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The Holodomor, 1932-1933
A Ukrainian Genocide

Valentina Kuryliw

One of the most devastating events of the twentieth century occurred in Ukraine, which had been incorporated by Soviet Russia into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1922.  A little known genocide was carried out against the Ukrainian population in 1932-1933, which subsequently, was denied, dismissed and hidden from world scrutiny for over six decades. The true nature of the Holodomor came to light only as archives in Moscow and Ukraine were opened following the collapse of the Soviet Union – even though Ukrainians in the West had long maintained that millions, especially children, had died as the result of a state-organized famine in 1932-1933. This was above and beyond countless numbers of Ukrainians who were executed by firing squads, deported to Siberia, or sent to the Gulag. Holodomor is a term used to describe death or murder inflicted by starvation. It comes from two Ukrainian words: “holod,” meaning starvation or famine, and “moryty,” to inflict death. For generations, the very mention of the Famine was forbidden in Ukraine, and the Holodomor often remained hidden as a bitter family secret among survivors even to their own children.  In the Western world, little was known or acknowledged regarding this great human tragedy. How and why did this happen and who was responsible for the death of these millions?

Historical Background

In 1928 Stalin won the power struggle within the Communist party and became the sole and undisputed leader of the USSR. His rule was characterized by the ruthless elimination of anything and anyone he perceived as a threat to the newly formed Soviet Union and to his dictatorial rule, including the independent minded farmers and cultural freedoms in Ukraine. From 1929, Ukraine’s writers, artists, educators, intellectuals and cultural elite were liquidated because they were “too Ukrainian” and not “Soviet” enough. In 1930 Joseph Stalin deliberately wiped out the independent Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and its clergy. Following the destruction of the intellectuals and the church, the Ukrainian farmers, who constituted 80% of Ukraine’s population, maintained their language and culture, and identified themselves as Ukrainian, were next to be dealt a mortal blow.

In 1928 the First Five Year Plan of the Soviet Union was put in place, which had as its aim the rapid industrialization of the USSR at any cost—even severe social and economic changes. Part of the Five Year Plan of 1928-1933 included a massive reorganizing of privately owned farms into collective (state-owned) farms, while at the same time imposing high crop requisition quotas for each. Grain was the resource that was to support and pay for industrialization. Independent farmers were forced into giving up to the state, without compensation, their private land, livestock, and equipment. They became simply workers of the collective farm, who would be paid only if the collective farm handed over to the state the quota in crops set by Moscow. 

The opposition of Ukrainian farmers to collectivization was widespread and vocal, and revolts against it were widespread. The Soviet State reacted quickly and deadly. First, the more well-to-do farmers and their families were labeled by the State as kurkuls(kulaks) and these village leaders were targeted and demonized in the press by the Soviet government as "anti-soviet, unwanted elements." Beginning in 1929, one and one-half to two million so-called kurkuls/kulakswere systematically destroyed by firing squads or deported to Siberian concentration camps.Moreover, anyone opposed to collectivization was conveniently labeled akurkul/kulak and dealt with accordingly.

Having disposed of the leaders and best farmers in Ukraine, the State continued to proceed with the forced collectivization of agriculture, and the remaining farmers became the target. Several measures were implemented. The State imposed huge quotas for wheat, which were especially severe in Ukraine. Any opposition to collectivization was met by brutal force as secret police (OGPU) and Red Army units were sent to villages to collect the very last grain by force. Soon, the State implemented policies in Ukraine that ensured not just the collection of quotas, nor collectivization, but the death of millions of farmers in Ukrainian villages. Communist brigades were sent out to search the homes of individual farmers, not only for “hidden” grain and seed, but to confiscate all kinds of foodstuffs – onions, pumpkins, vegetables put up in jars for the winter – anything the families needed to survive the winter. A new law enacted in August 1932 stated that anyone, even a child, caught taking even a bit of produce from a collective field (e.g., “the Law of five ears of corn”), could be shot or imprisoned for stealing “socialist property.” The State passed a decree in January 1933 sealing the borders of Ukraine to other parts of the USSR, thus preventing farmers from leaving Ukraine to seek food elsewhere and stopping any provisions from coming in. To ensure that Ukrainian farmers did not leave their villages to seek food in the cities, the Soviet government started a system of internal passports, denied to farmers, so that they could not travel or obtain a train ticket without permission. Those caught attempting to flee to the cities or beyond Ukraine’s borders, where conditions were better, were imprisoned. One-third of the villages in Ukraine and the Kuban, an area in the RSFSR adjacent to Ukraine in which the population was mostly Ukrainian, were put on a “black list” (“chrona doshka“) after bringing in too little grain to the State and then cordoned off from supplies and left to starve. This was essentially a collective death sentence for these villages. Settlers from Russia and Belarus were brought in to resettle these depopulated areas.

In the meantime, wheat collected in government-owned warehouses was either sent abroad for export, rotted from mismanagement, or used for the production of alcohol. 

To ensure compliance with the strategy of using "food as a weapon," and to minimize any sympathy for the suffering of the local population, Stalin also attacked local political leaders in Ukraine and had them replaced with non-Ukrainian party members from outside the Ukrainian SSR. Many local communist leaders committed suicide or were later imprisoned and some put to death.  Having brought the Ukrainian farmers to their knees and eliminated any political leadership with an obvious Ukrainian national consciousness, there was little open opposition to Soviet rule. On the collective farms, those farmers who survived became little better than slave labourers, with few rights or privileges on land cultivated by their ancestors, which had served as the “breadbasket of Europe” for centuries. In the summer of 1933 Stalin gave orders to open the granaries to a devastated and defeated nation, which had lost millions of its citizens.


Why did this happen?  This remains a very important question for historians. New research on this question has highlighted the importance of access to Soviet-era archives for researching this history. For decades, the USSR denied outright that the Famine had taken place within its territories at that time, to say nothing of the charge that it was man-made. One school of post-Soviet historians attributes the loss of life to “excesses” or difficulties in the process of collectivization. There is no questioning that the disruption of agricultural life through a reorganization of land ownership and methods in working the land led to deaths, but this point of view does not account for the disproportionate, massive starvation that occurred in Ukraine and the Kuban.

Another school of historians has concluded that the Famine was deliberate and linked to Soviet policy to subjugate the Ukrainian people once and for all to Soviet rule. Moreover, the deliberate nature of the measures used by Soviet authorities specifically in Ukraine,n to send millions of Ukrainians to a death by starvation, leaves no doubt that this was a calculated act of genocide.

Nationalities Policy

As can be expected, the economy was not the only concern in a newly created state such as the USSR — establishing its power over different nationalities was also central to preserving Soviet rule. In 1923 a policy of indigenization (korenizatsia) was aimed at attracting increasing numbers of other nationalities into the Communist party. In Ukraine this policy was called Ukrainization. It led to a cultural renaissance, a growth in Ukrainian national consciousness and also a more favourable view of the USSR. Ukrainians were nationally conscious of their origins, loved their language and culture and felt equal to Russians as a separate and definite national group. However, the resistance to collectivization and the forced grain requisitions in Ukraine were quickly tied in Stalin’s mind to a growing Ukrainian nationalism which he believed had gone out of control and could lead to the separation of Ukraine from the USSR. In August, 1932, at a critical juncture in the events leading to the Holodomor, Stalin expressed his concern that “if we do not correct the situation … we could lose Ukraine.”

“That explains the fact that the peasantry constitutes the main army of the national movement, that there is no powerful national movement without the peasant army, nor can there be. That is what is meant when it is said that, in essence, the national question is a peasant question.

Stalin, J. V. Concerning The National Question
in Yugoslavia. Speech delivered
in the Yugoslav Commission of the E.C.C.I.,
March 30, 1925, in Stalin, J. V. Works. Moscow, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1954,Vol. 7, 71-72.
Accessed March 11, 2011,

Reaction to the Ukrainian Famine-Genocide

Foreign journalists stationed inside the USSR largely ignored the Famine-Genocide in the 1930s, while most governments, whose home countries were going through the Great Depression, knew about the Famine, but did nothing.

Foreign journalists stationed inside the USSR largely ignored the Famine-Genocide in the 1930s and most governments, whose home countries were going through the Great Depression, knew about the Famine, but made peace with the genocide.

The Cover-Up

Journalists, such as Walter Duranty, of the New York Times , who was given a Pulitzer Prize for articles written about the USSR , wrote that,

“There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation, but there is widespread mortality from disease due to malnutrition… conditions are bad. But there is no famine.”

There were other individuals such as Gareth Jones, who wrote for the New York American and Los Angeles Examiner and Malcolm Muggeridge, a British foreign correspondent, who wrote about the true nature of the starvation in Ukraine in the Fortnightly Review on May 1, 1933 in an article, “War on the Peasants”,

“On one side, millions of starving peasants, their bellies 
often swollen from lack of food; on the other, soldiers, 
members of the GPU (secret police) carrying out the 
instructions of the dictatorship of the proletariat. They 
had gone over the country like a swarm of locusts and 
taken away everything edible, they had shot or exiled 
thousands of peasants, sometimes whole villages, 
they had reduced some of the most fertile land in the 
world to a melancholy desert.”

In fact, in 1932, Soviet wheat from Ukraine — confiscated from Ukrainian farmers by Red Army troops and secret police— was dumped on world markets at ridiculously low prices. Even Canadian farmers suffered because they could not match the prices set for Soviet grain. No one could believe that the people who had grown the wheat were being brutally starved to death. 

The Genocide the World Forgot

Until the 1980s, it was impossible to mention publicly, teach about, or to discuss openly the Holodomor of 1932-1933 in Ukraine. Information about the Famine was only available in the West, mostly from eyewitness testimonies of refugees who had survived the event and escaped from the Soviet Union after World War II.

A succession of Soviet governments maintained a formal denial that the Ukrainian Genocide - the Holodomor, had ever taken place. Even today, authorities of the Russian Federation admit that there were famines in the 1930s in the USSR but refuse to acknowledge that the Famine in 1932-1933 was a deliberate attack on Ukraine. The truth about the events of 1932-1933 started to become available to the citizens of Ukraine only on the eve of the break-up of the USSR. More and more evidence, both documentary and testimonial emerged in this period that showed that Ukraine was indeed targeted with starvation in the wake of a shift in Soviet nationality policy.

The Holodomor is commemorated each year in November. Canada and numerous other countries have recognized the Holodomor as genocide. We need to remember and honour its victims, so as not to permit this kind of tragedy to occur again and be covered up in the history of mankind. There are different ways of bringing about the destruction of a nation or its parts by genocide — starvation was one method used against the Ukrainians in the 20 th century.

“They are just too many to forget.”


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Sources: Conquest, R., Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror Famine. Oxford University Press, 1987.

Pyrih, Ruslan. ed., Holodomor of 1932-33 in Ukraine: Documents and Materials. National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, Institute of History of Ukraine, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, Kyiv Mohyla Academy Publishing House, Kyiv, 2008.


Excerpted from the forthcoming revised edition of: Kuryliw, Valentina: The Unknown Genocide - Ukrainian Holodomor 1932 – 1933 (Holodomor Lessons and Lesson Plans), 2008. Chapter B4. Used by permission of author. Full curriculum available online:


Famine-Genocide Commemorative Committee
Ukrainian Canadian Congress
Toronto Branch
© November 2002



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