Holodomor: How Stalin’s Collectivization Policy Killed Millions Of Ukrainians (Part I) – Analysis


The year 1933 went down in history as the year of scarcity around the world and the year of Adolf Hitler. On the streets of American and European cities, many people lost their jobs as a result of the Great Depression of 1929-1933. Citizens waited in lines for hours for the most basic necessities of life: bread, flour, sugar, oil, tea. Hitler and his Nazi movement came to power in Germany on a wave of dissatisfaction with the economic crisis in 1933.

At the same time, while in the spring of 1933 the world public was mesmerized by the economic crisis and poverty in the Western world and the appearance of the unconventional German Chancellor Hitler, something terrible was happening in the “first state of workers and peasants”, the Soviet Union. Paradoxically, the crisis of world capitalism was celebrated on the streets of Moscow, which the Soviet leadership considered a herald of a global socialist revolution. Soviet politicians and media loudly celebrated Soviet achievements in industrialization and collectivization. However, bad economic policies, and especially the policy of collectivization, created a situation far worse in the Soviet Union than in the capitalist world.

The year 1933 – the year of the crisis of capitalism, Hitler and the Holodomor

In the same 1933, famine ravaged the Soviet countryside, and the worst was in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (UKRSSR). In numerous Ukrainian cities of Kharkiv, Kiev, Stalino (today’s Donetsk), and others, hundreds of thousands of residents waited in lines every day to get a piece of bread. In the Ukrainian capital Kharkiv (Kiev became the capital only in 1934), misery was omnipresent. People waited in lines for bread for hours and sometimes all day. 40 thousand people did it every day. The difficult situation destroyed humanity, so neither pregnant women nor war invalids had priority in the ranks. People were frantically holding on to their place in line and their ration card because there was no way to survive without it.

Ukrainian cities had grown exponentially in the years before that, as industrial workers and party activists immigrated en masse. However, the situation in the cities was better than in the countryside, where many peasants had no food at all. According to communist sources, the streets of Ukrainian cities were full of starving peasants and many pedestrians were “living skeletons”. One party activist in Stalin could not believe that several corpses were lying near the back entrance to his house. In city parks, there were publicly posted posters prohibiting the digging of graves. Hospitals were forbidden to treat those patients who arrived due to starvation. Every day, the police detained several hundred children who were wandering hungry in the cities. Although in 1933 several tens of thousands of city dwellers died of hunger, the situation in the countryside was apocalyptic as millions died a slow but painful death.

The famine in Ukraine was more terrible than the famine anywhere else in the USSR or in the capitalist world. Millions died en masse from it. It went down in history under the name Great Famine, Gladomor or Holodomor. It was not caused by natural disasters such as drought, floods, storms, but the primary cause was man. More precisely, Soviet state policy. More precisely, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR Joseph Visarionovich Stalin and his comrades who ruthlessly carried out the policies of rapid collectivization and industrialization are to blame for the famine of biblical proportions.

“Second Socialist Revolution”

Stalin’s five-year plan (1928-1932) was formally fulfilled in 1932, which brought industrial progress but destroyed the countryside through the policy of collectivization. Residents of Ukrainian cities were used to the arrival of peasants in the cities to sell their products, but in 1933 they did not come to sell but to beg. In the empty markets there were no cabbage, peppers, potatoes and no customers, but peasants who were dying there in search of salvation. Stalin’s five-year development plan became a plan of death for millions of peasants throughout the USSR, and Ukrainian peasants suffered the most. The Soviet leader launched this plan when he consolidated power in the country and became the unquestioned dictator. The policies of industrialization and collectivization changed the USSR forever. The market was replaced by the plan, the independent peasants were replaced by obedient and almost slave labor, and the expanses of Siberia and Kazakhstan became concentration camps. Stalin’s policies, in addition to development, resulted in the shooting of tens of thousands of politically dangerous citizens, hundreds of thousands were exhausted and millions were dying. It should be noted that such by-products of the “second socialist revolution” are not the result of Stalin being a madman or a psychopath, but because he truly and passionately wanted to implement in practice the ideals set by the creators of communism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Stalin developed heavy industry and collectivized agriculture, and the Ukrainian peasants paid the highest price.

The beginning of collectivization

In mid-1929, Stalin was overcome with euphoria because the beginning of collectivization in the Soviet Union was proceeding successfully. The party offices in Moscow received positive reports on collectivization, which gave Stalin an incentive to exceed the originally set limits. He sent thousands of party agents to the villages with the task of “liquidating the kulaks as a class” and forcing the mass of medium-sized peasants who had no interest in joining the collective farms into the collective farms. Stalin knew that the implementation of collectivization in the countryside brought conflict with the peasants, so in mid-1929 he ordered the strengthening of the secret Soviet police, the OGPU (from 1934, it would be renamed the NKVD). Stalin then declared that building socialism is like raising the ocean. The thinking of the General Secretary of the CPSU can be read beautifully in the speech he gave to the party workers in December 1929. Stalin fired heavily at those communists who thought that a handful of exploiters (kulaks) should be ruthlessly dealt with, but not millions of small peasants. He ironically quoted the words of Friedrich Engels: “We stand resolutely on the side of the small peasant.” We will do everything possible to make his life bearable and to facilitate his transition to cooperatives, if he decides to do so.”

Stalin believed that Engels’ “excessive caution” was compatible with the conditions of Western Europe but not of the USSR. He believed that small farmers should not be given the luxury of having the option of choosing whether they want to join cooperatives. Regarding the kulaks, he stated that they should be dispossessed. He rejected the ideas of some Bolsheviks that dispossessed kulaks should be allowed to enter the kolkhozes. Stalin kept silent about what would happen to about two million kulaks (whose actual number with their family members was about 10 million) after their properties were confiscated and at the same time they were banned from entering the kolkhozes.

Transport of kulaks to gulags

The Soviet state defined the kulaks. At the beginning of 1930, the Politburo authorized the secret police to register the peasant population of the entire country. On February 2, the OGPU issued guidelines to be implemented in order to “liquidate the kulaks as a class.” They were established in each place, the so-called troikas, groups of three officials (a member of the OGPU, a local party functionary and a state prosecutor) who decided on the fate of the peasants. The troikas had the power to impose sentences of exile and execution without right of appeal. Troikas could make decisions outside the legal framework of the USSR. About 30 thousand peasants lost their lives due to the decision of the troika. In the first four months of 1930, 113,637 kulaks were forcibly deported from Ukraine. They were loaded into cold freight cars and sent to remote parts of European Russia, to the Urals, to Siberia or Kazakhstan. A camp complex was established on the Solovetsky Islands in the Arctic Sea, which became a symbol of Ukrainian exile. A concentration camp (“special settlement”) was established there, where the inmates were the regime’s free labor force. Special settlements and concentration camps sprung up in the steppes and taigas of the USSR. A total of about 300,000 Ukrainians were deported there.

Special settlements and conc. In 1931, the camps were united into the gulag system. The prisoners in them were forced laborers of the Soviet economy. Once free workers became slave laborers who worked on projects to build mines, factories, and canals in order to modernize the USSR. Ukrainian peasants were mostly sent to build the Bjelomora canal between the Baltic and White seas, which haunted Stalin’s imagination. In difficult conditions, about 170 thousand forced laborers dug the canal, which ultimately proved impractical for navigation.

Unrealistic expectations

In the first weeks of 1930, collectivization was rapidly proceeding according to plan throughout the country. Quotas were sent from the party headquarters in Moscow as to how much land must be collectivized, and the republican authorities tried to exceed them. Ukrainian communist leaders promised to carry out collectivization within one year. Local party leaders then promised collectivization in their area within three or four months. Peasants were threatened with deportation if they refused to join the collective farms. The OGPU often used force. About 25 thousand workers were sent to the countryside to facilitate the implementation of collectivization. In mid-March 1930, 71% of arable land in the entire USSR was collectivized, at least on paper.

While in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR) there was a tradition of cooperatives, in the UKRSSR the peasants were beside themselves because of the loss of the land on which they lived. Throughout history, Ukrainian peasants fought battles with landowners. It looked like they succeeded with the victory of the October Revolution, but in the Russian Civil War, the Bolshevik troops took food from the peasants in order to survive, which the peasants did not like. Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) of the 1920s was welcomed, but the peasants feared it would not last. And it didn’t. The collectivization that began in 1930 seemed to the Ukrainian peasants like the return of serfdom, with the Soviet regime assuming the role of feudal lord. The rural population of Ukraine was very religious, so they considered the new atheistic Soviet authorities to be satanic.

The war between the Soviet state and the Ukrainian peasants

Because of Stalin’s attack on the kulaks, but also on the middle class of the peasants, disorder arose very quickly throughout the USSR, especially in Ukraine. After the deportation of the kulaks to the gulags, Ukrainian villages were beheaded and the peasants tried to preserve their property. The vast majority bitterly resisted collectivization. One can speak of a kind of civil war because collectivization was carried out by military measures. Squads of the Red Army and other communist organizations such as the Komsomol (Communist Youth Organization) surrounded rebel villages with rifles and machine guns to force the peasants to surrender. The excellent writer Isaac Deutscher traveled through Russia and Ukraine during that period. On the train traveling from Moscow to Kharkiv, he happened to meet an OGPU colonel who told him how he felt broken by what was happening in the countryside. He spoke almost sobbing: “I am an old Bolshevik. I worked in an illegal movement against the tsar, and then I fought in the civil war. Did I do all that so that today I have to surround villages with machine guns and order my men to shoot at random into crowds of peasants? No, I didn’t fight for that.”

Some of the peasants dressed up as women to make it easier to kill party officials with a shovel or a hoe. During 1930 alone, the OGPU recorded a million cases of resistance. However, in the conflict with the Soviet state, the peasants had no chance because they were neither armed nor well organized. The state had weapons and logistics. Many peasants were so desperate to prevent the implementation of collectivization that they started destroying their own property so that it would not become part of the kolkhoz. In their desperation, they destroyed crops, broke tools and machinery, and slaughtered cattle. That rebellion was a rebellion of the desperate. Kulaks were deported en masse to remote areas of Siberia. Their entire property was handed over to collective farms. Stalin made his own estimate of the value of the kulak’s property at a whopping 400 million rubles.

The role of Poland

Some Ukrainian peasants (sometimes entire villages) decided to flee to Poland, where they presented the Polish public with the reign of famine in the USSR. The escape of the peasants represented a potential international scandal – potential public embarrassment to the USSR in the world public, which seriously worried the Politburo. In the early 1930s, Polish authorities sought to improve relations with their large Ukrainian minority community. The defectors were carefully interrogated, and the Polish authorities soon obtained valuable information. Some peasants demanded that Poland launch a military invasion of the USSR to end the suffering of the Ukrainian peasants. The refugee crisis was a political tool that could very well be used against the USSR. However, that never happened. In those years, the Polish dictator Jozef Pilsudski did not plan to attack the USSR, but he did plan to contribute to its ethnic disintegration. The Polish government sent spies to Ukraine to incite a peasant revolt, calling Stalin the “Hunger Emperor”.

In March 1930, it was clear to Stalin that collectivization was not going according to plan. Instead of strengthening the Soviet state, it weakened it in the border areas of Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Soviet leaders feared that Poland and Japan might launch invasions. For these reasons, Poles living in Ukraine were deported and border guards were strengthened everywhere. Although Stalin promoted a world socialist revolution through the Comintern, he closed the borders to protect what he called “socialism in one country”. The Soviet dictator ordered Soviet diplomats to negotiate agreements on non-aggression with Poland and Japan, and the combat readiness of the Red Army was raised.

Stalin’s tactical retreat and change of policy

On March 2, 1930, Stalin published the article “Vertigo from success” where he stated that the main problem of collectivization was the enthusiasm with which it was carried out. He claimed that it was wrong to force peasants to join collective farms. However, the change was of a tactical nature. In that spring of 1930, the peasants did the harvest and sowed the seeds for the fall because they thought that the land would still be theirs. The Politburo and Stalin took their time to come up with more original ways to get peasants to join cooperatives.

First, the lower cadres of the Ukrainian party were dismissed and new cadres were appointed who had no mercy towards the peasants. High taxes were imposed on independent peasants, which they could avoid only by joining the kolkhoz. The collective farms were becoming strong enough to put pressure on other peasants. The decision was made that the peasants can take away the sowing seeds, which are of crucial importance for the survival of every rural economy. In late 1930 and early 1931, deportations continued: 32,127 Ukrainian families were deported. Peasants preferred to starve to death on their doorsteps rather than in the gulag. The resistance of the peasants was made difficult because the collective farms were approached one family at a time. By the end of 1931, 70% of arable land in Ukraine was collectivized. Similar to March 1930, but this time permanently.

Catastrophic 1931

In 1931, Stalin achieved a political triumph, but not an economic one. The harvest in 1930 was abundant and successful because collectivization was temporarily abandoned in March. The abundance of 1930, which was achieved thanks to the free peasants, set the standard that was expected in 1931. In the fall of 1931, it was clear that the first collectivized harvest had failed. In addition to the ineffectiveness of the kolkhozes, bad weather, infestation of pests, lack of tractors, lack of peasants due to persecution, etc. contributed. In August, the head of the Ukrainian Communist Party, Stanislav Kosior, reported to the member of the Politburo and Stalin’s close associate in charge of industrialization and collectivization, Lazar Kaganovich, that unrealizable plans, to which Kaganovič arrogantly told him that the problem was the peasants who were robbing and hiding grain. Such a party line was followed in practice. More than half of the harvest was exported from Ukraine in 1931. Many kolkhozes fulfilled their quotas by handing over seed. At the beginning of December, Stalin ordered that those kolkhozes that did not fulfill the annual quota must hand over the sowing seeds because he believed that the peasants were really hiding grain. However, at the end of 1931 and the beginning of 1932, many peasants were starving and had neither grain nor seeds. In the spring, the Ukrainian communists requested the delivery of sowing seeds from Moscow, but the sowing was already late, which foreshadowed a bad harvest.

In 1932 the situation became alarming

In early 1932, Ukrainian party leaders requested food aid from Moscow, including a request that the Soviet government request Red Cross aid. “How will we build a socialist economy if we are all condemned to die of hunger?”, read a quote from a letter to Stalin. The Ukrainian civil and military authorities were absolutely aware that the policies being implemented were leading to great famine. In June 1932, starvation was recorded in numerous districts of the UKRSSR, and this was acknowledged by the General Secretary himself in a private conversation. Despite this, he did not allow aid to be sent and insisted on collecting grain according to the plan, in which he had the unconditional support of Kaganovič. It should be pointed out that Stalin was not badly informed about the situation on the ground because he received daily reports from Ukraine and was informed about all the important details. Back in 1921, famine appeared in Ukraine as a result of civil war and a poor harvest. Stalin was aware that mass starvation could very easily happen, but he did not give up his policy. In the summer of 1932, he had information that about a million people had died of starvation in Kazakhstan, and he blamed party official Filip Goloshchekin for this, even though it was clear that the causes were of a structural nature.

As a good manager of human resources, Stalin blamed the communists there for the structural errors in Ukraine. He believed that the idea of collectivization was not bad, but that it was poorly implemented in practice due to the betrayal of the managers who implemented it. In the first half of 1932, he was not worried about the sufferings of the peasants, but about the possibility that his policy would be publicly denounced as a fiasco. He complained that the Ukrainian peasants were spreading depression and indifference throughout the USSR. More than naively, he believed that starvation would disappear if it was denied and if the Soviet state pretended that it did not exist.

Like a patient who ignores a tumor thinking that it will disappear by itself, the leader of the USSR thought that the state of famine would be abolished if he acted as if it did not exist. Of course, he was wrong. He demanded the delivery of the planned quantities of grain from the Ukrainian leaders. However, they were dealing with real problems such as lack of sowing seeds, bad weather, rodent infestation, lack of mechanization (deficient industrialization policy) and the peasants were too weak to do work in the fields.

Transferring responsibility to the Ukrainian authorities

At the session of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine held in Kharkiv from July 6 to 9, 1932, Ukrainian communists complained about the impossibility of delivering grain quotas. On Stalin’s order to “crush the saboteurs”, his close collaborators from the Politburo, Lazar Kaganovich and Vyacheslav Molotov, fiercely retaliated against the Ukrainian comrades and rejected their claims as unfounded. They characterized the entire discussion about hunger as an excuse for the laziness of the peasants and the indolence of party activists who do not want to requisition grain.

At that time, Stalin went on vacation to the summer resort in Soča and corresponded with Kaganovič. In his letters, he accused the peasants of using hunger as a weapon against him and the USSR leadership in Moscow. They agreed that Ukraine should be turned into a socialist fortress and continue with the grain requisition policy. Ukrainian communist leaders were accused of disloyalty, sabotage and treason. The General Secretary claimed that senior party officials were spies of the Polish secret service.

In those years, Stalin was sincerely worried about a potential Polish and Japanese invasion, which was not without reason. Poland sent numerous spies to the UKRSSR, and trained the Ukrainian army in exile on its territory. In 1931, Japan occupied the Chinese province of Manchuria, which bordered the USSR. While Japan had imperial pretensions to the USSR and could carry out invasions, Poland was unable to do so due to the economic crisis and other problems. In the end, fears of a Polish invasion were prevented by the Soviet-Polish Non-aggression pact signed in July 1932. It gave Stalin a free hand to deal with the “Ukrainian saboteurs” without difficulty. Although the Polish secret services and diplomats had information about the famine in Ukraine, they did not disclose it to the public precisely because of the improvement of relations with the Soviets.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *