This Man-Made Famine Killed Millions in the 30s But was Denied by the Soviet Union

This Man-Made Famine Killed Millions in the 30s But was Denied by the Soviet Union

Jeanette Lamb - February 22, 2017

Holodomor has a grizzly translation; it literally means “death by hunger “(specifically through being worked to death). It was the term used to define the aftermath of Stalin’s Five Year Plan after an estimated 2.4-7.5 million people in Soviet Ukraine died from starvation. The estimated death toll is higher, particularly when the scope is widened to include other affected areas, such as Kazakhstan, which was also struck particularly hard.

This Man-Made Famine Killed Millions in the 30s But was Denied by the Soviet Union
Starved peasants on a street in Kharkiv, 1933. Harvard University Press

The hideous disaster smothered the country of Ukraine in a widespread famine that spanned the years of 1932-1933. At that time, the United States and other countries around the world were knee-deep in the perils that came with Great Depression. The famine went largely unnoticed even though millions were dying. To make matters more complex, it was a man-made disaster. Its duplicitous genesis was linked directly with Stalin’s blueprint for the Soviet empire’s success. In an attempt to fast-forward the Soviet Union into the Industrial Age, Stalin introduced a Five Year Plan. It itemized the empire’s future into a step-by-step process that began with the collectivization of agriculture. As the bread basket of the region, the Ukraine took the brunt of the burden.


Between 1932 and 1933, the former Soviet Union was seeking desperately to upgrade and transform its society. The peasant farming situation haunted Russian and historically was a touchy subject. Since the time of serfdom (serfs were homeless peasants who lived and worked on wealthy estates), and after it, imbalances existed between peasant farmers and food production. A large portion of food production never made it to the cities, which resulted in food shortages on a frequent basis. During the Revolutions and World War I, this was not so unusual and was maybe even seen by some as acceptable. When the food shortages continued until long after the guns of battle had been put away, tempers flared and fingers were pointed.

Many concluded it was the fault of peasant farmers. The farmers were reluctant to transition from traditional methods used for farming; new equipment was pricey and required going into debt. Standard practice was for the farmer to consume what was needed and sell the rest at the markets. A hidden paradoxical element existed that was noticeable only through numbers: since World War I ended, peasant farmers had acquired around 1 million more square kilometers of fertile land, from which they were consuming around 80% of the food grown, as compared to only 50% before the war.

This Man-Made Famine Killed Millions in the 30s But was Denied by the Soviet Union
Stalin and Lenin, 1919. Public Domain

None of the Communist Party agreed with the way farming had been run. Lenin argued that small farm ownership grew capitalism. Stalin agreed with that and concluded collectivism was the best solution, but he took the idea one step further. With his Five Year Plan, his desire was to rapidly and abruptly combine peasant farming with industrial innovation. The desired outcome was a surplus of food. With food flooding the cities, Stalin was keeping one of Lenin’s promises for “Land, Peace and Bread.” With primal needs taken care of, comrades could focus their ambitions on any number of other tasks. The Soviet Union would be an innovative empire.

Out With The Old. In With The New: New Economic Policy and Collectivization

Working out the specifics of collectivization, it was decided vast swaths of land would be run cooperatively by the peasants. They made up more than 80% of the population and would provide more than enough manpower. From the peasant’s point of view, the deal was an abomination. The small parcels acquired since 1861 ended serfdom were being taken away in return for co-op work. In theory, the peasants stood to make more money.

Meanwhile, the agricultural production in the Soviet Union continued to operate under the New Economic Policy (NEA). It sounded good in name, but prices of grain remained unstable. By 1928, shortages of rye, wheat, and other grains worsened. The empire was 2 million tons shy of being able to feed its population. After importing what was needed to make up for shortages, the government began seizing control of grain produced by peasants. This solidified discontent felt by farmers. By the following year, they hit the government back.

This Man-Made Famine Killed Millions in the 30s But was Denied by the Soviet Union
The Conversation

Peasant Revolt

Grain was being sold increasingly on the black market, burned and often buried in massive plots as a means of hoarding. It was decided collectivization was the best solution. The idea was implemented and grew astonishingly fast, going from 15% to 60% of household participation between 1929 and 1930. The spread was not entirely natural. The government sent 25,000 individuals to farms to influence those around them to mirror their “super labor” worker attitude.

The act of farming was to be fully done by machine – whether it be a donkey or a cow or a tractor. Socialization was so intensive, small-sized family gardens were forbidden. All the farming land was divided into parcels carefully measured out – as a man who did not trust the quantification of things, for sure, Dostoevsky screamed from his grave. The lines dividing farms spattered throughout the land dissipated; with the help of the Communist government, the empire was morphing into a massive, single farm. By spring, Stalin bragged that the program was ahead of schedule. It did not take long for farmers to calculate that the massive scale farming was a massive scale mistake. Farmers were not making more money, and to make matters worse, they, like their ancestors, were serfs.

Overnight, they gave up ownership of their land, but not the expectation to farm it. As the realities of collectivization began to take shape, the peasant farmers began describing their plight as the end of the world. Depressed by their circumstances, they tried making their voices heard. When no one listened, depression grew to rage. A full-scale revolt by the peasant farmers spread like wildfire. Angry mobs set fire to homes and barns. They killed livestock and attacked government officials.


Ukraine was the Soviet breadbasket. There, red trains could be seen crossing vast tracks of land. Depending on which way the wagons were headed, they would be either empty, or overfilled with commodities obtained from one of many collective farms throughout the region. The trains ran more frequently during the times of harvest, which was not reaching production rates needed to sustain the empire and its population. To make up for the shortfall, Ukrainian farmers who were of no use to the Soviet Union beyond their ability to produce food were deliberately neglected. The empire allowed its main breadbasket to starve.

Ukrainians were given food rations from which to survive. Given the amount of people who were dying, it was not enough. Causes of death can be linked to the incurious way collectivization was implemented and carried out. For instance, in the Ukraine in particular, the socialist government decided instead of grain, which was the traditional crop, sugar beets and cotton should be grown. Grain went unharvested and what grain was harvested had no effective means through which to be transported.

At the height of the famine, people were so desperate for food, cannibalism became common. It was said by someone who lived through the ordeal that the good was the first to die – those who refused to steal or sell their bodies for sex to buy food, those who gave food, those who refused to eat the dead, those who refused to kill to eat someone – anyone able to keep their soul intact, died.

Over the following years, the Soviet Union denied the disaster ever happened. At the same time, laws were passed that made use of words such as “famine” or “starvation” illegal to utter. Finally, after the fall of communism, the Ukrainians created memorials commemorating those whose lives were lost to the famine. Such reality making up the history between the Ukraine and Russia illustrates the relationship between the two countries.

Ironically, the genesis of the Russian Empire is rooted in a once very prosperous empire, Kievan Rus. At its center stood the current Ukraine capital city of Kiev. As a result of the 1933 famine, Ukrainian and Russian ties have remained tense. The exact death toll caused by the famine is still up for debate.

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