An Evaluation of the Deliberate Causation of the 1932-1933 Ukrainian Famine
“A ruthless struggle is going on between the peasantry and our regime. It’s a struggle to the death. This year was a test of our strength. It took a famine to show them who is master here. It has cost millions of lives, but the collective farm system is here to stay. We have won the war!”
leader of the grain-procurement program in Ukraine
This historical research paper evaluates whether the famine in Ukraine from 1932-1933 was deliberately caused by the Russian SSR. In April of 1929, Stalin and the CPSU introduced the first “five-year plan of industrialization.”1 An important component of industrialization, a policy of forced collectivization of agriculture was implemented in January of 1930.2 In Ukraine, collectivization was met with widespread resistance.3 When the Ukrainian SSR repeatedly failed to meet the grain procurement quotas dictated by the Five Year Plan, the Russian and Ukrainian SSRs initiated a series of policies designed to extract the maximum amount of grain from collective farms.4 In 1932, when members of the Ukrainian Politburo were aware of impending famine, relief was sought from Moscow, and denied.5 This essay uses revisionist sources, as well as a detailed report for American congress prepared by the Commission on the Ukraine Famine, to assess the whether the famine was deliberately engineered by Russian Soviet authorities.
The intent or reasoning behind the possible deliberate imposition of the famine will not be assessed.
To achieve the goals of the Five Year Plan, which called for the rapid industrialization of the USSR, the Politburo “resolved upon the mass collectivization of agriculture”6 in 1929. The timetable for collectivization set by the Kremlin called for 30% of Ukrainian households to be collectivized by 1932, but this estimate was revised to 100% by the end of 1930.7 The policy of collectivization was met with hostility in Ukraine, where widespread resistance caused the government to send political police (OGPU) and army units to subdue resistant peasants.8
The state requisitioned grain from the peasantry as early as 19289, and with collectivized agriculture established, the Kremlin was able to systematically extract grain from the peasantry. In the fall of 1930, of the 23.1 million tonnes of grain harvested in Ukraine, 7.7 million, or 33% was requisitioned.10 The following year, despite a harvest of only 18.3 million tonnes, the quota remained at 7.7 million tonnes, taking 42% of the harvest.11 This requisition “left the peasants with hardly enough grain to survive the winter and only half the seed grain needed for the following year.”12 Officials in the Ukrainian SSR petitioned Moscow, requesting that the quota be lowered for the 1932 harvest. The Kremlin relented, and lowered the quota to 6.6 million tonnes.13 In 1932, 14.7 million tonnes of grain were harvested in Ukraine, meaning 45% of the harvest was requisitioned.14 According to Robert Conquest, officials in Moscow were aware that the quota could lead to starvation in Ukraine, as “this had all been made clear to Moscow by the Ukrainian Communist authorities themselves.”15
In the time leading up to the famine, Soviet officials introduced policies concerning the requisition of grain. On September 16, 1932 the “five ears of corn” law was enacted16. This law decreed that any peasant who stole socialist property, including portions as little as a handful of grain, could be punished by death or imprisonment.17 A law introduced in August of 1932 enabled the OGPU and party officials to “confiscate unlimited amounts of grain from peasant households.”18 A decree by the Ukrainian Soviet government on November 20, 1932 barred any further distribution of food to collective farmers until procurement quotas had been met in full.19 Failure to meet grain quotas led the Ukrainian Central Committee to place 6 villages on a blacklist, later expanding this number to 83 districts on Dec 13, 1932.20 Blacklisted villages were “subjected to an economic blockade” including the closure of stores , the removal of village foodstuffs, and a purge of officials and collective farmers. Furthermore, an internal passport system introduced in December of 1932 forbade peasants from leaving collective farms to move to the cities without authorization.21 In addition, a peasant could only leave a collective farm if he received a contract from his future employer. 22
In 1931, a drought was acknowledged in regions outside of Ukraine, and aid was sent.23 Also, decreased productivity could be attributed to the mass slaughtering of animals conducted by peasants resistant to collectivization.24 Throughout Ukraine from 1930 to 1932, the OGPU reported the disorganization of collective farm management.25 In some cases, portions of crops were not harvested, or were reaped and left rotting in the fields.26
Yan Chubar and Stanislas Kossior, leaders of the Ukrainian Politburo, met with Stalin and his officials in Moscow on June 17, 1932. Chubar and Kossior “begged for food and assistance as the regions were in a ‘state of emergency’.”27 Hearing this, Stalin blamed Chubar, Kossior and wrecking enemies for the state of emergency.28 Since 1932, the Ukrainian SSR was behind in grain procurement targets, and “under increasing pressure from Moscow.”29
The fact that the government’s requisition quotas were exceedingly high in light of the reduced 1932 harvest does not indicate an attempt to prevent a possible famine. Despite the lowering of the quota in response to pleas from Ukrainian officials, following the requisitions of 1932 peasants were left with only 250 pounds of grain per per capita.30 This was not nearly enough for them to survive the winter, let alone seed their crops the following spring.
Government policy played a significant role in the cause of the famine, more so than peasant resistance. Policies such as the refusal to distribute food to farmers until quotas had been met left many peasants without food. Similarly, laws permitting government officials to confiscate limited amounts of grain from peasants caused farmers to be left almost without sustenance. The system of halting any sort of trade and the closure of the stores in blacklisted villages suggests that the Kremlin did not wish for peasants to obtain food despite frequent reports of their starvation. This notion is further supported by the introduction of internal passports. The passport system made it difficult for peasants to leave farms and seek food in larger cities, and to leave Ukraine for regions which were less affected by the famine. The Commission on the Ukraine famine clearly states that “attempts were made [by authorities] to prevent the starving from traveling to areas where food was more available.”31
It is evident that many levels of the Soviet government were aware of the food shortages in Ukraine, and the resulting famine. When Petrovsky, a high-ranking Ukrainian Communist, was questioned about the reports of millions of peasant deaths, he answered, “We know that millions are dying. That is unfortunate, but the glorious future of the Soviet Union will justify that.”32 Similarly, top Stalinist officials in Moscow were also aware of the starvation in Ukraine.33 Of the famine Kruschev comments, “We knew ... that people were dying in enormous numbers.”34 Stalin, too was aware of the famine’s existence, as he was informed by numerous officials, military leaders, and the OGPU.35 Despite these various reports, Stalin vehemently denied the existence of a famine36
The Soviet government viewed collective farming as a way of better collecting grain which could be exported to fund industrialization ventures. Stalin viewed the process of industrialization as a “revolution from above,”37 designed to mold the USSR into a major world power. Peasant resistance to collectivization could have provoked the Kremlin to impose the policies regarding requisition, though in retrospect such policies seem excessive. Dr. James Mace and the Commission on the Ukraine Famine surmised from such polices that Soviet authorities “responded to the Famine by taking actions which could only be calculated to worsen the situation and maximize the loss of life.”38
It is important to analyze the famine in terms of deliberate causation. With sufficient evidence in favour of the famine being caused intentionally by the Russian SSR, the famine can potentially be labelled a genocide. Keeping this in mind, the famine and it’s genocidal aspects provide information about the brutality which typified the Stalinist regime.
While there are many external factors that may have contributed to the causation of the famine, it is evident that the actions of the Russian and Ukrainian SSRs were much more important in determining the fate of Ukrainian peasants. Demands to extract nearly all of the grain from the peasantry in unlimited quantities, as well as the ban on trade placed upon districts which failed to meet quotas point to a deliberate effort to create unfavorable living conditions amongst the rural population. In addition, the passport system prevented peasants from leaving their villages to seek aid in areas not stricken with famine. Perhaps the greatest indicator of deliberate causation is in Stalin’s awareness of the famine. Stalin vehemently denied the famine’s existence and refused to provide aid to Ukraine, as the provision of relief would have acknowledged the reality of a famine.
- Rayfield, Donald. Stalin and his Hangmen: The Tyrant and those who Killed for Him. New York: Random House, 2004, pg.179
- Conquest, Robert. The Harvest of Sorrow. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986, pg. 146
- Yekelchyk, Serhy. Ukraine: Birth of a Modern Nation. New York City: Oxford University Press, 2007, pg. 109
- Mace, Dr. James E., et al. Investigation of the Ukrainian Famine 1932-1933 Report to Congress. Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1988, pg. 75
- Mace, pg. 70
- Service, Robert. Stalin: A Biography. London: Pan Books, 2005, pg. 265
- Yekelchyk, pg. 108
- Hryshko, Wasyl. The Ukrainian Holocaust of 1933. Trans. Marco Carynnyk. Toronto: Bahriany Foundation, 1983, pg. 72
- Conquest, pg. 89
- Ibid, pg. 221
- Ibid, pg. 222
- Yekelchyk, pg. 111
- Conquest, pg. 222
- Conquest, pg. 223
- Rayfield, pg. 193
- Du Quenoy, Paul. "Ukrainian Famine of 1932." History in Dispute 17: Twentieth Century European Social and Political Movements (2004). History Resource Center: World. Gale. 4 Nov. 2007. < http://infotrac.galegroup.com/itweb/?db=History>
- Mace, pg. 78
- Ibid, pg. 79
- Conquest, pg. 170
- Collier, Laurence. “Relief of Famine in Soviet Ukraine.” The Foreign Office and the Famine: British Documents on Ukraine and the Great Famine of 1932-1933. Ed. Marco Carynnyk et al. Kingston: The Limestone Press, 1988, pg. 329
- Subtelny, pg. 411
- Conquest, pg. 173
- Montefiore, Simon Sebag. Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003, pg. 75
- Mace, pg.77
- Conquest, pg. 222
- Mace, pg. xiv
- Qtd. in Conquest, pg. 324
- Qtd. in Conquest, pg. 324
- Ibid, pg. 325-326
- Ibid, pg. 7
- Qtd. in Conquest, pg. 3
- Mace, pg. 82
Collier, Laurence. “Relief of Famine in Soviet Ukraine.” The Foreign Office and the Famine: British Documents on Ukraine and the Great Famine of 1932-1933. Ed. Marco Carynnyk et al. Kingston: The Limestone Press, 1988.
Conquest, Robert. The Harvest of Sorrow. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.
Du Quenoy, Paul. "Ukrainian Famine of 1932." History in Dispute 17: Twentieth Century European Social and Political Movements (2004). History Resource Center: World. Gale. 4 Nov. 2007 < http://infotrac.galegroup.com/itweb/?db=History>.
Hryshko, Wasyl. The Ukrainian Holocaust of 1933. Trans. Marco Carynnyk. Toronto: Bahriany Foundation, 1983,
Mace, Dr. James E., et al. Investigation of the Ukrainian Famine 1932-1933: Report to Congress. Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1988.
Montefiore, Simon Sebag. Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003.
Rayfield, Donald. Stalin and his Hangmen: The Tyrant and those who Killed for Him. New York: Random House, 2004.
Service, Robert. Stalin: A Biography. London: Pan Books, 2005.
Subtelny, Orest. Ukraine: A History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000.
Yekelchyk, Serhy. Ukraine: Birth of a Modern Nation. New York City: Oxford University Press, 2007.
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