April 24, 1983

1932-34 Great Famine: some further references



What were the longer-run reasons for the famine?

Why did the Soviet leaders place such appalling emphasis on extracting food from the peasants, and at the same time prohibit foreign famine aid? Surely even the Bolsheviks had even a small measure of compassion – or at least had to work through those who did. The reasons for this unbelievably cruel behavior center about the desire to procure food, the need for control over agriculture, and the existence of rural overpopulation.

A. Desire to procure food

We have suggested that the main immediate cause of the famine was the severe procurement policy followed by the government in the countryside. Why did the government place so much emphasis on this? The answer seems to be that it wanted to secure food in order to (1) obtain foreign exchange, (2) provide for a military war chest, and (3) feed urban workers. We shall examine these factors individually.

1. Foreign exchange

In order to make the USSR a bastion of socialism, Stalin recognized that it was necessary to build industry. To do this in a backward country like the Soviet Union it was necessary to import machinery. But to obtain this machinery it was necessary to obtain foreign exchange. Characteristically, the export of agricultural products had earned a significant proportion of this exchange. Therefore, to continue industrialization at an accelerated pace, Stalin apparently thought it vital to continue the export of food – no matter what the conditions in the countryside. 1

It is, therefore, of interest to turn to an examination of Soviet export and import figures for the calendar years 1932 and 1933. Unfortunately, the data are not available on a crop year basis – for this would more nearly coincide with the famine periods. But if it is considered that most of the food exported from the 1932 crop helped lead to the famine period during the first two-thirds of 1933, the figures become more meaningful (the same, of course, would be true for the 1933-34 periods).

According to official Soviet statistics, exports of food accounted for 24.3 percent and 20 percent of the value of all Soviet exports in 1932 and 1933, respectively. Grain was the largest food item, representing 9 percent and 8.1 percent of total exports. 2 Imports of food, on the other hand, accounted for 10 percent and 8.2 percent of the value of all imports in 1932 and 1933. Tea, which has no nutritive value, was one of the largest single items, representing 1 percent and 1.7 percent of total imports. 3

On balance, there was a net export of foods in the two years. In 1932, food exports were worth twice as much as imports; in 1933, they were worth three and a half times as much. The net value of these exports was 242.5 million rubles in 1932, and 246.2 million rubles in 1933 (or about $60.6 million in 1932 and $61.5 million in 1933). 4

In terms of weight, net grain exports totalled 1.70 million tons in 1932, and 1.84 million tons in 1933. 5  In turn, gross grain exports represented about 4.9 percent and 4.2 percent of production in 1932 and 1933. 6

These figures suggest that the exports of food, while significant, were not so large that their diminution would have seriously crippled the Soviet export program. And had at least some of the nearly 1.9 million tons of grain been retained in the famine area, many lives would have undoubtedly been saved.

Why this was not done is a matter of speculation. It may have been that the Soviets were hurt by faulty investments of capital in their own country 7 and by declining terms of trade for their produce on the depressed world market, 8 and consequently determined to push export to the maximum level. Whether this was, in the long run, a wise move economically is unclear. 9

It was, of course, well known in the USSR that food was being exported. Belov recounts that the peasants were told that “…the industrialization of the country, then in full swing, demanded grain and sacrifices from them.” 10 On Kravchenko’s farm – where about half the population had died from hunger during the previous year – butter had steadily been made for export. The manager of the collective farm store commented: “You see, starvation is one thing and foreign exchange is another.” 11

Paradoxically, most of these goods were shipped out through Black Sea ports – in the immediate vicinity of some of the worst starvation. 12 This loss of food also aggravated the severe shortages in the cities. “As conditions became steadily worse, the knowledge that their government was exporting food became perhaps the deepest of the silent grievances of the Soviet people.” 13

2. War chest

A not inconsiderable proportion of the food procured by the government was placed in reserve in a military “war chest.” The military threat of that period was offered by the Japanese – the tension reaching a peak in the spring of 1932 with the occupation of the northern part of Manchuria. The Soviets reacted by concentrating troops on the border, and later in the year tensions eased. 14

For this and other strategic reasons, a particularly heavy requisition of grain was levied in March 1932. 15 Some of this grain, as well as that from other levies, was quietly used to establish reserve food supplies throughout the country. 16 Victor Kravchenko came across what appears to have been such a cache at a local railroad station in the autumn of 1933. It had remained untouched even though half of the population on his farm had died of famine the previous winter. He noted that such reserves were later noted in many other parts of the country. 17 While these stocks were tapped on at least one occasion, 18 this was apparently not done for the rural areas.

It seems that the government placed these stocks elsewhere during the winter of 1933-34 because they felt that they “…could not possibly expect any cooperation from the peasants in the event of war with a foreign power.” 19

3. Industrial labor force

Though the industrial workers did not die from starvation, their rations were not abundant. If the foreign correspondents did not acknowledge famine in the rural areas, there was an admission of a general and severe food shortage. 20 Eugene Lyons records that:

“…the search for food, the struggle for sheer physical subsistence monopolized men’s minds and drained their energies. Men changed their trades, their creeds, their friends in the hope of a little more sunflower seed oil or tea or bread. A full meal became life’s central preoccupation for the mass of the population.” 21

Presumably those who worked in factories were better off than the rest of the population because they were fed at the plant. 22 If, however, conditions at many plants were like those at the showplace tractor works in Kharkiv, there was a very limited ration. Fred Beal, who was what we might now call the public relations director and contact man for the foreign workers at the plant, records that even “The large colony of privileged foreign workers…subsisted on a starvation diet.” 23 But even more than this, they “…were in despair at having to work along starving, stupefied and dazed Russian workers.” 24 He also indicates that:

“In the spring of 1933 the Stalin government feared that a general peasant revolt might break out at any time. The collective farming system was a shambles and the ruling dictatorship was afraid that the factory workers would be left completely without food. Orders were issued to every industrial plant in the Soviet Union for all workers to put in so much of their time in planting their own gardens and raising their own products.” 25

The poor food conditions also led to a turnover problem as workers fled from plant to plant in order to secure enough food. 26

It appears, then, that the industrial workers were probably fed little more than was necessary to keep them alive. 27 It is hard to see how the minimal amount of food directed to this use could be uniquely blamed for famine in the country. If it were just a matter of feeding the industrial forces, the food supply probably would have been sufficient. And surely food for the cities could have been obtained in a more humane manner.

On balance, this writer would suggest that it was not the provision of food for the industrial forces in the cities which made famine acute in the country. Rather, the reasons seem to center around the export of food for foreign exchange and, to a lesser extent, the stockpiling of military war chests. The procurement of food, however, was not the only factor behind the famine.

B. Control over agriculture

In order to obtain control over agriculture – particularly of food for the purposes noted in the previous section – the Soviets placed great emphasis on state and then collective farms. 28 When these were tied in with machine tractor stations, the leaders had not only an ideologically desirable framework, but a very useful one. 29

The only problem was that the peasants were not interested in joining the socialized farms. Despite very intensive pressure, some still showed little interest in 1932. And many of those who did become collective farm members could hardly be described as being in favor of the system. When this recalcitrance was combined with bungling administration, loss of draught power, and heavy government requisition, it can be understood why the socialized farms did not do well at first. Even so, Stalin was dedicated to their expansion.

The famine, it soon became apparent, provided a method for driving the last of the diehards onto the state or collective farms, or out of existence. If conditions were tough on the socialized farms the Soviets made sure that they were worse on the independent farms. 30 The result was a certain transfer to the socialized sector.

But on independent and socialized farms alike, the government was confronted with a widespread passive resistance. As Lyons put it, there had arisen “…a supine despair manifest in indifference, laziness, neglect.” “None of it,” he continues, “was by design.” Rather, “It was an expression of ultimate hopelessness, a natural catastrophe of the human spirit, a non-cooperation movement that was akin to mass suicide.” Blaming the peasants for the catastrophe would be like, he says, blaming “…draught animals for collapsing under the excessive load.” 31

Stalin, however, did not look at things this way. He considered the peasant’s reaction as deliberate sabotage. 32 Consequently, he was not prepared to lower the grain demands. 33 We have seen the consequences.

His attitude may also have been related to the location of the famine – which was found in areas which had proved troublesome before. These included the fiercely independent Ukraine, the North Caucasus (home of the Don Cossacks) and Kazakhstan. Not only were the residents of these areas a thorn in the Soviet’s side, but they were a relatively unskilled group of which Russia already had great numbers. 34 Hence, why lower procurements when the famine would take care of these annoyances? 35

Or at least so it has been charged. Chamberlin alleges: “The government had in reserve and was prepared to employ the last and sharpest weapon in the armory of class warfare: organized famine.” 36 Ammende felt that the Soviet government exploited the famine in order to systematically destroy certain categories of people. 37

It appears, then, that famine was effectively utilized as a means of breaking the resistance of the peasants to the new system. 38 The result was “…the final stabilization of the collective system of agriculture and the breaking of the old mode of life throughout the whole of Ukraine.” 39

C. Rural overpopulation

It was suggested in the previous section that the Soviet leaders may not have been particularly concerned about the loss of life in the rural areas because of the large peasant population.

The fact that agriculture, already weakened, could keep going at all after the loss 5 million or so people, indicates that there may have been a rural overpopulation. That is, there may have been a greater population in the rural areas than was necessary to produce the existing output of food. Exact determination of this overpopulation for 1933 would be complicated by the lack of vital statistics, and by the fact that large numbers of urban workers were sent out in the industrial brigades.

Nevertheless, it does appear that there was – at the start of the collectivization period anyway – a rural overpopulation. A study of the Soviet investigations on this subject suggests that the figure was at least 10 percent, and may have been considerably higher. 40 Overpopulation, however, was proportionately great outside the area hit worst by famine. 41 And it appears that rural overpopulation was greater before the collectivization drive started than from the end of 1930 onward (this could have been due in part to the extensive migration of the starving to the cities). 42

Even so, this tendency to overpopulation would explain why the 10 percent or so mortality in many villages 43 could, to some extent, be absorbed.

Whether the leaders had counted on this while the famine raged is not clear, but since the issue of overpopulation had been debated by the economic planners in the late 1920s, 44 there is a possibility that it may have been considered.

The longer-run attitude of the leaders towards the whole famine was perhaps well summarized in the words of Petrovsky: “We know that millions are dying. That is unfortunate, but the glorious future of the Soviet Union will justify that.” 45


  1. Alexander Gerschenkron, “Economic Relations With the USSR,” The Committee on International Economic Policy, New York, 1945, pp. 49-50; Merle Fainsod, op. cit. (1957), pp. 100, 101; Alexander Erlich, “Stalin’s Views on Soviet Economic Development,” in “Continuity and Change in Russian and Soviet Thought” (ed. by E. J. Simmons), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1955, pp. 97, 98.
  2. Calculated from statistics presented in “Vneshniaya torgovlia SSSR za 1918-1940 gg,” Moscow, 1960, pp. 121, 144-149.
  3. Ibid., pp. 334, 360-363 (tea largely made up the “unprocessed, other” category).
  4. The original data were in 1950 rubles (Ibid., p. 7). They were converted to dollars on the basis of the exchange rate for that year of four rubles to the dollar (Oleg Jerschhowsky and Ferdinand Pirhalla, “Basic Data on the Economy of the USSR,” U.S. Department of Commerce, World Trade Information Service, Part 1, No. 62-52, p. 19).
  5. “Vneshniaya Torgovlia…,” op. cit., p. 144 (converted from metric tons). On a fiscal year basis, Volin reports the following gross figures: 1932-33, 1.5 million tons; 1933-34, 2.1 million tons (Lazar Volin, “A Survey of Soviet Russian Agriculture,” U.S. Department of Agriculture, Monograph 5, 1951, p. 180).
  6. Franklyn D. Holzman, “Foreign Trade,” in “Economic Trends in the Soviet Union” (ed. by Bergson and Kuznets), Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1963, p. 295 (comparable figures for butter were: 47.3 percent and 30 percent; for sugar, 9.2 percent and 3.9 percent).
  7. Ammende, op. cit., p. 42.
  8. Walter Duranty, “Food Shortage Laid to Soviet Peasants,” The New York Times, November 26, 1932, p. 9; Lyons, op. cit., p. 287.
  9. Holzman, op. cit., p. 287.
  10. Belov, op. cit., p. 12.
  11. Kravchenko, op. cit., pp. 121, 129.
  12. Ammende, op. cit., p.46. Further, the biggest export item – wheat – is “…a marvelous food for relief. It can be stored, shipped, and prepared cheaply.” (Pearson and Paarlberg, op. cit., p. 34).
  13. Lyons, op. cit., p. 180.
  14. Max Beloff, “The Foreign Policy of Soviet Russia, 1929-1941,” Oxford University Press, London, 1947, Vol. 1 pp. 77-85; George Vernadsky, “A History of Russia,” Yale University Press, New Haven, 1961, p. 370.
  15. Duranty op. cit. (1944), pp. 190-192. Duranty seems to have the idea that this single requisition was directly responsible for what famine there was. This is unlikely, for as we have seen, most of the famine deaths came more than a year later.
  16. Duranty, loc. cit. (November 26); Williams, op. cit. (March 3), pp. 3,4; Duggan, op. cit., pp. 696, 704; Dallin, op. cit., p. 164.
  17. Kravchenko, op. cit., p. 129.
  18. Berland, loc. cit.
  19. Walker, op. cit. (February 27), p. 14.
  20. See, for example, the articles by Walter Duranty in The New York Times in 1932; September 29 (p. 6.); October 4 (p. 11); November 13 (II, p. 4), 17 (p. 6)., 25 (p. 1), 26 (p. 9).
  21. Lyons, op. cit., pp. 179, 180 and 241.
  22. See Duranty, op. cit. (November 13, 17, 25).
  23. Beal, op. cit., p. 236.
  24. Ibid., p. 239.
  25. Ibid., p. 262. This remark is in interesting contrast with an earlier statement made by Beal in his official capacity that “In the spring of 1933, the foreigners decided to have a collective farm of their own.” (Fred Beal, “Foreign Workers in a Soviet Tractor Plant,” Moscow, 1933, p. 47).
  26. Kulischer, op. cit., p. 99.
  27. This point is also suggested by Williams, op. cit. (February 24), p. 28.
  28. It is an interesting parallel that large estates provided most of the pre-revolutionary exports of grain as well as the food supply for cities (Fisher, op. cit., pp. 470, 481).
  29. Fainsod, loc. cit.; Erlich, loc. cit.; Roy Laird, “Collective Farming in Russia,” University of Kansas Press, Lawrence, 1958, pp. 56-57.
  30. Ammende, op. cit., pp. 89, 179.
  31. Lyons, op. cit., p. 491.
  32. See his letter to Sholokhov (Khrushchev, op. cit.).
  33. Chamberlin, op. cit. (April 1934), p. 504. The same attitude underlay the “Iron Broom” policy of the period of military communism. The results were about the same (Fisher, op. cit., pp. 487, 499).
  34. Ammende, op. cit., p. 152.
  35. There is a curious parallel here with the action of the Soviet authorities in 1921 when the government not only withheld news of famine conditions in Ukraine, but levied a food tax and continued to ship out grain. Fisher indicated that “One cannot escape the feeling that fear or political expediency, or both, influenced the official policy in these regions.” (Fisher, op. cit., pp. 261-266).
  36. Chamberlin, op. cit. (1934), p. 82.
  37. Ammende, op. cit., p. 90, also see p. 146.
  38. Chamberlin, op. cit. (1934), p. 88. Also see Dallin, op. cit., p. 165, and Herbert S. Dinerstein, “Communism and the Russian Peasant,” The Free Press, Glencoe, 1955. p. 35, footnote.
  39. Manning, op. cit., p. 102.
  40. Nancy Baster, “Agrarian Overpopulation in the USSR, 1921-1940,” Columbia University, Faculty of Political Science, M. S. thesis, May 1949, p. 75.
  41. Ibid., p. 57.
  42. Ibid., p. 69.
  43. Schiller, op. cit., p 79; Chamberlin, op. cit. (April 1935), p. 435.
  44. Baster, op. cit., p. 4.
  45. Beal, op cit., p 255. A similar statement was reported to have been made by another Communist, Sklar (Andrew Smith, “Russia – a Starved Nation,” New York Evening Journal, May 29, 1935, p. 6).
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