Famine-Genocide of 1932–3
Famine-Genocide of 1932–3 (Голодомор; Holodomor). The death through starvation of about four million people, mainly ethnic Ukrainian peasants, in a famine in Soviet Ukraine caused by the policies and actions authorized by Joseph Stalin and other leaders of the Bolshevik party and USSR government. Although Ukrainians living outside the Soviet Union recognized that famine as a great national tragedy already in 1933, discussion of it was forbidden in the USSR and it was denied there until late 1987. The famine was also largely neglected as a topic of study by scholars worldwide until the 1980s. Subsequently, especially after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Famine-Genocide of 1932–3 in Soviet Ukraine and the other Soviet famines of the early 1930s have been widely studied. In post-Soviet Ukraine, many scholars have depicted that famine as a key event in the national historical narrative, and in 2006 Ukraine’s parliament and government recognized it as genocide. Since independence it has also become known as the Holodomor (from moryty holodom ‘to cause suffering and death through starvation’). ‘Great Famine,’ ‘artificial famine,’ and ‘organized famine’ were used in Ukrainian diaspora circles before ‘Holodomor’ became the accepted term throughout much of the world.
The Origins of the Holodomor. The Holodomor had its genesis in the overly ambitious first Five-Year Plan adopted by the Soviet leadership in 1928, which prioritized the rapid industrialization of the Soviet Union. At the same time, Soviet leaders began abandoning the New Economic Policy, under which farmers paid fixed taxes, and returned to a policy akin to the Soviet regime’s earlier grain requisitions (see Grain procurement) in the countryside. In November 1929 the Soviet leadership initiated a radical socioeconomic transformation of the countryside, the main feature of which was wholesale collectivization. This was implemented largely through coercion and administrative pressure, whereby most agricultural lands and the major agricultural assets of independent, small-scale, family-run commercial and subsistence farms were confiscated and amalgamated into large collective farms. Formally, the newly established collective farms were co-operatives owned and run by its members, but in practice most formerly independent farmers became farm laborers in agricultural enterprises controlled and managed by state and Bolshevik party authorities.
The Soviet leadership justified the drastic transformations in the countryside as steps needed to build a communist socioeconomic order and modernize the agricultural sector. Perhaps even more importantly, they calculated that the collective farms under party and state control would produce greater surpluses of agricultural goods. In turn, this would facilitate greater procurement levels of agricultural products, securing thereby the provisioning of food supplies for the growing urban population and industrial workers, and surplus grain and other foodstuffs to be exported in exchange for foreign currency to finance rapid industrial development.
The collectivization drive was accompanied by a systematic assault, called ‘dekulakization,’ against the more prosperous and successful farmers. Accused of being exploiters and class enemies and labelled derisively as kulaks (Russian: kulaki; Ukrainian: kurkuli), these farmers had their properties confiscated. Those considered dangerous were sentenced to long terms of hard labor or, in some cases, execution; those thought to be less problematic were deported to remote parts of the Soviet Union; and those deemed the least troublesome were exiled from their villages. Peasants who resisted giving up their small farms and joining the collective farms also risked being branded as kulaks or kulak sympathizers and faced punishment. In Soviet Ukraine the so-called kulaks were sometimes also suspected or accused of being Ukrainian nationalists or their sympathizers and also vilified and persecuted for that reason.
The collectivization and dekulakization drives in Soviet Ukraine were begun at the same time that many cultural, political, and religious figures and intellectuals, some of national prominence, were subjected to a campaign of repressions. (See, e.g., the show trials of the fictional Union for the Liberation of Ukraine (SVU) and Ukrainian National Center.) Some, such as Ukraine’s foremost historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky, were fired from their academic and educational institutions and forced into internal exile. A campaign was launched against the autonomous Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox church, which was disbanded, and its priests and bishops persecuted.
In the grain-growing regions of the USSR, the loss of independent landholdings and the coercive nature of the collectivization and dekulakization drives of late 1929 and early 1930 triggered widespread peasant resistance, which was reinforced by the Soviet state’s requisitioning of greater amounts of grain and other agricultural products. The peasants’ active resistance manifested itself in protests and sometimes violent acts against officials, the abandonment of farms and flight, the slaughter of farm animals, and acts of sabotage. In Soviet Ukraine, the scale of protests and riots, which reached their peak in early 1930, was greater than in the other Soviet republics. According to figures collected by the Unified State Political Administration (the OGPU—the Soviet secret police), 4,098 disturbances occurred in Soviet Ukraine (29.7 percent of the USSR total) with over a million participants (38.7 per cent of the USSR total), at a time when the republic accounted for about 20 percent of the USSR population. The scale and intensity of the resistance was due in part because of the socioeconomic situation in Soviet Ukraine: its peasantry was relatively better off than in the other Soviet republics, and the tradition of individual farming was quite strong. Historical memory and recent experiences were also factors influencing how the Ukrainian peasantry reacted. Many peasants had supported the attempts in 1917–20 to establish an independent Ukrainian state (see Struggle for independence (1917–20)), and they had also taken part in or supported the anti-Bolshevik uprisings and partisan movement in Ukraine, 1918–22. Consequently the Ukrainian peasants’ socioeconomic grievances were at times manifested in national forms as local rebellions or acts in support of independence.
The widespread resistance that broke out in the USSR in early 1930, notably in Soviet Ukraine, prompted Joseph Stalin (in his article ‘Dizzy with Success,’ published in Pravda (Moscow) on 2 March 1930) to blame Bolshevik officials’ excessive zeal for the chaos, discontent, and resistance that had emerged. Consequently the collectivization drive was briefly relaxed and many peasants quit the collective farms. But the drive was intensified again later that year.
Although grain-requisition targets (see Grain procurement) were being raised in all of the USSR’s grain-growing regions, the demand placed on Soviet Ukraine’s peasants was especially high. The republic’s share of the entire amount of grain delivered to the Soviet state was raised from an already high 29 percent of the 1926 harvest to 38 percent in 1927. In 1929 Soviet Ukraine delivered 5.1—slightly more than 36 percent—of the total of 13.8 million tonnes of grain delivered to the state. In 1930 and 1931, the republic delivered roughly the same amount of grain that was collected from the other major grain-producing regions of the USSR (the Northern Caucasia, the Central Black Earth region, and the Middle and Lower Volga regions) combined—7.7 million tonnes from its 1930 harvest of 22.3 million tonnes, and 7.25 million tonnes from its much smaller 1931 harvest of perhaps as low as 13.8 tonnes. In these same years, the other four grain-producing regions delivered together 7.1 and 8.3 million tonnes, respectively.
The exceedingly high amount of grain requisitioned from Ukraine’s exceptional 1930 harvest, coupled with the renewed collectivization and dekulakization campaigns in the autumn of that year, intensified the negative effects on agricultural productivity that had become evident with the start of wholesale collectivization. The rush to force through the highly unpopular policies also led to chaos, in part because many of the newly formed collective farms were not being managed or run well. Dekulakization also deprived the villages of capable farmers and leaders, and many farmers continued to give up farming rather than join the collective farms; instead, they fled to the cities in search of work. Finally, because much of the grain and other food products produced by both individual and collective farms were being seized to fulfill procurement goals, the food reserves not only of Soviet Ukraine’s peasantry but of the entire republic were being depleted. In short, fulfilling the extremely high grain quotas imposed on Soviet Ukraine in 1930 and especially in 1931 severely overtaxed the republic. These actions were not only extremely exploitative but also created the conditions for the ensuing famine.
Famine became more likely in part because the requisition quota for 1931 had remained the same as it was in 1930. In 1931, however, weather conditions were not as favorable as they had been in 1930. In addition, the productive capacity of the countryside continued to deteriorate. This was occurring because of the ongoing peasant resistance to collectivization, though large-scale disturbances occurred less frequently than in early 1930. More protests and work stoppages by women took place, because farmers believed that the authorities would be less likely to use force and violence against females. Peasants continued slaughtering their livestock so they would not be seized to form collective-farm herds. Many of the collectivized animals on the newly established farms were not cared for or were poorly fed, in part because many collective farmers were not interested in caring for their confiscated livestock but also because there was a fodder shortage. This led to a sharp decline in the number and health of horses at a time when the Soviet authorities were unable to provide collective farms with enough tractors and other machines to operate effectively. In 1931 farmers continued deserting their farms and seeking work in the cities, while most collective farmers, who were paid in kind for their work, received very few food products. Worse still, Stanislav Kosior, who then headed the Communist Party (Bolshevik) of Ukraine, admitted that in 1931 about half of the republic’s collective farmers did not receive any payment at all for their work. This severely undermined the incentive to work on the collective farms. Meanwhile many village households did not have enough grain to survive the winter months. The work force’s lack of incentive and overall exhaustion, coupled with the decimation of draft animals, led to needed work not taking place or not being done in time, and to a general lack of care in work. The results were excessive amounts of weeds in the fields, which affected grain yields, and high losses—up to 40 percent of the grain was lost during the harvest in both 1930 and 1931. Coupled with unfavorable weather conditions, the grain harvest in 1931 declined precipitously, falling to 18.3 tonnes (official Soviet figures) and probably as low as 13.8 million tonnes.
Despite the sharply lower harvest of 1931 and ominous signs of a severe crisis, including the first cases of famine, the Kremlin dispatched Viacheslav Molotov, chairman of the USSR’s Council of People's Commissars, to Soviet Ukraine in late December 1931 in order to pressure the republic’s leadership to fulfill its onerous grain-procurement quota. On 29 December the CP(B)U’s Politburo complied and passed a resolution confirming the necessity of fulfilling the quota. To meet the plan, seed grain and fodder were seized and the collection campaign was extended to March 1932. As well, the grain of many collective farmers, who had previously received some payment in kind for their work, was confiscated. By insisting that grain be taken from the producers—who did not have enough grain stored to adequately feed themselves and their families and whose diet largely consisted of bread and other cereal products—the authorities ensured that widespread famine conditions would occur in Soviet Ukraine in 1932.
1932: The Intensification of the Crisis and the First Period of Widespread Famine. Famine conditions were already present or developing by early 1932 in other parts of the Soviet Union due to similar policies. They were already present in 1931 in Kazakhstan, where the native nomadic herders were coerced into joining collective farms and their animals were taken and slaughtered to provide meat for the inhabitants of the Soviet cities and new industrial sites, primarily in the RSFSR. As a result, the Kazakhs’ herds were decimated. In Soviet Ukraine, famine conditions became so severe and widespread that tens of thousands died in early 1932. The lack of food and severe crisis in the countryside triggered a mass migration of peasants in search of food to cities in Soviet Ukraine anad especially to the Russian SFSR and Belorussian SSR, where grain was more plentiful and less expensive. Those farmers remaining did not conduct spring sowing well because they were often undernourished and weak or refused to work unless they were given bread, and because many draft animals had died or were in a weakened state. Many fields were sown late or left unsown, and a large number of the fields that were sown were poorly tended and overgrown with weeds.
The outbreak of famine alarmed Soviet Ukraine’s Party and state officials, who hoped to ameliorate the situation. In the latter part of February 1932 the head of the All-Ukrainian Central Executive Committee, Hryhorii Petrovsky, wrote to Stanislav Kosior to request that the CP(B)U’s Politburo intercede with the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolshevik), VKP(B), to halt the grain-procurement campaign and provide food aid. Some food was finally released in the spring 1932, mainly to support the sowing campaign that spring. Nonetheless the Holodomor’s general conditions persisted because the food aid provided was inadequate and because the policies that caused the famine were not revised.
Hryhorii Petrovsky and Vlas Chubar, the chairman of the republic’s Council of People's Commissars, finally appealed for help and relief for Soviet Ukraine in lengthy letters to Joseph Stalin and Viacheslav Molotov on 10 June 1932. In these letters they described the famine conditions in Soviet Ukraine in detail; requested famine relief and a reduction in the grain-procurement quota for the year; and informed the leaders at the Kremlin about the widespread flight of people from the villages in search of food and the increase in thefts because of the lack of food. Apparently Stalin did not reply to Petrovsky and Chubar, but in a letter to Lazar Kaganovich, secretary of the VKP(B)’s Central Committee and a member of its Politburo, expressed his dissatisfaction with Soviet Ukraine’s leadership, his unwillingness to provide further aid or lower Soviet Ukraine’s grain-procurement quota.
Petrovsky’s and Chubar’s letters reflected uneasiness at the top levels of Soviet Ukraine’s political leadership with the Kremlin’s policies and pointed to the potential for serious opposition to grow within the CP(B)U’s party ranks. In order to rein in that party’s leadership and ensure compliance with the grain-procurement plan, Stalin sent his trusted lieutenants Kaganovich and Molotov to Kharkiv to attend the Third CP(B)U Conference (6–9 July 1932), which was called to discuss the agricultural situation in Soviet Ukraine. Although CP(B)U leaders argued with the Kremlin’s envoys for a reduction of the quota, they were brought into line and the conference endorsed the targets for that year. Some conference speakers did, however, reveal uneasiness with the brutal methods used to achieve grain-collection targets and with the grain-collection quotas that the Kremlin assigned Soviet Ukraine. Some also noted a rise in nationalism associated with these onerous quotas.
The ongoing crisis in Soviet Ukraine and the concomitant rise in Ukrainian nationalism prompted Joseph Stalin to express his views on the situation there in a letter he wrote on 11 August 1932 to Lazar Kaganovich. In it Stalin noted leading CP(B)U members were unreliable and unable to carry out the policies of the central authorities. Emphasizing the strength of nationalism in Soviet Ukraine and even within the CP(B)U, Stalin twice expressed his concern about the possibility of ‘losing’ Ukraine and his alarm about the widespread discontent among lower-level CP(B)U officials with the procurement quotas. Stalin’s musings show that the national question had emerged as an important factor in the crisis generated by collectivization and the grain-procurement campaign. Therefore he decided to remove Soviet Ukrainian leaders deemed unreliable and to take steps to thwart the rise of what he saw as Ukrainian nationalism. As such, the measures taken in Soviet Ukraine to secure the grain-procurement plan were now to go hand in hand with steps to bring Soviet Ukraine, particularly its leadership and CP(B)U cadres, more firmly under the Kremlin leadership’s direct political control.
Stalin’s expression of concern over Soviet Ukraine also constituted recognition that the growing socioeconomic crisis was provoking resistance that was taking on national forms and content, raising the possibility that the republic would secede from the USSR. Widespread discontent had been noted in a July 1932 Soviet secret-police (OGPU) report that stated anti-Soviet attitudes in Soviet Ukraine were greater than in all other regions of the USSR. On 5 August 1932 another OGPU report stated that 923 of 1,630 disturbances and demonstrations in the USSR during the first seven months of that year had occurred in Soviet Ukraine, and, in second place, 173 in the Northern Caucasia region, part of which, the Kuban, was inhabited by the Kuban Cossacks, who were largely of ethnic Ukrainian origin.
While the 1932 grain-procurement target for Soviet Ukraine was lower than the 1931 quota, and was eventually reduced three times, the reductions were not large enough to prevent the onset of even more severe famine conditions. The reduced grain targets were still unrealistic and unrealizable because agricultural production had been plummeting in the midst of a deepening crisis in the agricultural sector. Moreover, rather than taking steps to ameliorate the crisis, Stalin and the Soviet leadership’s response was to authorize additional, even more repressive and severe policies and measures in the second half of 1932 and first part of 1933 to squeeze grain out of the republic’s countryside and punish and penalize those individual farmers and collective farms that were unable to meet or resisted fulfilling the grain-collection plan. In effect, in the second half of 1932 and first part of 1933 the USSR’s top Party and state leaders took steps or enacted measures that intensified famine conditions. While some of these decisions and actions applied to the entire Soviet Union, others were directed only at Soviet Ukraine and the Northern Caucasia region, including the Kuban.
The most important of the new measures was the adoption of the all-Union decree known as the ‘Five Ears of Grain Law’ enacted on 7 August 1932. That law established that all collective-farm property was state-owned and called for draconian measures, including capital punishment, for what was defined as theft from collective farms (even the gleaning of grain from collective farm fields). The law, which authorized severe punishments, deterred farmers from taking grain and other agricultural products from collective farms to feed themselves and their families during the famine.
In late October 1932 the Kremlin sent Viacheslav Molotov to Soviet Ukraine and Lazar Kaganovich to the Northern Caucasia to head special teams to supervise and spur on the grain-collecting efforts, which had been lagging because of the crisis. Aided by thousands of Communist cadres from Ukrainian and Russian cities who helped organize and supervise the work of the procurement brigades, these grain-collection units conducted searches for grain in individual farmsteads. Іn late November 1932 аnother Kremlin emissary, Pavel Postyshev, secretary of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolshevik), was sent to the lower Volga region to perform similar tasks. In order to ratchet up repressions and instill fear of being punished among the peasantry and lower-ranking officials, on 5 November, under Molotov’s urging, the CP(B)U directed legal authorities to streamline and speed up court proceedings against those accused of theft and sabotaging the grain-procurement efforts, and authorized the establishment of mobile three-man tribunals to try and punish on the spot those accused of sabotage, theft, resistance, or opposition to the state’s confiscation measures. Lower-ranking Party officials, local administrators, or collective farm leaders who spoke out against the grain quotas, resisted fulfilling them, or helped the peasantry to conceal grain in order to survive the winter, were often accused of sabotage or theft. Many were dismissed and sentenced to prison terms or even summarily executed.
On 18 November 1932, under Viacheslav Molotov’s direction, the CP(B)U issued a resolution calling for the blacklisting of entire villages and collective farms that had failed to meet their grain quotas. This directive also authorized fines in kind (in meat and potatoes) for nonfulfillment of the plan, and for the economic blockade of entire collective farms, villages, and larger territorial units—that is, for collective punishment. These actions caused additional privations and suffering in the black-listed locales. This blacklisting was applied extensively in Soviet Ukraine, but also in in other parts of the Soviet Union.
In late November 1932 Joseph Stalin sent Vsevolod Balytsky, who formerly headed the GPU in Soviet Ukraine and was now deputy head of the OGPU, from Moscow back to the republic as a special plenipotentiary with sweeping powers to use Soviet security forces to reinforce the grain-collection efforts and repress so-called saboteurs and counterrevolutionaries, including Ukrainian ‘nationalists,’ who Moscow claimed were planning and organizing rebellions and had infiltrated positions of authority in Soviet Ukraine. Balytsky’s men arrested thousands of so-called counterrevolutionaries and nationalists in the course of the next several months, even claiming to have prevented an uprising against Soviet rule with the aim of establishing an independent Ukrainian state.
The Kremlin authorities’ concern with grain procurements and the national question in Soviet Ukraine and the Kuban region is reflected in a resolution they adopted on 14 December 1932. Insisting on the fulfillment of procurement plans in Soviet Ukraine and the Northern Caucasia by the end of January 1933, they also called for rooting out counterrevolutionary elements, including ‘nationalists,’ from positions of authority in the collective farms and raion administrations. The resolution also included clauses dealing with cultural policies, pointing to supposed problems with the policy of Ukrainization (state support for the advancement of the Ukrainian language and culture) in Soviet Ukraine. It called for the removal of ‘nationalists’ involved in its implementation in Soviet Ukraine and for the complete rollback of Ukrainization in the Kuban. Notably this resolution treated the ‘sabotaging’ and ‘undermining’ of grain-procurement efforts together with efforts to steer national-cultural policies in a direction deemed to be anti-Bolshevik. Taken together, Vsevolod Balytsky’s return to Ukraine to increase repressions there and the adoption of the December 14 resolution represent the Kremlin leadership’s concrete steps to counteract the rise of national sentiment in Ukraine, fostered in part by Ukrainization—which Stalin saw as a potential danger to the unity of the Soviet state.
In December 1932, for the third time in the same year, Stalin’s plenipotentiaries Viacheslav Molotov and Lazar Kaganovich were again dispatched to Soviet Ukraine and the Northern Caucasia to intensify grain-collection efforts. This was consistent with actions an imperial centre would take to re-establish control over an untrustworthy colonial administration and a potentially rebellious colony.
1933: The Spike in Mass Mortality. While tens of thousands died of famine in Soviet Ukraine in the first part of 1932 and the full year’s toll reached approximately 250,000, excess deaths from famine spiked in the first half of 1933 to about 3.5 million. People continued to die as a consequence of the excessive grain and other requisitions, which had exhausted the populace and stripped the countryside of grain over a number of years. But the sharp increase in deaths that occurred in the first half of 1933 was attributable also to the Soviet leadership’s additional and extraordinarily cruel, punitive policies and actions in the second half of 1932 and early 1933. Two documents dated January 1933 were particularly important in understanding why there would be such a large surge in deaths.
The first document is the ominous and threatening New Year’s Day telegram Joseph Stalin sent to Soviet Ukraine’s leaders directing them to inform the republic’s peasants that those who turned in ‘stolen or hidden grain’ would not be subject to repressions. It implied that farmers who did not give up grain designated as hidden or stolen would be subject to searches. If such grain was found, it would be assumed that it was being kept illegally, and farmers storing such grain would be subject to prosecution and even capital punishment under the law of 7 August 1932. Thousands of existing testimonies affirm that mass searches took place in Soviet Ukraine in early January 1933. In many of these accounts the witnesses stressed that not only grain but all food found in households was confiscated or maliciously destroyed. The additional searches, triggered by the New Year’s Day telegram, led to more confiscations of food from families who were already largely bereft of edible products and were probably a major factor leading to the 1933 spike in deaths in Ukraine.
The second document is Joseph Stalin and Lazar Molotov’s directive of 22 January 1933 ordering that the borders of the Ukrainian SSR and the Kuban in the Northern Caucasia be sealed to prevent peasants from leaving for other regions of the USSR in search of food. This directive was issued to prevent another mass exodus of peasants from Soviet Ukraine like the one that occurred in 1932. Because people facing severe food shortages leave food-deficient regions for areas where food is more plentiful, this directive has to be viewed as an important contributing factor in causing increased suffering and exceedingly high death tolls in early 1933. The border blockades, coupled with policies already in place restricting peasants’ ability to travel to urban centers and their expulsion therefrom, amounted to forcing rural residents to return to their villages, where their death from starvation was more likely. Limited supplies of food were available in the larger cities, for the Soviet state had instituted a system of rationing that guaranteed most urban residents’ and factory workers’ access to food. There were also co-called commercial stores in the cities where limited amounts of bread and other food could be purchased. Nonetheless not all urban residents in of Soviet Ukraine had adequate rations and some were not eligible to receive ration cards, so a significant number of them also died of hunger in 1932 and 1933. A similar directive restricting peasant mobility was issued several weeks later in the Russian SFSR’s Volga region.
In late 1932 and early 1933 Stalin also took steps to bring Ukraine under direct Kremlin rule. He began by replacing the republic’s oblast-level Party officials and sending Mendel Khataievich to take up the post of second secretary of the CP(B)U Central Committee in the autumn of 1932, effectively making him a Kremlin special emissary in Ukraine. On 24 January 1933 the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolshevik) passed a resolution blaming the CP(B)U for failing to reach the republic’s grain-procurement target and dispatched Pavel Postyshev to Kharkiv to replace Khataievich. In that position, Postyshev effectively ruled in Soviet Ukraine as Stalin’s viceroy.
Postyshev’s main tasks quickly became clear, for soon after his appointment he began a campaign of repressions against Ukrainian cultural and political figures, accusing them of nationalism. These repressions were aimed in part at those Communists in Soviet Ukraine who supported the development of its cultural, economic, and political autonomy (see National communism). The suicide of the influential writer Mykola Khvylovy and the leading Ukrainian Bolshevik Mykola Skrypnyk in 1933 symbolized the demise of the possibility of a more autonomous evolution of a national culture and a more nationally-oriented Communist political party in Ukraine. Postyshev initiated a systematic and wide-reaching purge of lower-level state and CP(B)U officials. Approximately seventy percent of the Ukrainian SSR’s raion committee secretaries and about half of the chairmen and vice-chairmen of the republic’s 11,400 collective farms were replaced.
Postyshev ran affairs in Soviet Ukraine during the country’s massive spike in mortality in the first half of 1933. The onerous grain quotas and subsequent confiscations of foodstuffs by requisition brigades had left much of the Ukrainian countryside bereft of food, but the requisition campaign continued, now under Pavel Postyshev’s control, until early February. By the start of spring, most people in the countryside had exhausted what little remained of their food stocks and resorted to eating surrogates and almost anything thought to be edible. Besides domestic animals not normally eaten, such as dogs and horses, peasants ate bark and leaves from trees. In desperation and in conditions where a number of people were driven to insanity from hunger, even cannibalism occurred, either as the consumption of the flesh of people who had already starved to death or of those deliberately murdered for that reason. The number of people dying from hunger rose dramatically, eventually reaching approximately 28,000 per day at the height of the Holodomor in June 1933.
Famine conditions led many people into taking desperate measures to save family members. Many peasant children were abandoned in towns and cities, where they wandered the streets begging for food; some children ended up in orphanages or were passed on to relatives. The population was so weakened by hunger in the countryside that regular burials often did not take place; it was common for corpses to be collected by specially designated people with carts and dumped into common graves. Peasants and urban dwellers without rations tried to find enterprises or institutions that might provide them with a regular, even if modest, supply of food. They sold off heirlooms, particularly gold or silver items, for food, notably in special Torgsin stores established by the Soviet authorities in 1931 to gain hard currency from foreigners. Despite the repressions and intolerable conditions, the large-scale active resistance and rebellions that were common in early 1930 did not occur at this time because most peasants were weak and exhausted from long-term hunger and lacked the physical strength to rebel, and because the state and Party officials in the countryside had been being reinforced with cadres from Russian and Ukrainian cities, thus making active resistance less likely.
The Holodomor affected almost all of interwar Soviet Ukraine, but recent findings point to the highest percentage of famine-related deaths occurring in areas that were then part of Kyiv oblast and Kharkiv oblast. The most affected regions in the Russian SFSR were the Northern Caucasia, including the Kuban, which bordered on the Ukrainian SSR, and the Lower Volga. The highest percentage of famine deaths occurred in Kazakhstan, which was at that time still a part of the Russian SFSR. The estimates of the number of excess deaths attributable to the Holodomor in Ukraine vary, though the figure of just under four million during the years 1932–4 reached by a team of demographers associated with the Institute of Demography and Social Research of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine is the best estimate by scholars to date.
1933–4: Winding Down of the Famine. While the famine intensified under Pavel Postyshev’s leadership, the Soviet leadership also began delivering food and rendered other assistance to Soviet Ukraine shortly after his appointment. The grain-delivery campaign to meet the assigned quota from the 1932 harvest was brought to a halt on 8 February 1933, though grain collections to gather seed for the spring sowing continued. Beginning that month, in order to support spring sowing efforts, seed from central grain stores was loaned to Ukraine’s collective farms and food was released for their farmers to enable them to undertake agricultural work.
The aid in grain was, on the whole, woefully inadequate, amounting to less than was requisitioned from Soviet Ukraine during the November 1932 to early February 1933 period. Moreover, its aim was, first of all, to support CP(B)U and other officials in the countryside, including the collective-farm managers, as well as those collective farmers still able and willing to work. Despite the assistance, famine deaths in Ukraine continued to rise sharply, reaching their peak in May and June 1933, for most collective farms were bereft of grain and other food stocks, and peasant households, both of individual farmers and collective-farm workers, had little or no stored edible food products. The overwhelming majority of the rural population was thus left in the grips of starvation, even after food aid began.
On 8 May 1933 the leadership of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolshevik) also finally relaxed its policies of applying severe repressions in the countryside and issued a decree declaring that the battle against the kulaks was over and that the collective-farm system had been consolidated. Earlier, on 19 January 1933, a resolution issued by the VKP(B)’s Central Committee and the USSR Council of People's Commissars announced that, starting with the 1933 harvest, collective farms would pay a fixed, in-kind tax to the state, thus ending unpredictable, arbitrary, and ruinous requisitioning. This concession brought more predictability to the collective farms’ obligations to the state and returned some degree of incentive to the collective farmers to work, because, after payment of the fixed tax, the amount of the grain left over was no longer subject to requisitioning. The surplus left after the tax was paid could now be distributed among the collective farmers or sold on the market. In the first half of 1933, the Soviet leadership thus applied both extremely coercive and repressive measures (such as redoubling grain-collection efforts, searching households for food, the levying of fines in-kind, arrests, imprisonment, and blockades to limit peasant mobility), which intensified famine conditions and led to a spike in deaths, with economic and other concessions, such as fixed taxation, a small amount of assistance aimed, first of all, at preventing the collapse of the spring sowing campaign, and, beginning in May 1933, relaxing extreme repressions and terror policies in the countryside.
Because the widespread hunger in Soviet Ukraine had incapacitated large numbers of the rural work force, CP(B)U officials, students, workers and others, mainly from cities, were pressed into service to aid the agricultural sector in 1933, especially during the harvest. Good climactic conditions assisted in the growth of a bumper crop in Ukraine that year. As a result, famine conditions began to subside, although famine-related deaths continued into 1934.
The issue of repopulating Ukrainian villages devastated by deaths from starvation also arose in 1933. Soviet authorities approved sending 117,000 voluntary settlers (approximately 21,850 households) from the RSFSR and the Belorussian SSR to repopulate devastated Ukrainian villages in November and December 1933. A comparable contingent drawn mainly from Kyiv oblast, Vinnytsia oblast, and Chernihiv oblast arrived in January and February 1934. The majority of the Russian settlers returned to their homes in the Russian SFSR within a year. They were able to do so because they had been recruited as volunteers. Subsequent attempts to repopulate Ukrainian villages devastated during the Holodomor drew mainly, though not exclusively, on people resettled involuntarily from other parts of the Ukrainian SSR. As such, resettlement from the RSFSR in response to the Holodomor was not a major factor in changing the ethnic composition of Soviet Ukraine in the 1930s. The long-term influx of ethnic Russians into Ukraine’s cities was the more pertinent factor, although demographic losses during the Holodomor, as well as deportations related to dekulakization, also affected the ethnic balance in Ukraine.
Inducement of the Famine-Genocide and Its Intensification. The Holodomor can best be understood as a two-stage famine that took place during the 1931–2 and 1932–3 agricultural years. The first stage, which lasted up to June 1932, can be characterized as a state-induced famine: the policies that Soviet party and state leaders authorized at the highest level, which were then implemented at lower levels, produced famine conditions by late 1931 and mass starvation and deaths in Soviet Ukraine and other parts of the USSR, largely in the grain-growing regions, in the first half of 1932. In Ukraine, excessive requisitioning and confiscation of grain and other agricultural products from the peasantry were the most important reasons why mass starvation ensued. They occurred in conjunction with or on the heels of forced collectivization and dekulakization, which were largely reason why the agricultural crisis intensified and production dropped sharply in 1931. Although unfavorable weather was a factor, grain production in Soviet Ukraine plummeted from 22.27 million tonnes in 1930 to as low as 13.8 million tonnes in 1931. The grain-collection targets that Soviet authorities levied over a period of several years became impossible to meet because of the deepening agricultural crisis in 1931. By late 1931 the grain collections had basically stripped Soviet Ukraine and its peasantry bare of their grain stores, and widespread famine ensued. The excessive requisitions conducted over a period of several years constituted extreme exploitation of the peasantry—now collective farm workers—and of Ukraine as a key grain-producing republic of the USSR. Although the USSR’s leaders could have foreseen the ruinous consequences of their collectivization, dekulakization, and grain-collection policies, they nevertheless chose to proceed with them.
Some of the highest Party and Soviet state officials’ decisions and the actions they authorized and encouraged can be regarded with certainty as reckless and criminal. Others, such as those related to the initial efforts at organizing and running collective farms can, in part, be attributed to incompetence or as decisions made hastily, based in part on ideological beliefs. The more repressive and violent actions condoned and carried out were taken with the intent to harm or destroy those considered class enemies and those who resisted party and state policies. National figures and those accused of nationalism were also repressed in the years leading up to and during the first stage of the famine.
While recklessness characterized some of the USSR leadership’s most important decisions from late 1929 through the first half of 1932, those taken in the second half of 1932 and first part of 1933 (stage two of the Holodomor), which intensified famine conditions, were often punitive. These were aimed primarily against the peasantry. Some of Joseph Stalin’s key decisions were also aimed at breaking any resistance or wavering by Soviet Ukraine’s Communist leadership to the Kremlin’s authority and its excessively high and unrealistic grain-collection quotas, at subduing more completely the republic’s leaders, and at replacing some of them with more loyal and ruthless figures who would authorize and carry out the cruelest and repressive acts without wavering. To carry out and enforce his plans, Stalin also sent special teams, headed by his closest lieutenants, to Soviet Ukraine, the Northern Caucasia, and later to the lower Volga region. In Soviet Ukraine this assignment was given to Viacheslav Molotov, who, upon his arrival there in October 1932, pressured the republic’s leadership to fall in line with the Kremlin and authorized cleaning out all remaining grain stocks, including through searches of peasant homes for grain, and the institution of severe fines and other punitive measures against peasants and collective farms that failed to meet their assigned grain-delivery quotas. Stalin’s reassignment of Molotov and Lazar Kaganovich to Soviet Ukraine and the Northern Caucasia in December 1932 and Vsevolod Balytsky’s assignment to Ukraine confirm that the tasks of these Kremlin emissaries were largely punitive and aimed at increasing central control over Ukraine.
The decisions made to ratchet up repressions against those who failed to meet the grain-delivery quotas, who were usually also accused of sabotage and counterrevolutionary activities, and the expansion of the list of those to be sought out and punished to include ‘nationalists’ highlights the national dimension to the new repressive policies. Vsevolod Balytsky’s focus on rooting out ‘nationalists’ confirms a greater emphasis on national repressions, which were intensified in conjunction with continuing the extraction of more grain and other food products from the republic and its inhabitants.
The motives for inducing and intensifying famine conditions were tied to the goals that Joseph Stalin and loyal associates set out to reach in the Soviet countryside, and in particular in Soviet Ukraine. Their primary socioeconomic goal was to establish and entrench the collective-farm system. This included forcing the peasants to accept the expropriation of their property, their new status as agricultural laborers, and the duty to work hard for little remuneration in the collective farms. Tied to this was the goal of inducing the collective farms to maximize production so that the Soviet state could take as much grain and other agricultural products deemed necessary in order to support the Stalinist leadership’s industrialization goals. This included procuring grain and other agricultural commodities for export in exchange for foreign currency. In 1930, 1931, 1932, and 1933 respectively, the USSR exported 4.76 million, 5.06 million, 1.73 million, and 1.68 million tonnes of grain. Other agricultural products, including meat and fowl, that the state requisitioned from peasant households were also exported.
Overall, Stalin and the top Soviet leadership did not exhibit particular concern that their policies were causing hardship and then, by late 1931, famine in Soviet Ukraine. They did, however, exhibit great disquiet that the grain-collection goals were not being met and that resistance to them was particularly strong in Ukraine. When famine conditions began there in late 1931, nothing was done to alleviate them until spring 1932. By this time tens of thousands had already died of hunger. The small amount of aid Ukraine received was tied to the spring sowing campaign and was mainly in the form of seed loans, which were subject to repayment. During the second half of 1932, in the face of an intensifying crisis that continued to cause a drop in agricultural production and the exhaustion of Ukraine’s peasants from hunger, the authorities began making decisions that not only caused the famine to return, but to return in a more virulent form than in early 1932. Consequently, there was mass starvation and about 3.5 million people perished in the first half of 1933. The additional searches of peasants that Stalin suggested imposing in his 1 January 1933 telegram to the leaders of Soviet Ukraine, as well as the border blockade to prevent peasants from fleeing that he authorized later that month, are actions that have a direct correlation to the high concentration of famine deaths in the first half of 1933. It is logical, therefore, to conclude that severe famine conditions in Ukraine were intentionally allowed to develop or deliberately created and intensified from late 1932 through early 1933. This was a particularly cruel and vicious means implemented to control, punish, and ultimately force Ukraine’s peasantry into accepting their status as exploited collective-farm laborers with greatly circumscribed rights. In a memorandum to Stalin dated 15 March 1933, Stanislav Kosior admitted that the famine was a means of teaching Ukraine’s peasants a lesson.
The National Question and the Holodomor. Forcing through a radical socioeconomic transformation of the Soviet Ukrainian countryside and especially the requisitioning of exceedingly high levels of grain and other agricultural products triggered widespread peasant resistance based largely on social and economic grievances. It also intensified and brought to the surface long-standing problems that had a national dimension or character to them. Following the adoption of the Five-Year Plan, the high agricultural quotas imposed on Ukraine to finance industrialization efforts had been severely overtaxing Ukraine’s agricultural sector. The nation-wide resentment at the Kremlin’s leadership’s exploitative policies, expressed in the commonly heard phrase that “Moscow had taken the grain,” was acknowledged by CP(B)U leaders at the Third Party Conference held in Kharkiv in early July 1932.
About a month after the conference, in August 1932, Joseph Stalin brought attention to the dangers posed to the Soviet state by ‘nationalism’ in Ukraine in a letter to Lazar Kaganovich. Shortly after the appearance of this letter, in conjunction with new directives authorizing an intensification of repressions in the countryside against those deemed to be kulaks, counterrevolutionaries, and saboteurs, ‘Petliurists’ (i.e., ‘nationalists’) were also mentioned as meriting repressions. In Soviet party and government resolutions and decrees, beginning in late 1932, ‘nationalists’ were also accused of sabotaging the grain-collection campaigns and of directing resistance to them. In their speeches in late 1933 and early 1934, the CP(B)U leaders Stanislav Kosior and Pavel Postyshev stressed that Ukrainian ‘nationalists’ bore a large part of the responsibility for sabotaging the grain-collection plan and for the resistance in the countryside. A large-scale campaign of repressions against Ukrainian cultural figures and national-Communists, who were branded ‘national deviationists,’ also began in 1933.
It appears that Stalin viewed the CP(B)U leaders’ reluctance to support the centrally imposed grain procurements unconditionally, and lower-level Soviet Ukrainian officials’ widespread reluctance and resistance to carrying out procurements as a threat to the unity of the Soviet state. He therefore determined that a preventive strike was needed to repress and destroy those he believed would support Ukrainian autonomy or independence. Blaming Ukrainian ‘nationalists’ for the agricultural crisis and failures in the Soviet Ukrainian countryside in 1932 and 1933 also served as a justification for the removal and repression of the republic’s political and national-cultural figures. Stalin’s moves were also motivated by his long-held belief that there was a strong connection between the socioeconomic and national questions. In his view, the Communist transformation of the countryside would elicit strong social and class-based opposition that could also take on a national dimension.
In 1925, in a reply to a Yugoslav Communist, Joseph Stalin first emphasized that there was a close connection between the peasant and national questions, noting that the peasantry could form the military backbone for a national-liberation movement. In 1930, in his report to delegates at the Sixteenth Congress of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolshevik), he noted that the accentuation of the class struggle taking place was also bound to lead to the accentuation of national frictions. Importantly, on 10 March 1933, during the most severe period of the Holodomor, a lead editorial in the VKP(B) Central Committee’s newspaper Pravda (Moscow) emphasized the close link between the peasant and national questions in Ukraine. Hence Stalin would have believed that by striking a devastating blow against the Ukrainian peasantry—eighty percent of the Ukrainian nation—by subduing them and destroying their economic autonomy and power, he would also damage and impede their capability to mobilize and act in support of a movement for Ukrainian autonomy and independence. It should be noted that the launch of the collectivization and dekulakization drives occurred in 1929 and 1930 in conjunction with Stalin’s first large-scale repressions against Soviet Ukraine’s national political and cultural elites. The second campaign against Ukrainian cultural and political figures, which began during the height of the Holodomor in 1933, was more brutal and targeted even Communists. It was thus more sweeping and thorough than the first campaign.
Terror, Mass Killings, and Genocide as Soviet State Policies. The establishment of Bolshevik rule and Soviet power in the former Russian Empire was achieved and often supported through violence, which in its extreme form constituted state terror. Terrorist acts, authorized and encouraged by the top Bolshevik leadership headed by the Soviet state’s founder, Vladimir Lenin, thus became acceptable means of achieving goals, especially in forcing recalcitrant populations to cease their resistance and instead submit to Soviet power and the Bolsheviks’ authority. The latter commonly used terrorist methods during the Civil War period and in the countryside during their grain-requisitioning efforts, starting in 1918, which were an important factor in causing famine and starvation-related deaths during the years 1921–3 in southern Ukraine (see Famine of 1921–3). Thus, the Bolshevik leaders knew from experience that excessive requisitioning caused famine and deaths from starvation. They also knew that the requisitioning provoked resistance but that with food shortages and famine it weakened, as it did in 1921 when support for the peasant-based anarchist movement led by Nestor Makhno in southeastern Ukraine withered after famine struck the region. Several years later excessive requisitioning in the context of drought and crop failures led to about 20,000 deaths during the little-known famine of 1928–9 in Soviet Ukraine. Once again Soviet authorities conducted requisitions in conditions of lower than expected harvests, and thus they induced famine.
The 1932–3 Holodomor was caused in part by excessive grain requisitioning, but also because of coercion, repressions, and punitive legislation and actions in late 1932 and early 1933. These actions could be viewed as a state-directed campaign of terror in support of the grain-collection campaigns. Terror methods were also used during the collectivization and dekulakization campaigns. The repressions launched against Ukraine’s cultural and political figures in 1933 can also be considered acts of state terror. Overall, the Stalinist state intensified repressions and terror in support of reaching its goals, and then diminished or ended them when its goals had been achieved.
In his 1986 study The Harvest of Sorrow, Robert Conquest was the first scholar to describe the Holodomor as a terror-famine. In his thirty years of studying the Holodomor, the Ukrainian historian Stanislav Kulchytsky has added to the evidence and further refined Conquest’s thesis, arguing that the Stalinist terror operation that caused the Holodomor was conducted under the guise of grain collections. Policies intended to strike terror and create famine conditions were authorized and then carried out in late 1932 and in early 1933.The Holodomor can therefore be seen as part of a wider terrorist campaign whose goal was overcoming resistance to the collective-farm system and forcing Ukraine’s peasantry to comply—to get the majority to bend to the will of the party state. In the process, a significant part of Soviet Ukraine’s population was destroyed, mainly through starvation. While terror was widely applied against the broad mass of the republic’s peasantry, other types of terrorist actions were applied more selectively against political and cultural figures.
The Stalinist state did not intend to destroy all Ukrainians but to achieve certain aims through terror, including the use of mass killings, when its leadership deemed this necessary. The party state’s actions were aimed and applied with great cruelty not only against the peasantry of Ukraine, but also in the Northern Caucasia, especially against the Kuban Cossacks, against the Don Cossacks, and against the peasantry and German population in the lower Volga region. In Soviet Ukraine and the Kuban there were national dimensions to the Stalinist policies. Stalin, who considered himself a Marxist theoretician and specialist on the national question, viewed Ukraine’s peasantry as a potential base of support for the Ukrainian national movement. Therefore, his blows were aimed at undermining, terrorizing, and neutralizing the peasantry—the Ukrainian nation’s core and also its bulwark.
In Ukraine, the Stalinist regime’s terrorist repressions targeted not only the peasantry but also rank-and file Bolshevik party officials and a significant number of members of the national-cultural intelligentsia and political leadership. These attacks were renewed and intensified in 1929 and 1930, as repressions aimed at suppressing national aspirations had occurred even earlier, beginning from the Bolsheviks’ war with and triumph over the Ukrainian National Republic. The deliberate destruction of a significant part of the Ukrainian nation—peasants, urban-based intellectuals, and other cultural and political figures—in 1932 and 1933 constitutes genocide by the Stalinist regime with the aim of breaking resistance in the countryside in order to achieve near total control over the entire economy, consolidate centralization and more direct control over Soviet Ukraine, its political leadership and population, thereby creating favorable conditions for the development of a culturally Russian ‘Soviet people’ and state with imperial, global ambitions and reach.
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Bohdan Klid, Andrij Makuch
[This article was updated in 2021.]