Copyright © 2004-2013

Commemoration - 2001

Stalin and the Ukrainian Famine of 1932–33:
New Findings

Larysa Iarovenko

Translated by Andrij Makuch

On 20 November 2001, Harvard University professor Dr. Terry Martin addressed an attentive audience at the University of Toronto's Centre for Russian and East European Studies (CREES) on the topic "Stalin and the Ukraine Famine." The presentation was part of this year's annual commemoration of victims of the Soviet-engineered Famine of 1932–33 in Ukraine. The lecture was co-sponsored by the Petro Jacyk Program for the Study of Ukraine administered by CREES, the Toronto Branch of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, and the Toronto office of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies. Financial assistance was generously provided by the Ukrainian Studies Fund at Harvard University.

The scholarly study of the events of 1932–33 in Ukraine has not been an easy task. For more than fifty years the Soviet regime blatantly denied the very existence of the Famine. With the onset of Perestroika and the opening of Soviet archives, however, it became possible to study the crimes of the Stalinist era in a new and concerted way, and recent studies of the Famine have been enriched with many new facts and points of view. Some historians have argued that the Famine constituted a blunt assault against Ukrainization and the Ukrainian elite; others have regarded it as class-based state terror against the peasantry for its opposition to collectivization.

Throughout the last ten years Dr. Martin has studied the role of the nationalities factor in the tragic events of 1932–33 on an on-going basis. In the his prefatory remarks he noted that his most recent archival revelations—correspondence between Stalin, vacationing at the Black Sea resort of Sochi in the summer of 1932, and Molotov and Kaganovich, who were subsequently dispatched to the Caucasus and Ukraine—had compelled him to look more closely at the personal role that Stalin played in the tragic events. Dr. Martin has found unequivocal evidence that Stalin was aware of existing famine conditions. He was also able to establish a clear linkage between the Famine and Stalin's personal view of Soviet nationalities policy. 

Dr. Martin outlined four aspects of the Stalinist Terror of the early 1930s: the Famine; the mass deportations and executions of peasants; the criticism and curtailment of Ukrainization; and the wide-spread repression in Soviet Ukraine of Galician émigrés and the rural and urban intelligentsia, including members of the Polish and German minorities. Dr. Martin noted that he had sought to establish the precise moment when the nationalities factor came to play a leading role in these events and who or wha brought about such an abrupt change in state policy. His research has led him to conclude that Stalin and his paranoid fear of "losing" Ukraine were the catalyst for the evolution of tragic events.

In discussing the constellation of power bases in the Soviet state, the speaker suggested that the tensions between the Ukrainian SSR and Moscow are too simplistic an explanation for the state of affairs. Instead, he proposed that it would be more appropriate to view the situation as a struggle between the Ukrainian SSR and the Russian SFSR for the attentions and support of the central apparat in Moscow. One of the most disputed issues of the late 1920s was the delineation of borders between the various Soviet republics. Dr. Martin noted that at that time some eight million ethnic Ukrainians lived within the territories of the Russian SFSR, and in certain places they formed clearly Ukrainian national districts and towns. As a result of pressure from Soviet Ukrainian leaders, in 1926 the Ukrainian language was granted official status in those areas of the Russian Federation with predominantly Ukrainian settlement. Throughout the latter 1920s the central Party leadership acted as an intermediary in disputes between the Ukrainian SSR and the Russian SFSR. Even as late as early 1932 Pravda published positive reports regarding the Ukrainization policy.

In Dr. Martin's opinion, this situation changed fundamentally in 1932, when the Soviet central government—personified by Stalin—no longer took a neutral stance in these matters and began siding with the interests of the Russian SFSR. One of the reasons was a shift in Moscow's policies regarding the western borders of the USSR. The anticipation that Ukrainians on both sides of the Soviet border would be "reunited" proved to be unfounded. In fact, the implementation of collectivization policies resulted in large-scale attempts at emigration and protest marches along the border against the Soviet clampdown on people wanting to emigrate. Moreover, after Pisudski's assumption of power in Poland the Soviet Union feared (albeit groundlessly) military intervention from the West. 

At this point, noted the speaker, the nationalities factor began playing a decisive role. Dr. Martin has recently found documents that clearly show that Moscow interpreted the Ukrainian Party elite's opposition to its perilously high grain-requisition quotas as a negative consequence of Ukrainization. The tone of Stalin's letters in the summer of 1932 became increasingly extreme: he wrote "I think that we are giving Ukraine much more than is necessary"; that "the state of affairs in Ukraine is terrible"; that the CP(B)U "is not a Party, but a parliament"; and that "we should do something, otherwise we might lose Ukraine." Kaganovich wrote to Stalin that the disruption of the grain requisitions was caused by "agents of counter-revolutionary Ukrainian organizations and Petliurites" who were secret collaborators of Pi sudski and world imperialism. As a consequence, in the latter part of 1932 the policy of Ukrainization was rescinded, the Ukrainian Party elite was purged, and secret directives increasing the peasants' already onerous grain deliveries to the state were issued. These punitive acts led millions of deaths and left deep scars on the future development of the Ukrainian nation.

Dr. Martin indicated that the new information regarding the role of Stalin and his closest collaborators provides the underpinnings for his forthcoming study regarding the causes of the Famine in Ukraine, which will be based on a greater level of detail and conceptualization about this tragedy. 

Director, CIUS Publications Program 
(CIUS Press and the Encyclopedia of Ukraine, Internet version [forthcoming])

Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, Toronto Office
1 Spadina Crescent, room 109, University of Toronto
Toronto, ON, M5S 2J5, Canada

telephone: (416) 978-8669; message: (416) 532-7367; fax: (416) 978-2672

Reprinted with permission.


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