April 24, 1983

1932-34 Great Famine: some further references



Why and how did the Soviets hide the famine?

One of the most peculiar characteristics of the 1932-34 famine was the fact that the Soviet leaders went to such lengths to hide it. This was in contrast with the situation in 1921-23 when they acknowledged the seriousness of the famine, and accepted some $66 million of American relief alone. 1

A. Why?

Why did the Soviets choose to hide the famine of 1932-1934? Was it because they thought they might be under some pressure to cut off exports if they admitted famine and invited relief? Not likely. In the autumn of 1922 “…Moscow authorities announced their intention of exporting food and at the same time asked foreign relief organizations to provide food for 4 million Russians.” 2 The purpose – as 10 years later – was to buy machinery for industrialization. And even then the policy was not new: food had been exported, and relief accepted during the famines of 1911, 1906 and 1891. 3

Were the Soviets afraid of the disruptive influence of foreigners – as they were in 1921, and as was the monarchy before them? 4 Again the answer is probably no. There were a number of Americans already in the country doing technical assistance work, and there were a number of foreign agricultural concessions; all, it would seem, without any particular disruptive influence. 5 More important, the government appears to have been much more in control of the countryside than was the case in 1921.

The reasons for the Soviets’ desire to hide the famine must lie elsewhere. One possibility has already been suggested: the Soviets’ desire to beat the last of the resistance out of the peasants and to complete the drive into the socialized farms. If the government were to acknowledge the famine and accept relief (it could not very well admit the famine and refuse famine aid at the same time) it would mean in effect a concession to the peasants. But since the government was effectively at war with the peasants, this was a compromise that it would not readily make.

Another, and perhaps equally important reason, may center about the matter of keeping face. The Soviets had been trying to spread the story of the economic and social triumph of the first Soviet five-year plan. To admit the presence of a terrible famine at the conclusion of the plan would have hardly been the sort of triumphal conclusion that the leaders might have desired. 6 Stalin, above all, was interested in creating “…in every state and every part of the world, a favorable view of the economic and cultural development of the Soviet Union.” 7

The totalitarian attitude in matters of this sort is perhaps best expressed by Chamberlin:

“When it is a matter of inflicting suffering upon individuals or classes which block the realization of their goals, dictators are hard-boiled to the last degree. But they are as sensitive as the most temperamental artist when the effects of their ruthless policies are criticized, or even when they are stated objectively without comment.” 8

In short, Stalin “…preferred to sacrifice millions of lives rather than Soviet prestige.” 9

But more than prestige may have been involved. The Soviets at about this time were working for (a) diplomatic recognition by the United States, (b) admission into the League of Nations, and (c) “non-aggression” agreements with various European nations. If the story of the famine were made known, Russia’s cause would not have been enhanced – both because the famine was essentially man-made, and because the Russians had done practically nothing to alleviate it.

In the case of U.S. recognition, Ukrainian groups in the United States did their best to focus attention on the famine. A delegation was sent to Roosevelt to ask for an investigation of conditions in Ukraine before granting recognition. 10 Public pronouncements were made and demonstrations held – particularly parades (which were attacked by U.S. Communists). 11

During the same autumn, questioning voices were also raised at the League of Nations – including those of Dr. Movinkel, premier of Norway and president of the Council of the League of Nations, 12 and M. Motta, the representative of Switzerland. 13

While these queries were undoubtedly an annoyance to the USSR, they apparently were not much of an obstacle – for she was, of course, recognized by the United States, let into the League of Nations, and did sign a number of non-aggression agreements. 14 Had the famine been better known, perhaps her course would have been a much tougher one.

B. How did they hide the famine?

If the reasons the Soviets chose to hide the famine are not entirely clear, the methods they used – alluded to earlier – are now quite apparent. And they provide an example of what was probably one of the most comprehensive and successful “news-management” programs in history.

1. Control of the press

The Soviets’ first and most important step was to intensify their control over the representatives of the foreign press in the USSR. This did no prove to be very difficult – for even before the famine the Soviets held the edge. The entire foreign press corps was located in Moscow, and the correspondents could stay only so long as the Russians wished to renew their visas. Moreover, their dispatches were subject to official clearance.

Thus, even though the correspondents had a pretty good idea of what was going on outside Moscow, they were reluctant to report anything that would strongly displease the authorities. “The result is,” Malcolm Muggeridge wrote in 1934, “that news from Russia is a joke.” 15

As the famine progressed, the bitter truth of this became more evident. The first step in the management of famine news came, as has been noted, at the beginning of 1933 when the authorities instigated a program to discourage observation tours by foreign correspondents. Following his report on conditions in the North Caucasus in January, 16 Ralph Barnes was “…advised strongly by the Soviet Bureau not to make a further provincial trip for the time being.” Then in early April when he purchased a ticket for a provincial city in order to visit villages, “…the strong advice was turned into a definite prohibition.” 17

Despite this prohibition, Muggeridge and Jones did, somehow, get into the famine area – Jones on a secret journey. 18 While there was apparently no official reaction to Muggeridge’s articles, steps were taken to counteract Jones’s report. The process was made easier for the Soviets because of the pending trial of British engineers, a subject of worldwide interest. The reporters knew that because of the interests of their papers it was necessary for them to keep on particularly good terms with the censors. Hence, when it was suggested that they refute Jones’s more serious allegations, they complied. Eugene Lyons was one of those. He writes:

“Throwing down Jones was as unpleasant a chore as fell to any of us in years of juggling facts to please dictatorial regimes – but throw him down we did, unanimously and in almost identical formulas of equivocation.” 19

He singles out for particular attention the phrasing used by one of his fellow reporters, Walter Duranty of The New York Times. Duranty had reported: “There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation, but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.” 20 “This amazing sophistry,” Lyons states, “has become among foreign reporters the classic example of journalistic understatement.” He adds that: “It characterizes sufficiently the whole shabby episode of our failure to report honestly the gruesome Russian famine of 1932-33.” 21

Jones may have been surprised at the rebuttal provided by the Moscow correspondents – from whom he had obtained some of his information – but he was equal to the situation. Shortly thereafter he wrote to The New York Times that: “…censorship has turned them into masters of euphemism and understatement.” 22

But one thing the correspondents did report was the new ban on travel into the countryside which was promulgated in August. Following the reports of a German paper, 23 correspondents were told that they had to file a detailed itinerary and an indication of purpose for trips outside Moscow. Permission was denied for trips into famine areas. 24 Even sympathetic writers, such as Maurice Hindus, were denied permission. 25 In addition, “The Stalin dictatorship frowned on any attempts on the part of even foreign Communists to see what was going on in the country.” 26

Still, there were leaks. Whiting Williams somehow got into the area denied to correspondents, 27 as did the Stebalos and others. But theirs were only scattered reports, and in some cases (Williams, for instance) they were not published until some time later.

As the 1933 harvest was gathered, the famine area was opened in easy stages.

“The first to be given permission to travel in the forbidden zones were the technically ‘friendly’ reporters, whose dispatches might be counted upon to take the sting out of anything subsequent travelers might report. Duranty, for instance, was given a two weeks’ advantage over most of us.” 28

The Soviets’ faith in Duranty turned out to be well placed. In his articles he indicates that he “now” found conditions good in the famine areas – and admitted only that conditions had been “hard” the previous winter. 29 Yet, Lyons reports that he and several others met with Duranty on his return, at which time:

“He gave us his fresh impressions in brutally frank terms and they added up to a picture of ghastly horror. His estimate of the dead from the famine was the most starling I had as yet heard from anyone.” 30

Lest such disclosures leak out, it appears that the authorities later clamped down on travel to the point that all trips were under “…the complete control of the ‘Intourist’ organization and other Soviet authorities.” 31 Walker later notes that he broke away from such a group to make his own tour. 32

2. Concealing the symptoms

Because it was not possible to keep everyone out of the southern USSR, rather elaborate steps were taken to conceal the famine. This, first of all, meant getting the starving out of the cities and away from the factories and the railroads.

During the first part of the famine, as we have indicated, great numbers of peasants flocked to the cities in hope of finding food. They arrived in severely weakened condition, and died in great numbers. The presence of these dead and dying individuals was a severe embarrassment to the regime. Hence, they attempted to exile these people outside the urban zone – 60 miles away – or to turn them back to their own villages, to die in obscurity. 33 Others were shipped to Siberia. 34 These steps were aided by the introduction of a passport system which essentially meant that the peasants were not permitted to leave their home area. 35

About the same time, a former resident reports, the government, through the NKVD, gave strict orders “…not to allow any bodies to be lying around the rail line and that no one on the passing trains was to be allowed to see any such sight.” 36

There was also a clean-up around some of the showplace factories in the famine areas. The Kharkiv tractor factory is a case in point. The process is described by Beal:

“The Soviet authorities … would round up the starving people in the streets, collect them in great herds, and turn them over to the GPU. It was a weekly occurrence. Sometimes a raid would be improvised a few hours before the arrival of a foreign delegation.” 37

The visiting delegations were, of course, carefully steered around any other vestiges of famine. It is to be noted, for instance, that when they actually visited farming areas, they visited only a few selected farms – and never individual peasants. Hence it was that foreign guests were treated somewhat like Mr. Herriot, who “…saw only what his hosts intended him to see, and remained completely ignorant of what was going on a few miles away.” 38

It is small wonder, then, that such an otherwise well-informed student of Russia as Sir John Maynard could report after a tour through Ukraine and the North Caucasus that he “…did not witness those phenomena, including crowds of beggars and emaciated children at the river ports and railway stations, which are normally associated with serious famine” – and on this basis conclude that “…the scarcity of that time was in no way comparable to the great famines…” 39

There were other groups in the countryside, however, who could not be so misled. These were the foreign specialists who were working for foreign firms. One source of famine information, for instance, was the Drusag Agricultural Concession in the North Caucasus. It was subsequently closed in late August. 40 And during this period, Ammende suggests, the Soviets began to refuse to renew the contracts of foreign specialists who saw too much. 41

A more important method, though, was the refusal to give permission to Soviet citizens who wished to leave the country. And as today, those who did get out were reminded of the relatives that they had left behind. 42

For those who might have tried to find some trace of the famine in the national statistics, other measures were taken. First, the crop reporting system, as we have noted, was changed to a biological yield basis – which made it difficult to make comparisons with previous years (if one realized that a change had been made). 43 Secondly, the government ceased issuing vital statistics for the area during the period. 44 This meant, as we have noted, that one could not assess the famine by studying death rates. And even if these figures had been released, there is some question as to how meaningful any breakdown might have been, for physicians were reportedly prohibited from ascribing death to famine. 45

Though the whole picture of the Soviets “news management” is now clear, it was not then. The result was that the story of the famine was effectively killed. What news did leak out reached the public too late to do any good. As Eugene Lyons put it:

“The most rigorous censorship in all of Soviet Russia’s history had been successful – it had concealed the catastrophe until it was ended, thereby bringing confusion, doubt, contradiction into the whole subject.” 46

Not only were the Soviets successful in covering the story at the time, but they did such a good job that:

“Years after the event – when no Russian Communist in his senses any longer concealed the magnitude of the famine – the question whether there had been a famine at all was still being disputed in the outside world.” 47

There seems little doubt, then, that the Soviet throttling of famine news was one of the most effective programs of its sort in history.


This is about as far as we can go with the available evidence. The reason for the lack of Soviet references is obvious enough. But Soviet sources are likely to appear, for the government is becoming more liberal in its treatment of the past. To quote the Soviet poet and editor Alexander Tvardovsky:

“…whatever the past was like, we in the present must not be indifferent to it. Only by going into its consequences fully, courageously and truthfully can we guarantee a complete and irrevocable break with all things that cast a shadow over the past.” 48

A month after this statement appeared, the Russians published a short novel which for perhaps the first time contained direct references to the famine. Titled “Liudi ne angely” (People Are Not Angels), it was written by Ivan Stadnyuk and appeared in the December 1962 issue of Neva (pp. 3-114). 49

Primarily concerned with Ukrainian village life during the collectivization period, the novel (particularly section 20, pp. 57-60) is relatively courageous in that it makes no secret of the famine. In fact, its impact on family life is portrayed vividly and frankly. At one point, for instance, Stadnyuk writes that:

“Nothing is more horrible for a man, the head of a family, than to feel his complete helplessness at seeing the sorrowful and imploring look of his wife who doesn’t know what to find to feed her children…If it were only for a week, a month. But it was during many month, that most families of Kokhanovka had nothing to put on the table. All corn bins were cleaned out, all cellars emptied, no chicken was left in the back yard. Even beet seeds were all eaten…The first who died of hunger were men. Then children. Then women. But before the people died they frequently went insane and stopped being human beings” (p. 58).

The novel treats only certain rather localized aspects of the famine. Yet it is made quite clear that the heavy procurements were a major cause. There is also an implicit but unmistakable reference to central policy as a whole:

“Your ruler saw a ray of the sun and imagined the sun to live in his own soul. An imaginary sun gives imaginary warmth. The ruler’s soul is warmed with the delusion of infallibility, nourished by the sycophancy of some and the silence of others in fear of death. Incapable of encompassing all the complexity of the people, not knowing the way, unyielding as death, he sows grief in the land” (p. 77).

This paragraph occurs in a remarkable passage (the first part of section 26) which is a powerful moral condemnation of the political philosophy which made the famine possible.

The essence of Stadnyuk’s story is that the peasantry were treated as second-class citizens, expendable for political ends. Despite some minor and inessential elements of melodrama and Communist orthodoxy, he places the famine squarely within this causal framework.

This study has been a personal project; the views expressed are my own. I am indebted to Eugene Lyons for his review of an earlier draft and to Andrew Fessenko for his assistance in the preparation of the Postscript.



  1. Fisher, op. cit., pp. 51, 52, 553.
  2. Ibid., p. 308.
  3. Ibid., pp. 476-80.
  4. Ibid., pp. 476-480, 505.
  5. Dalrymple, loc. cit.
  6. Lyons, op. cit., p. 541.
  7. Ammende, op. cit., p. 192.
  8. Chamberlin, op. cit. (April 1935), p. 431.
  9. Dallin, op. cit., p. 166.
  10. “Litvinov Stays Hour in Warsaw,” The New York Times, October 28, 1933, p. 16.
  11. See the following articles in The New York Times: “Ukrainian Societies Denounce Soviet,” November 12, 1933, pt. II, p. 3; “5 Hurt as 500 Reds Fight Parade Here,” November 19, 1933, p. 1; “100 Hurt in Communist-Ukrainian Riot as Reds Attack Paraders in Chicago,” December 18, 1933, p. 1.
  12. Famine in…, op. cit., p. 13; Solovei, op. cit., p. 4; Ammende, op. cit., pp. 295-296. The point was raised on September 29.
  13. Ammende, op. cit., p. 307.
  14. U.S. recognition came on November 16, 1933, and League of Nations entry on September 18, 1934.
  15. Muggeridge, op. cit. (1934), p. ix.
  16. Barnes, loc. cit. (January 15).
  17. Harnes, loc. cit. (August 21).
  18. Lyons, op. cit., p. 575.
  19. Ibid. The meeting at which this agreement was reached is described in detail on pp. 575-576.
  20. Duranty, loc. cit. (March 31).
  21. Lyons, op. cit., p. 572.
  22. Jones, loc. cit.
  23. Koelnischer Zeitung (Barnes, loc. cit. August 21).
  24. “Moscow Doubles…” loc. cit.; Chamberlin, op. cit. (April 1935), p. 433; Lyons, op. cit., p. 576.
  25. Barnes, loc. cit. (August 21).
  26. Beal, op. cit., p. 245.
  27. Williams, loc. cit. (December 1933).
  28. Lyons, op. cit., p. 579.
  29. See his series of articles datelined Kharkiv and Rostov, in The New York Times in September 1933: September 14 (p. 14); 18 (p. 8); 19 (p 15).
  30. Lyons, op. cit., p. 580.
  31. Ammende, op. cit., p. 76.
  32. Walker, op. cit. (February 18), p. 1.
  33. Ammende, op. cit., pp. 75, 76; Manning, op. cit., pp. 99, 100; Allen, op. cit., p. 329. A particularly unfortunate outcome of this move was that many parents left their children behind rather than take them back to “certain starvation.” (Williams, op. cit., February 24, pp. 16. 17).
  34. Ammende, op. cit., p. 76; Chamberlin, op. cit. (1934), pp. 85-86.
  35. Ammende, loc. cit.; Berland, loc. cit.; Duggan, op. cit., p. 696; Williams, op. cit. (February 24), p. 19; Muggeridge, op. cit. (June 5), p. 11. Also see Fyodor Abramov, “One Day in The ‘New Life'” (translation by David Floyd of “Vokrug da okolo,” Neva, No. 1, 1963), Praeger, New York, 1963 (published as “The Dodgers,” London, 1963), pp. 129-30, particularly the footnote.
  36. Solovei, op. cit., p. 34.
  37. Beal, op. cit., p. 244; also see pp. 257-259.
  38. Ammende, op. cit., p. 240. Details on Herriot’s tour are provided on pp. 223-257. Also see Lyons, op. cit., pp. 576-577.
  39. Maynard, op. cit., pp. 249-250.
  40. Ammende, op. cit., p. 190, also p. 48; “German Concession in Russia is Liquidating; Model Farm Has Been Profitable Venture,” The New York Times, August 28, 1933, p. 2.
  41. Ammende, loc. cit.
  42. Ibid., pp. 76, 190; Kulischer, op. cit., p. 97.
  43. The biological yield method is discussed by Jasny, op. cit., pp. 728-729.
  44. Lyons, op. cit., p. 579; Jasny, op. cit., p. 553; Eason, loc. cit.
  45. Birchall, loc. cit.; Williams, op. cit. (February 24), p. 22; Manning, op. cit., p. 101.
  46. Lyons, op. cit., p. 577.
  47. Ibid., pp. 577-578.
  48. From his preface to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novel “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” originally published in Novy Mir, November 1962 (as cited in the Bantam-Praeger edition, New York, 1963, p. xvii).
  49. The same publication carried Fyodor Abramov’s “Vokrug da okolo” (op. cit.) one month later.
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