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Munk Centre

Hiroaki Kuromiya
(Department of History, University of Indiana)

"The 1932-33 Famine and Ukrainian National Sentiments"

"...The villages were reduced to a wasteland. All the fruit had been eaten while it was still green and the gardens had all become completely overgrown with weeds. In the deathly silence nothing at all could be heard, neither the chirping of sparrows, the croaking of cows, nor the barking of dogs since all of these living creatures had long since been eaten up. Those people who still had enough strength to move, wandered around in search of any roots or the seed of weeds they could find so that they could, at least, boil these for their dying children, wailing and begging for something to eat..." (From "Vyzvolny Shlakh", Vol. XXXVI, No. 4, 1983, London, by Stephen Oleskiw)

Thus laments a contemporary in his poignant account of the famine that befell Ukraine in 1932-33 and that went down in history as one of the 20th century's most distressing tragedies. But even now, nearly seven decades after the famine struck, the truth behind it is far from uncovered. In fact, the historical evolution of the arguments advanced by the massive body of research exploring this topic is perhaps quite telling of the kind of challenges its students face. One of these scholars is Hiroaki Kuromiya (History, University of Indiana), who gave the Annual Ukrainian Famine Lecture on November 18, co-sponsored by the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, Toronto Office, the Ukrainian Congress Committee, Toronto Branch, and the Petro Jacyk Program for the Study of Ukraine.

Talking about famine, Dr. Kuromiya started, is very difficult, particularly if one has never experienced it. Yet, his long-standing interest in this event has inspired him to conduct an impressive amount of research on Soviet history of the 1920s and 1930s in search for a definitive answer to a riddle that has fed a decades-long debate in academia. The crux of the current historiographical debate is not the extent to which the famine was artificial or whether it affected parts of the Soviet Union other than the Ukraine, but whether Stalin targetted peasants in grain-producing regions in general or Ukrainian peasants in particular.

"A single death is a tragedy," noted Stalin, "a million deaths are simply statistics." In fact, as Hiroaki Kuromiya alerts us, Soviet-era statistics should always be used with caution. Even in Ukraine, where Cossack administrative tradition had taken pride in maintaining comprehensive and accurate records, separating facts from Politburo-engineered fiction is indeed a formidable challenge to the researcher. But even the scarce and unreliable documentary evidence of these early years of the Soviet Union unequivocally speaks of an unusually sharp decrease in its total population. Furthermore, between 1932 and 1933 the downward trend was particularly pronounced in Ukraine and Ukrainian-inhabited areas. Unfortunately, statistical data are not sufficiently detailed and it is very difficult to tell precisely how many of the tens of millions of recorded deaths came as result of the famine. The conservative estimates peg the famine death toll at 6.5 to 7 million for the entire USSR. Of these fatalities, according to Soviet secret police files, some 3 million-nearly 50% of the total-were Ukrainians. In the Kyiv area alone, the death rate jumped from 16.2% in 1932 to 96.9% in 1933.

It is evident that the famine hit the Ukraine particularly hard. Dr. Kuromiya noted that other grain-producing areas were also struck. His research shows that the effect of the famine appears to have varied across the Soviet Union following an interesting pattern: industrial regions, particularly Moscow and the Far East, on the whole suffered much less than traditionally agricultural areas like Ukraine and the Northern Caucasus. This, Hiroaki Kuromiya maintains, was the result of a deliberate decision taken by the party authorities to centrally relocate food assistance to what Stalin considered the "more important" industrial centers, as well as to the Far East oblasts, where the Soviet leader feared a famine might abet a potential Japanese encroachment. To pursue this policy, the Soviet government clandestinely purchased wheat from abroad, while large peasant-populated tracts of the country, equally exposed to imminent starvation, were left to their own devices.

The argument that the famine came as a result of the unusually low grain harvests of these years also does not appear to hold true. While it is a fact that grain harvests in those fateful years were low, this can hardly explain why the famine took place in 1932-33 and not again in 1936-37, when the grain harvest was even lower. It is far more likely that it was not so much the lower yields but the unrealistically high export targets that eventually caused the depletion of wheat reserves.

After the successful launch of collectivization in the early 1930s inspired bold schemes for overachieving the targets for the five-year period, authorities in Moscow concluded that increased grain exports would be essential for financing the Soviet Union's foreign arms purchases and industrial imports. Ukraine played an instrumental part in this policy and its grain production quotas were relentlessly pushed up to the point where they became virtually unsustainable. Archival evidence convincingly indicates that the Politburo was keenly aware that the increased restiveness of the Ukrainian peasantry was largely due to the rough-handed acquisitions enforcement. In fact, V.M. Molotov, who had been on a fact-finding mission to Kyiv in June 1932, warned the Politburo of the explosive state of affairs in Ukraine and recommended a reduction of the quotas. A minor cutback was granted later in the year, but it was already too little and too late.

A letter from Stalin to L.M. Kaganovich in August 1932 reveals that the General Secretary saw things in a different light. As the situation worsened, he became convinced that the famine, indeed the entire failure of the grain acquisitions campaign in general, was the plot of a subversive conspiracy. The fact that the "saboteurs" were operating out of Ukraine, a traditionally insubordinate peasant country with an active nationalist movement, merely confirmed his suspicions and cemented his resolve to deal with them and Ukrainian intransigence once and for all. It is understandable then why, in the eyes of the Soviet dictator, the famine might have actually appeared to be serving a good purpose; hence Moscow's calculated passiveness, hence its refusal to extend emergency assistance to famine-ridden Ukraine.

In the final account, Dr. Kuromiya concluded that through a combination of felonious actions and inactions the Soviet government effectively doomed a huge proportion of the Ukrainian population to certain death. To this day, popular memory of these ghastly years remains a potent source of Russo-Ukrainian animosity. But history teaches us that while ignoble wrongs are easily done, regrets are never readily forthcoming. "It took the Vatican five hundred years to apologize for the execution of Galileo; will the Ukrainian people ever get its apology from Moscow?" rhetorically asks Hiroaki Kuromiya.

Nick Roudev, International Relations

Content: © 2002 Petro Jacyk • Design: © 2002 dragandesign.