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.
What were the immediate causes of the famine?
Famine throughout history has generally been caused by some natural disturbance (drought, disease, pests, etc.) or war. The Soviet famine of 1932-34 does not seem to have been immediately caused by any of these factors. Rather, it appears that the famine was - to an extent perhaps unparalleled in history - a man-made one. In support of this charge, we turn to an examination of production, procurements and famine relief during this period.
The most striking fact about food production during the famine period was that while it was less than average it was not a failure by any means. This is shown in Table 2.
| * Based on official figures, except for grain which has been adjusted.|
Source: Jasny, op. cit., p. 792.
Total production was lowest in 1932, preceding the worst year of the famine. Even so, it was only about 12 percent below the 1926-30 average for grain, 5 percent below for potatoes, and 30 percent below for the less important sugar beet. For all three groups, production was only down 9 percent in a country where food was not abundant, such a shortage might lead to increased hunger, but it hardly seems that it could by itself result in the death of 5 million or so people.
Actually, one might have expected a considerably greater decrease in production - rather more for human than natural reasons. While it appears that certain areas suffered from drought and hot dry winds in 1932,_93_ the weather was otherwise normal._94_
The greater problem was the demoralized state of agriculture. This breakdown was largely brought about by the policies of the Soviet government - forced collectivization, forced collection of food, elimination of the kulaks, and loss of farm experts._95_ Not only were the peasants weakened by the loss of food, but they were antagonized. As a result they showed little interest in tending the crops: fields were poorly planted, crops were choked with weeds, and the harvest was carelessly gathered._96_
In addition, there was a shortage of draft power due to the livestock mortality and to an insufficient supply of tractors (a problem which was accentuated by very poor maintenance)._97_ The wonder, then, is that the crop of 1932 (or of 1931 or 33) was not lower than it was.
And though the crop was down, it appears that there was enough to keep the population in these areas alive. Nicholas Prychodko writes:
"In 1941 when the Germans invaded Ukraine they found in the Academy of Sciences in Kiev the true statistics of the cops harvested in 1932. These figures proved that the yield was sufficient to feed the Ukrainian population for two years and four months and to seed all the fields._98_
Residents of other areas indicated that they could have managed with the crop they had._99_
The factor which really turned the below-average crop years of 1931, 32 and 33 into famine years was the food procurement policy of the government._100_ The extent of these government procurements for grain can be judged from Table 3.
|1927-28 to 1930-31||75.1||15.0||60.1|
|1934-35 to 1937-38||77.2||28.1||49.1|
| *Taken from Table 2.|
Source: Jasny, op. cit., p. 794.
Even though production during the three famine years was down 12 percent from the previous four year average, procurements were up 44 percent. The result was that the amount of grain left in the peasants' hands was decreased substantially.
1. 1931-32 crop year
During the 1931-32 crop year, the old "Iron Broom" technique which had been used during the years of war communism was put into use again. "Grain, needed by the Ukrainian peasants as provisions, was stripped from the land...by grain collectors desirous of making a good showing."_101_ A particularly heavy assessment was made in March 1932._102_ And from the government's point of view this policy worked: grain procurements for the year reached record levels despite a smaller crop._103_
2. 1932-22 crop year
The same procedure was carried on in the months following the harvest of 1932. As Belov points out:
"That autumn the 'red broom' passed over the kolkhozy and the individual plots, sweeping the 'surplus' for the state out of the barns and corncribs. In the search for 'surpluses,' everything was collected. The farms were cleaned out even more thoroughly than the kulak had been."_104_
Even so, the grain deliveries began to lag, reserve stocks had been cleaned out the previous year, and the Ukrainian Communists who were supposed to carry out the collections apparently began to get too soft-hearted for the Soviet leaders. Therefore, early in 1933 Pavel Postyshev was sent to Ukraine as a special plenipotentiary of the Central Committee. He was accompanied by party workers from the Russian Republic._105_ The group set to work with a vengeance. Their actions were "...marked by the utmost severity...the detachments carried off not only grain but everything edible."_106_ Muggeridge describes the work of these agents of the GPU in these terms:
"They had gone over the country like a swarm of locusts and taken away everything edible; they had shot and exiled thousands of peasants, sometimes whole villages; they had reduced some of the most fertile land in the world to a melancholy desert."_107_
In this process, "...the last reserves of grain, which had been buried in the ground by the desperate peasants, were dug up and confiscated."_108_ Mikhail Sholokhov, the prominent novelist, complained to Stalin about the situation - but in vain._109_
Under these conditions it is not surprising that famine waxed during the first two-thirds of 1933. And because the peasants were forced to eat seed grain to survive, it was often the case that enough was not left for sowing._110_
3. 1933-34 crop year
During the summer of 1933 the government announced a new ruling on the delivery of grain. Henceforth, only a fixed quantity of grain would be expected from each hectare._111_ This might have been an improvement over the former system of government take all, except for the provision that "...no evasion of this obligation to deliver grain should be permitted under any condition."_112_ With a normal or good harvest, it might not have been difficult to meet these levels, but with a smaller than normal crop, the requirement pinched severely.
And to make sure that the procurement was met, the harvest was organized like a military offensive. Guards were placed by the grain fields_113_ and those who would try to steal grain faced the threat of severe prison sentences._114_ According to one American traveler, "Red Army detachments were omnipresent, and even in the country, airplanes were constantly flying over the fields."_115_ The army also provided harvest "help."_116_
For those state farm officials who were lax there was prison or death. The London Times reported in July that the first of a series of important Soviet grain trials had begun at Odessa: "The central authorities declared that the state farm officials, influenced by local sentiment, had underestimated the crops and reserved more than was necessary for their own use." They were under threat of death._117_
To complete the growing and the gathering of the crop, extensive use was made of industrial brigades from the cities. Postyshev, who continued in charge of the program, indicates that: "We threw into the struggle...huge and powerful reserves in the shape of the industrial organizations in the towns of Ukraine." In addition, further party members were sent to the collective farms. By the end of the year 3,000 had been sent on permanent work, "...to act as chairmen of collective farms, secretaries of party nuclei, and party organizers on collective farms."_118_ Many of these party members knew nothing of agriculture, which added to the problems.
As a result of this shift, Whiting Williams found that offices were largely empty in August as workers were out helping with the harvest._119_ Belov records that in the case of his farm more than 100 office and factory workers from Leningrad were sent to assist and that two representatives of the party arrived to help organize the harvesting._120_ One such representative was Victor Kravchenko, who described his experiences in a chapter in his autobiography under the title "Harvest in Hell."_121_
Even with this tremendous emphasis on getting in the harvest, the party - as Kravchenko so vividly describes - faced an uphill battle. The basic problem was, of course, the chaotic state of agriculture. A report in The London Times indicated that: "...the total harvest in no important region equals the average. Some crops are excellent, but there are some areas which have produced nothing in consequence of bad cultivation and lack of seed."_122_
The Soviet government, characteristically, glossed over these problems. It claimed, instead, a record harvest._123_ Then, before anyone could check, it closed the grain areas to correspondents, ceased to issue harvest reports, and subsequently reported harvest on the notorious biological yield basis. Once again the "Iron Broom" was wielded._124_
And when it was all over, the government's grain procurements for the 1933-34 period were even higher than those for 1931-32 and 24 percent above 1932-33._125_ It is small wonder, then, that famine continued to rage through the summer of 1934.
C. Lack of famine relief
In light of what we have seen so far, it comes as no surprise that the Soviet government did not appear to be particularly interested in providing relief to famine victims. Rather than relax its economic and social policies, the government proceeded as if there was no famine at all. It did not lighten its procurement policies, it did not allow outside famine relief, and it provided only the slightest pittance of food aid.
During previous famines - even in 1921 - the Russian government had allowed, even encouraged, foreign famine relief._126_ In fact, it was under the new Soviet regime from 1921-23 that the greatest famine programs in history were carried on under the direction of Herbert Hoover._127_
But during the 1932-34 famine period, as we have noted, the government refused to acknowledge the presence of famine, let alone allow or request aid. Even so, many aid organizations were established. For example, on July 14, 1933, a Civic Relief Committee For Starving Soviet Ukraine was set up in Lemberg (Lviv). Similar groups were set up in Rumania, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, America and Canada. The famine was the chief issue at the Congress of European Minorities in Berne, Switzerland, September 16-19, 1933. And on December 16 and 17, 1933, an International Conference for the Relief of the Starving Population of Russia was held in Vienna._128_ By the summer of 1934, an Inter-Confessional and International Aid Committee for the Starvation Districts in Soviet Russia had been established in Europe, with Dr. Ammende as secretary._129_ Concurrently, an English branch of H. H. Elizabeth Skoropadsky's Ukrainian Relief Fund came into being,_130_ along with a Russian Assistance Fund._131_
None of these groups, as far as could be determined were ever allowed by the Soviet government to carry out any sizable aid program._132_ The maximum that seems to have been accomplished was the sending in of some food packages and some money. The latter could be used to buy food at the Torgsin stores - though in doing so the peasants risked the chance that they might be arrested as kulaks._133_ And then there was the possibility that neither food nor money would arrive._134_
Along with what little assistance was allowed to dribble into the country, the Soviet leaders made an occasional gesture of relief. This, of course, was largely limited to collective farms._135_ In the spring of 1933, for instance, a seed "loan" of 350,000 tons in the North Caucasus and 250,000 tons in Ukraine was authorized._136_ Such "loans" were provided for routine day-to-day work in the form of an advance - so even this "extraordinarily limited" relief was used as a method of control, rather than for humanitarian purposes._137_
We see, then, that the Soviet government not only conducted very little in the way of a famine relief program, but also discouraged - even prohibited - any effective foreign aid.
D. Attitude of the government
The attitude of the Soviet government, as has been suggested, was hardly that of great concern for the starving.
Indeed, it appeared that the Soviet leaders were less concerned with human life than they were with farm animals. Following their visit, Mr. and Mrs. Stebalo reported: "It is true that cannibalism is punished, but not nearly as severely as, say, the theft of a horse or a cow from a collective farm."_138_
Ammende was of the view that: "Moscow is infinitely more anxious to preserve and even increase the number of draught oxen than to render aid to a suffering population. And, indeed, from the point of view of Russian interests, the real catastrophe is not the mortality from starvation, but the unexpected loss of draught oxen due to collectivization; for, while there is a superfluity of unskilled human labor, there is an enormous shortage, despite agricultural mechanization, of draught cattle.
"...quantities of grain which might save innumerable lives will be exported and the foreign exchange thus obtained will be used to buy and import cattle."_139_
It is small wonder, then, that the famine was quickly characterized as "man-made." The New York Times was perhaps the first to make this charge, stating on January 1, 1933, that: "...hunger has not come upon the Russian land as an act of God; it is man-made."_140_ In March, Muggeridge indicated that "The famine is an organized one."_141_ This point did not escape the peasants. As one told Mr. and Mrs. Stebalo during the summer: "It is they who are killing us. They want us to die. It is an organized famine."_142_ Others echoed the charge._143_
Some preferred to think of the situation as war. As Lang put it: "Beneath the cloak of famine a grim and silent war was being waged." It was a war for bread, perhaps the most gruesome war that has ever been fought"_144_ The battle was particularly grotesque because the only weapon the peasants had was passive resistance.
All of this might seem a bit melodramatic to the outsider, but the charge gains credence when one considers the statements made by Comrade Hatayevich in Ukraine during the harvest of 1933:
"A ruthless struggle is going on between the peasantry and our regime. It's a struggle to the death. This year was a test of our strength and their endurance. It took a famine to show them who is master here. It has cost millions of lives, but the collective farm system is here to stay. We've won the war."_145_
Indeed, as Chamberlin expresses it, there can be "no reasonable doubt" of the "historic responsibility of the Soviet government for the famine of 1932-33."_146_
1932-34 Great Famine: some further references
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, April 3, 1983, No. 14, Vol. LI
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