The Cause and the Consequences of Famines in Soviet Ukraine

by Roman Serbyn Professor of History, University of Quebec at Montreal 

This year [1998] we commemorate the 65th anniversary of the Ukrainian Famine, a genocide which reached its highest point of mass destruction in the spring of 1933. Why the breadbasket of Europe was suddenly thrown into such an unprecedented abyss of human suffering, is a question that continues to haunt us even today. In fact within a quarter of a century, Ukraine suffered not one but three major famines: the first in 1921-23, the second in 1932-34 and the third in 1946-47. In order to fully understand the reasons for these calamities, we must go back to at least 1920, the time when Ukraine was re-conquered by the Red Army, and trace how the Communists approached what they considered to be the national and the peasant problems. 

The Bolsheviks expected that under socialism the various nationalities would begin to disappear and peasants would be transformed into agricultural workers. The October revolution was a start in that direction but the targeted populations showed so much opposition to what was planned for them that Kremlin had to operate another "strategic withdrawal". In 1921, "war communism", which was ruining agriculture with its unbridled requisitions, was replaced with the more liberal "new economic policy" (NEP). But the change came too late to prevent the severe food shortage which gripped the Russian part of the Soviet Empire. At the same time, two years of drought and harvest failures gripped the Volga region, the northern Caucasus and southern Ukraine. Several million people died in Russia and over one million in Ukraine. And yet, there was no need for anyone to die in Ukraine; there were still some reserves in the south and there were normal harvests in the north. There was enough food to feed all of Ukraine's population, had the Soviet authorities not confiscated foodstuffs, not only from the northern provinces but also from the starving south. While Ukrainians starved, Ukrainian grain went to feed the Russian cities and the Volga region; during the second year of the famine it was even exported to Western Europe. Moscow asked for and received famine relief from the West but prevented Ukraine from getting any for the first eight months of the famine. In a typical colonialist gesture, Moscow deliberately sacrificed Ukrainian lives to save the Russian population. 

After this famine, during the rest of the 1920s Ukraine experienced a period of economic recovery and the peasantry regained some of the lost ground. Still making up 80 % of the republics population and remaining free from the Russification that had engulfed the urban population, Ukrainian peasants became the mainstay and the raison d'être of the regime's new "retreat" on the "nationalities front". Occupied with the struggle for Lenin's succession, Kremlin leaders tried to rally support in Ukraine by recruiting "indigenous" cadres and promoting the Ukrainian language. The spread of literacy among the peasantry created a new market for Ukrainian publications while the influx of Ukrainian peasants into the industrial centres contributed to the Ukrainianization of the urban population. Inevitably, the Ukrainian revival began to assume political overtones. The writer M. Khvyliovy urged Ukrainian writers to seek inspiration from the West, the economist Volobuev condemned Moscow's colonial exploitation of Ukraine, and even M. Skrypnyk, once Lenin's faithful lieutenant and now a member of the ruling party elite in Ukraine, was demanding more autonomy for his republic. The leadership of the Ukrainian movement was made up of Ukrainian intellectuals, but many of them came from the peasantry, and the countryside was still their firmest base, Stalin had been right to claim that "the nationality problem is by its essence a peasant problem." The spectre of Ukrainian independence was haunting Moscow: it was necessary to put an end to it, once and for all, by destroying its leaders and its base. 

By the end of the twenties, having consolidated his power and having decided to transform his "socialist fatherland" into a great industrial and military power, Stalin set his huge empire on the track of frantic industrialization. This criminal adventure would be played out on the backs of the industrial workers and would lead to the final destruction of the traditional village. In Ukraine, the "Stalin revolution" will result in the largest genocide that Europe has ever witnessed in times of peace. 

The industrialization of the USSR was to be financed by capital derived from agriculture. Peasants would have to feed the new armies of industrial workers and fill the bins of export ships, and all this, enforced and without compensation. Stalin was well aware that, as "war communism" had shown, direct door-to-door requisition was both inefficient and dangerous. The State could more easily dispose of the harvest once it was transferred from private to collective ownership and stocks were laid in communal silos. The State could then cart the wheat to the cities and to the export ships. 

Kremlin saw the main obstacle to collectivization in the kulaks or rich peasants (kurkuli, in Ukrainian). But collectivization, which began in 1929, went beyond the class definition and targeted all peasants who opposed the new plunder of the village. Collectivization of the Soviet Union began in Ukraine where the regime expected stiffer opposition due to a more individualistic mentality of the Ukrainian peasants and the absence of the Russian type obshchina (common ownership of land). The "kurkuli" were dispossessed and deported in cattle wagons to Russia. Simultaneously a wave of repression swept over the Ukrainian intelligentsia. Having thus disposed of the elements which could provide leadership for a mass struggle against the new enslavement of peasantry, the regime could now implement its project of forceful collectivization. Once more, Ukraine became the prime target of government action and by the summer of 1932 70% of Ukrainian agriculture was in kolhosps (collective farms), as compared with only 59% in Russia. It was then, when collectivization was assured, that the worst phase of the famine began. 

Unlike the famine of the twenties, which was regional and affected the urban as well as the rural population of southern Ukraine, the Famine of 1933 was directed essentially against Ukrainian peasantry. The urban centres, especially the smaller ones lived moments of extreme need, but the people who actually died in the towns were primarily refugees from the villages. There was no famine in the heartland of Russia; the famine was limited to Ukraine proper and the adjacent territories to the east, inhabited in great part by Ukrainians, i.e. the Kuban, and to the other non-Russian minorities such as the Volga Germans. No serious scholar today would blame nature: there was no drought and the harvest, although greatly reduced by the turmoil of dekurkulization and collectivization, was adequate for the sustenance of the whole peasant population. But while the people starved the harvest was kept under lock and key in overflowing silos, rotted in open heaps under the watchful eyes of sentries or was dumped on Western markets. Nor was the famine the principal weapon used to break the peasants' resistance to collectivization, as some historians still claim – most of the Ukrainian peasants who starved to death did so precisely because they were already in the collective farms when the famine mowed them down. 

The Famine was a conscious instrument of Soviet policy. "Food is a weapon" said Maxim Litvinov, the Soviet Commissar of Foreign Affairs. This weapon was not directed against the Soviet peasants in general, nor did the Ukrainian peasants become its target by chance. The 1933 Famine was part of a wider campaign against the Ukrainian nation, and must be considered together with the destruction of the Ukrainian national elites launched at the end of the twenties, and the renewed Russification of Ukrainian cities begun in the early thirties. As the peasants lost their freedom of movement (a new passport system tied the farmers to the collective farm), a new era of serfdom began. Meanwhile, Russian colonists filled the emptied Ukrainian villages, changed the demographic composition of the Ukrainian countryside and helped carry Russification into the very heart of the Ukrainian nation. The present situation in central and eastern Ukraine is to a large measure a direct consequence of the demographic engineering facilitated by famine.