Causes of the Holodomor

The causes of the Holodomor (Ukrainian: Голодомор), the name of the famine that ravaged Soviet Ukraine in 1932–1933 whose estimates for the total number of casualties within Soviet Ukraine range between 2.2 million and 10 million,[1] are a subject of scholarly and political debate. Some historians theorize that the famine was an unintended consequence of the economic problems associated with radical economic changes implemented during the period of Soviet industrialization.[2][3][4][5] Others claim that the Soviet policies that caused the famine were an engineered attack on Ukrainian nationalism, or more broadly, on all peasants, in order to prevent uprisings. Some suggest that the famine may fall under the legal definition of genocide.[1][4][5][6][7]

Deliberately engineered or continuation of civil war


During the 1930s, the Soviet Union was dominated by Joseph Stalin, who sought to reshape Soviet society with aggressive economic planning. As the leader of the Soviet Union, he constructed a totalitarian state whose policies have been blamed for millions of deaths. During his time as leader of the Soviet Union, Stalin made frequent use of his secret police, prisons, and nearly unlimited power to reshape Soviet society.

A campaign of political repression, including arrests, deportations, and executions of better-off peasants and their families occurred from 1929 to 1932. The richer peasants were labeled kulaks and considered class enemies. More than 1.8 million peasants were deported in 1930–1931.[8][9][10] The stated purpose of the campaign was to fight the counter-revolution and build socialism in the countryside. This policy was accomplished simultaneously with collectivization in the Soviet Union and effectively brought all agriculture in the Soviet Union under state control.

May 1926 illustration to the Soviet categories of peasants: bednyaks, or poor peasants; serednyaks, or mid-income peasants; and kulaks, the higher-income farmers who had larger farms than most Russian peasants

The "liquidation of the kulaks as a class" was announced by Stalin on December 27, 1929.[8] The decision was formalized in a resolution, "On measures for the elimination of kulak households in districts of comprehensive collectivization", on January 30, 1930. The kulaks were divided into three categories: those to be shot or imprisoned as decided by the local secret political police; those to be sent to Siberia, North, the Urals, or Kazakhstan, after confiscation of their property; and those to be evicted from their houses and used in labour colonies within their own districts.[8]

The combination of the elimination of kulaks, collectivization, and other repressive policies contributed to mass starvation in many parts of the Soviet Ukraine and the death of at least 7 to 10 million peasants in 1930–1937.[8]

Targeting of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic

Although famine, caused by collectivization, raged in many parts of the Soviet Union in 1932, special and particularly lethal policies, described by Yale historian Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2010), were adopted in and largely limited to Ukraine at the end of 1932 and 1933.[11] Snyder lists seven crucial policies that applied only, or mainly, to Soviet Ukraine. He states: "Each of them may seem like an anodyne administrative measure, and each of them was certainly presented as such at the time, and yet each had to kill":[11]

  1. From 18 November 1932 peasants from Ukraine were required to return extra grain they had previously earned for meeting their targets. State police and party brigades were sent into these regions to root out any food they could find.
  2. Two days later, a law was passed forcing peasants who could not meet their grain quotas to surrender any livestock they had.
  3. Eight days later, collective farms that failed to meet their quotas were placed on "blacklists" in which they were forced to surrender 15 times their quota. These farms were picked apart for any possible food by party activists. Blacklisted communes had no right to trade or to receive deliveries of any kind, and became death zones.
  4. On 5 December 1932, Stalin's security chief presented the justification for terrorizing Ukrainian party officials to collect the grain. It was considered treason if anyone refused to do their part in grain requisitions for the state.
  5. In November 1932 Ukraine was required to provide 1/3 of the grain collection of the entire Soviet Union. As Lazar Kaganovich put it, the Soviet state would fight "ferociously" to fulfill the plan.
  6. In January 1933 Ukraine's borders were sealed in order to prevent Ukrainian peasants from fleeing to other republics. By the end of February 1933 approximately 190,000 Ukrainian peasants had been caught trying to flee Ukraine and were forced to return to their villages to starve.
  7. The collection of grain continued even after the annual requisition target for 1932 was met in late January 1933.[11]

Requisition quotas

Komsomol members seize "grain hidden by kulaks"

In the summer of 1930, the Soviet government had instituted a program of food requisitioning, ostensibly to increase grain exports. The same year Ukraine produced 27% of the Soviet harvest but provided 38% of the deliveries, and in 1931 it made 42% of the deliveries. Yet the Ukrainian harvest fell from 23.9 million tons to 18.3 million tons in 1931, but the previous year's quota of 7.7 million tons remained. Authorities were able to procure only 7.2 million tons, and in 1932 just 4.3 million tons of a reduced quota of 6.6 million tons.[12]

Sources such as Encyclopædia Britannica say there was no physical basis for famine in Ukraine, and that Soviet authorities set quotas for Ukraine at exceedingly high levels.[13] However Soviet archive data suggests the grain harvest was not as large as has been assumed, and the Ukrainian historian Mykhailo Hrushevsky, who lived through the period in question and was himself a victim of a Stalinist purge, described the famine as preceded by "a year of drought coincid[ing] with chaotic agricultural conditions."[14][15]

This suggests that the famine was caused by a combination of a severe drought, chaotic implementation of forced collectivization of farms, and the food requisition program carried out by the Soviet authorities.

Criminalization of gleaning

Gleaning is the act of collecting leftover crops from farmers' fields after they have been commercially harvested or from fields where it is not economically profitable to harvest. Some ancient cultures promoted gleaning as an early form of a welfare system. In the Soviet Union, people who gleaned and distributed food brought themselves under legal risk. The Law of Spikelets criminalised gleaning under penalty of death, or ten years of forced labour in exceptional circumstances.

Some sources claim there were several legislative acts adopted in order to force starvation in the Ukrainian SSR. On August 7, 1932, the Soviet government passed a law, "On the Safekeeping of Socialist Property",[16] that imposed penalties starting at a ten-year prison sentence and up to the death penalty for any theft of socialist property.[17][18][19] Stalin personally appended the stipulation: "People who encroach on socialist property should be considered enemies of the people."[citation needed] Within the first five months of passage of the law, 54,645 individuals had been imprisoned under it, and 2,110 sentenced to death. The initial wording of the decree, "On fought with speculation”, adopted August 22, 1932, led to common situations where minor acts such as bartering tobacco for bread were documented as punished by 5 years imprisonment. After 1934, by NKVD demand, the penalty for minor offenses was limited to a fine of 500 rubles or three months of correctional labor.[20]

The scope of this law, colloquially dubbed the "law of the wheat ears",[16] included even the smallest appropriation of grain by peasants for personal use. A little over a month later, the law was revised, as Politburo protocols revealed that secret decisions had later modified the original decree of September 16, 1932. The Politburo approved a measure that specifically exempted small-scale theft of socialist property from the death penalty, declaring that "organizations and groupings destroying state, social, and co-operate property in an organized manner by fires, explosions and mass destruction of property shall be sentenced to execution without trial", and listed a number of cases in which "kulaks, former traders, and other socially-alien persons" would be subject to the death penalty. "Working individual peasants and collective farmers" who stole kolkhoz property and grain would be sentenced to ten years; the death penalty would be imposed only for "systematic theft of grain, sugar beets, animals, etc."[21]

Soviet expectations for the 1932 grain crop were high because of Ukraine's bumper crop the previous year, which Soviet authorities believed were sustainable. When it became clear that the 1932 grain deliveries were not going to meet the expectations of the government, the decreased agricultural output was first blamed on the kulaks, and later on agents and spies of foreign intelligence services, "nationalists", "Petlurovites", and from 1937 on, Trotskyists. According to a report from the head of the Supreme Court, by January 15, 1933 as many as 103,000 people (more than 14 thousand in the Ukrainian SSR) 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 of imprisonment, and 48,094 to other punishments.[21]

On November 8, Molotov and Stalin issued an order stating, "from today the dispatch of goods for the villages of all regions of Ukraine shall cease until kolkhozy and individual peasants begin to honestly and conscientiously fulfill their duty to the working class and the Red Army by delivering grain."[22]

On November 24, the Politburo ordered that all those sentenced to confinement of three years or more in Ukraine be deported to labor camps. It also simplified procedures for confirming death sentences in Ukraine. The Politburo also dispatched Balytsky to Ukraine for six months with the full powers of the OGPU.[23]

Blacklist system

A "Blackboard" published in the newspaper "Under the Flag of Lenin" in January 1933 — a "blacklist" identifying specific kolhozes and their punishment in the Bashtanka Raion, Mykolayiv oblast, Ukraine.

Some researchers[who?] claim that in December 1932, Soviets imposed special sanctions and blockade by NKVD units which led to complete extermination by starvation of certain villages and areas. The blacklist was applied with harsher methods to selected villages and kolkhozes that were considered to be "underperforming" in the grain collection procurement: "Immediate cessation of delivery of goods, complete suspension of cooperative and state trade in the villages, and removal of all available goods from cooperative and state stores. Full prohibition of collective farm trade for both collective farms and collective farmers, and for private farmers. Cessation of any sort of credit and demand for early repayment of credit and other financial obligations."[24][25] Initially, such sanctions were applied to only six villages, but later they were applied to numerous rural settlements and districts. For peasants, who were not kolkhoz members and who were "underperforming" in the grain collection procurement, special measures were adopted. To reach the grain procurement quota amongst peasants, 1,100 brigades were organized, which consisted of activists, often from neighboring villages, who had either already accomplished their grain procurement quota or were close to accomplishing it. In the end at least 400 collective farms where put on the "Blackboard," more than half of them in Dnepropetrovsk alone.[26]

Since most of the goods supplied to the rural areas were commercial (fabrics, matches, fuels) and sometimes obtained by villagers from neighboring cities or railway stations, sanctioned villages remained thus for a long period—as an example mentioned in the December 6 decree, the village of Kamyani Potoky was removed from blacklist on October 17, 1933, when they completed their plan for grain collection early. After January 1933, the blacklist regime was modified, with 100% plan execution no longer required. As mentioned in the December 6 Decree, the villages Liutenky and Havrylivka were removed from the black list after 88% and 70% plan completion, respectively.[27]

Measures were taken to persecute those withholding or bargaining grain. This was done frequently by requisition detachments, which raided farms to collect grain, and regardless of whether or not the peasants retained enough grain to feed themselves or enough seed left to plant the next harvest.

Restrictions on freedom of movement

Some sources state[who?] that Ukrainian SSR borders were sealed by the NKVD and the army in order to prevent starving peasants from travelling into territories where food was more available. Some researchers believe these measures extended to urban areas inside Ukrainian SSR. During the first five-year plan, urban population growth brought more than 10 million people from villages to cities; the number receiving food rations increased from 25 million in 1930 to 40 million in 1932. Food production declined and urban food supplies fell drastically. Reserves did not keep pace with ration requirements. Desertion of factories, combined with peasants' flight from collective farms, resulted in millions of people moving around the country. In response, the government revived the tsarist institution of internal passports at the end of 1932.[28]

The requisition of grains from wealthy peasants (kulaks) during the forced collectivization. 1933

Special barricades were set up by GPU units throughout the Soviet Union to prevent an exodus of peasants from hunger-stricken regions. During a single month in 1933, 219,460 people were either intercepted and escorted back or arrested and sentenced.[29] In Ukraine, these measures had the following results, according to the declassified documents:[30][31][32][33] During the 11 days (January 23–February 2) after the January 22, 1933 decree, 3,861 people were intercepted, of which 340 were arrested "for further recognition". During the same period, there were 16,773 people intercepted (907 of those not living in Ukraine) in trains and at railway stations on the whole Ukrainian territory; out of those, 1,610 people were arrested. These figures also included criminals. In the same document, the GPU states that 94,433 peasants had already left the Ukrainian territory during the period from December 15, 1932 to January 2, 1933 (data for 215 districts out of 484, and Moldavian ASRR). It has been estimated that there were some 150,000 excess deaths as a result of this policy, and one historian asserts that these deaths constitute a crime against humanity.[34] In contrast historian Stephen Kotkin argues that the sealing of the Ukrainian borders caused by the internal passport system was in order to prevent the spread of famine related diseases.[35]

The government introduced new identity papers and obligatory registration for citizens in December 1932.[29] Initially, the area of new identity papers and obligatory registration implementation was limited to Moscow, Leningrad (encircling 100 km), and Kharkiv (encircling 50 km), and the new measures were planned for implementation by June 1933. In Ukraine, introduction of the passport system was to be carried out by the end of 1933, with top priority given to its enforcement in Kharkiv, Kiev, and Odessa.[36]

Travel from Ukraine and the Northern Caucasus Kuban kray region was specifically forbidden by the directives of January 22, 1933 (signed by Molotov and Stalin) and of January 23, 1933 (joint directive Central Committee of the Communist Party and Sovnarkom). February 16, 1933, the same measures were applied to the Lower-Volga region.[37] After February, the directives stated that travel "for bread" from these areas was organized by enemies of the Soviet Union, with the purpose of agitation in northern areas of the Soviet Union against kolkhozes, but was not prevented. Therefore, railway tickets were to be sold only by ispolkom permits, and those who had already reached the north should be arrested.[38]

Information blockade

Some sources say[who?] that the Soviet regime, by preventing news of the famine from reaching the outside world, prevented foreign sources from providing aid to alleviate the famine and associated hardships. Some claim the same thing happened during the earlier 1921–23 famine in the Soviet Union. With regard to the earlier famine, some researchers say initial Soviet pleas for aid in early autumn 1921 were refused by European countries, and what aid was eventually provided didn't come for four or five months, so the Soviet government may not have expected the outside world to be very helpful in this instance either.[citation needed]

On February 23, 1933, the Politburo of Central Committee adopted a decree requiring foreign journalists to seek travel permits from the General Directorate of Militia before entering the affected areas. Also, the Soviet government denied initial reports of the famine (but agreed with information about malnutrition), while preventing foreign journalists from traveling in the region. At the same time, there was no credible evidence of information blockade arrangements on a considerable number of foreign specialists (engineers, workers, etc.) who worked at construction sites at Ukrainian territory.

For example, Gareth Jones, one of David Lloyd George's private secretaries, spent several days in mid-March travelling to "all twenty villages, not only in the Ukraine, but also in the black earth district, and in the Moscow region, and... I slept in peasants' cottages, and did not immediately leave for the next village."[citation needed] He reached the neighboring rural area of Kharkiv (the capital of Soviet Ukraine), spent some days there, and despite seeing no dead people or animals himself, reported "that there was famine in the Soviet Union."[citation needed]

On August 23, 1933, foreign correspondents were warned individually by the press section of the Foreign Office of the Soviet Union not to attempt to travel to the provinces or elsewhere in the Soviet Union without first obtaining formal permission. The Foreign Office of the Soviet Union, without explanation, refused permission to William H. Chamberlain, Christian Science Monitor correspondent, to visit and observe the harvest in the principal agricultural regions of the North Caucasus and Ukraine. From May–July 1933, two other American correspondents were forbidden to make a trip to Ukraine.[39] Such restrictions were softened in September 1933.

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."[40]

By the end of 1933, based on data collected by undercover investigation and photos, the Bohemian-Austrian Cardinal Theodor Innitzer began an awareness-raising campaign in the West about the massive deaths by hunger and occasional cases of cannibalism that were occurring in Ukraine and the North Caucasus at that time.[41]

Refusal to provide aid for starving

Street in Kharkiv, 1932

Some sources claim that, despite the pleas for assistance and the acknowledged famine situation, the Moscow authorities refused to provide aid. For example, Snyder claims that "Stalin" had privately admitted "that there was 'famine' in Soviet Ukraine', he did not grant a "Ukranian party leadership" request for "food aid".[42] Some researchers state that aid was provided only during the summer.[who?] The first reports regarding malnutrition and hunger in rural areas and towns (which were undersupplied through the recently introduced rationing system) to the Ukrainian GPU and oblast authorities are dated to mid-January 1933. However, the first food aid sent by Central Soviet authorities for the Odessa and Dnepropetrovsk regions 400 thousand poods (6600 tonnes, 200 thousand poods or 3300 tonnes for each) appeared as early as February 7, 1933.[43] Measures were introduced to localize these cases using locally available resources. While the numbers of such reports increased, the Central Committee of the Communist Party (Bolshevik) of Ukraine issued a decree on February 8, 1933, that urged every "hunger case" to be treated without delay and with a maximum mobilization of resources by kolkhozes, raions, towns, and oblasts. The decree set a seven-day term for food aid which was to be provided from "central sources". On February 20, 1933, the Dnipropetrovsk oblast received 1.2 million poods of food aid, Odessa received 800 thousand, and Kharkiv received 300 thousand. The Kiev oblast was allocated 6 million poods by March 18. The Ukrainian authorities also provided aid, but it was limited by available resources. In order to assist orphaned children, the Ukrainian GPU and People's Commissariat for Health created a special commission, which established a network of kindergartens where children could get food. Urban areas affected by food shortage adhered to a rationing system. On March 20, 1933, Stalin signed a decree which lowered the monthly milling levy in Ukraine by 14 thousand tons, which was to be redistributed as an additional bread supply "for students, small towns and small enterprises in large cities and specially in Kiev." However, food aid distribution was not managed effectively and was poorly redistributed by regional and local authorities.

After the first wave of hunger in February and March, Ukrainian authorities met with a second wave of hunger and starvation in April and May, specifically in the Kiev and Kharkiv oblasts. The situation was aggravated by the extended winter.

Between February and June 1933, thirty-five Politburo decisions and Sovnarkom decrees authorized the issue of a total of 35.19 million poods (576,400 tonnes),[44] or more than half of total aid to Soviet agriculture as a whole. 1.1 million tonnes were provided by Central Soviet authorities in winter and spring 1933 — grain and seeds for Ukrainian SSR peasants, kolhozes and sovhozes. Such figures did not include grain and flour aid provided for the urban population and children, or aid from local sources. In Russia, Stalin personally authorized distribution of aid in answer to a request by Sholokhov, whose own district was stricken.[45] However, Stalin also later reprimanded Sholokhov for failing to recognize "sabotage" within his district. This was the only instance that a specific amount of aid was given to a specific district.[45] Other appeals were not successful, and many desperate pleas were cut back or rejected.[46]

Documents from Soviet archives indicate that the aid distribution was made selectively to the most affected areas, and during the spring months, such assistance was the goal of the relief effort. A special resolution of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (Bolshevik) of Ukraine for the Kiev Oblast, from March 31, 1933, ordered peasants to be hospitalized with either ailing or recovering patients. The resolution ordered improved nutrition 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.[47] The food was dispensed according to special resolutions from government bodies, and additional food was given in the field where the laborers worked.

The last CPSU Politburo decision about food aid to the whole of the Ukrainian SSR was issued on June 13, 1933. Separate orders about food aid for regions of Ukraine appeared by the end of June through early July 1933 for the Dnipropetrovsk, Vinnytsia and Kiev regions. For the kolkhozes of the Kharkiv region, assistance was provided by end of July 1933 (Politburo decision dated July 20, 1933).[48]

Export of grain and other food

Some publications claim that after recognition of the famine situation in Ukraine during the drought and poor harvests, the Soviet government in Moscow continued to export grain rather than retain its crop to feed the people,[49] though at a significantly lower rate than in previous years. In 1930–31, there had been 5,832,000 metric tons of grains exported. In 1931–1932, grain exports declined to 4,786,000 metric tons. In 1932–1933, grain exports were just 1,607,000 metric tons, and in 1933–34, this further declined to 1,441,000 metric tons.[50] Officially published data [51] differed slightly:

Cereals (in tonnes):

  • 1930 – 4,846,024
  • 1931 – 5,182,835
  • 1932 – 1,819,114 (~750,000 during the first half of 1932; from late April ~157,000 tonnes of grain was also imported)
  • 1933 – 1,771,364 (~220,000 during the first half of 1933;[52] from late March grain was also imported)[53]

Only wheat (in tonnes):

  • 1930 – 2,530,953
  • 1931 – 2,498,958
  • 1932 – 550,917
  • 1933 – 748,248

In 1932, via Ukrainian commercial ports the following amounts were exported: 988,300 tons of grains and 16,500 tons of other types of cereals. In 1933, the totals were: 809,600 tons of grains, 2,600 tons of other cereals, 3,500 tons of meat, 400 tons of butter, and 2,500 tons of fish. Those same ports imported the following amounts: less than 67,200 tons of grains and cereals in 1932, and 8,600 tons of grains in 1933.

The following amounts were received from other Soviet ports: in 1932, 164,000 tons of grains, 7,300 tons of other cereals, 31,500 tons of[clarification needed], and no more than 177,000 tons of meat and butter; in 1933, 230,000 tons of grains, 15,300 tons if other cereals, 100 tons of meat, 900 tons of butter, and 34,300 tons of fish.

Michael Ellman states that the 1932–1933 grain exports amounted to 1.8 million tonnes, which would have been enough to feed 5 million people for one year.[34]

Elimination of Ukrainian cultural elite

Some researchers[who?] found that the famine of 1932–1933 followed the assault on Ukrainian national culture that started in 1928.[citation needed] The events of 1932–1933 in Ukraine were seen by the Soviet Communist leaders as an instrument against Ukrainian self-determination. At the 12th Congress of the Communist Party of Ukraine (CP(b)U), Moscow-appointed leader Pavel Postyshev declared that "1933 was the year of the defeat of Ukrainian nationalist counter-revolution."[54] This "defeat" encompassed not just the physical extermination of a significant portion of the Ukrainian peasantry, but also 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.[55] 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 purge of the CP(b)U. Whole academic organizations, such as the Bahaliy Institute of History and Culture, were shut down following the arrests.

Repression of the intelligentsia occurred in virtually all parts of the Soviet Union.[56]

Despite the assault, education and publishing in the republic remained Ukrainianized for years afterward. In 1935–36, 83% of all school children in the Ukrainian SSR were taught in Ukrainian, with Ukrainians making up about 80% of the population.[57] In 1936, of 1830 newspapers, 1402 were in Ukrainian, as were 177 magazines, and in 1936, 69 thousand Ukrainian books were printed.[58]

The recent award-winning documentary Genocide Revealed (2011),[59] by Canadian-Ukrainian director Yurij Luhovy, presents evidence for the view that Stalin and his cohorts in the Communist regime (not necessarily the Russian people as a whole) deliberately targeted Ukrainians in the mass starvation of 1932–1933. Stalin's regime proceeded to eliminate the intelligentsia of Ukraine[citation needed], to forcibly deport Ukrainian Kulaks who opposed its collectivization policies, and to orchestrate a deliberate mass starvation by hunger of Ukrainians, wherever they were found throughout the Soviet Empire.[60] This documentary reinforces the view that the Holodomor was indeed an act of genocide.