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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 9

This webpage reproduces a chapter of

Ukraine under the Soviets
by Clarence Manning

published by
Bookman Associates
New York,

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 11

 p93  Chapter Ten

The Famine​a

In 1921, the great famine which had swept over Ukraine had been the result of a failure of the crops, a prolonged drought and the excesses of Militant Communism which had demoralized the country. The Soviets, more or less unwillingly, allowed the despatch of foreign assistance and this saved the lives of millions. There was to be no interference in the punishment of the obstinate peasants this time.

In the fall of 1929, just as compulsory collectivization was being introduced, the government in Moscow made an important change in the agricultural set‑up, for it transferred the Commissariat of Agriculture to the central group by establishing an All‑Union Commissariat which was to be in control of all agriculture in the Soviet Union. This meant that in Ukraine all of the work which had been previously done by the local authorities was now transferred to Moscow. The republic commissariats ceased to have the power to pursue individual plans for improving the conditions of the soil, for varying the crops as their own advisers decided or as the population felt it necessary. Everything was to be done from the centre and the Ukrainian Soviet Government was compelled to hand over all of its research stations and other institutions to Muscovite control. This put a stop to the intensive development of Ukrainian agriculture which had been fostered by the Ukrainian land code and introduced the new system in which the peasants were in the same position as the workers in the factories.

At the same time the central regime ceased to make public the actual figures of production on the ground that they might betray to outside nations important facts as to the Soviet development. From this time on estimates and achievements were given only in  p94 terms of percentages in reference to a prior date. Still the already published data were so scanty and incomplete that it became a increasingly more and more difficult to secure an actual picture of the progress in the Union as a whole and still more so in any of the separate Soviet Republics, for the central regime rarely broke down what little information it gave out among its constituent parts.

It was not long before another change was made in the methods of collecting the products from the collective farms. Under the new system, the farms did not contribute according to their crop but according to the amount of land which they proposed to sow. This amount was due to the government, even in those cases where there was a complete failure of the harvest not under the control of the workers. In other words, if a crop failed because of bad weather conditions, the peasants were compelled to hand over just as much produce as if they had had a bumper crop.

It can be easily seen that such a measure was merely another device for weakening the economic position of the village and the independence of the collective farm. At the same time the establishment of official tractor stations in place of the old locally controlled centres which sent crews and machines into the countryside gave the government another weapon for the exertion of pressure upon the peasants and even the Communists who were in charge of the farms and these crews likewise were paid not on the basis of their work but of the theoretical area which was to be sown. Later this was again changed to the total area of the farm whether it was suitable for any special kind of agriculture or not.

The measures only increased the discontent among the peasants who once again began to limit their work to the minimum necessary to maintain themselves on a steadily dropping scale of living. To counter-balance this the Council of Commissars in Moscow passed a decree in February, 1930 allowing the local authorities who were, of course, handpicked by Moscow to resort to extreme measures against the kurkuls, to confiscate their property and then to dispose of them by sending them and their families to concentration camps, to special settlements in the far north or eastern Asia or merely by expelling them from their home district.  p95 These measures were so vigorously applied that it has been estimated that by the end of 1932, some 2,400,000 persons had been removed from Ukraine to parts unknown. These were naturally the more prosperous, the more progressive and energetic persons who had profited by the New Economic Policy and had accumulated some capital.

The forcing of the peasants into the collective farms and the prohibition of almost all possibilities for the securing of raw materials had a further effect. Under the older system, the Ukrainian peasants had time, during the winter especially, to work at home and to supply themselves most of their need for manufactured articles. They were able to work in leather and in cloth and wood. This was now rendered impossible, for the individual plots were too small to furnish the necessary raw materials and the peasants were forced, if they would satisfy their most immediate needs, to rely upon the goods turned out by the state factories. These goods were always inferior in quality and short in quantity, for the whole point of the Five Year Plan was to develop heavy industry as rapidly as possible and the government took no interest in seeing that the villages were supplied with consumers' goods. It concentrated its attention on those branches which could be of use in military preparations. Even when petitions were made by the Soviets in Odesa and Kharkiv for permission to establish textile factories, they were peremptorily told that the plan provided for the establishment of such plants only in selected parts of the RSFSR. Thus to the local shortage was added the costs of distant transportation, which made the price prohibitive even for the goods that were received.

In 1931 almost the entire grain reserves were removed from Ukraine and the peasants had nothing to carry over, and when in 1932 there came a drought in the Ukrainian Soviet Republic, the peasants had no supplies.

This did not bother the authorities. During 1931 and 1932 they collected from the peasants all that they could. The next step was to tighten the laws.

On August 6, 1932 the TsK VKP/b and the Soviet of Commissars  p96 issued a decree for the "protection of socialist property." Under this law the stealing of a single ear of grain from a kolhosp granary could be punished by confinement for ten years in a concentration camp. It was so interpreted that if a peasant picked up a single stalk from the field after the harvest, he was liable for the same punishment. In other words, the peasant could only secure his grain legally from and through the administration of the kolhosp.

With this law on the books, the Ukrainian collective farms could be punished either for failing to protect "socialist property" or they could be attacked for failing to present to the government crops and grain in an amount equal to that foreseen by the plan. This was the easier because there were few of the kolhosps that had been able to sow the area required of them. Lack of intelligent and competent leader­ship on the farms and the exigencies of the weather made it almost inevitable that there would be deficiencies, especially since the schedules were made up in Moscow and took no account of the local conditions.

As the grain deliveries lagged, the demands increased and on January 24, 1933, the Central Committee of the VKP/b issued a new resolution that "it was regarded as proved that the party organization of Ukraine had not carried out the tasks assigned to it in organizing grain deliveries and executing the grain plan."

To remedy this, the central authorities ordered the formation of political detachments in the machine tractor stations, "the chief basic tasks of which were the insuring of the unconditional and immediate execution by the kolhosps and their members of all their obligations to the state and especially the decisive struggle with the stealing of kolhosp property, the struggle with the manifestations of sabotage of the income of the party and the government in the sharing of the grain supplies and the meat products of the kolhosps."

The leaders of these detachments were given the obligation "to secure the constant lawful and accurate fulfilment of the laws of the Soviet government by administrative and criminal measures against the organizers of the stealing of Soviet property and the  p97 sabotage of the income of the party and the government in the branch of village agriculture."

The machine tractor stations were staffed by men largely alien to the Ukrainian countryside. The more fanatical Communists were placed in these political detachments and were, in effect, told to supplement or replace the local administration in the exercise of pressure and terror upon both the heads not members of the kolhosps. To aid them in their work Moscow sent to Ukraine a Russian Pavel Postyshev as a special plenipotentiary of the Central Committee with 7,000 party workers from the Russian Republic.

The work of these special "commissions" and "brigades" was marked by the utmost severity. They entered the villages, and made the most thorough searches of the houses and barns of every peasant. They dug up the earth, broke into the walls of buildings and the stoves in which the peasants tried to hide their last handfuls of food. They even in places took specimens of the fecal matter from the toilets in the effort to learn in that way by analysis whether the peasants had stolen government property and were eating grain. Wherever they found any, the peasants were severely punished, while the detachments carried off not only grain but everything edible.

The same reports came from every corner of Ukraine. "They re­quisitioned everything that could be eaten" was the report from the village of Zorich in the district of Poltava. In one village in the district of Odesa, "they collected all the grain, potatoes, beets to the last kilogram" and in other places they even took half-baked loaves of bread from the stove. In at least one of these commissions, Molotov, then head of the Council of Ministers, took a personal part.

The natural result was a famine of unprecedented severity. The villages had been hungry in the autumn. After these searches commenced, they literally starved. An Englishman, M. Muggeridge,º wrote in the Fortnightly Review for May, 1933: "During a recent visit to Ukraine, I have seen a little of the war which the Soviet government is carrying on against the peasants. The fields were  p98 waste as in a real war and the poverty had spread still further. On our side there were millions of peasants with bodies swollen from hunger; on the other side, soldiers, members of the GPU, carrying out the orders of the dictator­ship of the proletariat. They hurled themselves on the region like a pack of locusts and seized everything edible. They shot and hung thousands of peasants, sometimes whole villages; they made of the richest country in the world a melancholy wilderness."

Reports from all sections of Ukraine have listed with depressing regularity the articles of food that were eaten. They included grass, weeds, bark, dead animals, field mice, dogs, cats. Finally, cannibalism broke out and in many places sausages were found that were made of human flesh, either of people who had died or who were killed for food. The extent of this last is shown when in 1936, among the prisoners of Solovki, there were three hundred and twenty-five persons guilty of cannibalism, seventy-five men and two hundred and fifty women.

An observer in the spring of 1933 gives this picture of a Ukrainian village: "In the centre of the village, beside the ruins of the church which had been blown up was the bazaar. All the people in it had swollen faces, they were not talkative, but were silent and speechless. They sold or bought cornstalks, pounded corncobs, a black powder made of Russian thistle, roots, and the lower parts of water plants. This assortment of village wares was a diet which did not save the people from death by starvation but merely by increasing their sufferings, postponed it a little."

The agronome A. S. who in March and April, 1933, was in the villages of Izbinske and Startsyva, Vovchansky region, Kharkiv district, wrote: "The people daily died in dozens. The corpses lay in the houses for several days for there was no one to bury them. Pits were dug in the cemeteries with great difficulty, large enough to hold several persons. The corpses were piled on carts like wood and carried to the pits and thrown in like logs without any of the customary or religious rites. They fell as they would,  p99 head down, or on their side or standing — a terrible sight. The gravedigger of to‑day might be a corpse to‑morrow."

The bodies of the dead lay in all the villages, along the roads and in the fields. Special brigades were formed in the villages to bury the dead but they were too weak to collect all the corpses and these were devoured by those dogs which had escaped being eaten and had gone savage. The roads were deserted for it was dangerous for one or two people to walk together because of the danger of attack by robbers who sought to rob them or to kill them for cannibalistic purposes.

Under such conditions many of the people closed up their huts tightly, lighted their stoves and inhaled the fumes to commit suicide.

In the spring, when those who had survived broke from the fields the unripe ears of grain, they were seized by the government agencies on the charge of stealing socialist and government property, while the "light cavalry," the armed Comsomols and the members of the Communist Party, shot these "barbers," as they were called in the press contemptuously, like hares.

Thousands tried to secure work in the state agricultural enterprises (the radhosps). The agronome B. B. wrote: "In going around the experimental station in Poltav­shchyna, I saw under a haystack a number of people. To my questions, the manager of the station, a Russian in origin, told me that they were peasants of the neighborhood who had come in large numbers to the radhosp, hoping to find work and thus have the money to buy food. Since they did not have the strength to return home, they lay down under the haystack. Many died there and he added, pointing to fresh earth, 'There are the mounds where we buried those individualists. What trouble the Khakhals have been.' "

The younger and more venturesome fled to other Soviet Republics in search of work and food. Thousands departed from Ukraine without permission, for this was not given, and crowded the offices of the railroads, the wharfs and the junctions. They often found a tragic end. Prof. O. O. tells of a case of which he was a witness. "In March, 1933, at the station in Vladikavkaz (Caucasus) there gathered a mass of peasants with bags on their  p100 backs, waiting for a freight train. Agents of the NKVD held them up and took away their grain. They begged together and singly and prayed but it did not help. Then one peasant climbed out on a high tree near the station and began to cry out about all the horrors of the famine in Ukraine. He cursed the party, the government, its leaders and the NKVD. A crowd quickly gathered and soon came the agents of the NKVD who began to harangue the hearers and urged the "orator" to come down quickly, threatening him with life imprisonment. He was immovable; then the NKVD called for the local fire department who were told to turn their hoses on the tree. The peasant climbed higher and then suddenly threw himself down like a stone."

In the spring of 1933 the starving masses with their gray faces moved into the large cities. They formed lines for the "buying of bread"1 or, begging, they surrounded the mills. They died by the thousands in the streets of Kharkiv, Kiev, Dnipropetrovsk, and the other cities. In many cases the police cars simply picked up the dead and dying every morning and carried them out of the city where they were thrown into pits. There were established in the cities and their environs "therapeutic hospitals" near which were vans covered with tarpaulins. These were used to collect the sufferers and the hospitals were simply places to separate the dead and the dying.

The children suffered terribly and thousands were picked up on the streets. Parents often abandoned their children, usually near police stations, in the hope they would be picked up and taken to refugee camps but here they were little better off. Prof. M. M. testified that near Kharkiv the "NKVD opened a large children's concentration camp, the 'Barracks of death' as it was  p101 termed" and here by poor treatment at least forty percent of the ten thousand gathered in, died.

The urban population felt the shortage because of the reduction of the bread ration for the unemployed to two hundred grams a day. The majority could not patronize the commercial shops for they had nothing with which to pay and the legal allowance of other products as fat, sugar and barley were either reduced or omitted. Even the more highly qualified of the intelligentsia were obliged to sell all their trinkets and gold teeth to secure some food. The prices allowed were ridiculous. One teacher at these stores received for a silver dollar "500 grams of sugar, a piece of soap and 200 grams of rice."

Physicians were forbidden to enter "hunger" in the records of illness and death. They were ordered to give as the cause of death "BBO" (absence of white corpuscles). Sometimes it was recorded as "childish" or "old age" weakness, "paralysis of the heart," "diarrhea," all symptoms of death by starvation.

It is impossible to estimate accurately the number of deaths, for even the indefatigable NKVD gave up the attempt to list the deaths along the roads, in the fields, and in the streets of the cities. Villages died out and this was indicated by the use of black flags on certain houses. In these cases no attempt was made to keep the records in order. The so‑called "therapeutic hospitals" did not turn over their records or admit to their files the workers of the ZATS (The Records of the Acts of the Civil Population), who were the collaborators of the NKVD. Thus, in one of those therapeutic hospitals in Kiev there were at least 5,000 deaths from starvation that were not recorded in the official statistics.

Of course, none of these hardships were felt by the highly placed Communists and party officials. They received their food through party channels which were not accessible to the ordinary residents of the city or the kolhosps.

It is difficult to estimate accurately the number who perished in the famine, but it was approximately 4,800,000. This is certainly an underestimate, although certain other calculations will place the number between five and six million.

 p102  There is the frequent idea that the famine was specifically directed against the rich peasants and the kurkuls. This is utterly false, for these had been liquidated earlier. The blow of 1933 fell chiefly upon the poorer classes who had always supported the Soviet regime and who regarded their suffering in the beginning as a mistake which Moscow would do its best to correct. In the same way it was the Ukrainian workmen of the smaller cities who bore the brunt of the hardships. It was the direct triumph of the Russian Bolsheviks over the Ukrainian poor.

Another proof that the famine occurred in connection with the plans of Moscow was the fact that Postyshev, besides his official post, held that of general inspector of the Ministry of Grain Production for resettlement. It turned out later that he was given the general task of preparing a plan for an immigration into Ukraine from various portions of the Soviet Union. The dislocation of the population was worked out in detail. Millions of Russians, Byelorussians, Uzbeks, etc., were to be sent in to complete the work of rerussification. Especial pains were devoted to the regions close to Russia on the Left Bank of the Dnieper and there was talk at once of annexing to the Russian Republic the Kharkiv-Donbas industrial region, but this did not fall in with the plans of Stalin.

The result of the famine was the final stabilization of the collective system of agriculture and the breaking of the old mode of life throughout the whole of Ukraine. More than that, it established the fact that in the economic sphere Moscow could direct Ukrainian life as it would. It overawed the population for the moment but it did not reconcile them to their fate and it went hand in hand with the attempt to exterminate the old Ukrainian cultural life.

The Author's Note:

1 In the beginning of 1933 at the height of the famine in Ukraine, the USSR opened shops in the cities where grain was sold at a doubled price, i.e. commercial prices — 4 karb. for 1 kg. of white and 3 karb. for 1 kg. of black bread. The peasant received from the government for the obligatory "sale" of grain 90 kop. for 16 kg. of wheat. These commercial prices had to be paid for in foreign currency or in gold or silver.

Thayer's Note:

a The consensus term (outside Russia, of course) for this intentional famine in Ukraine perpetrated by the Soviet authorities is Holodomor, a Ukrainian portmanteau word meaning "murder by hunger". It is recognized as a Soviet state genocide against Ukraine and its people; a detailed article can be read in the Encyclopedia of Ukraine — supported by a massive bibliography.

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