June 17, 1984

The famine: Stalin imposes a “final solution”



When Skrypnyk turned 60 in January 1932, the official celebrations in the Ukrainian capital of Kharkiv rivaled those of the Stalin jubilee of 1929 in Moscow. For days the newspapers were filled with official biographies and expositions of his ideas. His picture was visible everywhere. Yet, his actual position was already extremely weak. Ukrainization had become secondary to the policy of collectivization. Some of his past actions had already been attacked implicitly since similar actions committed by others had been denounced as nationalistic sabotage.

The famine of 1932-33 came about primarily as a result of excessive grain procurements. Since the Ukrainian harvest of 1932 was better than that of the worst NEP year, it is clear that without the forced procurements of grain there would have been no starvation. The procurement quotas that were being imposed by Union authorities on Soviet Ukraine in conjunction with collectivization were clearly discriminatory. Thus, in 1930 the Union insisted that 7.7 million metric tons of Ukrainian grain be procured, a third of the year’s exceptionally good 23 million ton harvest. By contrast, in 1926, the best year before collectivization and compulsory procurements, only 3.3 million tons had been acquired by the state, 21 percent of that year’s harvest. In 1931 the harvest was poorer than in 1930 because of the disorganization accompanying collectivization, a heat wave during the growing season, and hard rains at harvest time. Thus, the 7.7 million ton quota could not be met from an 18.3 million ton harvest, in spite of tremendous harvest pressure from Moscow. Yet, fully seven million tons were ultimately collected. According to official Soviet statistics, the 1932 grain harvest in Soviet Ukraine was 14.4 million tons, which should still have been adequate to feed the population and livestock but which would have left few reserves. In spite of this, the high quotas were retained. Ultimately, only 3.7 million tons were actually procured, despite the draconian collection measures.

The Ukrainian party leadership appealed for lower quotas to the delegates from Moscow at the Third All-Ukrainian Party Conference in July 1932. Kaganovich and Vyacheslav Molotov listened to one official after another tell of the hardships the quotas had caused. Kossior, Skrypnyk, and Panas Liubchenko all told of villages where everything had been taken and where there was no longer anything to eat. Molotov responded that the quotas, which had already been lowered by 18 percent from the previous year (to 6.6 million tons), would remain in place, and the party conference duly included the figure in its resolution. However, Ukrainian warnings about the dire consequences of what Kossior called the “mechanistic” enforcement of quotas, without regard for areas where the harvest had been poor, show that officials on the scene were giving Moscow ample warning of what was to come. When the predictions came true, officials on the scene pleaded for relief. For example, one obkom secretary told Stalin to his face that there was mass starvation. Admiral Fyodor Raskolnikov, of the Black Sea Fleet, and General Yona Yakir, the commander of the Kiev Military District, both sent Stalin letters of protest. Moscow was warned of the danger before the harvest and had accurate information throughout the famine.

Stalin’s public response was to disbelieve the reports. Furthermore, the Soviet Union continued to export grain. Net Soviet grain exports during the famine years were 1.54 million tons in 1932 and 1.77 million tons in 1933. These exports were possible only because of such measures as the law of August 7, 1932, which provided for the execution (or 10 years’ imprisonment in extenuating circumstances) of anyone caught pilfering collective farm property or encouraging others to leave the collective farms. Fully 20 percent of all cases in Soviet courts in 1932 were tried under his decree, and Stalin himself referred to it as “the basis of socialist legality at the present moment.”

The Ukrainian Soviet government adopted additional harsh measures. A November 1932 decree prohibited collective farms from creating any reserves or distributing any food to its members until the quota was met. A decree of December 6, 1932, assigned an initial six villages to a “blacklist” (chorna doshka) subject to the following measures: 1) the immediate closing of state and cooperative stores, and the removal of all goods in them from the village; 2) a complete ban on all trade (including trade in essential commodities such as bread) by collective farms, collective farmers, and individual farmers; 3) the immediate halting and compulsory repayment of all credits and advances (including bread); 4) a thoroughgoing purge of local collective-farm, cooperative, and state apparatuses; and 5) the purge of all “foreign elements” and “saboteurs of the grain procurement campaign” from the collective farm. On December 13 the blacklist was extended to 82 raions, and at the same time a special system of local prosecutors was established to prosecute those held criminally responsible for non-fulfillment of the quotas.

Portraits of village life during succeeding months emerge from the files of the Harvard University Refugee Interview Project, which was conducted during the early 1950s. It should be stressed that the interviewers were not particularly interested on the famine and that the information was therefore given without any prompting while the respondents were relating their life experiences.

One rather typical account (Case 128) is the following: “…there was the famine in the Ukraine in 1933. We saw people die in the streets; it was terrible to see a dead man, when I close my eyes I can still see him. We had in our village a small church which was closed for services and in which we played. And I remember a man who came in there; he lay down with his eyes wide open at the ceiling and he died there! He was an innocent victim of the Soviet regime; he was a simple worker and not even a kulak. This hunger was the result of Soviet policy.”

Other accounts are more graphic, as this one by a Russian woman (Case 373): “Well, in 1933-34 I was a member of a commission sent out to inspect wells. We had to go to the country to see that the shafts of the wells were correctly installed, and there I saw such things as I had never seen before in my life. I saw villages that not only had no people, but not even any dogs and cats, and I remember one particular incident: we came to one village, and I don’t think I will ever forget this. I will always see this picture before me. We opened the door of this miserable hut and there…the man was lying. The mother and child already lay dead, and the father had taken the piece of meat from between the legs of his son and had died just like that. The stench was terrific, we couldn’t stand it, and this was not the only time that I remember such incidents, there were other such incidents on our trip…”

Nor were such horrors confined to the countryside. Cannibalism occurred even in the cities, as a worker (Case 513) described: “I remember a case in 1933. I was in Kiev. I was at that time at a bazaar – the bazaar was called the Besarabian market. I saw a woman with a valise. She opened the valise and put her goods out for sale. Her goods consisted of jellied meat, frozen jellied meat, which she sold at 50 rubles a portion. I saw a man come over to her – a man who bore all the marks of starvation – he bought himself a portion and began eating. As he ate of his portion, he noticed that a human finger was imbedded in the jelly. He began shouting at the woman and began yelling at the top of his voice. People came running, gathered around her and then seeing what her food consisted of, took here to the militsia (police). At the militsia, two members of the NKVD went over to her and, instead of taking action against her, they burst out laughing. “What, what, you killed a kulak? Good for you!” And then they let her go.”

The main victims, however, were not “kulaks,” who had long since been exiled, or even the individual farmers, who were by then a minority. Figures cited at the Third All-Ukrainian Party Conference in July 1932 indicate that at that time 81 percent of all tilled land was either in collective farms or state farms and that over 70 percent of all farm families were in collectives. This means that the majority of the victims were collective farmers.

The All-Union Central Committee weighed in with two decrees, on December 14, 1932, and January 24, 1933, the first demanding that Ukrainization be carried out “properly” and that “Petliurists and bourgeois nationalists” be dispersed, the second declaring that Ukrainian authorities were guilty of laxity in failing to meet the procurement quotas. The January decree was tantamount to Moscow’s taking direct control of the Ukrainian party apparatus by appointing Pavel Postyshev (a non-Ukrainian former obkom secretary who had been transferred to Moscow some years earlier) as second secretary of the Ukrainian Central Committee and obkom secretary in Kharkiv; and by appointing new obkom secretaries in Odessa and Dnipropetrovsk. Ukrainian Commissar of supplies and Odessa obkom secretary Mikhail Mayorov, Dnipropetrovske obkom secretary Vasiliy Stroganov, and Kharkiv and Donetsk obkom secretary Roman Terekhov, the second-tier officials who had protested the procurements most vigorously, were removed from their posts. This meant placing Ukraine directly under Moscow’s control through the person of Postyshev, who acted as Stalin’s viceroy.

Postyshev immediately ruled out any aid to the countryside and even sent procurement brigades to seize what was left – mainly that part of the harvest that had been distributed to collective farmers. This could not have been large, because only 22.7 percent of the collective farms had distributed any grain whatsoever to their members.

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