The Holodomor, Ukraine’s Great Famine

Holodomor was a man-made famine in Soviet Ukraine during 1932-1933. Caused by the radical changes of Soviet industrialization, it was utilized by the Soviet authorities to suppress Ukrainian nationalism.

Jan 26, 2024By Tsira Shvangiradze, MA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l Relations
holodomor great famine ukraine

 

The term “Holodomor” means “death by starvation” or “killing by starvation” in Ukrainian. It describes the brutal Soviet policy of collectivization of agriculture that forced private farmers to join collective farms. The policy resulted in mass hunger and starvation and claimed the lives of millions of Ukrainians. For the Ukrainian people, the Holodomor is regarded as a national tragedy fabricated by the Soviet authorities to suppress Ukrainian nationalism.

 

Prerequisites & Causes of the Holodomor

bily oleh genocide of nation painting
Genocide of Culture to Genocide of Nation by Bily Oleh, via HREC Education

 

World War I transformed the international system as the fall of European empires sparked independence movements in several countries, including Ukraine. Following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917, Ukraine seized an opportunity for national self-determination. In January 1918, the interim administration of Ukraine proclaimed the creation of the Ukrainian People’s Republic. Only one year later, on January 22, 1919, the Ukrainian Unification Act formed a single nation-state from the territories previously split between the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires. Ukrainian independence, however, was short-lived. The Ukrainian government was compelled to renounce its independence on December 30, 1922. Following the establishment of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian People’s Republic became the Soviet Republic of Ukraine.

 

Ukraine’s long history of struggles for independence against the Russian Empire did not just vanish into oblivion with the creation of the Soviet Republic of Ukraine. The Soviet authorities, just like Tsarist Russia, did not deny Ukrainians as people. But they fiercely opposed Ukraine as an independent nation. The Soviet leaders, aware of Ukraine’s relentless strive for independence, tried to suppress the resistance. With this objective in mind, the founding head of the government of Soviet Russia, Vladimir Lenin, initiated the policy of korenizatsiia, or indigenization, in 1923.

 

The policy aimed to instill Ukrainian loyalty to the Soviet regime, eventually suppressing national liberation movements in Ukraine. The strategy of indigenization allowed some degree of cultural autonomy. The Ukrainian language was widely used in schools, universities, cinema, and publishing. Although the Soviet regime tried to portray Ukrainian cultural heritage as “rural and outdated,” the policy helped Ukrainians to form state, cultural, and scientific institutions and contributed to the development of national art and literature.

 

grain shippment during holodomor photo
Preparation of grain for shipment to the filling station in the collective farm named after H. Petrovskyi. The village of Petrovo-Solonykha, the Mykolaiv Region, 1933, via Ukrainer

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These developments transformed into the waves of the national revival in Ukraine in the mid-1920s. Famous Ukrainian communist and writer Mykola Khvylovyi’s slogan “Get away from Moscow!” illustrated Ukraine’s choice to focus on Europe, not Russia.

 

Besides cultural liberation, Vladimir Lenin launched the New Economic Policy (NEP) in March 1921. The policy aimed to alleviate food shortages and stop the subsequent peasant uprisings. It liberated the economy and allowed the functioning of private enterprises for independent farms and small businesses within the Soviet Union by granting the right for private trade to sell surplus goods and products.

 

In 1924, Joseph Stalin became the new leader of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He disregarded Vladimir Lenin’s policies of indigenization and economic liberalization in Ukraine. Stalin feared Ukraine’s strengthened cultural and economic autonomy within the Soviet Union, thinking it would eventually result in a “Ukrainian national counterrevolution.”

 

By 1929, the Soviet regime under Joseph Stalin had arrested, convicted, or exiled most Ukrainian intellectuals, civil activists, or political elite who were at the forefront of Ukrainianization. Besides large-scale political repressions, Joseph Stalin canceled the NEP and the “indigenization” policy and introduced a new policy, often called the forced collectivization of agriculture.

 

By giving the Soviet government direct control over the grain produced in Ukraine, collectivization sought to meet the needs of the Soviet Union during its aggressive industrialization efforts. Additionally, the strategy required independent farmers to work for government collective farms and give up their land, cattle, and farming equipment. Due to its abundant resources and favorable conditions, Ukraine was known as the “granary of Europe” and the “all-Union bread storehouse.”  The successful execution of the new collectivization policy in Soviet Ukraine proved essential for the Soviet Union.

 

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A woodcut “What is exported from Ukraine to Russia” from the album of graphics by Nil Khasevych, via Ukrainer

 

Farmers resisted, resulting in a wave of armed demonstrations during February and March of 1930. Even though peasants’ uprisings occurred in different Soviet republics, the Ukrainian one was particularly large in scale and fierce, with more than 4,000 mass protests and 1.2 million Ukrainian peasants participating. Stalin’s response was repression, but it appeared that repression alone was unable to crush Ukrainian resistance.

 

In 1930, as part of the forced collectivization strategy, wealthy peasants were labeled as kulaks (“fist” in Russian), declared enemies of the state, and deported to remote areas of the Soviet Union, mainly to Siberia and Kazakhstan. In 1930 alone, 113,000 kulaks were forced to leave their homes.

 

By 1931, most of the peasant farms were collectivized but failed to deliver the desired results as the production could not meet the established high harvest quotas. The Soviet authorities decided to take almost all the crops from farmers, marking the start of total terror, a terror of hunger widely known as the Holodomor.

 

The Holodomor

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The man-made famine’s victims lying dead in the streets of Kharkiv, by Ewald Ammende, 1933, via Euromaidan Press

 

The unbearable situation brought on by malnutrition and a shortage of products was already visible at the start of 1932. Red flags were raised by representatives of the communal farms and Ukrainian communists led by Vlas Chubar, who pled with the Soviet leadership to take action. One of the letters, dated June 1932, stated the following:

 

Farmers go to the fields and disappear. In a few days, their bodies are discovered and put in graves, completely without emotion, as if it were normal. And the next day you may already find the body of a person who has just dug graves for the others.”

 

The way out of the crisis was apparent: to halt or revise unrealistic grain quotas and provide humanitarian assistance to the affected Ukrainian population. Instead, Joseph Stalin issued the “Law of Spikelets” on August 7, 1932, further aggravating the situation. The law was intended to protect state-owned commodities on collective farms, especially grain. In reality, it became a tool for subjugating the Ukrainian population. The “Law of Spikelets” stipulated “execution with confiscation of all property and replacement in mitigating circumstances with imprisonment for at least 10 years with confiscation of all property,” even for a small amount of food or grain that desperate peasants were trying to obtain for survival.

 

Another brutal element of Stalin’s terror regime in Ukraine was the so-called blacklisting of collective farms, villages, or districts in Soviet Ukraine that failed to meet the requested grain quotas. In practice, the decree was applied to every member of Ukrainian society whom the Soviet regime saw as an enemy or threat to communism. Stalin introduced the policy in November 1932 as a form of penalty. Affected regions were completely isolated and paralyzed as Joseph Stalin supplemented the blacklisting policy with the introduction of the travel ban in 1933.

 

providing daily portions during holodomor
Providing daily food ration to children during the Holodomor in Ukraine in 1932-1933, via European Network for Remembrance and Solidarity

 

The “black boards” were erected in the areas previously identified by the Soviet authorities. Residents of the areas were generally accused of counter-revolutionary activities, trying to damage the collectivization processes by not working hard enough to meet the harvest quotas or stealing grain. The Soviet military units controlled the area, ensuring that no individual could leave the territory in search of food. The policy of “black boards” covered the majority of Ukrainian districts, 252 out of 405, according to the historian Heorhii Papakin.

 

marchenko nina the road of sorrow painting
The Road of Sorrow by Nina Marchenk, via HREC Education

 

Joseph Stalin’s strategy succeeded. Not only did the Soviet government manage to export more than one million tons of Ukrainian grain during those years, but also Ukrainian peasants became dependent on the Soviet regime by controlling their work and reimbursement. By limiting access to food, the Soviet leadership ultimately gained control over every aspect of Ukrainian peasants’ lives, where there was no longer the idea of an independent Ukraine but only the idea of survival.

 

Stalin’s policy of forced agriculture collectivization and subsequent oppressive measures resulted in “the Sovietization of Ukraine, the destruction of the Ukrainian national idea, and the neutering of any Ukrainian challenge to Soviet Unity,” as outlined by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Anne Applebaum in her book Red Famine.

 

According to the United States Commission on the Ukraine Famine, conducted in 1988, witness Nadia Harmash responded with the following words when asked why people didn’t rise in revolt against the Soviet Union: “How can you rise when you’re dying of hunger?

 

The Soviet Union in Denial & the Response of the International Community

soldier guarding grain during holodomor photo
A worker guarding stores of grain collected from the villages during the Holodomor in Ukraine in 1932-1933, via HREC Education

 

The majority of the traditional farming communities in Ukraine had been destroyed by 1933. Concerned with the rising death toll, the Soviet government repopulated affected areas with the new settlers from Russia, reduced grain procurement quotas, and eased restrictions on food and movement. The Soviet regime sent limited aid to the most affected areas of the Ukrainian SSR. With the arrival of the new harvesting season in the spring of 1933 and the little food aid, the famine slowly alleviated. The death rate gradually declined.

 

The Holodomor received little international political or humanitarian attention because of Soviet denial, censorship, and suppression of information regarding the scope of the disaster. The League of Nations and several European nations’ meager efforts were constrained and faced difficult obstacles. The growing Nazi influence in Germany and Japan’s expansionist policies forced Western countries, especially the United States under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to ignore any worrying developments originating from the Soviet Union.

 

The Soviet Union completely denied the tragic famine in Ukraine. The Executive Committee for Communist Parties, the Politburo, masked the Soviet-staged starvation in Ukraine as a consequence of the adverse climate and Kulak corruption.

 

The Holodomor was extensively employed as propaganda against Stalin’s policies when Nazi Germany invaded Soviet Ukraine in June 1941. Joseph Stalin managed to successfully use this opportunity to label any individual, including representatives of the mass media and historians interested in the true causes of the famine in Ukraine, as “fascists” and “Nazis” influenced by Adolf Hitler’s propaganda.

 

hearst walker holodomor in press photo
Tuesday 19th February 1935, NY Journal – Page 12, via Gareth Jones

 

Additionally, the Soviet leadership actively engaged in media propaganda internationally. Former Prime Minister of France Édouard Herriot and famous writers such as Bernard Shaw, Herbert Wells, and The New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty were influenced by Soviet authorities to spread disinformation regarding the Holodomor. For example, Bernard Shaw, who visited the Soviet Union in 1931, openly declared that he had not noticed hunger or malnutrition in children or adults, as did the New Yorker correspondent Walter Duranty.

 

The first person to openly address the terror of Holodomor was Ukrainian poet Ivan Drach, following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine in 1986. In this case, as well, the Soviet authorities denied the accident and censored the information. Ivan Drach outlined the tragic history of famine in Ukraine as an example of how damaging official silence can be.

 

Outcome & Legacy of the Holodomor

 

Joseph Stalin’s forced collectivization of agriculture, unrealistically high quotas on grain, and accompanying repressions claimed the lives of around 3.9 million Ukrainians between 1932 and 1933. As estimated by the demographers from the Ukrainian Institute of Demographic and Social Studies and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 2015, at its peak in June 1933, 28,000 Ukrainians died every day, 1168 every hour, and 20 every minute. The results were catastrophic. Historians described Holodomor as “what must count as one of the greatest man-made horrors in a century particularly full of them.”

 

holodomor memorial photo
Holodomor memorial in Ukraine, via Holodomor Museum, Kyiv

 

Even though the Soviet officials were eagerly trying to erase the memory of Holodomor in Ukraine and generally in the Soviet Union, it was forever inscribed in the collective memory of the Ukrainian people. In the short term, the terror by hunger suppressed nationalism and denied Ukrainians the right to grieve personal and national traumas, slowing down the process of state-building.

 

In the long term, however, Stalin’s strategy failed; the resentment and hatred towards the Soviet Union further solidified Ukrainian nationalism, and when the independent Ukrainian state was finally formed after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Holodomor became one of the most influential and integral parts of the Ukrainian national identity. Holodomor Remembrance Day is remembered on the fourth Saturday of November annually. The Ukrainian government invested in funding research, educational, and informative campaigns to raise awareness about the Holodomor and keep the memory of the tragic events and their victims.

 

The Holodomor became a focal point in the history of Ukraine and played a significant role in determining its foreign policy, particularly regarding the Russian Federation. In 2003, the United Nations recognized that the mass hunger in the Soviet Republic of Ukraine resulted from the totalitarian Soviet regime’s unjust policies and cruel attitudes. In March 2008, the parliament of Ukraine (Rada) and 19 other nations recognized the Soviet policies of 1932–1933 as genocide against the Ukrainian people. The Holodomor is also regarded as a crime against humanity by the resolution passed by the European Parliament on October 23, 2008.

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By Tsira ShvangiradzeMA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l RelationsTsira is an international relations specialist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. She holds a MA in Diplomacy and International Politics and a BA in International Relations from Tbilisi State University. In her spare time, she contributes articles in the field of political sciences and international relations.