THE GREAT FAMINE IN UKRAINE 1932-33
1932-34 Great Famine: documented view
by Dr. Dana Dalrymple
The article below was originally published in the scholarly journal Soviet Studies in January 1964. We serialize it here in The Weekly with the permission of the author, an agricultural economist employed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture
"Food is a weapon."
- Maxim Litvinov, 1921 _1_
The Soviet Union has made much of its own process of rapid economic development. It has, however, said little of the social costs that were involved. Perhaps the most severe of these was the Great Famine which raged from 1932 to 1934.
Although this famine appears to have resulted in the death of approximately 5 million people - placing it well among the worst famines of all time - it is scarcely known today. The Soviet Union, in fact, has never officially admitted that the famine existed. American and English studies on the USSR occasionally mention a famine in Ukraine but generally provide few or no details. Yet, previous famines in the USSR have been acknowledged by the government and have been well recorded elsewhere. Why the difference?
The answer seems to be that the famine of 1932-34, unlike its predecessors was a man-made disaster. It was an almost direct result of the economic and social policies followed by the Soviet government during its first five-year plan. To carry out its program of rapid industrialization the government felt that it needed to collectivize agriculture quickly. The disruptions growing out of collectivization led to the famine and the death of millions of peasants.
Obviously this is not a point that the Soviet leaders would wish to emphasize. And, in fact, they did such a good job of suppressing knowledge of it that few today know of the famine, and even some otherwise well-informed students of the Soviet Union suggest that the famine was of little consequence.
This paper attempts to clarify the record by presenting a comprehensive and documented view of the man-made famine of 1932-34.
Was there a famine?
At the outset it must be admitted that there has been some question as to the existence and magnitude of the famine of 1932-34.
A. Conflicting views
There are basically two schools of thought on the famine. On the one hand, there have been those who have admitted to some hunger in the Soviet Union during this period, but no famine. And on the other hand, there is a considerably larger group which has presented evidence of a famine of very substantial magnitude. The Soviet government itself has apparently never acknowledged or even mentioned the famine (with one possible exception)_2_ and it has not been directly referred to in Soviet literature until just recently._3_
Those who did not "see" the famine may be divided into two groups: (1) those who for one reason or another actually did not see it; and (2) those who saw the famine but did not report it.
The first group (1) consists of socialists who were blind to this particular fault in the Soviet program, and/or visiting dignitaries who were given a Potemkin-like tour of the USSR which avoided exposure to the famine. The socialists Beatrice and Sidney Webb, for instance, saw a shortage of food but no famine as such._4_ But it may have been that they, like M. Herriot, the former prime minister of France, and Sir John Maynard, were shown only what the Russians wanted them to see.
The second group (2), including Walter Duranty of The New York Times and some other newsmen, knew of the famine but avoided referring to it explicitly because of government pressures.
While it was possible for the Soviet leaders to fool some and put pressure on others, it was not possible even for them to completely hide the famine. Thus, we now have an extensive body of knowledge which makes it quite apparent that a very substantial famine existed.
As William Henry Chamberlin, former long-time Moscow correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, put it on his return to the United States: "To anyone who lived in Russia in 1933 and who kept his eyes and ears open the historicity of the famine is simply not open to question."_5 _
His observations were echoed by another veteran Moscow correspondent, Eugene Lyons of the United Press: "Inside Russia the matter was not disputed. The famine was accepted as a matter of course in our casual conversation at the hotels and in our homes."_6_
Victor Kravchenko, a former party functionary, concurs that "the famine...was a matter of common knowledge."_7_ And Whiting Williams, a foreign American steel executive who traveled extensively in the USSR during the summer of 1933, goes on to state that among Russians the only argument about the famine was the number of victims._8_
In this paper we shall follow in detail the testimony of those who saw the famine. In the process we shall show why others did not see the famine, or failed to report it.
B. Stages of the famine
The observations of those who saw the famine may be divided into three phases. They were: (1) the spring and summer of 1932; (2) the autumn of 1932 through the summer of 1933; and (3) the autumn of 1933 through the summer of 1934. For ease of presentation, and because famine was most severe during the spring and early summer months, we shall refer to the period simply as (1) 1932, (2) 1933 and (3) 1934. The famine began to build up in 1932, reached its peak in 1933 and began to taper off in 1934.
According to Isaac Mazepa, former premier of Ukraine, the spring months of 1932 "...marked the beginning of famine in the Ukrainian villages."_9_ Another former Russian suggests that famine was raging as early as March_10_ - a point which seems to have been confirmed by Duranty and Fainsod._11_ Compared with what was to come, however the famine of this period was mild. This may have been due to the fact that peasants still had livestock to slaughter_12_ and were able to move around with some success._13 _
What famine there was appears to have tapered off during the harvest period, only to rise again after the crop had been gathered. Allen indicates that the first news of the renewed famine came from the Polish border in the autumn._14_ The build-up of the famine during the last few months of 1932 is also noted by Ammende, Belov and Koestler._15_
The famine, however, did not reach full stride until the winter, spring and early summer of 1933. The severity of the situation was first suggested by Barnes,_16_ but his revelations led to a discouragement - even a prohibition - of tours by foreign corespondents in these areas._17_ As another reporter put it: "...a curtain had been dropped over certain provinces and regions of Soviet Russia."_18_
Nevertheless, several English writers managed to get to the famine area during the spring. The first to report publicly was Malcolm Muggeridge, a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, who traveled through the North Caucasus and Ukraine. His three-part series in late March left little doubt about the existence of famine._19_
His revelations were followed a few days later in the same paper by a report by Gareth Jones, a former secretary to Lloyd George, who had made a personal four through a number of villages. Jones stated: "Russia today is in the grip of famine which is proving as disastrous as the catastrophe of 1921, when millions died."_20_ Shocking as this news was, it attracted little attention and was lightly dismissed by The New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty._21_
Yet by May, Muggeridge reported: "The struggle for bread in Russia has now reached an acute stage. All other questions are superfluous...the population is in the most literal sense, starving..."_22_ And Jones repeated his charge that "...Russia is suffering a severe famine," concluding with a sardonic congratulation to the "...Soviet Foreign Office on its skill in concealing the true situation in the USSR."_23_
This later observation was reflected in a comment in July by Pierre Berland, Moscow correspondent for Le Temps:
"The silence of the press on this point is one of the most curious phenomena of contemporary Russia. A sort of conspiracy of silence surrounds the food situation, even though the nature of the catastrophe is an open secret."_24_
In the interim, little had been reported about the famine. Only the London Times even admitted semi-starvation conditions_25_ - though it did print an accusation by the former Russian charge d'affairs that famine was growing and would become more terrible._26_ In early July, Richard Sallet, an American, charged severe famine, but his allegation was hardly noted._27_
The lull was broken in late August by several different events. The first was the appeal by Cardinal Innitzer, archbishop of Vienna, for aid for Russian famine victims, who "... were likely to be numbered once more by the millions." To his allegation that even cannibalism existed, Moscow replied that Russia had neither cannibalism nor cardinals._28_
Shortly thereafter, however, the Soviets established a new policy essentially prohibiting tours by correspondents in the famine areas._29_ This led to speculation as to what was actually going on in the rural areas, and was not alleviated by the fact that the price of bread was doubled at about the same time._30_
Within about a week a number of first-hand accounts of the famine became known. The first was a group of general travelers including at least one American._31_ Their revelations were followed by the publications of a detailed letter in the Manchester Guardian from a citizen of the North Caucasus._32_ The most widely noted report, however, was that of an American couple, Mr. and Mrs. Stebalo, who received special permission to visit their native village. A summary of their trip was printed in The New York Times_33_ and a much more extensive front-page account appeared in Le Matin._34_ The latter was followed by another account citing statements by refugees and several accounts in the European press._35_ And in England, other European press accounts were noted._36_
None of these accounts, of course, was confirmed by the Soviet government. Not only did the Soviet leaders deny the famine,_37_ but in the autumn they went on the press for a larger world wheat export quota._38_
And while these and other tactics may have created confusion about the existence of the famine in 1933, there is little doubt today. The exact period of maximum severity, however, varies by author, and in turn was probably related to regional differences.
Manning states that the famine was at its height in the winter and spring of 1933,_39_ while Ammende notes that: "It was in the winter and summer of 1933 that most of the population perished."_40_
But Jasny indicates that: "The climax of starvation was not reached until the spring of 1933. The livestock herd also was then at its smallest, and total grain utilization was at the lowest point."_41_ Belov concurs, saying that: "The worst time came during May and June 1933."_42_ But if there is any question as to the exact month, there is general agreement that the famine was at its worst in 1933.
While the harvest of 1933 alleviated the situation considerably, famine did not immediately disappear from the Soviet scene. In fact, it continued from the late autumn of 1933 through, at least, the summer of 1934. We have less knowledge of this phase of the famine than of 1933 because of a renewed and even more stringent news blackout._43_ Yet there were several breaks in the curtain.
Cardinal Innitzer predicted on August 19, 1933, that the famine "... will in four months reach a new peak."_44_ And it appears that famine did exist in severe proportion in the late autumn of 1933. Harry Lang, a Russian-born correspondent from the Jewish Daily Forward who was armed with a letter from Sen. Borah (a proponent of U.S. recognition of the USSR), traveled extensively in Russia during this period. His observations were printed first in Yiddish in the Forward and then later in English in a seven-part series in the New York Evening Journal._45_ The series leaves little doubt of the continued horror of famine.
Another journalist, Thomas Walker, made a comparable survey several months later - in the late spring of 1934 - by breaking away from a guide tour. Walker had previously "...spent several years touring the USSR" and presumably could speak Russian. The five-part report of his observation also appeared in the New York Evening Journal in February 1935._46_ Walker's reports show a famine as severe as that reported by Lang.
That summer, resolutions relative to the famine were introduced into the House of Representatives and the House of Lords, but they attracted little attention or support._47_
In August, the German press reported "...that Russia is confronted with a famine as acute as that reported during 1933." The German coverage during this period, however, appears to have political motivations and a certain amount of discounting would seem in order._48_ Even so, the English Russian Assistance Fund reported in late August that they were "...receiving large number of urgent appeals for assistance daily..."_49_ And a secret telegram sent by Stalin and Molotov to the obkom leadership confirms that all was far from well on the food front._50_ Looking back on the main part of the famine in 1934, however, Ammende admitted that "...the famine began later than in the previous year and the number of victims was less."_51_
But even at that, the outlook for the autumn and winter was still not good. One group felt that "...millions of people will die of starvation in the coming winter if help is not forthcoming."_52_ This same pessimistic outlook was expressed by Ammende, Hladky and Walker._53_
Whether the famine actually carried over into 1935 is not known, but certainly the food situation continued to be unfavorable.
C. Areas and groups affected
We have so far discussed only the existence and timing of the famine. Now we shall turn to a closer examination of the areas and groups most closely afflicted.
The famine was most severe, it seems to be generally conceded, in Ukraine, the North Caucasus (particularly in the Kuban), the middle and lower Volga, and in Kazakhstan. In general the famine was most severe in the grain-growing regions. It was there that collectivization was most complete.
As Schiller put it: "The regions which were the best qualified to bear the collectivization had to suffer the worst under the crude defects of the collectivization policy."_54_ Lyons adds that: "Where the force was the greatest, the reaction was the greatest; the tragedy was in direct proportion to the successes."_55_ A related problem of these one-crop areas was that they had less livestock then other areas to fall back on for consumption when their grain was expropriated._56_
The exception to this pattern was Kazakhstan. There nomadic tribes such as the Kirgiz or the Kazakhi raised cattle. In the course of collectivization, virtually all the livestock was wiped out._57_ Consequently, the tribe suffered heavy human mortality_58_ - perhaps higher than other areas._59_ Due to Kazakhstan's isolation, however, relatively little is known about the progress of the famine.
Scattered famine reports were also noted for Central Asia,_60_ White Russia,_61_ and to a relatively lesser extent, elsewhere in the USSR._62_
But even excluding these areas, along with Kazakhstan, the area and population in the grip of starvation exceeded the famine of 1921._63_
The famine, as has been suggested, was particularly severe in the rural areas._64_ This was quite the reverse of the usual pattern,_65_ but then it was quite an unusual famine. And of those who died in the cities, many, if not most, were refugees from the rural areas who (as in 1921) had fled to town in calculation that things could only be better. They were generally disappointed. There was no relief, and there were not nearly enough jobs available._66_ "The supplies in the shops barely sufficed for the needs of the privileged classes."_67_ Moreover, the famine was even worse for the individual peasant than it was for those who had joined collectives._68_ As a resident of the Caucasus put it in July 1933: "The individual peasants are in especial danger, since they are completely abandoned to their wretched lot, whereas the members of the collective farms are given some state assistance, though it be at best quite insufficient."_69_
"In this way," Ammende points out, "the individual peasants wee completely eliminated; either they entered the collective farms in so far as they were allowed to, or they died of starvation."_70_
The individual peasants in these cases, however, were not to be confused with the rich peasants or kulkas. The kulaks, as the Soviets acknowledged, had already largely been luquidated._71_ Rather, as Manning suggests: "The blow of 1933 fell chiefly on the poorer classes..."_72_
From what we have seen then, it would appear that there is little doubt that a severe famine raged in the Soviet Union from 1932 to 1934. Moreover, the famine was particularly severe in the grain-growing areas among the small individual peasants.
1932-34 Great Famine: some further references
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, March 20, 1983, No. 12, Vol. LI
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