The Soviet Union’s Great Famine was one of History’s Greatest Man-Made Disasters

The Soviet Union’s Great Famine was one of History’s Greatest Man-Made Disasters

Khalid Elhassan - November 8, 2018

The Soviet Union’s Great Famine of 1932-1933, also known as the Holodomor in Ukraine, was a man-made demographic catastrophe, caused by the policy choices of one man: Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. As part of his bid to rapidly industrialize the Soviet Union, Stalin sought to force Soviet peasants off their privately owned plots, and into collective farms. Collectivization was widely resented and resisted by the peasants, especially in Ukraine, but Stalin, being Stalin, resorted to overwhelming brutality and repression to have his way. The result was widespread chaos, which combined with a poor harvest in 1932 brought about famine.

The exact number of victims is unknown, and will likely always remain a mystery. The estimates range from six to twelve million people dying in the Soviet Union, of whom four to five million were Ukrainians. Although the famine was man-made, there is no scholarly consensus as to whether famine had been a goal in and of itself, or whether it was the byproduct of badly thought out policies that backfired disastrously. Some scholars believe that the famine was an end in itself, intended to demoralize the Ukrainian public and crush a budding independence movement.

The Soviet Union’s Great Famine was one of History’s Greatest Man-Made Disasters
Crowd lining up for rations during the Great Famine. Wikimedia

Farm Collectivization Sets the Stage for Catastrophe

When he rose to power in the 1920s, Stalin’s chief aim – aside from hanging on to power and crushing all who stood in the way – was to rapidly industrialize and modernize the backward Soviet Union. Fearful that the capitalists would someday turn on the USSR, he reasoned that unless his country caught up to the West, communism was doomed. As he put it in a 1931 speech: “We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this difference in ten years. Either we do it, or we shall be crushed“.

As it turned out, Stalin was prescient: ten years later, Nazi Germany launched a massive onslaught against the USSR, that came within a hair’s breadth of snuffing out the communist state. By then, however, Stalin had forced industrialization down his country’s throat, and the Soviet Union had the industrial capacity to match, and then exceed the Germans in arms and armaments. Between that, stubborn tenacity, and astonishing sacrifices, the Soviets managed to claw their way out of the abyss and on to ultimate victory. By 1945, the USSR was a superpower, and a global industrial giant, second only to the United States.

From the preceding perspective, rapid industrialization had borne fruit. However, it had come at a horrific cost, calculated in the millions of innocent men, women, and children, whose lives and liberties were ruthlessly crushed and sacrificed in order to implement Stalin’s policies. Nowhere was that more evident than in the policy of collectivization, which forced millions of Soviet peasants off their private plots and into large collective farms, which were to be run like factories.

The Soviet Union’s Great Famine was one of History’s Greatest Man-Made Disasters
A mother and child forcibly evicted from their home in the dead of winter, during forced farm collectivization. Pinterest

Just like a thousand industrial workers in a factory could produce more than a thousand artisans working individually in their cottages, it was hoped that a thousand farmers in a factory-like collective farm could produce more than a thousand farmers tilling individual plots. It was also hoped that economies of scale would produce huge savings in labor: giant factory-like farms, using modern agricultural practices and machines, would not need as many farmers. Thus, millions could be taken from farms in the countryside, and redirected to factories in urban centers, to fuel industrialization with an abundance of workers. It would also strengthen communism by increasing the population of the industrial proletariat – viewed as communism’s most reliable class – while reducing the numbers of the more hidebound and reactionary peasantry.

Collectivization thus sounded good in theory – win, win, win, all around. In practice, it turned out to be catastrophic. For one thing, most peasants were reluctant to give up their private plots in order to join the collective farms. That was especially so among the more prosperous peasants – “prosperous” being relative in the Soviet context, often denoting those successful enough to afford a cow or a few pigs – known as kulaks. In addition to radical changes to traditional village life, collectivization meant forfeiting their land and livestock to the collective farms, and selling their produce to the government at minimal prices, set by the government itself. Stalin’s USSR being what it was, the decision was made to force collectivization down the peasants’ throats, and crush all who objected.

The Soviet Union’s Great Famine was one of History’s Greatest Man-Made Disasters
Soviet authorities seizing crops from Ukrainian peasants in 1932. Wikimedia

Failed Harvest and the Confiscation of Grain

Among the many tragedies surrounding the Great Famine is that it had been predicted, years in advance. Objective observers, witnessing collectivization’s early trial runs in the late 1920s and early 1930s, sounded the alarm about the expected chaos and turmoil, and the negative impact on the harvests and the distribution networks that took produce from the fields to consumers. As early as 1930, academics and advisers to the authorities in the Ukrainian SSR predicted that famine was inevitable if collectivization was continued at its current pace. They were roundly ignored.

A key factor was the Soviet authorites’ decision to ignore the incentives driving the peasants. Collectivization sought to increase the grain available to feed the steadily growing industrial population in the cities, while paying the peasants a state-mandated pittance for their work, unrelated to the true market price of their produce. However, the peasants, knowing that would not personally benefit from the increased agricultural output, had little incentive to go along. Many viewed collectivization as a “second serfdom”, particularly since they were forced into the collective farms against their will, and did not have the right to leave and seek employment elsewhere without the authorities’ permission – permission that was often denied.

At first, the peasants protested peacefully, writing letters to the authorities, but when they were ignored, violence broke out, with some villagers lynching the local enforcers of collectivization. Others turned to sabotage, including the burning of crops or slaughtering the livestock that was about to get seized from them and handed over to the collective farms. Stalin responded to the peasantry’s defiance with typical brutality and deployed the machinery of the Soviet state to crush and bring them to heel – especially the prosperous kulaks, who were deemed to be the most intransigent opponents of collectivization.

In 1932, the chaos and turmoil of collectivization resulted in a Ukrainian grain harvest whose yields were significantly below average: Soviet authorities got a hold of only 4.3 million tons, as opposed to 7.2 million tons a year earlier. Food rations were drastically cut in the cities, where many starved that winter. The famine had begun, and it was about to get far, far, worse. To channel the urban industrial workers’ ire away from Stalin’s government, a propaganda campaign was whipped up, blaming the food shortages on counterrevolutionary peasants. Agitprop movies and news articles accused the peasants of hiding the harvested grain and potatoes in order to produce an artificial shortage, then cash in on the higher prices, even if it cost the lives of starving urban workers.

The Soviet Union’s Great Famine was one of History’s Greatest Man-Made Disasters
A ‘Red Train’ of urban workers carts off grain forcibly seized from Ukrainian peasants during the Great Famine. Wikimedia

The propaganda campaign succeeded in riling up the industrial workers, and before long, the urban proletariat was hopping mad at the peasants, blaming them for their hunger pangs. When the authorities organized them into special brigades and columns to go into the countryside to help confiscate grain, the workers were in no mood to listen to the peasants’ protestations of poor harvests and the lack of grain to meet the set quotas.

The Soviet Union’s Great Famine was one of History’s Greatest Man-Made Disasters
Starving Ukrainians, dying on the street. Pinterest

Catastrophe and Aftermath

By early 1933, the Great Famine was in full swing, and thousands – most of them peasants in the countryside – were dropping dead every day, collapsing from starvation and its attendant consequences. However, the steadily growing catastrophe did not bring a halt to the forced collectivization, nor to the forced confiscation of grain and foodstuffs from peasants who had little to no surplus to spare. As news leaked of what was going on, Soviet authorities denied the catastrophe’s existence, labeled it fake news, and refused humanitarian assistance from the International Red Cross and other NGOs.

An information clampdown was ordered, and the Ukraine and southern Russia – the regions most impacted by the famine – were put under lockdown. Travel to and from the famine zones was restricted, trapping and condemning to death millions who might have survived had then been allowed to leave for parts of the USSR where food was more available. However, Stalin and his henchmen preferred the deaths of millions to the propaganda black eye that would result if so many eyewitnesses were allowed to spread their knowledge of the catastrophe taking place in the “workers’ paradise”.

The Soviet Union’s Great Famine was one of History’s Greatest Man-Made Disasters
Refugees attempting to escape the Ukraine in 1933. Wikimedia

The famine reached its peak in June of 1933, when an estimated 28,000 died of starvation each day – nearly 1200 every hour, or 20 every minute. Millions died of straightforward starvation, as their hungry bodies first consumed their fat reserves, then their muscles, before their lives were extinguished. Others fell to illnesses that their malnourished bodies were unable to resist. Yet more succumbed to waves of epidemic, such as typhus, that swept the Ukraine and southern Russia during the Great Famine. The final death toll is unknowable, but in the Ukraine, the tally ranges from a low of 3 million according to conservative modern estimates, to a high of ten million.

Today, the Great Famine is a bone of contention between the Ukraine and Russia. Kiev demands that the disaster be recognized as a deliberate genocide against the Ukrainian people, contending that industrialization was implemented despite the knowledge that it would lead to famine, and that Stalin had used famine as a weapon against the peasants. Moscow denies that the famine had been artificial, and contends that several other Soviet republics had endured starvation as well.

The Soviet Union’s Great Famine was one of History’s Greatest Man-Made Disasters
An armed guard in front of a grain warehouse. Pinterest

Depending on how one goes about defining “genocide”, a credible argument could be made for either position. Either way, however, there is no doubt that Stalin’s industrialization and forced collectivization policies set the stage for the Great Famine. Also undisputed is that Soviet actions after the catastrophe began, from confiscating foodstuffs from peasants who hardly had enough to feed themselves, to turning down international humanitarian aid, to preventing people in the starving regions from leaving, made things far worse.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Redd, Wyatt – The Holodomor: Stalin’s Genocidal Famine that Starved Millions in the 1930s (2017)

Applebaum, Anne – Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine (2017)

Atlantic, The, October 13th, 2017 – How Stalin Hid Ukraine’s Famine From the World

Awesome Stories – Bitter Harvest: Story of the Holodomor

Encyclopedia Britannica – Ukraine, the Famine of 1932 – 1933

Holodomor Victims Memorial – The History of the Holodomor

Kyiv Post, June 1st, 2018 – Honest History, Episode 7: Holodomor Was Genocide Unleashed Against Ukraine

New Republic, The, November 21st, 2017 – Why Stalin Starved the Ukraine

Wikipedia – Holodomor