April 24, 1983

1932-34 Great Famine: some further references



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.

A. Production

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.


(Average in millions of tons)

 Year Grain Potatoes Sugar Beet Total
 1926-30 75.3 45.1 9.4 129.8
 1931 66.1 44.8 12.0 122.9
 1932 66.4 43.2 6.6 116.2
 1933 70.1 49.3 9.0 128.4
 1934-38 76.9 57.0 16.6 150.5
 * 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, 1 the weather was otherwise normal. 2

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. 3 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. 4

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). 5 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. 6

Residents of other areas indicated that they could have managed with the crop they had. 7

B. Procurements

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. 8 The extent of these government procurements for grain can be judged from Table 3.


(Average in millions of tons)

 Crop Year Production Procurements Residual
 1927-28 to 1930-31 75.1 15.0 60.1
 1931-32 66.1* 22.8 43.3
 1932-33 66.4 18.8 47.6
 1933-34 70.1 23.3 46.8
 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.” 9 A particularly heavy assessment was made in March 1932. 10 And from the government’s point of view this policy worked: grain procurements for the year reached record levels despite a smaller crop. 11

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.” 12

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. 13 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.” 14 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.” 15

In this process, “…the last reserves of grain, which had been buried in the ground by the desperate peasants, were dug up and confiscated.” 16 Mikhail Sholokhov, the prominent novelist, complained to Stalin about the situation – but in vain. 17

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. 18

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. 19 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.” 20 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 21 and those who would try to steal grain faced the threat of severe prison sentences. 22 According to one American traveler, “Red Army detachments were omnipresent, and even in the country, airplanes were constantly flying over the fields.” 23 The army also provided harvest “help.” 24

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. 25

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.” 26 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. 27 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. 28 One such representative was Victor Kravchenko, who described his experiences in a chapter in his autobiography under the title “Harvest in Hell.” 29

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.” 30

The Soviet government, characteristically, glossed over these problems. It claimed, instead, a record harvest. 31 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. 32

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. 33 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. 34 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. 35

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. 36 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. 37 Concurrently, an English branch of H. H. Elizabeth Skoropadsky’s Ukrainian Relief Fund came into being, 38 along with a Russian Assistance Fund. 39

None of these groups, as far as could be determined were ever allowed by the Soviet government to carry out any sizable aid program. 40 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. 41 And then there was the possibility that neither food nor money would arrive. 42

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. 43 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. 44 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. 45

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.” 46

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.” 47

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.” 48 In March, Muggeridge indicated that “The famine is an organized one.” 49 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.” 50 Others echoed the charge. 51

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” 52 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.” 53

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.” 54


  1. Chamberlin, op. cit. (1934), p. 85; Manning, op. cit., p. 95; Stephen P. Duggan, “Russia After Eight Years,” Harper’s Magazine, November 1934, p. 696.
  2. Jasny, op. cit., p. 551.
  3. Ammende, op. cit., p. 48; Alan Monkhouse, Moscow, 1911-1933; Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 1934, p. 209.
  4. Barnes, loc. cit. (January 15); Chamberlin, loc. cit. (1934); Ammende, op. cit., p. 72; Muggeridge, op. cit. (May 1933), pp. 558, 561.
  5. See Dana G. Dalrymple, “The American Tractor Comes to Soviet Russia: The Transfer of a Technology,” Technology and Culture, spring 1964.
  6. Nicholas Prychodko, “Ukraine and Russia,” Ukrainian National Committee, Winnipeg, 1953, p. 13; or “The Famine in 1932-33 in Ukraine,” The Ukrainian Quarterly, summer 1953, p. 213.
  7. Chamberlin, loc. cit. (1934); “Visitors Describe…,” loc. cit.; Schiller, op. cit., p. 78.
  8. Manning, op. cit., pp. 103-104
  9. Barnes, loc. cit. (January 15).
  10. Duranty, op. cit. (1944), pp. 190-192.
  11. Jasny, op. cit., p. 794.
  12. Belov, op. cit., p. 12.
  13. The number of party workers continued to grow through the spring and summer until they totalled about 10,000 for Ukraine and 17,000 for the USSR (Postyshev, op. cit., p. 12, 13; Bolshaya Sovietskaya Entsikolpediya, loc. cit.)
  14. Manning, op. cit., pp. 96, 97. For Postyshev’s side of the story, see “The Results of the Agricultural Year 1933 and the Immediate Tasks of the Communist Party of the Ukraine,” Soviet Union Today, Moscow, 1934, pp. 3-33.
  15. Muggeridge, op. cit. (May 1933), p. 564.
  16. Chamberlin, op. cit. (1934), p. 85. Also see Schiller, op. cit., p. 78.
  17. See his letter of April 16, 1933, and Stalin’s reply, as quoted by N. S. Khrushchev in Pravda, March 10, 1963, p. 2 (Current Digest of the Soviet Press, April 3, 1963, p. 12).
  18. “Soviet Harvest…,” loc. cit.
  19. “Preparations for the Harvest of Grains,” Izvestiya, June 14, 1933 (noted in “Russian Economic Notes,” U.S. Dept. of Commerce, No. 243, July 28, 1933, p. 4).
  20. “Obligatory Delivery of Grain to the Government,” Economic Life, June 21, 1933 (“Russian Economic Notes,” No. 245, August 11, 1933, p. 1).
  21. “Preparations for…,” loc. cit.; “Semi-Starvation in…,” loc. cit.
  22. Under a law issued in August 1932, the stealing of so much as an ear of grain “…could be punished by confinement for 10 years in a concentration camp.” (Manning, op. cit., pp. 95, 96). Also see “Visitors Describe…,” loc. cit.
  23. Birchall, loc. cit.
  24. Walter Duranty, “Famine Tolls Heavy in Southern Russia,” The New York Times, August 24, 1933, p. 1.
  25. “Soviet Grain War: Trials of State Farm Officials,” The Times (London), July 14, 1933, p. 13. Also see Belov, op. cit., pp. 13-14; Chamberlin, op. cit. (1934), pp. 85-86; and Fainsod, op. cit. (1957), p. 364.
  26. Postyshev, op. cit., pp. 12, 13. For further details on Postyshev’s activities during this and subsequent periods see Hryhory Kostiuk, “Stalinist Rule in the Ukraine,” Praeger, New York, 1960, p. 27-122.
  27. Williams, loc. cit. (December 1933).
  28. Belov, op. cit., p. 13.
  29. Kravchenko, op. cit., Chapter IX, pp. 110-131. Also see Whiting Williams, “Why Russia is Hungry,” Answers (London), March 3, 1934, p. 3.
  30. “Soviet Harvest…,” loc. cit.
  31. Ibid.; “Obstacles in the Road to Peasant Prosperity,” Economic Life, September 9, 1933 (“Russian Economic Notes,” No. 256, October 27, 1933, p. 2-3); “Moscow Doubles…,” loc. cit.
  32. Walker, op. cit. (February 18), p. 1.
  33. Computed from Jasny, op. cit., p. 794.
  34. For detail on American assistance during the famine of 1891-92, see: Francis B. Reeves, “Russia Then and Now, 1892-1917, My Mission to Russia During the Famine of 1891-1892,” G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1917, 186 pp.; William C. Edgar, “The Russian Famine of 1981 and 1892,” Miller and Manufacturers Insurance Co., Minneapolis, 1893, 74 pp.
  35. Perhaps the best over-all view of this work is provided by H.H. Fisher in “The Famine in Soviet Russia, 1919-1923,” Macmillan, New York, 1927, 609 pp. Also see: F.A. Golder and Lincoln Hutchinson, “On the Trail of the Russian Famine,” Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1927, 319 pp.; Michael Asquith, “Famine” (Quaker Work in Russia, 1921-23), Oxford University Press, New York, 1943, 70 pp.; Peter C. Hiebert and Oric O. Miller, “Feeding the Hungry: Russia Famine, 1919-1921,” Mennonite Central Committee, Scottdale (Pa.), 1929, 465 pp.
  36. “Famine in Ukraine,” United Ukrainian Organizations of the United States, New York, 1934, pp. 11, 12. Dr. Ammende was secretary of the congress, while Cardinal Innitizer called the Vienna conference. (The latter was noted in “The Food Scarcity in Russia,” The Times (London), September 18, 1933, p. 11)
  37. “Wide Starvation…,” loc. cit.; Ewald Ammende, “Famine in Russia” (letter), The Times (London), September 18, 1934, p. 13.
  38. Florence May Mackenzie, “Starvation in the Ukraine,” The Times (London), August 18, 1934, p. 6.; “Appeal for…,” loc. cit.
  39. “Appeal for…,” loc. cit.
  40. The problems of rendering assistance are discussed in detail by Ammende, op. cit., in chapter VIII, pp. 281-311.
  41. The Targsin plan seems to have been mainly a device for obtaining foreign exchange. For details of its operation, see Ammende, op. cit., pp. 285-290, and Lyons, op. cit., pp. 447-64.
  42. On visiting their home village in the summer of 1933, Mr. and Mrs. Stebalo found that “… food and money that had been sent to relatives never had been delivered during the past year” (“Visitors Describe…,” loc. cit.).
  43. Chamberlin, op. cit. (April 1934), p. 504; Schiller, op. cit., p. 79.
  44. “Soviet Sells Food Stored in Fear of Conflict; Defers Ridding Big Cities of Undesirables,” The New York Times, March 7, 1933, p. 7. In Kiev, Mikoyan found the situation so bad in early April that he ordered that supplies destined for the army be sold to the public – but only to an area within 12 miles of the city (Berland, loc. cit.).
  45. Schiller, op. cit., p. 79.
  46. Cited by Ammende, op. cit., p. 101.
  47. Ibid., pp. 152-153.
  48. “The Five Year Plan” (editorial), The New York Times, January 1, 1933, Part IV, p. 4.
  49. Muggeridge, op. cit. (March 25), p. 13. Also “Winter in Moscow,” Eyre & Spottiswoode, London, 1934, p. 138.
  50. “Visitors Describe…,” loc. cit. Also see Bertillon, loc. cit.
  51. Chamberlin, op. cit. (1934), p. 88; Jasny, op. cit., p. 551; Walker, op. cit. (February 18, 27); Lang, op. cit. (April 15).
  52. Lang, op. cit. (April 23), p. 2. Even Stalin referred to the struggle as war but indicated that it was the peasants who were waging it against Soviet rule (Khrushchev, op. cit.).
  53. As reported by Kravchenko, op. cit., p. 130.
  54. Chamberlin, loc. cit. (1934).
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