This week, Ukrainians worldwide are commemorating the 78th anniversary of the Great Famine of 1932-33, known as the Holodomor (Death by Hunger).
In the period 2005-2009, when Viktor Yushchenko was president of Ukraine, several archival collections on the Famine-Holodomor of 1932-33 were made available to researchers, which supplemented earlier information gathered mainly from eyewitness reports. Perhaps the most important of these were reports from the Soviet secret police files (then called the OGPU, from 1934, the NKVD).
With the demise of the Yushchenko government in the 2010 presidential elections, the authorities have done a U-turn on the Famine question. The Ukrainian Security Service, has custody of OGPU files, but under the new leadership of Valeriy Khoroshkovsky, they are no longer freely disseminated, and the new president Viktor Yanukovych has denied that the Famine was an act of Genocide. On the contrary, Yanukovych, who has frequently wavered on this topic, appears to adhere to the Russian perspective that famines were a general phenomenon across the Soviet grain growing regions in 1932, including the Volga region, Ukraine, the North Caucasus, and even Belarus.
It is true that Famine was widespread in the spring and summer of 1932, but many events that took place later in the year, and in the brutal year of 1933 were unique to Ukraine and the North Caucasus, particularly the Kuban region, which was composed of about 60% Ukrainians. And this is evident from the OGPU documents released over the past two decades, as well as the Central Archives of the Ukraine Famine in Kyiv.
It is well known that the great upheaval of collectivization and the removal of richer (“kulak”) families had a devastating impact on Soviet farms. The subsequent imposition of grain quotas by Stalin’s regime was to ensure that deliveries were transported to the towns or the Far East before the families could feed themselves. The other objective was to export grain in exchange for raw materials for the industrialization program.
A widespread drought in 1931 exacerbated the situation, but it did not lead directly to Famine. In theory farms can feed themselves. But they were not allowed to. Not only grain was confiscated from Ukrainian villages, but also seed grain, and subsequently meat, potatoes, and other crops as a penalty for failing to meet grain deliveries.
Lazar Kaganovich devised the idea of a “blackboard” (sometimes it is referred to as a ‘blacklist’) for those villages in North Caucasus that failed to meet quotas. They were then isolated, trading ended, and no one was allowed to enter or leave. The “blackboard” was soon extended to the Ukrainian SSR.
Stalin, together with his associates Molotov and Kaganovich, railed against Ukrainian party and government leaders (Stanislav Kosior and Vlas Chubar) for their weakness and failure to take more ruthless measures. Though Ukraine’s grain quota was twice reduced, it was still well beyond farmers’ capacity to meet. Therefore the Soviet leadership took several measures calculated to transform a severe situation into a catastrophe.
First, Ukrainian leaders were bypassed. Instead, in November 1932, Molotov led a Commission to Ukraine and Kaganovich to the North Caucasus to impose order. In January 1933, Stalin sent a personal emissary, Pavel Postyshev with full authority in Ukraine as well as Vsevolod Balytsky, who took over the republican OGPU. While Postyshev used the army and local activists to take “hidden” supplies from the villages, cordoning off and starving villages that failed to meet quotas, Balytsky instituted repressions from early 1933, claiming that a mass uprising of Ukrainian nationalists had been planned for the spring of 1933 with the aid of outside forces from Poland.
The consequences were not merely devastating starvation, but wholesale arrests, deportations, and executions, none of which occurred elsewhere in the USSR.
In January, the OGPU reported 436 “terrorist acts” in Ukraine during the grain procurement campaign. About 38,000 arrests had been made, and 391 “anti-Soviet, kulak, counter-revolutionary groups” had been uncovered. Over 6,600 arrests had been made on collective farms, mostly comprised of the farms’ leadership. By January, over 8,000 had been dispatched to concentration camps.
By mid-February, the situation had escalated. The OGPU set up a “shock-operational group” in 200 districts of Ukraine and at railways stations and border crossings. It sent word to Stalin that “we are clashing with a single, carefully elaborated plan for an organized armed uprising in Ukraine by the spring of 1933, with the goal of removing Soviet power” and setting up an independent, capitalist, Ukrainian state. Needless to say, these groups had to be eradicated and thousands were subsequently deported.
No serious evidence of a planned uprising has ever emerged. Stalin was afraid of “losing Ukraine” as he wrote to Kaganovich and saw plots and plotters everywhere. Balytsky chose to feed his fertile imagination.
The repression of Ukraine’s villages led to a mass exodus of men-folk while those remaining behind simply starved. In February 1933 alone, about 85,000 peasants had fled the Ukrainian countryside. The vast majority were detained at the border and returned to their villages, or else arrested and sent to labor camps. Border crossings from North Caucasus to Ukraine, and from Ukraine into Belarus and Russia were closed. The OGPU noted that these had been escape routes in 1932 and were not about to make the same mistake again. It urged the rooting out of those peasants who had managed to get laboring jobs in the cities.
The OGPU documented the starvation in turgid accounts that nonetheless allow the reader some insights into the situation. Though some reports attribute starvation to failure to work sufficient hours or poor collective farm construction, others acknowledge that even those who had worked hard were starving.
One report from Kyiv region in late February 193–based on 40% of the districts–noted that over 210,000 people were starving and an additional 12,800 had already died. In Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, the regional authorities proposed on February 28 to set up nurseries to feed 70,000 children, 50,000 pre-school-age children, and 300,000 adults.
The scale of the tragedy, in what had been the most productive grain-growing republic of both the Russian Empire and the 1920s USSR, is hard to fathom. The Italian Consul in Kharkiv (which remained Ukraine’s capital until 1934) reported that some 40-50% of peasants had died and estimated the death toll at around 9 million.
But we do not know the death toll. No one was counting the bodies, many of which lay for days unburied or were dumped into mass graves. The consensus among scholars is between 3 and 5 million deaths based on censuses of 1926, 1937, and 1939, but the precise number may never be determined.
Starvation and repressions achieved one of Stalin’s expressed goals: to bring the errant Ukrainian republic into the Soviet fold and punish the recalcitrants. The policy of developing Ukrainian culture and language—initiated in the 1920s, ironically under the tutelage of Kaganovich, then head of the Ukrainian Communist Party—was ended and its chief proponent, Mykola Skrypnyk, committed suicide in July 1933.
The Purges of the 1930s later removed practically all the perpetrators of the Famine at the republican level. Postyshev, Stalin’s local plenipotentiary, was executed in February 1939 (the precise date is uncertain). The entire leadership of the Ukrainian Communist Party was eliminated. Depopulated villages were refilled with families from other regions. The Famine was then systematically concealed from the public and the outside world for the next 54 years.
The late James E. Mace, former head of the US Commission on the Ukraine Famine, called Ukraine a “post-genocidal society.” This is a pertinent epithet for “Eastern Ukraine,” or Soviet Ukraine as it existed in 1932-33, which never fully recovered and where present-day residents still have problems coming to terms with the crimes committed in 1932-33 because essentially this heartland of Ukraine was systematically “denationalized” and eradicated by the Soviet regime.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Kyiv Post and Edmonton Journal.