The Great Famine-Genocide in Soviet Ukraine (Holodomor)


"But one can put it simply: the Soviet regime in effect declared war on its own villages, emptied them of grain, allowed the population to starve to death, and then systematically concealed these events from the world."


By David R. Marples
The Ukrainian Weekly
Ukrainian National Association
Parsippany, New Jersey
August 9, 1998


Following is the text of a speech given at the commemoration of the Great Famine in Ukraine, sponsored by the Ukrainian Canadian Committee, Alberta Provincial Council, at Sir Winston Churchill Square in Edmonton (British Columbia, Canada) on June 6 (1998).


Speech by David R. Marples:

In December 1987, the Communist Party's first secretary in Ukraine, Volodymyr Shcherbytsky acknowledged for the first time that a famine had occurred in Ukraine in 1932-1933, undoing more than 50 years of official denials by the Soviet government. It marked the first step to the uncovering of the events of this complex period, a time of the greatest upheaval known to these areas in history.


The Famine occurred in the part of Ukraine known as the Left Bank of the Dnipro River, an area that had long been part of the breadbasket of the Russian Empire. Its origins lay in the decision of the Stalin government to end the eight years of partnership between the towns and the villages - known as the New Economic Policy (or NEP) in the new Soviet society.


This policy had allowed for some small-scale capital enterprise in the rural areas, providing the peasantry with some incentive to produce a surplus of grain to sell on the open market. In 1918-1921 the regime had simply requisitioned what grain it wanted. From 1921 to 1928, it replaced requisitions with a straight tax, partly to permit the regions to recover from seven years of warfare.


It is not clear whether Stalin personally had any strong feelings about the New Economic Policy. If he had, then he kept them hidden for several years.


The decision to end it, and embark on the collectivization of peasant agriculture also was not in itself momentous. Both Lenin and Trotsky had favored such a route. But they had not envisaged the way in which this decision would be carried out by Stalin's government. It became a second Russian Revolution, one that reduced the villages to slave status similar to the period of serfdom.


Collectivization was in theory voluntary, villages were free to choose whether or not they wished to form collective farms. In reality the process was a momentous social upheaval, and it reached its peak of savagery in the main grain growing areas, chief of which was Ukraine.


In 1929, party officials and urban volunteers descended on Ukrainian villages like locusts. Their first task was described by Stalin himself in a speech to agricultural experts as "the liquidation of the kulaks as a class." The kulaks were the designated village rich, and the regime declared its support for the poorer and average peasants against the rich.


The goal was to foment class warfare. In truth, the vast majority of peasants fell into the poor to average category and the villages were not divided along class lines. The so-called richer peasants were often those who worked the hardest, the natural leaders of their community. They were either executed, exiled to distant regions, or simply banished from the community.


Once the process was under way, collective farms were established in Ukraine with astonishing rapidity, faster than any other region of the USSR. Once they existed, even if they were often no more than names on a piece of paper, the state was free to impose a grain quota on those whose names were listed as members.


This quota had to be paid before the peasants could feed themselves. Since only the poorest farmers remained in the villages, the new collectives suffered from a drastic shortage of equipment, livestock and buildings.


The peasants had no means of active protest, but many destroyed their crops, and killed and buried their livestock rather than see it confiscated and transferred to the collective farms. Even by the spring of 1930 there was a critical meat and milk shortage in many villages of Ukraine.


In 1931 the harvest was calamitously poor. The grain quota, however, remained the same as the previous year. It now comprised more than one-third of the total harvest, and no reserves existed.


At this stage, Stalin and his officials compounded the process by introducing draconian laws rendering a criminal offense even the theft of an ear of grain. Barns filled with grain for export or for the needs of the Red Army in the Far East were off at limits to the peasantry.


Though the harvest of 1932 was slightly better, it was not enough to avert a full-scale famine, one that was clearly avoidable by the simple processes of reducing state quotas and providing grain to needy villages.


Stalin was well-informed about the critical situation in Ukraine, the Kuban region and the North Caucasus. He resolved not to alleviate the desperate plight of these villages. People were permitted to starve to death in a country that was exporting grain. This was a far cry from famines in war-torn areas like the Sudan (though here also the famine was artificial).


This was a peacetime famine that could have been averted. In 1934, after several million peasants had died, the situation was ameliorated by the simple process of providing grain from state funds.


Peasants in Ukraine had nowhere to go. An internal passport system prevented them from crossing the border into Russia or the Belarusian republic, where there was no famine. In regions such as Poltava and Kharkiv, people died in their homes or collapsed on the street. Animals were consumed, even the bark disappeared from the trees.


Soviet Ukrainian officials protested in vain at the lack of attention from the party leadership, an act of futile bravery that was to cost most of them dearly in the purges a few years later. But Stalin had other allies, in unexpected places.


The Western countries, and particularly the United States, had seen relations with the Soviet Union improve recently. They wished to give Stalin the benefit of the doubt when he maintained that there was no hunger in the villages. New York Times Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty, though admitting privately to the existence of the famine, wrote that no problems existed in the villages.


Those reporters who were more intrepid, such as the young Englishman Malcolm Muggeridge, witnessed the Famine first-hand, but then were not believed when they wrote their stories. In 1933, at the height of the Famine, the United States recognized the Soviet Union, one of the great historical paradoxes.


The official 1939 census, now acknowledged to have been doctored by officials to make the situation look much better than it was, indicated that Ukraine's population had fallen by over 3 million since 1926. That of Russia had grown by 16 million in the same period. The shortfall, based on growth in the 1920s, is around 7 million to 10 million people.


Historians today do not know how many died in the Ukrainian Famine. The leading demographer on the subject has verified that the minimum figure is 4 million, but the maximum is not known. During wartime discussions, Stalin informed Churchill almost casually that 10 million peasants had died during the upheavals of the 1930s.


All we know about the Famine has emerged in the past 15 years, the vast majority of it in the past decade (Robert Conquest and James Mace are two of the leading Western historians who have helped to uncover many facts).


Historians in Ukraine have elevated the Famine to the prime position of contemporary research: as one of the greatest tragedies in the history of Ukraine. Its import, however, has been diminished because of a truly astonishing series of events in 20th century Ukraine: the purges that embraced the elimination of cultural leaders of Ukraine as well as its political elite; World War II, in which over 5 million Ukrainians lost their lives in the Red Army and perhaps 1 million in other armies, partisan and insurgent groups; deportations and purges from western Ukraine in the 1940s; the wholesale crackdown on Ukrainian dissidents in the 1960s; and more recently the sudden and dramatic explosion at the Chornobyl nuclear plant north of Kyiv that has contaminated about 15 percent of Ukrainian land.


The Famine is the most distant of these events, the most carefully concealed, and the most difficult for scholars to uncover, find reasons for, and assess the results from archival and fast-disappearing human sources.


But one can put it simply: the Soviet regime in effect declared war on its own villages, emptied them of grain, allowed the population to starve to death, and then systematically concealed these events from the world.

Dr. David R. Marples is professor of history at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

The Ukrainian Weekly, August 9, 1998, No. 32, Vol. LXVI, Roma Hadzewzcz, Editor-in-chief, 2200 Route 10, Box 280, Parsippany, New Jersey 07054. Published by the Ukrainian National Association.
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