(The following article appeared in a recent issue of the journal Problems of Communism. Published in The Ukrainian Weekly: June 17-July 8, 1984)
After the harvest of 1932 millions of Ukrainians starved to death in one of the world’s most fertile regions. The local population had produced enough food to feed itself, but the state had seized it, thereby creating a famine by an act of policy. The areas affected were demarcated by internal administrative borders in the Soviet Union, leaving immediately adjoining areas virtually untouched. Thus, the famine appears to have been geographically focused for political reasons. Since it coincided with far-reaching changes in Soviet nationality policy, and since the areas affected were inhabited by groups, most resistant to the new policy, the famine seemed to represent a means used by Stalin to impose a “final solution” on the most pressing nationality problem in the Soviet Union. According to internationally accepted definitions, this constitutes an act of genocide.
Information about the famine
Once an event of this magnitude fades from public consciousness, official efforts to deny that it had occurred are reinforced by a human tendency to disbelieve that such a thing could ever have happened. For this reason, it is necessary to sketch briefly what we know about the famine and how we know it.
The most obvious source for what happened is the memory of those who survived the famine. Eyewitnesses to any event of half a century ago become fewer in number with each passing year, but there are still hundreds, perhaps thousands, of them living in the West. A few managed to flee across the Prut River into Rumania at the height of the famine, but most left the Soviet Union during World War II. Soon after the war, they formed organizations which published their testimony in their native Ukrainian or still imperfect English. Others were interviewed as part of the Harvard University Refugee Interview Project. Still other published individual accounts. Most, of course, remained silent.
There are also individuals who may broadly be classified as perpetrators of the famine, and who have told their story in print. Lev Kopelev was a young communist who was sent into the Ukrainian countryside to procure grain in 1933, and he has written with regret about those whom in his youthful enthusiasm for the communist system he condemned to death by starvation. Victor Kravchenko, a Soviet trade official who defected at the end of the war, has also written about what he did and witnessed as a young Ukrainian communist. Nikita Khrushchev, who was not in Ukraine at the time, remembered how he learned about it:
“Mikoyan told me that Comrade Demchenko, who was then First Secretary of the Kiev Regional Committee, once came to see him in Moscow. Here’s what Demchenko said: ‘Anastas Ivanovich, does Comrade Stalin – for that matter, does anyone in the Politburo – know what’s happening in the Ukraine? Well, if not, I’ll give you some idea. A train recently pulled into Kiev loaded with the corpses of people who had starved to death. It picked up corpses all the way from Poltava to Kiev…'”
As we shall see, Stalin knew perfectly well what was happening. He had ample warnings that a famine will result if his policies were carried out, and received continuous appeals to change the policies once the famine had started.
A number of foreign journalists reported the famine, among them Malcolm Muggeridge of the Manchester Guardian, William Henry Chamberlin of the Christian Science Monitor, Eugene Lyons of United Press, and Harry Lang of the Jewish daily Der Forest. Others, most notably Walter Duranty of The New York Times and Louis Fischer of The New Republic, seemed to have been perfectly aware of it, but actively aided the Soviet state in suppressing the story.
Soviet historiography sporadically refers to the famine by using euphemisms such as “a severe shortfall of edible produce,” caused partially by the “incorrect planning of the grain procurements campaign.” In the Soviet Union, what purports to be fiction is often more forthright than what purports to be history. Ivan Stadniuk, a recipient of a Lenin Prize whose fiction portrays Stalin in a relatively positive light, wrote about the famine in a 1962 novel called “People Are Not Angels.” Set in the Vinnytsia oblast near what was then the Soviet border with Poland, this work gives the following eloquently simple description: “The first to die from hunger were the men. Later on the children. And last of all, the women. But before they died, people often lost their senses and ceased to be human beings.”
Demography can aid us in deriving approximate numbers of those who died. Sergey Maksudov has demonstrated that at least 9.1 million people in the Soviet Union died prematurely between 1926 and 1939, that 8.5 million of them died before 1935 (i.e., during the period of collectivization and famine), and that 4.5 million died in the Ukrainian SSR. Since his analysis assumes the absolute accuracy of the 1939 census and does not take into account the effects of interepublic migration, the figure of the Ukrainian SSR probably underestimates the loss of life suffered there, by not making allowances for the policy of resettling villages depopulated by the famine in the Ukrainian SSR with villagers from other republics.
A more accurate estimate of Ukrainian population loss can be derived by examining the 1926 and 1939 censuses on the basis of nationality, since the new settlers were not ethic Ukrainians. In the 1926 census, the USSR contained 31.2 million Ukrainians while the 1939 census lists only 28.1 million, an absolute decline of 9.9 percent or 3.1 million individuals. On the basis of official Soviet administrative estimates of the natural rate of population growth for the Ukrainian SSR up to 1931, we can project a probable Ukrainian population total of 34,165,000 on the eve of the famine (1931). Yet, because Ukrainians were concentrated in the countryside, where the natural rate of population growth was higher at the time, this is a conservative estimate.
We may then project back from the 1939 figure to ask how many Ukrainians would have had to have been alive in 1934 to result in 28.1 million half a decade later. Since the natural rate of population growth was declining up to 1931 (when it reached a low point of 1.45 percent annually) and we lack similar statistics for the later 1930s, we have little choice but to project back from the natural rate of population growth observed for Ukrainians in the Ukrainian SSR in 1958-59 (1.39 percent), which gives as a 1934 population estimate of 26,211,000. If we subtract our estimate of the post-famine population from the pre-famine population, the differences is 7,954,000, which can be taken as an estimate of the number of Ukrainians who died before their time. Again, this is a conservative estimate because it assumes that no one was born in the years 1932 or 1933. From this figure one must subtract victims of unnatural deaths not related to the famine. Some 200,000 farms in the Ukrainian SSR were “dekulakized.” Estimating five persons per family on average, this makes for a total of 1 million individuals of whom perhaps 250,000 were either executed or died in the harsh conditions of exile. Let us assume that another quarter of a million Ukrainians were executed or died in exile in 1936-39. This still leaves almost 7.5 million Ukrainians who died in the famine.
This is only a rough estimate. The figure might be lower, because some persons who were counted as Ukrainian in the 1926 census could have been listed as Russian in 1939. It could also be significantly higher, because the circumstances surrounding the 1939 census indicate that its figures were inflated. A census was taken in 1937, but it was never published. Instead, an announcement was made that the officials in charge of preparing the census were participants in a plot to discredit the progress of socialism by deliberately undercounting the Soviet population. Since the census officials were shot for not finding enough people in 1937, we may safely assume that their successors made every effort to avoid any perception that their own work suffered from similar shortcomings.
Another way to estimate the famine losses is to compare the Ukrainians’ demographic fate with that of the Byelorussians – a closely related nation that had a somewhat lower rate of natural population growth before 1931; went through similar political campaigns against “bourgeois nationalism” and similar pressures to assimilate; and had a lower level of literacy and weaker traditions of national self-assertion, which might have made them more prone to assimilation. However, Byelorussia did not go through the famine, and the number of Byelorussians in the USSR increased 11.5 percent in the time that the number of Ukrainians decreased by 9.9 percent. If Ukrainian population growth had matched that of their Byelorussian neighbors – and by every indication it would have surpassed that of Byelorussians but for the famine – there would have been almost 6.7 million more Ukrainians in the Soviet Union in 1939 than were recorded.
Census data is also helpful in tracing the geography of the famine. Maksudov has shown how this could be done on the basis of the 1959 census. Since birthrates decline and infant mortality soars during a famine, we have clear evidence of extraordinary mortality in areas where the number of rural women (the least mobile segment of the population) is exceptionally small in age groups born immediately before or during the famine. Since the 1959 census provides age data for five-year periods, this yardstick can only provide information about areas where mortality was exceptionally high from the beginning of forced collectivization through the famine, that is, for the years 1929-1933. Areas that show evidence of high morality in this period are Ukraine, the then heavily Ukrainian and Cossack North Caucasus krai, Kazakhstan, some areas of the Volga basin, and parts of Western Siberia, where collectivization was carried out in a particularly harsh manner. If we exclude areas where mass mortality can be attributed to the years before l932 (Kazakhstan and Western Siberia), we are left with areas containing Ukrainians, Cossacks, and Germans, the last being affected somewhat less than the two others. What is particularly striking is the sharp contrast between contiguous oblasts along the border between Ukraine and Russia proper. For example, Kharkiv oblast on the Ukrainian side of the border shows demographic evidence of being one of the most devastated areas, while Belgorod oblast, contiguous to it on the Russian side, shows no evidence of exceptional mortality. Both oblasts have the same sort of farming and weather, while the cities of Kharkiv and Belgorod are only about 35 kilometers apart. The fact that one was affected and the other was not can only be attributed to a deliberate policy to concentrate the famine geographically for political ends.
The state and national communism
A key to understanding the geography and motive of the famine is to recall events that took place immediately after the Bolshevik seizure of power. During the 1918 German occupation of Ukraine, even Menonite German communities welcomed their co-nationals and provided volunteers to fight the Bolsheviks, despite old pacifist traditions. (Later, in 1941, the Volga Germans as well as those in Ukraine were deported en masse as a possible security threat). The Cossacks attempted to establish a separate state under General Alexei Kaledin and later provided the most important base for the anti-communist forces of Anton Denikin. The Ukrainians not only formed their own nation-state but – after their military defeat and incorporation into the USSR – became what Poland would become in the Soviet bloc after World War II: that part of the larger entity that was most conscious of its national distinctiveness, most assertive of its prerogatives, and least willing to follow Moscow’s model in arranging its own affairs. Not coincidentally, it was the territories inhabited by Ukrainians, Cossacks, and Germans that were affected by the famine in 1933.