December 27, 1987

Collaboration in the suppression of the Ukrainian famine


(The Ukrainian Weekly, December 27, 1987, No. 52, Vol. LV)

The paper below was delivered by Dr. James Mace at a conference on “Recognition and Denial of Genocide and Mass Killing in the 20th Century” held in New York on November 13.


In 1932 and 1933 an artificially created famine made the Ukrainian SSR, the contiguous and largely Ukrainian North Caucasus Territory to its east, and the largely German and Tatar regions of the Volga Basin, in the words of Robert Conquest, “like one vast Belsen. A quarter of the rural population, men, women and children, lay dead or dying, the rest in various stages of debilitation with no strength to bury their families or neighbors. At the same time (as at Belsen), well-fed squads of police or party officials supervised the victims.”

In the Soviet case, the enemy was defined in terms of social class rather than-nationality, race or religion. However, the Communist Party held itself up as the embodiment of the class consciousness of the proletariat: anything it sanctioned was by definition proletarian, and anything it found convenient was by definition infected with hostile class content. Its ideology classified “nationalism,” as distinct from the party-sanctioned Russocentric “Soviet patriotism,” as “bourgeois nationalism,” that is, a form of bourgeois ideology. This allowed Stalinism to imbue class categories with national content. According to Stalin, the social basis of nationalism was the peasantry.

Soviet ideology also posited the division of the peasantry into bourgeois and proletarian strata, which were never precisely defined, and thus, at Stalin’s discretion, any segment of the peasantry could at and given moment be declared either proletarian and worthy of survival or bourgeois and worthy of “liquidation.” Those whose relative wealth did not qualify them as class enemies could easily be classified as “agents” of the class enemies.

The New Economic Policy, beginning in 1921 and ending somewhere between 1927 and the end of 1929, was basically a series of concessions to the peasant. From 1923, NEP was accompanied by a policy of concessions to non-Russians known as indigenization. Since in 1926 about three-eighths of the Soviet Union’s non-Russians were Ukrainians and the latter outnumbered the next largest non-Russian group by about 6.5 to 1, the nationality problem was to a great extent a Ukrainian problem. It is thus hardly surprising that the Ukrainian version of indigenization, Ukrainization, went much farther than its counterparts elsewhere in the USSR.

The forced collectivization of agriculture was actually a war in which the regime forced the peasantry, much against its will, into state-controlled estates from which the authorities could seize more produce more easily. By the end of 1931 in Ukraine, the state had won its war. Seven-tenths of the peasants had been forced to “sign up” for collective farms, comprising four-fifths of all arable farmland in the Ukrainian SSR. At the same time, grain seizures had wiped out reserves from previous years and led to localized outbreaks of famine. Moscow’s representatives were warned of the situation as early as July 1932.

The essence of collectivization was the replacement of individual farms by large collective farms in which the agricultural population planted and harvested as a group. The latter was particularly important: since the entire harvest of a given collective farm was brought to a single point and placed under state control, the state could dispose of it as it pleased. Obligations to the state, as the state determined them, and to the collective farm administration had to be completely fulfilled before any produce whatsoever was distributed to those who had produced it. If the harvest fell short or merely equalled the amount demanded for other obligations, the peasants received nothing, and thorough searches were made of members’ homes for anything which might make up for the shortfall. Even if a given collective met its quota, it was often assigned a supplementary quota to make up for others that had not.

Those remaining outside the collective farms also had “firm tasks” and household quotas, and they too were assigned “supplementary tasks.” Their houses and gardens were similarly searched. In the early 1930s the state thus took complete control of all crops grown and was in a position to seize any or all of them. Thus Stalin had the power to starve the actual producers of foodstuffs, and in 1932 he made use of it.

After the 1932 harvest, the Ukrainian party organization went over to a virtual war footing in “the struggle for bread.” Officials found wanting were replaced, including a quarter of Ukraine’s 494 raion government heads by October 1. Entire oblasts were censured for “temporizing” in the struggle. As the situation worsened, various appeals were made to Stalin, who dismissed them. Stalin responded in October 1932 by “strengthening” the Ukrainian party organization through the appointment of Mendel Khataevich and Ivan Akulov to the Ukrainian leadership. Khataevich, who had won a reputation for brutality in combatting “kulak sabotage” in the Middle Volga Territory, became second secretary of the Communist Party (bolshevik) of Ukraine. Akulov, hitherto first deputy of the OGPU (secret police), became head of the Donbas obkom.

Any difficulty in seizing the grain was blamed on the ubiquitous class enemies in the countryside, the kulaks, and their “agents,” surviving supporters of Petliura and Makhno. At the same time, a new enemy was added, the “tightwads” (tverdozdavtsi). By December 13 more than one-fifth of Ukraine’s raions were “blacklisted,” that is, placed under complete economic blockade and thoroughly purged of “class enemies.” In December, arrests began of local officials found wanting in the struggle for bread, and in one raion the entire leadership was arrested.

The starving were left to their fate and all traffic between Ukraine and areas immediately to the north was closely controlled. They were not allowed to travel to Russia where food was available, though some managed to do so by stealth. Nor were these lucky ones allowed to return with any food they might have purchased; it was confiscated at the Russo-Ukrainian border.

Stalin took advantage of the famine created by his policies to withdraw the concessions earlier made to the Ukrainians. On December 14, 1932, he ordered a halt to the “mechanistic” implementation of Ukrainization and the initiation of a campaign “to disperse Petliurists and other bourgeois nationalist elements from the party and Soviet organizations” in Ukraine. On January 24, 1933, Stalin took direct control of the Ukrainian party organization by appointing Pavel Postyshev second secretary and head of the Kharkiv obkom. Khataevich who now became third secretary, was also given the Dnipropetrovske obkom, and Evgenii Veger, a Central Committee functionary from Moscow, was appointed to head the Odessa obkom.

With Akulov retaining the Donbas, Stalin controlled through his new appointees two of the three secretaries of the Ukrainian Central Committee and four of Ukraine’s six obkoms (not counting the small Moldavian ASSR). In addition, Postyshev brought with him thousands of clients which in succeeding months took over responsible posts throughout the Ukrainian SSR, including the top party and state posts in about half of all Ukraine’s raions.

Everything that happened subsequently could only have happened under Stalin’s direct mandate. In the late winter and spring of 1933 efforts to seize food from the starving were ordered intensified. In succeeding months the autonomist wing of the CP(b)U, led by Ukrainian Education Commissar Mykola Skrypnyk, was thoroughly purged.

With Skrypnyk himself committing suicide in July, Ukrainization became a dead letter, and virtually everything associated with the national revival of the preceding decade was banned. Ukrainian arts and letters were virtually banned for a generation. Ukrainization gave way to Russification. All this together could only mean an attempt to destroy any hint of Ukrainian cultural or political self-assertion as part of a deliberate policy calculated to neutralize the Ukrainians as a political factor and social entity, in other words, genocide.

The famine, accompanied by a broad campaign against every manifestation of Ukrainian self-assertion, dealt a body blow to the basic constituency of Ukrainian national identity, starving to death millions of Ukrainian peasants. As with the Holocaust and the Armenian massacres, the exact number of victims can only be estimated. But we know that the 1926 Soviet census counted 31.2 million Ukrainians and that the probably inflated census of 1939 counted only 28.1 million, an absolute decline of 3.1 million or 10 percent. Once probable population growth for the period is considered, the probable number of victims is in the range of 5 to 7 million, more probably closer to the higher end of this range than to the lower.

The U.S. government knew a great deal about the man-made famine of 1932-1933 in Ukraine and chose not to acknowledge what it knew or to respond in any meaningful way. Some members of the American press corps also knew a great deal which they chose not to report and, in some cases, actively denied in public what they confirmed in private. This constituted collaboration the perpetrator’s denial of genocide.

Even lacking a diplomatic presence in the USSR, the State Department monitored Soviet developments through both the official Soviet press and a variety of other sources. Especially closely followed were issues dealing with grain production because of direct competition between American and Soviet wheat exports on the world market. Less notice was taken of developments in nationality policy, but here too information was certainly available.

Robert F. Kelley, chief of the State Department’s Division of Eastern European Affairs from 1926 until its abolition in 1937, oversaw research and processed intelligence on the USSR. The single most important post for reliable and timely intelligence was the Russian affairs section at the U.S. Legation in Riga, Latvia, which had monitored the Soviet Union since its establishment in 1922.

As early as 1931, the excessive seizure of agricultural produce had led to localized outbreaks of famine in Ukraine. An early indication of the hardships wrought by the Soviet state, the number of refugees fleeing to Poland and Rumania, was duly reported to the State Department. Surprisingly, in 1931 two letters, addressed in English to the “Department at the City at Washington, the District of Columbia,” arrived in Washington from Zhashkiv, now a raion center in Cherkassy oblast, Ukrainian SSR. The letters were delivered to the Commissioners of the District of Columbia and forwarded to State. Kelley described the first letter as “apparently written from Russia, with regard to alleged conditions in Russia.” To the second he responded similarly; it also concerned “alleged conditions,” but “in the Ukraine.”

Reports of conversations between U.S. diplomats and those who had traveled to the USSR also provided information about the rapid impoverishment of the populations of Ukraine and the North Caucasus. Through this type of information the State Department received clear warning signals. On October 27, 1932, Riga sent a memorandum of a conversation with Prof. Samuel Harper, who had just spent two months in the Soviet Union and returned with disturbing news: “The food situation has become very serious and may become catastrophic in a year from now if no improvement takes place. Worst of all is the situation in the Ukraine which last year has been milked dry by the excessive government grain procurements.”

Information on Soviet nationality policy usually came second hand. Poland, which fought a war with the Soviets in 1920 and had its own restive Ukrainian minority, always kept an especially close eye on developments to its east.

On November 14, 1932, the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw sent Washington a translation of an analysis of Soviet agriculture prepared by the Polish Consul in Kiev. Obtained by the Americans through a “strictly confidential source,” it indicated that during July, August and September, Ukraine had achieved only 28.6 percent of its annual grain procurements plan and that any expectation of there being sufficient grain to meet the demands set by Moscow were unrealistic. Local officials and press adopted a “tone of depression” at “the really bad state of affairs” in the Ukrainian countryside.

The next day, Skinner sent State its first report that the famine had begun:

“While the Moscow press is silent on the subject of food shortage in Russia, other sources of information indicate that the new harvest has failed to alleviate to any appreciable extent the acute insufficiency of supply which existed in 1931. The German specialist on Russian agriculture, Otto Auhagen, writing in the generally well-informed Berlin Osteuropa for August 1932, goes as far as to describe the situation in rural districts of the Ukraine…as ‘famine in the full sense of the word.'”

Reports continued to confirm the worsening situation. At the end of November, Kendall Foss of the Hearst Press confirmed to the Berlin consulate that the food situation was steadily worsening “and in some villages people are actually starving.” On January 26, 1933, Riga sent its report on Soviet economic conditions during the final quarter of 1932, which noted that “there is an acute lack of food in many districts, and the demands on agriculture are tremendous.”

Riga filed only a brief report on the decree of January 24, 1933: The appointment of Postyshev as Ukraine’s new ruler clearly “was not received with too much welcome,” and meant that Moscow held the CP(b)U “either incapable or unwilling to carry out the peasant policy with the required energy.”

On March 1, Frederic Sackett in Berlin sent a confidential memorandum written by economics Prof. Calvin Hoover of Duke University, who had formerly been highly optimistic about Soviet developments. Now he believed that “Russia is headed for chaos and ruin.” Kelley found the memorandum so valuable that a month later he referred it to the university, adding, “When the secretary has a few minutes to spare, I believe that he would be interested in glancing through” it, which the new secretary, Cordell Hull, evidently did.

Hoover noted the large numbers who had perished from starvation in Kazakhstan since 1930 and added that there was “a very bad shortage of food in the North Caucasus and the Ukraine,” with guerrilla warfare in the North Caucasus and, some months earlier, numerous village uprisings in Ukraine. Censorship of Western correspondents had become much more strict, and two American correspondents had recently been refused permission to go to Ukraine.

On March 27, Robert Skinner reported from Riga the execution of 35 Soviet agricultural officials and the imprisonment of 40 others for, according to the OGPU communiqué, “the organization of counterrevolutionary sabotage in the machinery and tractor stations and the state farms of a number of regions of Ukraine…and the disorganization of sowing, harvesting and threshing campaigns with the purpose of undermining the material conditions of the peasantry and of establishing a famine in the country.” Noting that his post had reported on the “unsatisfactory state of Soviet agriculture since 1931,” Skinner commented with diplomatic restraint:

“The study of these developments over a period of several years leaves the indelible impression that the present condition of Russian agriculture is not the result of any criminal acts of a group of persons but are the effects of the reaction of the peasantry as a whole (and in Russia that means the preponderant majority of the country’s population) to a government policy which has deprived it of individual ownership in respect of most of its property and which has robbed it of the incentive to work. Viewed in this light, the severe punishment which has been meted out to the 75 officials appears essentially as an act of terror undertaken with the double object of crushing criticism of Stalin’s policy among government executives and concealing the true reasons of its failure by shifting the responsibility to quarters where it does not properly belong.”

Rosja Sowiecka (Soviet Russia) was a Warsaw journal which so interested Kelley that he prevailed upon the U.S. Consulate in Warsaw to translate every issue verbatim. The journal pointed out the unprecedented fact that among the accused were party members and that the trial should be understood as part of “a systematic persecution of the rural administration and the extermination of employees of the Commissariats of Agriculture, and the Commissariats of State Domains” in order to “destroy or to put in second place all of the higher agricultural officers…and to turn over the rural administration of collectivized agriculture to Communist companies in the political sections of the machine-tractor stations.”

On April 7, Ernest Harris, consul general in Vienna, sent translations of letters received by a servant of an Austrian countess from her sister in Ukraine. One dated March 12 begged for a dollar to be sent through torgsin: “How one has to hunger here! Many have already died of starvation. We are not yet dying, however; since Christmas I have baked no bread…to die of hunger is very difficult…we have always had up to now a few potatoes and we will soon be at the end of those…If the beloved God does not have mercy, we must die.”

A May 5 Helsinki report of a conversation with an American resident of the Soviet Union also confirmed the existence of the Ukrainian famine, then at its height:

“In Ukraine, the formerly flourishing granary of Europe, utter starvation faces the population…conditions are growing worse, especially in the Ukraine. There in the open market one must pay 50 rubles for a loaf of bread. But the loaf is not really a loaf of bread. When one takes a knife and cuts a slice it is impossible to be sure whether it is made of grass, ashes or other materials. It has no resemblance to bread made of cereal.”

On June 8, the second secretary of the Latvian Legation in Moscow told the Americans in Riga that in Ukraine, North Caucasus and the Volga region, “the entire population is undernourished and actual famine is experienced. Conditions are worst in Odessa, Kiev and Kharkiv.”

On August 29, Le Matin in Paris printed the story of a Ukrainian American, Martha Stebalo, who had just returned from a month in Ukraine, and Robert Murphy, an American consul in Paris, summarized her statement that:

“…in the vicinity of Kiev, the population generally shows outward physical signs of starvation (swollen legs, ulcers, boils, apathy, etc.). She claims that in the villages near Kiev, many people are obliged to subsist on trees, wood pulp and grass. Sentries posted on platforms guard many fields and shoot poachers at sight. In Podolia, Mrs. Stebalo learned that her parents had died of starvation. In Pysarivka, a village of 800 inhabitants, 150 persons had died from that cause since last spring. The account affirms that in the region of Kiev, as well as that of Odessa, cannibalism is a common practice.”

In September Undersecretary William Phillips was given a radiogram from an American who had been in the USSR which had been sent to the latter’s son. Calling the situation “one of the world’s greatest famines,” it read:

“The present famine is so directly due to (the Communists’ policies) that they are trying in every possible way to deny and cover it up. This the people know… Seed grain is state property and any withholding it is stealing from the state and punishable with death. Children are given Soviet honors for revealing any concealment even by their parents.”

Further confirmation of the existence of the famine came on October 4 from a member of the Latvian Legation in Moscow. In reply to a direct question about whether there was a famine, the Latvian said that it was “an actual fact” and “that last winter and spring its existence was frankly admitted on several occasions by officials of the Commissariat for Foreign Affairs to members of the Moscow diplomatic corps. In the general opinion of the Moscow diplomats the present famine is even more severe than that of 1921-22, and the number of people who have died from starvation is estimated at 7 to 8 million. While shortage of bread and other food is prevalent throughout Russia, it is most acute in the southern wheat belt. i.e., in the North Caucasian Krai, the Ukraine, and the Lower Volga Krai, where practically all peasants have been assembled into collective farms.”

On October 10, the Warsaw Embassy dispatched translations from the Polish journal Soviet Russia and its International Organization. The July issue reported that “Conditions in the Ukraine, autocratically ruled by Postyshev, Stalin’s representative, are not satisfactory… Not long ago the Moscow press did not disguise its indignation against the local authorities of the Soviet Ukraine who showed, it was alleged, great leniency toward anti-state elements.”

Analyzing and quoting extensively Postyshev’s denunciation of Skrypnyk’s so-called national deviation at the June plenum of the CC CP(b)U, it observed that “the real object of Postyshev’s dictatorship” was the “pacification” of Ukrainian nationalism, an allusion to the Polish pacification of western Ukraine, which had been designed to knock out Ukrainian nationalism there.

The August issue pointed out that even before Postyshev’s “mission,” the Communists in Ukraine had “vigorously enforced the decrees of the central government” and “squeezed out of the peasants the largest possible quantities of grain.” It then considered the Soviet allegation that the Ukrainization policy, which Skrypnyk had overseen, and interpreted is as merely the continuation of Lenin’s policy. It observed that simultaneously “with the liquidation of the Skrypnyk mistakes, all of the pro-Russian servile elements begin to raise their heads.” The “anti-peasant policy” of excessive grain seizures, which had caused so much suffering, had been “the policy of the central authorities imposed upon Skrypnyk.”

Meanwhile, Rosja Sowiecka (Soviet Russia) indicated that the amount of grain procured from Ukraine in 1932 was over three times the amount seized at the height of War Communism in 1920, which had also contributed to famine, while the 1932 crop was no more than 40 percent greater than that of 1920. Simultaneously, the portion of the total Ukrainian crop requisitioned had risen from 8.9 percent in 1929 to an estimated 70 percent, while in the North Caucasus it was close to 100 percent. If one adds grain retained by the collective farms for reserves and expenses, “what is then left for the peasants?” Rosja Sowiecka asked.

Further confirmation of the existence of the famine came from the U.S. Legation in Athens, Greece, which reported on October 14:

“In view of the many published statements denying the seriousness of famine conditions in Russia, I have the honor to report that, in a conversation I had the other day with the Turkish minister here, the minister informed me that the Turkish envoy at Moscow reported that famine conditions…are at the present time very bad indeed, as bad, he said, as during the worst postwar years.”

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