Holodomor: The Great Famine in Soviet Ukraine, 1932-1933

"Running Man" by Kazimir Malevich (1932-1933)

Collectivization was implemented with greater vigilance and ruthlessness in Ukraine than elsewhere in the Soviet Union. It was also used as a tool to persecute the kulak class of peasant – who bitterly resisted the forced collectivization of agriculture – and in an attempt to destroy Ukrainian nationalism along with the kulaks.

The Five-Year Plan (1928-1932)

The two goals of the Soviet Five-Year Plan (1928-1932) were

  • To bring about industrialization at a breakneck pace
  • To replace small and large privately-owned farms with state-run collective farms. It was believed that farms with groups of 50-100 peasant families would boost productivity, and the surplus foodstuffs would be used to finance construction of plants and buy foreign-made equipment and machinery.

Soviet campaign against “national deviations”

During the same period, the Soviets also began a campaign against “national deviations” under which Ukrainian culture suffered greatly. The popular and influential Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church was liquidated in 1930, and saw the arrest and exile of its hierarchy and clergy. The ranks of Ukrainian intellectuals, writers and artists were decimated by imprisonment, exile or execution. During the 1930s about four-fifths of the Ukrainian cultural elite had been executed or repressed. The Ukrainian Communist Party saw a series of purges from 1929 to 1934 that eliminated Old Bolsheviks, supporters of Ukrainization as well as those who questioned the tactics used in bringing collectivization about.

Exporting grain from Ukraine (1928-1931)

In 1928, less than 100,000 metric tons of grain was exported from Soviet Ukraine. In 1930, however, it had been raised to 4.84 million metric tons, and in 1931 it was 5.18 million metric tons. This mass export greatly reduced the region of seed grain needed for planting. Additionally, Red Brigades comprised of overly enthusiastic Komsomol youth raided villages and took all the grain set aside for the peasants’ private consumption and all the seed grain for the following year.

Holodomor (“death famine”) begins

What was the result of this? Historian Robert Conquest writes, linking the Ukrainian genocide to the Jewish Holocaust “a great stretch of territory with some forty million inhabitants—was like one vast Belsen. A quarter of the rural population, men, women and children, lay dead and dying, the rest in various stages of debilitation with no strength to bury their families or neighbors.”

Conquest also writes that while this was going on, there were well-fed squads of police and Communist party officials who “supervised” the victims. There was a top secret instruction by Stalin and Prime Minister Molotov dated January 22, 1933, ordering Ukraine and Kuban to be blockaded, and all peasants were to be prevented by the secret police from traveling into other areas in search of food. Please click here to see a short video on the Holodomor.

Stalin accused peasants of “war of starvation”

In a correspondence to Sholokhov, Stalin wrote, “the esteemed grain growers of your region…carried out a sit-down strike (sabotage!) and would not have minded leaving the workers and Red Army without bread.” Stalin says that even though the “sabotage” was silent and seemingly harmless, it “does not alter the fact that the esteemed grain growers were…waging a…war by starvation…”

Thus Stalin was the first to accuse people of starving others! This is considered propaganda of “accusation in a mirror.” Michael Ellman writes that “accusation in a mirror” is a “propaganda technique in which the perpetrators of certain actions (war, terror, genocide, etc.) ascribe those to their enemy and see their own actions as self-defense.”

Stalinist “actions” show how Holodomor was organized

In the Stalinist view, the peasants who did not fulfill the quotas and whose resistance forced the state to use extraordinary means to procure the grain were guilty of “sabotage” and “waging war” against the Soviet Union. A “natural” Stalinist response to such action is punishment. Stalin perceived, as shown in his letter above, that he felt the peasants were waging a “war of starvation” against the workers and Red Army. Thus, in Stalin’s mind, by using the same “weapon” the peasants were using – starvation – against them would be poetic justice.

The events that show the famine was man-made and could have been halted are as follows:

  • The ban on migration from Ukraine and Kuban to get food
  • The failure of party leadership to lessen the burdens of grain procurements
  • The failure to provide extensive famine relief
  • The failure to reduce grain exports
  • The failure to appeal for foreign assistance
  • The serious criminal charges the party leadership made against the peasants

Stalin: deal peasants “a knockout blow”

In a speech Stalin made on November 27, 1932, he argued that all problems associated with grain procurement were the work of saboteurs and wreckers. “It would be stupid if communists,” concluded Stalin, “did not answer this blow by some collective farmers and collective farms by a knockout blow.”

Stalin’s repressive measures – his “knockout blow” – included the famine to ruthlessly “punish” the peasants. There were also deportations. The number deported to West Siberia from Ukraine in 1933 was 132,000, while the total number of deportations for that year was 268,000. But, as mentioned above, the famine was superseding the need for massive deportations from the Ukraine.

Cannibalism during the Holodomor

A report documents accounts of cannibalism, “…bodies had their livers removed, through a large slit in the abdomen. The police picked up some of these mysterious ‘amputators’ who confessed that they were using the meat as filling for the meat pies they were selling in market.” There were college students who were selling entire corpses in order to survive.

Some of them contacted Stalin’s wife Nadezhda Alliluyeva, who told her husband about the desperate situation in the Ukraine. Stalin refused to believe her and accused her of spreading “Trotskyite gossip.” The leader had the offending students arrested and executed. There were also accounts of parents eating their own children, as well as people trapping and eating the children of others.

Holodomor the only man-made famine in history

The Holodomor is probably the only time in history that a famine was purely man-made. The population of Ukrainians in 1926 was 31,195,000 and in 1939 was 28,111,000. That is a change of -9.9%. Scholars have given estimates of the dead from between 6 million to 7 million. The Holodomor has been officially called genocide by the Ukrainian government; only 23 nations in the world, however, have recognized the Holodomor as genocide.

This article is the second of two on this topic. The first article is called “Soviet Ukraine Before the Great Famine, 1917-1931.”