The Ukrainian famine (1932-1933), or Holodomor (Ukrainian: Голодомор), was one of the largest national catastrophes of the Ukrainian nation in modern history with direct loss of human life in the range of millions (estimates vary). While the famine in Ukraine was a part of a wider famine that also affected other regions of the USSR, the term Holodomor is specifically applied to the events that took place in territories populated by ethnic Ukrainians.
Most modern scholars agree that the famine was caused by the policies of the government of the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, rather than by natural reasons, and the Holodomor is sometimes referred to as the Ukrainian Genocide, arguing that the Holodomor was engineered by the Soviets, specifically targeting the Ukrainian people to destroy the Ukrainian nation as a political factor and social entity. Whether it was genocide or merely an attempt to force the Ukrainian leaders to "knuckle under" to Stalin's control, the brutality of the Soviet repression of Ukraine reflected the Marxist ideology which held that there was no essential human nature so that humans could be molded to meet state ends. Consequently, the system valued only those who could be molded into good Soviet citizens.
While historians continue to disagree whether the policies that led to Holodomor fall under the legal definition of Genocide, ten countries have officially recognized the Holodomor as such. On November 28, 2006 the Ukrainian Parliament approved a bill, according to which the Soviet-era forced famine was an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people.
The term Holodomor originates from the Ukrainian words 'голод' (gholod) and 'мор' (mor), which mean hunger and plague, respectively. The term may have also been originated directly from the expression 'Морити голодом' (moryty gholodom), which means "to inflict death by hunger."
While complex, it is possible to group the causes of the Holodomor. They have to be understood in the larger context of the social revolution 'from above' that took place in the Soviet Union at the time.
In the 1920s, when the Soviet Union needed to win the sympathy of its constituent population for the newly born communist state, the government ethnic policies of promoting representatives of titular nations of Soviet republics and national minorities on all levels of administrative and public life were widely implemented by the policy called Korenization). In the territory of Ukraine and even the Ukrainian-populated territories of other republics, the Ukrainization became a local implementation of the Korenization policies. Under such conditions the Ukrainians in Soviet Ukraine enjoyed a decade of revival of their national culture, resulting in the increase of national self-consciousness and rapid development of indigenous cultural and a social elite. By the early 1930s this development had become increasingly alarming to the Soviet regime, which saw a danger in the loyalties of increasingly nationally conscious Ukrainians aligned with the Ukrainian nation rather than with the Communist ideology or the Soviet state. In the early 1930s, Ukrainization policies were abruptly reversed and replaced with a policy of effective Russification, causing significant social, cultural, and political conflict in the Ukrainian populated territories.
Simultaneously, a policy of collectivization of agriculture was introduced and by early 1932, 69 percent of households were collectivized. Even though several other regions in the USSR were collectivized to a greater extent, Ukrainian agriculture was the most substantially affected. The collectivization campaign proved highly unpopular with the rural population: when collectivization was still voluntary, very few peasants joined collective farms. The regime therefore began to put increasing amounts of pressure on peasants to join collective farms. Finally, to speed up the process of collectivization, tens of thousands of Soviet officials were sent into the countryside in 1929–1930.
At the same time, the "Twenty-Five Thousanders" (industrial workers and mostly devoted Bolsheviks) were sent to help run the collective farms. In addition, they were expected to quash the increasing passive and active resistance to collectivization by engaging in what was euphemistically referred to as "dekulakization": the arresting of 'kulaks'—allegedly "well-to-do" farmers who opposed the regime and withheld grain. The regime's tactic was to use the natural resentment of poorer farmers to divide and conquer. The plan was to transfer kulak families to the Urals and Central Asia, where they were to be placed in others sectors of the economy such as timber. Effectively, the term 'kulak' was applied to anybody resisting collectivization. In fact, many of the so-called 'kulaks' were no more well off than other peasants. It is documented that around 300,000 Ukrainians out of a population of about 30 million were subject to these policies in 1930-1931 and Ukrainians composed 15 percent of the total 1.8 million 'kulaks' relocated to different parts of the empire.
Collectivization proved to negatively affect agricultural output everywhere, but since Ukraine was the most agriculturally productive area (over 50 percent of wheat produced in the Russian Empire originated from Ukraine in the beginning of twentieth century), the effects here were particularly dramatic. As projections for agricultural production declined, so did collections by the state.
When it became clear that the 1932 grain deliveries were not going to meet the expectations of the government, the decreased agricultural output was blamed on the "kulaks," "nationalists," and "Petlurovites." According to a report of the head of the Supreme Court, by January 15, 1933, as many as 103,000 people had been sentenced under the provisions of the August 7 decree. Of the 79,000 whose sentences were known to the Supreme Court, 4,880 had been sentenced to death, 26,086 to ten years' imprisonment and 48,094 to other sentences. Those sentenced to death were categorized primarily as kulaks; many of those sentenced to ten years were individual peasants who were not kulaks.
A special commission headed by Vyacheslav Molotov was sent to Ukraine in order to execute the grain contingent. On November 9, a secret decree urged the Soviet security agencies to increase their "effectiveness." Molotov also ordered that if no grain remained in Ukrainian villages, all beets, potatoes, vegetables, and any other food were to be confiscated.
On December 6, a new regulation was issued that imposed the following sanctions on Ukrainian villages that were considered "underperforming" in the grain collection procurement: ban on supply of any goods or food to the villages, requisition of any food or grain found on site, ban of any trade, and, lastly, the confiscation of all financial resources. Measures were undertaken to persecute upon the withholding or bargaining of grain. This was done frequently with the aid of 'shock brigades', which raided farms to collect grain. This was done regardless of whether the peasants retained enough grain to feed themselves, or whether they had enough seed left to plant the next harvest.
The famine mostly affected the rural population and in comparison to the previous famine in the USSR during 1921–1922, which was caused by drought, and the next one in 1947, the famine of 1932-1933 in Ukraine was caused not by infrastructure breakdown, or war, but by deliberate political and administrative decisions (e.g., see ). The result was disastrous. Within a few months, the Ukrainian countryside, one of the most fertile agricultural regions in the world, was the scene of a general famine. By 1933, the Holodomor had also marked the end of pro-Petliura Polish based Ukrainian resistance.
The Soviet government denied initial reports of the famine, and prevented foreign journalists from traveling in the region. Scholars who have conducted research in declassified archives have reported "the Politburo and regional Party committees insisted that immediate and decisive action be taken in response to the famine such that 'conscientious farmers' not suffer, while district Party committees were instructed to supply every child with milk and decreed that those who failed to mobilize resources to feed the hungry or denied hospitalization to famine victims be prosecuted."
However, aid to famine-stricken regions had only a limited impact on the famine. Between February and July 1933 at least 35 Politburo decisions and Sovnarkom (Soviet Narodnykh Komissarov or Council of Ministers) decrees selectively authorized issue of a total of only 320,000 tons of grain for food for 30 million people. Documentary evidence confirms the cases when the Soviet leadership expressed even personal interest in ensuring the aid distribution.
Documents from the Soviet archives suggest, however, that the aid distribution was made selectively and the aid's purpose was limited to sustaining the agricultural workforce. A special resolution of the Central Committee of the Communist (Bolshevik) Party of Ukraine ordered dividing peasants hospitalized and diagnosed with dystrophy into ailing and recovering patients. The resolution ordered improving the nutrition of the latter within the limits of available resources so that they could be sent out into the fields to sow the new crop as soon as possible. The food was dispensed according to the special resolutions from the government bodies and was given in the field where the laborers worked.
Also, the grain exports during 1932-1933 continued, even though on a significantly lower level than in previous years. In 1930/31 there had been 5,832 thousand tons of grains exported. In 1931/32, grain exports declined to 4,786 thousand tons. In 1932/33, grain exports were just 1,607 thousand tons and in 1933/34, this further declined to 1,441 thousand tons.
Some scholars also claim that the weather conditions played a substantial role in the famine Russia and parts of Ukraine suffered from fairly regular droughts, which significantly reduced crop yields. The fluctuations in the annual level of temperature and rainfall on the territory of the USSR are greater than in major grain-producing areas elsewhere in the world. The weather pattern is highly continental, and is complicated by the frequent and irregular dry winds which blow from Central Asia across the Volga region, North Caucuses, and Ukraine in the growing months of late spring and early summer. Moreover, the critical insufficiency of humidity makes a large territory particularly susceptible to drought, resulting in high temperatures and low rainfall. The weather was largely responsible for the above-average yield over the whole five years 1909-1913. In 1925-1929 the weather was only slightly worse than average. But in 1930-1934 the weather was poorer than usual over the five years, with particularly bad conditions in 1931 and 1932. This was a factor over which the Soviet government had no immediate control.
For 1931, the spring sowing was considerably delayed. Virtually no sowing took place in March and in April it was delayed by nearly three weeks. The delay in Ukraine and Lower Volga was caused primarily by the unusually cold weather. In other areas, excessive rain also added to the problems and made it difficult to catch up. A report from the Lower Volga noted: "After a short improvement another rainy spell has begun. Mass sowing in the southern districts of the region is taking place in a struggle with the weather. Literally every hour and every day have to be grabbed for sowing." The people's commissar for agriculture stated that the delay of two-three weeks had been caused by the "very difficult meteorological and climatic conditions of the spring".
In Ukraine, the temperature was considerably lower during the whole of March 1932 than in the previous year. At the end of May and in early June temperatures were even higher than in 1931. Then there was a sudden change: high rainfall was experienced in most of the USSR, especially in the Kiev region. Temperatures were less severe than in 1931, but the combination of high temperatures in the initial flowering stage and great humidity during early flowering greatly increased the vulnerability of the crop.
Another factor in the decline of the harvests, the shortage of draught power for plowing and reaping was even more acute in 1932 than in the previous year. The number of working horses declined from 19.5 million on July 1, 1931 to 16.2 million on July 1, 1932. The desperate efforts to replace horses by tractors failed to compensate for this loss. In 1931, the total supply of tractors to agriculture amounted to 964,000 h.p., 393,000 produced at home, and 578,000 imported. But in 1932, because of the foreign trade crisis, no tractors at all were imported. In the whole of 1932, only 679,000 tractor horse-power were supplied to agriculture, considerably less than in 1931. Only about half became available in time for the harvest, and even less in time for the spring sowing. Animal draught power deteriorated in quality. Horses were fed and maintained even more inadequately than in the previous year. The acute shortage of horses led to the notorious decision to employ cows as working animals. On February 23, the Lower Volga party bureau decided to use 200,000 cows for special field work. The following shows the amount of horses in the USSR:
While the course of the events as well as their underlying reasons are still a matter of debate, the fact that by the end of 1933, millions of people had starved to death or had otherwise died unnaturally in Ukraine, as well as in other Soviet republics, is undisputed.
The Soviet Union long denied that the famine had ever existed, and the NKVD (and later KGB) archives on the Holodomor period opened very slowly. The exact number of the victims remains unknown and probably impossible to calculate even within a margin of error of a hundred thousand.
The estimates for the number of deaths due to famine in Ukraine (excluding other repressions) vary by several millions and numbers as high as 10 million are sometimes cited. Even the results based on scientific methods also vary widely but the range is somewhat more narrow: between 2.5 million (Volodymyr Kubiyovych) and 4.8 million (Vasyl Hryshko).
One modern calculation that uses demographic data including those available from formerly closed Soviet archives narrow the losses to about 3.2 million or, allowing for the lack of the data precision, 3 to 3.5 million.
The formerly closed Soviet archives show that excess deaths in Ukraine in 1932-1933 numbered 1.54 million In 1932-1933, there were a combined 1.2 million cases of typhus and 500 thousand cases of typhoid fever. Deaths resulted primarily from manifold diseases due to lowered resistance and disease in general rather than actual starvation All major types of disease, apart from cancer, tend to increase during famine as a result of undernourishment resulting in lower resistance to disease, and of unsanitary conditions. In the years 1932-1934 the largest rate of increase was recorded for typhus. Typhus is spread by lice. In conditions of harvest failure and increased poverty, the number of lice is likely to increase, and the herding of refugees at railway stations, on trains and elsewhere facilitates their spread. In 1933, the number of recorded cases was twenty times the 1929 level. The number of cases per head of population recorded in Ukraine in 1933 was naturally considerably higher than in the USSR as a whole. But by June of 1933, incidence in Ukraine had increased to nearly ten times the January level and was higher than in the rest of the USSR taken as a whole.
|Year||Typhus||Typhoid Fever||Relapsing Fever||Smallpox||Malaria|
However, it is important to note that the number of the recorded excess deaths extracted from the birth/death statistics from the Soviet archives is self-contradictory and cannot be fully relied upon because the data fail to add up to the differences between the 1927 and 1937 Soviet census results.
The following calculation is presented by Stanislav Kulchytsky. The declassified Soviet statistics show a decrease of 538 thousand people in the population of Soviet Ukraine between 1926 census (28,925,976) and 1937 census (28,388,000). The number of births and deaths (in thousands) according to the declassified records is:
A major hurdle in estimating the human losses due to famine is the needed to take into account the numbers involved in migration (including forced resettlement). According to the Soviet statistics, the migration balance for the population in Ukraine for 1927-1936 period was a loss of 1,343 thousand people. Even at the time when the data was taken, the Soviet statistical institutions acknowledged that its precision was worse than the data for the natural population change. Still, with the correction for this number, the total number of death in Ukraine due to unnatural causes for the given ten years was 3,238 thousand, and taking into account the lack of precision, especially of the migration estimate, the human toll is estimated between 3 million and 3.5 million.
According to estimates about 81.3 percent of the victims were ethnic Ukrainians, 4.5 percent Russians, 1.4 percent Jews and 1.1 percent were Poles. Many Belarusians, Hungarians, Volga Germans, and Crimean Tatars became victims as well. The Ukrainian rural population was the hardest hit by the Holodomor. Since the peasantry constituted a demographic backbone of the Ukrainian nation, the tragedy deeply affected the Ukrainians for many years.
The artificial famine of 1932-33 coincided with the assault on Ukrainian national culture. The events of 1932-33 in Ukraine were seen by the Soviet Communist leaders as an instrument against possible Ukrainian self-determination. At the 12th Congress of the Communist Party of Ukraine, Moscow appointed leader Postyshev declared that "1933 was the year of the defeat of Ukrainian nationalist counter-revolution." This "defeat" encompassed not just the physical extermination of a significant portion of the Ukrainian peasantry, but also the virtual elimination of the Ukrainian clergy and the mass imprisonment or execution of Ukrainian intellectuals, writers and artists.
By the end of the 1930s, approximately four-fifths of the Ukrainian cultural elite had been "eliminated". Some, like Ukrainian writer Mykola Khvylovy, committed suicide. One of the leading Ukrainian Bolsheviks, Mykola Skrypnyk, who was in charge of the decade-long Ukrainization program that had been decisively brought to an end, shot himself in the summer of 1933 at the height of the terrifying purge of the CP(b)U. The Communist Party of Ukraine, under the guidance of state officials like Lazar Kaganovich, Stanislav Kosior, and Postyshev, boasted in early 1934 of the elimination of "counter-revolutionaries, nationalists, spies and class enemies." Whole academic organizations, such as the Bahaliy Institute of History and Culture, were shut down following the arrests.
In the 1920s, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church had gained a following amongst the Ukrainian peasants due to the Soviet policy of weakening the position of the Russian Orthodox Church. Nonetheless in the late 1920s the Soviet authorities went after the Ukrainian Church as well, were thousands of parishes were closed and clergy repressed. By 1930 the church was taken off the Soviet Registry and the Secret Police made sure that it did not exist unofficially. At the same time the widespread action against the surviving Russian Orthodox Church parishes was dramatically reduced.
However, this repression of the intelligentsia was not specifically directed at just the Ukrainians; it occurred in virtually all parts of the USSR. Furthermore, there is no credible evidence that the repression of the Ukrainian elite was accompanied by restrictions of cultural expression. In 1935-36, 83 percent of all school children in the Ukrainian SSR were taught in Ukrainian language even though Ukrainians were about 80 percent of the population.
The inventor of the term "genocide," Raphael Lemkin, was a featured speaker at the manifestation of Ukrainian-Americans in September 1953 to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the famine. Today, the heads of state, governments or parliaments of 26 countries, consider the 1932-1933 famine as an act of genocide. Among these countries are Ukraine, Argentina, Australia, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Canada, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, United States, and Vatican City. In addition, scholars have documented that the famine affected other nationalities. The 2004 book The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture, 1931-1933 by R. W. Davies and S. G. Wheatcroft gives a best estimate of around 5.5 to 6.5 million deaths in the Soviet-wide 1932-1933 famine. Still, the Holodomor remains a politically-charged topic not settled even within the mainstream scholarship.
Robert Conquest, the author of one of the most important Western studies published prior to the declassifying of the Soviet archives, concluded that the famine of 1932–33 was artificial, a deliberate mass murder committed as part of Joseph Stalin's collectivization program under the Soviet Union. Many other historians agree. In 2006, the Security Service of Ukraine declassified more than five thousand pages of Holodomor archives. These documents show that Moscow singled out Ukraine, while regions outside it were allowed to receive humanitarian aid. Some historians maintain, however, that the famine was an unintentional consequence of collectivization, and that the associated resistance to it by the Ukrainian peasantry exacerbated an already-poor harvest.
Still, while genocide is often used in application to the event, technically, the use of the term "genocide" is inapplicable. Since the Holodomor did not affect cities, and was limited to rural areas of Ukraine, it is not plausible to argue that the Soviet government tried to destroy the Ukrainian people as such. Its goal was compliance, not outright destruction, although it was willing to inflict great loss of life to achieve its ends. R. J. Rummel has introduced a new term, "democide," to describe "the murder of any person or people by a government, including genocide, politicide, and mass murder".
To what extent the Soviet government deliberately aggravated the famine is the topic of arguments that are often used for confrontation and politicization of the tragedy.
What cannot be denied is that in the rural population (in 1932 75 percent to 85 percent of Ukrainians resided in villages) (roughly one quarter of the population of the former Soviet republic of the Ukraine) perished in 1932-1933. According to the U.S. Government Commission on the Ukrainian Famine, the seizure of the 1932 crop by the Soviet authorities was the main reason for the famine. The U.S. commission stated that "while famine took place during the 1932-1933 agricultural year in the Volga Basin and the North Caucasus Territory as a whole, the invasiveness of Stalin's interventions of both the Fall of 1932 and January 1933 in Ukraine are paralleled only in the ethnically Ukrainian Kuban region of the North Caucasus." However, it is also notable that 20 percent of Ukraine's population at the time consisted of nationalities other than Ukrainian.
At the international conference of the Ukrainian Holodomor, which was held in October 2003 at the Institute of Social and Religious History of Vicenza, 28 conference participants that included the well-respected historians like James Mace, Hubert Laszkiewicz, Andrea Graziosi, Yuriy Shapoval, Gerhard Simon, Orest Subtelny, and Mauro Martini among others endorsed a resolution addressed to the Italian government and the European Parliament with a request to recognize the Holodomor as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people.
On May 15, 2003, the Verkhovna Rada (parliament) of Ukraine passed a resolution declaring the famine of 1932–1933 an act of genocide, deliberately organized by the Soviet government against the Ukrainian nation. Governments and parliaments of several other countries have also officially recognized the Holodomor as an act of genocide.
However, the Russian Federation officially denies that the Holodomor was an ethnic genocide. The Russian diplomat Mikhail Kamynin has stated that Russia is against the politicization of the Holodomor, and this question is for historians, not politicians. At the same time, the vice-speaker of the Russian State Duma, Lyubov Sliska, when asked in Kiev when Russia (the successor of the USSR) would apologize for its repressions and famines in Ukraine, replied, "why always insist that Russia apologize for everything? The people whose policies brought suffering not only to Ukraine, but to Russia, Belarus, peoples of the Caucasus, and Crimean Tatars, remain only in history textbooks, secret documents and minutes of meetings." Ukrainian mass media censured Evgeny Guzeev, the Consul-General of the Russian Federation in Lviv, who stated that "the leaders of the period were sensible people, and it is impossible to imagine that this was planned."
A significant step in the world recognition of Holodomor was the Joint declaration at the United Nations in connection with 70th anniversary of the Great Famine in Ukraine 1932-1933 (November 10, 2003), evaluating the Holodomor as a great tragedy. According to Valery Kuchinsky, the chief Ukrainian representative at the United Nations the declaration was a compromise between the positions of Great Britain, United States and Russia denying that Holodomor was a genocide and the position of Ukraine that insisted on recognition of Holodomor as a form of genocide.
The famine remains a politically-charged topic; hence, heated debates are likely to continue for a long time. Until around 1990, the debates were largely among the so called "denial camp" who refused to recognize the very existence of the famine or stated that it was caused by natural reasons (such as a poor harvest), scholars who accepted reports of famine but saw it as a policy blunder followed by the botched relief effort, and scholars who alleged that it was intentional and specifically anti-Ukrainian or even an act of genocide against the Ukrainians as a nation.
The Ukrainian communities are sometimes criticized for using the term Holodomor, Ukrainian Genocide, or even Ukrainian Holocaust, to appropriate the larger-scale tragedy of collectivization as their own national terror-famine, thus exploiting it for political purposes.
One of the biggest arguments is that the famine was preceded by the onslaught on the Ukrainian national culture, a common historical detail preceding many centralized actions directed against the nations as a whole. Nation-wide, the political repression of 1937 (The Great Purge) under the guidance of Nikolay Yezhov were known for their ferocity and ruthlessness, but Lev Kopelev wrote, "In Ukraine 1937 began in 1933," referring to the comparatively early beginning of the Soviet crackdown in Ukraine..
While the famine was well documented at the time, its reality has been disputed due to ideological reasons, for instance by the Soviet government and its spokespeople (as well as apologists for the Soviet regime), by others due to being deliberately misled by the Soviet government (such as George Bernard Shaw), and, in at least one case, Walter Duranty, for personal gain.
To honor those who perished in the Holodomor, monuments have been dedicated and public events held annually in Ukraine and worldwide. The fourth Saturday in November is the official day of remembrance for people who died as a result of Holodomor and political repression.
In 2006, the Holodomor Remembrance Day took place on November 25. President Viktor Yushchenko directed, in decree No. 868/2006, that a minute of silence should be observed at 4 o'clock in the afternoon on that Saturday. The document specified that flags in Ukraine should fly at half-mast as a sign of mourning. In addition, the decree directed that entertainment events are to be restricted and television and radio programming adjusted accordingly.
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