(Department of History, University of Indiana)
1932-33 Famine and Ukrainian National Sentiments"
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Roudev, International Relations