January 16, 1983

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



Collectivization of agriculture and the famine

Despite the progress achieved by Ukrainianization, the vast majority of Ukrainians remained peasants. For most Ukrainians, NEP and Ukrainianization were but two sides of the same coin, and we have seen that both policies were necessary in Ukraine to placate the same social force, the Ukrainian peasantry. Conversely, abandonment of one implied abandonment of the other. Without NEP, Ukrainianization lost its political justification, for nothing could possibly placate peasants if the state was taking their farms away.

During the 1920s, official statements in the Soviet press defined the party’s main task in Ukraine as winning over the “rural masses” in general and the village intelligentsia in particular 1 There is ample evidence to suggest that this approach enjoyed only limited success at best. Those connected to the regime, even in the most innocuous way as village correspondents, were shunned by their neighbors, as Zatonsky frankly admitted in a speech delivered to a 1926 selkor conference. 2

Evidence of the regime’s feeling of insecurity in the Ukrainian countryside is the fact that, while it abolished the kombedy in Russia in 1920, it felt the need to retain them in only a slightly altered form in the Ukrainian countryside as the komnezamy until 1933.

The only difference between the kombedy and Ukrainian komnezamy was that the latter organizations were supposed to also include the poorest middle peasants, but never so many of them that they would make up over 15-20 percent of the membership of any given village komnezam. They retained all the powers of the old kombedy, exercised state power, and in many places ruled without any village Soviet until 1925 when they were “reorganized” into “voluntary social organizations” without state power. 3

The regime also took care to penetrate the countryside by a system of secret police agents and collaborators (seksoty). 4 As one account described it, the secret police established a system of OGPU residents on the district level who, disguised as instructors, statisticians, insurance agents, agronomists, and so on, worked incessantly to create a dense network of secret collaborators known as seksoty. The secret district residents of the OGPU did not directly involve the seksoty in subversion. When visiting villages they merely observed, noted and selected possible candidates as possible candidates of the OGPU, and notified the authorities. A man who was earmarked for work as a future seksot or agent was called to the okrug department of the OGPU. There the chief of the okrug department had a “talk” with him, while a revolver lay on the table between them, and required him to sign an obligation. From that moment on the seksot was in touch with the district agent of the OGPU in the locality where he lived. Numbers varied from place to place depending on the size of the population, but everywhere the number of people thus recruited constituted a considerable part of the population. 5

The seksoty enabled the regime to identify real and potential enemies, and this placed the regime in a far stronger position vis-a-vis the peasantry than it had been in the early 1920s, when the Bolsheviks confronted the village as strangers and without any idea of who was who. Whenever the party might decide the time was right to settle the unfinished business left over from the civil war, it would be ready.

The policy of “liquidation of the kulaks as a class” and forced total collectivization of agriculture was announced by Stalin on December 27, 1929, and was legalized by the Central Committee resolutions of January 5 and 30, 1930. 6

How were these decisions carried out in Ukraine? An outsider or group of outsiders – usually either a plenipotentiary of the regime or a Russian worker recruited as a “twenty-five-thousander” – would be sent into the village with the power to veto any action of the local authorities or simply remove them. A village meeting would be called at which the new authority would try – often unsuccessfully – to browbeat the peasants into approving the collective farm and the expropriation of the kulaks.

The outsider would lead the local komnezam to the farms of those who were to be expropriated and either carry off everything of value or throw the whole family – men, women and children – into the snow. Those who were dekulakized were often shunned by their neighbors who had been threatened with being themselves dekulakized if they ever helped a kulak. Simultaneously, the local church was usually closed, the village priest and, if he were considered suspect, the local schoolteacher would either be arrested or run off. 7 Dekulakization thus meant the decapitation of the village, the elimination of the best farmers and leaders – of anyone who might lead the village in fighting back.

When it came to collectivization, the policy was carried out more vigorously than in Russia. At first the difference seems slight, but it was to grow into a significant one as the following figures on the level of collectivization in Ukraine and Russia show.

 Ukraine Russia
 Late 1929 8.6% of peasant farms 7.4% of peasant farms
 Early 1930 65% of peasant farms 59% of peasant farms
 Mid-1932 70% of peasant farms 59.3% of peasant farms

And the trend continued until collectivization was completed: by 1935: 91.3 percent of all peasant farms in Ukraine were collectivized, while Russia did not reach the 90 percent mark until late in 1937. 8 The higher level of collectivization in Ukraine is only partially explained by the fact that collectivization of the most important grain-producing areas was given priority; collectivization in Ukraine had a special task which the newspaper Proletarska Pravda summed up on January 22, 1930: “to destroy the social basis of Ukrainian nationalism – individual peasant agriculture.” 9

The peasants responded by fighting back. Even the Soviet sources make this clear. According to A. F. Chmyga, the number of “registered kulak terrorist acts” in Ukraine (and the regime tended to dub any peasant it did not care for a kulak) grew fourfold from 1927 to 1929, with 1,262 such acts reported in 1929. 10 During the first half of 1930, there were more reports of “terrorism” than for the whole previous year – over 1,500. 11 Later figures are unavailable, perhaps because they became so numerous that officials could no longer keep count.

Defectors who had worked in the village as representatives of the regime speak of Communists being found with their bellies cut open and stuffed with ears of wheat. 12 There are numerous cases in which the women of the village, perhaps feeling they were less likely to be arrested, took it upon themselves to expel the local administration, abolish the collective farm, and take what had been taken from them. Such cases were so widespread as to become proverbial as the “babski bunty.” 13

Whatever expectations the regime might have had at the beginning of the collectivization campaign, the transition from individual farms to large kolkhozy was not productive but extractive; simply taking everyone’s animals and implements to the center of the village and proclaiming them socialized did nothing to raise output. The point was to give the regime greater control over the farmers and their produce; after all, it was much easier for the state to take all it wanted from a single threshing room floor than it was to search each individual farmstead.

And this is why, while productivity declined, the amount taken by the state (“marketed”) rose: although the total Soviet grain harvest of 1932 was significantly below that of 1927, grain “marketings” from that harvest were two and one-half times those of 1927-28. 14

As economic depression deepened in the West, agricultural prices dropped steeply in relation to those of manufactured goods. The Soviet Union, whose entite plan of development was predicated on paying for imported capital goods with the proceeds from agricultural sales, found that a given machine cost far more grain than had previously been the case. This provided a motive for intensifying the exploitation of the peasantry. 15

Events in Kazakhstan in 1930 seem to have given Stalin the answer to the dilemma of how to obtain more produce and simultaneously deal with troublesome peasants. The Kazakhs, primarily herdsmen, had responded to collectivization with the wholesale slaughter of their livestock. So many starved subsequently that the 1939 Soviet census shows 21.9 percent fewer Kazakhs in the Soviet Union than there had been in 1926. 16 But resistance among the Kazakhs had ceased. The lesson that famine could be used as a weapon was applied to the Ukrainians in 1933.

This was done by the imposition of grain procurement quotas on Ukraine far out of proportion to the country’s share of the total harvest for the Soviet Union. Although Moscow was aware that Ukraine’s agriculture was disorganized due to collectivization, the republic was obliged to deliver 2.3 times the amount of grain marketed during the best year before collectivization.

In 1930, 7.7 million tons of grain were taken out of Ukraine, 33 percent of the harvest of 23 million tons. Although Ukraine produced only 27 percent of all the grain harvested in the USSR, it supplied 38 percent of the Soviet Union’s grain procurements. In 1931, despite a decline in sown area, Moscow kept the same quota of 7.7 million tons and insisted upon its being met even after it became apparent that the harvest was only 18.3 million tons according to official figures, and almost 30 percent of that was lost during the harvest. Already at this time a conscious policy of leading the Ukrainian countryside to catastrophe can be discerned. 17

The 1932 Ukrainian wheat crop was less than two-thirds that of 1930, but still larger than the worst year of the NEP when there had been no famine. 18 At the beginning of the year, the Russian press had published editorials insisting that Ukraine could and would have to meet its “backwardness” in procuring grain, and local officials seemed willing to do so. 19 In any case, frequent attacks on “opportunists” on the local level, who “did not want to see the kulaks in their midst” and were not fulfilling their quotas, left little to the imagination regarding the fate of those who did not meet the quotas. 20

Still, the quotas were not met, in spite of the fact that they were lowered three times. 21 The most draconian measures imaginable were taken against the farmers. On the union level, the law on inviolability of socialist property, adopted on August 7, 1932, declared all collective farm property “sacred and inviolate.” Anyone who so much as gleaned an ear of grain or bit the root off a sugar beet was to be considered an “enemy of the people,” subject to execution or, in extenuating circumstances, imprisonment for not less than 10 years and confiscation of all property. A second part of the decree provided for five to 10 years in a concentration camp for collective farmers who attempted to force others to leave the kolkhoz.

During 1932, 20 percent of all persons convicted in Soviet legal courts were sentenced under this decree, and Stalin himself called it “the basis of revolutionary legality at the present moment.” 22

In Ukraine a decree of December 6, 1932, singled out six villages which had allegedly sabotaged the grain deliveries. The “blacklist” established by this decree was soon extended in wholesale fashion. It meant the complete economic blocade of villages which had not delivered the required quantity of grain. It specifically provided for the immediate closing of state and cooperative stores and the removal of their goods from the village; a complete ban on all trade in the village concerned, including trade in essential consumer goods and foodstuffs, by kolkhozy, kolkhoznyky and individual farmers; halting and immediately calling in all credits and advances; a thoroughgoing purge of the local cooperative and state apparatuses; the purge of all “foreign elements” and “wreckers” of the grain procurements from the kolkhoz (which at that time was equivalent to being sentenced to death by starvation) 23

Those who survived the famine do not describe the harvest of 1932 as being anything like a harvest failure, but merely as mediocre. When the first procurements campaign was carried out in August, the overwhelming majority of the peasants in many areas met their norms. Then, in October, a new levy was imposed, equal to half the earlier levy, and the local “tow brigada” went around searching and taking whatever they could find. At the beginning of 1933, a third levy was announced, and whatever remained from the earlier levies was taken at this time. Neither food nor seed were left in the village. 24

There are so many accounts by survivors of the horrors of life in the villages of Ukraine that it is impossible to present an adequate picture here. In some areas, people became bloated as early as the spring of 1932, but the most terrible time was during the winter of 1932-33. Survivors tell of mass death by starvation, of mass-burials in pits, of whole villages depopulated, of homeless waifs as well as adults flocking to the towns in order to find something to eat, of railroad stations literally flooded with dying peasants who begged lying down because they were too weak to stand. 25

Many of the starving tried to get across the border into Russia where bread was available. Iwan Majstrenko, a former Soviet functionary and newspaper editor, recalled the case of two villages across from each other on opposite banks of the river separating Ukraine and Russia, where peasants from the Ukrainian side would swim across at night in order to purchase bread the following morning, because bread was obtainable only on the Russian side. 26

In order to limit the famine to Ukraine, the political police established border checkpoints along the railroad lines in order to prevent the starving from entering Russia and prevent anyone coming from Russia from carrying food with him into Ukraine. 27

This meant a de facto “blacklisting,” that is, economic blockade, of the entire Soviet Ukrainian Republic.


  1. See, for example, Visti VUTsVK, April 16, 1924, p. 1 (lead editorial).
  2. V. Zatonsky, “Leninovym shliakhom (Promova na poshyreniy naradi selkoriv ‘Radianske selo’),” (Kharkiv, 1926), p. 21.
  3. See P. S. Zahorsky, P. K. Stoian, “Narysy istoriyi komitetiv nezamozhnykh selian” (Kiev, 1960).
  4. Sekretni sotrudnyky (secret collaborators).
  5. P. Lutarewytch, “A Resistance Group of the Ukrainian Underground, 1920-1926,” Ukrainian Review, No. 2 (1956), p. 90.
  6. A treasure trove of eyewitness accounts of dekulakization, collectivization, and the famine of 1933 is found in the files of the Harvard University Refugee Interview Project which was conducted in the early 1950s. This material broadly confirms collections of eyewitness-accounts published by the Democratic Association of Ukrainians Formerly Repressed by the Soviets (DOBRUS) as “The Black Deeds of the Kremlin: A White Book” (Toronto and Detroit: 1953-1955).
  7. Vasyl Hryshko, “Moskva sliozam ne viryt: Trahediya Ukrayiny 1933 roku z perspektyvy 30-richchia (1933-1963)” (New York, 1963), p. 22.
  8. Ibid., p. 21.
  9. Quoted in Fedir Pigido, “Ukrayina pid bolshevytskoyu okupatsiyeyu” (Munich; 1956), p. 107.
  10. A. F. Chmyga, “XV s’iezd VKP(b) o kollektivizatsiyi selskogo khoziaystva i nachalo osushchestvleniya ego resheniyi na Ukrayine,” Vestnik Moskovskogo universiteta, 1967, No. 6, p. 33; A. F. Chmyga, “Kolkhoznoye dvizheniye na Ukrayine” (Moscow, 1974), p. 302.
  11. O. M. Krykunenko, “Borotba Komunistychnoyi partiyi Ukrayiny za zdiysnennia leninskoho kooperatyvnoho planu” (Lviv, 1970), p. 55.
  12. Victor Kravchenko, “I Chose Freedom: The Personal and Political Life of a Soviet Official” (New York, 1946), p. 87.
  13. See, for example, F. Pravoberezhnyi, “8,000,000: 1933-iy rik na Ukrayini” (Winnipeg; 1951), p. 42.
  14. Naum Jasny, “The Socialized Agriculture of the USSR: Plans and Performance” (Stanford, 1949), p. 81.
  15. This point was made by V. Holub, “Prychyny holodu 1932-1933 rr.,” Vpered: Ukrayinskyi robitnychyi chasopys, 1958. No. 10, p. 6.
  16. V. I. Kozlov, “Natsionalnosti SSSR: (Etno demograficheskiy obzor)” (Moscow, 1975), p. 240.
  17. V. Holub, “Prychyny holodu 1932-1933 rr.,” Vpered, 1958, No. 10, p. 6.
  18. I. F. Ganzha, I. I. Slinko, P. V. Shostak, “Ukrainskoye selo na puti k sotsializmu,” in V. P. Danilov, ed., “Ocherki istoriyi kollektivizatsiyi selskogo khoziaystva v soyuznykh respublikakh” (Moscow, 1963), p. 199.
  19. See, for example, the lead editorial in Pravda, January 8, 1932.
  20. See, for example, Visti VUTsVK, August 16, 1932, p. 1. One could cite examples of such articles almost indefinitely.
  21. I. F. Ganzha, et. al., “Ukrainskoye selo na puti k sotsializmu,” p. 203.
  22. Robert Conquest, ed., “Agricultural Workers in the USSR” (London, Sydney, Toronto: 1968), pp. 24-5.
  23. Visti VUTsVK, December 8, 1932, p. 1.
  24. F. Pravoberezhny, “8,000,000,” pp. 51-4.
  25. In addition to the files of the Harvard Refugee Interview Project, the following contain much eyewitness testimony: “The Black Deeds of the Kremlin”; Pravoberezhny, “8,000,000”; M. Verbytsky, ed., “Naibilshyi zlochyn Kremlia: Stvorenyi sovietskoyu Moskvoyu holod v Ukraini 1932-33 rr.” (London, 1952); Iur. Semenko, “Holod 1933 roku v Ukrayini: Svidchennia pro vynyshchuvannia Moskvoyu ukrayinskoho selianstva” (New York, 1963; London, 1954). For Western eyewitness descriptions see: Malcolm Muggeridge, “Winter in Moscow” (Boston, 1934); William Henry Chamberlin, “Russia’s Iron Age” (Boston, 1934). Other sources are examined by Dana Dalrymple, “The Soviet Famine of 1932-34,” Soviet Studies, XV: 3, pp. 250-84; XVI: 3; pp. 471-4 (1964-65). Useful bibliographies are: Alexandra Pidhaina, “A Bibliography of the Great Famine in Ukraine, 1932-1934,” The New Review: A Journal of East-European History, XIII: 4 (1973), pp. 32-68; “Ukrayinska literatura pro holod v 1932 i 1933 rokakh,” Vilna Ukraina, No. 18 (1958), pp. 42-4.
  26. I. Majstrenko, “Do 25-richchia holodu 1933 r.,” Vpered, 1958, No. 7. pp. 1-2.
  27. Verbytsky, ed., “Naibilshyi zlochyn Kremlia,” pp. 89-90. See also: Leonid Plyushch, “History’s Carnival: A Dissident’s Autobiography” (New York and London: 1977), p. 41.
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