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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

The famine in Ukraine through the eyes of foreign diplomats

Seventh volume of joint Polish and Ukrainian series nearing completion. Volume 7 of Poland and Ukraine in the 1930s-1940s: Unknown Documents from Secret Police Archives is about the 1932-1933 famine in Ukraine
15 July, 2008 - 00:00

In 1933 Mendel Khataevich, a member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of Ukraine (Bolshevik), declared that “a bitter struggle is being waged between the peasants and our government. It is a life-and-death struggle. This year was a decisive test of our strength and endurance. We needed a famine to show them who is boss here. It claimed millions of lives, but the collective farm system has been established, we have won the war.”

In this war, out of all the former “Union republics” of the USSR, Ukraine had the highest death toll. Naturally, this raised the following questions: why did it happen this way? Was it by chance? In their search for the answers, to this day researchers (and others) from various countries are still debating, but one thing is already clear: in the historical chain of humanitarian disasters that humankind experienced in the 20th century it is impossible to remain silent about or ignore the Holodomor.

In recent years Ukrainian researchers have gained access to documents stored in numerous archives, including the Branch State Archive of the Security Service of Ukraine (HDA SBU). A series of important archival sources on the famine in the early 1930s were declassified in 2006. The employees of the Soviet secret police, perhaps contrary to their wishes, turned out to be good historians, documenting the situation in the countryside, the government’s demands and their own efforts to meet them, the public mood and repressive measures, and efforts to prevent true information about the essence and scale of the Holodomor from leaking to the outside world. Some of these documents and other materials were included in the reprinted collection of documents entitled The Holodomor of 1932-1933 in Ukraine in Declassified Documents of the GPU-NKVD .

The Soviet security service preserved another extraordinarily interesting and important category of documents that not only shed further light on the situation in the Ukrainian SSR but also on the way the situation was being described by foreign diplomatic missions, specifically the reports that were being dispatched by Polish, German, Italian, Turkish, and Japanese diplomats to their governments and the conclusions that they were drawing. Through various channels these materials ended up in the hands of Soviet security officers, who kept a close watch on foreign diplomats.

This documentary evidence, plus the previously published reports of foreign diplomats on the famine in the USSR and the Ukrainian SSR in the early 1930s, is a unique and important source for further research, one that scholars have never used. These documents will be an important part of the forthcoming seventh volume of the joint Polish-Ukrainian series of publications entitled Poland and Ukraine in the 1930s-1940s: Unknown Documents from Secret Police Archives.


Stalin’s “great turning point” (accelerated industrialization and forced collectivization) was such a breakneck change of policy that it could not avoid giving rise to discontent and resistance among the broadest strata of society. It also created opposition within the Bolshevik Party itself, even among its leaders. No wonder, then, that the most active resistance to the regime came from the peasantry.

Foreign diplomats recorded all this. An Italian diplomat opined in July 1930 that “one could suppose [before 1928] that the government would manage to ride out the crisis, but now that the latest failures of collectivization have stirred up powerful resistance on the part of the populace, it is clear that the Soviet government will not be able to cope with the tasks facing it.”

However, the Stalinist regime considered terror and the implacable suppression of disturbances as an effective way to pacify those who were dissatisfied. In a memorandum on the political situation of Ukraine’s peasantry in connection with the “policy of liquidating kulaks as a class” in the period from Jan. 20 to Feb. 12, 1930, the head of Soviet Ukraine’s GPU (State Political Directorate, i.e., the Soviet secret police) Vsevolod Balytsky reported that 37 mass peasant protests had taken place in January, in which 12,000 people had taken part. As of Feb. 9, 1930, 11,865 people had been arrested, and peasants had committed 40 terrorist acts in response to the policy of “dekulakization.” Balytsky was even forced to lead the “operational headquarters” to quell peasant riots and personally supervise crackdowns in various regions of Ukraine.

In Order No. 74, issued by the GPU of the Ukrainian SSR on March 31, 1930, Balytsky emphasized that “on March 19, 1930, the organs of the GPU of the Ukrainian SSR, with the active participation of poor peasants and village activists, completed the operation to deport kulaks from areas of overall collectivization in Ukraine. Despite the extremely short preparation period, the lack of experience in carrying out this kind of mass- scale work, and the considerable complexity of the work, the operation to deport the kulaks was completely successful. The work was finished on time, and on the whole the targeted figure of deported kulak households was even exceeded.” As of June 1, 1930, 90,000 households were dekulakized. During all the years of collectivization over 200,000 peasant farmsteads were dispossessed. This is a glaring example of the war that the Bolshevik government launched against the peasantry.

Closely following these dramatic events, foreign diplomats were noting the growing crisis in agriculture. For example, a group of Japanese consular officials who toured some regions of Soviet Ukraine in 1929 declared there was a “food crisis,” insisting that although the Civil War and devastation were over, “the material situation of the majority is worsening instead of improving.” As early as 1928 Italian consular officials, who were analyzing the situation of the peasantry and the government’s policy toward it, said that famine was approaching and that by their own action the communists themselves “were inciting counterrevolution.” Turkish consular officers noted in 1930 that the USSR was exporting food to earn hard currency instead of feeding its people and that the government “is forcing its working class and the entire population to starve.” Foreign diplomats were also informing their superiors about riots provoked by the lack of food, which had erupted in the large cities of Ukraine.

A specific feature in Ukraine was that this republic, together with the Northern Caucasus, accounted for more than half of all the grain produced in the USSR. Speaking about Ukraine in 1931, Stalin noted that “a number of crop-growing areas are now in a state of devastation and famine .” Yet the Kremlin believed that Ukraine still had enormous reserves of grain, which collective farms and independent farmers were allegedly hiding from the state. Therefore, the government resorted to coercive methods to carry out the grain deliveries. As early as 1931 procurement targets were reduced for some regions in the Urals, the Middle Volga, and Kazakhstan, but nothing was changed for Ukraine and the Northern Caucasus.

In 1931 Ukraine consigned less grain than it had in 1930. About 150,000 Ukrainians starved to death in 1931, but on Jan. 3, 1932, the Politburo of the CP(B)U discussed a telegram sent by Stalin and Molotov, in which they demanded the strict fulfillment of the grain procurement plans. Eighty- three top Ukrainian officials went all over Ukraine to organize this campaign. In keeping with a special resolution of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolshevik), February 1932 was proclaimed a crucial month for the state grain deliveries. By March and April 1932 Ukrainian villages were full of starving people, and cities were rife with children abandoned by their parents. This was a clear sign of trouble. But it did not stop the authorities.

Foreign diplomats saw, analyzed, and recorded everything. “I hereby report,” writes the Polish consul in Kyiv on May 11, 1932, “that every day I am receiving more and more information about the famine in Right-Bank Ukraine, which has affected the provinces especially acutely. The latest reports indicate that almost every day in such cities as Vinnytsia and Uman there are cases of people being collected from the streets where they have collapsed because of debilitation and exhaustion. The situation is supposed to be even worse in the countryside, where, as a reliable source reports, famine- related robberies and murders are a daily occurrence.”

The foreign diplomats’ level of informedness was sufficiently high, and this had an impact on the quality of their assessments of the situation in agriculture both in the USSR as a whole and in the Ukrainian SSR in particular. Documents and materials provide ample grounds to conclude that the vast majority of the pessimistic forecasts that foreign diplomats were making about the worsening socioeconomic situation, which then developed into the famine, turned out to be accurate.


In 1932 and 1933 the Stalinist leadership de facto identified its two main adversaries. The first was the peasants, who did not want to work on collective farms and perish in the name of modernization. In the USSR the peasantry had been transformed into an object of never-ending exploitation and a resource for modernizing transformations. The second opponent was the rather unreliable party and state leadership of Ukraine, which followed a somewhat “flexible” line in the “stress field,” balancing between the Kremlin’s demands and tragic local realities.

Stalin gave a clear signal in his now famous and significant letter to Lazar Kaganovich, dated Aug. 11, 1932. In it he questions the loyalty of the entire Communist Party organization in Soviet Ukraine and, at the same time, demands to wrest the allegedly hidden grain out of Ukraine regardless of sacrifices (which can be justified by the lofty goals of modernization) and carry out a repressive “purge” of “Ukrainian nationalists” in society. Stalin sent his trusted lieutenants to Ukraine, who carried out punitive actions that were varied in form but universal in terms of the same fatal result.

The peasants’ attempts to leave their famine-stricken areas posed a special danger to the Stalinist regime. In June 1932 Stalin complained in a letter to Kaganovich that “tens of thousands of Ukrainian collective farmers are still roaming over the entire European part of the USSR and corrupting our collective farms with their complaints and whining.”

A Polish intelligence report dated September 1932 states that “Practically all of Ukraine is traveling in search of bread, trains are filled to capacity, and to get on a train one must line up for several days.”

The situation soon changed. Between the fall of 1932 and the winter of 1933 so-called “food blockades” were set up on Ukraine’s borders, manned by interior troops and the militia, who prevented the peasants from leaving and, hence, spreading information about the famine. At the same time, there was a ban on the so-called food “reverse,” which meant that private individuals were not allowed to bring, without the government’s permission, food from Russia and Belarus to Ukraine (the volumes of such imports were limited by a special decree).

On Jan. 22, 1933, Stalin and Molotov emphasized in a directive sent to party and state bodies that the migratory processes among the peasants, which had begun as a result of the famine, had been organized “by enemies of the Soviet government, Socialist Revolutionaries, and Polish agents with the aim of conducting agitation, ‘through the peasants’ in the northern raions of the USSR, against the collective farms and the Soviet system in general.”

In this connection, the authorities and the GPU of the Ukrainian SSR and the Northern Caucasus were ordered to block the mass flight of peasants to other districts. Similar instructions were issued to the transport departments of the OGPU of the USSR. The regime turned Ukraine into a starvation ghetto, which did not occur in any other Soviet republic.

“The situation in Ukraine is worsening with every passing day, famine is staring people in the face in an increasingly brutal and strong way,” Polish diplomats reported in February 1933. On March 12, 1933, the Kyiv regional GPU department informed the head of the GPU of the Ukrainian SSR about the desperate food situation in Kyiv, pointing out that 400 dead bodies were picked up from city streets in January, 518 in February, and 248 in the first eight days of March. In addition, the Chekists note that a hundred or more abandoned babies are found in the city every day.

Another Polish document dated March 1933 reports on the mass dismissals of white-collar and blue-collar workers in Kyiv. “All those dismissed are stripped of their bread ration cards. The loss of one’s job will result later in the necessity to leave the city, as a passport system is being introduced. The numbers of unemployed people are rising, as are thefts and robberies. In many cases, dismissed workers and officials are invited to go to the countryside. But owing to the raging famine and hostile attitude to urban dwellers there, the unemployed are doing their utmost to stay in the city.” A top official in Kyiv oblast admitted privately that the seed reserve was not even at 60 percent of the required level, “so, despite the official sanction on the free trade in grain, there are constant searches and requisitions of grain, and there is a railway ban on carrying grain in order to make it difficult for peasants to resettle elsewhere.”

Had Ukrainian peasants created the illusion that the situation in Russia was better? Hardly. In May 1933 the Polish consul-general reported on his journey from Kharkiv to Moscow. “What struck me the most during the journey was the difference between the way Ukraine’s villages and fields looked in comparison with the Central Chernozem Region [TsChO] and even the barren suburbs of Moscow. Ukrainian villages are in significant decline, they are the very picture of emptiness, devastation, and poverty; the houses are half-ruined, often with their roofs torn off; there are no new farmsteads anywhere, children and old people look like skeletons; nor are there any cattle anywhere. When I later ended up in the TsChO (first of all, the outskirts of Kursk and Orel), I had the impression that I had come from the Country of the Soviets to Western Europe. They have many more plowed and sown fields, the villages are clean and more decent- looking, houses are being renovated, and the inhabitants seem to be better-off. You can also see cattle grazing...”

In June 1932 the Japanese consul in Odesa made an extensive tour of the USSR’s many regions. He noted that “the Ukrainian peasants create a miserable impression in comparison with the peasants of other republics — with their threadbare clothes, skeleton-like figures, and begging. Even at large stations, peasants and their wives and children stretch out their hands for alms and bread.”

It is fascinating to note that already in 1933 foreign diplomats were seeking to establish the technology of the Holodomor. This is a matter of paramount importance because some contemporary Western researchers reproach their Ukrainian counterparts for allegedly ignoring the fact that Ukrainians also took part in the grain requisitions. Some even write that “the Soviet leadership partly depended on the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who held governmental offices at all levels.”

Yes, there were Ukrainians in the government structures. However, no serious researcher would ever write about “hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians” who could purportedly influence administrative decision-making under the Stalinist dictatorship. This was simply impossible. We find a more correct assessment in the Nov. 18, 1933, report of Poland’s vice-consul in Kyiv, Piotr Kurnicki. Noting that the secret of the Bolsheviks’ successes lies in the fact that they “were totally unscrupulous in their methods and did not consider their victims,” Kurnicki writes: “All this was realized by infusing an immense number of fresh communist cadres who, first of all, have no connection with the local populace or have been transformed by theoretical conclusions to such an extent that they have become almost fanatics, who are ready to obey any orders, while turning a blind eye to all the repercussions that will affect the population.”

Some reports suggest that 54,000 people starved to death in 1933 in the city of Kyiv alone. That year, the German consulate in Odesa reported: “The horrors of last spring have ended and are by and large forgotten. The communist rulers are not letting the peasants remember their calamity for long, and this is being achieved by preparing one disaster after another so that willy-nilly the old horrors are forgotten.”


The Soviet leadership was busy concocting what may be called lies for export. On Jan. 14, 1933, Maxim Litvinov, People’s Commissar of Foreign Affairs of the USSR, responded to numerous questions from abroad. In a special statement he declared that there was no famine in the Soviet Union and that it was all an invention. Meanwhile, in the international arena Ukrainians were trying to inform the world about the real situation.

For example, Oleksandr Shulhyn, the official representative of the Ukrainian National Republic’s Government in Exile, made the following statement to the Grain Commission set up by the London Economic Conference: “Now that the advisory committee is to establish the quantity of grain that the USSR will be exporting, we are asking you, in the name of humanity, to oppose any kind of food exports, especially grain, from the USSR. This grain legitimately belongs to those who sowed it and are now starving to death — the peasants of Ukraine and the Kuban. On our part, we strenuously protest against this export, which we cannot classify as anything else than a crime.”

In dispatching Pavel Postyshev to Ukraine in late 1932 and officially confirming him as second secretary of the Politburo of the CP(B)U in January 1933, Stalin ordered him to overcome what was euphemistically termed “economic difficulties” and to achieve a “breakthrough in Ukrainian agriculture.” Postyshev, who in fact ruled Ukraine until early 1937 (under the weak CP(B)U leadership of Stanislav Kosior), blamed the famine on the Ukrainians themselves, i.e., “Ukrainian nationalists” and “Petliurites.” Postyshev and his “team” (his circle of associates and party functionaries who had come from Russia as “cadre reinforcements”) implemented the party line of pumping grain out and at the same time “purged” the party and all social spheres.

The GPU of the Ukrainian SSR, headed by Vsevolod Balytsky, was also involved in this work. As early as the fall of 1932, it launched “a mass operation to carry out a surgical strike against the class enemy” and to expose “counterrevolutionary centers that are organizing the sabotage of state grain deliveries and other economic and political measures.” The secret police now drastically broadened the scale of their actions.

A “counterrevolutionary organization” was uncovered in Soviet Ukraine’s agriculture, in which some agrarian experts were “involved” and which was soon “linked” to similar organizations in Moscow, Rostov, and Minsk. In Moscow, the arrested Ukrainian experts were also declared members of an all-Soviet organization reportedly aimed “at undermining agriculture and causing famine in the country.” There were mass arrests throughout the regions, and on March 11, 1933, the OGPU Collegium of the USSR sentenced to death 35 members of this mythical organization headed by the Ukrainian-born Fedir Konar, former Deputy People’s Commissar of Agriculture of the USSR.

Between November 1932 and January 1933 alone, the GPU of the Ukrainian SSR liquidated 1,208 “counterrevolutionary” collective farm groups. In 1933, approximately 200,000 people were “purged” at 24,191 collective farms. Inspections affected Soviet state farms and the state grain delivery and consumer cooperative systems. To crown it all, a “purge” was announced in the CP(B)U itself, which resulted in a large number of individuals who could be blamed for organizing the famine.

While the government was looking for scapegoats, the consequences of the famine were making themselves felt both in the countryside and in cities. In July 1933 a female employee of Poland’s consulate in Kharkiv reported that the scale of the famine did not abate in the summer, but instead increased, affecting increasingly wider strata of the population. “The death toll is rising every day. There are very many beggars on the streets; in the last while, many small children are seen more often.”

In July 1933 the Italian consul in Kharkiv noted the following: “Some doctors have confirmed to me that the death toll in the countryside often reaches 80 percent and never falls below 50 percent. The worst-affected areas are Kyiv, Poltava, and Sumy oblasts, where one can now speak of depopulation.”

On Nov. 2, 1933, the German consul in Kyiv reported: “There has been a new outbreak of typhus in Kyiv in the past few weeks. About 11 people are rushed to city hospitals every day, but these are Kyiv residents only. If you add non-locals — people from the countryside — the number of hospitalized will be far larger and perhaps reach 200.”

Addressing the 17th Congress of the AUCP(B) in 1934, Stalin declared that the population of the USSR had increased in 1933. After this pronouncement, all mentions of the famine disappeared even from secret documents. The government thus named those guilty of the famine but the very subject of the famine became taboo. Here is a statement issued by the German Embassy in its report on the food situation in the Soviet Union: “The government has won a victory, and the peasants have been brought to their knees.”

But as the newly-discovered documents prove, the famine had not vanished. In April 1934 Jan Lahoda, the deputy trade counselor at the Polish Embassy in Moscow, made a tour of Soviet Ukraine, visiting Kyiv, Korosten, Zhytomyr, Berdychiv, Koziatyn, and Uman. “I clearly saw that the rural population of the regions that I visited is starving. You encounter very many people who are clearly starving; railway stations are full of abandoned children, who are feeding themselves whatever way they can. As a result of my observations, I can say that the famine in Right- Bank Ukraine is a very widespread phenomenon...Emerging against this background is an epidemic of malignant influenza, which is particularly virulent, like it was in the West in 1918. The influenza is claiming very many lives. The phenomena of last year’s famine have not been erased from people’s memory, and people on trains are talking exclusively about the famine.”

The Soviet government now began to do its best to erase this tragedy from memory. This was done in different ways, including intimidation, to force people not to discuss the famine. Insisting in October 1933 that “the news of a likely famine is by no means an exaggeration,” the Polish vice-consul in Kyiv points out “the government’s concrete aspirations to forge and strengthen patriotism and state ambitions.” According to the Polish diplomat, “today, when you talk to those doctors, who just a year ago gladly seized every opportunity to eat breakfast or lunch at the consulate, openly complaining about all kinds of shortcomings, you can see a total change in their attitude: they are trying to bluff, [declaring] that everything is wonderful and even better than anywhere else.”

In November 1936 German diplomats prepared a report about how Soviet propaganda was counteracting the dissemination of the truth about the tragic events of 1932-1933 and making the latest attempt to deny the very fact of the famine. A Soviet film entitled Harvest was made with this goal. The report states that this film “is being sent abroad in thousands of copies. It is screened in all the places where the truth about the catastrophic famine of 1932-33 and its consequences have become public knowledge.”

The film shows an area in the lower Dnipro region, where the famine had raged. Now there is a well-to-do collective farm, where happy and well-fed peasants work. The report stresses that “the propaganda in this film should be countered by the fact that at this showpiece collective farm individual examples have been craftily selected; most collectives have not reached the profitability of the old private households; and forced collectivization was achieved only because millions of villagers were evicted from their houses and deported to labor camps and, above all, because there was a catastrophic famine in 1932-33 and the subsequent period. These catastrophes, which show not only the Soviet government’s inability to master the problem of feeding its people but also its exceptionally diabolical desire to wipe out certain strata of the population (“organized famine”), are historical facts, the details of which are elucidated today by data provided by reliable eyewitnesses...In addition, it must be emphasized that with the Soviet food sector in such a state, this may well lead to a repeat famine.”

The work on the new volume of the joint Polish-Ukrainian publications series has once again convinced us of the need for further research on the history and specific features of the Holodomor in various regions of the former USSR, including Soviet Ukraine. This research, based on a study of hitherto unknown documentary material and on the need to demolish outdated historiographical and philosophical stereotypes, is important not only from the viewpoint of analyzing the totalitarian past. It is also important for understanding the true nature of the Stalinist system, which is still shrouded in all sorts of myths and propagandistic stereotypes.

The documents written by foreign diplomats who were stationed in Ukraine can and must play a major role in describing the real situation with the Holodomor. Even though the leaders of certain countries did not make public most of these documents in the 1930s — for reasons of expediency (e.g., Italy was buying fuel from the USSR and did not consider it necessary to “quarrel” with the Kremlin) — and the above-mentioned sources occasionally contain errors, they are nonetheless valuable and important. I hope that we, the members of the joint Polish-Ukrainian working group of scholars, will be able to convince readers of this in November 2008, when the seventh volume of our publication series is expected to be launched.

By Yurii SHAPOVAL. Photos from the archive of engineer A. Wienerberger