In 1932 and 1933 millions of people in Ukraine died of hunger. Unlike most famines, the one in Ukraine was not caused by some natural calamity or crop failure, but was man-made.
The 1920s — "Golden Era"
The peasantry — about 80 per cent of Ukraine's population — had fought pitched battles against landlords during the 1917 revolution to realize its age-old dream of owning land. When in 1918-19 the Bolsheviks occupied Ukraine and made their first bid to collectivize peasant land, the Ukrainian peasants resisted so fiercely that Lenin ordered "severe punishment" for any Bolshevik who preached collectivization. During the 1920s, peasants organized voluntary cooperatives and agriculture thrived.
In this period the Ukrainian people forced the Bolsheviks to change their nationality policy. The Ukrainian language displaced Russian in education, state administration and the mass media.
Ukrainians were recruited into the party and government. Within the Communist Party of Ukraine there developed a powerful Ukrainian wing which demanded an end to Russian domination in economic and political life.
Stalin's policies in 1929 brought the "golden era" to an end
In 1928 Stalin suddenly announced accelerated industrialization in the form of the first five-year plan. The plan was hastily put together and, as a result, billions of rubles were wasted.
By 1930 it became clear that Stalin's government was running out of funds. Rather than rethink economic strategies, Stalin ordered more grain to be squeezed out of the peasantry.
The quickest method of accomplishing this, according to Stalin, was to establish collective farms by expropriating all peasant land, grain reserves and livestock without compensation. Also, collective farms would have to turn over all their produce to the state.
Interestingly enough, when the Nazis occupied Ukraine, they did not abolish collective farms: they appreciated this finely tuned instrument for the exploitation of the peasantry.
In Ukraine, collectivization had another aim: to "destroy the social basis of Ukrainian nationalism — individual peasant agriculture," according to the Soviet newspaper Proletarska Pravda, (22.1.1930).
It was in 1930 as well that Stalin ordered the first of a series of purges of Ukrainian cultural and political figures — all part and parcel of a program to roll back the achievements of the national revival of the 1920s.
The campaign against kulaks
An essential component of forced collectivization, according to Stalin, was the "elimination of kulaks as a class."
The word kulak conjures up an image of a wealthy, grasping peasant. The reality had little in common with the myth.
In the 1920s there were laws banning the sale and purchase of land and of its rent. Land was distributed on the basis of the size of the peasant family. Some peasant households did, of course, own more land than others. But these households also had larger families to support.
Compare the richest kulak in Ukraine with an industrial worker. In the mid-1920s the average annual income per working peasant in the richest peasant farm in Ukraine (comprising about 30 acres) was 200 rubles. The average worker, by contrast, made 521 rubles a year and received many social-security benefits which were not available to the peasantry.
When the campaign against kulaks began, the Soviet regime was at a loss for a definition of the term and produced an arbitrary set of criteria. For example, a household owning a motor of any kind was classified as belonging to the kulak category.
Neither were kulaks those who hired labor. As the Russian demographer M. Maksudov has shown, the majority of those employing labor in the countryside were invalids of the First World War and the revolution, widows and families with few children.
The campaign against kulaks, therefore, had little to do with economic considerations. "Dekulakization" was intended to rid the countryside of peasants (irrespective of their material standing) who were most likely to organize and lead resistance to forced collectivization.
According to official Soviet surveys, Ukraine had 71,500 kulak households in 1929. But according to official Soviet sources, between 1930 and 1932, 200,000 kulak households or one million people were "eliminated." The plan for the destruction of kulaks was overfulfilled by almost 200 per cent.
Those who resisted collectivization were either executed or sent to prison camps and their families were deported to Siberia or the Russian Arctic circle. Peasant activists were deported with their families to the northern regions of Russian.
Here is what some eyewitnesses wrote about their experiences: "Barefooted and poorly clad peasants were jammed into railroad cars and transported to the regions of Murmansk and the like. Peasants were unloaded into snow about two metres deep. The frost stood at 75 degrees below zero. Without even an axe or a saw we began building huts from tree branches. In two weeks all the children, the sick and the elderly had frozen to death."
The death rate among Ukrainian peasants deported to the Sverdlovsk region in Russia was typical: only 2,300 of the original group of 4,800 survived the winter.
The suffering during the deportations was terrible enough, yet it pales in comparison with what happened during the famine of 1932-33.
Grain requisition campaigns
By the spring of 1930 peasant resistance to collectivization had reached such proportions that Stalin panicked and ordered a temporary retreat. In an article entitled "Dizzy with Success," he admitted that excesses had occurred and falsely pinned the entire blame on local officials. Moreover, he reassured the peasants that membership in collective farms henceforth would be "voluntary."
In the spring of 1930 there occurred a mass exodus of peasants from collective farms. Thinking that Stalin's regime had learned its lesson, peasants worked with a will and brought in an excellent harvest — 23.1 million (metric) tons of grain.
But in the autumn of 1930 Stalin again changed course. He ordered the drive for collectivization to be resumed and the maximum amount of grain to be taken out of Ukraine. A third of the harvest, or 7.7 million tons of grain, was taken by the state.
The renewed collectivization drive produced chaos in agricultural production. The peasantry was given no incentive to produce. By the end of 1930, for example, 78 per cent of collective farms in Ukraine had failed to pay peasants for the days that they had worked. Ironically, peasants' payment in Ukraine (in kilos of food produce) was half what it was in Russia. Reassured by his success of 1930, Stalin ordered the 1931 quota for grain delivery to the state to be set at the same level — 7.7 million tons.
The 1931 harvest, however — 18.3 million tons of grain — was 20 per cent smaller than in 1930. Almost 30 per cent of the harvest was lost because of the breakdown of the transportation system.
Intent on exporting grain to finance industrialization, Stalin ordered that it be requisitioned whatever the cost to the peasantry.
By the early spring of 1932, 7 million tons had been taken. The amount was so great that the republic was short of seed grain by 45 per cent.
Ukrainian officials knew that if the rate of grain requisitioning continued, famine would break out. They argued with Moscow for a major downward revision of Ukraine's agricultural obligations for 1932.
M. Skrypnyk, Commissar of Education, in July 1932 recounted how, while touring the Ukrainian countryside, he had heard from peasants that "we had everything taken away from us but the broom." V. Chubar, head of the Ukrainian government, insisted that neither the peasants nor his administration were at fault for the agricultural crisis, but that it was due to the unrealistic plans of Moscow.
Stalin did lower the amount of grain to be requisitioned in 1932 to 6.2 million tons, but this was still far above the capacities of the Ukraine in view of that year's poor harvest — 14.6 tons.
Neither did Stalin relax the collectivization drive and, as a result, agriculture was plagued by chaos. Millions of tons of grain were lost.
Tightening the noose
Moscow sent a special mission, accompanied by troops, to oversee the 1932 grain requisition.
Collective farms stopped distributing food to peasants. For example, according to official statistics, only five per cent of collective farms in Dnipropetrovsk province handed out food produce for days worked in 1932.
To prevent peasants from feeding themselves by taking collective farm produce, a law was passed in August 1932 stipulating the death penalty, and under exceptional circumstances, a ten-year sentence in labor camps for "theft of socialist property." Thus, it was reported in the Soviet press (Visti, 10.11.1932) that the Dnipropetrovsk court had sentenced a group of hungry peasants to the firing squad for the theft of a sack of wheat.
An obligatory delivery system was established for each collective farm. The harvest was organized in the form of a military operation, with soldiers guarding grain from the peasants. Officials and peasants who did not fulfill their quotas were treated in accordance with the infamous August 1932 decree.
On 17 December 1932 regulations were tightened even further. A complete economic blockade was ordered of villages that did not fulfil their obligations to the state: all trade, all shipments of food and consumer goods, whatever their source, were prohibited.
Officials, wrote Malcolm Muggeridge, "had gone over the country like a swarm of locusts and taken away everything edible; they shot and exiled thousands of peasants, sometimes whole villages; they have reduced some of the most fertile land in the whole world to a melancholy desert."
Could have been avoided
The famine finally subsided in 1934, when the 1933 harvest was brought in. This was because, in the spring of 1933, Moscow "lent" Ukraine seed grain. Moscow also reduced the quantity of grain to be delivered to the state to five million tons, about one-quarter of the 1933 harvest.
Soviet officials today deny that the famine took place, although they do admit that there were problems due to drought.
If that was the case, then Ukraine should have suffered a famine in 1934, not in 1932-33. The 1934 harvest was the worst in many years — 12.3 million tons.
But there was no famine in 1934 because Stalin reduced the amount of grain from existing stocks to feed the population. He could have done this in 1932-33, but he did not. Instead, he deliberately exported 1.7 million tons of grain to the West to pay for industrial equipment.
The offers of international relief organizations to assist the starving in Ukraine were rejected by the Soviet government on the grounds that there was no famine, hence no need to aid its victims.
The borders of Ukraine were closely patrolled and starving Ukrainian peasants were not allowed to cross into Russia in search of bread.
How many millions perished?
Harry Lang, editor of the left-wing Jewish daily Forward, published in New York, visited Ukraine in 1933 and was told by a high-ranking state official that six million people had perished from the famine.
Other estimates range from 6.5 to 8.5 million. We will never know the exact number.
We do know that according to the 1926 Soviet population census there were 31.2 million Ukrainians in the U.S.S.R. According to the 1939 Soviet census this number had dropped by 3.1 million to 28.1 million. (There was no emigration from the Soviet Ukraine in this period.) Over a 13-year period, according to Soviet statistics, the number of Ukrainians had diminished by 11 per cent. The population of the U.S.S.R., on the other hand, increased by 16 per cent and the number of Russians by 28 per cent.
A national tragedy
When the Ukrainian peasantry was under attack in 1932-33, Ukrainian political and cultural leaders sprang to their defense. Ewald Ammende, a German eyewitness who analysed this question, wrote in 1936: "The widest circle of the Ukrainian intelligentsia had entered the struggle: teachers, students, Soviet officials, all thought it was their duty to protest against a further sucking dry of their country.... The Soviet regime was faced by a united people, a solid front, including everyone from the highest Soviet officials down to the poorest peasants."
Ukrainian cultural and political leaders paid a heavy price for refusing to become unwilling agents in the extermination of their own people.
In 1933, at the height of the famine, a massive purge was ordered in Ukraine. As P. Postyshev, Stalin's henchman in Ukraine, pointed out, "almost all people removed were arrested and put before the firing squad."
The purge continued virtually uninterrupted until 1938, claiming the lives of 80 per cent of Ukraine's creative intelligentsia. Thousands of priests of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church were killed, as were that church's 35 bishops.
The desire to stamp out a Ukrainian national consciousness was so extreme that, according to the famous Russian composer, Dmitrii Shostakovich, several hundred blind bandurysty — itinerant folk singers — were executed.
Hundreds of thousands of party members were shot. The purge was so thorough that by 1938 not a single secretary of the Council of the People's Commissars in Ukraine (the cabinet), not even a single deputy of Ukraine's parliament, the Supreme Soviet, was left.
The purges were intended to deal a devastating blow to the existence of Ukrainians as a nation. At the 20th Party Congress in 1956 Khrushchev said Stalin had even considered deporting all Ukrainians to Siberia, but "there were too many of them and there was no place to which to deport them."
With the famine and the purges, Stalin had come as close to destroying a nation as his unrestrained power would permit.