Holodomor: how Stalin starved Ukraine. Remembering the Great Famine of 1932-33
This weekend, Ukraine commemorates the National Day of Remembrance of Victims of Holodomor, otherwise known as the Great Famine of 1932-33, and remembers the victims of the 1921-23 and 1946-47 famines.
The exact numbers of victims of the famine is unknown due to the lack of records and the presence of a ban on the documentation of hunger as cause of death, but estimates vary from 3 to 8 million having died as result of starvation. Holodomor is often viewed as the central event to the Ukrainian collective memory as an example of a purposeful attempt at eliminating Ukrainian resistance to Soviet rule by enforcing a man-made famine through collectivisation, imposition of unrealistic production targets, confiscation of food, and blocking of emmigration out of areas targeted by said policies.
To understand the intentional nature of the famine, one must take a look at the context preceding it and the policies it entailed throughout its duration.
We’ve collected a number of facts about the nature of the Holodomor, the policies that upheld it, and their consequences.
Ukrainian resistance and Stalin’s fear
The introduction of the Five Year Plan concept in 1928 paved the way for collectivisation to become the Soviet Union’s most defining policy. The elimination of private property and its absorption into collectively-controlled and state-run farms, which became known as kolkhozes and sovkhozes, respectively, brought with it unrealistic ambitions for production output which translated into the use of compulsion and terror tactics of the working class to keep up with state-imposed quotas. Historian Timothy Snyder summarises the phenomenon, writing: “Moscow expected far more from Ukraine than Ukraine could give”.
The 1930s were marked by a widespread movement of protests in Ukraine which historian Anne Applebaum claims were “the biggest peasant uprisings in Europe”. With 4,908 uprisings comprised of one million people recorded by the Joint State Political Directorate as having taken place in Ukraine in 1930 alone, their nature aptly summarised by the inclusion of “Down with the Soviet regime!” and “Long live independent Ukraine” slogans at the rallies, Joseph Stalin grew fearful of losing Ukraine. While expressing this panic in a letter to his associate Lazar Kaganovich, Stalin concluded that the only way to respond to the Ukrainian resistance to Soviet rule was to implement an extreme policy of requisitions and begin exporting grain as quickly as possible – and so, the state-mandated starvation of Ukrainians began.
Stalin’s letter was followed by the implementation of the infamous decree known as “The Law of Five Ears of Grain” which criminalised taking as little as a handful of grain and imposed a penalty of a minimum of a 10-year imprisonment and a maximum of execution by shooting with confiscation of property. Under the decree, a few ears of grain or a couple of potatoes left after a harvest and not given to the state were classified as theft – instead, what little lay around after harvesting was to be left to rot.
As increased exports depleted the country’s food supply and attempts at saving any food for oneself were criminalised, the Soviet regime took it further to advance the punishment-like nature of the collectivisation policies. Under Chairman of the Council of People’s Commisars Vyacheslav Molotov’s guidance, on Nov. 18, 1932, the Politburo of the CC CP(B) implemented what became known as the “blackboards” policy.
The policy posited that villages, towns, and cities included in the “blackboards” were to be made subject to a complete food blockade which included the removal of food, a complete ban on the trade and transportation of goods from one village to another, and the settlements included in “blackboards” were to be surrounded by military troops to prevent escapees. The policy was implemented across 180 districts solely in Ukraine and Kuban, a region with a historically Ukrainian ethnic majority – at that time, Ukrainians comprised 75% of Kuban’s population.
In January 1933, a resolution was adopted by the People’s Commisars of the USSR and signed by Stalin and Molotov that imposed a territorial blockade on the Ukrainian SSR and Kuban, imposing a ban on any movement out of the regions. The policy was not enacted in any other administrative regions of the USSR.
To ensure an effective criminalisation on attempted departure out of territories of the Ukrainian SSR and Kuban as mass starvation and death sweeped across them, a passport system was established, effectively outlawing any travel taking place without the express approval of the authorities. If the decree was violated and one did succeed in escaping, the individual was to be found, arrested, their bread and other food confiscated, and brought back to the village they left from where slow death awaited. Estimates show that within 1,5 months of the decree’s adoption, 220 thousand peasants were arrested, of which 186 thousand were brought back. Escape was further made more difficult by the presence of border patrols on the Zbruch and Dniester rivers who were ordered to shoot anyone attempting to make a leap across.
Perhaps the most weaponised and most manipulated policy of all, dekulakization was branded as a policy adopted with the aim of eliminating those classified as “the enemies of the people”: typically, the wealthier of the peasants. The explicit definition of a ‘kulak’, however, was never outlined, which made the term easily prone to manipulation. As such, a paradox was institutionalised, whereby a peasant had no way out: if they worked hard and had a successful harvest, they were branded as kulaks, whereas if they didn’t and their household didn’t prosper, they’d risk dying of hunger.
Dekulakization entailed a process wherein those labeled as kulaks were stripped of their property and belongings and forcibly deported with their families elsewhere, or executed. Official mandates dictating a set quota for the number of families to be deported on a weekly basis from each region highlight the systematic attempts of the Soviet authorities to undermine any potential of an organised Ukrainian resistance to come to fruition by eliminating those, who would be most suited to be in the position of being its leaders.
The denial of a crime and the fight for truth
As the famine raged on, killing an estimated 28 thousand people a day at its height in June 1933, the truth slowly seeped out of containment into the eyes of the international audience. But as in all cases with any development of historical events – where one perspective appears, a rebuttal arrives right after.
So goes the story of the Welsh journalist Gareth Jones and English journalist Walter Duranty.
Jones was the first to unequivocally label what he saw as he travelled through Soviet Ukraine in 1931-33 as a famine. Eluding Soviet authorities during his travels and exploring the countryside by foot, Jones kept diaries of his accounts of witnessing mass starvation in villages he walked through. Upon his return to Germany, he published a press release, which was subsequently picked up by numerous newspapers, where he stated: “I tramped through the black earth region because that was once the richest farmland in Russia and because the correspondents have been forbidden to go there to see for themselves what is happening… Everywhere was the cry, ‘There is no bread. We are dying’.”
Jones’ account was subsequently challenged by Duranty in an article he titled “Russians Hungry, But Not Starving”, published in The New York Times on March 31, 1933. In the article, Duranty called Jones’ text “a big scare story”, which he followed up five months later in a new article asserting that “any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda”. What Duranty failed to mention in his articles, however, was mentioned by him in private as he informed the British Embassy in 1933 of the decrease of the Ukrainian population by four-five million while sitting in a luxurious four-bedroom apartment in Moscow provided to him by the Soviet government. Later on, Duranty would become known as “Stalin’s Apologist” after evidence of his awareness of the famine rose to the surface. His participation in the spread of Soviet propaganda and the cover-up of the deaths of millions, however, had no effect on the Pulitzer Prize Duranty received in 1932. 90 years on, Duranty’s claim to the prize remains, calls on its revocation declined.
Jones bore an unfortunate fate soon after publishing his findings. After the release of his accounts, Jones was banned from entry by the Soviet Union, and later kidnapped and murdered in 1935. His murder is speculated to have been carried out by the NKVD – such was the price for telling the world the truth.
The question of the ‘genocide’ definition
The recognition of Holodomor as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people has two schools of thought: one whereby Holodomor is accepted as such, and the other, whereby Holodomor is seen as a tragic event perpetrated by Joseph Stalin but the argument of intention is scrutinised. Of the most notable among those supporting the notion of Holodomor as genocide of the Ukrainian people is Rafael Lemkin, the creator of the ‘genocide’ term and initiator of the Genocide Convention. Lemkin considered Holodomor to be part of the Soviet genocide of the Ukrainian nation at large, arguing that the starving of Ukrainian farmers, who “are the repository of the tradition, folklore and music, the national language and literature, the national spirit, of Ukraine,” was a deliberate act of countering the Ukrainian threat to Soviet rule.
In 2006, the Ukrainian Parliament adopted a law formally recognising Holodomor of 1932-33 as the genocide of the Ukrainian people. 18 other countries recognise Holodomor as genocide, with the most recent to have made the move to formally issue the recognition being Ireland, Moldova, and Romania. The three recognised Holodomor as genocide on Nov. 24, 2022.
Remembering Holodomor today
The commemoration of Holodomor in Ukraine observes a years-long tradition of lighting a candle at 4 p.m. on the fourth Saturday of November, placing it on one’s window sill and observing a national minute of silence – this simple gesture demonstrates that 90 years on, Ukrainians remember and grieve after the tragedy that was Holodomor. On this day, the Ukrainian flag is flown at half-mast on all government buildings and entertainment events are restricted. The Holodomor Memorial Day is also an official commemoration day in Canada, which has one of the largest Ukrainian diasporas in the world.
In Kyiv, a ceremony takes place at the Candle of Memory monument at the site of the National Museum of the Holodomor-Genocide. It’s often attended by Ukrainian and foreign national leaders, as well as representatives of governing bodies, diplomats, different faith communities and the remaining witnesses of the genocide.
It’s important to remember Holodomor today because in 2022, the year marking the famine’s 89th anniversary, Russia continues to deliberately target and kill Ukrainians, cutting off water, heat, and electricity across the country in attempts of weakening Ukraine’s resistance to Russian aggression and breaking the Ukrainian spirit. It’s important to remember Holodomor today because Russian occupation leads to death and genocide, as the world has already witnessed following the liberation of Bucha and Irpin, amongst others, where civilians were shot point blank with their hands tied behind them by Russian soldiers. It’s important to remember Holodomor today because Russia recognises the memory of its past crimes as a powerful weapon of Ukrainian resistance today, dismantling Holodomor memorials in the temporarily occupied territories.
It’s important to remember our history so that we never allow it to repeat again.
Prepared by: Kvitka Perehinets
Designed by: Vladyslav Rybalko
Explore more about the history of Holodomor on the Holodomor Museum website