In consequence of its extent, duration and intensity, the famine of 1932-34 appears to have been one of the worst the world has ever known. Deaths from the famine ran into millions. And to the mortality can be added numerous stories of unbelievable suffering and even cannibalism.
A. Estimates of mortality
It must be admitted at the outset that it is difficult to make a precise estimate of the number of deaths from the famine. 1 The Soviet government not only has refused official recognition of its existence, but has not published any figures that might be used to calculate mortality. It did not, for example, publish crude birth or death rates during the famine period. 2 In fact, the only known statement on this subject by a named Russian official was the admission of Petrovsky, president of the Ukrainian Soviet Republic, that they knew millions were dying.” 3
Despite general official silence, some 20 Americans and Europeans who were in Russia during this period, or who had contact with émigrés, have offered their own estimates of the mortality. These range from 1 to 10 million and average 5.5 million (see Table 1).
|Estimate made or reported by||Estimated number of deaths|
|9.||Archbishop of Canterbury*||5,000,000+/-|
| * Includes early 1934.|
** Statement of ‘high Ukrainian Soviet official’; for Ukraine only.
+/- Indicates that the figure given is an average of a range.
With two exceptions, however, their figures refer to what we have labelled the 1933 period. While this was the most severe portion of the famine, there was unquestionably a significant number of deaths in 1934, and some in 1932. On this basis, then, the figures reported might be considered conservative for the full period.
In addition to these estimates, a number of other observers reported that the famine of 1933 alone was as bad or worse than the Russian famine in 1921 – which seems to be generally conceded as resulting in the death of about 5 million people. 4
On the other hand, the work of two demographers would suggest that the above figures may be on the high side. Using an indirect process (due to the previously cited lack of vital statistics), Lorimer found a discrepancy of 5.5 million in the Soviet population from 1927 to 1939 – a discrepancy which may have been due to “excess mortality.” 5 How much of this may have been due to the famine, however, was “undetermined.” 6 Eason’s study of this period leads him to conclude that it would be difficult to show how the figure could have gone over 5 or 6 million. He notes that “…the evidence seems to be for a somewhat lower figure if anything.” 7
But whatever the exact total – and we shall probably never know for certain – it is clear that the mortality from the famine ran well into the millions. If, on balance, a figure of 5 million is tentatively accepted, it may be seen that the number of deaths was over three times as high as during the well-known Irish potato famine of the late 1840s. 8 And of the few famines for which mortality is listed in the Encyclopedia Britannica, only one – the Chinese famine of 1877-78 – is given a higher total. 9
Thus, though precise estimates are lacking, it appears that the Soviet famine of 1932-34 has the dubious distinction of ranking among the great famines of all time.
B. Descriptions of the famine
But mere numbers – appalling as they may be – cannot begin to divulge the full impact of the famine. To do this we must turn to eyewitness accounts.
While the dying and the dead were to be found, at first, on the streets of the main cities, it was, as previously suggested, in the villages that the famine was at its worst. Fedor Belov was a resident of such a village. He writes:
“The famine of 1932-33 was the most terrible and destructive that the Ukrainian people have ever experienced. The peasants ate dogs, horses, rotten potatoes, the bark of trees, grass – anything they could find. Incidents of cannibalism were not uncommon. The people were like wild beasts, ready to devour one another. And no matter what they did, they went on dying, dying, dying. They died singly and in families. They died everywhere – in yards, on streetcars and on trains. There was no one to bury these victims of the Stalinist famine. A man is capable of forgetting a great deal, but these terrible scenes of starvation will be forgotten by no one who saw them.” 10
An agronomist in another village similarly reported:
“The people daily died in dozens. The bodies of the dead lay in all the villages, along the roads and in the fields. Special brigades were formed in the villages to bury the dead, but they were too weak to collect all the corpses and these were devoured by those dogs which had escaped being eaten and had gone savage. The gravedigger of today might be a corpse tomorrow.” 11
Still another collective farm member told Victor Kravchenko, then a village Communist Party representative: “…I saw blood and death when I was in the army but nothing as terrible as what’s been going on right here in my village.” 12
One might wish to classify these accounts as exaggerated, isolated events. Unfortunately, however, such does not seem to be in the case. Similar, equally gruesome tales are provided by several Americans who visited the afflicted areas – including Mr. and Mrs. Stebalo, Fred Beal, Harry Lang, and later, Thomas Walker. 13 Walker included an extensive and chilling array of pictures – as did Ammende in his book. 14 Less explicit, but no less disturbing accounts are to be found in many of the other references noted in the course of this paper.
A particularly ghastly phase of the famine, noted by many, was cannibalism. Perhaps the first public notice of this was made in June 1933 when a woman doctor in Ukraine wrote: “Our situation is such: I have not yet become a cannibal, but I am not sure that I shall not be one by the time my letter reaches you.” 15 Other references to cannibalism appeared several months later. 16
Whiting Williams reported that in Ukraine “…cannibalism has become commonplace.” 17 Harry Lang recorded that:
“In the office of a Soviet functionary I saw a poster on the wall which struck my attention. It showed the picture of a mother in distress, with a swollen child at her feet, and over the picture was the inscription: EATING OF DEAD CHILDREN IS BARBARISM. The Soviet official explained to me: “…We distributed such posters in hundreds of villages, especially in the Ukraine. We had to.” 18
In some instances, parents would not wait until their children died, but would kill them. The same would be true of other relatives. 19 There is, of course, no record of how many cases of this sort there were, but it is revealing that among the prisoners of Solovky in 1936, “…there were 325 persons guilty of cannibalism…” 20
- In speaking of deaths from the famine, it is necessary to include more than those who died from outright hunger. “The majority died of slight colds which they could not withstand in their weakened condition; of typhus, the familiar accompaniment of famine; of ‘exhaustion,’ to use the familiar euphemistic word in the death reports” (Chamberlin, op. cit. 1934, p. 87). ↩
- Letter from Warren Eason, Department of Economics, Princeton University, March 27, 1963; Kulischer suggests that the publication of these data ceased before the famine (op. cit., p. 96). ↩
- Fred E. Beal, “Word From Nowhere,” R. Hale, London, 1937, pp. 254-255 (published in the U.S. under the title of “Proletarian Journey”). ↩
- In chronological order: Jones, op. cit. (March 30 and May 13); Dni (Paris: Cited in “Conflicting Stories of Soviet Famine.” The Literary Digest, April 15, 1933, p. 11); Sabline, loc. cit.; Svoboda (Riga) (Cited by Walter Duranty in “Russian Émigrés Push Fight on Reds,” The New York Times, August 12, 1933, p. 2); “Citizen,” loc. cit.; and Bertillon, loc. cit., (August 30). ↩
- Lorimer, op. cit., p. 133. In this vein, Kulischer suggests that mortality during the whole collectivization period was “At least 5 million” (op. cit., pp. 97-98), while Timasheff places the figure at 8 million (Nicholas S. Timasheff, “The Great Retreat,” Dutton, New York, 1946, p. 290). ↩
- Ibid., pp. 121, 133. In one place, he “arbitrarily” assigns one-third of this to 1932 (though it seems clear from his comments on p. 121 he meant 1933), which would suggest a figure of 1.83 million for that one year (p. 134). ↩
- Eason, loc. cit. ↩
- Cecil Woodham-Smith: “Ireland’s Hunger, England’s Fault.” The Atlantic, January 1963, p. 93; or “The Great Hunger,” Harper & Row, New York, 1962, p. 411. ↩
- Reginald Passmore, “Famine,” Encyclopedia Britannica, Chicago, 1962, Vol. 9, p. 63. ↩
- Belov, op. cit., pp. 12-13. ↩
- Manning, op. cit., pp. 98-99. ↩
- Kravchenko, op. cit., p. 118. ↩
- “Visitors Describe…,” loc. cit., and Bertillon, loc. cit. (August 29); Beal, op. cit., pp. 251-253; Lang, loc. cit.; Walker, loc. cit. ↩
- Ammende, op. cit.; see pictures following pp. 64, 96, 128, 160, 192. ↩
- Sabline, loc. sit. ↩
- “Cardinal Asks…,” loc. cit.; Birchall, loc. cit.; “Visitors Describe…,” loc. cit.; Bertillon, loc. cit. ↩
- Williams, loc. cit. (February 24). ↩
- Lang, op. cit. (April 15), p. 2. ↩
- See, for example, Solevei, op. cit., pp. 30-32. 35. ↩
- 92. Manning, op. cit., p. 98. ↩