Stalin’s famine: a brief history of the Holodomor in Soviet Ukraine
The Holodomor, or “murder by starvation”, was a state-engineered famine in Soviet Ukraine in 1932–33 which killed an estimated 3.9 million people. Devised by the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, the Holodomor crushed the spirit of the Ukrainian peasantry and ensured it would never again rebel against communist rule on the scale seen in the 1920s & 1930s
**This article contains details some readers may find distressing**
But what caused the Holodomor, is it recognised as a genocide, and did Stalin deny it? Here, historian Serhy Yekelchyk explains…
What caused the Holodomor?
The Holodomor, or “murder by starvation,” refers to the state-engineered famine in Soviet Ukraine in 1932–33, which was accompanied by simultaneous repressions against the Ukrainian cultural elites. The origins of Stalin’s all-encompassing attack on Ukrainians can be traced back to the political and military struggles in Ukraine in 1917–20, when he was involved in determining Bolshevik policies toward Ukraine [the Bolsheviks were a revolutionary party committed to the ideas of Karl Marx, led by leftist revolutionary and politician Vladimir Lenin. The Bolsheviks later became the Communist Party of the Soviet Union].
Stalin was unpleasantly surprised by the strength of Ukrainian patriotism and the emergence of a non-Bolshevik Ukrainian state, which forced the Bolsheviks to create their own puppet Ukrainian republic. Following the Bolshevik victory, it became a constituent part of the Soviet Union under the name of the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet (after 1937, Soviet Socialist) Republic.
Stalin also dreaded the Ukrainian peasantry, whose staunch resistance to Bolshevik rule forced the Soviet state during the 1920s to recognise the importance of Ukrainian culture and delay the violent collectivisation of agriculture. When the wholesale collectivisation of land and cattle began in 1929, the Ukrainian peasants actively resisted it. In 1930, the police reported 4,098 anti-state actions in the Ukrainian countryside, with the participation of 965,587 peasants. In most cases the peasants beat up the enforcers, took back the grain, and burned office buildings, but the police also classified 15 mass disturbances as “armed rebellions” sometimes involving the murder of Soviet officials and activists.
Because of these factors, in 1932–33, Stalin and his henchmen used starvation to crush the resistance of the Ukrainian peasants. They saw peasant rebelliousness as part of a wider Ukrainian effort to overthrow Soviet rule, which explains the repressions between 1930 and 1934 against Ukrainian cultural figures and those Ukrainian communists who criticised Moscow’s imperialist attitudes.
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What methods did Stalin use to initiate the Holodomor?
The chaotic nature of the collectivisation, which also included the dispossession and exile of the most productive private farmers, labeled kulaks in Russian or kurkuls in Ukrainian, wreaked havoc in agriculture. The harvest of 1932 fell significantly short of what the Soviet leadership had expected, which Stalin attributed to peasant resistance. For that reason, as well as to keep exporting large quantities of grain to fund Soviet industrial and military projects, Stalin refused to lower the unrealistic collection targets based on the good harvest of 1930: 7.7 million tonnes of grain. He also approved the forcible requisitioning of grain from the peasants – both the remaining private farmers and those already driven into collective farms.
As a result, all Soviet grain-producing areas experienced starvation in 1932, particularly in Ukraine, where famine started earlier than in Russia because it was ordered to deliver as much grain as all the four main Russian agricultural regions taken together. This was a punishing demand even in the years of good harvest. The harvest of 1932 came in lower still, and even somewhat lower targets for state deliveries – set at 6.6 million tonnes – left the Ukrainian peasants starving.
Moreover, in the autumn of 1932, Stalin applied much harsher measures to Ukraine because of his perception that the peasants there were acting in league with the republic’s intellectuals, who were defending the rights of Ukrainian culture. Military and police personnel, together with Bolshevik activists arriving from the cities, recruited local collaborators to search for concealed grain.
The state also introduced measures aimed at punishing the Ukrainian peasants for allegedly hoarding grain and preventing them from fleeing their starving villages. These included the confiscation of any other foodstuffs discovered during the searches; the removal of seed grain that collective farms and private farmers had put aside for the spring sowing; the sealing of the border with Soviet Russia; and the cordoning off of cities. More than a third of Ukrainian villages were also “blacklisted,” which meant that they were blockaded and the delivery of all supplies was stopped.
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Is the Holodomor recognised as a genocide?
Stalin’s starving of the Ukrainian peasants went hand-in-hand with his attack on the Ukrainian cultural elites and the political class, which he saw as nationalistic and infiltrated by western spies. The dictator even wrote to other Soviet leaders that “we could lose Ukraine”. Taken together, Stalin’s actions amount to a comprehensive attack on the Ukrainian nation involving the intentional murder of its significant part; hence genocide, according to its 1948 definition in the international Genocide Convention.
The author of the concept of genocide, the Polish Jewish (later, American) lawyer Raphael Lemkin, considered Stalin’s treatment of Ukraine a clear case of genocide because it was the destruction “not of individuals only, but of a culture and a nation”.
Since 2006 the Holodomor has been considered a genocide under Ukrainian law. The United States and 16 other countries have also officially recognised it as a genocide of the Ukrainian nation. Russia, as the legal successor of the Soviet Union, refuses to recognise the Holodomor, arguing that the treatment of Ukraine was no different from that of Russia’s own grain-producing areas.
In Ukraine, the commemoration of the Holodomor serves as a major factor in public acknowledgement of the country’s tragic experience under Stalin, whereas the majority of Russians still view Stalin as a great historical figure. In May 2021, 56 per cent of Russians polled by the independent Levada Center agreed that Stalin was a “great leader” – double the figure in 2016.
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What were people able to eat during the Holodomor?
The Soviet state imposed harsh criminal penalties even for picking up whatever refuse was left in the fields after harvesting (the so-called ‘Law of Five Spikelets’) and used it to prosecute more than 50,000 adults and children, who received sentences of between five to 10 years’ hard labour and, in approximately three per cent of cases, death by shooting.
Survivors recall eating tree bark, the soft roots of various grasses, hay, wheat chaff, berries, cherry leaves, and a soup made of pinecones. Any chickens, dogs, and cats were eaten early on, and starving peasants who could still walk tried hunting wild birds.
Numerous memoirists wrote about the widespread incidence of cannibalism, which often took the form of necrophagy (eating parts of human corpses), but the police recorded only several dozen such cases. The majority of them involved the killing and eating of children – either by their family members or others.
How many people died?
Contemporaries realised that the victims numbered in the millions, but the Soviet authorities instructed the police and doctors to avoid mentioning starvation on death certificates. Moreover, Stalin ordered the suppression of the 1937 census results, in large measure because of the low population numbers in Ukraine. Owing to the Soviet government’s efforts to cover its tracks, arriving at reliable estimates of the total number of fatalities required both access to the archives and the tools of modern demographic science.
A joint team of American and Ukrainian demographers, in their recent peer-reviewed research, estimated famine-related losses in Ukraine in 1932–33 at 3.9 million (direct losses) and 600,000 unborn children, the total demographic loss standing at 4.5 million people. There have been arguments about a much higher child mortality than is currently accepted, which would justify higher total estimates.
Did Stalin deny the Holodomor?
The earlier, major famine of 1921, which was caused primarily by drought, was acknowledged by the Bolsheviks and they agreed to accept relief from the west. But in the early 1930s the Stalin regime officially denied the fact of the famine in Ukraine as well as in Kazakhstan and some areas of Russia. Recognising this fact would mean acknowledging the ruinous outcome of the collectivisation efforts and the murderous effect of forced requisitioning. The Soviet state’s continued exports of grain to the west would have also shown Stalin in a negative light if he had acknowledged the starvation at home.
In denying the widespread starvation, Stalin had the collaboration of some leading western journalists stationed in the Soviet Union – most notably the American Walter Duranty (1884–1957), the long-serving Moscow bureau chief for the New York Times. Duranty tried to discredit the use of the term “famine” as “malicious propaganda,” while using the term “food shortages” in his dispatches. In private, he estimated the number of peasants dying of starvation at 10 million.
The Soviet Union continued to deny the Holodomor as well as the Kazakh famine and simultaneous famines in Russia’s grain-producing areas until the late 1980s.
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How did the Holodomor end?
In the spring of 1933, when Ukrainian roads and peasant farmsteads were littered with dead bodies, Stalin finally decided to lower the deadly grain-delivery target of 6.6 million tonnes for the Ukrainian republic. He even dispatched some relief, which ended up mostly in the hands of local famine enforcers now installed as bosses on the collective farms and in state-owned tractor depots servicing them. The spirit of the Ukrainian peasantry had been broken, and it would never again rebel against communist rule on the same scale as in the early 1920s or during the collectivisation campaign.
From Moscow’s point of view, the political tug-of-war with the peasants in Ukraine was over; it was time to focus on sowing, in order to secure the next year’s harvest. To replace the killed Ukrainian farmers, the state organised the resettlement in Ukraine of peasants from Russian regions, as well as from elsewhere in Ukraine, but most Russian peasants returned home when they saw the appalling conditions in the Ukrainian countryside.
The state repressions against Ukrainian intellectuals continued into 1934, then peaked again in the late 1930s. A large number of Ukrainian writers in particular were shot or sent to the Gulag [a system of forced labour camps] and executed there several years later. The killing field of Sandarmokh in the Russian north, near a large Gulag prison island, is often called the mass grave of Ukrainian culture.
The surviving Ukrainian cultural figures were frightened into submission and the acceptance of Russian culture as “superior”.
Serhy Yekelchyk is professor of history and Germanic & Slavic studies at the University of Victoria. He is an expert in Ukrainian history and Russian-Ukrainian relations and the author of Ukraine: What Everyone Needs to Know (OUP, 2015 & 2020)