136: Holodomor


Eventually the agricultural areas of the Soviet Union would hit a breaking point, people were dying from starvation and something had to change.



This episode is going to focus heavily on the events in Ukraine during the early 1930s and the challenges and trauma faced by the Ukrainian people during that time. At the time of writing this episode in May 2023 the people of Ukraine are facing new challenges and new trauma in a war that has been raging for over a year. If you are able I would encourage you to head over to United24, the official fundraising platform for the government of Ukraine, over at u24.gov.ua and make a donation. If you make a donation and send me a screenshot of your donation I will personally match the first $500 in donations with a donation to the Medical Aid fund. Again that is u24.gov.ua or just click the link in the show notes.

Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 136 - The Soviet Union Pt. 6 - Holodomor. This week a big thank you goes out to Jan-Japp and Tomáš for choosing to support the podcast by becoming a member, find out more over at historyofthesecondworldwar.com/members. Last episode ended near the end of 1932, which was the the end of the third year of the concentrated collectivization program of Soviet agriculture. There had been many problems caused by this collectivization, and those issues had amplified the challenges faced by Soviet agriculture before 1929. In the last months of 1932 there had been some discussion, prompted by the leaders of the Ukrainian Communist Party, that it was time to change course and to pump the brakes on the drive towards total collectivization. Some felt that this was necessary because the collectivization efforts were causing a further drop in agricultural production, which was causing serious food shortages throughout the Soviet Union, but within some of the most productive agricultural areas those food shortages were turning into famine and starvation. These famine conditions were caused not by a lack of production of food, that was still being produced in placed like Ukraine and Kazakhstan, but the vast majority of that food was being requisitioned and used for other purposes. There was a very serious negative feedback loop that the rural areas were stuck in: they did not want to collectivize, so punitive measures were taken by local authorities and the leaders in Moscow to push them towards collectivization. This resulted in a wave of arrests, deportations to Siberia, and other measures. Eventually those that had resisted collectivization, generally passively, were forced to give in. But then, the collective farms were not as productive as hoped or as planned for, and so punitive measures were put in place for the collective farms, with very high quotas being placed on them in terms of grain and food products to be exported to other areas of the Soviet Union. This resulted in starvation, with expected reduction in production, which just made it seem like they were still resisting, and so the punitive measures were continued. And this was not just a few pockets of starvation, a village here or a village there, a collective farm or two in a region, but instead vast swaths of the southern and central areas of the Soviet Union: Ukraine, the Northern Caucasus, Kazakhstan, and other areas. 70 million people, almost half of the total population of the Soviet Union lived in these areas. Near the end of 1932, instead of changing course, the Soviet leaders in Moscow would amplify punishments for those found to be stealing food in these regions. At that same time, within places like Ukraine those who lived there were reaching a breaking point. While the suffering continued, changes could have been made to official Soviet policy that could have helped those most in need. Food resources could have been redistributed, the export of grain that was being used to pay for industrial projects could have been halted, and an appeal could have been made for food aid from other nations which had previously happened in the early 1920s. But none of these choices were made, and instead the demands on the peasants and collective farmers were maintained even as it became clear that they could not in any way meet the demands being placed on them.

Since the beginning of time, when food is scarce at a particular location human beings move to another location, but this was something that the Soviet authorities did not want to happen. They needed workers to stay on the collective farms to continue to work them, to hopefully increase the output of those collective farms in the future. Up until January 1933 there was a steady movement of people out of Ukraine and other areas and into places where food was more available, like Belarus or central Russia. In late 1932 a passport system was setup to better track and control the movement of people within the Soviet Union, this was used both to control temporary movement but also to prevent those from rural areas from moving into cities. Then in January 1933 the order was given to close the border of Ukraine. Trains that were exiting Ukraine could no longer contain Ukrainians and any found outside of Ukraine were sent back. When this was combined with internal migration prevention, keeping people from moving into the cities, it condemned people to starve in place. Similar methods were used in Kazakhstan, where the exact nature of the controls were different but they were intended to prevent the typical nomadic lifestyle of Kazakhs. When this was combined with the massive requisitioning of livestock from those nomadic groups, famine ensued. This was just one of many types of control exercised over the various nomadic groups in Russia, with the entire process called forced sedentarization, or the forced settling of a nomadic group in one place. In all of the areas where movement was tightly controlled it was theoretically possible to get permission to move, but it was of course always denied.

The last months of 1932 saw the situation somehow escalate even further. The grain harvests across the Soviet Union were down once again, with the autumn harvest being just a little under half what had been planned for. In some areas it was even worse, like in the Ukraine where it would miss target by 60%. But even though there was less food than ever, there was no reduction in the amount of food demanded from these areas, which resulted in new levels of requisitions. Even some of the individuals who had been allowed to keep some food before had that privilege removed, this included individuals on collective farms, who up to this point had been allowed to keep the production of their small personal plots, as something of a reward for joining the collective farms. That was no longer the case, and all grain from those private plots was confiscated. The collective farms and individual farms that had missed targets by the greatest amount was subject to increased quotas in the future, and immediate confiscation of livestock and to forfeit their seed grain for the coming year. The forfeiture of this seed grain was a really big deal, it was the only future that these farmers had at this point in time, and they were no longer in control of it. Those who tried to hide food were subject to the laws around the theft of state property which carried a sentence of 10 years in prison. These laws were used to prosecute not just those that were hiding food, but simply those that were allegedly hiding food, no real proof was required, or at least no food had to be found. Throughout the early 1930s in some areas of the Soviet Union that were under strict food requisitioning rules you could be visited by the authorities simply because you looked healthy. It if looked like you had eaten enough food, that made you a suspect. One Ukrainian survivor would later recall that when her family was able to get ahold of some flour, when they baked bread with it they were visited by the confiscation brigade the next day, even though they baked it at night. Another survivor would claim that the very act of lighting your fireplace might get you visited by the local brigade. These brigades were given preferential treatment, and critically 10 percent of the food that they collected. This put many of them in a position where the only way that they and their family had food was if they were able to confiscate it some from someone else. Being a tool for the party came with perks. Being a party member or a party leader brought with it even greater access to food. One Ukrainian, who was just a child at the time, would later recall: “There was a special school for the children of the bosses. There was a canteen inside … breathtaking smells spread from that kitchen, I wept because of them, with such tears!” In some areas there was also a standing policy whereby informers who provided information that led to food being collected would also get some as a reward, setting up an atmosphere of suspicion. This helped to further break down the communities, in situations that might have otherwise helped bring communities together. For many, all of these rules and the situation resulted in a simple choice: give up all food and die of starvation, or run the risk of hiding some food and then risking arrest at any moment, at which point that food would be confiscated and then they would die of starvation

The status of individuals and groups were managed by blacklists that were often maintained at a few levels. Local authorities might add individuals or specific farms to the blacklist. In some cases entire villages would be added to the list due to either missing their quotas or being found to harbor those who were hiding food. At a higher level party leaders could apply blacklist sanctions to entire regions, again as a punishment for not meeting their quotas over the previous period. What being added to a blacklist meant would vary based on the location and the situation. In most instances it meant no food was imported into the area or given to the families involved. In others any remaining items would be confiscated, with perhaps increased quotas in the future. They would allowed to receive certain manufactured goods or raw materials like kerosene, salt, or matches. There were also financial sanctions, and those groups or regions that were on a blacklist could not receive any loans or other financial assistance. It would often also result in further restrictions on movement. These various punishments were then overseen by special groups of soldiers or secret policemen that would prevent any disallowed activity from occurring. In theory these punishments were designed to make those that were suffering them work harder to meet their goals, but in many cases it would have the opposite effect. Even if some farms or villages wanted to work harder, the sanctions prevented them from doing so, robbing them of their livestock, equipment, tools, and their food. By late 1932 the punishments had already gone too far, and it was at the point where further punishments would not have any positive impact on production, which was evidenced by the fact that production in 1933 would once again fall.

With targets continuing to be missed throughout 1932 there was growing pressure to change the leadership of the Ukrainian Communist party. Essentially scapegoats were needed and those scapegoats needed to be higher profile than just individuals. This included Ukrainian leadership as a whole but then also trickled down to local party leaders and party members. Basically anyone that had resisted or had negatively commented on the ongoing requisition policies was in danger of being purged from the party. Some would simply be removed from the party and their positions while others would be arrested. These arrests were just a small number of thousands of arrests that would occur during the last months of 1932. The orders for these arrests would say that the goal was to remove “counter revolutionary” groups and to further attack the power of the kulaks within the Communist party. In some areas this meant almost the complete liquidation of the local party leadership, removing many of the few moderating voices that were left. It also broke the connection between the party leaders and the local people. In places like Ukraine in 1932 much of the party hierarchy was made up of Ukrainians, they understood the local people, their challenges and their customs. When they were removed it was often done by bringing in outsiders that did not have these understandings, and were generally less likely to identify and empathize with the people in the regions they were administering.


After the screws had been tightened on the farmers during the last months of 1932, with no positive changes being seen, there would be mounting pressure in the early months of 1933 to do something, anything, to make Soviet agriculture more productive. But there were barriers in place, at least mental barriers, to making such a change, primarily caused by who was being blamed for the problems, which were the collective farmers themselves. Up to early 1933 many of the increased requisitioning and amplified punishments had been put in place with the reasoning that it was the farmers themselves, and their resistance that was the problem. To quote a physician from Kyiv in early 1933 “the politically harmful ’theory’ that the starving people themselves are responsible for the famine is prevalent among leaders and rank-and-file workers; it is claimed that they did not want to work, so in that case, let them croak-no pity there.” This mindset clashed with the ways being suggested to change policy which would involve an increase in the amount of private plots that were allowed along with a large reduction in requisitions and maybe even the introduction of food aid for the hardest hit regions. But eventually there were only two choices, make changes or just see the entire population in many areas die of starvation. And so changes were eventually made, with the permission and at least begrudging support of party leadership. The first change was the introduction of food aid in May 1933, with food being shipped back into regions like Ukraine that had been hardest hit over the previous year. These shipments prioritized regions where there were real concerns about even having the manpower to sow the next years crops or harvest what needed to be harvested. The second change was a change to how food was requisitioned from the areas. Instead of having quotas for specific regions, which they were expected to achieve regardless of how much food was actually available the system was instead changed to a percentage based system. This fixed the problem of requisitions completely emptying areas of food, and introduced a more rational system that allowed for enough grain and food to stay in the area to support the farmers while still taking a percentage. The third change was the expansion of the private plots that were given over to collective farmers which they were able to cultivate however they wanted and for their own benefit. This was very important not just from a numbers perspective, these were often very productive little bits of land, but also just from a mindset perspective. Allowing the peasants there own little piece of land made them feel more secure and that they were able to take care of themselves. The fourth change would almost be made in May 1933 when any mass arrests and mass exiles were ended by decree of the Central Committee. The favorable view on this is that there was a recognition that the arrests were bad, but the more likely reason is just that there were so many people already in prison that there might not be enough people to bring in the harvest. But it did remove one of the primary ways in which the peasants had been punished over the previous years. All of these changes would be made early in 1933, but even with them assistance was still needed to bring in the harvest in late 1933, with large groups of urban workers and students being sent to the rural areas to provide additional manpower. It would take time for areas to recover though. In Ukraine there would be some areas that could not be sown during the spring of 1934 due to lack not just of manpower but also seed grain. It would take years for life to return to anything like normal for many of the new collective farmers, especially in the hardest hit areas although agricultural production would increase throughout the 1930s. Unfortunately, some of the areas hardest hit by the famines of 1929-1933 would see some of the greatest atrocities during the Second World War.

This brings us to the point in the episode where we have to talk about numbers. Numbers often feel like a callous way to discuss human suffering, but I think it is important for these events in the same way that they are important for military campaigns. And much like military campaigns trying to determine the number of people who died due to the famines in the Soviet Union during the early 1930s can be difficult to determine. The first challenge was the general denial that there was a famine and that it was large and prolonged enough to cost a large number of lives. This denial was official party policy both at the time and in the years that followed. The impact of this kind of denial is that there were not newspaper articles about it, it was not necessarily discussed in official party speeches, and there was not an effort to put together a list of those who lost their lives. But there are still documents that modern historians can rely on. There are a set of Soviet Censuses that were taken, but unfortunately there is a gap in these between 1926 and 1937 with the time period greatest suffering right in between the two. There are also death certificates and death registers, most of which were not declassified until the late 1980s, but there is a serious issue here of the incomplete data. For example in 2007 only about 42 percent of the area of Ukraine was covered by known death registries. This makes estimation and extrapolation possible, but always introduces some flimsiness into the numbers. There is also the challenge of how many difficulties were experienced by some groups during the 15 years between 1930 and 1945. The occupation by German troops after 1941 would see widespread destruction and death which impacted the records and memory of the years of the famine.

But focusing just on the deaths caused by the famines for a bit. While we have mainly focused in the last few episodes on the period of 1929 to 1932, the deaths caused by the famine would actually peak in early 1933, and then would continue and would only slowly decline all the way into late 1934. Looking just at the numbers, there have been a very wide range of numbers for the deaths caused by the famines, numbers that have varied greatly based on the time that the estimate was given and the source of those numbers. Estimates have been as low as to be in the tens of thousands, which is almost certainly massively too low. Then they range on the high end up to 10 million, which is possibly too high. The best, most recent numbers that I have found are around 3.5 to 4.5 million, with most quality quality research since the fall of the Soviet Union being roughly within that range. This just includes areas of Ukraine, because other areas like Kazakhstan are even more difficult to tabulate numbers for. There is also the concept of indirect losses, which are also quite challenges to determine, these would be for example the decrease in births during the years in question which are of course a bit more challenging to determine and require a good amount of estimation. These numbers are primarily drawn from two sources, the local files and documents that recorded deaths during this time. There are in no way complete, but they provide a basis for some statistical estimation. Another data point is the 1937 census. The numbers for this census are interesting, because it was the first time in 10 years that a census had been completed in the Soviet Union. It was estimated before the census that there would be around 170 million people, but then when the figures came back there were only 162 million. This represents a marked decline in the growth of those in the Soviet Union, and basically all reports of its population between 1926 and 1937, because the official estimates in 1934 were as high as 168 million. The large difference between estimates and reality are taken into account, and the percentages of populations in certain areas in analyzed, it can help feed into estimates of how many individuals died in the years between 1929 and 1934. It might also be worth noting that the leaders of the census effort were arrested and imprisoned after the real numbers were known, with the reason that they were lying or purposefully deceiving with their results.

One more challenge that should also be mentioned, while it can be easy to boil down the consequences of the famine years to deaths, the effects were much more widespread. For example there were hundreds of thousands of people exiled from their homes and sent to other areas of the Soviet Union. Just in Ukraine the estimates are that around 200,000 people were removed from their homes and either arrested or sent into exile in Siberia. Then there was also the impact that the deaths, and general repression experienced by the people, had on local societies. Due to the dekulakization campaigns, and the very malleable definition of what a kulak was, would see communities lose their local leaders, their shopkeepers, artists, writers, historians, librarians, anyone around whom resistance to collectivization or requisitions could solidify. This was devastating to the culture and cultural memory of many of these areas, a legacy that would be just as long lasting as the deaths caused by the famine. And this legacy has continued into the modern day. In Ukraine it is called the Holodomor, and it is seen as an act of violence against Ukraine and its people, as a targeted effort to kill Ukrainians . Those who deny this often claim that it was just a famine, and famines happen, and have happened throughout history. But it is hard to ignore the fact that while people were starving to death in Ukraine, and in other areas, the Soviet Union was exporting food to pay for industrial advancement. Thousands of tons of food were being taken out of Ukraine every year and sent to other areas of the Soviet Union or exported to nations abroad. And this was known, along with the suffering experienced by the peasants, right up to and including Stalin. They knew, they understood, and they made decisions and took actions not to solve the problem, and it could have been solved, but instead to make it worse. The legacy of those decisions continue, just like the legacy of many decisions from before and after the Second World War continue. As of the writing of this episode there is a war that has been raging in Ukraine for over a year. The stories passed down through generations stories of Soviet blacklists, requisitions, starvation, confiscations, and deportations passed down by parents and grandparents play a role in how that war is viewed by Ukrainians. A living, painful, tragic reminder of the legacy of the Second World War, its prelude and its aftermath, even 90 years later.