January 16, 1983

The man-made famine of 1933 in Soviet Ukraine: what happened and why


(The Ukrainian Weekly, January 16-February 13, 1983)


The event which Ukrainians call “shtuchnyi holod,” the man-made famine, or sometimes even the Ukrainian holocaust, claimed an estimated 5 to 7 million victims. Purely in terms of mortality, it thus was of the same order of magnitude as the Jewish holocaust.

It was, however, a very different kind of genocide in that it was not motivated by a quest for racial purity and was not an attempt to destroy a nation by means of the physical murder of all its members. For one thing, Stalin had far too many Ukrainians under his sway for him to ever take the idea of physical annihilation seriously. Nor was it necessary for his purpose, which was to destroy a nation as a political factor and social entity.

A far closer parallel is offered by events which took place after the Communists seized power in Cambodia and unleashed a reign of terror on the population designed to utterly destroy the nation as it had hitherto existed so that the new regime might recreate it in its own image. In both the Ukrainian and Cambodian cases, the genocide was committed by Communist regimes operating under an ideology which portrayed the nations in question as inundated by class enemies such that the regimes came to identify the whole social structure with such enemies. It attempted to destroy these enemies by destroying the nation as a nation, so as to leave an amorphous mass which the regime then sought to restructure as it saw fit.

In order to understand the Ukrainian famine, one must first of all look to the history of Russo-Ukrainian relations. Ukrainians have traditionally seen the long history of Russian domination over their country as one long tale of oppression. They have always viewed the results of the 1654 Treaty of Pereyaslav as their subjugation rather than the reunification of fraternal peoples which Stalinist and post-Stalinist Soviet historiography has attempted to portray. 1

Indeed, the Ukrainian nation can hardly be said to have prospered from Russian rule. Its autonomy was gradually abolished; its Orthodox Church was absorbed by the Muscovite; its economic growth was long stunted; its elites were assimilated. Like the Czechs after the 1620 Battle of White Mountain, Ukrainians gradually became almost entirely a nation of priests and peasants, and they are one of the few nations on earth whose level of literacy actually declined from the 17th through the 19th centuries. From 1876 to 1905 the tsars even went so far as to ban the Ukrainian language from the printed page in an attempt to cut short the revival of national consciousness. 2 When industries and mines were built in Ukraine in the late 19th century, the fact that Russian peasants from the central black soil region were economically poorer than their Ukrainian counterparts guaranteed that there would always be plenty of Russians to work in the new establishments, and the belated development of their own country thus passed the Ukrainians by. 3 The xenophobia of the Black Hundreds found more fertile soil among Ukraine’s Russians than in any other part of the empire. Even the liberal democratic Russian intelligentsia refused to support so much as token autonomy for Ukrainians. By the time the Russian Empire disintegrated in 1917, Ukrainians possessed only a numerically small but extremely important national intelligentsia in the cities; the vast majority of them remained peasants who viewed the cities of their own land as alien entities inhabited by foreigners.

The two revolutions in Ukraine

In 1923, when the Bolsheviks were actively seeking to “take root” in Ukrainian soil, Moisei Ravich-Cherkassky, a former Jewish Bundist-turned-Communist, published the first official history of the Communist Party (Bolshevik) of Ukraine. His thesis, officially condemned since 1927, was that the Soviet regime and Communist Party in Ukraine had two distinct ancestral roots, one extending from the Russian revolutionary movement and another from the Ukrainian socialist movement. He believed that the CP(b)U was actually the child of this dual lineage produced by the 1920 merger of the Borotbisty, a Ukrainian socialist group, with the Bolsheviks in 1920. 4

While such a synthesis, if it ever existed, was short-lived, there is a fundamental truth upon which the idea was based: the division between town and country in Ukraine was national as well as social, and what happened in 1917 was that two separate and simultaneous revolutions – one Russian and proletarian, the other Ukrainian and agrarian – fought each other for the same territory. For Ukraine’s Russian cities, factories and mines, the revolution was but a regional variation on the movement elsewhere in the empire. But for the Ukrainian peasants who made up four-fifths of the country’s population, the revolution was as much a struggle for national liberation as one for social justice. And each of these revolutionary movements could trace its separate ancestry back for decades.

During the revolution and civil war, the Ukrainian revolution had to face three different enemies: the Russian counterrevolution, the Bolsheviks and the Poles.

Of the three, Denikin’s Volunteer Army was seen as the greatest evil because it was aimed at restoring the pre-revolutionary regime of the landlords. Denikin saw “Russia” as one, indivisible and consisting of three parts: Great, Little and White. There was no place for Ukraine or Ukrainians in a such a scheme. He saw the Ukrainian movement as an artificial creation of the Germans and the Ukrainian “semi-intelligentsia.” He believed that if these “subversives” were isolated, the Ukrainian movement would disappear.

When he occupied the country, Ukrainian schools and cooperatives were closed down; his administration was based on reactionary landlords who reclaimed their estates and often used their positions to settle old scores. Even Kharkiv, where the predominantly Russian population initially greeted the Whites as liberators and providers of cheap bread, was ready to welcome the Bolsheviks as liberators after a few months of the White Terror. 5

As for the Bolsheviks, Lenin recognized the right of self-determination to the point of separation but reserved the right to decide on its desirability on a case-by-case basis and maintained that Social-Democrats of colonially oppressed peoples ought to advocate unity. This meant recognizing a right which nobody was supposed to exercise, a true forerunner to the right of secession in the Soviet Constitution, designed only to make Russian rule more acceptable to the colonies. 6

Ukrainian spokesmen found this solution far from satisfactory. On the eve of the revolution Lev Yurkevych (Rybalka), one of the leaders of the Ukrainian Social-Democrats, denounced Lenin’s formula as a smokescreen and warned that if Ukrainians did not receive the right to rule themselves, they would fight for it, even against Russian socialists if need be. 7 The words were prophetic.

Within days after news of the tsar’s abdication was received in Kiev in March 1917, the Ukrainian Central Rada was established, first as a clearinghouse for Ukrainian national activities and later as an organ of territorial autonomy which contained representatives of the national minorities, including the Russians. Practically every town also had a soviet of workers and/or soldiers’ deputies.

Since the words rada and soviet are merely direct translations of each other (both mean council), there was initially no little confusion about which of these very different bodies stood for what. Georg Lapchynsky, a member of the first Soviet Ukrainian government and, later, leader of a federalist opposition within the CP(b)U, recalled that in the fall of 1917 at any given political gathering there always seemed to be a Ukrainian who would claim that he supported Soviet power and also the Rada because it was a soviet. 8 The Rada itself even had occasion to use this formula. In November 1917 Mykola Porsh, the Rada’s secretary of labor, officially informed Stalin: “We consider the Central Rada to be by its composition a soviet of workers, peasants, and soldiers’ deputies who were elected at congresses of peasants, workers and soldiers.” 9

The weakness of support for the Bolsheviks was proven by their poor showing in the Russian Constituent Assembly elections, where the Ukrainian Socialist parties received a substantial majority and the Bolsheviks polled only 10 percent. 10 Nevertheless, they tried to take power in December 1917 by calling an All-Ukrainian Congress of Soviets to “reconstitute” the Rada as a Soviet government. When the Bolsheviks and their sympathizers arrived in Kiev, they were literally swamped by Ukrainian peasant delegates from rural organizations claiming to have the right to be considered soviets of peasants’ deputies. Hopelessly outnumbered, the Bolsheviks fled to Kharkiv where, under the protection of Russian Red Guards, they convoked a rump session which proclaimed the first Soviet government of Ukraine. 11

Up to the end of the civil war, the various Soviet Ukrainian governments were established by the Russian Red Army and received whatever local support they had from Russians, mainly from the Donbas workers. They tended to show open hostility to everything Ukrainian. In 1917, the Kiev Bolsheviks were led by Yuriy Piatakov and Evgeniya Bosh, who before the revolution had denounced even Lenin’s verbal concession to the right of nations to self-determination, taking the Luxembourgist view that national liberation was utopian under capitalism and irrelevant under socialism. 12

When the Red Army took Kiev in January 1918, its commander declared in his first declaration on the establishment of Soviet power there: “We took this power from the far north on the point of our bayonets.” 13 Those found speaking Ukrainian in the streets were rounded up as suspected counterrevolutionaries and shot; Volodymyr Zatonsky later recalled that he himself only narrowly escaped execution. 14 In 1919 the Soviet regime was headed by Piatakov and Khristian Rakovsky, the latter of whom declared that Ukrainian was a “kulak tongue” and that recognizing it as an official language in Ukraine would be a reactionary measure. 15

In reality, the early occupation regimes were primarily interested in Ukraine as a source of raw materials and foodstuffs, especially bread. In 1919, Lenin sent his most efficient requisitioner, Alexander Shlikhter, to Ukraine with orders to immediately ship 50 million poods of grain to Russia, but what Shlikhter called “kulak banditism” was so fierce that only 8.5 million poods could be obtained and two-thirds of that had to stay in Ukraine to feed the Red Army and the cities. As he later wrote: “Figuratively speaking, one might say that every pood of requisitioned bread was tinged with drops of the blood of the workers.” 16

Of course, the person one man might call a bandit others might call a fighter for national liberation, or simply a farmer trying to protect the fruits of his own labor. Whatever one calls it, the Bolshevik historian Ravich-Cherkassky was forced to admit that the countryside formed a united front against the invaders. 17 Even as set-piece warfare came to an end in 1921, thousands of guerrillas continued to wage war on the invaders in the Ukrainian countryside. According to captured Soviet documents first published in Galicia in 1932 and later unintentionally confirmed by a Soviet scholar, as of April 1, 1921, at least 102 armed bands were fighting in Ukraine and the Crimea, some with as many as 800 men. Excluding the Makhno army, which had 10,000 to 15,000 men, there were at least 10,000 of these “bandits,” most of whom were conscious Ukrainians. 18 While we do not have later figures, Soviet Ukrainian newspapers continued to report on outbreaks of “kulak banditism” until mid-1924, and it seems to have been fairly widespread until mid-1923.

The Donbas Russians upon whom the Bolsheviks relied for popular support wanted nothing to do with the rest of Ukraine, and neither did the Bolshevik leaders there. As far as they were concerned, they were Russian and wanted to be part of Russia, and local Ukrainians were either kulaks or counterrevolutionaries – either way, what they wanted simply did not count. In 1918 the Donbas Bolsheviks went so far as to establish their own government separate from the rest of Ukraine, the Donets-Krivoi-Rog Republic. Certainly, it is always difficult for members of a Herrenvolk to come to terms with the emerging national aspirations of those whom they were used to seeing as uncouth peasants, and this, as Mykola Skrypnyk recognized in 1920, was the fundamental weakness of the various Soviet regimes in Ukraine:

“Our tragedy in Ukraine is the very fact that, in order to have the help of the working class, Russian by nationality or Russified, whose attitude toward the Ukrainian language and culture was insulting and sometimes even intimidating, with its help and its forces we had to subjugate the peasantry and village proletariat, and those people who were of Ukrainian nationality were, due to complex historical circumstances, suspicious and hostile to everything Russian, ‘Muscovite’.” 19

Skrypnyk’s solution, which the party would officially adopt in 1923, was to actively foster the development of Ukrainian culture. 20


  1. Readers familiar with only the official view might read the eloquent historical essay written by a promising Ukrainian philologist in 1966, suppressed by the censor at the last moment and later circulated in Ukrainian samvydav: M. Iu. Braichevsky, “Presoedinenie ili vossoedinenie? Kriticheskie zamechanie po povodu odnoi kontseptsii,” in Roman Kupchinsky, ed., “Natsionalnyi vopros v SSSR: Sbornik dokumentov” (Munich: 1975), pp. 62-125. This representative presentation of the Ukrainian view of Ukraine’s inclusion in the Russian empire is remarkably similar to that found in early Soviet historiography in, for example, M. N. Pokrovsky, “Izbrannie proizvedenia” (Moscow: 1965-67), I, pp. 450-517.
  2. The standard monograph on this subject, containing the text of many official tsarist documents, is Fedir Savchenko, “Zaborona ukrainstva 1876 r.” (Kharkiv-Kiev: 1930). A reprint was published in Munich in 1970.
  3. Mykola Porsh, leader of the Ukrainian Social-Democrats, published an interesting sociological inquiry into this question based on the 1897 census: Mykola Porsh, “Vidnosyny Ukrainy do inshykh raioniv Rossiyi na robitnychomu rynku na osnovi pershoho vseliudskoho perepysu, Literaturno-naukovyi vistnyk, 1912, Nos. 2 and 3.
  4. M. Ravich-Cherkassky, “Istoria Komunisticheskoi Partiyi (b-ov) Ukrainy” (Kharkiv: 1923), pp. 3-5, 9-11, 165.
  5. Peter Kenez, “Civil War in South Russia, 1919-20” (Berkeley: 1977), pp. 151-60.
  6. Frantisek Silnicky, “Natsionalnaya politika KPSS v period s 1917 po 1922 god” (Munich: 1978), pp. 33-41.
  7. An easily available bilingual edition of Yurkevych’s pamphlet is L. Rybalka, “Rosiyski sotsial-demokraty i natsionalne pytannia” (Munich: 1969).
  8. Georg Lapchinsky, “Z pershykh dniv vseukrainskoyi vlady,” Letopis revoliutsiyi, 1927, No. 5-6, p. 56.
  9. “Tekst razgovora po priamomu provodu predstavitelia S. N. K. I. Stalina s predstav. TsKUSDRP Porshem i oblastnoi org. RSDRP (b) Bakinskim 30 Noibria, 1917 god na Kievshchine: Khronika sobytiy” (Kiev: 1928), p. 532.
  10. Oliver H. Radkey, “The Election to the Russian Constituent Assembly” (Cambridge, Mass., 1950), pp. 29ff.
  11. “1917 god na Kievshchine,” pp. 434-6; Ravich-Cherkassky, “Istoria KP(b)U?” pp. 44-6. Later Soviet historiography finds the whole affair so embarrassing that it merely takes the Kharkiv rump as the first congress of soviets and completely ignores the Kiev events preceding it.
  12. For the text of their declaration denouncing Lenin’s recognition of the right to self-determination, see M. N. Pokrovsky, ed., “Ocherki po istoriyi Oktiabrskoi revoliutsiyi: Raboty istoricheskogo seminaria Instituta Krasnoi professury” (Moscow-Leningrad, 1927), I, pp. 514-18.
  13. V. Sadovsky, “Natsionalna polityka Sovitiv na Ukraini” (Warsaw: 1937), p. 77.
  14. “Budivnytstvo Radianskoyi Ukrainy” (Kharkiv: 1928), I, p.11.
  15. See his report in the Kiev Soviet, quoted in Pavlo Khrystiuk, “Zamitky i materialy do istoriyi ukrainskoyi revoliutsiyi, 1917-23 rr.” (Vienna: 1921-1922), IV, p. 173.
  16. A. Shlikhter, “Borba za khleb na Ukraini v 1919 godu,” Litopys revoliutsiyi, 1928, No. 2, p. 135.
  17. Ravich-Cherkassky, “Istoria KP(b)U,” p. 170.
  18. “Protybolshevytski povstannia na Ukraini v 1921 (Na osnovi ofitsiyalnykh bolshevytskykh zvidomlen inshykh neopublikovanykh materialiv sot. N. P-pa).” Litopys Chervonoyi Kalyny, IV: 6 and 9 (1932). O. O. Kucher “Rozhrom zbroinoyi vnutrishnoyi kontrrevoliutsiyi na Ukraini u 1921-1923 rr.” (Kharkiv: 1971), p. 18.
  19. Mykola Skrypnyk, “Statti i promovy z natsionalnoho pytannia” (Munich: 1974), p.11.
  20. Ibid., p. 18.
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