August 26, 2016

The Ukrainian Famine of 1932-1933: Another attempt at counting the victims


Volodymyr Serhiychuk is a professor of history at the Kyiv State University and one of the more eminent researchers in Soviet archives. In terms of publishing his findings, he is perhaps the most prolific of the researchers.

One of the topics of his expertise is the Ukrainian Famine of 1932-1933, known as the Holodomor. For a long time he simply accepted the number of victims estimated by historians in the West. When the 7 million number was challenged in recent publications both in Ukraine and the West, Prof. Serhiychuk decided to conduct his own research to establish, as well as reasonably possible – given the Soviet’s propensity for distortion, the number of Ukrainian Famine victims. In the course of researching archives and familiarizing himself with the research and findings of others, he has determined that there are serious flaws in some of the recent conclusions, particularly those diminishing the number of victims.

The city of Kharkiv was the initial capital of the Ukrainian SSR. It was the capital during the Famine years of 1932-1933. While historians and demographers have generally referred to the three censuses of 1926, 1937 and 1939 in attempting to establish the number of victims, none to my knowledge have come upon or used the documents from 1932 that Prof. Serhiychuk recently discovered. These additional documents shed much light on the extent of the casualties.

Specifically there are documents from January and October 1932, which perhaps best illustrate the population of the Ukrainian SSR at its height, since the famine essentially began in the spring of 1932, and the short-term effect of that famine. It is important also to consider a breakdown between the rural and urban populations, since it was the peasantry that was most affected.

It is also significant that the 1926 census included questions on migration, while both the 1937 and 1939 censuses did not. Finally, it is important to recognize that, since the decree of January 22, 1932, forbade people from leaving the territory of the Ukrainian SSR, the total population of the Ukrainian SSR could not have been much affected by outside migration.

Prof. Serhiychuk was able to locate Soviet documents indicating that in January 1932 there were 25,553,000 rural dwellers in the Ukrainian SSR. This was an increase over the 1926 census number due to a normal growth rate of births exceeding deaths. By 1937 that number had dropped precipitously to 18,825,842. Some may suggest that the glaring decline in rural dwellers was not only due to mortality but aggravated due to migration of people to the cities in search of bread. Interestingly enough, the censuses could not be used to support any definite answer. However, there is evidence of a significant number of Russians relocating into Ukrainian cities in the period of 1926 to 1937.

Published in Kharkiv, the capital of the Ukrainian SSR, the document “Information about the territory and population as of January 1, 1932, in accordance with the findings of the Central Administrative Territorial Commission of the All Ukrainian Central Executive Committee” shows that the total population of the Ukrainian SSR on January 1, 1932, was 32,680,700, with 7,127,700 urban and 25,553,000 rural. Furthermore, as of October 1, 1932, according to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine there were 31,909,000 total, with 7,235,000 urban and 24,674,000 rural. This second set of numbers is important to show the serious decline in the rural population from January to October 1932 and the moderate increase in the urban population. The decline is not compensated by the rise in urban population.

Including these numbers in what has been know to date, the following tables represent the statistics found by Prof. Serhiychuk:

Total population of the Ukrainian SSR

1926 census – 28,925,900
January 1932 – 32,680,700
October 1932 – 31,909,000
1937 census – 28,213,800

Total population difference between January 1932 and 1937 is 4,466,900. If we include the rate of growth between 1926 and January 1932 at the rate of 2.1 percent annually (this may include non-Ukrainians as well) and apply it to 1934-1936, when famine was not in effect, the growth should have been 1,828,254. Thus, the total population decline in the Ukrainian SSR from January 1932, when famine was beginning to take effect, to January 1937, prior to Stalin’s and Yezhov’s purges, was 6,295,154. It is important to bear in mind also that significant numbers of Russians came into Ukraine’s cities in the late 1920s for such projects as Dniprobud beginning in 1927, etc.

Rural population of the Ukrainian SSR

1926 census – 23,663,113
January 1932 – 25,553,000
October 1932 – 24,674,000
1937 census – 18,825,842

Total rural population difference between January 1932 and 1937 is 6,727,158. If we include the annual rate of growth between 1926 and January 1932 of the rural population at 1.33 percent and apply it to 1934-1936, when famine was no longer in effect, applying this rate to the lowest available number of the 1937 census, the growth should have been 753,034. Thus, the total rural population decline in the Ukrainian SSR from January 1932, when famine was beginning to take effect, to January 1937, prior to the purges, was 7,480,192.

Prof. Serhiychuk also stresses that the victims of the Holodomor should refer not only to those whose names were recorded in the documents of death, but also those nameless hungry individuals who could not travel to Russia for bread and were buried near the railway stations in large graves which even today no one has investigated. Similar graves exist near large factories and mines, whose directors did not hire local farmers exhausted by hunger and instead recruited labor outside the Ukrainian SSR, for example, in Zaporizhia near the Dnipro. Among the victims also were those who were executed or died in prison convicted of the crime of hoarding “five ears of grain,” whose bodies were not given to relatives for burial in his/her native village. Then there were many anonymous bread seekers who were victims of cannibals or wild animals. No statistics were kept on those who died from bullets of Soviet border guards when they tried to cross the border to Poland or Romania.

Only after careful and complete consideration of all the circumstances can one determine the final losses of the Ukrainian peasants during the Holodomor. Unfortunately, to date no researchers have completed this work.

These numbers are applicable to the Ukrainian SSR only. Additional Ukrainian victims should be considered from regions of the Russian SSR, specifically, the Kuban region, which was heavily populated by Ukrainians and from which migration was barred by the January 22, 1933, decree as well. Also there were Ukrainian prisoners in the “five ears of grain” category who died in transit or in concentration camps on the territory of Russia. The noted historian Robert Conquest without the benefit of Soviet archives had estimated in the 1980s that some 1 million Ukrainians died as a result of the 1932-1933 Famine outside the Ukrainian SSR. No serious historian or demographer has addressed or controverted that number.

In conclusion, as regards the number of Ukrainian victims of the Holodomor, the generally accepted 7 million total is clearly and convincingly supported by the accumulated evidence. As to the issue of whether it was a genocide of the Ukrainian peasantry, there is no issue. The Ukrainian peasant was supposed to die.


Askold S. Lozynskyj is an attorney based in New York City. He is a former president of the Ukrainian World Congress.