and was replaced by a new policy of Russification.
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