The Ukrainian Famine of 1932-1933 as an Act of Genocide
The 1932-33 Ukrainian Famine is certainly one of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century, and perhaps one of the least understood, in which as many as ten million people starved on the fertile lands of the Soviet Ukraine. In analyzing the famine in Ukraine 1932-33 or Holodomor as it is known in Ukrainian, it cannot be considered as an isolated incident against the Ukrainian people. Examination of the Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33 encompasses both political and economic actions of this time. Although not expounded in this essay, there were influential events preceding and succeeding 1932-33. It can be viewed as the most tragic event in a long history of Ukrainians struggling under Russian rule. From the early times of the Tsarist Empire, Ukrainians have been struggling to preserve their identity and autonomy in the face of Russification and the suppression of political and cultural freedoms. Ukrainians endured restrictions on Ukrainian language and literature, as well as the persecution of Ukrainian intellectuals. Ukrainians were the second largest nationality group in the Russian sphere of control, second only to Russians, and were considered to be the thorniest nationality problem. 1 However, through the centuries, Ukrainians have repeatedly rebelled against Russian authority. 2
During the Russian Revolution, Ukrainian nationalism was emerging and the first independent Ukrainian state, later crushed by the Bolsheviks, was created on January 22, 1918. In response to growing Ukrainian national feeling, Lenin took measures to appease the peasantry with a policy of indigenization in 1923-24, known in Ukraine as Ukrainization, which allowed for some cultural concessions. However, in 1924 when Josef Stalin became the new Soviet ruler and began to consolidate his power, the Ukrainian national aspirations became more problematic for Moscow. Stalin, whose main priority was the rapid industrialization of the Soviet Union, required changes in both the industrial and agricultural sectors of the economy. Agriculturally, Stalin’s plan was to collectivize agriculture, which in 1928 forced the peasant farmers to move from cultivating their tiny private plots to farming large state collective farms (kolkhoz in Russian, kolhosp in Ukrainian), where the government relied on communal labour to meet the grain quotas set by the state. The government could then control what was being sown, how much was collected and how the harvest would be utilized. However, collectivization was met with fierce opposition from the peasantry, especially in Ukraine. At the same time, Ukrainian nationalism continued to flourish and there persisted the uncertainty as to whether or not Ukraine would break away from the Communist Russian state, as it had in 1918, and Moscow would lose “the bread basket of Europe.” Stalin relied on the highly fertile lands and hard labour of Ukraine to extract grain needed for export, in order to raise capital required to purchase industrial machinery. The refusal of the Ukrainian peasantry, who were always associated with Ukrainian nationalism 3, to join the collectives was seen by Moscow as a “nationalist rebellion” 4; and the growing Ukrainian patriotic feeling was considered threatening. Historian and famine survivor, Miron Dolot states that
Moscow could not tolerate such dissent, and, not unexpectantly, struck Ukraine with all its might. It used the policy of collectivization and the state grain collection campaign as vehicles of war against the Ukrainian national movement, and the Famine was to be the weapon with which Moscow dealt its final blow. 5
In regards to these policies against the Ukrainian nationalist movement, Dolot believes the Kremlin committed genocide against the Ukrainian people. James Mace, a leading famine researcher from Harvard University, strongly advocates the genocide case, and asserts that the famine was a “final solution on the most pressing nationality problem in the Soviet Union… which constitutes an act of genocide.” 6 On the other hand, some historians do not conclude the famine was an act of genocide and question its national character. Professor of History at the West Virginia University, Mike Tauger and Professor of History at the University of Melbourne, Steven Wheatcroft, argue that the famine was not a result of a deliberate policy against the Ukrainians, by contending that starvation was due to misguided economic policies, to drought conditions, and to a much smaller harvest than originally believed. 7 Others, such as Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn are uncomfortable about using the word genocide to describe the famine since the intent of Stalin to destroy the Ukrainian nation is not apparent to them. They prefer to use the term mass extermination or one-sided mass killing. 8 Still others, such as Canadian trade union activist, Douglas Tottle, argue along traditional Communist lines, that reports of the famine and its impact on Ukraine have been exaggerated and are simply part of western propaganda campaigns directed against the Soviet Union. 9 However, with investigation, it is clear that the famine was artificial and politically motivated to break the Ukrainian people as a national force. The most convincing interpretation is that the culminating actions of the 1932-33 Ukrainian Famine- those actions against the peasantry, who were the army of Ukrainian nationalism and those actions against the political authorities and intelligentsia, who were the leaders of the nationalist movement- fulfill the United Nations criteria for genocide, in which Ukrainians are regarded as a national group. (See Appendix A).
The famine was predominantly an attack on the Ukrainian peasantry through economic means. The economic measures instituted by the Soviet government neatly fulfill the UN genocide definition. The Kremlin created living conditions impossible for life and new births in Ukraine, and these led to mass death by starvation of millions of Ukrainians. The process began with the government demand for a drastically larger amount of cereal from the republics, especially the fertile Ukrainian SSR. In 1930 Stalin raised the grain target in Ukraine by 115%, exacting 7.7 million tonnes of the 23.1 million total harvest. 10 In 1931 the 7.7 million quota remained the same, even though the total harvest fell to 18.3 million, of which 30-40% was lost in harvesting. Ukraine was only able to extract 7 million. Speaking in Edmonton at a recent seminar on the famine, historian Iurii Shapoval of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in Kyiv, observed that after the grain quota in Ukraine and the Kuban were raised, the peasants had less food left for themselves and 150,000 people perished. 11 This showed Stalin that it was possible to use food as a method of breaking the peasantry and teaching obedience to the state. By the spring of 1932 famine had already begun, and the harvest that year fell to 14.6 million tonnes with 40-50% of this lost during harvest. 4.7 million was procured. 12 The 1933 harvest would be even worse. When Stalin announced in July that the same 7.7 million tonne quota would again be imposed, it became “…obvious to the Ukrainian leaders that the proposed levels of requisition were not merely excessive, but quite impossible.” 13 There was much opposition from the Ukrainian Communist Party, who feared an impending catastrophe. 14 Although the quota was reduced to 6.6 million tonnes, this was “still far beyond the feasible” 15 and on October 22, 1932, a special commission headed by V. Molotov, Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars, was created to implement the procurement policy in Ukraine and to ensure enforcement “with the utmost rigour.” 16 As Stalin expert Robert Conquest writes, “on Stalin’s insistence, a decree went out, which, if enforced, could only lead to starvation of the Ukrainian peasantry.” 17 The conditions that Stalin was beginning to inflict satisfy the UN genocide definition.
There followed decrees and policies to extract the grain and punish those not obedient, thereby exacerbating conditions unfavourable to life in Ukraine. Iurii Shapoval notes that of the three special commissions created to oversee grain procurements (the first headed by Molotov in Ukraine, the second overseen by Kaganovich in the North Caucasus, referred to as the Kuban and the third, headed by Postyshev in the Lower Volga), the commissions in Ukraine and the Ukrainian populated Kuban region, exhibited more cruel treatment than the commission in the Russian Lower Volga. 18 According to Shavopal, “The systematic organization of the execution of Ukrainian peasants gives the Holodomor a genocidal character.” 19 The Five Stalks Law of August 7, 1932, stands out in this regard. This savage law designed to protect Socialist Property by imposing the harsh punishment of death, ten years exile or confiscation of belongings for those caught pilfering leftover wheat from the collective farms, “even an ear of grain from the harvest,” 20 was most rigorously applied in Ukraine. Watchtowers were positioned in the fields with soldiers armed with shotguns, ready to enforce this decree against any violators of Socialist Property. 21 Furthermore, in November 1932, it was forbidden for the kolhospy to have any reserves of grain and to allocate it to any collective farmers before the collective met the quota. 22 On November 20, 1932 a resolution was passed by the Ukrainian Soviet government that emphasized the following points:
To enforce this new resolution or “robbery”, 24 112,000 Communist members, the majority non-Ukrainian, from different cities around the Soviet Union, were sent to rural Ukraine. 25 On December 6, 1932, a “Black List Decree” further targeted Ukrainian peasants deemed to be counter-revolutionary. (See Appendix B) This decree, creating a “hunger blockade” 26 affecting 86 regions of Ukraine, shows how bread was used as an instrument of starvation against the Ukrainian people. “This meant that the peasant population deprived of locally produced food supplies, had no chance whatsoever of obtaining such [basic] supplies as fish, sugar, salt, etc…” 27 If the above mentioned decrees were not enough to prevent the Ukrainian peasantry from obtaining food to feed themselves, other brutal measures were taken to assert Stalinist control of the Ukrainian countryside. For example, in the Communists’ exhaustive search for the practically non-existent hidden grain taken by so-called “saboteurs”, special brigades of lower rank and file activists, called Buksyr brigades (whom Conquest, describes as simply thugs 28), were created to probe the individual homes of the starving peasants in Ukraine, taking from them every last morsel of food. The brigades used iron crow-bars to probe the houses and barns in their entirety; floorboards, attics, gardens and straw piles, for example, where trampled and searched. 29 In 1931 small amounts of hidden grain were uncovered, but in 1932, there was nothing left to take. 30 Conquest’s description can be applied throughout Ukraine. While these brigades were being sent out to impoverished peasant homes, Party and state officials in the village had plenty to eat and did not suffer from the famine. 31 Moreover, the grain that was not exported or sent to the cities or the army, was held in “State reserves”. As Conquest explains, “These were for emergencies such as war: the famine itself was not a sufficient occasion for their release.” 32 Although food was close at hand, the starving were denied. The surplus grain even rotted, unused as state property, guarded away from the people. 33 As Wasyl Hryshko puts it, “That everything was being done to kill the peasants with famine is indicated by the Draconian laws that were issued then by the Soviet government, laws whose aim was to kill as many peasants as possible.” 34 The final policy that crushed any hope of the Ukrainian peasants escaping these conditions, was the Passportization System established on December 27, 1932 by the All-Ukrainian Central Executive Committee and the Council of Peoples’ Commissars. 35 The re-introduction of the internal passport prevented the starving peasants from leaving their villages to search for food either in the cities or beyond the Ukrainian border, to Russia or Belarus. 36 This effectively tied peasantry to the land, condemning them to death by starvation.
Stalin’s justification of these severe measures against the peasantry was that the collective farmers were sabotaging the grain procurements by not meeting the quotas. 37 He claimed that the peasant saboteurs were hoarding grain and hiding their surplus to sell privately in the markets and, therefore, conspired against the state. However this claim is not true, as found by the 1988 United States Commission on the Ukrainian Famine. 38 If the peasants had been hoarding the grain for themselves or making it accessible in public markets, then certainly food would have been available for the starving, preventing such mass hunger. 39 Further, “Stalin deliberately inflated harvest figures as proof that non-existent grain was being hoarded.” 40 In this way Stalin made it appear that these intensive repressive measures against the Ukrainian farmers, were justified and necessary for the good of the Socialist state. In such harsh circumstances, the peasants resorted to extreme measures in attempts to survive; cannibalism was not uncommon. 41 In a personal interview, for instance, a survivor of the Ukrainian Famine and retired University of Alberta professor, Yar Slavutych, recounted a story of cannibalism in his village. A mother in a state of sheer delusion from hunger, killed her young daughter to eat, confusing her for a goose. 42 This shows the desperate and often altered mental state of the Ukrainian people trying to survive. As one Soviet author writes, “before they died, people often lost their senses and ceased to be human beings.” 43 Michael Mischenko states that:
Clinical observations of patients suffering from prolonged starvation lead to the confirmation of the following basic symptomatic complexies: 1) Sympato-tonic, 2) neuralgic, 3) neurotic, 4) hallucinatory, 5) amentive (out of mind). 44
In this way, the UN genocide definition, actions “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group,” 45 applies to the Ukrainian Famine. Those such as Tauger and Wheatcroft, who attribute the starvation of the Ukrainian people to ecological factors such as drought and poor harvest, have failed to take into account the sheer brutality of the enforcement policies implemented by the government that could only lead to conditions impossible to life for the peasantry. Further, the US Commission on the famine and other historians, have found the claim of drought to be false; 46 and Stalin himself asserted on January 11, 1933 that the grain procurement problems of 1932 were “by no means due to the bad state of harvest.” 47 Furthermore, such historians as Tauger, Wheatcroft, Jonassohn, Chalk and Tottle, who do not recognize Stalin’s intent during the famine, fail to acknowledge the simultaneous destruction of the educated Ukrainian class.
In addition to the genocidal qualities of the economic actions directed against the Ukrainian peasantry, Stalin’s genocidal intent can be seen through the political actions in Ukraine. A recently discovered private letter that Stalin sent to Kaganovich on September 11, 1932, indicated that he had every intent of targeting Ukraine and her people. He aimed to crush his opposition, the resistant peasantry, as well as the patriotic and deviating Ukrainian leadership, in order to secure the fertile and resource rich republic solidly under the grasp of the Soviet Union.
If we do not now correct the situation in Ukraine, we could lose Ukraine. Consider that Pilsudski is not daydreaming and his agents in Ukraine and his agents in Ukraine are much stronger than Redens of Kosior imagine. Also consider that within the Ukrainian Communist Party (500,000 members, ha ha) there are not a few (yes, not a few!) rotten elements that are conscious or not conscious Petliura adherents and in the final analysis agents of Piilsudsiki. If a situation gets any worse these elements won’t hesitate to open a front within (and outside) the Party, against the Party. Worst of all, the Ukrainian leadership doesn’t see these dangers… set yourself the task of turning Ukraine in the shortest possible time into a fortress of the USSR, into the most inalienable republic. Don’t worry about money for this purpose. 48
As Shapoval noted about this letter, “This was a clear anti-Ukrainian signal and Stalin did not similarly assess any other single region of the Soviet Union at that time.” 49 This shows that Stalin was ready to use ruthless measures against Ukraine and Ukrainian Communist leadership to maintain the Kremlin’s authority and control in Ukraine. In the destruction of Ukrainians as a national group, the Ukrainian Communist Party and the cultural intelligentsia were decimated concurrently with the Ukrainian peasants. Although cultural and political repressions were carried out in other republics, Ukraine was targeted in particular. 50
The famine became a handy instrument for the solution of the national question in the USSR: “…the famine… established the fact that in the economic sphere Moscow could direct Ukrainian life as it would… and it went hand in hand with the attempt the exterminate the old Ukrainian cultural life. 51
With Ukrainization, in the 1920’s, Ukraine experienced a renaissance, or golden age, that saw the flowering of Ukrainian culture. Measures adopted in Ukraine such as instituting Ukrainian as the prominent language in business and education encouraged patriotic sentiments, most notably in the Ukrainian Communist Party. Members Mykola Skrypnyk and Mykola Khvylovy in particular, began to spread their belief that the Ukrainian people were more a distinct nation, rather than citizens of the Soviet Union and “tended to regard the Ukraine as an independent republic, tied to the USSR by the bonds of the Soviet constitution.” 52 This caused considerable concern for Moscow, that feared the “Ukrainian national elements [would] divorce themselves from Communism.” 53 In January, 1933, Stalin sent Pavel Postyshev, a “pureblooded Russian” 54 and a secretary of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party, to Ukraine with the mission to:
Postyshev enjoyed dictatorial powers in Ukraine and was praised for his anti-Ukrainian attitudes, becoming known as “the hangman of Ukraine”. 56 In 1933, in addition to enforcing severe measures against the peasantry, Postyshev commenced a campaign of eliminating nationalist threat by purging the Ukrainian Communist Party as well as repressing cultural activists and associations throughout Ukraine. Hryhory Kostiuk observes that Postyshev “left nothing untouched; every field of cultural, scholarly or scientific endeavor in the Ukraine was affected by the purge.” 57 Ukrainian writers, linguists, musicians, painters and other members of the intelligentsia were arrested, deported or killed in what was known as the “Postyshev terror.” 58 Approximately 50,000 members of the Ukrainian Communist Party, or 23%, were eventually expelled, many arrested and liquidated. 59 Postyshev’s chief objective was to destroy the leader of the Ukrainization moment, Mykola Skrypnyk. 60 However, seeing the fate that awaited him in 1933, Skrypnyk took his own life before he could be liquidated. 61 The same decision was made by Mykola Khvylovy, who chose to commit suicide rather than complying with “Moscow’s heinous plans.” 62 These repressive measures were then followed with intense Russification, 63 the imposition of Russian culture and language. James Mace notes that “…virtually everyone who had anything to do with creating a distinctly Ukrainian cultural scene in the 1920’s – disappeared” during this terrible period. 64 In these ways, “Moscow decided to eliminate all those who could be considered as being connected with the peasantry, and who might organize them and become their leaders.” 65 About 80% of the Ukrainian intelligentsia perished, 66 satisfying the first UN criterium, “killing members of the [national] group.” 67
It is important to point out that while Ukraine was primarily affected by the 1932-33 Famine, the areas of the Kuban, the Don, the Lower Volga, Kazakhstan and West Siberia were also significantly affected. Notably the Kuban and the Don, highly fertile areas, were heavily populated by Ukrainians. The fact that special commissions in the Kuban region and Ukraine exhibited more cruel treatment than the commission in the Russian Lower Volga, suggests that Stalin may have targeted Ukrainians not only as a national group, but also as an ethnic group. Mace indicates that collectivization was carried out particularly harshly in Kazahstan and West Siberia in the years before 1932, leading to mass mortality, but the focus of 1932-33 was Ukraine. 68 He goes on to mention the contrast between adjacent areas on the Ukraine/Russia border. The distance between the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv and the Russian city of Belgorod is a mere thirty five kilometers, and both share the same climate and land conditions, yet evidence shows that only Kharkiv experienced a high mortality rate during the famine. “The fact that one was affected and the other was not can only be attributed to a deliberate policy to concentrate the famine geographically for political ends.” 69 As noted by a commentator cited in The Harvest of Sorrow, “One had only to cross the border and outside Ukraine the conditions were right away better.” 70 Also, Moscow controlled the flow of food into Ukraine, and rejected offers of aid from the Red Cross and other countries, such as Poland (including Polish Ukraine), Romania, France, Germany, Canada and the United States. 71 This is in contrast to the situation in the 1921 famine and further suggests the famine was politically motivated to assert control in Ukraine. 72 Further, in examining the USSR census results of 1926 and 1939, the population of Ukrainians fell by 9.9%, which is highly irregular since between the years 1897 and 1926, despite the devastation caused by the World War, the civil war, the revolution and the famine of 1921, the average growth rate of Ukrainians was 1.3% per year. The population of Russians and Belorussians, however, increased between 1926 and 1939. 73 While there is disagreement over the number of famine victims, if one uses the most recent estimate of ten million Ukrainian lives lost, the total number would amount to one third of the Soviet Ukrainian population at that time! 74
In reviewing the evidence, it can be determined that to reassert his control in fertile Ukraine, Josef Stalin went after both the Ukrainian farmers, and the intellectual and political leaders. It is evident that the combination of brutal economic policies directed at the Ukrainian peasantry, the bulwark of nationalism, and the political measures aimed at the educated and political Ukrainian class, the leaders of the nationalist movement, confirm that the 1932-33 Ukrainian Famine was an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people as a national group in the Soviet Union. Under Stalin’s leadership, conditions impossible to life and birth were created in Ukraine and up to ten million Ukrainians were killed. The terms “mass extermination” and “one-sided mass killing” do not do justice to the Ukrainian Famine, for this event clearly fits the United Nations definition of genocide. The Russian government did not officially acknowledge that the famine took place, until near the collapse of the USSR, when President Mikhail Gorbachev finally admitted its existence in 1987. Since then, with the slow release of Soviet documents, the historical debate of the famine has changed to the question of its genocidal nature. It is becoming increasingly apparent that the Ukrainian Famine was indeed genocide, with recently opening Soviet Archives yielding new evidence, such as Stalin’s letter to Kaganovich. On the 70 th anniversary of this great famine, the international community has become increasingly aware of the Ukrainian Famine and is beginning to acknowledge it as genocide. At the United Nations, on November 10, 2003, Ukraine issued a joint declaration with twenty-six other countries, recognizing the Holodomor, which means murder by hunger. Further, the Ukrainian government has officially recognized the Ukrainian Famine as genocide, along with Canada and Australia, while the United States government is in the same process. Although the Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33 remains a complex event, it has become increasingly clear for scholars and the international community alike, that not only was this a man-made famine, but also an act of genocide.
The United Nations definition of genocide, as coined by Raphael Lemkin, was passed at the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide. It is as follows:
“Art. 2. In the present convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
From: The Encyclopedia of the United Nations and International Relations. New York: Taylor and Francis, 1990, 328.
1. The immediate closing of state and cooperative stores, and the removal of all goods in them from the village.
2. A complete ban on all trade (including trade in essential commodities such as bread) by collective farms, collective farmers and individual farmers.
3. The immediate halting and compulsory repayment of all credits and advances (including bread.)
4. A thoroughgoing purge of local collective farm, cooperative, and state apparatuses.
5. The purge of all “foreign elements” and “saboteurs of the grain procurement campaign from the collective farm.”
From: Mace, James E. “Famine and Nationalism in Soviet Ukraine.” Problems of Communism 33, no. 3 (May-June 1984): 45.