Debating the undebatable? Ukraine Famine of 1932-1933

by Dr. David Marples

This summer marks the 70th anniversary of the beginning of one of the most tragic events of the 20th century, the Ukraine Famine of 1932-1933, in which an estimated 4 to 6 million inhabitants of Ukraine lost their lives. From Kyiv to Edmonton, there are memorials to the victims of the Great Famine. In academic circles, however, and particularly on the Internet, a new debate over the origins of the Famine is in full swing.

It is only fair to add that there is a clearly discernible ethnic element to the Famine debate in that scholars of Ukrainian background have accused several American scholars of being Russocentric, while the retort has generally been that èmigrè sources, particularly those written long after the event, are unreliable.

Information about the Famine was a state secret in the USSR until the end of 1987. In the West, historians took up the 50th anniversary to launch several studies, the most notable of which was Dr. Robert Conquest's book, "Harvest of Sorrow," a Canadian edition of which was published by the University of Alberta Press.

By the end of the Soviet period, a conference of Western and Ukrainian scholars concluded that the Great Famine had been an act of genocide, a deliberate policy of Stalin to starve Ukrainians, the most troublesome group in the Soviet Union.

In Washington, the U.S. Commission on the Ukraine Famine, led by historian Dr. James E. Mace, which conducted hundreds of interviews with Famine victims, came to the same conclusion. Yet this viewpoint has never been fully accepted by the scholarly community. There is no consensus today on the causes of the tragedy.

For some scholars, discussing the factors behind the Famine is as nauseating as questioning the Holocaust of Jews during world war II. Dr. Bohdan Krawchenko, a former University of Alberta professor who heads the Academy of Public Administration that functions under the aegis of the president of Ukraine, described the debate as "immoral and absurd." Dr. Mace has dismissed the main arguments against the genocide theory as "garbage" and founded on "baseless statistical circumlocutions."

Though several scholars have entered the debate, the most prolific one has been Mark B. Tauger, an associate professor of history at the University of West Virginia. Dr. Tauger has worked in Ukrainian archives for a number of years and has published several major articles. He has also written an article on the Ukrainian Famine of 1928-1929, an event that he claims is virtually unknown in the West.

Prof. Tauger's main argument runs as follows. The Famine reportedly arose because of harsh grain requisitions in Ukraine, despite the fact that the 1932 harvest was relatively good, at around 68.9 million tons of grain. However, Prof. Tauger states, the figures are misleading because they are based on estimated rather than actual yields. He has collected figures from individual collective farms that reveal the actual harvest to have been much lower, perhaps as low as 45 million tons.

According to Prof. Tauger, the grain shortage was widespread in the USSR, and the Stalin regime launched a "massive program of rationing and relief." Thus, in his view, there was nothing unique about the situation in Ukraine, as the country faced an insuperable problem of grain shortages that led directly to a famine situation.

There are some serious questions to be raised against the Tauger thesis. He acknowledges that he bases his statistics on data from 40 percent of collective farms in Ukraine. He does not say where these 40 percent were located, or show that they were representative. It seems likely also that collective farms, facing prohibitive grain quotas from the state, would be prone to underestimate the actual size of their harvests, hoping for a reduction of procurements. So why should one trust these figures more than the official ones issued by the state?

Most important, Dr. Tauger and other scholars fail to distinguish between shortages, droughts and outright famine. There is no such thing as a "natural" famine, no matter the size of the harvest. A famine requires some form of state or human input. There is no doubt residents of Russia went hungry in 1932 as they did during most of that decade. But they did not die in millions. Thus, it appears that the "massive program of rationing and relief" was selective.

There may still be viable debates about the precise causes of the Great Famine. That it occurred primarily in Ukraine, however, is undeniable, and to argue otherwise shows an appalling lack of sensitivity to its victims seven decades ago.

Dr. David Marples is a professor of history and director of the Stasiuk Program on Contemporary Ukraine, Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta. A version of this article was published by the Edmonton Journal on June 28.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, July 14, 2002, No. 28, Vol. LXX

| Home Page |