Ukrainian Famine

The man-made famine of 1933 in Soviet Ukraine: What happened and why
by Dr. James E. Mace

The Great Famine - Ivan Novobranets - Folk Art


The event which Ukrainians call “shtuchnyi holod,” the man-made famine, or sometimes even the Ukrainian holocaust, claimed an estimated 5 to 7 million victims. Purely in terms of mortality, it thus was of the same order of magnitude as the Jewish holocaust.

It was, however, a very different kind of genocide in that it was not motivated by a quest for racial purity and was not an attempt to destroy a nation by means of the physical murder of all its members. For one thing, Stalin had far too many Ukrainians under his sway for him to ever take the idea of physical annihilation seriously. Nor was it necessary for his purpose, which was to destroy a nation as a political factor and social entity.

A far closer parallel is offered by events which took place after the Communists seized power in Cambodia and unleashed a reign of terror on the population designed to utterly destroy the nation as it had hitherto existed so that the new regime might recreate it in its own image. In both the Ukrainian and Cambodian cases, the genocide was committed by Communist regimes operating under an ideology which portrayed the nations in question as inundated by class enemies such that the regimes came to identify the whole social structure with such enemies. It attempted to destroy these enemies by destroying the nation as a nation, so as to leave an amorphous mass which the regime then sought to restructure as it saw fit.

In order to understand the Ukrainian famine, one must first of all look to the history of Russo-Ukrainian relations. Ukrainians have traditionally seen the long history of Russian domination over their country as one long tale of oppression. They have always viewed the results of the 1654 Treaty of Pereyaslav as their subjugation rather than the reunification of fraternal peoples which Stalinist and post-Stalinist Soviet historiography has attempted to portray.

Indeed, the Ukrainian nation can hardly be said to have prospered from Russian rule. Its autonomy was gradually abolished; its Orthodox Church was absorbed by the Muscovite; its economic growth was long stunted; its elites were assimilated. Like the Czechs after the 1620 Battle of White Mountain, Ukrainians gradually became almost entirely a nation of priests and peasants, and they are one of the few nations on earth whose level of literacy actually declined from the 17th through the 19th centuries. From 1876 to 1905 the tsars even went so far as to ban the Ukrainian language from the printed page in an attempt to cut short the revival of national consciousness.

When industries and mines were built in Ukraine in the late 19th century, the fact that Russian peasants from the central black soil region were economically poorer than their Ukrainian counterparts guaranteed that there would always be plenty of Russians to work in the new establishments, and the belated development of their own country thus passed the Ukrainians by.

The xenophobia of the Black Hundreds found more fertile soil among Ukraine’s Russians than in any other part of the empire. Even the liberal democratic Russian intelligentsia refused to support so much as token autonomy for Ukrainians. By the time the Russian Empire disintegrated in 1917, Ukrainians possessed only a numerically small but extremely important national intelligentsia in the cities; the vast majority of them remained peasants who viewed the cities of their own land as alien entities inhabited by foreigners.

The two revolutions in Ukraine

In 1923, when the Bolsheviks were actively seeking to “take root” in Ukrainian soil, Moisei Ravich-Cherkassky, a former Jewish Bundist-turned-Communist, published the first official history of the Communist Party (Bolshevik) of Ukraine. His thesis, officially condemned since 1927, was that the Soviet regime and Communist Party in Ukraine had two distinct ancestral roots, one extending from the Russian revolutionary movement and another from the Ukrainian socialist movement. He believed that the CP(b)U was actually the child of this dual lineage produced by the 1920 merger of the Borotbisty, a Ukrainian socialist group, with the Bolsheviks in 1920.

While such a synthesis, if it ever existed, was short-lived, there is a fundamental truth upon which the idea was based: the division between town and country in Ukraine was national as well as social, and what happened in 1917 was that two separate and simultaneous revolutions – one Russian and proletarian, the other Ukrainian and agrarian – fought each other for the same territory. For Ukraine’s Russian cities, factories and mines, the revolution was but a regional variation on the movement elsewhere in the empire. But for the Ukrainian peasants who made up four-fifths of the country’s population, the revolution was as much a struggle for national liberation as one for social justice. And each of these revolutionary movements could trace its separate ancestry back for decades.

During the revolution and civil war, the Ukrainian revolution had to face three different enemies: the Russian counterrevolution, the Bolsheviks and the Poles.

Of the three, Denikin’s Volunteer Army was seen as the greatest evil because it was aimed at restoring the pre-revolutionary regime of the landlords. Denikin saw “Russia” as one, indivisible and consisting of three parts: Great, Little and White. There was no place for Ukraine or Ukrainians in a such a scheme. He saw the Ukrainian movement as an artificial creation of the Germans and the Ukrainian “semi-intelligentsia.” He believed that if these “subversives” were isolated, the Ukrainian movement would disappear.

When he occupied the country, Ukrainian schools and cooperatives were closed down; his administration was based on reactionary landlords who reclaimed their estates and often used their positions to settle old scores. Even Kharkiv, where the predominantly Russian population initially greeted the Whites as liberators and providers of cheap bread, was ready to welcome the Bolsheviks as liberators after a few months of the White Terror.

As for the Bolsheviks, Lenin recognized the right of self-determination to the point of separation but reserved the right to decide on its desirability on a case-by-case basis and maintained that Social-Democrats of colonially oppressed peoples ought to advocate unity. This meant recognizing a right which nobody was supposed to exercise, a true forerunner to the right of secession in the Soviet Constitution, designed only to make Russian rule more acceptable to the colonies.

Ukrainian spokesmen found this solution far from satisfactory. On the eve of the revolution Lev Yurkevych (Rybalka), one of the leaders of the Ukrainian Social-Democrats, denounced Lenin’s formula as a smokescreen and warned that if Ukrainians did not receive the right to rule themselves, they would fight for it, even against Russian socialists if need be. The words were prophetic.

Within days after news of the tsar’s abdication was received in Kiev in March 1917, the Ukrainian Central Rada was established, first as a clearinghouse for Ukrainian national activities and later as an organ of territorial autonomy which contained representatives of the national minorities, including the Russians. Practically every town also had a soviet of workers and/or soldiers’ deputies.

Since the words rada and soviet are merely direct translations of each other (both mean council), there was initially no little confusion about which of these very different bodies stood for what. Georg Lapchynsky, a member of the first Soviet Ukrainian government and, later, leader of a federalist opposition within the CP(b)U, recalled that in the fall of 1917 at any given political gathering there always seemed to be a Ukrainian who would claim that he supported Soviet power and also the Rada because it was a soviet.

The Rada itself even had occasion to use this formula. In November 1917 Mykola Porsh, the Rada’s secretary of labor, officially informed Stalin: “We consider the Central Rada to be by its composition a soviet of workers, peasants, and soldiers’ deputies who were elected at congresses of peasants, workers and soldiers.”

The weakness of support for the Bolsheviks was proven by their poor showing in the Russian Constituent Assembly elections, where the Ukrainian Socialist parties received a substantial majority and the Bolsheviks polled only 10 percent. Nevertheless, they tried to take power in December 1917 by calling an All-Ukrainian Congress of Soviets to “reconstitute” the Rada as a Soviet government. When the Bolsheviks and their sympathizers arrived in Kiev, they were literally swamped by Ukrainian peasant delegates from rural organizations claiming to have the right to be considered soviets of peasants’ deputies. Hopelessly outnumbered, the Bolsheviks fled to Kharkiv where, under the protection of Russian Red Guards, they convoked a rump session which proclaimed the first Soviet government of Ukraine.

Up to the end of the civil war, the various Soviet Ukrainian governments were established by the Russian Red Army and received whatever local support they had from Russians, mainly from the Donbas workers. They tended to show open hostility to everything Ukrainian. In 1917, the Kiev Bolsheviks were led by Yuriy Piatakov and Evgeniya Bosh, who before the revolution had denounced even Lenin’s verbal concession to the right of nations to self-determination, taking the Luxembourgist view that national liberation was utopian under capitalism and irrelevant under socialism.

When the Red Army took Kiev in January 1918, its commander declared in his first declaration on the establishment of Soviet power there: “We took this power from the far north on the point of our bayonets.”

Those found speaking Ukrainian in the streets were rounded up as suspected counterrevolutionaries and shot; Volodymyr Zatonsky later recalled that he himself only narrowly escaped execution.

In 1919 the Soviet regime was headed by Piatakov and Khristian Rakovsky, the latter of whom declared that Ukrainian was a “kulak tongue” and that recognizing it as an official language in Ukraine would be a reactionary measure.

In reality, the early occupation regimes were primarily interested in Ukraine as a source of raw materials and foodstuffs, especially bread. In 1919, Lenin sent his most efficient requisitioner, Alexander Shlikhter, to Ukraine with orders to immediately ship 50 million poods of grain to Russia, but what Shlikhter called “kulak banditism” was so fierce that only 8.5 million poods could be obtained and two-thirds of that had to stay in Ukraine to feed the Red Army and the cities. As he later wrote: “Figuratively speaking, one might say that every pood of requisitioned bread was tinged with drops of the blood of the workers.”

Of course, the person one man might call a bandit others might call a fighter for national liberation, or simply a farmer trying to protect the fruits of his own labor. Whatever one calls it, the Bolshevik historian Ravich-Cherkassky was forced to admit that the countryside formed a united front against the invaders.

Even as set-piece warfare came to an end in 1921, thousands of guerrillas continued to wage war on the invaders in the Ukrainian countryside. According to captured Soviet documents first published in Galicia in 1932 and later unintentionally confirmed by a Soviet scholar, as of April 1, 1921, at least 102 armed bands were fighting in Ukraine and the Crimea, some with as many as 800 men. Excluding the Makhno army, which had 10,000 to 15,000 men, there were at least 10,000 of these “bandits,” most of whom were conscious Ukrainians.

While we do not have later figures, Soviet Ukrainian newspapers continued to report on outbreaks of “kulak banditism” until mid-1924, and it seems to have been fairly widespread until mid-1923.

The Donbas Russians upon whom the Bolsheviks relied for popular support wanted nothing to do with the rest of Ukraine, and neither did the Bolshevik leaders there. As far as they were concerned, they were Russian and wanted to be part of Russia, and local Ukrainians were either kulaks or counterrevolutionaries – either way, what they wanted simply did not count. In 1918 the Donbas Bolsheviks went so far as to establish their own government separate from the rest of Ukraine, the Donets-Krivoi-Rog Republic. Certainly, it is always difficult for members of a Herrenvolk to come to terms with the emerging national aspirations of those whom they were used to seeing as uncouth peasants, and this, as Mykola Skrypnyk recognized in 1920, was the fundamental weakness of the various Soviet regimes in Ukraine:

“Our tragedy in Ukraine is the very fact that, in order to have the help of the working class, Russian by nationality or Russified, whose attitude toward the Ukrainian language and culture was insulting and sometimes even intimidating, with its help and its forces we had to subjugate the peasantry and village proletariat, and those people who were of Ukrainian nationality were, due to complex historical circumstances, suspicious and hostile to everything Russian, ‘Muscovite’.”

Skrypnyk’s solution, which the party would officially adopt in 1923, was to actively foster the development of Ukrainian culture.

PART II – Ukrainianization and its dilemmas

The path by which the Bolshevik Party came to adopt Ukrainianization was a long one which began in January 1919 when Sergei Mazlakh and Vasyl Shakhrai, two Bolsheviks from Poltava, then the center of the Ukrainian movement, published a long critique of the Bolshevik policy, the thesis of which was: “Ukraine is just as much a country as Russia, Germany, France, Italy, Norway, England, and so forth. Like them, it not only has a ‘right’ but will in fact be just as sovereign, just as independent as those other states.” And once the Bolsheviks recognized this simple fact, they predicted, Ukrainians would be with them.

They were ignored, but in the summer of 1919 a discussion group was formed in Kiev, and out of it was to grow a credible opposition which tried to take over the CP(b)U, the so-called Federalist Opposition led by Georg Lapchynsky. It demanded an independent party and state which would reach its own modus vivendi with Ukrainian revolutionary forces, but without Moscow’s support there was little hope such an opposition could succeed within the predominantly Russian CP(b)U. Lapchynsky left the Bolsheviks in disgust, joined the Ukrainian Ukapisty, and was readmitted to the party only in 1925 with the rest of the Ukapisty.

While voices calling for rapprochement with the Ukrainians were weak inside the Bolshevik Party, there were powerful voices in the Ukrainian revolutionary movement ready to join hands in exchange for a shift in Bolshevik nationality policy.

In 1920 Volodymyr Vynnychenko, who had headed the Central Rada’s General Secretariat and the Ukrainian Directory before breaking with Symon Petliura, went to Moscow and Kharkiv, ready to accept the positions of vice-president of Ukrainian Sovnarkom and Soviet Ukraine’s foreign minister until it became apparent that the Bolsheviks were more interested in scoring a propaganda coup than in creating a government acceptable to Ukrainians.

The Borotbisty, originally the left wing of the Ukrainian Socialist-Revolutionaries, hoped to gain concessions by showing the Bolsheviks a loyalty bordering on obsequiousness, and about 4,000 of them were actually admitted into the CP(b)U in 1920, with three of their leaders – Vasyl Ellan-Blakytnyi, Oleksander Shumsky and Hryhoriy Hrynko – receiving high posts.

Why did the left wing of the Ukrainian revolution wish so desperately to make an arrangement with the Bolsheviks, to join hands with them in jointly building a Soviet Ukrainian state?

Those familiar with official Soviet historiography will surely have encountered polemics against what Communist spokesmen refer to as “the anti-Leninist idea of the bezburzhuaznist (literally, ‘bourgeoislessness’) of the Ukrainian people.” Sometimes the idea is credited to Vynnychenko and sometimes to Hrushevsky. In truth, nobody “invented” the idea of bezburzhuaznist; the fact that there was no Ukrainian national bourgeoisie was simply a matter of observation. And that is why the regime has always tried to discredit it. How can one fight “bourgeois nationalism” if the nation in question never had its own bourgeoisie?

In 1917 no Ukrainian political figure questioned the idea of Ukrainian bezburzhuaznist either explicitly or implicitly by trying to form a party of the Ukrainian bourgeoisie. At that time it was impossible to even imagine a Ukrainian politician who did not also call himself a socialist.

It could hardly have been otherwise since, with a few individual exceptions, those who belonged to the propertied classes in Ukraine were not Ukrainians. The Ukrainian people meant the Ukrainian peasants, and with what class could the peasants form an alliance if not with the workers? Besides, the arrangement Lenin described in his “State and Revolution” (completely autonomous communities of toilers free from outside interference) seemed ideal to villagers whose natural interest was to keep outsiders out. Unfortunately, any similarity between Lenin’s regime and the one described in “State and Revolution” was purely coincidental.

In 1921 the 10th RCP Congress adopted the New Economic Policy (NEP), which meant the end of compulsory requisitions of agricultural produce and basically leaving the peasants alone. At the same time, the formal equality of all languages spoken in any Soviet republic was proclaimed. The NEP did much to assuage the purely social grievances of the peasantry, but formal equality of the local language with Russian did not satisfy Ukrainians. So-called “banditism” was still widespread in the Ukrainian countryside, and the Bolsheviks came to realize that the only way to ever create a really stable Soviet regime was to somehow convince Ukrainians that the Soviet government was somehow theirs.

It was for this reason that the 12th RCP Congress officially adopted the policy of indigenization (korenizatsiya) which directed Soviet regimes outside ethnic Russia to “take root” in local soil by fostering the development of the local language and culture, encourage local Communists and state servants to learn the local language and way of life, recruit non-Russians into the party and state, and, in short, to reverse the old policy of Russification and replace it with an active policy of de-Russification. Byelorussianization, Tatarization, Yiddishization, and so forth, were proclaimed and carried out, but none of them went so far or created so many problems for Moscow as did Ukrainianization.

The reason Ukrainianization gave Moscow cause for concern was due to its very success. Ukrainians, including Ukrainian Communists, took it seriously and actually began to act as if Ukraine was in fact an independent country. Ravich-Cherkassky was speaking for the regime when he criticized Russian Communists who refused to take the policy seriously:

“Up to the present, not only among the Russian bourgeois intelligentsia but also among some Communists, views have been bandied about which are not much different from those who thought Ukraine was thought up by Germans. Many RCP members, bound too much by bourgeois assimilationist prejudices, think the UkSSR and CPU are a masquerade, a fiction, or playing at independence. At best they conceded that, during the struggle for power in Ukraine against the nationalistic Central Rada and Directory, the Communist Party and Soviet power in Ukraine had to adopt the colors of defenders of national independence. Now power in Ukraine has been consolidated and the need for a CPU and UkSSR has fallen away.”

“We think that only those who live solely in the present could think that way. They do not see the 20 million Ukrainian peasants who will fill the ranks of the urban proletariat in proportion with the development of industry. Today Ukraine’s cities have a Russified majority, but the countryside is the reserve from which Ukraine’s cities will be filled. The masses of the Ukrainian people, who are being raised to cultural life, to mass creativity in the sphere of economic construction will Ukrainianize Ukraine at a more urgent tempo.”

For a time the center encouraged such views. Even Stalin declared in 1923 that: “The Ukrainian nationality exists and the Communists are obliged to develop its culture. One cannot go against history. It is clear that if Russian elements have hitherto been predominant in the cities, with the passage of time these cities will inevitably be Ukrainianized.”

No one could as yet foresee that within a decade the author of these very words would prove that, given sufficient force, one could indeed go against history.

Implicit in Ukrainianization was a high-stakes gamble. Would the eventual loss of the Russified proletariat, hitherto the regime’s main supporter, be outweighed by Ukrainian support gained by the policy? Initially, the gamble seemed to pay off handsomely. With ample opportunities for national cultural work in Soviet Ukraine, many Ukrainian socialists who had emigrated to escape the Bolsheviks now returned, led by the former Petliurist military commander, Yurko Tiutiunnyk, and the former president of the Central Rada, Mykhailo Hrushevsky. The Soviet press dubbed the movement Ukrainian “smenovekhovstvo” and represented it as a Ukrainian counterpart to Ustrialov’s movement.

The high point of this honeymoon between the regime and the national intelligentsia came in May 1924 when 66 prominent intellectuals, including several former ministers in Ukrainian governments, presented a declaration of loyalty to the Seventh CP(b)U Congress.

This Declaration of the 66 stated that since Ukrainians were a nation of toilers, the proletariat was their natural ally, and that only the Russifying proclivities of early Soviet regimes had prevented such an alliance from taking shape. Now that the Bolsheviks had overcome their past errors by adopting Ukrainianization, Ukrainians were ready and willing to join them in building a Ukrainian worker-peasant state. Those who signed the declaration clearly understood it as a national covenant between the Ukrainian nation as represented by its natural leaders and those who ruled Soviet Ukraine.

Although conditions were less than ideal – there were authors who could not get their writing through the censorship, and attacks upon Ukrainian scholars by self-proclaimed guardians of revolutionary orthodoxy boded ill for the future – they seem almost a golden age when compared to conditions under the autocracy and to the Stalinist deluge which was yet to come. The 1920s produced a flowering of Ukrainian cultural and intellectual life later called the “rozstriliane vidrodzhennia” (the executed rebirth) because of its abrupt and violent suppression by Stalin.

To an extent, Ukrainianization even legitimized Ukrainian national aspirations within the party itself, with Communists like Oleksander Shumsky, Mykola Khvyliovyi, and Mykhailo Volobuev demanding far more independence than Moscow would allow, thereby provoking a deep political crisis for the regime. In 1925 the former Borotbist Shumsky, then Soviet Ukraine’s commissar of education, led a delegation of West Ukrainian Communist leaders to see Stalin and demand that Lazar Kaganovich, who had only recently been appointed CP(b)U first secretary and was pursuing Ukrainianization vigorously, be replaced by a Ukrainian. At the time Stalin said only that such a move was not yet expedient.

At the same time, the writer Khvyliovyi had electrified Ukrainian literary life with his messianic call to free Ukrainian culture from Russian domination, turn to Europe for models, and for Ukrainians to lead an Asiatic renaissance of rising colonial peoples by transmitting to them Europe’s cultural attainments which Ukraine, due to its colonial past and status as a European nation, was uniquely qualified to do.

Stalin intervened in the Shumsky and Khvyliovyi controversies in April 1926 with a letter addressed to Kagnovich and the other members of the CP(b)U Central Committee. It was at this precise moment that Zinoviev and Trotsky were joining hands to form a United Opposition to Stalin, and the latter was probably motivated by what he saw as a need to strengthen his support in the predominantly Russian CP(b)U. In any case, Stalin accused Shumsky of failing to see the dark side of Ukrainianization which Khvyliovyi represented and stated that if such anti-Russian chauvinistic sentiments were not opposed, they threatened to tear Ukraine away from Russia, Russian culture and its highest attainment, Leninism. Stalin added that Shumsky wanted to force Ukrainianization so rapidly that it threatened to violate the rights of Russian workers in Ukraine and alienate them from the regime.

The weight of Stalin’s condemnation assured that Shumsky would be completely isolated in the CP(b)U leadership. But a majority of the West Ukrainian Communist Central Committee (the Communist Party of Western Ukraine was at that time an autonomous section of the Polish Communist Party) supported him, and the split became public when they attempted to take their case to the Comintern. They were expelled for their pains, and Shumsky was transferred to Russia.

Khvyliovyi, on the other hand, showed himself to be a master of the art of ostensible surrender by confessing his sins, promising never to do it again, then doing the same thing in a more subtle fashion. By 1930, however, the increasing rigidity of permissible intellectual life succeeded in clipping his wings, and in 1933 he committed suicide as an act of protest against the great famine created by the regime in the countryside.

The third “national deviationist” to be condemned in the 1920s was not nearly so prominent as Shumsky and Khvyliovyi. In fact, Volobuev was a complete unknown, probably an obscure teacher in a party school with only a brief article in a newspaper literary supplement to his credit when he published the work which was to provoke such controversy.

In 1928 he published a two-part article in Bilshovyk Ukrainy, “On the Problem of the Ukrainian Economy,” in which he drew upon a wide array of sources to show that Ukraine’s economic needs were being neglected by union organs and that the country still was being exploited by Russia no less than it had been under the autocracy. According to Volobuev, the USSR would best be served by policies that strengthened its component parts as relatively aurarchic entities. These views were condemned as an economic platform of nationalism.

PART III – Soviet Ukraine under Skrypnyk

Only a handful of old Bolsheviks were Ukrainians: Hryhoriy Petrovsky, Dmytro Manuilsky, Vlas Chubar, Volodymyr Zatonsky and Mykola Skrypnyk. Skrypnyk joined Russian Social-Democracy at the turn of the century, before it split into Bolshevik and Menshevik, and once the rift occurred he joined Lenin’s faction, never to waver thereafter.

His was the typical career of a “professional revolutionary” missions to various parts of the empire on Lenin’s behalf, arrests, escapes from Siberia, and even a brief taste of emigre life in Europe. After helping Lenin seize power as a member of the Petrograd Soviet’s Revolutionary-Military Committee, Lenin sent him to Ukraine as his personal representative. For a brief period on the eve of the German occupation of 1918, he even headed the Soviet Ukrainian government, and he was architect of the decisions adopted at the Taganrog Party Conference which founded the CP(b)U.

In 1920 he became an advocate of the changes in nationality policy later to be adopted as Ukrainianization, and in the discussions preceding the formation of the USSR and afterwards he was one of the chief defenders of the prerogatives of the Soviet republics. When Kaganovich was attacked by Shumsky, Skrypnyk was tapped as the leading defender of official policies in Soviet Ukraine, and in 1927 his loyalty was rewarded with the post of education commissar.

While Moscow’s appointees came and went, Skrypnyk remained in Ukraine to become first among equals in the country’s political hierarchy. When Kaganovich was withdrawn in 1928, Stanislaw Kossior succeeded him as first secretary, but there was no doubt that Skrypnyk was the real man in charge. He was by far the most powerful of the various party satraps who ruled the various administrative subdivisions of the Soviet Union in the 1920s, the undisputed political strongman of Soviet Ukraine.

Just as the formation of the United Opposition in 1926 had led Stalin to seek support in Ukraine by intervening on the side of Russian Communists there, the 1928 rift between him and Bukharin motivated him to intervene on the side of the Ukrainian Communists.

By 1928 the Ukrainianization policy had succeeded in strengthening the Ukrainian component in the party to such an extent that instead of offering up a “national deviationist,” he “bought” Skrypnyk by withdrawing Kaganovich. Skrypnyk had already laid claim to eminence as a theoretician by creating a chair of the nationality question in the Ukrainian Institute of Marxism-Leninism – claiming all-union authority for it by arguing that Ukraine was the “best laboratory” for studying the nationality question because it had been itself a colony and now was a Soviet republic with its own minorities whose rights had to be protected – and occupying the chair himself.

One may be certain that Stalin was less than pleased with Skrypnyk’s claim to pre-eminence in a theoretical field to which Stalin had made his own contributions, and Skrypnyk’s 1927 appointment to the education commissariat further strengthened his position by placing him in charge of the Ukrainianization program as well as all educational, cultural and scholarly work. With Kaganovich withdrawn, Skrypnyk was in a position to be as independent as, say, Gomulka in the late 1950s, and he did not hesitate to use his position to the utmost.

Skrypnyk pursued policies bound to win him popularity with the Ukrainians. He lobbied for union investment with such zeal that he gained a reputation of being the man who brought all good things to Ukraine. He defended the right of Ukrainian culture to develop separately, condemning those who wanted to attack Khvyliovyi for his old sins and those who refused to assign the old Rus’ epic, “The Tale of Ihor’s Armament,” to Ukrainian literature. He pushed Ukrainianization far more rapidly than it had ever been pushed before, forcing hundreds of factory gazettes and major dailies (including the main state organ in Odessa, which had never been a Ukrainian city) to switch from Russian to Ukrainian. Officials who had not yet learned Ukrainian now had to do so or be dismissed. Those university courses which had hitherto been taught in Russian now switched to Ukrainian, and it became impossible to gain a post-secondary education in Russian without going to Russia.

But to those who complained that the rights of Ukraine’s Russians were violated by the new state of affairs, he could point out that they were still considerably better off than Russia’s Ukrainians: at the same time that the more than 3 million Ukrainians of the North Caucasus were served by only 240 Ukrainian-language schools, Ukraine’s 2 million Russians had 1,771 Russian-language schools. And there was certainly no Ukrainian-language higher education in Russia.

In fact, Skrypnyk complained quite loudly about how inept Russia was in satisfying the cultural needs of its Ukrainians and strived to establish a cultural protectorate over them, all the while denying that he was doing anything beyond aiding them by sending textbooks and schoolteachers. At one point he went so far as to argue that Russia’s record was so abysmal that the “fascist” nationalists in Western Ukraine were taking advantage of it in order to discredit Soviet power in the eyes of the masses and that the only solution was for Russia to cede heavily Ukrainian border areas to Ukraine. It is hardly likely that Stalin was overjoyed to receive what amounted to a territorial demand from one whom he considered his subordinate.

In any case, a Byzantine campaign to bring Skrypnyk low can be discerned from the end of 1928 when his client Matviy Yavorsky, the “ideological watchdog” of Soviet Ukrainian historians, was attacked by Pavel Gorin, secretary of the Russian Society of Marxist Historians, at the All-Union Conference of Marxist Historians.

A few weeks later, Pravda carried a brutal review of Yavorsky’s brief textbook history of Ukraine which concluded that it was “strange” the Ukrainian Commissariat of Education had ever sanctioned so pernicious a book. Soon the pages of Russian and Ukrainian historical journals were filled with denunciations of “Yavorskyism,” sometimes finding fault with the very fact that he dealt with Ukrainian history as a national history separate from that of Russia. As one critic wrote, “The basic error of Comrade Yavorsky’s book is that it portrays the history of Ukraine as a distinct process.” The political implication was obvious and ominous: if Ukraine did not possess its own distinct history, then it was not a country in its own right and ought not be treated as such. This, in turn, implied an attack on Skrypnyk’s whole policy.

As for Yavorsky, he was accused of having once been a gendarme in the Austrian army, was accordingly expelled from the CP(b)U in 1930, arrested during the Postyshev terror of 1933, and ended his days in the gulag. He was last reported seen in the Solovky Islands, where he was described as having bitterly regretted his Bolshevik past.

Attacks upon distinctively Ukrainian cultural currents, regardless of whether they were Communist, became an inherent part of Stalin’s so-called cultural revolution (1928-32). In Russia, however, it was primarily the so-called bourgeois intelligentsia which suffered, while in Ukraine attacks on Ukrainian Communists actually took precedence over those on non-Marxists. Yavorsky was the first victim of the cultural revolution in Ukraine, while Mykhailo Hrushevsky, the dean of traditional Ukrainian historians, was left unmolested until 1931. The fall of another Skrypnyk client, the philosopher Volodymyr Yurinets, closely followed Yavorsky’s, but the Ukrainian “bourgeois” intelligentsia was not neglected for long, and the manner in which it was attacked also boded ill for Skrypnyk.

It would have been extremely difficult for Skrypnyk to have attempted to defend either the All-Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, founded in 1918 and including a number of members once quite prominent in the Ukrainian People’s (National) Republic and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, which had split off from Russian Orthodoxy during the revolution. They were thus easy targets for those who wished to weaken Skrypnyk by attacking Ukrainian national institutions. Moreover, Skrypnyk had been intimately involved in the linguistic discussions which led to the adoption of a standardized orthography in 1928, had gone on record in favor of linguistic purism, and at one point even suggested supplementing the Ukrainian Cyrillic by adding the Latin letters “S” and “Z” to designate sounds represented by the double consonants “dz” and “dzh.”

In November 1929 the GPU “discovered” an alleged conspiracy called the Union for the Liberation of Ukraine and arrested a number of prominent scholars and academicians. On December 22, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church was tied into the affair and was forced to proclaim itself liquidated the following January. The resolutions forced upon the so-called liquidation sobor repudiated not only religious principles but also the principles upon which Ukraine’s political distinctiveness had been based. Autocephaly was denounced as “a symbol of Petliurist independence,” clerical Ukrainianization as “a means of inciting national animosity.” It did not take much imagination to translate these principles from the secular to the temporal realm.

As the GPU presented it, the Union for the Liberation of Ukraine (SVU) had supposedly been led by Serhiy Yefremov, former leader of the Ukrainian Party of Socialist-Federalists and a vocal critic of the regime, who was also an academician in the history of Ukrainian literature, and Volodymyr Chekhivsky, former leader of the Autocephalous Church. The conspiracy was supposed to have begun in 1926, and it strains credulity to think that such a widespread conspiracy as the SVU could have escaped the notice of the CPU and its secret collaborators for over three years.

The SVU was accused of plotting the assassination of Soviet leaders (including Skrypnyk), the restoration of capitalism in a fascist independent Ukrainian state by means of an armed uprising supported by foreign capitalist states, attempting to organize the kulaks and bourgeois survivals – particularly the so-called “kulak intelligentsia” of the villages and high schools. Cells had allegedly been established in both the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences and the Autocephalous Church hierarchy.

Politically, the most significant charge was that it had engaged in cultural sabotage which consisted in trying to make Ukrainian culture as different from Russian as possible. So many academicians were arrested that whole institutes had to be closed, particularly the linguistic institutes which were accused of having engaged in nationalistic wrecking by trying to make the Ukrainian language as different from the Russian as possible.

In short, the flower of the national intelligentsia was brought low, and cultural nationalism was identified with sabotage by class enemies. It would not be too long before the implication was drawn that Skrypnyk himself had been in league with these “saboteurs,” for he had, of course, although what they had done hardly qualifies as sabotage.

Skrypnyk was able to defend himself from the political fallout from the SVU affair by viciously attacking the accused in public, while judiciously ignoring the substance of their alleged wrecking when it struck too close to home, particularly in linguistics.

Meanwhile, Stalin sounded a temporary retreat. Just as he had signaled a brief respite for the peasantry in his famous “Dizziness from Success” speech, he made a similar move regarding the nationalities at the XVIth Party Congress by criticizing those who expected the “coming together and merging of nations” to take place in the near future.

In the non-Russian republics this meant a renewed effort on the purely quantitative side of indigenization, but any respite for Skrypnyk was temporary indeed. While the witch hunts for nationalistic “deviationists” within the CP(b)U temporarily ceased, witch hunts among writers continued. More subtly, Skrypnyk’s bureaucratic power base was being chipped away through the creeping centralization of the education system in union hands and the destruction of the Ukrainian Institute of Marxism-Leninism.

Hryhoriy Hrynko had, during his brief tenure as Ukrainian commissar of education, established an education system radically different from that which Lunancharsky set up in Russia. The so-called Hrynko system was retained until the end of the 1920s, when an all-union system was adopted. Skrypnyk went along with this, at least in public, but simultaneously insisted that there must be no talk of placing the administration of education in union hands.

Yet this is precisely what happened by degrees. On September 5, 1931, the Union Central Committee issued a detailed order on how education was to be run, and a union government decree of September 9, 1932, placed all higher education under direct union supervision._49_ The Ukrainian Institute of Marxism-Leninism was in 1931 found guilty of all sorts of national deviations and broken up into an association of autonomous institutes headed by Shlikhter.

Finally, Skrypnyk’s supporters seem to have been removed from leadership positions on the district (raion) level. From the beginning of 1931 to mid-1932 fully 80 percent of the district party secretaries in Ukraine were replaced. We know almost nothing about these new men or, indeed, about those they replaced. In all likelihood, many of those who lost their posts were being punished for failure to carry out central dictates regarding the collectivization of agriculture and procurement of agricultural produce, and those who got the jobs did so because of their zeal – or at least willingness – to carry out the center’s dictates no matter what they might be. Such new men were far more likely to be loyal to Stalin than to a local satrap who did much to soften the most brutal aspects of collectivization.

The collectivization of agriculture, the man-made famine of 1933, and their role in Skrypnyk’s fall will be dealt with below. Suffice it to state at this point that Moscow did not find the work of the Ukrainian Party organization adequate in either agriculture collectivization or procurements, and in January 1933 Pavel Postyshev, the former head of the Kharkiv oblast party organization who had been called to Moscow a few years earlier for political seasoning, was returned to his old post and given a new one of second CP(b)U secretary. Officially subordinate to Kossior, Postyshev actually had dictatorial powers and began a campaign against an initially unnamed “national deviation” quite similar to the campaign against the Right deviation which had preceded Bukharin’s fall in Russia.

On March 1, 1933, Visti announced a major government reshuffle in which Skrypnyk was transferred from education to Derzhplan (the Ukrainian counterpart to Gosplan), and on June 10 Postyshev denounced him by name, accusing him of having committed a host of national deviations. Interestingly, the only specific charge which Postyshev made at this time was that Skrypnyk’s advocacy of the use of the Ietter £, (hard g) in Ukrainian objectively aided the annexationist designs of the Polish landlords by bringing the Ukrainian language closer to Polish and pushing it farther away from Russian.

Soon thereafter, Andriy Khvylia, a former Borotbist who owed his prominence to having denounced Shumsky to Kaganovich in 1925, delivered a lecture on the Skrypnykite deviation in linguistics. Khvylia portrayed any manifestation of Ukrainian linguistic purism as sabotage, condemned Skrypnyk’s role in the adoption of the 1928 orthography, and even disinterred Skrypnyk’s old proposal to supplement the Ukrainian Cyrillic alphabet with two Latin letters, saying: “Comrade Skrypnyk could not have failed to know that he had entered upon the path of isolating the Ukrainian language from Russian and bringing it closer to Polish.” He announced that henceforth the party and Commissariat of Education would fight “to purge the new orthography of the counterrevolutionary rubbish put into it” and pledged to have a new orthography ready within a month.

Soon the periodical press was carrying articles in which Khvylia denounced Skrypnyk for linguistic separatism “in a kulak-Petliurist spirit” and explicitly identified him with the type of wrecking portrayed during the SVU trial.

Other members of the CP(b)U leadership vied with each other to expose further deviations which Skrypnyk had committed. Panas Liubchenko, for example, not only connected Skrypnyk with the “kulak Ukrainian nationalist” sabotage of SVU vintage, but also with the historian Matviy Yavorsky. Skrypnyk must have had few illusions regarding what fate awaited him, and on July 6, 1933, he committed suicide.

PART IV – Collectivization of agriculture and the famine

Despite the progress achieved by Ukrainianization, the vast majority of Ukrainians remained peasants. For most Ukrainians, NEP and Ukrainianization were but two sides of the same coin, and we have seen that both policies were necessary in Ukraine to placate the same social force, the Ukrainian peasantry. Conversely, abandonment of one implied abandonment of the other. Without NEP, Ukrainianization lost its political justification, for nothing could possibly placate peasants if the state was taking their farms away.

During the 1920s, official statements in the Soviet press defined the party’s main task in Ukraine as winning over the “rural masses” in general and the village intelligentsia in particular. There is ample evidence to suggest that this approach enjoyed only limited success at best. Those connected to the regime, even in the most innocuous way as village correspondents, were shunned by their neighbors, as Zatonsky frankly admitted in a speech delivered to a 1926 selkor conference.

Evidence of the regime’s feeling of insecurity in the Ukrainian countryside is the fact that, while it abolished the kombedy in Russia in 1920, it felt the need to retain them in only a slightly altered form in the Ukrainian countryside as the komnezamy until 1933.

The only difference between the kombedy and Ukrainian komnezamy was that the latter organizations were supposed to also include the poorest middle peasants, but never so many of them that they would make up over 15-20 percent of the membership of any given village komnezam. They retained all the powers of the old kombedy, exercised state power, and in many places ruled without any village Soviet until 1925 when they were “reorganized” into “voluntary social organizations” without state power.

The regime also took care to penetrate the countryside by a system of secret police agents and collaborators (seksoty). As one account described it, the secret police established a system of OGPU residents on the district level who, disguised as instructors, statisticians, insurance agents, agronomists, and so on, worked incessantly to create a dense network of secret collaborators known as seksoty. The secret district residents of the OGPU did not directly involve the seksoty in subversion. When visiting villages they merely observed, noted and selected possible candidates as possible candidates of the OGPU, and notified the authorities. A man who was earmarked for work as a future seksot or agent was called to the okrug department of the OGPU. There the chief of the okrug department had a “talk” with him, while a revolver lay on the table between them, and required him to sign an obligation. From that moment on the seksot was in touch with the district agent of the OGPU in the locality where he lived. Numbers varied from place to place depending on the size of the population, but everywhere the number of people thus recruited constituted a considerable part of the population.

The seksoty enabled the regime to identify real and potential enemies, and this placed the regime in a far stronger position vis-à-vis the peasantry than it had been in the early 1920s, when the Bolsheviks confronted the village as strangers and without any idea of who was who. Whenever the party might decide the time was right to settle the unfinished business left over from the civil war, it would be ready.

The policy of “liquidation of the kulaks as a class” and forced total collectivization of agriculture was announced by Stalin on December 27, 1929, and was legalized by the Central Committee resolutions of January 5 and 30, 1930.

How were these decisions carried out in Ukraine? An outsider or group of outsiders – usually either a plenipotentiary of the regime or a Russian worker recruited as a “twenty-five-thousander” – would be sent into the village with the power to veto any action of the local authorities or simply remove them. A village meeting would be called at which the new authority would try – often unsuccessfully – to browbeat the peasants into approving the collective farm and the expropriation of the kulaks.

The outsider would lead the local komnezam to the farms of those who were to be expropriated and either carry off everything of value or throw the whole family – men, women and children – into the snow. Those who were dekulakized were often shunned by their neighbors who had been threatened with being themselves dekulakized if they ever helped a kulak. Simultaneously, the local church was usually closed, the village priest and, if he were considered suspect, the local schoolteacher would either be arrested or run off. Dekulakization thus meant the decapitation of the village, the elimination of the best farmers and leaders – of anyone who might lead the village in fighting back.

When it came to collectivization, the policy was carried out more vigorously than in Russia. At first the difference seems slight, but it was to grow into a significant one as the following figures on the level of collectivization in Ukraine and Russia show.

Ukraine Russia
Late 1929 8.6% of peasant farms 7.4% of peasant farms
Early 1930 65% of peasant farms 59% of peasant farms
Mid 1932 70% of peasant farms 59.3% of peasant farms

And the trend continued until collectivization was completed: by 1935: 91.3 percent of all peasant farms in Ukraine were collectivized, while Russia did not reach the 90 percent mark until late in 1937. The higher level of collectivization in Ukraine is only partially explained by the fact that collectivization of the most important grain-producing areas was given priority; collectivization in Ukraine had a special task which the newspaper Proletarska Pravda summed up on January 22, 1930: “to destroy the social basis of Ukrainian nationalism – individual peasant agriculture.”

The peasants responded by fighting back. Even the Soviet sources make this clear. According to A. F. Chmyga, the number of “registered kulak terrorist acts” in Ukraine (and the regime tended to dub any peasant it did not care for a kulak) grew fourfold from 1927 to 1929, with 1,262 such acts reported in 1929. During the first half of 1930, there were more reports of “terrorism” than for the whole previous year – over 1,500. Later figures are unavailable, perhaps because they became so numerous that officials could no longer keep count.

Defectors who had worked in the village as representatives of the regime speak of Communists being found with their bellies cut open and stuffed with ears of wheat. There are numerous cases in which the women of the village, perhaps feeling they were less likely to be arrested, took it upon themselves to expel the local administration, abolish the collective farm, and take what had been taken from them. Such cases were so widespread as to become proverbial as the “babski bunty.”

Whatever expectations the regime might have had at the beginning of the collectivization campaign, the transition from individual farms to large kolkhozy was not productive but extractive; simply taking everyone’s animals and implements to the center of the village and proclaiming them socialized did nothing to raise output. The point was to give the regime greater control over the farmers and their produce; after all, it was much easier for the state to take all it wanted from a single threshing room floor than it was to search each individual farmstead.

And this is why, while productivity declined, the amount taken by the state (“marketed”) rose: although the total Soviet grain harvest of 1932 was significantly below that of 1927, grain “marketings” from that harvest were two and one-half times those of 1927-28.

As economic depression deepened in the West, agricultural prices dropped steeply in relation to those of manufactured goods. The Soviet Union, whose entite plan of development was predicated on paying for imported capital goods with the proceeds from agricultural sales, found that a given machine cost far more grain than had previously been the case. This provided a motive for intensifying the exploitation of the peasantry.

Events in Kazakhstan in 1930 seem to have given Stalin the answer to the dilemma of how to obtain more produce and simultaneously deal with troublesome peasants. The Kazakhs, primarily herdsmen, had responded to collectivization with the wholesale slaughter of their livestock. So many starved subsequently that the 1939 Soviet census shows 21.9 percent fewer Kazakhs in the Soviet Union than there had been in 1926. But resistance among the Kazakhs had ceased. The lesson that famine could be used as a weapon was applied to the Ukrainians in 1933.

This was done by the imposition of grain procurement quotas on Ukraine far out of proportion to the country’s share of the total harvest for the Soviet Union. Although Moscow was aware that Ukraine’s agriculture was disorganized due to collectivization, the republic was obliged to deliver 2.3 times the amount of grain marketed during the best year before collectivization.

In 1930, 7.7 million tons of grain were taken out of Ukraine, 33 percent of the harvest of 23 million tons. Although Ukraine produced only 27 percent of all the grain harvested in the USSR, it supplied 38 percent of the Soviet Union’s grain procurements. In 1931, despite a decline in sown area, Moscow kept the same quota of 7.7 million tons and insisted upon its being met even after it became apparent that the harvest was only 18.3 million tons according to official figures, and almost 30 percent of that was lost during the harvest. Already at this time a conscious policy of leading the Ukrainian countryside to catastrophe can be discerned.

The 1932 Ukrainian wheat crop was less than two-thirds that of 1930, but still larger than the worst year of the NEP when there had been no famine. At the beginning of the year, the Russian press had published editorials insisting that Ukraine could and would have to meet its “backwardness” in procuring grain, and local officials seemed willing to do so. In any case, frequent attacks on “opportunists” on the local level, who “did not want to see the kulaks in their midst” and were not fulfilling their quotas, left little to the imagination regarding the fate of those who did not meet the quotas.

Still, the quotas were not met, in spite of the fact that they were lowered three times. The most draconian measures imaginable were taken against the farmers. On the union level, the law on inviolability of socialist property, adopted on August 7, 1932, declared all collective farm property “sacred and inviolate.” Anyone who so much as gleaned an ear of grain or bit the root off a sugar beet was to be considered an “enemy of the people,” subject to execution or, in extenuating circumstances, imprisonment for not less than 10 years and confiscation of all property. A second part of the decree provided for five to 10 years in a concentration camp for collective farmers who attempted to force others to leave the kolkhoz.

During 1932, 20 percent of all persons convicted in Soviet legal courts were sentenced under this decree, and Stalin himself called it “the basis of revolutionary legality at the present moment.”

In Ukraine a decree of December 6, 1932, singled out six villages which had allegedly sabotaged the grain deliveries. The “blacklist” established by this decree was soon extended in wholesale fashion. It meant the complete economic blockade of villages which had not delivered the required quantity of grain. It specifically provided for the immediate closing of state and cooperative stores and the removal of their goods from the village; a complete ban on all trade in the village concerned, including trade in essential consumer goods and foodstuffs, by kolkhozy, kolkhoznyky and individual farmers; halting and immediately calling in all credits and advances; a thoroughgoing purge of the local cooperative and state apparatuses; the purge of all “foreign elements” and “wreckers” of the grain procurements from the kolkhoz (which at that time was equivalent to being sentenced to death by starvation).

Those who survived the famine do not describe the harvest of 1932 as being anything like a harvest failure, but merely as mediocre. When the first procurements campaign was carried out in August, the overwhelming majority of the peasants in many areas met their norms. Then, in October, a new levy was imposed, equal to half the earlier levy, and the local “tow brigada” went around searching and taking whatever they could find. At the beginning of 1933, a third levy was announced, and whatever remained from the earlier levies was taken at this time. Neither food nor seed were left in the village.

There are so many accounts by survivors of the horrors of life in the villages of Ukraine that it is impossible to present an adequate picture here. In some areas, people became bloated as early as the spring of 1932, but the most terrible time was during the winter of 1932-33. Survivors tell of mass death by starvation, of mass-burials in pits, of whole villages depopulated, of homeless waifs as well as adults flocking to the towns in order to find something to eat, of railroad stations literally flooded with dying peasants who begged lying down because they were too weak to stand.

Many of the starving tried to get across the border into Russia where bread was available. Iwan Majstrenko, a former Soviet functionary and newspaper editor, recalled the case of two villages across from each other on opposite banks of the river separating Ukraine and Russia, where peasants from the Ukrainian side would swim across at night in order to purchase bread the following morning, because bread was obtainable only on the Russian side.

In order to limit the famine to Ukraine, the political police established border checkpoints along the railroad lines in order to prevent the starving from entering Russia and prevent anyone coming from Russia from carrying food with him into Ukraine. This meant a de facto “blacklisting,” that is, economic blockade, of the entire Soviet Ukrainian Republic.


Graphic portraits of the horrors of village life emerge from the files of the Harvard University Refugee Interview Project, which was conducted during the early 1950s. It should be stressed that the interviewers were not particularly interested in the famine and that the responses were, therefore, made without any prompting in the course of respondents’ stories of their life experiences. One rather typical account (case No. 128) is the following:

“…there was the famine in Ukraine in 1933. We saw people die in the streets; it was terrible to see a dead man, when I close my eyes I can still see him. We had in our village a small church which was closed for services and in which we played. And I remember a man who came in there; he lay down with his eyes wide open at the ceiling and he died there! He was an innocent victim of the Soviet regime; he was a simple worker and not even a kulak. This hunger was the result of Soviet policy.”

Other accounts are more graphic, as this one by a Russian woman (case 373):

“Well, in 1933-1934 I was a member of a commission sent out to inspect wells. We had to go to the country to see that the shafts of the wells were correctly installed, and there I saw such things as I had never seen before in my life. I saw villages that not only had no people, but not even any dogs and cats, and I remember one particular incident: we came to one village, and I don’t think I will ever forget this. I will always see this picture before me. We opened the door of this miserable hut and there…a man was lying. The mother and child already lay dead, and the father had taken the piece of meat from between the legs of his son and had died just like that. The stench was terrific, we couldn’t stand it, and this was not the only time that I remember such incidents, there were other such incidents on our trip…”

Nor were such horrors confined to the countryside. Cannibalism was even known in the cities, as a worker (case 513) described in the following account of what he saw:

“I remember a case in 1933. I was in Kiev. I was at the time at a bazaar – the bazaar was called the Besarabian market. I saw a woman with a valise. She opened the valise and put her goods out for sale. Her goods consisted of jellied meat, frozen jellied meat, which she sold at 50 rubles a portion. I saw a man come over to her – a man who bore all the marks of starvation – he bought himself a portion and began eating. As he ate of his portion, he noticed that a human finger was imbedded in the jelly. He began shouting at the woman and began yelling at the top of his voice. People came running, gathered around her, and then seeing what her food consisted of, took her to the militia (police). At the militia, two members of the NKVD went over to her and, instead of taking action against her, they burst out laughing. ‘What, what you killed a kulak? Good for you!’ And then they let her go.”

Nor were the common people the only ones to tell what they saw. Famine was at the time a common topic of conversation within the Soviet elite as well as among members of the foreign press, only a few of whom reported it. One account, no less valuable for coming to us second hand, comes from Khrushchev himself, who stated in his unofficial memoirs smuggled out and published in the West:

“Mikoyan told me that Comrade Demchenko, who was then first secretary of the Kiev Regional Committee, once came to see him in Moscow. Here’s what Demchenko said: ‘Anastas Ivanovich, does Comrade Stalin – for that matter, does anyone in the Politburo – know what’s happening in Ukraine? Well, if not, I’ll give you some idea. A train recently pulled into Kiev loaded with the corpses of people who had starved to death. It picked up corpses all the way from Poltava to Kiev…'”

Of course, Stalin did know. In 1932 Terekhov, a secretary of the KP(b)U Central Committee reported to him on starvation in the Kharkiv region, and Stalin accused him of telling fairy tales. Later, both Admiral Raskolnikov of the Black Sea Fleet and General Yakir, commander of the Kiev Military District, both protested to Stalin about the famine and were rebuffed.

According to the 1939 Soviet Census, the number of Ukrainians in the USSR had decreased by over 3 million or 9.9 percent since the last official census was taken in 1926. Had there been no famine, there would undoubtedly have been a substantial increase in population.

Between 1897 and 1926 – despite the demographic catastrophes of World War I, revolution, civil war and the 1921 famine – the Ukrainian population grew an average of 1.3 percent a year. In 1958-59, the Ukrainian population of Soviet Ukraine had a natural rate of population growth of 1.39 percent, but by 1969, the republic’s natural rate of population growth had slowed to 0.6 percent.

Official Soviet administrative estimates on the eve of collectivization show a natural rate of population growth for the Ukrainian republic declining slightly during the NEP from 2.45 percent a year in 1924 to 2.15 percent in 1928, but even in 1931 it was still 1.45 percent.

And since Ukrainians were concentrated in the countryside where the birth and population growth rates tended to be higher, their natural rate of population growth would be expected to be higher than that for the republic as a whole.

The magnitude of the demographic catastrophe suffered by the Ukrainians is all the more sharply brought into focus when we compare Soviet population figures from 1926 and 1939 for the three East Slavic nations and the USSR as a whole:

1926 population 1939 population % change
USSR 147,027,900 170,557,100 +15.7
Russians 77,791,100 99,591,500 +28.0
Byelorussians 4,738,900 5,275,400 +11.3
Ukrainians 31,195,000 28,111,000 -9.9

Comparison with the Byelorussians is particularly significant, since their purely political fate was very similar to that of the Ukrainians, they faced the same pressures to assimilate themselves to Russian nationality, but they did not go through the famine. Indeed, we have seen that until the famine the natural population growth for Ukrainians, although gradually declining, was significantly higher than the actual rate of Byelorussian population growth for the period.

Others will have to calculate as best they can a more precise figure for the total number of Ukrainians who perished during the famine, but given the demographic evidence, 5 to 7 million dead seems a conservative estimate.

Actually, it is possible that Soviet figures understate the losses suffered by the population. An official census was also made in 1937 but withdrawn before distribution, undoubtedly because it showed too clearly the magnitude of the losses suffered by the Soviet population, and it is not at all beyond the realm of possibility that those who prepared the 1939 census would have preferred to inflate their figures a little to the risk of being arrested as were their predecessors two years earlier.

Far higher estimates of mortality come from Westerners who claimed to have been given figures by Soviet officials off the record.

Adam J. Tawdul, a Russian-born American citizen who moved in the highest circles of Soviet society thanks to a pre-revolutionary acquaintance with Skrypnyk, claimed that Skrypnyk told him 8 million peasants had starved to death in Ukraine and the North Caucasus, and the famine was not yet over when Skrypnyk committed suicide. Other Soviet officials gave him a figure of 8 to 9 million dead for Ukraine and the North Caucasus, plus an additional million or more for other regions.

William Horsley Gannt, the British psychologist who was in Russia studying with Pavlov, stated that one official told him that as many as 15 million might have perished.

The 10 million figure even comes out of Stalin’s mouth, although the dictator did not actually say that so many had died. Winston Churchill recorded the following conversation which he had with Stalin:

“‘Tell me,’ I asked, ‘have the stresses of this war been as bad to you personally as carrying through the policy of the collective farms?’

“This subject immediately aroused the Marshal.

“‘Oh, no,’ he said, ‘the collective farm policy was a terrible struggle.’

“‘I thought you would have found it bad,’ said I, ‘because you were not dealing with a few score thousands of aristocrats or big landowners, but with millions of small men.’

“‘Ten millions,’ he said, holding up his hands.”

Even if such an estimate did circulate among the Soviet elite, the fact is that even those who circulated them had no way of knowing the precise extent of the population loss. Regulations requiring the registration of burials could have made such knowledge possible, but by all accounts the peasants concluded that the dead were not afraid of even the GPU and buried their neighbors heedless of the regulations. All we can say with certainty is that millions died, that the Ukrainian people lost 10 percent of their number and were thereby quite literally decimated.

Famine as a tool of nationality policy

To be sure, all the peasants of the Soviet Union faced hard times in 1933, and there was mass starvation not only in Ukraine but also in the North Caucasus krai (including the Kuban) and along the Volga. However, the North Caucasus was then a largely Ukrainian area where Ukrainianization had been carried out during the 1920s, while its Cossacks had supported Kaledin in 1917 and provided the base for Denikin’s Volunteer Army. The Volga contained the so-called Volga German communes, and, in any case, mortality there seems to have been far lower than in Ukraine and the North Caucasus.

The point is that the areas affected by the man-made famine all contained groups which could plausibly be considered hindrances to Stalin’s plan to resurrect a politically homogeneous Russian empire. It did not, strictly speaking, correspond with the main grain-producing areas, as would be expected were it solely a question of intensified extraction solely motivated by economic concerns: there was no famine in the Central Black Soil Region of Russia, while in Ukraine it extended into Volhynia and Podillia, hardly part of the basic grain-producing area of the USSR.

Some Russian emigrants have expressed the contrary view that the geography of the famine was essentially accidental and attempt to explain the fact that Russia did not suffer famine was because the population there lived on potatoes. It is true that potatoes were more plentiful in Russia than in Ukraine. They played a lesser role in the diet of eastern Ukrainians than in Russian or western Ukrainian diets, and it is possible that their circumstances might well have had some effect.

Yet claims that this was a major factor seem dubious because, had the regime’s motive been primarily economic rather than national, it would surely have allowed foodstuffs like potatoes, which had little marketable value, to be brought into Ukraine, if only by “bagmen” traveling by train, while in fact border checkpoints were established along the Russo-Ukrainian border, and food being carried by passengers into Ukraine was seized. While the lower consumption of potatoes by eastern Ukrainians probably made the regime’s task somewhat easier, it does not in any way refute the evidence that the Russian Communist regime placed Ukraine on a de facto blacklist in order to teach the Ukrainian peasants, as William Henry Chamberlin put it, “a lesson by the grim method of starvation.”

If we ask ourselves which national groups were most likely to constitute a threat to the new centralized and Russified Soviet Union which Stalin was creating, we arrive at the following: Ukrainians, second only to the Russians in numbers, who had fought a stubborn and protracted war for national independence and succeeded in turning Ukrainianization into a kind of surrogate independence under Skrypnyk; the Kuban and Don Cossacks, who had first given the White counterrevolution its base; and the Germans, who had welcomed the 1918 German occupation in Ukraine, might plausibly have been expected to behave similarly in the future and had also joined the Whites in large numbers. These were precisely the groups whose territories were affected by the famine.

It was not until immediately after the famine in late 1934 that Stalin felt strong enough to obviously turn to the Russians as the leading element in the Soviet state by forbidding the unpatriotic school of M. N. Pokrovsky to determine how school children were taught history.

Before he had totally humbled the non-Russian nations it could have still caused political headaches if he had ordered local officials to distinguish among different national groups within a given territory in carrying out the grain procurements, and for this reason the famine was created on a territorial basis by means of excessively high procurement quotas for the territories in which the “suspect” nations lived. Within those territories, Russians suffered along with non-Russians, but in the final stages of the famine it was Russians who were sent into Ukraine to repopulate the most devastated villages and were given special rations to prevent them from dying along with the indigenous population.

One can find numerous official statements connecting the need to eliminate Ukrainian nationalism with the need to “overcome difficulties in procuring grain,” which was the euphemism for creating famine. Indeed, as we have seen, collectivization was intended to destroy the social basis of Ukrainian nationalism, although this was certainly not the reason the policy was adopted. In 1933 the official statements declared that it was necessary to eliminate Ukrainian nationalism because “nationalistic wreckers” were supposedly responsible for the difficulties in procuring grain, not vice versa.

However, the important thing is not which consideration preceded the other in the official statements; in the Bolshevik mind they were like the chicken and the egg: there was neither an answer nor reason to answer the question of which came first. As early as 1925, Stalin wrote: “The nationality question is, according to the essence of the matter, a problem of the peasantry.”

Given such a view, crushing the peasants once and for all was the necessary condition for any final solution to the nationality problem.

What was this solution? For the Ukrainian nation it was its destruction as a social organism and political factor. Its elites were destroyed – both its official Communist political leadership and its national cultural intelligentsia: this meant the nation’s decapitation. Ukrainianization was ended and the old policy of Russification revived as the Ukrainian-language media and institutions shrank: this meant the re-Russification of the cities and the expulsion of Ukrainian nationhood back to the countryside from whence it came and where it was now taught submission by means of starvation.

The collective farm was little different from the old pre-emancipation estate: the peasant was tied to the land by means of the internal passport system and forced to give most of its produce to the state which occupied the same position in relation to the peasant as the noble had in relation to his grandfather. Forced collectivization was a tragedy for all who were subjected to it, Russians as well as Ukrainians, but for the Ukrainians it was a special tragedy because, with the virtually complete destruction of their nationally self-conscious elites it meant their destruction as a nation and reduction to the status of what the Germans used to call a Naturvolk.

Nevertheless, there is today much cause for hope. Stalin himself gave a decisive blow to what he hoped would be the final solution to the Ukrainian problem when in 1939 he joined hands with Hitler and annexed Western Ukraine. With the expulsion of the Poles from Western Ukraine’s cities they became Ukrainian, and the Ukrainian language, still seldom heard in the streets of Kiev and Kharkiv, rules in Lviv and Ternopil. With the Khrushchev thaw the handful of survivors of the Ukrainian literary world of the 1920s again made themselves heard, and later a Ukrainian dissident movement arose.

Stalin’s attempt to solve the “Ukrainian problem” was not nearly so final as he hoped, but it dealt Ukrainians a blow from which they have still not fully recovered.


Dr. James E. Mace, post-doctorate fellow at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, is the junior collaborator of Dr. Robert Conquest on the forthcoming monograph on the Ukrainian famine. This paper was delivered at the International Conference on the Holocaust and Genocide held in Tel Aviv on June 20-24, 1982. It appears in full in the UNA Almanac for 1983.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, February 13, 1983, No. 7, Vol. LI