Research & Reading Notes


Set the Record Straight is posting a series of research notes about important historical episodes of the Soviet and Chinese revolutions and the controversies surrounding them. These compact and self-contained summations detail important findings and set forth provisional conclusions.

The Famine of 1933 in the Soviet Union: What Really Happened, Why it was NOT an “Intentional Famine”

A major famine took place in the Soviet Union in 1933. It exacted a terrible toll on human life and exacerbated dislocations accompanying the great transformations of economy and society of the First Five-Year Plan launched in 1928 and the socialist collectivization of 1929-30. What caused the famine, how many people died, and how communist leadership responded—these have all been highly contentious questions of political analysis and scholarly research.

As presented in most mainstream histories, standard textbooks, and journalistic commentary, and as analyzed in the work of professional anticommunist scholars like Robert Conquest, the famine stands as a towering indictment of the savage brutality and calculated indifference of Stalin. Conquest and the authors of the Black Book on Communism declare this famine be one of the “great crimes” of communism.

These accounts generally make three sets of claims:

—The famine resulted from excessively high procurement levels imposed by the Soviet state.

—The famine was deliberately induced to punish peasant resistance to collectivization in the Ukraine and to thwart Ukranian national aspirations, and this constitutes  genocide.

—The famine caused millions of unnecessary deaths, with some estimates reaching up to 10 million, and little was done to alleviate this suffering.

Important scholarship of the last 20 years has intensively examined the famine, making use of newly available archival materials and correspondence of Stalin with high-ranking officials that became available in the early 1990s. This research allows for a fuller and more accurate picture of what actually happened and why—taking in issues of economic policy and performance, agricultural practices, environmental issues, and social contradictions.

In surveying and assessing new research, it becomes clear that the truth is very different than what is conveyed by the anticommunist narrative. The evidence points to the following:

1. The famine of the early 1930s was precipitated not by excessive procurement but by an absolute shortage of grain

Procurement refers to the compulsory delivery of a fixed amount of grain to the socialist state by the newly formed socialist collectives. Delivery levels, or quotas, were set by the state and collective farmers were paid for grain at prices also set by the state.

A) Collectivization in perspective

There is a simplistic and distorted image of the relationship between the Soviet state and peasantry that colors conventional discourse: this is the idea that the peasants simply wanted to farm and eat, the state wanted to take their grain. But peasants in Ukraine, as well as other rural areas of the Soviet Union, were part of an integrated economic and food supply system.

Grain (and raw materials) delivered to the state was used to feed the urban population, to provision the army, and to serve the needs of industrialization—and grain was also exported to generate foreign exchange with which to purchase advanced technology for new industry, utilities, railroads, etc. Part of the gross production of the collectives was used to feed their members (and livestock), to provide seed, etc. At the same time, the collectives were receiving tractors and other machinery and technical support. Educational resources were expanded in the countryside and technical knowledge was spread. Culture was promoted. Peasants were taking on administrative and political responsibilities. Struggle was waged against the subordination of women.

In short, the socialist state was initiating and forging new economic and exchange relations through collectivization in the countryside and the elaboration of the First Five-Year Plan. The changes in the countryside were part of a larger and authentic social revolution.

But the Soviet model of socialist economic development and planning, this first attempt to build a society free from exploitation and oppression, also had serious shortcomings and problems. The planning model emphasized heavy industry and channeled resources (labor and material) from the countryside to the cities. There was considerable coercion in carrying out collectivization; and while it was necessary to wage struggles against entrenched capitalist interests in the countryside, many middle-level peasants were branded as class enemies.

Mao Zedong would criticize Stalin’s approach to collectivization: draining too large a surplus from the countryside, the top-down ways in which it was carried out, the insufficient understanding of the importance of ideological work and struggle and changing consciousness. Mao developed and applied a far more liberatory approach to collectivization: relying on peasant activism and developing socialist consciousness; paying attention to balances between production and consumption, and between heavy and light industry; building into the planning system an orientation of reducing and ultimately overcoming differences between town and country; promoting local initiative and experimentation; and taking the all-around development of agriculture as the foundation of the economy.

The First Five-Year Plan in the Soviet Union was infused with a great sense of urgency: both the conviction that the material coordinates of socialism could be rapidly created and the  concern that time was at a premium, that a hostile international economic and political environment could soon turn into a military assault on the world’s first and only socialist society. This was hardly paranoia.

In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria, a region of China bordering the Soviet Union. The Soviet Red Army was put on a more combat-ready footing. The Manchurian crisis, as it was called, and other military threats very much influenced economic and grain procurement policies (the army had to fed and sustained). Here it must be pointed out that many studies of the famine completely overlook or downplay how real security concerns about the Far East influenced planning and budgetary priorities.

B) Understanding the shortfall in production

The official output of grain in 1932 was about 70 million tons. But according to several recent analyses, real output was considerably lower, no more than 50 million tons. Why such a difference between official and actual output levels?

Some of this may have been linked with “triumphalist” misrepresentation of economic performance, demonstrating the continuing success of the new socialist offensive (a species of “political truth,” wherein reality is distorted to serve political ends). The authorities and planning agencies also interpreted disappointing harvest results through a filter of peasant noncompliance. In other words, peasants in some of the collectives would exaggerate difficulties and underestimate crops in order to hold on to more, so the central political and planning authorities assumed that more grain existed than was accounted for—and would adjust data upward. Moreover, leadership, as we will see, had an over-broad interpretation that resistance and opposition in the rural areas were the primary cause of agrarian difficulties.

The sharp decline in production has to be analyzed more closely. Different and interpenetrating factors were in play.

There were continuing dislocations, economic and social, caused by collectivization. There were issues of organization and management of the collectives. There was disaffection and resistance among sections of peasants, which adversely affected the quality of crop cultivation. There were the strains put on agriculture by the demands of rapid industrialization. The loss of part of the peasant workforce to the cities was another major factor. In 1931 alone, two-and-half million peasants, mostly males, migrated permanently to the towns from the countrywide. In terms of agricultural practices, economic planning put a priority on rapid increases of grain output to increase food production, but there were unintended consequences, such as disruptions to normal crop rotation practice that led to soil exhaustion.

Then there is a particular conjuncture of natural-environmental factors in 1932. The historian Mark Tauger has written extensively on the famine. He gathers documentation of extremely wet and humid weather that led to widespread plant infestation and disease, especially rust (and Soviet plant pathologists at the time had projected a steep reduction in the potential harvest). Tauger argues that exceptionally bad weather caused serious declines in crop output, independently of other factors, and was the primary reason for the small harvest of 1932. The evidence adduced is powerful, although the actual course and effect of the famine was influenced by social-economic factors.

Beyond the actual decline in production in 1932 loomed the problem of dangerously diminished grain reserves. For the three years preceding the famine, the previous year’s reserves were drawn down to meet heightened urban food demand, which meant there was less of a cushion in the countryside against unexpected shortfalls.

This problem of declining grain reserves in the countryside was aggravated by the introduction of the internal passport system in December 1932. All residents required formal registration as a condition to stay in the cities. The passport system was aimed at stanching the flow of peasants into the cities—a process that was fostered by the push for rapid industrialization, and viewed favorably by planners, but which was putting increasing strains on the cities. Many peasants who had relocated to the cities were now compelled to return to rural areas . . . exactly at a time when grain reserves in the countryside were extremely low if not nonexistent.

So a complex mix of factors contributed to and influenced the course of the famine. The critical point is this: there was an absolute and serious shortfall in production. The historian Lewis Siegelbaum reaches what seems to be a correct conclusion. Agricultural-industrial policy was premised on the maximally sustainable extraction of a grain surplus. It was also marked by a bias towards the cities. While high grain procurement rates did not directly cause the famine, they did, in his words, have the effect of “displacing famine from the city to the village” (see Lewis Siegelbaum, “Building Stalinism, 1929-1941” [chapter 11], in Gregory L. Freeze, ed., Russia: A History, Second Edition [Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2002]).

2. The scale of the famine, nationality issues, and the response of the state

Siegelbaum, in the above-mentioned essay, produces an estimate of 4.2 million famine deaths, of which 2.9 million, a substantial majority, were from Ukraine. R.W. Davies and Stephen Wheatcroft put the range of deaths somewhere between 4 to 6 million.

It is a commonplace in mainstream histories and journalism to speak of the famine as an act of genocide, as a “Soviet holocaust”—and several governments have adopted resolutions calling for the famine to be treated as genocide.

A) Particularity of Ukraine

Ukraine produced between a quarter and one-third of the Soviet Union’s grain harvest, and it was in Ukraine (and several other non-Russian grain- producing regions) that resistance to collectivization was especially intense—both opposition and sabotage by former kulak forces (the prosperous farmers who had exploited labor power, engaged in profiteering, and who generally dominated the economy of the countryside) and reluctance and refusal by sections of middle peasants. Resistance to collectivization peaked in the winter of 1930, and Ukraine, with less than 20 percent of the Soviet Union’s total population, accounted for 30 percent of all “mass disturbances” in 1930. On the other hand, there were poorer peasants in Ukraine and other agricultural regions who rallied to collectivization. By mid-1932, 70 percent of Ukraine’s peasants were in collectives, and the state claimed 40 percent of grain production.

Despite the poor harvest of 1932, the center initially insisted that the quotas be met—and these quotas were brutally enforced and accompanied by repression. The repression was in part a response to banditry and pilferage of collective farm crops and supplies, acts carried out by people in and outside the collectives. In 1932, a draconian law stipulated that persons guilty of stealing grain from the barns, ears of grain from the fields, and cattle could be sentenced to death by shooting. By mid-December 1932, 16,000 local collective leaders and local communists in the Ukraine had been arrested, and over one hundred received the death penalty.

The national question presents itself in a complex manner. This is worth untangling some, and Terry Martin’s work Affirmative Action Empire provides useful background and informative analysis.

In seeking to overcome inequality of nationalities, the Soviet Union under Stalin’s leadership promoted korenizatsiia, roughly translated as indigenization. This was the policy of bringing forward new leaders and administrators from among the formerly oppressed nationalities—as a concrete means of breaking with great Russian chauvinism and empowering the populations of the non-Russian regions.

But in the second half of 1932, concern was growing within the central leadership that the revolution’s ambitious project of indigenization was being seized on by local Ukranian communists to realize nationalist ambitions, including attempts to annex Ukranian populated territories of the Russian Union of Federated Socialist Republics. There was also a history of separatist movements in Ukraine, with a strong base among the peasants: the rural anarcho-peasant organizer Makhno had led a protracted secessionist movement during and after the Civil War of 1918-21; and reactionary forces, anticommunist and anti-Semitic, were still active.

Stalin and others in leadership were coming to the conclusion, based in part on reports and investigations from the field, that “non-Bolshevik implementation” of policies for national equality was providing cover for counterrevolutionary elements. (Archival materials reveal that Stalin was very much trying to analyze what was happening “on the ground” and that policy decisions and adjustments were very much influenced by reports being received “from the field.”)

B) The center’s understanding of agricultural difficulties and response to the famine

It does seem that the view took hold at the center that high rates of non-compliance with procurement quotas in Ukraine and the North Caucasus were linked to three factors: first and foremost, kulak sabotage (and there is evidence that kulaks had infiltrated the collective structures); second, weak-willed communists who were not exercising vigilance; and, third, the influence of Ukranian nationalism, fed by cross-border ties to Ukranians in Poland.

The center saw a strong link between the grain crisis, which, in some internal documents, was held to be the result of a functional “work slowdown” and “stoppage” on the part of some peasants, and counterrevolutionary forces and nationalist influences and nationalist infiltration of the local party (the western branch of the Ukranian party had actually embraced and gone over to open nationalism).

At the very time that hunger was spreading in Ukraine, the center was making pronouncements about the dangers of nationalism, and calls were issued to adjust various aspects of indigenization policy. This gives superficial support to the thesis that Stalin was bent on punishing Ukranians. But adjustments in indigenization policy were also being applied to other non-Russian territories.

However, by virtue of Ukraine’s strategic location and position as grain producing center, and the growing influence of separatist forces, Ukraine was a particular focus of concern . . . and of struggle and repression directed both at resisting peasants and at local communists. By March 1933, an estimated 90,000 individuals were in Ukrainian prisons and labor camps, and suspected kulaks and recalcitrant peasants were being deported. But the repression was not ethnically-motivated (peasants in other regions were subjected to such measures). What does appear to be the case is this: leadership saw sabotage and peasant noncompliance as a source of reduced grain supplies and responded with punitive measures—as a stop-gap way to remedy the grain crisis.

Peasants in Ukraine had to meet high delivery quotas, but so did peasants in other non-Russian territories (and Russian territory as well). Ukranian peasants endured terrible hardships . . . but so too did peasants in a vast swath stretching from Kazakhstan through the northern Caucasus to the Ukraine. This again underscores that it was the rural population that disproportionately suffered in this famine (although the urban areas also experienced much higher death rates).

When the reality of famine became apparent, the state and party took measures to cope with it and limit the suffering. Grain delivery quotas were reduced in Ukraine in the spring and summer of 1932 (this in part in response to pressure and reports from regional party committees). Rationing was extended to some 40-50 million people throughout the Soviet Union. Food relief, by no means adequate, was sent to Ukraine and other areas. Grain exports were cut back.

If Stalin’s goal was to retaliate against Ukranians with an “artificial” and “genocidal” famine, then it is hard to explain these measures. And, again, this was not an exclusively Ukraine famine—there was an overall, countrywide food crisis that affected urban workers and soldiers as well as peasants—although Ukraine was the epicenter. A real crisis of grain production, which cannot be divorced from the manner in which collectivization was carried out and enforced, interacted with struggles and policy concerns over nationality issues.

3. Socialist society and open discussion of difficulties

In researching the truth of the Ukraine famine (and the famine during the Great Leap Forward in China), a critical issue nags: the state media did not, for some time, acknowledge the existence of and report on famine, and there was no broad discussion of what was happening.

Clearly people outside the impacted areas were learning about the famine—for instance, peasants coming into the cities were spreading news of hunger in the countryside. Letters were written to the leadership by basic masses and were discussed and circulated. The novelist Mikhail Sholokhov famously wrote Stalin in protest of coercive measures taken against hungry and starving peasants in his native Kuban, which borders Ukraine. Policy adjustments were announced and discussed. Still, there was a dearth of public discussion and debate—and to the degree this crisis did find public expression, the center tended to pose things in terms of revolution versus counterrevolution.

There are real contradictions here, big questions posed: about economic performance and national security . . . the need for a robust media—state, party, independent, and self-generated; being able to draw the masses into policy debate on the one hand, and having  the capacity to deal decisively with emergency situations on the other; maintaining morale in the face of reactionary ideological assaults but not by resorting to “political truth”; and other such issues.

The new synthesis of communism brought forward by Bob Avakian provides a framework for critically examining the experience of the first stage of communist revolution, for identifying the real-world contradictions confronted in transforming society and the world, and acting on them such that we can go further and do better in a new stage of communist revolution.

Some Readings

The 1932-33 famine as intentional and punitive: Robert Conquest, The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror Famine (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

—Overview of collectivization policy, grain output, and reasons for the famine: R.W. Davies and Stephen Wheatcroft in The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture, 1931-33 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). Refutes the “intentionalist” thesis, but wrongly conceives of collectivization as a form of serfdom.

—A real shortfall in grain production and natural factors: Mark B. Tauger, “Natural Disaster and Human Actions in the Soviet Famine of 1931-33,” Carl Beck Papers in Russian & East European Studies, Number 1506 (Pittsburgh: Center for Russian and East European Studies, University of Pittsburgh, 2001). Tauger has produced a large body of work, briskly contesting standard anticommunist claims about “intentional famine,” which brings exhaustive new empirical data to bear.

—Peasant responses to collectivization: Sheila Fitzpatrick, Stalin’s Peasants (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. One-sided (negative) view of collectivization but explores forms of “peasant resistance” to state policy and makes interesting observation that many of those who would have been the solid core of collectivization had migrated to cities and industry.

—Security concerns, agricultural policy, and Japan’s invasion of Manchuria: David R. Stone, Hammer and Rifle: The Militarization of the Soviet Union, 1926-1933 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000).

—National question: Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001). Argues against intentional genocide thesis but emphasizes what he calls the center’s “national interpretation of the 1933 famine.”

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