The famine: Stalin imposes a "final solution"

The following article appeared in a recent issue of the journal Problems of Communism.

by Dr. James E. Mace


In order to understand the function that this famine performed in Soviet history, it is first necessary to comprehend that the Soviet leadership perceived an additional link between nationalism and the peasantry in the so-called borderlands (okrainy) outside ethnic Russia. Stalin wrote: "The nationality question is in the essence of the matter a question of the peasantry." Like much else in Stalin's writings, the aphoristic form encapsulates a commonplace idea. As early as the 8th Congress of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) in March 1919, the nationality question was discussed as an aspect of the regime's relationship with the peasantry. Since the borderlands by and large consisted of Russian-speaking cities surrounded by non-Russian speaking villages, this was little more than a matter of simple observation. National resistance to Russian rule came primarily from the countryside, and coming to terms with non-Russian national aspirations meant of necessity coming to terms with the peasants who formed the mainstay of the national movements.

In Ukraine, the Soviet state was plagued by what the newspapers called "kulak banditism" - actually guerrilla bands of Ukrainian nationalists who harassed the Bolsheviks from rural areas. The Ukrainian national government, an anti-communist but thoroughly socialist people's republic (Ukrainska Narodna Respublika), had been pushed out from Ukrainian territory by the end of 1920, but thousands of individuals loyal to it continued to fight for independence. Since the Soviet state proclaimed in Ukraine, as in other so-called borderlands, had been imposed by the Bolsheviks, and such support as it had came mainly from Russian and Russified urban dwellers, the Soviet state was viewed in the countryside as an occupation regime. As time went on, even the Bolsheviks came to realize this.

The wars of the Russian Revolution had ended in military victory and socio-political stalemate for the Bolsheviks. The Bolsheviks had attempted to impose a completely new structure on society from top to bottom, but their attempts to regiment society through the policy of War Communism had failed. Peasants would not join communes. Intellectuals who did not find themselves in complete accord with the party's views could not be immediately dispensed with by the Bolsheviks. Guerrilla fighters for national self-determination could not be defeated as easily as conventional forces.

Lenin realized that a period of respite, a domestic equivalent to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, was necessary for the survival of his government. In 1921 he proclaimed the New Economic Policy, designed to appease the peasantry by replacing forced requisitions of food-stuffs with a tax in kind and allowing the peasants to sell their surplus produce on a free market. Peasants were assured that they had secure tenure on their individual farms. Intellectuals were allowed to express themselves quite freely, as long as they were not openly disloyal. With regard to the nationalities, a policy more attuned to their national aspirations was introduced.

In 1923, the 12th Party Congress formally adopted the policy of korenizatsia, which literally means "taking root," but whose meaning is better conveyed by the world "indigenization." Ukrainization, the Ukrainian version of korenizatsiya, was designed to give the Soviet Ukrainian state a veneer of national legitimacy by actively recruiting Ukrainians into the party and state apparatus, switching official business to the Ukrainian language, and supporting Ukrainian cultural activities.

Ukrainization went much further than comparable policies elsewhere in the USSR, further than Moscow evidently ever intended. Prominent Ukrainian socialists were invited to return from exile. Many did, including Ukraine's ex-president Mykhailo Hrushevsky. In 1924, the Declaration of the Sixty-Six, among whose signatories were former cabinet ministers of the Petliura government, pledged loyally to Soviet state on the grounds that Ukrainians had always been an oppressed people with a natural affinity for socialism and that it was only early Bolshevik hostility toward Ukrainian culture and aspirations that had prevented Ukrainians from cooperating with the Soviet state. Now that the Bolsheviks had repudiated their past errors, the declaration concluded, Ukrainians were willing to be loyal Soviet citizens. The document had the character of a national covenant: those who felt themselves to be the natural leaders of the Ukrainian people declared their loyalty to communism on the grounds that this was compatible with loyalty to their nation.

The Ukrainian intelligentsia made use of the relative freedom and state sponsorship of the 1920s by creating something like a golden age in Ukrainian letters, a period later called the "executed rebirth," (rozstriliane vidrodzhenia) because of its abrupt and violent termination. What the party more prosaically called the "Ukrainian cultural process" posed a direct challenge to party legitimacy, and the issue of what to do about this development was one of the dominant political issues of the 1920s. Ukrainian communists, many only recently recruited from Ukrainian non-Bolshevik socialist parties, became prominent in official cultural life and extremely vocal in protesting the constraints on Ukraine's culture imposed by its association with Russia.

Mykola Khvylovy, the most popular Ukrainian communist writer of the day created a sensation by constructing a whole theory of national cultural liberation. He called on Ukrainians to develop a literature based on West European models. In order to do this, Khvylovy insisted that Ukrainian literature repudiate Russian culture and turn to West European culture, so that it could then promote an "Asiatic renaissance" by serving as a conduit transmitting the highest achievements of European culture to the rising colonial peoples of the East. Ukraine's Commissar of Education, Oleksander Shumsky, who had originally been leader of a Ukrainian revolutionary group that was admitted to the Bolshevik Party only in 1920, led a delegation of West Ukrainian Communists to Stalin in 1925, demanding that Ukrainization be speeded up and that the Communist Party (Bolshevik) of Ukraine be headed by a Ukrainian. In 1928, another high official in the commissariat of education, Mykhailo Volobuyev, argued that Soviet Ukraine was being exploited by the Soviet government in a manner virtually indistinguishable from pre-revolutionary times; that its economic development was therefore being distorted; and that the only solution was for Soviet Ukraine to be given control over its economic resources and develop them in a relatively autarkic fashion.

Although Stalin personally insisted on the condemnation of such "national deviations" (and condemned they were), in 1927 he withdrew his personal satrap, Lazar Kaganovich, from Soviet Ukraine and left a relatively autonomous national communist leadership in charge. After Kaganovich was replaced as First Secretary of the CP(B)U by Stanislav Kossior, the real political strongman in the Ukrainian SSR became Shumsky's successor as commissar of education, Mykola Skrypnyk. As an "old Bolshevik" who had been closely associated with Lenin - one of the few ethnic Ukrainians to have such credentials - Skrypnyk was able to extend his authority over anything touching on the nationality question - which meant practically everything - in Ukraine. He became the chief advocate of his republic's national interests and chief defender of its prerogatives at Union councils. One of his first acts as education commissar was to chair an orthography conference, which brought together experts from Europe, Russia, and Ukraine, to standardize Ukrainian spelling and purge the language of Russianisms. He took it upon his office to satisfy the "cultural needs" of Ukrainians in Russia on the grounds that the Russian Soviet government was not devoting adequate resources to them. On one occasion, he stated that Russia's record in this area was so abysmal that it was giving political ammunition to the anti-communist Ukrainian nationalists in Polish-ruled western Ukraine. In his view, the only solution was to transfer to the Soviet Ukrainian republic certain border areas of the Russian republic with Ukrainian majorities. In other words, a Soviet Ukrainian leader was demanding territorial concessions from Soviet Russia. His demands did not meet with success.

The period of Skrypnyk's dominance (1927-1933) - while marked by the same cultural restrictiveness characteristic of this period in Soviet history as a whole - was the high point of Ukrainization, to the extent that urban inhabitants who did not speak Ukrainian began to feel like foreigners in the cities where they had been born. Industrialization flooded the workplaces with Ukrainians from the countryside to a point where Ukrainians became an absolute majority in the industrial work force by 1930. Many daily newspapers switched from the Russian to the Ukrainian language. By early 1933, 88 percent of all factory newspapers were in Ukrainian. The original constituency of Soviet rule in Ukraine, the Russian and Russified urban dwellers, was being severely undermined.

Nevertheless, that state's relations with the Ukrainian countryside remained uneasy. For one thing, Soviet power there continued to depend largely on a barely changed reincarnation of the old committees of poor peasants (kombyed, renamed komnezam in 1930) abolished in the Russian SFSR before the end of the Civil War. In fact, the Ukrainian village komnezam was until the end of 1923 empowered to "dekulakize" villagers by seizing and redistributing (usually to komnezam members) any "surplus" land and property it wished. It retained state power in the village, often in the absence of a village soviet, until well into 1925. Kept in a sort of limbo thereafter, the komnezam returned to prominence when the state turned once again to compulsory grain collection after the 1927 harvest. Those who participated in these "procurements" were allowed to retain a share of the booty. The komnezam would also play an important supporting role in the collectivization and famine, but almost always under the leadership of an outsider. It was abolished only in 1933.

Even at the height of the state's "honeymoon" with the countryside in the mid-1920's, there were occasional frank admissions that its few rural supporters were an isolated and despised minority. One high Soviet Ukrainian official addressed a group of village newspaper correspondents in 1926, openly sympathizing with the fact that they were a small minority whose lives were often made difficult by "kulaks" and even by state functionaries.

In 1928-29, Stalin began his "socialist offensive," consisting in the abandonment of Lenin's New Economic Policy in favor of a crash program of rapid industrialization, forced collectivization of agriculture, and the subordination of all societal resources to this "socialist transformation." In many hastily collectivized villages, the kolkhoz meant only that implements and livestock were brought to the center of the village and dubbed "socialized property," while the peasants were told to plant and harvest as a group. This did nothing to raise output or benefit the rural population, but bringing the entire harvest to common threshing room made it much easier for the state to "procure" a larger portion of the harvest. Collectivization was thus extractive, recognized by the peasants to be such, and could only be carried out as a program to subjugate the rural population in its entirety.

Ukrainization had tilted the ethnic balance of power toward the nation that was dominant in the countryside. This was a political necessity as long as the state felt that it needed to secure at least the tolerance of the countryside. Once the state fell strong enough to initiate the forced collectivization of agriculture, the political equation was radically altered.

The drive for the immediate and total collectivization of agriculture meant a return to civil war. Although the opposition remained leaderless and uncoordinated, Stalin himself admitted that this war was more difficult to fight than World War II. It was a war of town against country, and, in Ukrainian terms, this implied a war of what remained of the non-Ukrainian city against the Ukrainian countryside. Once the state embarked upon this struggle, policies to placate the countryside became irrelevant.

Forced collectivization was carried out by means of dispatching individuals from the cities to the villages. There were various waves of this invasion, but the most important one was that of the "twenty-five thousanders," so called because of a 1929 decree authorizing the recruitment of 25,000 proletarian volunteers to help carry out collectivization. We do not have official figures on the national composition of those "thousanders" who worked in Ukraine, but the evidence suggests that relatively few were Ukrainians. Many - the Soviet sources do not give a precise figure but indicate that the number was substantial - were sent from the Russian SFSR to Ukraine. Seventy-five hundred of those sent to the Ukrainian countryside were recruited locally, but since over 75 percent of them had been workers for over 12 years, this would indicate that few of them were Ukrainians. Mass Ukrainian migration to the cities and factories was too recent a phenomenon, and most urban Ukrainians were undoubtedly still too close to their village origins to take part in a campaign to force the villagers to give up their private farms. This of necessity introduced an ethnic factor into the collectivization campaign in Ukraine. Meanwhile, official statements asserted that collectivization in Ukraine had a special task, namely, as the newspaper Proletarska Pravda put it on January 22, 1930, "to destroy the social basis of Ukrainian nationalism - individual peasant agriculture."

Ukraine was designated as a priority area for collectivization, and the policy was carried out more rapidly there than in Russia, as the following figures show:

Percentage of farms collectivized




 December 1929



 March 1930






The trend continued. By 1935, 91.3 percent of all peasant farms in Ukraine were collectivized, while the 90 percent mark was not reached in Russia until late in 1937.

Ukrainian peasants (like their Cossack counterparts) resisted collectivization with particular determination. Soviet Ukrainian historians record that the number of "registered kulak terrorist acts" (and any anti-Soviet act was by definition "kulak") grew fourfold from 1927 to 1929, with 1,262 such acts recorded for the latter year. In the first half of 1930, the number rose to over 1,500. Later figures are unavailable, perhaps because the authorities could no longer keep count. The memoir literature is filled with accounts of killings of those enforcing collectivization. Instances where the women would forbid their men to fight and take it upon themselves to drive the local Soviet administration from the village became proverbial as "babas' revolts."

Collectivization provoked a crisis within the Communist Party of Ukraine and a rapid turnover of personnel. Newspapers carried daily denunciations of "opportunists" who failed to fulfill their tasks. Village communist organizations lost almost half their membership as a result of the 1929-30 purge, declining from an already weak 40,000 party members in January 1929 to 21,000 members a year later. Between January 1930 and July 1932, 80 percent of raion party secretaries were removed. Since the vast majority to those purged were excluded because of opposition to or inadequate results in carrying out collectivization, it is logical to assume that the new raykom secretaries were chosen for their devotion to collectivization rather than for their loyalty to the Ukrainization policy and the Skrypnyk leadership. In short, collectivization not only undermined the political basis for Skrypnyk's policy; it also undermined his personal political base.

Dr. Mace is a post-doctoral fellow at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and an expert on the Great Famine.





Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, June 24, 1984, No. 26, Vol. LII

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