Image - Transporting corpses of starved peasants in Southern Ukraine during the Famine of 1921-22. Image - A starving child during the Famine of 1921-22. Image - Corpses of starved children during the Famine of 1921-22. Image - The Famine of 1921-22: feeding starving children in Katerynoslav.

Famine. Ukraine has experienced years of famine, notwithstanding the fact that it has some of the richest soil in the world. Historically this was related to climatic conditions or disruptions caused by military conflicts. But in the 20th century Ukraine experienced several famines that clearly were politically motivated.

The medieval chronicles and other literary sources (eg, the Kyivan Cave Patericon) mention famine caused mainly by crop failures or war. The 1090s, 1193 (or 1195), and 1219 were ‘hungry years.’ Of the great famine in 1230–1, a chronicler wrote ‘there was famine throughout Rus’ except Kyiv.’ Famine was not as frequent in Ukraine as on Russian or Belarusian territories because of more favorable natural conditions. As well, sometimes when famine struck one region (eg, Volhynia in 1219), the other regions had good harvests. The devastation caused by Tatar incursions led to famine in areas of Ukraine.

In the Hetman state there were ‘hungry years’ in Bohdan Khmelnytsky's time and during the so-called Ruin. There was also a great famine in 1698 and after the Battle of Poltava (1709). The causes were crop failures, locusts, war, Tatar incursions, and Muscovite and Polish military expeditions. However, it was generally the population of certain regions or a part of Ukraine, not of all Ukraine, that suffered famine. The regions that experienced hunger most frequently in the 18th century were the steppes, Polisia, and the Carpathian Mountains.

In the 19th century there were a few difficult years of famine in Ukraine (among them, 1833–4, 1844–6, and 1855), but many fewer than in the gubernias of Russia proper (which had 40). Crop failures and hunger led to great unrest among the peasantry in 1901–7 and stimulated emigration.

In the Russian Empire famine relief was organized by the government, zemstvos, and philanthropic societies. However, the tsarist government restricted the initiative of the societies, believing that they encouraged opposition. The government lent grain to certain categories of the population on the strength of future harvests.

In Western Ukraine, mainly in the mountain regions of Subcarpathia and Transcarpathia, malnutrition was practically chronic in the 1930s. In 1930–1 famine struck these areas. The governments of Poland and Czechoslovakia failed to provide adequate relief. In 1935, when the Ukrainian population of southern Bessarabia was stricken with famine caused by drought, the Ukrainians of Bukovyna furnished aid.

The Ukrainian SSR experienced three severe famines, during which millions perished. These occurred in the wake of reduced grain yields caused by poor harvests. But the major contributing factor in each case was food ‘requisitions’ (ie, seizures) by Soviet authorities that left the population without enough to sustain itself over any extended period of time (see Grain procurement). The Famine of 1921–3 and Famine of 1946–7 previously were largely regarded as the results of poor harvests. However, research undertaken since the late 1980s has established the centrality of Soviet grain procurement) policies in transforming the existing food shortfalls into calamitous famines. The general contours of the Famine-Genocide of 1932–3 (the Holodomor) were known to Ukrainians outside the USSR for many years, particularly after the arrival in the West of postwar émigrés. But this famine-genocide remained largely unknown to the general public and a matter that was barely dealt with by scholars until the 1980s. This situation was acerbated by the USSR’s categorical denial of the very existence of that famine, let alone any acknowledgement of the manner of its creation. There have been significant developments in the knowledge and public awareness of the Famine-Genocide of 1932–3 since the major commemoration of its fiftieth anniversary by Ukrainians in the West, increased research on the topic by Western scholars, and the emergence of this national tragedy as a public and scholarly issue in post-Soviet Ukraine.

During the Second World War the urban population of Ukraine experienced hunger, especially in 1941–2 in central and eastern Ukraine. The food shortage was initially caused by the destruction of supplies by the retreating Soviet Army and the obstruction of supply deliveries by the Germans. The occupying Germans then established a regimen that deliberately provided the urban centers of Ukraine with an inadequate supply of food, leading to chronic malnutrition. Rural areas were spared this treatment because the inhabitants there were regarded as useful insofar as they provided the Third Reich with food provisions. In the spring of 1942 Subcarpathian Galicia experienced a partial famine as a result of floods and crop failure. The Ukrainian Central Committee in the Generalgouvernement organized relief, especially for children.

As mentioned earlier, Ukraine experienced the postwar Famine of 1946–7.

In post-independence Ukraine there have been claims by Communists opposed to revelations about the Holodomor that contemporary Ukraine has seen famine conditions. These are without substance.

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Andrij Makuch, Vasyl Markus

[This is an abridged version of the ‘Famine’ article that originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, vol. 1 (1984). The bibliography has been updated.]

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