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Stalin and Famine in the USSR in 1932-1933

Updated on December 19, 2012

Starting from autumn 1932 the Soviets declared a war against peasants. More than 55 thousand people were sentenced to 10 years in prison and concentration camps according the law “About 5 ears of corn”. (If you take from the field more, than 5 ears of corn you will be sentenced). Special product collection teams supported by local communists took from peasants away almost all food stuff. Incredible famine spread in 1932 – 1933 all over Ukraine, lower part of Volga river, and numerous regions in the south of Russia. Cannibalism, dead villages were so frequent that did not surprise anyone at all.

Results of food expropriation were a real catastrophe. Around 5-7 million of people died only in Ukraine.

Why was it possible? Grounds of famine in 1932-1933

Famine of 1932-1933 is as important for all Ukrainians as a holocaust is important for Jews. It became a tragedy on the national importance. It broke the nation and left deep social and psychological scars in the heart of Ukrainians.

History has no a united approach to the background of this catastrophe. In general it was a result of several factors. Western scientists say that the main cause of it was a desire of Stalin to eliminate Ukrainian national movements and the desire of Ukraine to live separately from the USSR with help of hunger, starvation and death of a nation.

Others find an economic ground of a famine in Ukraine. The country needed food and the Communist Party used all methods to feed the country.

The most horrible fact is that famine could be avoided. Harvest of grain in 1932 was higher than in 1931. There was enough food for the country, but the government confiscated food for own consumption. Stalin approved high plans of collecting harvest in 1932. It was 44 % higher than in a previous year. This decision and cruelty of its execution doomed millions of people (mostly in Ukraine).

from a public domain
from a public domain

Food confiscation

The government did not care about the suffering of people. In August 1932 communists adopted legislative grounds to confiscate grain from peasants and collective farms. At the same time another law was adopted about the death penalty for stealing of collective property. Under some circumstances capital punishment could be substituted by 10 years of imprisonment.

Internal passports were implemented to limit the ability of people to travel around the country looking for food (by the way we still have 2 different passports – internal and separately a passport for travelling abroad). In November 1932 Moscow published a law prohibiting to give grain to peasants till the planned amount harvest is collected.

Of course people threatened by a possibility to stay without food started to hide their own food stuff, but food confiscation teams consisting of communists and active citizens were moving all over Ukraine and Southern Russia searching for hidden supplies. They searched the walls, tore away floors and took everything they could find. Even people swollen from hunger were not an exception. If someone was not hungry, authority might think that he was hiding food somewhere. Later on one of party members explained why they did it: “We believed that Stalin is a wise leader.. We were cheated because we wanted to be cheated. We believed in communism so much, that we were ready to commit any crime if it was decorated by a little piece of a communist ideology”.

In the beginning of 1933, famine, which started in 1932 was in full swing. It was calculated that a family of peasants consisting of 5 people had around 80 kilos of grain to live till the next harvest. That is 1,7 kg of grain per person per month. People in villages had to eat cats, dogs, rats, bark of trees and leaves, dried acacia beans, straw – anything they could find.

Cannibalism was not rare. Historians say that in families men died first, then children and finally women. Often people drove crazy, losing their human nature. But the orders of the Party were more important and communists kept collecting food. They did not care for death of whole villages, not just some people.

Stalin and members of government had their own vision of the events in the country. One of Stalins assistant M. Khataevich proudly said: “ There is a severe fight between peasants and the Soviets. This is a death fight. This year became a test of our power and peoples endurance. Famine told them who is the boss here. Famine took thousands of lives but our system will exist forever. We won the war!”

While Ukraine and Caucasus were dying from hunger, most parts of Russia did not even know about it. That gives an understanding of the real causes of hunger- to suppress the Ukrainian nation and to make peasants unite in kolkhozes. The aim of a socialism was the elimination of an individual land owning and famine was the best argument to create kolkhozes in Ukraine.

A very important side of famine was a total denial of this fact in the Soviet Union. If the information about it was widely spread it would damage the image of the Soviet Union both inside of the country and abroad. That is why the topic of famine 1932-1933 was forbidden for decades in the USSR.

Some mass media source abroad informed about the horrible situation with famine, but they often did not even know the real scale of the tragedy. It was hard to believe that the Soviet Union exported wheat, rejected any help from abroad and, at the same, time people massively died from starvation. J Bernard Show and ex premier of France Edward Errio visited the Soviet union but they were shown only what they were allowed to see. They were excited by the achievements of the Soviet country and described satisfied and fed up peasants in villages. U. Duranti, a Moscow correspondent of “New York times” also denied the existence of famine in The USSR. They say he wanted to flatter Stalin and actually he succeeded because he was awarded a Pulitzer prize in literature “For an objective, sober evaluation and exclusively clear description of the life in the USSR” in his reports.

Governments of western countries knew about a real situation with famine. Their position was in general similar to that declared in the documents of the ministry of foreign affairs of Great Britain namely: “We have a certain amount of information about a famine in the South of Russia, but we do not want to make the information public as it may offend the Soviet Government and negatively influence our relations with Soviets”. Besides many western intellectuals expressed sympathy to the Soviet Union in a period of Big Depression and denied any criticism of the USSR.

from a public domain
from a public domain
from a public domain
from a public domain

Memories of witnesses

“The border between Ukraine and Poland was marked by a Korchyk River in Rovno region in 1932. Relatives from Poland tried to help those who stayed in Ukraine and made little rafts with food. The river flow took these rafts to the border of Ukraine but people seldom could use this help. Soviet border control was checking out the river bank regularly. Together with Soviet Army troops they watched the border line day and night. Those who tried to approach the river were shot. Many people including children and women were killed. “

“Our village died of starvation, many people ... Sometimes people ate dogs and cats. People became crazy from hunger and ate even human flesh. It was a terrible time in the Ukraine. Famine was worse than war. .”

Marchenko Maria Feodorovna, Sushkovka, Cherkassy region

“In 1933, my sister died ... she was just three years old. She cried and was not capricious. She just quietly asked to eat..”.

Mykola Piskun, Sivashskoye, Kherson region

“When I was 12, I was convicted to 5 years of hard work just for taking some ears of wheat. Mom and sister were swollen and I saw how she died. We were saved by mice. We found mice and place where they store grain for winter. We dug them in and took some grain from holes....”

Peter Olizka, Petropavlovka, Dnipropetrovsk

“They took everything. If found, all was taken away. This was the decision of the Party and the government. If people hid something, they could be exiled to Siberia. People gave everything even without being threatened by a weapon. Because they feared that they can be exiled”.

Yekaterina Panchenko, village Sushkovka, Kharkov region

"There was a distillery in Babai village and big tanks with production waste were near it. Hungry people tried to eat draff and died of colic right there. The corpses were taken to the cemetery and buried like animals ... distillery was working making alcohol out of corn while people had nothing to eat! "

The woman has not identified himself, born in 1924 .,village Babai Kharkiv region

Hunger began in 1932. The crop was good that year, but all collected crop was taken by state... People could not go to work and died like flies. Sometimes 20 people in a day…. We had none even to bury the bodies.

Ivan Pristupny, 1916 p., Egorovka, Odessa region

The most terrible crime times of Stalinism - the artificial famine of 1932-1933. There was a very high yield of grain, but the people who worked on collective farms had no bread at all. The state took all bread to Moscow and Leningrad. The peasants in “Ukraine were left without food, but the Russian workers did not starve. Many people went to Russia bartering clothes for bread.

Tatiana Gorbachev, Severinovka, Sumy region

In our village 500 souls died, and in the next - somewhere 750 souls. People ate grass, if cow died –ate it. My father was the chairman of the village council, he gave instructions to give people a glass of buckwheat, and soldiers arrested him the next day.

Victor Miholevsky, Litvinovka, Cherkasy region

The fear of being shot, the fear of Siberia, the Holodomor – all this will live long in our hearts. Especially - Famine! Some current officials do not believe it was possible, but this was real.

Berezhnoy Fedor, Kirovograd region

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    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image
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      Pavlo Badovskyi 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      I lost all of my trafic from Google. Do it much more for fun now :))))

    • MargaritaEden profile image

      MargaritaEden 4 years ago from Oregon

      Pavlo, I did leave for a while, with last Google update, I lost most of my traffic, so I thought to give it a break, but I am back :)

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image
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      Pavlo Badovskyi 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      TO Margarita: I havent heard from you for ages! I thought you left HP forever :)

      Stalin was a strange person, highly intellectual and at the same time able to kill thousands by a signature. I am glad I did not live in that time when he was "leading the Soviet Union to a communist future".

    • MargaritaEden profile image

      MargaritaEden 4 years ago from Oregon

      Stalin committed horrible crimes against his own people, unspeakable things, I have heard these and similar stories from my grandparents, thank you for reminding us, to be grateful for the times we live in now.

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image
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      Pavlo Badovskyi 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      I know it is called Holodomor. It is in Ukrainian language and translated something like "dying of hunger". These days there were numerous actions in Ukraine devoted to that grief page in the history of the country. One of our presidents tried to give these events a status of the "Holocaust against a ukrainian nation" but in fact Ukraine was not the only country who suffered Holodomor. As I wrote above part of Russia suffered much as well. Thank you David!

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 4 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      Hi Pavlo. I was just reading an article in the Economist about the famine in Ukraine and I remembered your Hub here. I didn't realize there was a name for the horror in Ukraine and I wanted to enter it into your comments for others to learn it. I'm sure you know it-- it's called the Holodomor. Naming is very important for getting awareness. The Holodomer must be remembered just like the Holocaust. We in the West only caught bits and pieces of it as the governments conspired to hush it up.

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image
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      Pavlo Badovskyi 4 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      To holdmycoffee: thank you for stopping by and commenting. The Soviet Union had some really dark pages in the history. I often compare this period with nowadays life in North Korea. The leader of the country can lead it anywhere he wants. Well, at least Stalin did it that way...

    • holdmycoffee profile image

      holdmycoffee 4 years ago

      What a sad piece of history. Parts of Russia suffered in the similar manner. My Russian grandpa lost his father to an arrest and his youngest sister to starvation in the same year.

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image
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      Pavlo Badovskyi 5 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      Gosh, you also told me things I never knew before... This was awfull... This is absolutely crazy- goverments are elected by people who later suffer from these governments... Thank you for a comment!

    • mizjo profile image

      mizjo 5 years ago from New York City, NY

      Oh, my God, the inhumanity of man! I had not read of famine in Eastern Europe, only of the gut-wrenching Holocaust. Seemingly Western governments knew of the famine and suffering but chose to ignore and suppress the knowledge in order to keep on Stalin's good side. (Honestly, would you want to be friends to someone like that?)

      This puts me in mind of the Great Irish Famine in the mid 19th century, that decimated the population by death and emigration. The famine started with the potato fungal blight and was exacerbated by exports of food from Ireland by the British landowners and food producers - they chose to sell to Britain and the continent because they could pay. Irish farmers were thrown off the land by the British owners because they were too weak to work, so they and their families died - an estimated 1-2 million. Millions emigrated in the coffin ships. Of 8-10 million people before the famine, about 4-5 remained.

      Then we have the genocide practised on our Native Americans by the government. The People and their food, the buffalo, were in the way of American expansion, so one got herded into reservations and the other got nearly extinct from hunting and hide-gathering for money.

      Nearly every government has some shameful skeleton and we should make sure they get aired, loudly and clearly.

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image
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      Pavlo Badovskyi 5 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      TO aethelthryth : Dear Audrey, Many of crimes committed by Stalin became known to people only not long ago. You know, I still remember the times when people said: I miss those Stalin times when there was much more order in the country. People in the USSR worshiped him for many and many years. Some of them could not agree with the fact that smiling face concealed a soul of a real despot. God knows, may be he saw some ultimate aim in all his deeds which was unknown to others or he just did what he thought he had to do.... Or may be he did not care how his orders are done and how many people were killed. We do not know all that and I think we will never know. As to the USA, your history was not cloudless too. America had its own history full of events. May be they were not of such a scale but I can explane it by the georgraphycal position and some territorial isolation from the events in other world. It was good for you.

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image
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      Pavlo Badovskyi 5 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      To Jools 99 : It could be caused by political speculations and it is used now by politicians in Ukraine to reach their own goals in counterfeat with Russia. Thank you for a comment. Always nice to hear from you .

    • Jools99 profile image

      Jools99 5 years ago from North-East UK

      Pavlo, I had heard about the famine but knew none of the history or political background to it, neither did I have any concept of the scale of it. I found some of the first hand accounts very moving. It is difficult to imagine people eating the food stored by mice or eating domestic animals but they must have been so desperate. Very interesting, informative hub.

    • aethelthryth profile image

      aethelthryth 5 years ago from American Southwest

      I think I had heard some pieces of this, and knew Stalin killed way more people than Hitler, and especially among his countrymen, but I didn't know the dates or the context.

      It is hard to find anything to say after reading something so very different from what I considered normal life as I grew up. It is hard to even picture. But I am going to say something I could never prove but I think is true, that my generation of Americans, at least those who in any way believe in God's justice (which is more than you would think from media reports) has in some ways always expected someday things will be this bad for us, because we were given so many good things in life and have done so little good with it.

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image
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      Pavlo Badovskyi 5 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      to grand old lady: Stalin was a very contradictory personality. You are right comparing him with North Korea leader, but at the same time we must admit that at his time Soviet Union became a real political force in Europe which can hardly be achieved by dictator in North Korea :)

      to agusfanani: History of each country has a dark side. But politic affairs were always a dirty game no mater when it happened. You are right stating that simple people pay for wars and political games.

    • agusfanani profile image

      agusfanani 5 years ago from Indonesia

      A very sad story. War and politics had sacrificed people so that they had to live a horrible life.

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 5 years ago from Philippines

      I heard of this but never in such detail and totally missed the political context. This was very well written, informative and relevant. The story should be told and retold over and over again to show man's inhumanity to man and to somehow lend to the discussion of this tendency of our people on earth. Imagine hidden societies like North Korea and what must be going on there. We must learn from the mistakes of the past, not repeat them. Voted up and shared:)

    • Pavlo Badovskyy profile image
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      Pavlo Badovskyi 5 years ago from Kyiv, Ukraine

      Glad you liked it and surprised you knew it! Thank you for a comment.

    • UnnamedHarald profile image

      David Hunt 5 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

      From what I've read, I agree that the famine was created for political reasons as you said. This hidden holocaust is rarely mentioned-- but how do you sweep 5-7 million corpses under the rug? One way is for gutless countries to shush things up for fear of antagonizing Uncle Joe. Wouldn't want to wreck business deals or alienate a leader who could provide millions as cannon fodder in some future war. Voted up, etc.