On 25 November 2023 Ukraine commemorated the 90th anniversary of the Holodomor, a famine amongst Ukraine’s rural population in the spring of 1932 and 1933 that killed many millions of people. It was a product of the forced collectivisation of agriculture under the economic policies of the Soviet Union directed by then Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, although there were a number of political factors involved and also it was the result of bad weather. The number of people who died in the Holodomor is not really known and detailed records from the period are hard to come by. Estimates have assessed the number of dead as between 3.5 million and 10 million. It was not only Ukraine that was affected although arguably the epicentre was Kharkiv and the Dnieper regions. The Holodomor also affected southern Russia, right down to the border with Georgia, including the Russian Caucasus; as far west as Odessa and Kyiv; and as far east as Astrakhan, Samara and Orenburg in the Urals. The Moldovan Soviet Socialist Republic was also affected. Ukraine suffered a greater number of fatalities than the other parts of the Soviet Union and there are more records relating to the Holodomor in Ukraine since the official recognition by the Ukrainian government of the existence of the famine (that had not been admitted by the Soviet authorities) in 2006 opened the way for scholarly research into the events surrounding the Holodomor.
It is important to note that what had been the West Ukrainian People’s Republic briefly at the end of World War I was not a victim of the Holodomor, because this area of what is now Ukraine was not at the time part of the Soviet Union. Instead it was part of the Second Polish Republic which did not participate in the oppressive forms of economic reform seen under the Soviet Union’s first two leaders, Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin. That explains in part why the regions around Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, Chernivtsi and the other cities of the Western Ukrainian People’s Republic feel relatively free of the Soviet cultural yoke. They had a shorter period under communism - only really from 1944 to 1989 - and they were not the victims of the cultural and economic devastation that the rest of the Soviet Union saw in the 1930’s in particular. Instead these regions, once incorporated into the Soviet Union at the end of World War II, were in large part left to decay as accidental add-ons to the Soviet empire not part of the original socialist economic thrust that took place between the twentieth century’s two world wars.
At its simplest, the cause of the Holodomor was the collectivisation of peasant agricultural holdings undertaken in hasty circumstances pursuant to Stalin’s programme of economic modernisation. The kulaks (land-owning middle class peasants who employed other peasants to work on their land) had their estates “liquidated”, often with their arrest, detention, deportation or execution by the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police. The liquidated estates were amassed into single socially-owned or state-owned massive pieces of land. The kulaks had served as effective managers of private peasant landholdings and their removal deprived the newly formed collective farms of the management skills required to maintain high harvests. New technology required to operate the enormous new collective farms was lacking and needed to be invented and operated. Therefore the new collective farms were grossly inefficient, at least initially, and this resulted in a dramatic loss of crop yield. Nobody had ever run farms as big as this before, and the only people who might have had the skills to do this effectively had been arrested or murdered. This combined with bad weather to cause catastrophic drops in the amount of agricultural produce being generated in the rural food-producing parts of the Soviet Union, including much of central and eastern Ukraine.
When food shortages arose, Stalin gave directions that urban areas be prioritised for rations over rural areas, which is the opposite of what would happen in a subsistence or a market economy: given a shortage of food, agricultural workers and owners would prioritise themselves first and food prices would go up for people in urban areas. Nevertheless Stalin decreed that the opposite ought to happen, and agricultural labourers were forced to work in conditions tantamount to slavery only to have the food they produced hauled off to cities, often far away in the Soviet Union, leaving the agricultural population to starve. Because the Soviet Union operated effectively as an autarchy in the inter-war period, not undertaking any trade with the outside world and using a currency that was essentially completely without international market value, it was impossible to foreclose food shortages on international markets. Therefore people starved to death. The fact that the agricultural workers could not feed themselves with the food they were producing and it was all just taken away to the cities demotivated those workers and their productivity levels fell.
Many of the peasants moved to the cities where they hoped to find the food that had been removed there, because they did not want to starve to death. This in turn reduced the quantities of agricultural production still further. The peasants who had travelled to the cities did not find any food available for them - the industrial workers that Stalin had prioritised in his various “five year plans” for socialist economic reform took all the food. Therefore peasants who had moved to the cities starved to death in the city streets. This was a phenomenon particularly notorious in the then capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, Kharkiv (or Kharkov), although it took place throughout Ukraine and in southern Russia.
The famines took place in the spring of 1932 and 1933 because agricultural stocks had been depleted over the winter and the prior year’s harvest in each case simply ran out before the new harvest was ready. As in each case the famines got ever worse, and levels of agricultural production continued to drop, food was not just removed from agricultural workers but even from Ukrainian cities and provincial Russian cities in order to feed Moscow and Leningrad. People resorted to cannibalism; they both ate the carcasses of the dead and there were reports of mothers killing and eating their own children. The horrors associated with the Holodomor have been recorded in chilling detail elsewhere but suffice it to say that the monumental number of deaths, however many millions were involved, scarred Ukrainian society in particular that was then due to suffer a catastrophic loss of life in the course of the Second World War, barely a decade later.
The political backstory is complex and goes back to Lenin’s “New Economic Policy” in the 1920’s, in which he kept the peasants in Serfdom while permitting limited private enterprise in the cities, thereby widening the disparity between urban and rural areas that had been a significant cause of the Russian Revolution. Because the peasants’ representatives opposed the NEP, some have explained the Holodomor as an intentional policy on the part of Stalin to eliminate political opposition amongst the peasantry to Bolshevik economics and an exercise in enfeebling aspirations for Ukrainian independence by causing the mass starvation of Ukraine’s citizens. Whatever the motives going through Stalin’s mind might have been, one thing is for certain and that is that Stalin had no interest in the number of deaths he might inflict upon the Ukrainian people or anyone else. For Stalin, Ukraine was just a Soviet satellite, to be used and abused and, if appropriate, starved to death. We may see in the thinking of the Kremlin the same sort of callous ruthlessness in the current Russian invasion of Ukraine.