Copyright © 2004-2013

Ukraine Famine

Part 1: Eliminating An 'Enemy' Class Through Collectivization
Part 2: Survivors Recall The Horrors Of 1933
Part 3: Seventy Years Later World Still Largely Unaware Of Tragedy

By Askold Krushelnycky

Part 1 - Eliminating An 'Enemy' Class Through Collectivization

Ukrainians are commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Stalin regime's forced farm-collectivization  program -- a process that culminated in a man-made famine in one of the world's most fertile regions. An estimated 14 million people died of starvation, mostly in Ukraine but also in the North Caucasus, Kazakhstan and Russia. In a three-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports on the motivation behind Josef Stalin's notorious plan, the memories of those who survived the famine, and why even today so little is known about the tragedy.

Prague, 8 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- This year marks the 70th anniversary of a collectivization program masterminded by former Soviet leader Josef Stalin that claimed the lives of millions of people, mostly Ukrainian peasant farmers.

An artificial famine of devastating proportions was the culmination of a savage piece of human engineering designed to eliminate an economic class that the Communists viewed as their fierce opponents. It was also intended to  break the  will of  Ukrainians --  Communists and non-Communists alike -- who clung to their national identity. 

The tsarist-era owners of sweeping plots of land had already been killed or driven out by the 1917 Communist revolution. But the Soviet leadership also despised the millions of peasant farmers who took their place, maintaining small farms and growing mostly grain. To the Communists, such farmers were a threatening example of self-reliance and capitalism.

Stalin, in particular, saw Ukrainian peasants as forming the front line of the Ukrainian nationalist movement he so intensely disliked. He resented the compromises Moscow had been forced to make with Ukrainian Communists -- compromises that gave them a degree of autonomy and that saw a revival of Ukrainian culture and language.

The Soviets divided the peasants into different categories. The primary class enemy was the kulak, relatively well-off farmers who could afford to own several heads of livestock and occasionally hire help with plowing or harvesting. To eliminate the kulaks, the Communists hoped to gain the support from poorer peasant farmers by drumming up class resentment.

In late 1929, Stalin launched a "dekulakization" program centered on Ukraine but encompassing the North  Caucuses -- which had high proportions of ethnic Ukrainians among peoples like the Kuban Cossacks -- and Kazakhstan.

A venomous propaganda war fomented hatred against kulaks and their families, portraying them as a threat equal to an invading foreign army. Communists and brigades of so-called "activists" backed by Soviet secret police brutally stripped the  kulaks of their homes and possessions, shooting those who resisted and deporting millions to Siberia and the Far North.

In 1931, Teodora Soroka was an 11-year-old girl in what was branded as a kulak family in a village in Ukraine's Poltavschyna region. 

"My grandfather hired laborers  for harvesting and plowing when necessary and, in the fall, when they harvested wheat, he hired people," she says. "And because of that, the Soviet authorities persecuted him terribly. Not just him, but the entire family because they called him an exploiter. They destroyed my family in a completely inhumane way."

Around 7.5 million people, including one million in Kazakhstan, are estimated to have died during the period of "dekulakization." Many kulaks resorted to slaughtering their livestock and burning down their homes rather than seeing them confiscated. Thousands were shot for opposing the brigades sent to strip them of their property. Many died during the weeks of transport in unheated trains to labor camps, with little food to sustain them. The largest percentage perished in the first years after their deportation.

Soroka's grandfather and father were among those deported. She never saw them again. She, together with her mother, sister, aunt, and seven cousins, remained in Poltavschyna, not knowing that the still-greater horror of famine awaited them. Nearly all of her family died of starvation in 1933.

Together with "dekulakization," a process of collectivization was under way. The Communists imposed crippling grain demands on peasant farmers to make it unprofitable to sustain their small holdings and pressure them into joining collective farms.

Moscow sent  25,000 trusted Communists from  Russia to organize collective and state farms. The secret police and often the army were used to terrorize peasants into joining. The Communists were dismayed that even  after the vicious propaganda  campaign most peasants sympathized more with kulaks than with the Communist Party. 
Many of these poorer peasants were ultimately reclassified as kulaks themselves. Most joined the collective farms reluctantly. Many were executed for trying to sell off or slaughter their livestock rather than donating them to the collective farms.

The authorities worked vigorously to extract the unrealistically high grain yields demanded by Moscow, leaving pitifully little with which the farmers could feed themselves and their families.

The collective farms were notoriously inefficient. Even so -- and against the pleas of even senior Ukrainian Communist leaders -- Stalin in 1932 increased grain quotas in Ukraine, the North Caucasus, and Russia's Volga region. The demand made famine inevitable.

Communist loyalists during the Soviet era -- and some even today -- have blamed the famine on a poor harvest in 1932. But even Soviet records show the year's harvest as satisfactory. Soroka remembers the peasants were pleased.

"The collectivization of wheat had begun in 1932. In 1932 there was a big harvest. People said the grain had grown so high that the heads of people walking in the fields couldn't be seen. The stalks were so heavy with grain that they snapped. Nobody foresaw such a good harvest in 1932. When the Soviet authorities said [the famine] was the fault of a poor harvest, they were lying," she says.

As hunger begun to take a firmer grip on the peasant population, the communist authorities used force and terror to fulfill the grain quotas which left peasants and collective farms with little or nothing to sustain themselves with. Thousands of peasants who tried to hide grain or other food to feed their families were executed, as were many local Communist officials who objected to a policy that brought starvation to many areas as 1932 approached its end.

The book "Harvest of Sorrow" by British historian Robert Conquest is considered the most comprehensive study of the period. In it, he says Stalin was aware that the excessive grain requisitions would lead to famine, but persisted in order to destroy what he saw as the double threat of peasant anti-Communism and Ukrainian nationalism. 

Soroka says she has no doubt this was the case.

"They thought up the idea of an artificial famine as the easiest way to break Ukraine's neck and to take control of Ukraine at little cost to themselves." Starvation was rampant in 1933, claiming at least seven million lives.

Part two of this series on Ukraine's famine focuses on eyewitness accounts of the events, including instances of cannibalism. 

Part 2 - Survivors Recall The Horrors Of 1933

The month of May this year marks the 70th anniversary of the height of a devastating famine deliberately engineered by Soviet leader Josef Stalin that claimed at least five million lives in Ukraine and around two million in the North Caucasus and elsewhere. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky speaks to survivors about their memories of that devastating time.

Prague, 8 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Seventy years ago, the month of May saw the climax of a horrific artificial famine that reduced millions of people to living skeletons in some of the world's most fertile farm land, while stocks of grain and other foods rotted by the ton, often within the sight of families dying from starvation.

Oleksa Sonipul was 10 in 1933 and lived in a village in northern Ukraine. She said by the beginning of that year, famine was so widespread people had been reduced to eating grass, tree bark, roots, berries, frogs, birds, and even earthworms.

Desperate hunger drove people to sell off all of their possessions for any food they could find. At night, an eerie silence fell over the village, where all the livestock and chickens had long since been killed for food and exhausted villagers went to bed early. 

But Communist requisition brigades looking to fulfill the impossibly high grain quotas continued to search even those villages where inhabitants were already dying from starvation. They used metal poles to probe the ground and potential hiding places where they suspected grain could be hidden.

Some of the brigade members, fueled by Soviet hate campaigns against the peasants, acted without mercy, taking away the last crumbs of food from starving families knowing they were condemning even small children to death. Any peasant who resisted was shot. Rape and robbery also took place.

Sonipul described what happened when a brigade arrived at her home. 

"In 1933, just before Christmas, brigades came to our village to search for bread. They took everything they could find to eat. That day they found potatoes that we had planted in our grandfather's garden, and because of that they took everything from grandfather and all the seeds that grandmother had gathered for sowing the following autumn. And the next day, the first day of Christmas, they came to us, tore out our windows and doors and took everything to the collective farm." 

As food ran out in the villages, thousands of desperate people trekked to beg for food in towns and cities. Food was available in cities, although strictly controlled through ration coupons. But residents were forbidden to help the starving peasants and doctors were not allowed to aid the skeletal villagers, who were left to die on the streets. 

Fedir Burtianski was a young man in 1933 when he set out by train to Ukraine's Donbas mining area in search of work. He says thousands of starving peasants, painfully thin with swollen bellies, lined the rail track begging for food. The train stopped in the city of Dnipropetrovsk and Burtianski says he was horrified by what he saw there. 

"At Dnipropetrovsk we got out of the carriages. I got off the wagon and I saw very many people swollen and half-dead. And some who were lying on the ground and just shaking. Probably they were going to die within a few minutes. Then the railway NKVD [secret police] quickly herded us back into the wagons."

Grain and potatoes continued to be harvested in Ukraine, driven by the demand of Stalin's quotas. But  the inefficiency of the Soviet transportation system meant that tons of food literally rotted uneaten -- sometimes in the open and within the view of those dying of starvation.

The scene Burtianski described was repeated in towns and cities all over Ukraine. In the countryside, entire villages were being wiped out. The hunger drove many people to desperation and madness. Many instances of cannibalism were recorded, with people living off the remains of other starvation victims or in some instances resorting to murder. Most peasant families had five or six children, and some mothers killed their weakest children in order to feed the others.

Burtianski said at one point, he avoided buying meat from a vendor because he suspected it was human flesh. When the authorities heard about the incident, he was forced to attend the trial of a man and his two sons who were suspected of murdering people for food. Burtianski says during the trial one of the sons admitted in chilling terms to eating the flesh of his own mother, who had died of starvation. 

"He said, 'Thank you to Father Stalin for depriving us of food. Our mother died of hunger and we ate her, our own dead mother. And after our mother we did not take pity on anyone. We would not have spared Stalin himself.'"

Mykhaylo Naumenko was 11 years old in 1933. His father was executed for refusing to join a nearby collective farm. Mykhaylo was left with his mother and siblings to face the famine without a provider. He said people were shot for trying to steal grain or potatoes from the local collective farm, which was surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by armed men. He said people were executed even for trying to pick up a few loose seeds dropped on the ground.

"A tragedy developed. People became swollen, they died by the tens each day. The collective farm authorities appointed six men to collect and bury the dead. From our village of 75 homes, by May 24 houses were empty where all the inhabitants had died."

Naumenko also witnessed instances of cannibalism. He said he first discovered that his neighbors were eating human flesh after one of them, called Tetyana, refused to share her meat with him despite the fact he had just helped bury her father.

"I saw Tetyana eating chicken meat and saw there was a lot of it. I approached her and asked her for some, but she refused to give me any. Because it was human flesh."

Hundreds were executed or killed by other villagers for cannibalism. Soviet records show that around 1,000 people were still serving sentences for cannibalism in prison camps on the White Sea at the end of the 1930s.

Olena Mukniak was 10 in 1933 and lived in a village in the Poltavschyna region with her mother, older sister, and younger brother. Her father had left for the Donbas area in search of food. In the village, Mukniak said people picked through horse manure to find grain, stewed leather boots, and toasted leaves and tree bark.

"What do you do if there's nothing to eat? We collected birch leaves and toasted them and ate them. What else could we do?"

Her sister worked at the collective farm and received a small piece of bread every day for all four of them. But it was not enough to keep them all alive.

"My brother died from starvation. He was small and there was nothing to eat. What could our mother give us to eat when there was nothing? My sister brought us a little piece of bread once a day and we gulped it down and waited until the next day. But you wanted food all the time. My brother was younger than I and he died because he needed to eat. And our mother could give nothing."

Many people met their deaths with quiet resignation, praying and comforting their starving children with fairy tales.

Not all authorities were untouched by the tragedy. Some of the Communist activists and officials supervising the grain expropriation were horrified at what they saw and protested to their superiors or tried to provide food for the starving villagers. For their efforts, they were executed.

For scores of senior Ukrainian Communists, the famine and Stalin's attack on the Ukrainian cultural revival were cause for their final disillusionment with the ideology they had served. Many of them committed suicide rather than face torture and show trials. 

Until the fall of communism, most of the villager eyewitnesses who survived the famine were wary of telling their stories. Even now, many are reluctant to talk about that period because they see many Soviet-era holdovers still in positions of power.

The memories that seem to haunt them most are those of watching their loved ones die. Teodora Soroka, who lost nearly every member of her family to "dekulakization" and famine, says such memories can never be erased. Nor does she want to forget them.

"My little sister died of hunger in my arms. She was begging for a piece of bread, because to have a piece of bread in the house meant life. She pleaded for me to give her a bit of bread. I was crying and told her that we didn't have any. She told me that I wanted her to die. Believe me, it's painful even now. I was little myself then. I cried, but my heart was not torn to shreds because I couldn't understand why this was all happening. But today, and ever since I became an adult, I haven't spent a day in my life when I haven't cried. I have never gone to sleep without thinking about what happened to my family." 

The last part of this series looks at why the world still knows so little about the calamitous man-made famine of 1933 that killed millions of people.

Part 3 - Seventy Years Later, World Still Largely Unaware Of Tragedy

A famine deliberately engineered by the regime of Josef Stalin 70 years ago claimed millions of lives, mostly in Ukraine but also in some other parts of the Soviet Union. It is today considered one of the worst atrocities of the Soviet regime and a terrifying act of genocide. Even so, the famine of 1933 is relatively unknown. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky examines the reasons behind this and reports on a campaign to draw attention to the atrocity.

Prague, 8 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Estimates of how many people died in Stalin's engineered famine of 1933 vary. But they are staggering in their scale -- between seven and 11 million people.

But despite the horrific number of people who died, the world is relatively unfamiliar with this grisly chapter in Soviet history which claimed lives on the same scale as the holocaust. One of the main reasons is that the Germans were eventually defeated, and thousands of eyewitnesses told  their stories  about concentration  camps and massacres.  The experience  was also  captured  unforgettably in photographs, film, and written accounts, and many of those responsible for the genocide were captured and put on trial.

Lyubomyr Luciuk is the director of research at the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association. He explained why there was no such opportunity to investigate the famine in the Soviet Union. 

"The Nazis were so completely and utterly defeated and had no apologists other than a few nuts after the second world war. The Soviet Union, in contrast, imploded," Luciuk said. "There was no military conquest. Ideologically, perhaps, it was defeated. But in a sense, the regime of yesteryear -- many of its functionaries, administrators, and bureaucrats -- simply changed their shirts and became nationalists or patriots overnight.  The archival record is  still not entirely available. There has been no Nuremberg trial, if you like, to bring the many thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people who served the Soviet regime to justice."

British historian Robert Conquest is an expert on the period and his 1986 study of the famine, "Harvest of Sorrow," brought much information about the tragedy to Western audiences for the first time. Conquest said another contrast between the famine and the holocaust is that while Adolf Hitler had written down much of what he intended to do, Stalin did not go on record about the famine.

"In the first place, [the Germans] were caught, so it ended and they had themselves got into an operation where they said what they were doing. Stalin never said he was trying to starve anyone to death. He just took away their food. He never went on record. It was all done under the auspices of humanist talk, socialist talk -- or else denied altogether. The operations were different. And in other ways they were different, too. Hitler did many horrible things but he didn't torture his friends to tell lies. The operation was a different one." 
Conquest said that while most historians now accept that a devastating famine took  place, some skeptics  remain that try  to find a justification for Stalin's behavior.

"I don't think everybody still accepts [the famine]. I've seen recent interviews saying it was a famine and also I've read the other day something saying that people were arrested and shot and so forth under the August decree in 1932 because, after all, they were stealing," Conquest said. "I said, 'Yes, they were stealing their own stuff which had been taken from them by the state.' They hadn't thought of that. You see this is still being written now occasionally."

But Conquest said more evidence has emerged since the disintegration of the USSR allowed greater access to Soviet archives. He says he himself has uncovered documented evidence that shows Stalin knew that hundreds of thousands of peasants were trying to enter Russia in search of food. 

"The expulsion of Ukrainian and Kuban peasants from Russia -- as soon as they tried getting into Russia they were sent back -- which I only got from about eight or 10 private reports, that is actually confirmed by a decree Stalin signed that this should be done and a report was put in by [Genrikh] Yagoda, head of the secret police, saying it has been done to  'several hundred thousand stupid  peasants.' See, that confirmation within secret sources was complete."

Conquest is in no doubt that the famine was primarily aimed at Ukrainians and that Stalin hated not only the country peasants but even senior Communist leaders, like Mykola Skrypnyk, who eventually killed himself.

"[Stalin] was trying to break the Ukrainians, as you know, with the leading Ukrainian Bolshevik Skrypnyk committing suicide under the pressures that were put on them when they tried to defend just the ordinary alphabet of the Ukrainians. Here [Stalin] was trying to alter it, things like that. I think he also proved he never trusted Ukrainian Communists. The whole Ukrainian Central Committee was totally purged in 1937, even the ones who supported him. He had this terrific distrust of everybody, but particularly of Ukraine."

Luciuk of the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association has a different theory for why news of the famine never reached the West. He blamed a number of Western journalists based in Moscow at the time who knew of the forced starvation but chose not to write about it or deliberately covered it up.

The journalist he says played the most influential role in the cover-up was "The New York Times" correspondent Walter Duranty. A drug addict with a shady reputation, Duranty was also an avid fan of Stalin's, whom he described as "the world's greatest living statesman." He was granted the first American interview with the Soviet leader and received privileged information from the secretive regime.

Duranty confided to a British diplomat at the time that he thought 10 million people had perished in the famine. But when other journalists who had traveled to Ukraine began writing about the horrific famine raging there, Duranty branded their information as anti-Soviet lies. Conquest believes that Duranty was being blackmailed by the Soviet secret police over his sexual activities, which reportedly included bisexuality and necrophilia.

The year before the famine, in 1932, Duranty won the Pulitzer Prize, America's most coveted journalism award, for a series of articles on the Soviet economy. Luciuk says members of the Ukrainian diaspora, as well as Ukrainian politicians and academics, earlier this month launched a campaign to have Duranty's award posthumously revoked. He said he hopes the campaign will make more people in the world aware of the famine.

"So this was a horrific genocidal catastrophe that befell Ukraine, the people of Ukraine, and commemorating it this year on the 70th anniversary -- and doing so by trying to have the Pulitzer Prize committee do the right thing and revoke Duranty's prize posthumously -- is why we've engaged in this campaign."

A spokesman for the Pulitzer board, Sid Gissler, said the board has considered withdrawing Duranty's prize on previous occasions but had decided against doing so because it had not been awarded for articles related to the famine. He said he sympathized with the Ukrainian campaign, and added the board would reconsider the question again later this year.

"I understand their concern, but as I said, the award goes for a discrete set of stories and it's not designed to say anything about a person, the body of a person's work, or their lifetime -- it's not a lifetime achievement award."

Duranty died in 1957 an impoverished drunk. Luciuk said that when details about the famine finally came into the open, Duranty was credited with coining the famously callous phrase, "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs."

Luciuk said he hopes Ukraine, meanwhile, will do more to educate its own population about the famine. Since gaining independence, successive Ukrainian governments have done little to publicize the episode for fear of instigating a controversy with the country's still-powerful Communist Party, which continues to deny the famine was deliberately organized. Moreover, many of those who took part in the executions, deportations, and confiscation of food are still alive and receiving state pensions.

In February, the Ukrainian parliament conducted a special hearing about the famine. The deputy prime minister for humanitarian issues, Dmytro Tabachnuk, said the famine was a deliberate terrorist act that claimed the lives of up to 10 million people. He said the government is planning to build a National Famine Memorial Complex.

Copyright © 2003. RFE/RL, Inc.
Republished by Ukrainian Archives & News with the permission of

Radio Free Europe & Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W.

Washington DC 20036.

Ukrainian Archives & News



<Top> | <Articles Index>


Printer Friendly Version


Search this site or the web powered by FreeFind

Site search Web search