The Holodomor, the terrible famine that struck Soviet Ukraine in the 1930s

The Holodomor (which literally means death by starvation) was one of the most serious famines of the 20th century. Starting in 1930 and ending in 1933, the famine affected a vast sector of the Soviet Union and had its “epicentre” in Ukraine. Millions of people lost their lives to diseases related to malnutrition. The Holodomor was caused by the politics of forced collectivization of the landimplemented by the Soviet regime led by Joseph Stalin and, as a secondary cause, by environmental factors.

Today the story is provocative heated political controversy, because it is interpreted differently by Russians and Ukrainians. The most discussed question is the following: there was a famine intentionally caused to annihilate the Ukrainian national identity or was it simply the unforeseen result of wrong economic policies?

  • 1Stalin and the collectivization of the Kulak lands: the causes of the famine
  • 2The beginning of the Holodomor, the Great Famine
  • 3The political reasons of Soviet Russia
  • 4The end of the Holodomor and the estimate of the victims
  • 5The memory and political use of the Holodomor
  • 6Intentional genocide or unintended consequence of wrong policies?

Stalin and the collectivization of the Kulak lands: the causes of the famine

In 1928 Joseph Stalin, after having consolidated his role as leader of the Soviet Union, initiated a profound transformation of the country's economy and introduced the First five-year planwhich included the collectivization of agriculture and theindustrialization.

To collectivize agriculture, the Soviet regime established public companiesdivided into two main types: i kolkhozcooperatives whose members also owned small private plots, ei sovkhoz, real state companies. In 1929 membership became compulsory: the peasants were obliged to give up their lands to cooperatives and become members. Agriculture, according to Stalin, should support industrialization, both by providing consumer goods for workers and other city dwellers and by financing the construction of factories through exports of agricultural products.

Buildings of a kolkhoz near Jermuk (credit Moreau.henri)
Buildings of a kolkhoz near Jermuk. Credits: Moreau.henri.

The landowners, known as kulaks, were numerous especially in Ukraine, southern Russia and Kazakhstan. Their reaction to Stalin's policies was very harsh: the vast majority he preferred to slaughter his own livestock rather than handing it over to collective farms and many refused to sow and harvest, in some cases even going so far as to burn the kolkhoz fields. Production, as a result, decreased significantly. The Soviet regime, however, did not change its position and in 1930 introduced the policy of requisitions: Companies were required to hand over part of their harvest to the state to be exported abroad or held in reserve.

Requisitions in the Timashyovsky district (southern Russia).

In the same years, drought further reduced harvests. From these factors the Holodomor originated.

The beginning of the Holodomor, the Great Famine

The famine, which began in 1930, reached its maximum severity between 1932 and 1933 (for many authors the term Holodomor refers only to these two years). The 1932 harvest was more lower than that of the previous yearalso due to the worsening of the climate, and in winter the economic conditions deteriorate to the point that in the streets of Ukrainian cities lay abandoned corpses. In some places even acts of cannibalism.

Corpses on the street in Kharkiv, 1932
Corpses on the street in Kharkiv, 1932.

The Soviet leadership, however, did not stop the requisitions. Instead, he introduced laws that provided for very heavy penaltiesincluding death, for those who hid grain or killed livestock.

The political reasons of Soviet Russia

Stalin's policy also had political reasons and aimed, as he himself said, at «annihilate the kulaks as a class”, because of their hostility to socialism. There were approximately two million kulaks (according to the most reliable estimates). deported to the gulags.

One debated question is whether Stalin meant it also affect the Ukrainian national identity. The famine took place in a vast sector of the USSR, but Ukraine was the heart of it because it was the area in which grain production and the presence of kulaks was greatest. Stalin had every interest in undermine nationalism in the republics that made up the USSRbut it is not certain that he intended to attack Ukrainians as a people.

The end of the Holodomor and the estimate of the victims

At the beginning of 1933 the situation had become very serious and the Soviet authorities were forced to intervene, reducing exports and even importing grain from abroad. Furthermore, the 1933 harvest was abundant, thanks to improved environmental conditions, and the famine finally ended.

It is impossible to say with certainty how many victims of the Holodomor there were. According to the most reliable (and least politicized) estimates in Ukraine lost 3-4 million lives of people, in Russia 1-2 million and in Kazakhstan 1.5-2 million.

Depopulation rate in 1929–33. The current border of Ukraine is in bold.

The memory and political use of the Holodomor

For many decades the USSR authorities refused to recognize that a famine had taken place in 1932-33 and only made the first admissions in the 1980s. The Holodomor has since become much discussed topic on the political scene, due to the conflicts, which have now resulted in real war, between Russia and Ukraine. The famine of 1932-33 is in fact a founding element of Ukrainian national identity, who considers it a demonstration of Russian hostility (at the time Russia was the largest republic of the USSR and today it is its main heir). The Russians, however, firmly reject this interpretation.

Memorial in Kiev (credit
Memorial in Kiev. Credits:

Intentional genocide or unintended consequence of wrong policies?

There is no doubt that the main cause of the Holodomor was the policy of forced collectivization. However among historians there is no agreement on intentionality of what happened: the prevailing interpretation in Ukraine is that Stalin deliberately caused the famine to eliminate not only the kulaks, but also the national identity of the population; therefore, the Holodomor should be considered a real genocide. According to another reading, predominant in Russia, the famine was the consequence of poor economic choicesbut it was not an intentional act and was not aimed against Ukraine, because it also affected other sectors of the USSR.

The debate is strongly influenced by politics and has even involved the institutions of many states, including Italy, which have assumed a “official” position on the matter. Generally, the genocide thesis is recognized by Russia's rival countries and rejected by those close to it on a diplomatic level.

International recognition of the Holodomor as genocide.