The Soviet Union


In 1933, in the Soviet Union, a deliberate famine was engineered in the North Caucasus, the Volga Basin and the Ukraine against people who have proven difficult for Moscow. The Soviet secret police sealed off Ukraine's borders preventing people from leaving and preventing food from being brought in. A country the size of France was sealed off to starve. In less than two years over ten million people died, seven million in the Ukraine, three million of them, children (Nowytski).

This was a direct assault on the Ukrainian people, more precisely the kulaks. The kulaks were wealthier peasants who owned land and opposed collectivization. They created much opposition to the Soviet policies and were looked at as a threat to the communist regime.

For the first time since the 17th century, the Ukrainian church separated itself from Moscow Patriarchate. Art flourished and had more Western than Russian influence. Literary circles created uniquely Ukrainian literature; even the leader of the Ukrainian Communist Party Mykola Skrypnyktried to establish a cultural protection over Ukrainians in the Soviet Union and even went against Stalin to annex the Ukrainian-populated territories in the borderland of Ukraine for them to become part of the Republic.

In order to eliminate any type of opposition to the regime, Stalin had to eliminate the people who opposed him. Starting in 1929, Stalin began to eliminate Ukrainian intelligentsia. After most of the scholars were arrested and deported or executed, he delivered a fatal hit to the farmers who were the majority of the population of Ukraine at the time. What came next was a terrible famine the magnitude of which is technically unknown. One of the worst things about the famine was the fact that it was covered up, and the world stood silently, unable to aid the suffering people.

Ukraine in the Soviet Union

Leading up to the Famine

After the 1917 Revolution in czarists Russia, Ukraine reclaimed their independence from Russian control, making Kiev, once again, the capital of Ukraine. In December of that year, Vladimir Lenin after securing his power in Russia prepared to reclaim the old territories of czarist Russia. For four years the Ukrainians fought the Red Army, the Germans, White Army, and the Poles. In 1921, Lenin took over major part of the country. After the communists gained control, grain was constantly shipped out of the country to feed Moscow. This, along with a drought, caused Ukraine, the breadbasket of Europe, to experience her first famine. Millions died but it was only a fraction of the damage that was to be done in years to follow.

In order to end the resistance of the Ukrainian peasants to the Bolshevik rule, Lenin adopted a new economic policy. Farmers, 80% of Ukraine's population, were now free to trade on the open market. With hopes to win further support, Lenin tolerated Ukraine's cultural revival. The so called Ukrainian Renaissance was so powerful, Stalin, Lenin's successor, viewed it with raising alarm. With Ukrainian patriotism on the rise, Stalin began to fear Ukraine's separation from the Soviet Union.

The First Five-Year Plan and Collectivization

By 1928, Stalin has successfully eliminated all his opposition within the Politburo, yet, the worldwide communist revolution has still not occurred. In order to strengthen communism within the USSR, Stalin constantly injected Russian nationalism into his policies. Ukrainian cultural individuality was no longer tolerated.

In October 1928 Stalin introduced the first Five-Year plan in order to help Industrialize the Soviet Union. To speed up the process, a lot of funding was needed. The only way to pay for it was to seize the only exportable resource, grain. Thus a forced increase of collectivization was initiated. All land, farming machinery and livestock became property of the state. Independent farmers became paid laborers of the state. In Ukraine, the major population of Ukrainians was found in the rural areas, whereas in the cities there was mostly a Russian and Jewish population. Hence the policies that were adopted towards the peasants were adopted towards the Ukrainian population (Nowytski). In 1929 Stalin struck Ukrainian church and intelligentsia. Over the next few years five thousand Ukrainian scholars and scientists were arrested. Only 45 got a public trial. Hundreds of thousands were arrested and liquidated in the next few years. Even priests were sent to concentration camps in Siberia and some were even shot. By 1930, only the Russian Orthodox Church remained.

The Kulaks

With the elimination of intelligentsia well on its way, collectivization allowed Stalin to break the farmers, the backbone of the country. Because of major opposition of the kulaks towards collectivization, Stalin ordered the liquidation of Kulaks as a class (Pashukanis).

The state not only confiscated the land of the kulaks, but also all their material possessions. The opposition of collectivization was so strong, that some farmers burned their farms and killed their livestock in order to prevent the Bolsheviks from confiscating it. Nevertheless, about 1 million kulaks were rounded up and shipped off to the remotest corners of the Soviet Union.

Collectivization was pushed through in the villages by young party members. Anyone who opposed was deported. Nevertheless opposition came from all the corners of the country. The land that was given to the poor by Lenin is now taken away from them by Stalin. With threats of deportation and death on the rise, collectivization was still not bringing as much profit as expected. Each year the quota for grain was raised, exceeding what an individual and independent farmer could produce. The individual farmer had two choices, join the collectives, or be deported as a kulak. Three quarters of all Ukrainian farms are collectivized by mid-1932. By the end of 1932, quotas are raised for the collectives from 18% to 44%, making the amount impossible to meet. Rations appeared in the city and the Bolsheviks blamed the farmers. In reality, Western markets are flooded with grain from the Ukraine. The collected grain from 1932 was enough to feed the population of the entire country for two years; instead, famine ravages the country.

Stanislav Kosior, the secretary of the Communist Party of Ukraine, stated that "the kulak wants to crush the Soviet government with the bony hand of famine. We will bend that bony hand to the throat of the kulak." A spoken order was given by Stalin to confiscate all food from the people (Nowytski).

The Beginning of the Famine

The First Stage

Twenty-three million tons of grain was extracted by the Soviet collection agencies from a harvest of sixty-nine million tons. Five million were exported. Ukraine had to give up 42% of its harvest and even giving up the required seed for next year's harvest (Werth).

Famine began to appear early on in 1932. According to Kosior, First Secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party, the "isolated cases of starving villages" were a result of "excesses and deviations by local officials who had gone a little too far in the last collection campaign [...] One must categorically reject all talk of a supposed "famine" in Ukraine" (Kulchytskyi, 1990: 147-148).

The situation in Ukraine by the summer of 1932 became bad to the point that Chubar and Petrovskyi, the head of the Ukrainian government the and President of the Executive Committee of Ukrainian Soviets, respectively, addressed a long letter to Stalin describing the situation in Ukraine and asking for emergency assistance saying that if no measures be taken, the 1932 harvest would be catastrophic (Werth).

Even after the request, no action was taken. Molotov, the head of the Soviet government, at an assembly in his address to the top Party officials on June 12 1932, stated: "Even if we are confronted today with the specter of famine, mostly in the grain-producing zones, the collection plans must be fulfilled at all costs" (Ivnitskii, 1996). Stalin, on June 18, 1932 explained to Kaganovitch that it was impossible, to ease the 1932 collectivization plan. On June 21, Stalin and Molotov sent a telegram to the Ukrainian Communist Party, reminding it that "no decrease in deliveries owed by the kolkhozes and the sovkhozes will be tolerated and no extension of the deadline is granted" (Werth; Shapoval and Vasilev, 2001: 93).

In 1932, 356 million poods of grain, about six million tons, were to be provided by Ukraine (Shapoval and Vasilev, 2001: 152-178). However, in July of 1932 "grain is not coming in", and at the end of July, not even 48 000 tons were delivered (Shapoval and Vasilev, 2001: 98)!" (Werth).

This opposition was not unnoticed by Stalin. On 11 August, according to Stalin in a letter to Kaganovitch:

"The most important thing now is Ukraine. The current situation in Ukraine is terribly bad. It's bad in the Party. They say that, in two regions in Ukraine [...] some fifty district committees have spoken against the collection plan, declaring it unrealistic [...] "Ukraine must be transformed as soon as possible into a true fortress of the USSR, into a truly exemplary republic. Spare no effort. Without these measures (economic and political reinforcement of Ukraine, firstly in the border districts, etc...), we risk losing Ukraine"" (Khlevniuk, 2001: 273-274).

The Second Phase

September and October 1932 were two catastrophic months on the collection front. Of the monthly levy, only 32% was reached in September and in October, 22% of the requested levy was collected (Shapoval and Vasilev, 2001: 104).

Once Stalin found out about Ukrainian peasants withholding grain from being collected, calling it "kulak sabotage", on October 22 he sent out two "plenipotentiary commissions" to Ukraine (Werth).

October 1932 through January 1933 these two commissions played a critical role in infuriating the famine. Crucial documents elucidate the arguments advanced by Stalin's envoys, "the escalation of repressive measures, and the increasingly resolute use of hunger as a weapon to crush the resistance of the Ukrainian peasantry" (Werth). Taken together the telegrams all the archives which show the communication between the party leaders show the picture of the famine (Shapoval and Vasilev, 2001: 204-367).

Kaganovitch proposed to intensify the levies and increasing the quotas, saying that this was the only way to crush the kulaks. Stalin, in his letter to Kaganovitch on November 5, wrote:

"The counter-revolutionaries are strongly entrenched. The dreadful work of the local Party organizations, of liberalism, opportunism and sloppiness have paved the way for the rise of the counter-revolution... Our main task today is to break sabotage, sabotage that is organized and led by a single center" (Werth).

Kaganovitch and Molotov were basically sent in to confiscate grain from the so-called rebellious districts that did not meet the quota. For a town to be "placed on the blackboard", signified the removal of all products, stoppage trade, basically the total confiscation of the peasants' last food reserves, and massive arrests. The number of people arrested in Ukraine was 72 000 in December 1932 (Shapoval and Vasilev, 2001: 125).

Collectivization reached nearly a fanatical level by the end of 1932. On November 23, Khataevich, the First Secretary of the Dnipropetrovs'k region, "tried to explain to Molotov that it would be economically illogical to take away the last reserves" (Werth), "If production is to go up in future to meet the needs of the proletarian state, we must take into account the minimal needs of the kolkhozes and their members, otherwise there will soon be nobody left to plant the crop and harvest it"(Werth). Molotov's answer was brutal:

"Your position is profoundly incorrect [...] We [...] cannot place the needs of the State minimal needs that have been precisely defined and on numerous occasions by the resolutions of the Party in tenth or even in second place in order to satisfy the needs of the kolkhozes. A true Bolshevik must place the needs of the State first" (Werth).

It was not until the second half of December when fatal measures were put into action. "A radical break in the collection pace" was demanded by the Politburo on December 19, 1932. Kaganovich with the support of upper Party chiefs and by the OGPU, was dispatched again as "plenipotentiary" to Ukraine, authorized to "occupy strategic regions and adopt all measures to fulfill the collection plan before January 15, 1933". (Werth)

Kaganovitch proposed several ideas. One of them being the annulment of a resolution passed by the UCP requireing that only the Regional Executive Committee of Soviets could authorize the confiscation of kolkhoz "seed stores". With Stalin's support, this measure was imposed on the leadership of the UCP on December 29. Another one of Kaganovitch's ideas was that kolkhozes that failed to accomplish the "collection plan" would have five days to hand over their seed stores, the last reserves ensuring the next harvest, even final assistance to starving kolkhoz members. On January 1, 1933, the UCP heads adopted the resolution. (Werth)

At the plenum of the Central Committee, Stalin acknowledged that, despite a better harvest in 1932 than the year before, collectivization encountered difficulties. He blamed these on "sabotage" carried out by "kulak infiltrators within the kolkhozes", "the criminal nonchalance of the rural communists", and their "non-Marxist attitude towards collective agriculture". (Werth)

On January 22 1933, Stalin drafted a directive ordering a stop the substantial peasant migration from Ukraine and the Kuban "on the pretext of searching for bread" (Werth).

"The Central Committee and the Council of People's Commissars have evidence that this exodus from Ukraine, even that of the year before, has been organized by the enemies of Soviet power, the socialist-revolutionaries, and Polish agents. Their goal is propaganda, to use the peasants fleeing towards the regions of the USSR north of Ukraine to discredit the kolkhoz system and, in particular, the Soviet system in general" (Werth).

On January 22, Iagoda sent an order to the regional leaders of the OGPU for special patrols to be set up to intercept all the "runaways" from Ukraine. Once those caught were "filtered", the "kulak and counter-revolutionary elements" and those who refused to return home were to be arrested and deported (Werth).

Famine at its height

Very little information is available about the famine. Even the de-classified archives do not paint a clear picture of the famine. In one revealing telegram, Balitskyi instructed his subordinates:

"Provide information on the food problems only to the First Secretaries of the regional committees of the Party and only orally, after carefully checking the reports. This is to ensure that written notes on the subject do not circulate through the apparatus, where they might stir rumors... Do not write specific reports for the Ukrainian GPU. It is sufficient for me to be personally informed by personal letters from the leaders addressed to me directly." (Werth)

The records that were released about the "secret" famine, which in the time was no secret at all, blame the kulaks for the food problems. "Sabotage perpetrated in the agriculture of Ukraine by kulak and counter-revolutionary elements [that had] infiltrated the kolkhozes, sovkhozes, and some of the villages" (Werth).

Even with the available records, it is still not clear how many people fell victims to the famine. A recent estimation shows that not even 32% of the four million deaths were recorded by the state at the peak of the famine (Andreiev, Darskii, and Kharkova, 1998: 82).

During the time of the famine, more than thirty-five resolutions were passed to help those suffering from malnutrition between January-June 1933, when the famine reached its greatest height and reach (Davies, Tauger, and Wheatcroft, 1995; and Ginsberg, 1990). Aid rose to about 320000 tons. Applying "to the thirty million people hit by the famine, amounts to only ten kilos of grain per person, or scarcely 3 percent of a peasant's average annual consumption". The annual export of grain of the USSR in 1932 was 1730000 tons, another 1680000 tons was exported in 1933. In addition, at the beginning of 1933, state reserves reached more than 1800000 tons (Danilov, 2001: 7-47).

In most cases the aid food still did not reach the villages. Food supplies were exclusively for the benefit of "those who deserved them, i.e. in order of priority, kolkhoz members [...] brigadiers, tractor operators, families with a least one member in the Red Army, individual peasants who had chosen to join the kolkhoz" said Balitskyi on March 19, 1933 (Werth).

Once the new harvest had to be planted, the Soviets faced a problem of not having enough able manpower. People were rounded up and sent to work at farms, because in the countryside there was virtually no one left. "The mobilization of the urban forces has assumed enormous proportions... This week, at least 20 000 people were sent to the countryside... The day before yesterday, they surrounded the market, seized all able persons, men, women, and adolescents, transported them to the station under GPU guard, and shipped them to the fields" (Graziosi, 1989: 77).

Certainly a famine. Genocide?

What is genocide?

The preceding are definitions from the Meriam-Webster Online Dictionary (Merriam-Webster). In 1948, the United Nations adopted The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (Placeholder1). Article 2 of the Convention defines genocide as:

...any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. (Convention on Genocide)

The Preamble of the Convention specifies genocide as "a crime under international law, contrary to the spirit and aims of the United Nations and condemned by the civilized world. Recognizing that at all periods of history genocide has inflicted great losses on humanity..." (OHCHR)

The Debate

The United Nations General Assembly outlined a declaration distinguishing that "the great famine of 1932-33, the result of a cruel policy of a totalitarian regime... constituted a national tragedy for the Ukrainian people" (Ukrainian Weekly, 2003: 1). It did not however equate the famine with genocide.

The question of whether the 1932-33 famine was genocide is a matter of disagreement. There are two schools of thought. The historians who see that the famine was an artificially organized phenomenon, planned from 1930 by the Soviet regime to break the resistance of Ukrainian peasants to the kolkhoz system see it as genocide. Additionally, the plan wanted to destroy the Ukrainian nation which was a serious obstacle of the transformation of the Soviet Union into a new imperial state dominated by Russia. On the other hand are scholars who recognize the criminal nature of the Stalinist policies, however, they believe that it is necessary for all of the famines that took place between 1931-33 to be assessed as part of a phenomenon shaped by numerous factors, in particular, industrialization and modernization drive, as well as to Stalin's objectives. From this perspective, the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine and the Kuban was not genocide (Davies and Wheatcroft, 2004; Martin, 2001; Ivnitskii, 1996b; Kondrashin and Penner, 2002).

A new view has recently been developed. According to Andrea Graziosi, the famines that occurred in the USSR beginning in 1931 were direct, but not deliberate. Until the summer of 1932, the Ukrainian famine was like any other famine that had appeared earlier in the Soviet Union. However, the nature of the famine changed when Stalin decided to use food as a weapon. Choosing to instrument the famine, Stalin deliberately augmented it in order to penalize the Ukrainian peasants. Whilst hunger hit the peasants harder than the other groups, a different form of repression, struck others in Ukraine at the same moment the political and intellectual elite through the intelligentsia (Martin, 2001: 273-308).

A major argument to consider is a document signed by Stalin January 22, 1933, ordering the blockade of Ukraine and the Kuban, a region of the Caucasus with a majority-Ukrainian population. This blockade deliberately aggravated the famine in Ukrainian-populated areas (Werth).


Even though this disaster occurred more than half a century ago, there is still no answer to whether or not it was genocide. Even with the opening of the archives concerning the famine, very little information has been revealed. The best bet there is to take into account the views of the survivors, which might not be completely accurate. One thing can be sure, the famine occurred, and it was due to Stalin's collectivization policy.

From the information available, I would now like to answer my own question and say that in fact, I consider the Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33 as genocide. In the spring of 1933, the man-made famine reached its height. Everyday 25,000 people died from starvation, 1000 an hour, 17 every minute. According to the estimatesabout 81.3% of the famine victims in Ukrainian SRR were ethnic Ukrainians, 4.5%Russians, 1.4%Jewsand 1.1% werePoles (Holodomor: Facts, Discussion Forum, and Encyclopedia Article).

Due to these figures, it is clear that the famine hit the Ukrainian population more severally than the other racial groups. Also, the fact that the grain reserves had enough food to help the people, and the overall harvest of Ukraine in 1932, though smaller than usual, was still able to feed the population for nearly two years. In addition, if we take into account that all of the food was taken from the peasants including their own, there can be very little argument about the intentions of the Soviet government at the time. Having murdered a quarter of Ukraine's population, the Soviets succeeded in one of the biggest cover-ups in history. Stalin successfully broke the opposition of the Ukrainian people and left the country and the people traumatized and unable to oppose him.


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