The Great Famine of 1932 – 33 in Soviet Ukraine: Causes and Consequences

The famine of 1932-33 which saw millions perish , is an event of central importance in the history of Ukraine.  The Holodomor as it is known, is not only an historical question but has become a key issue of debates on the Ukrainian question in the 21st century.  The reason for this is the historical revisionism of the Putin regime and its advocates who seek to deny the truth of the long history of oppression the Ukrainian people.

This article, written by the respected the respected Ukrainian scholar and socialist, Bohdan Krawchenko, was first published in the journal Critique A Journal of Soviet Studies and Socialist Theory in 1986.

The truth of the famine in Ukraine was suppressed by the Kremlin from the time it happened until the last days of the USSR.  When the Manchester Guardian reported the starvation witnessed by Gareth Jones, the Kremlin restricted journalists from traveling there.

This was aided by journalists such Walter Duranty of the New York Times and Louis Fischer of the Nation who attacked “exaggerated” émigré claims of famineThe press cover-ups were complimented by the antics of the tourist agency Voks, who constructed Potemkin villages, which gave fuel to the fables of willing and gullible ‘tourists’ such as George Bernard Shaw.

Khrushchev recorded in his memoirs that “Perhaps we’ll never know how many people perished”, but neither his ‘de-Stalinization’, nor under his successors did the perpetrators ever face justice.  Those who sought to commemorate, analyse or protest the famine risked imprisonment or worse.

The famine revisionism moved from outright denial, to questioning the scale and man-made cause of the famine.  This began as early as March 1933 when Duranty, cynically reported there were no deaths from starvation but “widespread mortality from disease due to malnutrition”[ii].

To this day such falsifiers of the famine continue to reside in the labour movement,  Andrew Murray, leading spokesman of Stop The War downplays the scale of famine and the role of the Stalinist regime arguing:

“Nevertheless, it appears it was a famine blundered into, rather than engineered,…..once the calamity became incontrovertible, the government sought to mitigate it, however inadequately, including mobilising the Communist Party in the Ukraine to assist affected areas.”[iii]

Murray’s account is straight from the Stalin school of falsification. In addition he dismisses any national dimension as regards the famine.  It is a fact recognised by a multitude of Marxist and non-Marxist of the period and after, that the agrarian and national questions were enmeshed due to the fact that Ukrainians comprised the vast majority of the rural populace in contrast to an urban populace in the majority Russian or russified.

In the 1920’s this began to change, as the Ukrainian Communists led a policy of Ukrainisation which sought to overcome the legacy of the Russian colonialism.  The famine revisionists, such as Murray deny the terror that ensued set out to destroy these achievements of the revolution.  In January 1933 Stalin announced the abolition of the policy of Ukrainisation, Russification was resurrected, the ranks of the Ukrainian communists and intelligentsia were decimated by purges in the decade of Stalinist terror.

The political consequences of the famine of 1932-33 were far reaching, mass murder in the name of “socialism” saw a generation of youth particularly in Ukrainian territories outside the then Soviet Ukraine turn to revolutionary nationalism.

The famine in Ukraine, the mass murder of Ukrainian peasants, cannot be understood separately from this historical context.

”Each particular system of historical production effectively posses­ses it’s own demographic laws, which have historical consequences.” K. Marx, Capital

Between 1932 and 1933 millions of people in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic starved to death in what was the largest artificial famine in human history. Those responsible for this crime were never brought to justice; no monuments were erected to the victims of the famine and the Soviet government has done everything to remove traces of this cataclys­mic event.

The immediate background to the famine was the problem of meeting highly unrealistic goals set by the Stalinist leadership in the first five-year plan. It must be remembered that throughout most of the 1920s Stalin opposed planningand industrialization. Had preparations for industriali­zation been made early in the 1920s, this would have allowed time to think through, economic strategies and permit their more gradual imple­mentation. Rather, it was only in 1928-9 that Stalin, very abruptly, changed direction. The result was a highly improvised and dilettantish first five-year plan. Rudzutak. a leading Soviet economic official in his 1934 report provided many instances of the chaos which existed in industry at that time. Plans for the Tagil engineering works, for example, had to be altered nine times in twenty-six months, involving a loss of several hundred million rubles. As a result of poor and hasty planning, fifty per cent of the manufactures produced by the Stankolit works in Moscow was entirely useless.[i]  Because too many projects had been started simultaneously, and too many resources had been wasted through bureaucratic incompetence, an acute shortage of capital was felt by 1930. The depression in the West which saw grain prices drop sharply in relation to those of manufactured goods, compounded the effects of economic mismanagement.  In order to industrialize, equipment from the West had to be imported. To pay for it the USSR exported grain. Now more grain would have to be exported to pay for the same quantity of equipment.

To sustain industrialization, more capital was needed, and to obtain it Stalin ordered more grain to be squeezed from the peasantry. The quickest way of doing this was to nationalize the peasants’ land and to drive the peasantry into collective farms. Under the threat of severe penalty, peas­ants were forced to deliver the whole of their marketable grain. Ukraine, as the Soviet Union’s major grain producing area, was singled out for ac­celerated collectivization.

The scope of collectivization that was proclaimed caught everyone, in­cluding party and state officials in Ukraine, by surprise. In the autumn of 1929, several months before “total collectivization” was ordered, collec­tive farms represented a mere 3.7 per cent of Ukraine’s arable land and 5.6 per cent of the total number of rural households.[ii]  These were collective farms that peasants had joined voluntarily. The original version of the first five-year plan called for the collectivization of approximately ten per cent of Ukraine’s arable land by the end of 1932 with rudimentary forms of collective labour as the  dominant  organizational   form,  not collective farms.  In November 1929, however, the Political Bureau (Politburo) of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) ordered collectivization to be speeded up in order to “intensify the export and the production of raw materials for industry.”[iii]  Initially, peasants were to have been allowed to keep livestock for their personal consumption. The revised plan called for the establishment of collective farms on 20 per cent of the republic’s arable land involving 30 per cent of the peasant households by the end of 1932.’[iv]   In February 1930 the policy was changed again. All peasant households were ordered to be collectivized by the autumn of 1930 and the “complete socialization” of all peasant livestock was decreed.[v]  War was declared on the Ukrainian peasantry.

An essential component of forced collectivization, according to Stalin, was the “elimination of kulaks as a class” in order to “replace their output by the output of the collective farms and state farms.”[vi]  In reality, the destruction of the kulaks had little to do with economic considerations. By Stalin’s own admission, kulaks supplied only a fifth of the Soviet Union’s marketable grain surplus. The middle and poor peasants furnished three-quarters.[vii]  The procurement campaigns of 1928 and 1929 had already crippled the kulaks as producers. In 1929, in particular, the heavy fines imposed on kulaks, including the confiscation of the property of 33,000 households for the non-delivery of grain quotas, undermined the economic power of the kulaks.[viii]De-kulakization was primarily intended to rid the countryside of peasants most likely to organize and lead resis­tance.’  As V. Gsovski noted, “it was not so much the prosperity of a peasant as his attitude towards collectivization which determined his class character.”[ix]

The liquidation of kulaks as a class began in January 1930 and con­tinued until 1932. According to official sources, 200,000 kulak house­holds were “liquidated”, that is, approximately one million people.[x]  “Oth­er sources place the number of “liquidated” kulak households at 500.000 or two million people.’ [xi] Kulaks had their property confiscated and were forbidden to join collective farms. The kulaks wore divided into three groups. The first group, those who actively resisted collectivization, were either executed or sent to prison camps and their families were deported to Siberia and the far north. The second group, the most active element in the village, were deported with their families to remote regions of the Soviet Union. The rest were ordered to leave their districts. These were the general rules established by the CPSU Politburo in January 1930.[xii]   Their implementation varied from region to region. In Ukraine, the de-kulakization campaign took on especially brutal forms:

Barefooted and underclothed peasants were jammed into railroad cars and transported to the regions of Murmansk, Vologda, Kotlas and the like. This [dekulakizatlon campaign] was carried on in the Russian districts, but here it took on a more human form, if one may apply that term here. Those Russian kulaks whose property was taken away were often allowed to remain in their villages and if they were deported they were generally deported to the western districts of Siberia or the region of Sadensk. The death rate amongst the expropriated Russian peasants was disproportionately lower ..,[xiii]

According to one eyewitness account, peasants “were unloaded into the snow about six feet deep. The frost registered at 75 degrees below zero . . . Without even an axe or a saw we began building huts from tree branches. In two weeks all the children, the sick and the aged had frozen to death.” The death rate among Ukrainian peasants deported to Nadezhdinsk in the Sverdlovsk region in Russia was typical: only 2,300 out of the original 4,800 survived the winter.[xiv]

Forced collectivization unleashed wide and spontaneous resistance among all strata of village society. Peasant revolts broke out in most regions of Ukraine. In Chernihiv, the 21st Red Army regiment joined the peasant rebellion.[xv]  Everywhere peasants slaughtered their livestock, burnt their crops, and as many as could fled to the cities. The Committees of Poor Peasants (Komnezamy), hitherto the mainstay of the party in rural areas, became “hostile to the Soviet regime”.[xvi] Rural state and party officials opposed collectivization. In 1930 a fifth of all rural state and party functionaries were dismissed on charges of “right opportunism”.[xvii] The army, the GPU, the militia and armed brigades of reliable urban party members were sent into the villages to implement collectivization. Just as in earlier revolts against the Soviet regime in Ukraine, during forced collec­tivization the village poor were in the forefront of unrest. According to a newspaper report, the slaughter of animals was carried out mostly by poor and middle peasants.[xviii]   V.A. lakovtsevskii, a Soviet historian, pointed out that resistance to collectivization was greatest among the poor peasants who had recently obtained land and among the middle peasantry who had recently risen from the ranks of the poor.[xix]

The publication of Stalin’s article “Dizzy with Success” was evidence that the Soviet leadership had become nervous about rural unrest. Stalin admitted that “excesses” had occurred during collectivization and pinned the entire blame on the local officials.[xx]  The Ukrainian press, during the momentary thaw which followed the publication of Stalin’s article, pub­lished several accounts which gave some indication of how collectivization had been carried out.  The homes of poor and middle peasants, according to one report, were raided in the middle of the night and the peasants were forced at gunpoint to enter collective farms. Confiscated property was often stolen by urban brigades. The militia roamed village streets arresting anyone in sight. Communalization of property in many villages extended even to clothes and footwear.[xxi] Collectivization throughout the Soviet Union was accompanied by brutality.  In Ukraine, however, it was worse because this was a grain-growing region which was slated for intensive col­lectivization. On 1 March 1930, 69 per cent of the arable land and 63 per cent of peasant households had been collectivized. In the steppe region of the republic, almost 80 per cent of arable land was held by collective farms. In the Soviet Union as a whole, only 30 per cent of the arable land and 24 per cent of households had been collectivized.[xxii]

The emphasis on the “voluntary” nature of collective farms following Stalin’s article was promoted by the fear that growing peasant resistance would severely damage spring sowing. Peasants were allowed to leave col­lective farms and in Ukraine a mass exodus occurred.  By May 1930, the percentage of collectivized households dropped to 41 per cent and the col­lective farms’ share of arable land declined to 50 per cent.[xxiii]  This permit­ted the regime to get the situation in the countryside under control and it also facilitated work on the fields which resulted in a good harvest in 1930. That year 7.7 million tonnes of grain were taken from Ukraine or a third of the harvest. That Ukraine was being exploited can be seen from the fact that while the republic produced 27 per cent of the total grain’ harvested in the USSR, it supplied 38 per cent of the USSR’s grain pro­curements.[xxiv]  The amount of grain taken out of Ukraine in 1930 was 2.3 times what it had been in 1926. Three factors made this possible. Climatic conditions were optimal that year, the private sector boosted production and, finally, the requisition campaign was so intense that seed grain needed for the following year was confiscated. Reassured by this success, forced collectivization was renewed, and by  1931, 65 per cent of rural house­holds and 67 per cent of all arable land had been collectivized, (By 1933, the figures were 73 and 86 per cent respectively.)[xxv]  The 1931 quota for grain delivery to the state was set at the level achieved in 1930—7.7 mil­lion tonnes.[xxvi] Very early in 1932 famine appeared in Ukraine and it ravaged the republic until the end of 1933.

In explaining why the famine occurred, two factors must be mentioned by way of providing background information. The first was the collapse of agricultural production brought about by collectivization. Rather than sur­render their animals to the collective farms, many peasants slaughtered them: in 1928 there were 7.0 million pigs in Ukraine, in 1933, 2.1 million; cattle declined in the same period from 8.6 to 4.4 million and the number of horses from 5.4 to 2.6 million.[xxvii]  This not only meant that meat delivery quotas could not be fulfilled, it also accentuated what was always a major problem in Ukrainian agriculture—the shortage of draught animals. The production of tractors was in its infancy and could not replace animal power. In 1932, for example, Ukraine had on the average one tractor per collective farm.[xxviii] Moreover, tractors were under a separate jurisdiction from the collective farms; they belonged to the Machine Tractor Stations, an arrangement which was opposed by the Ukrainian leadership on the grounds that it made effective integration of agricultural production im­possible.[xxix]  The tractors themselves were of extremely low quality and were constantly breaking down and there were no spare parts for repairs.  During the fateful harvest of 1932, to give an example, 70 per cent of the tractors in Dnipropetrovsk oblast were inoperative in August, and by Sep­tember this had increased to 90 per cent.[xxx]  The peasantry was given no incentive to produce. By the end of 1930, 78 per cent of collective farms had failed to pay peasants  their  “labour days” worked.  Moreover, the “labour day” payment in Ukraine (in kilogrammes of food produce) was half of what it was in Russia.[xxxi]  Collective farms were excessively large, reflecting the mania for gargantuan projects that dominated Stalinist eco­nomic thinking; the Ukrainian leadership had called for small “cooperative collectives”.[xxxii]  Highly bureaucratized in their decision-making structure, collective farms left no room for individual or group initiatives. In 1932 some collective farm chairmen wished to sow rye instead of wheat, arguing that rye was a more suitable crop for their region. “These bearers of anti-wheat sentiments must be severely punished,” was the reply that came from Moscow.[xxxiii]  The combination of all these factors resulted in un­believable chaos in production. Between 1931 and 1932 the total sowing area in Ukraine contracted by one fifth; in 1931, almost 30 per cent of the grain yield was lost during the harvest. [xxxiv]

To add to the difficulties a drought affected Ukraine.  It began in 1931 and was limited largely to the steppe region.[xxxv] In 1934 another far more serious drought developed. The disruption in agricultural production to­gether with climatic conditions caused relatively poor yields in 1931, 1932 and especially in 1934.   The 1931 harvest, according to official sources, gave 18.3 million tonnes of grain, considerably less than the 23.1 million tonne figure of 1930.  In 1932, 14.6 million tonnes were harvested, in 1933, 22.3 and in 1934, 12.3 million tonnes.[xxxvi]

The factors we have mentioned, chaos in agricultural production and the drought, contributed to the famine, but they were not its main cause. In 1934, the year of the poorest harvest, there was no famine in Ukraine.

Responsibility for the famine rested with the Stalinist leadership and the draconian grain requisition quotas that were imposed on Ukraine in order to maintain the heady industrialization pace. In 1931, 7.7 million tonnes were ordered to be requisitioned from Ukraine, the same as in 1930, even though the harvest was 20 per cent less than in 1930. Moscow ordered that the grain be obtained at any cost and applied enormous pressure to that end. Troops and police were used to take all peasant stocks. Seven million’ tonnes were obtained, leaving the average peasant household in Ukraine with only 112 kilogrammes of grain.[xxxvii] (Before the revolution a peasant household which consumed three times that amount was considered im­poverished.)[xxxviii] The amount of grain requisitioned was so great that the re­public was short of seed grain by 45 per cent.[xxxix]

Anxious about the impending catastrophe, the Ukrainian leadership argued with Moscow for a major downward revision of its agricultural obligations for the year 1932. The amount was lowered to 6.2 million tonnes, but this was still far above the capacities of the republic in view of the poor harvest -14.6 million tonnes of grain, of which 40 per cent was lost during the harvest because of the breakdown of machinery and the chaotic transportation system.[xl] To ensure that the Ukrainian party obeyed orders, a special mission headed by Molotov and Kaganovich arrived in Kharkiv (then the capital of Ukraine). Every conceivable method was used to extract 6.2 million tonnes. The state and party apparatus was purged in those regions that lagged behind in grain requisition; every third person holding responsible position in the collective farms was purged, troops and armed brigades were sent into the villages to carry out mass re­pression of peasants who did not surrender their last morsel of bread.[xli]

It was during the 1932 harvest, in August, that the infamous law was passed stipulating a minimum sentence of five years in labour camp and a maximum of the death penalty for “theft of socialist property”. Visiting assizes of the regional court in Dnipropetrovsk oblast sentenced peasants to the firing squad for the theft of a sack of wheat. In Vinnytsia oblast, peasants were sentenced to five years in labour camps for taking an un-ripened ear of corn from the field.[xlii]  Ukrainian farmers became “the most numerous” among “political offenders” in the Soviet Gulag.[xliii]  According to the last available information, in early January 1933, 75 per cent of the grain quota was fulfilled, that is, 4.7 million tonnes.[xliv] This left the average peasant family with 83 kilogrammes of grain with which to feed itself.[xlv]

The famine, which began in January 1932, finally subsided in 1934, when the 1933 harvest was brought in. This was because Ukraine, lacking 55 per cent of its seed grain, was lent seed grain by Moscow, and more sig­nificantly, Moscow reduced the quantity of grain to be delivered to the state to 5.0 million tonnes even though the 1933 harvest resulted in 22.3 million tonnes of grain.[xlvi]  1934 could have been a famine year as well since the grain harvest was a mere 12.3 million tonnes. It was not, however, be­cause the amount of grain requisitioned was reduced further and Stalin even released grain from existing stocks to feed the population. He could have done something similar in 1932-3, but he did not, and one of the worst famines in human history raged in Ukraine.

What is important to stress about the 1932-3 famine in Ukraine is that it was artificially created and that no effort was made to relieve the plight of its victims. On the contrary, the offers of international relief organizations to assist the starving were rejected on the grounds that there was no famine and hence no need to aid its victims. Moreover, the borders of Ukraine were closely patrolled, and starving Ukrainian peasants were not allowed to cross into Russia in search for bread.

Because many eyewitness accounts of the famine have been published we need not describe in detail the ghastly scenes which were to be ob­served in Ukraine throughout 1932 and 1933. But something has to be said about the famine as a lived experience for the event cannot be under­stood only through the presentation of the economic and political factors which brought it about. Victor Kravchenko, a former Soviet official, wrote that “on the battlefield men die quickly, they fight back, they are sustained by fellowship and a sense of duty.” But in Ukrainian villages throughout 1932-33, he observed, “I saw people dying in solitude by slow degrees, dying hideously . . . They had been trapped and left to starve, each in his home, by a political decision made in a far-off capital around conference and banquet tables.”[xlvii]

The main victims of the famine were not even the imagined enemies of the Soviet regime, the kulaks, since they had been eliminated by 1932 when the famine began. It was the poor and the middle peasantry who died agonizing deaths in the millions. The deaths of hundreds of thousands of children was perhaps the most horrible scene to be observed in Ukraine’. They would lie on the streets and in the ditches, trying to gather their remaining force to look for something to eat. But they were so weak that they would remain lying there, until death released them from their agony.”  The poor children,” wrote a German agricultural expert who travelled throughout Ukraine in 1933, “perished like wild beasts.”[xlviii]   Many parents, watching their children suffer, killed them out of mercy, and were driven into insanity by this dreadful act. Cannibalism appeared. To survive some children ate the flesh of their dead brothers and sisters, or of their parents or grandparents.[xlix]  Hundreds of thousands of children were orphaned and many of these foraged the countryside in search of food and were ul­timately eliminated by troops and police by means of mass executions. [l]

What happened in the village of Pleshkan in the Poltava district was ty­pical. Prior to the famine the village had 2,000 inhabitants. Only 982 peo­ple survived by eating everything, all the dogs and cats, the barks of trees, all sorts of roots. There was a school in the village before 1932-33, with all four rooms filled with children. After the famine the school was closed-there were no children left to attend it.[li]

How many died? How many millions perished? Harry Lang, editor ofthe left-wing Jewish daily Forward, published in New York, visitedUkraine in 1933 and was told by a high-ranking state official: ” ‘Six mil­lion people perished from the famine in our country . . .’ The officialpaused, and repeated, ‘Six million’.”[lii] According to the 1926 census therewere 31.2 million Ukrainians in the USSR, but in the light of the 193.9census results, the number of Ukrainians had declined to 28.1 million:over a thirteen year period the number of Ukrainians diminished by 11per cent. The population of the USSR, on the other hand, increased by 16per cent, the number of Byelorussians by 11 and the number of Russiansby 28 per cent.[liii] We will probably never know the exact number ofdeaths attributable to the famine. But most specialists, including thoseamong dissident circles in the Soviet Union, such as M. Maksudov, are ofthe opinion that between 4.5 and 6 million Ukrainians perished duringthe famine.[liv]

The effects of the experience of collectivization and the famine on the attitudes of the peasantry were reflected in the findings of the Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System which interviewed Soviet refugees after the Second World War. Ukrainian collective farmers seethed with hatred for Moscow.[lv] However Moscow’s agrarian policies had destroyed them as a social force. The Ukrainian village was silenced and never again rose in opposition to the Soviet regime.

The tragedy of the Ukrainian peasantry was a national tragedy. It was, after all, Stalin who wrote, “the peasantry represents the main army of a national movement . . . Without the peasantry there cannot be a strong national movement.”[lvi] While this is obviously not atrans-historical truth, it applied in the 1920s.  If in the early 1920s, the Soviet regime adopted Ukrainization policies, it was because it feared peasant unrest. When the Ukrainian peasantry was under attack in 1932-3, the Ukrainian elite, whose existence was nurtured by Ukrainization, sprang to their defence. Ewald Ammende, who analysed this question wrote:

. . The widest circle of the Ukrainian intelligentsia had entered the struggle; teachers, students, Soviet officials, all thought it was their duty to protest against a further sucking dry of the country, future historians will have to admit that in the campaign against the Ukrainians, during the spring and summer of 1933, the Soviet regime was faced by a united people, a solid front, including every­one, from the highest Soviet officials down to the poorest peasant.[lvii]

Ukrainian autonomy, which threatened Stalin’s plans for Ukraine’s exploitation, was fostered by Ukrainization policies. In 1933 Stalin ordered that these policies be abandoned and instituted a programme of Russification.  Ukrainization. born with the peasantry, died with it too. The Ukrain­ian intelligentsia, who had refused to become willing agents in the exter­mination of their people, was itself decimated. According to I. Lawrynenko, 80 per cent of Ukraine’s creative intelligentsia was liquidated.[lviii]

On July 7, 1933, Mykola Skrypnyk, shot himself. A leading Ukrainian Communist and of the 1920s Ukrainian renaissance he had called for Soviet Ukraine to exercise its constitutional right – and leave the USSR.

When the casualties of the civil war, collectivization, the famine, the purges of the 1930s and the 6.7 million who died during W.W.II are combined, it is estimated that more than half the male and a quarter of the female population of Ukraine perished.[lix] Such, a mountain of skulls is unprecedented in human history. Along with people, the achievements, lessons and hopes that one generation communicates to another were destroyed. Under the circumstances, it was all the more remarkable that Ukrainian society had any strength left for self-assertion in the post-war period. In summing up the 1930s it is no exaggeration to say that the Uk­rainians’ greatest achievement during that decade was that they outlasted it.

First published in Critique, Journal of Soviet Studies and Socialist Theory