January 16, 1983

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



Soviet Ukraine under Skrypnyk

Only a handful of old Bolsheviks were Ukrainians: Hryhoriy Petrovsky, Dmytro Manuilsky, Vlas Chubar, Volodymyr Zatonsky and Mykola Skrypnyk. Skrypnyk joined Russian Social-Democracy at the turn of the century, before it split into Bolshevik and Menshevik, and once the rift occurred he joined Lenin’s faction, never to waver thereafter.

His was the typical career of a “professional revolutionary” missions to various parts of the empire on Lenin’s behalf, arrests, escapes from Siberia, and even a brief taste of emigre life in Europe. 1 After helping Lenin seize power as a member of the Petrograd Soviet’s Revolutionary-Military Committee, Lenin sent him to Ukraine as his personal representative. For a brief period on the eve of the German occupation of 1918, he even headed the Soviet Ukrainian government, and he was architect of the decisions adopted at the Taganrog Party Conference which founded the CP(b)U.

In 1920 he became an advocate of the changes in nationality policy later to be adopted as Ukrainianization, and in the discussions preceding the formation of the USSR and afterwards he was one of the chief defenders of the prerogatives of the Soviet republics. When Kaganovich was attacked by Shumsky, Skrypnyk was tapped as the leading defender of official policies in Soviet Ukraine, and in 1927 his loyalty was rewarded with the post of education commissar.

While Moscow’s appointees came and went, Skrypnyk remained in Ukraine to become first among equals in the country’s political hierarchy. When Kaganovich was withdrawn in 1928, Stanislaw Kossior succeeded him as first secretary, but there was no doubt that Skrypnyk was the real man in charge. He was by far the most powerful of the various party satraps who ruled the various administrative subdivisions of the Soviet Union in the 1920s, the undisputed political strongman of Soviet Ukraine.

Just as the formation of the United Opposition in 1926 had led Stalin to seek support in Ukraine by intervening on the side of Russian Communists there, the 1928 rift between him and Bukharin motivated him to intervene on the side of the Ukrainian Communists.

By 1928 the Ukrainianization policy had succeeded in strengthening the Ukrainian component in the party to such an extent that instead of offering up a “national deviationist,” he “bought” Skrypnyk by withdrawing Kaganovich. 2

Skrypnyk had already laid claim to eminence as a theoretician by creating a chair of the nationality question in the Ukrainian Institute of Marxism-Leninism – claiming all-union authority for it by arguing that Ukraine was the “best laboratory” for studying the nationality question because it had been itself a colony and now was a Soviet republic with its own minorities whose rights had to be protected – and occupying the chair himself.

One may be certain that Stalin was less than pleased with Skrypnyk’s claim to pre-eminence in a theoretical field to which Stalin had made his own contributions, and Skrypnyk’s 1927 appointment to the education commissariat further strengthened his position by placing him in charge of the Ukrainianization program as well as all educational, cultural and scholarly work. With Kaganovich withdrawn, Skrypnyk was in a position to be as independent as, say, Gomulka in the late 1950s, and he did not hesitate to use his position to the utmost.

Skrypnyk pursued policies bound to win him popularity with the Ukrainians. He lobbied for union investment with such zeal that he gained a reputation of being the man who brought all good things to Ukraine. He defended the right of Ukrainian culture to develop separately, condemning those who wanted to attack Khvyliovyi for his old sins and those who refused to assign the old Rus’ epic, “The Tale of Ihor’s Armament,” to Ukrainian literature. He pushed Ukrainianization far more rapidly than it had ever been pushed before, forcing hundreds of factory gazettes and major dailies (including the main state organ in Odessa, which had never been a Ukrainian city) to switch from Russian to Ukrainian. Officials who had not yet learned Ukrainian now had to do so or be dismissed. Those university courses which had hitherto been taught in Russian now switched to Ukrainian, and it became impossible to gain a post-secondary education in Russian without going to Russia.

But to those who complained that the rights of Ukraine’s Russians were violated by the new state of affairs, he could point out that they were still considerably better off than Russia’s Ukrainians: at the same time that the more than 3 million Ukrainians of the North Caucasus were served by only 240 Ukrainian-language schools, Ukraine’s 2 million Russians had 1,771 Russian-language schools. 3 And there was certainly no Ukrainian-language higher education in Russia.

In fact, Skrypnyk complained quite loudly about how inept Russia was in satisfying the cultural needs of its Ukrainians and strived to establish a cultural protectorate over them, all the while denying that he was doing anything beyond aiding them by sending textbooks and schoolteachers. 4 At one point he went so far as to argue that Russia’s record was so abysmal that the “fascist” nationalists in Western Ukraine were taking advantage of it in order to discredit Soviet power in the eyes of the masses and that the only solution was for Russia to cede heavily Ukrainian border areas to Ukraine. 5 It is hardly likely that Stalin was overjoyed to receive what amounted to a territorial demand from one whom he considered his subordinate.

In any case, a Byzantine campaign to bring Skrypnyk low can be discerned from the end of 1928 when his client Matviy Yavorsky, the “ideological watchdog” of Soviet Ukrainian historians, was attacked by Pavel Gorin, secretary of the Russian Society of Marxist Historians, at the All-Union Conference of Marxist Historians. 6

A few weeks later, Pravda carried a brutal review of Yavorsky’s brief textbook history of Ukraine which concluded that it was “strange” the Ukrainian Commissariat of Education had ever sanctioned so pernicious a book. 7 Soon the pages of Russian and Ukrainian historical journals were filled with denunciations of “Yavorskyism,” sometimes finding fault with the very fact that he dealt with Ukrainian history as a national history separate from that of Russia. As one critic wrote, “The basic error of Comrade Yavorsky’s book is that it portrays the history of Ukraine as a distinct process.” 8 The political implication was obvious and ominous: if Ukraine did not possess its own distinct history, then it was not a country in its own right and ought not be treated as such. This, in turn, implied an attack on Skrypnyk’s whole policy.

As for Yavorsky, he was accused of having once been a gendarme in the Austrian army, was accordingly expelled from the CP(b)U in 1930, arrested during the Postyshev terror of 1933, and ended his days in the gulag. He was last reported seen in the Solovky Islands, where he was described as having bitterly regretted his Bolshevik past. 9

Attacks upon distinctively Ukrainian cultural currents, regardless of whether they were Communist, became an inherent part of Stalin’s so-called cultural revolution (1928-32). In Russia, however, it was primarily the so-called bourgeois intelligentsia which suffered, while in Ukraine attacks on Ukrainian Communists actually took precedence over those on non-Marxists. Yavorsky was the first victim of the cultural revolution in Ukraine, while Mykhailo Hrushevsky, the dean of traditional Ukrainian historians, was left unmolested until 1931. The fall of another Skrypnyk client, the philosopher Volodymyr Yurinets, closely followed Yavorsky’s, but the Ukrainian “bourgeois” intelligentsia was not neglected for long, and the manner in which it was attacked also boded ill for Skrypnyk.

It would have been extremely difficult for Skrypnyk to have attempted to defend either the All-Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, founded in 1918 and including a number of members once quite prominent in the Ukrainian People’s (National) Republic and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, which had split off from Russian Orthodoxy during the revolution. They were thus easy targets for those who wished to weaken Skrypnyk by attacking Ukrainian national institutions. Moreover, Skrypnyk had been intimately involved in the linguistic discussions which led to the adoption of a standardized orthography in 1928, had gone on record in favor of linguistic purism, and at one point even suggested supplementing the Ukrainian Cyrillic by adding the Latin letters “S” and “Z” to designate sounds represented by the double consonants “dz” and “dzh.” 10

In November 1929 the GPU “discovered” an alleged conspiracy called the Union for the Liberation of Ukraine and arrested a number of prominent scholars and academicians. 11 On December 22, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church was tied into the affair and was forced to proclaim itself liquidated the following January. The resolutions forced upon the so-called liquidation sobor repudiated not only religious principles but also the principles upon which Ukraine’s political distinctiveness had been based. Autocephaly was denounced as “a symbol of Petliurist independence,” clerical Ukrainianization as “a means of inciting national animosity.” 12 It did not take much imagination to translate these principles from the secular to the temporal realm.

As the GPU presented it, the Union for the Liberation of Ukraine (SVU) had supposedly been led by Serhiy Yefremov, former leader of the Ukrainian Party of Socialist-Federalists and a vocal critic of the regime, who was also an academician in the history of Ukrainian literature, and Volodymyr Chekhivsky, former leader of the Autocephalous Church. The conspiracy was supposed to have begun in 1926, and it strains credulity to think that such a widespread conspiracy as the SVU could have escaped the notice of the CPU and its secret collaborators for over three years.

The SVU was accused of plotting the assassination of Soviet leaders (including Skrypnyk), the restoration of capitalism in a fascist independent Ukrainian state by means of an armed uprising supported by foreign capitalist states, attempting to organize the kulaks and bourgeois survivals – particularly the so-called “kulak intelligentsia” of the villages and high schools. Cells had allegedly been established in both the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences and the Autocephalous Church hierarchy.

Politically, the most significant charge was that it had engaged in cultural sabotage which consisted in trying to make Ukrainian culture as different from Russian as possible. So many academicians were arrested that whole institutes had to be closed, particularly the linguistic institutes which were accused of having engaged in nationalistic wrecking by trying to make the Ukrainian language as different from the Russian as possible.

In short, the flower of the national intelligentsia was brought low, and cultural nationalism was identified with sabotage by class enemies. It would not be too long before the implication was drawn that Skrypnyk himself had been in league with these “saboteurs,” for he had, of course, although what they had done hardly qualifies as sabotage.46. On the SVU trial, see Geliy Snegirev, “Mama moia, mama…,” Kontinent, Nos. 11-15 (1977-1978). The indictment was published in Visti VUTsVK, February 28 – March 9, 1930. Testimony on “wrecking in linguistics” appeared in Visti VUTsVK, March 11, 1930, p. 3. [/ref]

Skrypnyk was able to defend himself from the political fallout from the SVU affair by viciously attacking the accused in public, while judiciously ignoring the substance of their alleged wrecking when it struck too close to home, particularly in linguistics. 13 Meanwhile, Stalin sounded a temporary retreat. Just as he had signaled a brief respite for the peasantry in his famous “Dizziness from Success” speech, he made a similar move regarding the nationalities at the XVIth Party Congress by criticizing those who expected the “coming together and merging of nations” to take place in the near future.

In the non-Russian republics this meant a renewed effort on the purely quantitative side of indigenization, but any respite for Skrypnyk was temporary indeed. While the witch hunts for nationalistic “deviationists” within the CP(b)U temporarily ceased, witch hunts among writers continued. More subtly, Skrypnyk’s bureaucratic power base was being chipped away through the creeping centralization of the education system in union hands and the destruction of the Ukrainian Institute of Marxism-Leninism.

Hryhoriy Hrynko had, during his brief tenure as Ukrainian commissar of education, established an education system radically different from that which Lunancharsky set up in Russia. The so-called Hrynko system was retained until the end of the 1920s, when an all-union system was adopted. Skrypnyk went along with this, at least in public, but simultaneously insisted that there must be no talk of placing the administration of education in union hands. 14

Yet this is precisely what happened by degrees. On September 5, 1931, the Union Central Committee issued a detailed order on how education was to be run, and a union government decree of September 9, 1932, placed all higher education under direct union supervision. 15 The Ukrainian Institute of Marxism-Leninism was in 1931 found guilty of all sorts of national deviations and broken up into an association of autonomous institutes headed by Shlikhter. 16

Finally, Skrypnyk’s supporters seem to have been removed from leadership positions on the district (raion) level. From the beginning of 1931 to mid-1932 fully 80 percent of the district party secretaries in Ukraine were replaced. 17 We know almost nothing about these new men or, indeed, about those they replaced. In all likelihood, many of those who lost their posts were being punished for failure to carry out central dictates regarding the collectivization of agriculture and procurement of agricultural produce, and those who got the jobs did so because of their zeal – or at least willingness – to carry out the center’s dictates no matter what they might be. Such new men were far more likely to be loyal to Stalin than to a local satrap who did much to soften the most brutal aspects of collectivization.

The collectivization of agriculture, the man-made famine of 1933, and their role in Skrypnyk’s fall will be dealt with below. Suffice it to state at this point that Moscow did not find the work of the Ukrainian Party organization adequate in either agriculture collectivization or procurements, and in January 1933 Pavel Postyshev, the former head of the Kharkiv oblast party organization who had been called to Moscow a few years earlier for political seasoning, was returned to his old post and given a new one of second CP(b)U secretary. Officially subordinate to Kossior, Postyshev actually had dictatorial powers and began a campaign against an initially unnamed “national deviation” quite similar to the campaign against the Right deviation which had preceded Bukharin’s fall in Russia.

On March 1, 1933, Visti announced a major government reshuffle in which Skrypnyk was transferred from education to Derzhplan (the Ukrainian counterpart to Gosplan), and on June 10 Postyshev denounced him by name, accusing him of having committed a host of national deviations. Interestingly, the only specific charge which Postyshev made at this time was that Skrypnyk’s advocacy of the use of the Ietter £, (hard g) in Ukrainian objectively aided the annexationist designs of the Polish landlords by bringing the Ukrainian language closer to Polish and pushing it farther away from Russian. 18

Soon thereafter, Andriy Khvylia, a former Borotbist who owed his prominence to having denounced Shumsky to Kaganovich in 1925, delivered a lecture on the Skrypnykite deviation in linguistics. Khvylia portrayed any manifestation of Ukrainian linguistic purism as sabotage, condemned Skrypnyk’s role in the adoption of the 1928 orthography, and even disinterred Skrypnyk’s old proposal to supplement the Ukrainian Cyrillic alphabet with two Latin letters, saying: “Comrade Skrypnyk could not have failed to know that he had entered upon the path of isolating the Ukrainian language from Russian and bringing it closer to Polish.” He announced that henceforth the party and Commissariat of Education would fight “to purge the new orthography of the counterrevolutionary rubbish put into it” and pledged to have a new orthography ready within a month. 19

Soon the periodical press was carrying articles in which Khvylia denounced Skrypnyk for linguistic separatism “in a kulak-Petliurist spirit” and explicitly identified him with the type of wrecking portrayed during the SVU trial. 20

Other members of the CP(b)U leadership vied with each other to expose further deviations which Skrypnyk had committed. Panas Liubchenko, for example, not only connected Skrypnyk with the “kulak Ukrainian nationalist” sabotage of SVU vintage, but also with the historian Matviy Yavorsky. 21 Skrypnyk must have had few illusions regarding what fate awaited him, and on July 6, 1933, he committed suicide.


  1. Basic biographical works on Skrypnyk are: Iwan Koszeliwec, “Mykola Skrypnyk” (Munich, 1972); Iu. Babko and I. Bilokobylsky, “Mykola Oleksiiovych Skrypnyk” (Kiev, 1967); M. Rubach, ed., “Shliakhamy zaslan ta borotby (Dokumenty do zhytiepysu t. Skrypnyka)” (Kharkiv, 1932).
  2. Edward Hallett Carr, “Foundations of a Planned Economy, 1926-1929” (New York, 1969-1971), II, p. 66.
  3. Iwan Koszeliwec, “Mykola Skrypnyk,” p. 161.
  4. Mykola Skrypnyk, “Statti i promovy” (Kharkiv,1930-1931), II, part 2, p. 247.
  5. Mykola Skrypnyk, “Statti i promovy z natsionalnoho pytannia” (Munich, 1974), pp. 101-7.
  6. The Yavorsky affair is discussed more fully in my forthcoming “Politics and History in Soviet Ukraine, 1921-1933,” Nationalities Papers, fall 1982.
  7. Pravda, February 10, 1929, p. 3.
  8. Istorik-marksist, XII (1929), p. 285.
  9. S. Pidhainy, “Ukrainska intelihentsiya na Solovkakh” (n.p., 1947), pp. 58-61.
  10. Mykola Skrypnyk, “Pidsumky pravopysnoyi dyskusiyi,” Visti VUTsVK, June 19, 1927, p. 3.
  11. Hryhory Kostiuk, “M. Zerov, P. Fylypovych, M. Drai-Khmara,” Ukrainska literaturna hazeta, IV: 1 (January 1960), p. 8.
  12. Bohdan R. Bociurkiw, “Ukrainization Movements Within the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.” Harvard Ukrainian Studies, III; IV: 1 (1979-1980), p. 111.
  13. See Mykola Skrypnyk, “Kontr-revoliutsiyne shkidnytstvo na kulturnomu fronti,” Chervonyi shliakh, 1930, No. 4, pp. 141-2.
  14. “Za yedynu systemu narodnoyi osvity: Narkomos – shtab tsilnoho kultosvitnoho protsesu (Vseukrainska narada okrinspektora Narosvity),” Visti VUTsVK, May 10, 1930, p. 3.
  15. Kulturne budivnytstvo v Ukrainskiy RSR: Vazhlyvishi rishennia Komunistychnoyi partiyi i Radianskoho uriadu, 1917-1959″ (Kiev, 1959), I, pp. 411, 559-567, 593, 604.
  16. Ibid., I, 54-544.
  17. Myroslav Prokop, “Ukraina i ukrainska polityka Moskvy” (Suchasnist, 1981), I, p. 32.
  18. Visti VUTsVK, June 22, 1933, pp. 1-2.
  19. Visti VUTsVK, June 30, 1933, p. 3.
  20. A Khvylia, “Vykorenyty, znyshchyty natsionalistychne korinnia na movnomu fronti,” Bilshovyk Ukrainy, 1933, No. 7-8, pp. 42-56, A. Khvylia, “Na borotbu z natsionalizmom na movnomu fronti,” Za markso-leninsku krytyku, 1933, No. 7, pp. 3-26.
  21. Visti VUTsVK, July 6, 1933 pp. 2, 4.
Previous Page| 1 2 3 4 5|Next Page|View As Single Page