Famine in the Soviet Union

views updated


This article discusses the three major famines that the Soviet Union experienced. It does not treat regionally-delimited food shortages and famines, which were numerous between 1917 and 1940, or the famine conditions that occurred during World War II, for example in the Leningrad blockade. Famines, of course, were also fairly frequent occurrences in the Tsarist Russian empire, especially in rural areas. The last important one took place in 1891–1892. However this was dwarfed by the famines of the Soviet era.

The first of the major Soviet famines struck between 1918 and 1921, following World War I and the civil war. By 1921 it covered all of Russia. It resulted from severe disorganization of the food supply combined with the consequences of compulsory requisitioning of harvests, a practice that began before the Revolution but continued and was enlarged after it, especially during the civil war. The Bolsheviks sought to ensure food supplies for the towns, where their strongest base of support lay, and for the army. The famine is estimated to have caused about 5 million deaths, either directly from starvation or in the epidemics that followed.

After some hesitation, at the end of June 1921 the Soviet authorities began a large famine relief campaign, helped by some international support from organizations such as the American Relief Administration and the International Committee of the Red Cross. By the end of 1922, although many regions were still suffering from malnutrition, the situation was returning to normal–aided by Lenin's decision to permit small-scale private commercial activity and by an easing of grain requisitions. The Bolsheviks used the famine as a pretext to confiscate church property.

The 1933 famine, the second of the three, was more catastrophic yet than the famine of 1918–1921 and differed in its origins and geographical concentration (Figure 1). It led to more than 6 million deaths, largely in Ukraine, the Lower Volga region, and in the North Caucasus, the main grain producing regions, and also in Kazakhstan, then with a large nomadic population. Its determinants were clearly political: it was the outcome of the forced collectivization of peasant farms, the harsh Stalinist policy of 1928–1929 that followed the less stringent years (1921–1927) of the New Economic Policy. Under the name of dekulakization, millions of peasants, both rich and less rich, were deported; many of them to remote frontier regions, and new collective farms (kolkhoz) were established. Many peasants destroyed their livestock rather than giving it to the collectives. Agricultural marketing systems broke down. The situation was worsened by Stalin's decision to continue and even expand the export of grain in order to finance the rapid industrialization envisaged in the second Five Year Plan. The level of forced grain requisitions took no account of the realities of production. The hostility of Stalin, Molotov, Kaganovich, and other Soviet leaders toward the peasants, suspected of hiding their harvest, led in 1931 to measures such as NKVD detachments or groups of workers from the towns being used to confiscate grain–even seed grain.

The pace of grain requisitions did not lessen even when the first signs of famine began to appear, during 1931 and in the summer of 1932. Ukrainian authorities, on the basis of Ukrainian NKVD or Communist party reports, attempted to alert Moscow officials to the looming catastrophe, but Stalin, after initially seeming to be concerned, chose instead to begin a violent attack against "peasant wreckers" and even "Communist staff wreckers." Other regions that traditionally produced a grain surplus–notably North Caucasus and Lower Volga–were similarly subjected to mass-collectivization, dekulakization, and requisitions.

In Kazakhstan, collectivization took the form of forced sedentarization of the nomadic people. This led to a large exodus to other countries, especially to the western regions of China where the population was ethnically similar, and to complete social disorganization among those who remained.

The peak of the famine was in March and April of 1933, when the number of deaths in some regions of Ukraine, Russia, and Kazakhstan were more than ten times normal levels. To avoid massive flows of


migrants, Stalin forbade people to move, a measure enforced by the NKVD. Cases of cannibalism were recorded.

The official Soviet position denied the existence of this famine. It was forbidden to write about it. The only response of the Soviet authorities was to supply seeds for the summer 1933 crop in Ukraine and other areas, thereby helping to end the calamitous consequences of the Stalinist approach to governing the country.

The third and last major Soviet famine followed World War II. Its immediate cause was failure of the 1946 harvest, the result of a drought affecting the western regions of the country. But the deeper origins were in part the same as those of the 1933 famine. After the privations of the war, people were very weak and sensitive to any new shortages. But Stalin wanted to continue to export grain, as well as supplying towns and the army. Compulsory procurements of grain and other foodstuffs from the collective farms were raised beyond the limits of feasibility. The result was about 1 to 1.5 million deaths from starvation or disease.

See also: Communism, Population Aspects of; Ethnic Cleansing; Forced Migration.


Adamets, Serge. 2003. Guerre civile et famine en Russie: le pouvoir bolchévique et la population face à la catastrophe démographique, 1917–1923. Paris: Institut d'Études Slaves.

Andreev, Evgenij, Darskij, Leonid, and Khar'kova, Tatiana. 1998. Demograficheskaya istoriya Rossii: 1927–1959. [The Demographic History of Russia: 1927–1959]. Moscow: Informatika.

Blum, Alain. 1994. Naître, vivre et mourir en URSS, 1917–1991. Paris: Plon.

Vallin, Jacques, Meslé, France, Adamets, Serguei and Pyrozhkov Serhii. 2003. "A New Estimation of Ukrainian Losses during the 30's and 40's Crises." Population Studies Vol. 3.

Wheatcroft, Stephen. 2001. "O demograficheskikh svidetel'stvakh tragedii sovetskoi derevni v 1931–1933gg." ["About demographic evidence of the tragedy of the soviet villages in 1931–1933"], In Tragediya Sovetskoi Derevni: Kollektivizatsiya i raskulachivanie, Dokumenty i Materialy, Vol. 3: Konets 1930–1933, ed. I. Zelenin, V. Danilov, L. Viola, R. Manning, R.W. Davies, S. G. Wheatcroft, et al. Rosspen: Moscow. pp. 866–887.

Wheatcroft, Stephen, and Robert Davies. 2002. "Soviet Famine of 1932–33 and the Crisis in Agriculture" In Challenging Traditional Views of Russian History, ed. Stephen Wheatcroft. Palgrave: Macmillan. pp. 69–91.

Alain Blum