This year, 2013, marks the 81st anniversary of the most devastating event in Ukrainian history—the Holodomor, or the government induced famine of 1932-1933. Historian Robert Conquest uses Soviet census data to arrive at a death toll of around 5 million people throughout Ukraine and another 6.5 million deaths during dekulakisation—the elimination of landowners, prior to the Great Famine (Reid 116). These numbers add up to twice the number of deaths recorded during the Holocaust with a lingering possibility of being grossly underestimated due to lack of discovered documentation (Reid 116).
Although the Holodomor stands as a national tragedy of the Ukrainian nation, the precise understanding of its existence is a constant debate. Some scholars suggest the famine was a consequence of instability associated with collectivization and economic changes during the period of Soviet industrialization, while others refuse to acknowledge its significance and claim it is not appropriate to accuse the Soviet government.
However, many scholars emphasize the man-made aspects of the famine and argue that Soviet policies were an attack on Ukrainian nationalism and therefore a direct Soviet attempt to liquefy the Ukrainian population.
As I will soon discuss, the famine was an overall assault on the entire Ukrainian culture and an attempt towards complete Soviet domination of a weakened Ukraine. Through analyzing Soviet policy in Ukrainian society (both rural and urban) before and during the famine, the latter argument can be supported through the incorporation relevant source materials, eyewitness accounts, and overwhelmingly revealing evidence supporting the idea that the famine was Russia’s ultimate “economic weapon of mass destruction to subdue the people of Ukraine”(Oleskiw 11).
Furthermore, using this information, it can be effectively proven that these intentional acts of Ukrainian suppression can be classified an act of genocide.
Ukraine’s favorable economic position made it an essential area to be controlled by Soviet Russia. Though comprising of only 2% of USSR territory, the Ukraine housed 1/5 of the population of the Soviet Union and represented a vital economic and political entity of the USSR (Dmytryshyn 183). Often called the “bread basket” of Eastern Europe, Ukraine is renowned for its rich, arable land and abundance of coal and iron deposits, which represent a major asset in the economy of the Soviet Union (Dmytryshyn 184). With such a plethora of natural resources, if developed efficiently, Ukraine could easily be one of the most prosperous nations in Europe. In the years 1885-1913, Ukrainian contribution of iron ore alone skyrocketed from 12.7% to nearly 72% of all ore in the Russian Empire. During the years 1909-1913 as high as 79% of all Russian exports were Ukrainian grains (Dmytryshyn 184). The Soviet Union’s immense dependence on Ukrainian resources provides an explanation for the continuously maintained grip the Soviets had over Ukraine.
This grip was originally held loosely by Vladimir Lenin, chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR. Lenin originally lacked sufficient interest in Ukrainian desire for independence after the Bolshevik revolution. He believed Ukrainians, attracted by a superior Russian culture, would easily assimilate and therefore, there was no need for caustic forcing of the Ukrainians to concede to communism (Dmytryshyn 18). In the mid-1920s, with the intention of broadening communism’s appeal, the Korenizatsiya, also known as Ukrainianization, phenomena began to take root. Books, magazines, newspapers, and textbooks were printed in Ukrainian and the use of spoken Ukrainian in educational institutes and the work place became required. For the first time, there was a brief ‘renaissance” of Ukrainian literature and an upwelling of excitement and fervent nationalist feelings (Reid 119).
Intelligentsia and nationalistic figures such as Khvyloyvy and Skrypnyk sparked patriotic feelings amongst the Ukrainian population and provided opportunities for Ukrainian culture to flourish both in the cities and amongst the peasant populations (Russian Oppression in Ukraine 24). Illiteracy rates among the Ukrainian high school students plummeted from 47% to 8%, and the number of Ukrainian newspapers, which almost did not exist in 1922, had reached 373 out of 426 available publications (Kubiyovych). Popularity and increased membership in the Autocephalous Orthodox Church provided another outlet for Ukrainian pride and revived old religious tradition. While the purpose of linguistic nationalization of public spheres of life in Ukraine was to instill the Communist ideology into the broad masses and then dominate the Ukrainian population, the Ukrainian national movement was ever growing and hungry for Ukrainian independence (Russian Oppression in Ukraine 24). The Russian plan towards Ukrainian domination had backfired and instead, fueled the fiery force of the intelligentsia and the peasants. Beginning in the early 1930’s, during the Stalin era, the beginning of attacks on Ukrainian culture can be recognized and used as supporting evidence towards intentional annihilation of Ukrainian nationalism through the famine. Resistance of the Ukrainian people against the Soviet lifestyle continued throughout the 1920s in the form of underground organizations, peasant revolts, and in the movements of the intelligentsia, which were able to convince Ukrainian peasants that without a Ukrainian independent state, their well being and political and economic rights could not be guaranteed (Oleskiw 48).
The combination of a thriving central intelligentsia and a united peasantry formed the stable backbone of Ukraine and the spirit of Ukrainian nationalism. Stalin understood this and inferred that the suppression of the Ukrainian nation could not be accomplished unless these two nationalistic powerhouses were also suppressed. The peasants formed the majority of the Ukrainian population as well as produced the bulk of grain deliveries the Soviets used as foreign exports; they merely had to cease or reduce their grain deliveries for all Soviet plans of industrialization to be compromised. In order to strengthen his own power and consolidate his dictatorship further in Ukraine, Stalin decided to focus on industrialization and the development of heavy industry. To accomplish this, Stalin drafted the First Five Year Plan, which called for rapid industrialization in the Soviet Union. Hard currency was needed to import equipment from Western Europe to aid in Soviet manufacturing; therefore, more grain had to be produced and sold to finance the Five Year Plan (Wanner 41). Stalin believed that the best way to fulfill these steep grain quotas was through total collectivization of the peasants, thereby eliminating the independent farmer (Wanner 41).
Scholarly debates disagree on the motives behind Stalin’s absolute collectivization policy. While it has been argued that collectivization was used solely as a means to maximize production of grain, significant evidence suggests collectivization was primarily used as a weapon against the Ukrainian peasant, implemented to directly control al aspects of peasant life. In order to more efficiently carry out his policy of collectivization, Stalin imposed a primary program called “dekulakisation,” which involved the elimination of kulaks—wealthy, land-owning peasants—and assuming their property (Wanner 42). It has been argued that this movement was carried out for the sole purpose of creating collectively managed farms (kolhospy) to deliver marketable grain to the cities; however, collectivization and dekulakisation are separate matters. It would have been possible to collectivize without dekulakisating; consequently, this decision to eliminate the wealthy land-owning class was a political one. Landowners had a large influence over the peasant populations due to the fact that they provided employment for many Ukrainian villagers (Wanner 42).
Threatened not only by the social influence of these kulaks, Stalin was also worried about the economic success these farmers achieved individually. The prosperity of the Ukrainian farmers wasn’t just attributed to the richness of the land; it was also due to the success these smallholders obtained locally (Matussiv). Dekulakisation was not only the assumption of individual property, but in most cases, it was the massacre of those who owned it. By 1930, the kulaks had been completely eliminated (Oleskiw 16). Some researchers estimate that 10 million people were removed from their homes and deported to “special settlements” in Siberia (“The History Place – Genocide in the 20th Century: Stalin’s Forced Famine 1932-33”). The Russian peasant was used to collectivized life, with land constantly being redistributed; however, the Ukrainian peasant was a strong individualist who took pride in private ownership and property. The success of the kulaks angered Stalin, who not only stripped these properties away from these farmers, but also destroyed their homes and barns so that there would be no trace left of, what Stalin called, “the enemy of the people” (Russian Oppression in Ukraine 25). Following the elimination of the kulak farmers, Stalin quickly imposed the Soviet total collectivization on the remaining peasant farmers.
This resulted in the seizure of all privately owned farmlands and livestock. Peasants would be brought together into kolkhozes (collective farms) where they could be easily supervised and forced to concentrate all their energies on harvesting grain (Oleskiw 16). The acquisition of Ukrainian property was not limited to the mere ownership of the Soviet state. Hannah Krytsay, a young girl during the time of Soviet collectivization, recalls the Soviet invasion of her village, “They took everything-land grain, ploughs, animals. And as if that weren’t enough, they took the bread out of the house…they banged with hammers on the walls to see if he had any hidden grain (Reid 115).” Naturally, there was widespread resistance to this plan among the Ukrainian peasantry. Many peasants killed their livestock and burnt practiced a “scorched- earth” technique in order to prevent the Soviets from obtaining land (Russian Oppression in Ukraine 71). Resistance was harshly eliminated through the use of Soviet Police (NKVD) who violently forced peasants into submission. Between 1930-1932, 73% of the total number of farms was collectivized.
Grain quota began to steadily increase between 1930-1932 until in 1922 the state stripped the collective farms completely of their harvest (Noack, Janssen, and Comerford 25). While some believe the complete acquisition of Ukrainian grain was mainly due to the increase in prices for agricultural equipment, evidence has greatly alluded to this acquisition to liquidate the peasant masses and the suffocation of Ukraine’s strive for independence. Perhaps one of the largest pieces of evidence supporting Stalin’s desire to eliminate the peasants is the gross degree of unproductivity that was witnessed under collectivization. A direct paradox, collectivization was declared by the Soviets as means of maximizing agricultural production; however the destruction of already profitable land became extremely unproductive. A lack of economic success strongly supports the theory that Stalin’s intentions did not lie in economic productivity, but rather in Ukrainian liquidation, Peasants lost the incentive to work and high grain requisition quotas further aggravated negative factors affecting production. In 1931, 7.7 million tons of grains were requisitioned from Ukraine; however the same amount was requisitioned in 1930 when the harvest had been 20% greater (Wanner 42).
Instead of reevaluating Russo-Ukrainian relations in order to improve grain delivery and therefore industrialization, Stalin implemented the infamous law of 1932 against “theft of socialist property,” a crime punishable by execution or internment in a labor camp (Wanner 42). Implementations of this law promptly lead to the Holodomor, where an estimated 25,000 peasants died every day (“The History Place – Genocide in the 20th Century: Stalin’s Forced Famine 1932-33”). Visible fruitless harvests of grain additionally reveal Soviet intentions of Ukrainian suppression. By the end of 1932, collectivization policies could be considered as great failures. Crops stood unharvested in the fields; farm machinery lay rusting and dead livestock were scattered about in the open (Reid 126). Soviet GPU officers watched calmly as peasants sunk into insanity and burnt down their own houses, literally witnessing the depression of the Ukrainian countryside reduce to shambles. Witnesses describe stockpiles of extra grain intact deliberately, and allowed untouched grain to lay idle and rot while millions of people died (Oleskiw 25).
Thus, the production of grain for export to aid industrialization could not have been the only purpose of Moscow’s policies. A survivor of the famine recalls, “Here I saw people dying in solitude by slow degrees, dying hideously…the nightmarishness of the scene was not in the corpse on the bed, but in the condition of the living witnesses… the man and his children were clearly in the last stages of starvation”(Reid 130). Massive death struck all of rural Ukraine, wiping out workers who were supposed to be harvesting grain in order to finance Soviet industrialization. It does not make sense to kill workers if productivity is the ultimate goal. Killing farmers means killing the harvest and losing profit. In the deportation of the kulaks, Ukraine lost some of the country’s most successful farmers, translating into the loss of Stalin’s best opportunity for productivity and success (Matussiv). In the eyes of Stalin, however, if the peasants ate, they would have the strength to resist (Oleskiw 27). This mindset correlates directly with the reasoning behind eliminated the kulaks in order to prevent the spirit of Ukrainian nationalistic pride from spreading into the agricultural realm. Stalin was physically exhausting the Ukraine since propaganda and persuasion clearly couldn’t penetrate the heart of Ukrainian pride.
The complete inhumanity of collectivization policies reveals this national exhaustion of the Ukrainians. Peasants were shot if they were found eating anything that wasn’t directly provided for them by the Soviet Police. People were found eating worms, mice, lime tree leaves; anything they could get their hands on they would turn into food. People even resorted to eating their own children (Reid 115). Perhaps one of the most convincing pieces of evidence that leads scholars to believe in the true nature behind Stalin’s devastating policies is the lack of foreign knowledge and influence on Ukraine Stalin allowed during the famine. The foreign press in the Soviet Union was forbidden to write about the conditions. By concealing the famine, the Kremlin could continue the policy of genocide without protests from the other nations, therefore maintaining diplomatic acceptance and credibility internationally (Oleskiw 26). Unlike the famine of 1921, when foreign aid was accepted by the Soviet Union, during the Holodomor food parcels from abroad were refused as Stalin continued to deny the existence of any kind of famine. In order to further hide the great hunger from foreigners, a campaign was founded to remove dead bodies and dying people from the cities, railways, and roadsides in order to clear the evidence of death. A victim of the famine remembers the visit of the French radical leader Edouard Herriot to a village near Ukraine in 1933, explaining, “Some steers and hogs were slaughtered to provide plenty of meat. A supply of beer was also brought in.
All the corpses and starving peasants were removed from the highways…”(Reid 135). Based on the descriptions of victims of this awful tragedy, there can be no doubt that the famine of Ukraine was organized deliberately with every measure taken by the Russian government to increase the degree of hardship on the peasants. Simultaneous to the paralyzing famine and harsh policies of collectivization was the directed attack on all of the intellectual leaders of the country. Russia wanted to gain control over industry, political, cultural, religious and academic institutions in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church was the first to go. In 1930 all of the bishops of the church were picked up and executed or deported. About 90% of the Ukrainian Orthodox churches had either been completely destroyed or transformed into barns, warehouses, and storage buildings (Russian Oppression in Ukraine 30). By eliminating the influence of traditional Ukrainian religion, Stalin hoped to further crush the Ukrainian nationalism that had so passionately taken root during the period of Ukrainianization (Russian Oppression in Ukraine 30). The literary organizations were soon to disappear. All Ukrainian literary organizations ceased to exist at the beginning of the thirties. Stalin craftily kept these organizations open, not wanting the Ukrainian citizens to get the idea that he was non-democratic.
Instead, writers in this category were banished, shot, put on trial and imprisoned. Slowly, the figures of Ukrainian literature were slaughtered or sent away. The elimination of Ukrainian writers was a direct attempt to smother Ukrainian nationalism and prevent a feeling of patriotic pride from interfering with Soviet dictatorship. It is stated in some accounts that about 5,000 people were arrested during the waves of arrests but only 45 were actually brought into an open trial (Oleskiw 49). Most of these arrests were older Ukrainian intellectuals, who were sent to Siberia or banished from Ukraine all together. Included in this number were well known academics such as Yefremov and Slabchenko, distinguished teachers and accredited scientists (Oleskiw 48). All of these individuals were charged with bourgeois nationalism and accused of trying to destroy the unity of the Russians and Ukrainians (Russian Oppression in Ukraine 32). The policy against the political and cultural entities applied simultaneously with the requisition of grain in the agricultural villages surely points towards Stalin’s true intentions regarding Ukraine—the destruction of all attempts to form an independent Ukraine. Due to the unquestionably purposeful methods used to conquer the Ukrainian people, the famine of 1932-1933 can undoubtedly be classified as an act of genocide. Merriam-Webster defines genocide as, “ the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political or social group.” Thousands of victims of the Holodomor describe the intentional terror they constantly were forced to endure. If these claims are true, then brigades were indeed ordered to confiscate food, land, and kulaks.
In order to directly prove the existence of such commands, official documentation is required. Perhaps one of the most disturbing pieces of documented evidence comes from Khataevich, secretary of the Dnepropetrovsk Regional Committee who described the situation in Ukraine as “a ruthless struggle going on between the Ukrainian peasantry and the Russian Communist Party…a struggle to the death. This year was a test of our strength and their endurance. It took millions of lives, but the collective system is here to stay. We have won the war.” The year Khataevich is referring to is 1933, the official end year of the Holodomor. Analysis of Khataevich’s statement provided revealing evidence supporting the claim of genocide. Through looking at monetary and productivity statistics, one would clearly understand the complete plummet of income and resources the Ukraine had managed to reap for the Soviet Union. Some of the sharpest grain reductions in Ukrainian history were between the years 1930-1934 (Wanner 41), yet Khataevich refers to these years as when Russia had “won the war.” This is clearly referring to the war of dictatorial power the Soviet Union had been trying to impose on Ukraine for decades. The confession of the millions of Ukrainian lives that were lost during the famine clearly supports the determination that the famine was an act of genocide.
The genocide of members of the Ukrainian intelligentsia is also directly related to the events of the Ukrainian famine and can provide further evidence towards defining the destructive aims of Stalin and the Russian Communist Party. The immediate cause of the Holodomor was the implementation of collectivization and the requisition of the majority of Ukrainian grain; however, the famine cannot be understood in the sole context of agrarian collectivization (Oleskiw 58). This government-induced hunger only becomes understandable in the context of Russia’s desire to crush Ukrainian nationalism in order to procure complete domination throughout Soviet regions. Witnessed in the dependence on Ukrainian resources, Russia would have been economically paralyzed without the Ukrainian grains, iron ore and coal. Therefore, we see reasoning behind the imperativeness of Russia’s maintained acquisition of Ukrainian territory. While Lenin maintained a loose policy of Ukrainianization in order to ease national tension and persuade Ukrainian trust, Stalin enforced harsh collectivization policies and attempted to seize control through the suppression of the rural peasants.
Through targeting Ukrainian intellectuals simultaneous to the famine, we see direct proof of Stalin’s intentions to crush the national backbone of Ukrainian society. Collectivization of agriculture and the resulting famine proved to be unproductive in terms of grain output, supporting the claim that Stalin’s general plan was not to maximize economic output, but rather, to destroy all Ukrainian independent development and suffocate nationalistic feelings. Impacting descriptions of the Holodomor’s victims reveal gruesome inhumanity of famine conditions as well as cruelty displayed by Soviet officers, who were blatantly aware of poor conditions. Furthermore, this direct attempt to subdue the Ukrainian population and smoother nationalistic pride can be classified as an act of genocide due to the direct nature of Stalin’s policies and proof of intentional murder from secretary of the Dnepropetrovsk Regional Committee, Khataevich. The Ukrainian nation will never forget the famine of 1932-1933, a direct crime committed against its people. Remembrance of this terrible holocaust will continue to drive the passionate resistance of the Ukrainian nation against future generations of oppression as well as drive fervent national unity that will continue to build a stronger Ukraine.
“The History Place – Genocide in the 20th Century: Stalin’s Forced Famine 1932-33.” The History Place – Genocide in the 20th Century: Stalin’s Forced Famine 1932-33. The History Place, 2000. Web. 08 Apr. 2013.
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Oleskiw, Stephen. The Agony of a Nation: The Great Man-made Famine in Ukraine, 1932-1933. London: National Committee to Commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Artificial Famine in Ukraine 1932-1933, 1983. Print.
Reid, Anna. Borderland: A Journey through the History of Ukraine. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1999. Print.
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