"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."
NEWS AND VIEWS
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
The Ukrainian National Association has an extensive collection of
information about the Great Famine on their website.
For personal and academic use only