Between 1932 and 1933, widespread famine devastated the Soviet Union’s grain-producing regions, including Ukraine, Northern Caucasus, Volga Region, Southern Urals, Western Siberia and Kazakhstan.
Within 2 years, an estimated 5.7-8.7 million people died. The main cause of the great famine continues to be hotly debated, with theories ranging from poor weather conditions to the collectivization of farms, and from rapid industrialisation and urbanisation to the Soviet state’s ruthless persecution of specific groups.
What caused the Soviet famine of 1932-1933, and why did an unprecedented number of people lose their lives?
A struggle with the weather
A series of uncontrollable natural disasters struck the Soviet Union in the late 1920s and early 30s which have been used to explain the famine. Russia had experienced intermittent droughts throughout this period, significantly reducing crop yields. In the spring of 1931, bouts of cold and rain across the Soviet Union delayed sowing by weeks.
A report from the Lower Volga region described the difficult weather: “Mass sowing in the southern districts of the region is taking place in a struggle with the weather. Literally every hour and every day have to be grabbed for sowing.”
Indeed, the Kazakh famine of 1931-1933 was greatly determined by the Zhut (a period of extreme cold weather) of 1927-1928. During the Zhut, cattle starved because they had nothing to graze on.
The poor weather conditions contributed to poor harvests in 1932 and 1933 but did not necessarily spell starvation for the Soviet Union. The lower crop yield was coupled with an ever-growing demand for grain in this period, the result of Stalin’s radical economic policies.
Stalin’s first Five Year Plan was adopted by the communist party leadership in 1928 and called for immediate rapid industrialisation of the Soviet economy to bring the USSR up to speed with Western powers.
The collectivisation of the Soviet Union was a key part of Stalin’s first Five Year Plan. Initial steps towards collectivization had begun with ‘dekulakization’ in 1928. Stalin had labelled the kulaks (seemingly more prosperous, land-owning peasants) as class enemies of the state. As such, they were targeted through property confiscation, arrests, deportations to gulags or penal camps and even executions.
Some 1 million kulak households were liquidated by the state in the process of dekulakization and their confiscated property was subsumed into collective farms.
In principle, by gathering individual farms’ resources within bigger socialist farms, collectivisation would improve agricultural production and result in large enough grain harvests to not only feed a growing urban population, but produce surpluses to export and pay for industrialisation.
In reality, forced collectivisation had been inefficient since it began in 1928. Many peasants began forfeiting traditional farming life for jobs in cities, their harvest bought by the state at state-set low prices. By 1930, collectivization’s success had become increasingly dependent on forcibly collectivising farms and requisitioning grain.
With the focus on heavy industry, consumer goods soon became unavailable at the same time the urban population was growing. Shortages were blamed on the remaining kulak sabotage rather than overreaching policy, and most of the remaining supplies were kept in urban centres.
Grain quotas were also often set beyond what most collective farms could achieve, and Soviet authorities refused to adapt the ambitious quotas to the realities of the harvest.
Additionally, forced collection of the non-kulak peasantry’s assets was more often than not resisted. In early 1930, state cattle seizure angered peasants so much that they began killing their own livestock. Millions of cattle, horses, sheep and pigs were slaughtered for their meat and hide, bartered in rural markets. By 1934 the Bolshevik Congress reported 26.6 million cattle and 63.4 million sheep lost to peasant retribution.
The slaughter of livestock was coupled with a lackluster labour force. With the 1917 Revolution, peasants across the Union had been allocated their own land for the first time. As such, they resented having this land taken from them to be subsumed into collective farms.
The unwillingness of peasants to sow and cultivate on collective farms, along with the widespread slaughter of cattle, resulted in massive disruption to agricultural production. Few animals were left to pull farming equipment and the fewer available tractors could not make up the losses when the poor harvests came.
The kulaks were not the only group disproportionately targeted by Stalin’s tough economic policies. At the same time in Soviet Kazakhstan, cattle were confiscated from richer Kazakhs, known as ‘bai’, by other Kazakhs. Over 10,000 bai were deported during this campaign.
Yet the famine was ever deadlier in Ukraine, a region known for its chernozem or rich soil. Through a series of Stalinist policies, ethnic Ukrainians were targeted to repress what Stalin described as their “nationalist deviations”.
In the years preceding the famine, there had been a resurgence of traditional Ukrainian culture including encouragement of using the Ukrainian language and devotion to the Orthodox church. For Soviet leadership, this sense of national and religious belonging reflected sympathies with “fascism and bourgeois nationalism” and threatened Soviet control.
Exacerbating the growing famine in Ukraine, in 1932 the Soviet state ordered that grain earned by Ukrainian peasants for meeting their quotas should be reclaimed. At the same time, those who did not meet quotas began to be punished. Finding your farm on the local ‘blacklist’ meant having your livestock and any remaining food seized by local policemen and party activists.
After Ukrainians had attempted to flee in search of food, the borders were closed off in January 1933, forcing them to remain within the barren land. Anyone found scavenging what little grain they could were faced with the death penalty.
As the scale of terror and starvation reached its peak, little relief was offered by Moscow. In fact, the Soviet Union still managed to export over 1 million tonnes of grain to the West during the spring of 1933.
The severity of the famine was not publicly acknowledged by Soviet authorities while it raged throughout the countryside and, as the famine subsided with the harvest of 1933, decimated Ukrainian villages were repopulated with Russian settlers who would ‘Russify’ the troublesome region.
It was only when the Soviet archives were declassified in the 1990s that the buried records of the famine came to light. They included the results of the 1937 Census, which revealed the terrible extent of the famine.
The Soviet famine of 1932-1933 has been described as a genocide of Ukrainians. Indeed, the period is referred to as ‘Holodomor’, combining the Ukrainian words for hunger ‘holod’ and extermination ‘mor’.
The description of genocide is still widely contested amongst researchers and within the collective memory of former Soviet states. Monuments can be found across Ukraine in commemoration of those who died during the Holodomor and there is a national day of remembrance each November.
Ultimately, the result of Stalinist policy was a devastating loss of life across the Soviet Union. Soviet leadership took few measures to minimise the human capital spent on rapid collectivization and industrialisation in the early 1930s, offering only selective aid to those still able to work.
Instead, policies exacerbated the famine by removing any means peasants had to feed their starving families and persecuted those who were perceived obstacles to Soviet modernisation.
Stalin’s goal of quick, heavy industrialisation was met, but at the price of at least 5 million lives, 3.9 million of which were Ukrainian. For this reason, Stalin and his policymakers can be identified as the principal cause of the 1932-1933 Soviet famine.