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Lessons from Melbourne meetings

Ukrainians and Russians will reach agreement on the 1932–33 famine only if aided by the international scholarly community
19 May, 00:00
Photo by Ruslan KANIUKA, The Day

(Continued from previous issue)


The reconstruction of killing by famine needs to involve thorough study of concealed details. When the death toll spells millions, there are always traces that are left behind. Therefore, I cannot agree with Kondrashin’s conclusion in his work “The Famine of 1932–33: Tragedy of the Russian Countryside”: “After going though piles of documents, researchers have not discovered a single decree of the Central Committee of the [Communist] Party or the Soviet government ordering to kill by famine a certain number of Ukrainian or other peasants” (P. 240, Russian edition).

It is an established fact that Viacheslav Molotov, the then chairman of the Extraordinary Grain Procurement Commission in Ukraine, drafted in Kharkiv and mailed to Stalin the texts of the Nov. 18, 1932 resolution of the CC CP(B)U and the Nov. 20, 1932 resolution of the Radnarkom of the Ukrainian SSR, both entitled “On Measures to Enhance Grain Procurement.” These resolutions, duly approved and signed by Kosior and Chubar, contain sinister clauses envisaging in-kind fines to be levied on collective farms and collective and individual farmers for a failure to meet their grain delivery quotas. There are eyewitness accounts to the effect that these resolutions started being implemented immediately in the “blacklisted” collective farms and villages. However, not only potatoes, meat, and fatback were confiscated. All foodstuffs were taken away from the peasants. This permits dating the Holodomor in Ukraine to the same years (1932 and 1933) as the all-Union famine.

Back in 1990, Stalin’s Jan. 1, 1933 telegram to the political leadership of the Ukrainian SSR was made public knowledge. This document — it had been ignored for decades — demanded that the village Soviets inform the peasants that they would be subject to repressions if they persisted in concealing grain. In order to find such peasants, comprehensive searches [of peasants’ homes and plots] had to be organized. Therefore, this telegram signaled the need to carry out searches.

The newspapers at the time teemed with information about peasants concealing grain, forcing the state to reduce urban bread supply quotas. Peasants were indeed concealing grain from the official grain procurement commissions to somehow sustain themselves and survive, but in most cases they had no grain whatsoever. After 20 days of painstaking search in December, the NKVD came up with a mere 700,000 poods of concealed grain. Today we have information about the amount of grain found as a result of mass searches in January. A lamentable amount, all things considered.

In other words, Stalin must have known for sure that there were no concealed grain reserves of any strategic importance in the Ukrainian countryside. If so, what were all those [NKVD-led] grain procurement commissions doing after Stalin’s telegram had been forwarded to all the oblast committees of the CP(B)U? They used the clause allowing them to confiscate potatoes, meat, and fatback to take away all durable products the peasants stored until the next harvest season. Duly recorded eyewitness accounts embrace all regions of Ukraine.

Confiscation of all foodstuffs immediately caused severe famine. Lest the affected peasants run away to other regions, Stalin personally drew up a coded telegram forbidding any kind of resettlement from the Ukrainian SSR and the Kuban.

At the same time, any references to famine — even in classified correspondence — were prohibited. The actual status in the blockaded Ukrainian countryside was reflected only in the top secret “special files.” Public discussions of the 1932–33 famine in the USSR became possible only in December 1987.

In April 2008, Kondrashin and I took part in a conference organized by Dr. Mikhail Dmitriev at Moscow State University. By then the mechanism of killing millions by terror-famine I am referring to here had already been described in my book published by The Day as part of its Library Series. All my opponent could say was that eyewitness accounts cannot serve as documentary evidence.

That is why I was happy to find later this passage in his book: “There is a large number of testimonies that the produce of collective and individual farmers, grown on their individual plots, was confiscated, along with preserves, as punishment for a failure to meet the quotas set by the state. An instructor of the All-Union Central Executive Committee (VTsIK) in Veshenki district, the Northern Caucasus Territory, stated (1932): ‘All foodstuffs, including salted and dried food products, have been confiscated en masse in many villages’” (Ibid., p. 216–217).

I would not want this article to turn into a polemic against Kondrashin if only because I highly esteem his scholarly contribution one of the most important problems in the history of humankind. However, it is necessary to make use of his book in order to illustrate yet another aspect of the ongoing Ukraine–Russia debate. This particular aspect leaves little if any hope for consensus, not in the near future anyway.

What I mean is the [popular] attitude to Soviet power. It is common knowledge that lots of people in Russia and Ukraine still regard the Soviet system with admiration, except that in Russia these people are on the upper echelons of government. These individuals are unable to accept the fact that the Soviet system was capable of to an act of genocide against its own people.

Kondrashin blames not the central government/party leadership but local authorities — “administrators” — and village [party] “activists” for confiscating all foodstuffs in the countryside. In Ukraine this affected the starving members of the Komnezam Committees of Poor Peasants. When the state confiscated grain, the poor peasants — nezamozhnyky — suffered the worst because they did not have well-established farmsteads. The NKVD manned their grain procurement teams precisely with these peasants, whose only option was: die of hunger or rob your neighbor.

Kondrashin writes: “Why did all those local Communists and activists act with such beastly resolve (they would often act like savages) in the countryside, violating the law?” And further he concludes: “Of course, the leadership of the Party never sanctioned confiscation of all food reserves that collective and individual farmers kept in their cellars. Yet the fact that it [Party leadership] did not stop this campaign before it was too late or take any measures to correct such breaches of the law does not relieve it of the responsibility for the lives of thousands of peasants who starved to death” (Ibid., p. 217, 218).

The quoted statement needs to be made more specific. In Ukraine the famine death toll was millions, rather than thousands, of people. We need to emphasize that instead of violations, Ukraine saw the enforcement of the law, i.e., the law on in-kind fines. Last but not least, there was Stalin’s telegram sent on New Year’s Eve. Otherwise the local administration [i.e., the government/Party leadership of Ukraine] could, and would, be blamed for the Holodomor — the way it was blamed for the social outcry resulting from [the Kremlin’s] policy of communizing the peasantry in early 1930. Stalin’s well-known article “Dizziness from Success” did just that.


Three coordinated efforts — the exhaustive confiscation of food, the ban on leaving the place of one’s residence, and the informational blockade — are convincing proof that the Kremlin’s ultimate goal at the time was to kill a large part of Ukrainians by famine. We all of us know the result — the Holodomor.

Needless to say, the Kremlin did not plan to annihilate the entire Ukrainian people. As soon as the NKVD-led food confiscation mission was completed, the Politburo of the CC VKP(B) resolved, on Feb. 7, 1933, to supply 200,000 poods of grain to Dnipropetrovsk oblast. That same day the Piatykhatky posivkom (sowing committee) passed a resolution to provide food aid to “collective farms and collective farmers that are badly in need.” The local authorities’ blitz response to the resolution of the CC VKP(B)’s decree was made possible because the grain previously confiscated from the [local] peasantry was still in the heavily guarded storage facilities in that same administrative region. One will, of course, wonder why. Moreover, [archival] documents have been published that indicate that heavy fines in hard currency were to be imposed for failing to load grain on foreign chartered ships on time.

A similar decree was adopted by the CC VKP(B), on February 7, with regard to Odesa oblast. Initiated from upstairs, the local bureaucratic process followed its usual course, with all regional authorities issuing similar decrees. These were carried by the newspapers, supplied with commentaries such as this one: “Ukrainian peasants’ irresponsible attitude to sowing and harvesting has put themselves and their government in jeopardy. The government, however, bears no grudge and is rescuing those who has been experiencing ‘problems with food supplies.’”

The food confiscation mission was carried out under the guise of a grain delivery campaign, and the Soviet government did its utmost to make it obscure. Conversely, the Soviet press gave wide coverage to the regions that were receiving government aid to help solve their food supply problems. This has confused both the victims and the researchers of the famine.

In 2004, Robert Davies and Stephen Wheatcroft published their monograph The Years of Hunger. Soviet Agriculture, 1931–1933. It is still the most representative historical and economic study with regard to the Soviet collectivization campaign. Here one finds, for the first time, data relating to the scope of Soviet government aid to the famine-stricken regions. From Feb. 7 to July 20, 1933, the Ukrainian SSR and the Kuban received 256,000 tons of grain out of their total share (320,000 tons). This statistic appears to render the Holodomor debate senseless. Robert Conquest, after reading the manuscript, wrote a letter renouncing his statement on the Holodomor an act of genocide, which the authors included in the foreword.

Wheatcroft opposed the genocidal famine concept almost as soon as Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivisation and the Terror-Famine hit the shelves. In fact, he considered it his personal merit that Conquest abandoned this claim. He focused on this when addressing the roundtable, repeating the conclusions from the book he co-authored with Davies: the Soviet government was then struggling to overcome a famine partially caused by its political course, but this famine was unanticipated and undesirable. The authors attribute the inadequacy of the political course to the Bolshevik political leaders, who were “men with little formal education and limited knowledge of agriculture.” Moreover, they wanted to industrialize a peasant country at breakneck speed.

All this correctly explains the reasons behind the 1932–33 famine in the Soviet Union, in particular the Ukraine famine (1932) and the Kazakhstan famine (1932–33). However, the Holodomor in Ukraine was both anticipated and desired by the Soviet political leadership. The Ukrainian SSR and the Kuban received the largest amount of food aid in the first half of 1933 because the NKVD-led grain procurement teams had confiscated foodstuffs in these territories with extra zeal.

Stalin’s aid was another part of the NKVD operation. That was precisely why part of the confiscated grain remained in Ukraine’s oblasts. While placing the populace in the conditions that were incompatible with physical survival, the central government undertook to rescue these people by hand-feeding them, using sowing committees and collective and state farms. The entire operation was aimed at the physically destruction of a large number of people in order to make the survivors live and work on conditions dictated by the Kremlin. During the Great Purge every victim had a file listing his/her “crimes,” whereas during the terror-famine people had to die without knowing when or why, but on a far greater scope, quietly and inconspicuously. There is a document forbidding registry office staff to indicate famine as the cause of death.

In conjunction with the 75th anniversary of this tragedy, the national books of memory regarding the victims of the 1932–33 Holodomor were published in every oblast of Ukraine. These books and other documentary sources contain excerpts from the “special files” that illustrate the scope of the famine in the first half of 1933. These statements form an extremely realistic picture of the slow demise of the Ukrainian countryside. This status cannot be attributed to the lack of academic training on the part of the Bolshevik leadership or its “decision to industrialize this peasant country at breakneck speed.”

(To be continued)

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