January 16, 1983

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



Graphic portraits of the horrors of village life 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 in the famine and that the responses were, therefore, made without any prompting in the course of respondents’ stories of their life experiences. One rather typical account (case No. 128) is the following:

“…there was the famine in 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 1933-1934 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…a 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 was even known in the cities, as a worker (case 513) described in the following account of what he saw:

“I remember a case in 1933. I was in Kiev. I was at the 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 her to the militia (police). At the militia, 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.”

Nor were the common people the only ones to tell what they saw. Famine was at the time a common topic of conversation within the Soviet elite as well as among members of the foreign press, only a few of whom reported it. One account, no less valuable for coming to us second hand, comes from Khrushchev himself, who stated in his unofficial memoirs smuggled out and published in the West:

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 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…'” 1

Of course, Stalin did know. In 1932 Terekhov, a secretary of the KP(b)U Central Committee reported to him on starvation in the Kharkiv region, and Stalin accused him of telling fairy tales. 2 Later, both Admiral Raskolnikov of the Black Sea Fleet and General Yakir, commander of the Kiev Military District, both protested to Stalin about the famine and were rebuffed. 3

According to the 1939 Soviet Census, the number of Ukrainians in the USSR had decreased by over 3 million or 9.9 percent since the last official census was taken in 1926. 4 Had there been no famine, there would undoubtedly have been a substantial increase in population.

Between 1897 and 1926 – despite the demographic catastrophes of World War I, revolution, civil war and the 1921 famine – the Ukrainian population grew an average of 1.3 percent a year. 5 In 1958-59, the Ukrainian population of Soviet Ukraine had a natural rate of population growth of 1.39 percent, but by 1969, the republic’s natural rate of population growth had slowed to 0.6 percent. 6

Official Soviet administrative estimates on the eve of collectivization show a natural rate of population growth for the Ukrainian republic declining slightly during the NEP from 2.45 percent a year in 1924 to 2.15 percent in 1928, but even in 1931 it was still 1.45 percent. 7

And since Ukrainians were concentrated in the countryside where the birth and population growth rates tended to be higher, their natural rate of population growth would be expected to be higher than that for the republic as a whole.

The magnitude of the demographic catastrophe suffered by the Ukrainians is all the more sharply brought into focus when we compare Soviet population figures from 1926 and 1939 for the three East Slavic nations and the USSR as a whole:

 1926 population 1939 population % change
 USSR 147,027,900 170,557,100 +15.7
 Russians 77,791,100 99,591,500 +28.0
 Byelorussians 4,738,900 5,275,400 +11.3
 Ukrainians 31,195,000 28,111,000 -9.9  8

Comparison with the Byelorussians is particularly significant, since their purely political fate was very similar to that of the Ukrainians, they faced the same pressures to assimilate themselves to Russian nationality, but they did not go through the famine. Indeed, we have seen that until the famine the natural population growth for Ukrainians, although gradually declining, was significantly higher than the actual rate of Byelorussian population growth for the period.

Others will have to calculate as best they can a more precise figure for the total number of Ukrainians who perished during the famine, but given the demographic evidence, 5 to 7 million dead seems a conservative estimate. 9

Actually, it is possible that Soviet figures understate the losses suffered by the population. An official census was also made in 1937 but withdrawn before distribution, undoubtedly because it showed too clearly the magnitude of the losses suffered by the Soviet population, and it is not at all beyond the realm of possibility that those who prepared the 1939 census would have preferred to inflate their figures a little to the risk of being arrested as were their predecessors two years earlier.

Far higher estimates of mortality come from Westerners who claimed to have been given figures by Soviet officials off the record.

Adam J. Tawdul, a Russian-born American citizen who moved in the highest circles of Soviet society thanks to a pre-revolutionary acquaintance with Skrypnyk, claimed that Skrypnyk told him 8 million peasants had starved to death in Ukraine and the North Caucasus, and the famine was not yet over when Skrypnyk committed suicide. 10 Other Soviet officials gave him a figure of 8 to 9 million dead for Ukraine and the North Caucasus, plus an additional million or more for other regions. 11

William Horsley Gannt, the British psychologist who was in Russia studying with Pavlov, stated that one official told him that as many as 15 million might have perished. 12

The 10 million figure even comes out of Stalin’s mouth, although the dictator did not actually say that so many had died. Winston Churchill recorded the following conversation which he had with Stalin:

“‘Tell me,’ I asked, ‘have the stresses of this war been as bad to you personally as carrying through the policy of the collective farms?’

“This subject immediately aroused the Marshal.

“‘Oh, no,’ he said, ‘the collective farm policy was a terrible struggle.’

“‘I thought you would have found it bad,’ said I, ‘because you were not dealing with a few score thousands of aristocrats or big landowners, but with millions of small men.’

“‘Ten millions,’ he said, holding up his hands.” 13

Even if such an estimate did circulate among the Soviet elite, the fact is that even those who circulated them had no way of knowing the precise extent of the population loss. Regulations requiring the registration of burials could have made such knowledge possible, but by all accounts the peasants concluded that the dead were not afraid of even the GPU and buried their neighbors heedless of the regulations. All we can say with certainty is that millions died, that the Ukrainian people lost 10 percent of their number and were thereby quite literally decimated.

Famine as a tool of nationality policy

To be sure, all the peasants of the Soviet Union faced hard times in 1933, and there was mass starvation not only in Ukraine but also in the North Caucasus krai (including the Kuban) and along the Volga. However, the North Caucasus was then a largely Ukrainian area where Ukrainianization had been carried out during the 1920s, while its Cossacks had supported Kaledin in 1917 and provided the base for Denikin’s Volunteer Army. The Volga contained the so-called Volga German communes, and, in any case, mortality there seems to have been far lower than in Ukraine and the North Caucasus.

The point is that the areas affected by the man-made famine all contained groups which could plausibly be considered hindrances to Stalin’s plan to resurrect a politically homogeneous Russian empire. It did not, strictly speaking, correspond with the main grain-producing areas, as would be expected were it solely a question of intensified extraction solely motivated by economic concerns: there was no famine in the Central Black Soil Region of Russia, while in Ukraine it extended into Volhynia and Podillia, hardly part of the basic grain-producing area of the USSR.

Some Russian emigrants have expressed the contrary view that the geography of the famine was essentially accidental and attempt to explain the fact that Russia did not suffer famine was because the population there lived on potatoes. It is true that potatoes were more plentiful in Russia than in Ukraine. They played a lesser role in the diet of eastern Ukrainians than in Russian or western Ukrainian diets, and it is possible that their circumstances might well have had some effect.

Yet claims that this was a major factor seem dubious because, had the regime’s motive been primarily economic rather than national, it would surely have allowed foodstuffs like potatoes, which had little marketable value, to be brought into Ukraine, if only by “bagmen” traveling by train, while in fact border checkpoints were established along the Russo-Ukrainian border, and food being carried by passengers into Ukraine was seized. While the lower consumption of potatoes by eastern Ukrainians probably made the regime’s task somewhat easier, it does not in any way refute the evidence that the Russian Communist regime placed Ukraine on a de facto blacklist in order to teach the Ukrainian peasants, as William Henry Chamberlin put it, “a lesson by the grim method of starvation.” 14

If we ask ourselves which national groups were most likely to constitute a threat to the new centralized and Russified Soviet Union which Stalin was creating, we arrive at the following: Ukrainians, second only to the Russians in numbers, who had fought a stubborn and protracted war for national independence and succeeded in turning Ukrainianization into a kind of surrogate independence under Skrypnyk; the Kuban and Don Cossacks, who had first given the White counterrevolution its base; and the Germans, who had welcomed the 1918 German occupation in Ukraine, might plausibly have been expected to behave similarly in the future and had also joined the Whites in large numbers. These were precisely the groups whose territories were affected by the famine.

It was not until immediately after the famine in late 1934 that Stalin felt strong enough to obviously turn to the Russians as the leading element in the Soviet state by forbidding the unpatriotic school of M. N. Pokrovsky to determine how school children were taught history.

Before he had totally humbled the non-Russian nations it could have still caused political headaches if he had ordered local officials to distinguish among different national groups within a given territory in carrying out the grain procurements, and for this reason the famine was created on a territorial basis by means of excessively high procurement quotas for the territories in which the “suspect” nations lived. Within those territories, Russians suffered along with non-Russians, but in the final stages of the famine it was Russians who were sent into Ukraine to repopulate the most devastated villages and were given special rations to prevent them from dying along with the indigenous population. 15

One can find numerous official statements connecting the need to eliminate Ukrainian nationalism with the need to “overcome difficulties in procuring grain,” which was the euphemism for creating famine. Indeed, as we have seen, collectivization was intended to destroy the social basis of Ukrainian nationalism, although this was certainly not the reason the policy was adopted. In 1933 the official statements declared that it was necessary to eliminate Ukrainian nationalism because “nationalistic wreckers” were supposedly responsible for the difficulties in procuring grain, not vice versa. 16

However, the important thing is not which consideration preceded the other in the official statements; in the Bolshevik mind they were like the chicken and the egg: there was neither an answer nor reason to answer the question of which came first. As early as 1925, Stalin wrote: “The nationality question is, according to the essence of the matter, a problem of the peasantry.” 17 Given such a view, crushing the peasants once and for all was the necessary condition for any final solution to the nationality problem.

What was this solution? For the Ukrainian nation it was its destruction as a social organism and political factor. Its elites were destroyed – both its official Communist political leadership and its national cultural intelligentsia: this meant the nation’s decapitation. Ukrainianization was ended and the old policy of Russification revived as the Ukrainian-language media and institutions shrank: this meant the re-Russification of the cities and the expulsion of Ukrainian nationhood back to the countryside from whence it came and where it was now taught submission by means of starvation.

The collective farm was little different from the old pre-emancipation estate: the peasant was tied to the land by means of the internal passport system and forced to give most of its produce to the state which occupied the same position in relation to the peasant as the noble had in relation to his grandfather. Forced collectivization was a tragedy for all who were subjected to it, Russians as well as Ukrainians, but for the Ukrainians it was a special tragedy because, with the virtually complete destruction of their nationally self-conscious elites it meant their destruction as a nation and reduction to the status of what the Germans used to call a Naturvolk.

Nevertheless, there is today much cause for hope. Stalin himself gave a decisive blow to what he hoped would be the final solution to the Ukrainian problem when in 1939 he joined hands with Hitler and annexed Western Ukraine. With the expulsion of the Poles from Western Ukraine’s cities they became Ukrainian, and the Ukrainian language, still seldom heard in the streets of Kiev and Kharkiv, rules in Lviv and Ternopil. With the Khrushchev thaw the handful of survivors of the Ukrainian literary world of the 1920s again made themselves heard, and later a Ukrainian dissident movement arose.

Stalin’s attempt to solve the “Ukrainian problem” was not nearly so final as he hoped, but it dealt Ukrainians a blow from which they have still not fully recovered.


Dr. James E. Mace, post-doctorate fellow at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, is the junior collaborator of Dr. Robert Conquest on the forthcoming monograph on the Ukrainian famine. This paper was delivered at the International Conference on the Holocaust and Genocide held in Tel Aviv on June 20-24, 1982. It appears in full in the UNA Almanac for 1983.


  1. N. S. Khrushchev, “Khrushchev Remembers” (Boston and Toronto, 1970), pp. 73-4.
  2. Roy Medvedev, “Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism” (New York, 1972), p. 94.
  3. Plyushch, “History’s Carnival,” pp. 40-1.
  4. Kozlov, “Natsionalnosti SSSR,” p. 249.
  5. Robert A. Lewis, Richard H. Howland and Ralph S. Clem, “The Growth and Redistribution of the Ukrainian Population of Russia and the USSR: 1897-1970,” in Peter J. Potichnyj, ed., “Ukraine in the Seventies” (Oakville, Ontario, 1975), p. 153.
  6. V. I. Naulko, “Etnichnyi sklad naselennia Ukrayinskoyi RSR: Statystyko-kartohrafichne doslidzhennia (Kiev, 1965), p. 85; V. I. Naulko, “Razvitie mezhetnicheskikh sviazei na Ukrayine” (Kiev: 1975), p. 67.
  7. Naulko, “Etnichnyi sklad,” p. 84.
  8. Figures from Kozlov, “Natsionalnosti SSSR,” p. 249.
  9. The Russian emigre S. Maksudov is now working on this problem, and we will hopefully have a more accurate figure in the not too distant future.
  10. Adam J. Tawdul, “10,000,000 Starved in Russia in Two Years, Soviet Admits,” The New York American, August 18, 1935, pp. 1-2.
  11. Adam J. Tawdul, “Russia Warred on Own People,” The New York American, August 19, 1935, p. 2.
  12. Dana J. Dalrymple, “The Soviet Famine of 1932-1934: Some Further References,” Soviet Studies, XVI: 4 (April 1965), p. 471.
  13. Winston Churchill, “The Hinge of Fate” (Boston, 1950), p. 498.
  14. William Henry Chamberlin, “Ukraine: A Submerged Nation” (New York, 1944), p. 59.
  15. Olexa Woropay, “The Ninth Circle,” p. 58.
  16. Postyshev made this clear in his speech to the November 1933 plenum reviewing the “successes” of 1933 in agriculture, while Khvylia and Liubchenko made similar statements during the summer of 1933: P. P. Postyshev, “The Results of the Agricultural Year 1933 and the Immediate Tasks of the Communist Party of the Ukraine,” in Soviet Ukraine Today (New York, 1934), p. 11. Visti VUTsVK, June 22, 1933, p. 2 and June 30, 1933, p. 3.
  17. I. V. Stalin, “Sochineniya,” VII, p. 72.
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