“When one man dies it’s a tragedy. When thousands die it’s statistics”-these are the words of Joseph Stalin, a man who understood that “killing was a tool; properly used it could eliminate enemies, terrorize survivors into submission, and overwhelm outsiders beyond their ability to intervene” (Altman 41). The Soviet government claims that the famine of 1932-1933 was due to “conditions beyond human control,” that it was an unfortunate but unintended consequence of the collectivization effort (Altman 47). The reality is that this disaster was not the result of inflation, crop failure, natural disasters, nor war. The shocking truth, which has been buried under sixty-five years of Soviet propaganda and Western corruption, is that the famine was engineered by Stalin and used as a weapon to annihilate between seven and ten million Ukrainians.
Realizing that the Soviet Union was fifty to one hundred years behind the advanced countries, Stalin devised a Five-Year Plan to industrialize the nation. Modernization was expensive, and in order to fund his new project, Stalin knew that the Soviet Union needed to increase its agricultural exports. To accomplish this he outlawed the private ownership of land and organized collective farms. Stalin demanded collective workers give a huge majority of their crops to the government.
The Ukrainians, a fiercely independent group, opposed Stalin’s plan. Many refused to surrender their land. Some burned their crops and slaughtered their cattle in protest (Glennon 207). Millions more left the farms for cities, seeking jobs in the developing industry, which drastically hurt food production. Penalties for resisting the collectivization drive were forced labor camps or execution (Glennon 207).
Stalin’s first attempt at collectivization failed. Collectives produced less food than independent farms had. Determined to succeed in his efforts, in July of 1932, he raised the grain quota to an impossible 6.6 millions tons (Altman 44). Even after Stalin ordered all peasants to surrender their entire grain crop, leaving nothing for themselves, the quota was not met. In one year seven to ten million Ukrainians perished from starvation. Of these, three million were children under the age of seven (“Spiking the Ukrainian Famine, Again” 33).
The Soviet government denied any existence of a terror famine, although it did admit that Stalin continued with the campaign even after learning of its toll on the peasantry (“Denying the Terror Famine” 2). It estimated a death toll only in the thousands and regarded these as necessary casualties in the interest of increased productivity. The Soviet Union also insisted that it was “misfortune and not malice that caused the Ukrainian difficulties” (Altman 47). It called Ukrainian accusations of genocide “fraudulent,” claiming such allegations were a ploy to conceal Ukrainian-Nazi collaboration (“Denying the Terror Famine” 4).
No amount of Soviet sugar-coating can hide the evil truth behind the government-created famine of 1932-1933. There is no denying that it was an attempt to destroy the independently spirited people of the Ukraine who were a threat to Stalin’s revolution and Russian domination. The well-fed, smiling farmers on Soviet propaganda posters never existed (Procyk 31). Instead, hunger-stricken men, women, and children lay swollen and dying on land that used to be their own (Glennon 207).
Stalin dispatched special brigades to the Ukraine to find and seize private food stashes. These brigades consisted of 100,000 terrorists, ex-convicts, and Communist party officials (“Spiking the Ukrainian Famine, Again” 33; Altman 45). They entered the homes of every peasant, breaking into walls and digging up earth, in which peasants tried to hide their last handfuls of food. Officials also analyzed fecal matter to learn whether the peasants had stolen government property and were eating grain (Altman 45). Anyone found possessing government crops was considered an “enemy of the people” and was subject to execution (Altman 45).
All food was forcefully removed from Ukrainian villages. Food was so scarce that people began eating anything they could find: roots, bark, corn stalks, clover, even tadpoles (Procyk 31). Dogs and cats quickly became less likely to be seen roaming the streets and more likely to be seen on the dinner table. When Soviet officials became aware that pets were being eaten, they too were removed (“Spiking the Ukrainian Famine, Again” 33). Nightingales, the Ukrainian symbol, were trapped in large quantities and slaughtered by the Secret Police (“Spiking the Ukrainian Famine, Again” 33). The food shortage was not due to uncontrollable circumstances, but was calculatingly formulated and carried through by the Soviets.
As the situation grew more desperate, some Ukrainians were forced to resort to cannibalism. For some, when worse came to worst, a deceased family member was their only chance for survival. One man recalls seeing a woman selling jellied meats on a street corner. A gentleman bought a portion for fifty rubles and began eating when he discovered a human finger embedded in the jelly. He began shouting and took her to the police station. Instead of taking action against her, two officers laughed and said, “What, have you killed a kulak? Good for you!” They let her go (Procyk 33). Sixty-five years ago this would have been the common response by many Soviets, who put only trivial value on the lives of Ukrainian farmers.
To prevent Ukrainians from leaving their famished villages, strict boundaries were enforced. The Ukrainian-Russian border was completely sealed, prohibiting any Ukrainian citizens access to thriving Russian cities a few hundred yards across the border. Anyone caught violating these boundaries was executed, in an attempt by the Soviet Union to make the survival of Ukrainian peasants impossible (“Spiking the Ukrainian Famine, Again” 36).
The death toll rapidly increased as the famine wore on and disposing of bodies became a significant problem. Freight trains arrived in big cities every morning at dawn to collect dead corpses, which were either burned or thrown into quarries (Altman 46). In small towns, wagons made rounds collecting bodies. People who did not work on collectives were left to rot in the street. Small children were left to bury their parents with leaves or dirt. Parents left dead or dying babies by the roadside (Altman 46). Many children suddenly found themselves orphaned. For these youngsters, the “sympathetic” Soviet government set up orphanages. Most of the unfortunate children who were forced to reside in these orphanages only lived for a short time. Most died of freezing temperatures, starvation, or illness. The older children spent their days digging graves and laying the dead to rest (Procyk 32). Not even the young were spared from this inhumane Soviet scheme.
News of the famine spread slowly throughout the world. Many Russians ignored what was going on around them. Petro Grigorenko, a former general in the Soviet army, said, “We were deceived because we wanted to be deceived. We believed so strongly in the Communist system that we would accept any crime if it was glossed over with the least little bit of communist phraseology” (Altman 47). Most Western journalists were based in Moscow, far from the starving Ukraine. They feared losing journalistic privileges should they write unfavorably of official Soviet policy (Procyk 38). Walter Duranty, a well-known writer for the New York Times, denied any existence of a famine. He professed that the deaths were due to disease and malnutrition and said “the country is on short rations but nothing worse” (Procyk 39). Articles containing ideas such as these prompted Stalin to reward him with the Order of Lenin, saying, “You have done a good job in your reporting of the USSR” (“Spiking the Ukrainian Famine, Again” 34). It is largely because of journalists like these, who choose to overlook the truth in the interest of advancing their careers, that the horror of the Ukrainian genocide has been hidden for so many years.
To rectify “slanderous fabrications circulated by bourgeois propaganda,” the Soviet government invited foreign correspondents and political figures to visit select Ukrainian cities (Altman 47). It was made certain, however, that the visitors saw only what the government wanted them to see. The cities they visited were cleaned of the dead and starving peasants who were replaced with healthy Russian citizens (Altman 47). False representations such as these also contributed to the diluted conceptions of the tragedy.
The Ukrainian famine of 1932-1933 was designed by the Soviet government with the intention of eradicating the strong-willed, independent people of the Ukraine who posed a threat to Russian domination in the Soviet Union. While the former Soviets still insist that the famine was unanticipated, it is impossible to disguise the systemized murder of millions of innocent
people. “Perhaps the most distressing lesson of Stalin’s Ukrainian famine is that even great crimes against humanity can happen again if the world ignores or denies them” (“Denying the Terror Famine” 5).
Altman, Linda Jacobs. Genocide: The Systematic Killing of a People. N.p.: Linda Jacobs
Beers, Burton F. World History-Patterns of Civilization. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall
Glennon, Lorraine, ed. Our Times: The Illustrated History of the 20th Century. Atlanta: Turner
Procyk. The Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33. N.p.:n.p., 1981.
Puddington, Arch. “Denying the Terror Famine.” National Review 25 May 1992: 1-7. Magazine
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“Spiking the Ukrainian Famine, Again.” National Review 11 April 1986: 33-36.