Holodomor: How Stalin’s Collectivization Policy Killed Millions Of Ukrainians (Part II) – Analysis
By Matija Šerić
In August 1932, a law was passed according to agricultural products were declared state property and anyone who collected them without permission was a violator who was shot. Although the courts mostly ignored that law, it was implemented in practice by ardent young party officials. (Click here to read part one)
The communist youth members who were educated in the communist system were loyal to the postulates of Marxism and were ready to wage war against the peasants who “sabotaged” collectivization. Watchtowers with machine guns were installed in the fields to shoot at any peasants who tried to take food without permission. Komsomol brigades visited rural houses and took all the food, whether it was in the pantries or prepared for eating. In fact, party activists looted the countryside and spread death throughout Ukraine. In addition to robbery, squads of youths raped women and beat everyone and everything. All this was within the framework of the law and state policy.
Although there was hiding and stealing of food, it was not the problem that caused the famine. The problem was collectivization, which resulted in a poor harvest and high quotas. Even Molotov admitted in October, based on what he saw on the ground, that it was necessary to reduce the quotas. Although Stalin accepted that proposal, he continued to implement the same policy.
In November 1932, information arrived that a third of the set annual grain quota had been collected. Because she was horrified by her husband’s policies, Stalin’s wife, Nadezhda Aliluyeva, committed suicide on November 9, two days after the solemn celebration of the October Revolution. Stalin was completely shocked by this event and after that he implemented his policies even more cruelly than before.
On the day of the suicide of the First Lady of the USSR, the Politburo issued a telegram according to which individual and collective farms that do not deliver the planned grain quota will be deprived of products from other branches of the economy. At the same time, the repression was intensified. In that month, 1,623 kolkhoz officials were arrested. By the end of the year, 30,400 peasants were deported.
Hunger in the UKRSSR – “malicious rumor of saboteurs”
At the end of 1932, Stalin began to deny the famine, the existence of which he had previously acknowledged. Now he called it a “malicious rumor” spread by the enemies of socialism. However, he could not find the courage to come to the Ukrainian countryside and see the reality with his own eyes. This was done by his colleagues who had to somehow rationally justify the policy of their boss, which was anything but prudent.
The Politburo claimed that the starving peasants were spies of the Western powers who were dying to compromise the USSR in the international community. The Politburo actually claimed that the peasants hated socialism so much that they were a kind of kamikaze – they were ready to kill themselves and their families just to show that socialism was a failure. Such party politics would be laughable if it were not true. Ukrainian communists begged Moscow to request foreign humanitarian food aid, which the Soviet leadership naturally refused.
Ukrainians living in Poland were ready to help, but their help never arrived. It was understandable that Stalin did not want to accept foreign aid because it would admit that his policy had failed. However, the great famine could have been prevented even without foreign aid. Stalin could have stopped food exports for several months, distributed grain reserves (3 million tons) to the population, or allowed peasants access to local silos. If such measures had been implemented at the end of 1932, not a few million people would have died of hunger, but a few hundred thousand. However, none of this was done.
7 administrative measures of the apocalypse
Although collectivization brought bad results throughout the Soviet Union, Stalin’s policy towards Ukraine in late 1932 and early 1933 became specific. Until then, famine ruled both the RSFSR and the UKRSSR, but the seven administrative measures adopted in that period were valid exclusively or predominantly for Ukraine.
The first measure was passed on November 18, 1932, and it obliged the peasants to return the grain surpluses they had acquired by reaching the quotas. Party activists and OGPU ransacked properties and abused peasants who did not even have receipts for grain deliveries. The Ukrainian authorities tried unsuccessfully to save the sowing seeds.
Two days later, the “meat penalty” (another measure) was introduced and peasants who did not deliver the given grain quotas had to pay the tax in meat. More precisely, they had to surrender cattle to the state if they owned them. It was livestock that was the last line of defense against hunger. However, even when they handed over the cattle, the peasants had to fulfill the given quotas. They “should” have, but they didn’t and most of them died.
The third measure was adopted on November 28 and related to the “black list”. Collective farms that did not meet the monthly quota had to hand over 15 times the amount of grain. Of course, not a single village could fulfill that. Squads of activists appeared again and harassed the peasants. Blacklisted villages were excluded from Soviet trade and were not allowed to procure other goods. Being blacklisted meant being sentenced to death.
The fourth measure was adopted on December 5 and related to the arrest and deportation of Ukrainian communist leaders who were in charge of grain collection. The famine was presented as a conspiracy of Ukrainian nationalists linked to Poland, and anyone who failed to meet requisition norms was declared a high traitor. Evidence of the existence of an illegal Ukrainian military organization and Polish secret organizations was falsified. On December 14, Ukrainian communist officials were ordered to be deported to camps because they were undermining the collection because of “Ukrainian nationalism”. The aim of this measure was to force the communist leaders in the field to implement Moscow’s policy, otherwise they would end up in the gulags. Even then, at the end of December, the number of people who died from hunger amounted to several hundred thousand.
On the day of the official celebration of Stalin’s 53rd birthday, December 21, 1932 (in fact, the dictator had turned 54 three days earlier), the fifth measure was passed, authorizing an annual quota for Ukraine to be met in January. That quota was a third of the quota for the entire USSR. Such a decision was a death sentence for millions of Ukrainians who starved to death over the next year. The only way to collect grain was to deny it to the population, which was done. This could have been avoided by delaying the collection of that amount of grain for several months.
The sixth measure was passed on January 14, 1933. It related to the closing of the republican border of Ukraine and the introduction of internal passports that were required to enter cities. The goal was to prevent peasants from coming to the cities to beg there or to settle permanently in the city. On January 23, peasants were forbidden to buy train tickets to remote areas. Moscow claimed that the peasants were not leaving the villages in search of bread, but to carry out counter-revolutionary activities. By the end of February, 190,000 peasants had been arrested and sent back to their home villages to starve to death. Ukraine truly became a fortress from which there was nowhere to go. That fort was a camp with thousands of watchtowers where hunger was raging.
At the end of December, Kaganovich suggested to Stalin that he requisition the seeds intended for spring sowing in order to fulfill the annual quota. Stalin accepted it (seventh measure). Although the annual quota for 1932 was fulfilled in January 1933, in February and March party officials continued to seize grain from the peasants. For the peasants, this grain was often the last food they had until the spring harvest. As a result of these efforts, an additional 37,292 people were arrested. People were arrested for trying to save the last scraps of food for their families. It was the last waves of requisitions that were the distinct generators of death by starvation.
Apocalypse in Ukraine in 1933
According to the annual quota, since the harvest of 1932, the Soviet authorities managed to procure only 4.3 million tons of grain compared to 7.2 million tons in 1931. This was an announcement of the worst scenario. The workers in the cities were provided with a system of rationed meals, which were drastically reduced in the winter of 1932-1933.
In the spring of 1933, people in many urban areas were starving and could not help their relatives and friends in the countryside as before. Workers were shown in cinemas agitprop films that depicted peasants as counter-revolutionaries hiding grain and potatoes at a time when the workers, who were building the “bright future” of socialism, were starving. In January 1933, the first reports of mass malnutrition and death from hunger appeared in the area of the city of Uman.
In mid-January 1933, there were reports of massive food “difficulties” in the cities, which were undersupplied and of starvation among residents who did not receive their rationed rations. In early February 1933, according to the reports of the civil authorities and the OGPU, the most affected area was the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, which was also hit by an epidemic of typhus and malaria. The Odesa and Kyiv regions followed.
At the beginning of 1933, an apocalypse occurred in the Ukrainian villages. Villages were exposed to complete destruction. If they had cattle, the peasants slaughtered them, and then it was the turn of the dogs and cats. People died in silence isolated from the rest of the world. They had no right to humanitarian aid or transport to hospitals. The famine did not result in an anti-communist uprising, but instead generated apathy, crime, the breakdown of social morals and death. The peasants died slowly in indescribable suffering, but there was no foreign media to record it. Admittedly, some foreign journalists happened to witness the suffering.
British journalist Gareth Jones arrived from Moscow and Kharkiv in March. He wandered the city with a bag full of food and noted hunger of “colossal proportions”. He would hear the same two sentences everywhere: “Everyone is swollen from hunger” and “We are just waiting for death”. When he gave food to a little girl, she said: “Now that I’ve had such a good meal, I can die happy.”
However, it should be recognized that the authorities “helped” the Ukrainian village, but not with food but with music. The authorities from Moscow sent groups of musicians to entertain the dying peasants so that at least they could die with cheerful souls. The musicians encountered mostly completely abandoned villages and people who were dying or had already died in their homes. Dying was present everywhere, even in the markets. In the spring of 1933, peasants were dying at a rate of over 10,000 per day.
Between February and April 1933, about 15,000 people were deported because their kolkhozes did not function according to the wishes of the party. In the parts of Russia where Ukrainians lived, about 60,000 of them who did not fulfill the grain quotas were deported. During 1933, an additional 142,000 Soviet citizens were deported to gulags, and most of them were starving and typhoid-stricken Ukrainians. A total of 67,297 detainees died in the camps from starvation and related complications during 1933, and an additional 241,355 of them died in special settlements in remote parts of Siberia. Many of them were Ukrainians. Many died during transport by train from Ukraine to Kazakhstan or to the north and east of Russia. There are no records of deaths at train stations or in carriages. Their corpses were immediately removed and buried.
In mid-March, the Kyiv region was most affected by starvation. In mid-April, Kharkiv Oblast became the most affected, followed by Kyiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Odesa, Vinnytsia and Donetsk Oblasts, and the Moldavian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (today’s Transnistria, then part of the UKRSSR). From the middle of May to the beginning of June 1933, reports of mass starvation came from the Kiev and Kharkiv regions. Chernihiv Oblast and the northern parts of Kyiv and Vinnytsia Oblasts were on the “less affected” list.
Children were especially exposed to danger. Everything is said by the fact that the life expectancy of children born in 1933 was only seven years. Although many children remained cheerful, the death of children was a common occurrence in and around schools. Children were often the target of cannibals. Marriages broke up because parents could not take care of their children. Women were often forced into prostitution with local party officials in order to get flour for the family.
Some of the parents hid and locked their children in huts and attics. Others left them at train stations or gave them to strangers in the hope that they would survive. Although some parents sent their children to beg in the city, few would be successful in this. While families were falling apart, conflict between parents and children was common. The OGPU recorded that many families killed their children in order to survive. Many parents became cannibals but eventually died themselves.
And state authorities often encouraged family conflicts by turning children against their parents. Children were pioneers and the “eyes and ears” of the party in the family, and many young people participated in the campaigns of the OGPU and activists against the peasants. The regime expected the children to denounce their own parents. During the summer of 1933, half a million pre-pubescent and adolescent children watched over the grain fields in watchtowers to prevent theft.
Hunger was unrelenting and death mostly affected good people who did not want to indulge in crime and cannibalism. In 1933, Ukraine was full of orphans, and the luckier ones found adopters. Often, families took in wandering orphans, but this would not save them from death because they had nothing to eat.
In the world, including in Ukraine, cannibalism is a taboo subject and represents one of the worst characteristics of a human being. Many Ukrainians are ashamed to talk about the cannibalism that happened during the Holodomor. However, the Ukrainian people cannot be called cannibalistic because cannibalism appeared as a reaction to the desperate situation in which the people found themselves.
Since in 1932 and 1933 large parts of the UKRSSR were left without grain and meat, the only meat left was human meat. There was even a black market for human flesh. There are indications that human meat has reached the official economy. The authorities carefully monitored slaughterhouses, butchers and private homes. Often, smoke meant that the household was cooking for someone.
It is known that in 1932 and 1933, 2,505 people were convicted of cannibalism, but the actual number is even higher. Most people condemned cannibalism and did not practice it. Often, peasants would beat and burn cannibals alive when they caught them in the act. The police once broke into a cannibal’s apartment where they found 11 human heads. Some parents told their children to eat them when they died. It was an act of compassion.
Tragedy for some, benefit for others
The Soviet government disposed of the bodies of the dead, which were everywhere from private houses to fields to markets, squares and train stations. Often the dead were buried partially because the gravediggers did not have the strength to do the burial properly. In some cases, even living people on the verge of death were buried. Sometimes the victims were exhumed from the shallow mass graves and sometimes the gravediggers died very quickly after completing their work. Since millions disappeared in the Holodomor, in the fall of 1933 the harvest was done by Red Army soldiers, party activists, students and workers. The dying peasants managed to sow in the spring of 1933, but many did not see the harvest.
Settlers arrived from the Russian SFSR to take over rural estates. First they had to bury the bodies of dead Ukrainian peasants. Some of them were so horrified that they ran away because of the stench of rotting corpses, but many were not swayed by this. The demographic picture of Ukraine has changed in favor of Russians similarly to Kazakhstan.
The areas vacated by famine were settled by Russians in Zaporizhia, Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, but not in central Ukraine where Ukrainians chased away Russian settlers. Since it was all the Soviet Union at the time, demographic changes did not particularly worry most people, and the consequences of these changes began to be felt only after the collapse of the first workers’ and peasants’ state. While the peasants were starving, party activists profited from the theft of the peasants’ property.
Also, in addition to access to basic foodstuffs, party cadres in cities had the right to access delicacies in specialized stores. Such fat communists were afraid of cannibal attacks at night. Wives of party officials could get food by selling church icons and other folk ornaments made of cloth stolen by their husbands from churches and monasteries in the countryside. The party elite certainly benefited during the Holodomor.
At the beginning of 1934, Stalin frankly and publicly acknowledged some negative consequences of collectivization. At the beginning of 1929, the Soviet Union had 34 million horses, and in 1933, 16.6 million, which means that about 18 million horses were slaughtered as a direct resistance to collectivization. 30 million head of cattle (45% of the total stock) and about 100 million (two thirds) of the sheep and goat stock were slaughtered.
Vast agricultural areas of Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan and other parts of the USSR remained uncultivated, and hunger was the master of large parts of the country. The exact number of people who died of starvation in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic during the Holodomor between the spring of 1932 and the summer of 1933 cannot be accurately determined because a specific death toll was never recorded.
The Ukrainian authorities determined, for example, that in April 1933 alone, less than half a million people were starving in the Kyiv region. The Soviet census of 1937 recorded that Ukraine had 8 million fewer inhabitants than planned. Stalin did not let this information be published, and the demographers who came to that conclusion were liquidated.
In private conversations, Soviet officials mentioned a figure of around 5.5 million dead, but for the entire USSR, including Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Russia. 2.4 million deaths pertained to the UKSRSR. One estimate from the time of Soviet Ukraine speaks of 2.5 million starving deaths.
However, as stated, many deaths were never recorded nor were systematic records kept. An investigation conducted by the authorities of independent Ukraine determined 3.9 million deaths. Many scholars look for a middle ground between the two figures, Soviet and Ukrainian, and estimate the death toll at around 3.3 million. In a joint statement in the United Nations signed by 25 countries in 2003, it is stated that 7-10 million people died. The vast majority of reputable historians believe that between 3.5 and 5 million Ukrainians died in total.
Foreign communists who witnessed the Holodomor convinced themselves that it was not a tragedy but a necessary step for Soviet society to progress. The Hungarian writer Arthur Koestler believed that the starving were “enemies of the people who beg because they avoid working”. His colleague, the Polish physicist Alexander Weissberg-Cybulski, was aware that millions had died of starvation, but he kept his faith in socialism. They believed that the destruction of the Ukrainian village was justified because it served a higher goal, which was the creation of utopia, communism. However, no higher goal can justify the killing of millions.
Historians are considering whether the Holodomor was an act of genocide. Raphael Lemkin (the expert who coined the term “genocide” and is the creator of the UN Convention on Genocide) and historians James Mace, Norman Naimark, Timothy Snyder and Anne Applebaum called the Holodomor genocide – they believe that there was a genocidal intent to destroy millions of Ukrainians.
According to Lemkin, the Holodomor is “a classic example of Soviet genocide, the longest and most extensive experiment in Russification, that is, the extermination of the Ukrainian nation.” The genocide was carried out through four steps: 1. the extermination of the Ukrainian national elite; 2. liquidation of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church; 3. extermination of a significant part of the Ukrainian peasantry as “guardians of tradition, folklore and music, national language and literature”; 4. settling the territory with other nationalities with the intention of mixing Ukrainians with them, which would eventually lead to the disintegration of the Ukrainian nation.
Other historians such as Michael Ellman consider the Holodomor a crime against humanity, but do not classify it as genocide. Robert Davies, Stephen Kotkin, Stephen Wheatcroft, and J. Arch Getty reject the idea that Stalin deliberately wanted to kill Ukrainians, but conclude that Stalinist policies and the gross incompetence of government officials set the stage for famine in Ukraine and other Soviet republics. Apart from Ukraine, 24 countries have so far declared the Holodomor genocide, as has the European Parliament.
However you qualify the Holodomor, the policies of rapid collectivization and industrialization in Ukraine definitely claimed millions of lives. Stalin, Molotov, Kaganovich and other leaders of the USSR officially justified the repression in Ukraine with Ukrainian nationalism and sabotage by enemies of the regime. It should be borne in mind that Soviet Ukraine was a multi-ethnic republic and famine affected Ukrainians, Russians, Jews, Poles, Germans and other nationalities equally.
The goal of the state policy of the USSR was to realize the ideals of Marxism-Leninism, even if they destroyed all the principles of humanity. These ideals were largely realized through Stalin’s “second socialist revolution”, but they cost millions of lives. Although the Holodomor is a terrible inhumane crime committed against the UKRSSR, in the continuation of the existence of the Soviet Union, that republic will profit by repeatedly significantly expanding its national territory at the expense of Poland, Romania, Hungary and Russia. In addition, the Ukrainian SSR, although an integral part of the USSR, became a founding member of the United Nations together with the Byelorussian SSR and had the right to vote. Also, after 1945, Ukraine will record significant economic development. Of course, all this cannot justify what happened in 1932-1933.