The famine in Ukraine, the so-called “holodomor” was a serious natural disaster. The collectivization of agriculture began in 1928 and the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33 seriously threatened the success of collectivization and the entire Five-Year Plan.
The primary reasons for the famine were the weather conditions. There were two serious crop failures in a row (and others before) because of drought and snow which prevented sowings. A plant disease called ‘grain-rust’ also destroyed much of the crops. ‘Rusted’ crops can look normal and so the government didn’t originally recognize that much of the food was ruined. The bulk of this article describes the causes of the famine in detail, based on the research of Mark B. Tauger, Associate Professor of History at West Virginia University, who has published many peer-reviewed scientific papers and articles on these topics.
WHY DID THE COLLECTIVIZATION OF AGRICULTURE TAKE PLACE?
The collectivization began in 1928 because of several reasons:
- the USSR needed to industrialize to build socialism. Collectivization was necessary in order to grow enough food for a larger industrial proletariat.
- the USSR needed to industrialize fast, to build a strong modern military to defend itself
- class relations inside the country had reached a crisis in 1927. The NEP succeeded in rebuilding the economy after the Civil War, but it allowed the rural capitalists (‘kulaks’) to grow stronger. Most small farmers only produced enough food for their own families and didn’t sell food. Most food on the market was produced by large kulaks. They demanded less regulations on prices, and demanded higher prices for higher profits. They controlled the food supply of the cities and could use this to blackmail the government. In 1926-27 the kulaks were refusing to sell or produce food. The government responded by confiscating food which they were hiding. Kulaks responded by destroying food, slaughtering animals, and stopping farming etc.
The Soviet government had two options: to accept the demand for de-regulation and move back to unrestricted capitalism. Or to fight the kulaks and move towards socialism. Of course they chose to fight. It was impossible to accept the kulak demands, it would’ve meant the death of the socialist revolution and the country would’ve remained underdeveloped.
Poor peasants were encouraged to take over lands from kulaks which were not being used, and set up collective farms on those lands. The fight intensified in the countryside and kulaks were able to destroy many farm buildings and kill huge amounts of animals. This contributed to the famine, but was not the main cause of it.
Prof. Mark Tauger has shown conclusively that the Soviets couldn’t have avoided the famine in any way. The weather caused the crops to not grow, and thus they didn’t have enough food regardless of what they did.
Right-Wing propagandists claim that collectivization caused the famine, which is obviously false. We have evidence that the famine was caused by crop failure due to weather, but also the famine ended when the collective farms produced a good harvest. And after that the Soviet Union didn’t have famines anymore, except because of the war.
Some right-wingers also claim that the famine was purposefully orchestrated to kill Ukrainians, but there is no evidence of that. Ukraine received a million tons of food aid from the Russian SSR etc. The famine was a disaster for the Soviet economy, so they would never have caused it on purpose.
WAS THE FAMINE ORCHESTRATED ON PURPOSE?
“A Ukrainian nationalist interpretation holds that the Soviet regime, and specifically Iosif Stalin, intentionally imposed the famine to suppress the nationalist aspirations of Ukraine and Ukrainians; revisionists argue that the leadership imposed the famine to suppress more widespread peasant resistance to collectivization… recent research has cast substantial doubt on them. Several studies and document collections have shown conclusively that the famine did not stop at Ukraine’s borders, but affected rural and urban areas throughout the Soviet Union, and even the military.”
(Prof. Mark B. Tauger, Natural Disaster and Human Actions in the Soviet Famine of 1931-1933, p. 2. From now on this article will be cited simply as “Tauger”)
The Soviet government sent several millions of tons of food aid to Ukraine. This was all they had, but not enough. The famine was not caused by any government decision or policy, but by natural disasters which lead to crop-failures:
“The Soviet government did have small reserves of grain, but continually drew these down to allocate food to the population… virtually the entire country experienced shortages of food… the Soviet Union faced a severe shortage, and the most important cause of that shortage has to have been small harvests in 1931 and 1932… Russia itself has endured more than one hundred fifty famines in its thousand years of recorded history, virtually all of which resulted directly from natural disasters, in most cases drought…” (Tauger, p. 7)
“[E]nvironmental disasters… have to be considered among the primary causes of the famine. I argue that capital and labor difficulties were… not as important as these environmental factors, and were in part a result of them… I conclude that it is thus inaccurate to describe the Soviet famine of 1932-1933 as simply an artificial or man-made famine…” (Tauger, p. 8)
In his article “The 1932 Harvest and the Famine of 1933” Tauger explains that grain procurement by the government was decreased in 1932 which should’ve left more food in villages assuming that the harvest was alright. But there was famine because the harvest was ruined by natural disasters. Procurement or export weren’t the problem. The narrative that the government supposedly took all the food and left people to die, cannot be supported by evidence.
“The low 1932 harvest worsened severe food shortages already widespread in the Soviet Union at least since 1931 and, despite sharply reduced grain exports, made famine likely if not inevitable in 1933.” (Tauger, “The 1932 Harvest and the Famine of 1933”)
“This situation makes it difficult to accept the interpretation of the famine as the result of the 1932 grain procurements and as a conscious act of genocide. The harvest of 1932 essentially made a famine inevitable.” (Tauger, “The 1932 Harvest and the Famine of 1933”)
Anti-communist eye-witnesses are unreliable in any case, but in “Natural Disaster and Human Actions in the Soviet Famine of 1931-1933” Tauger demonstrates that the reason eye-witnesses might’ve claimed the harvest was good, is probably because they didn’t have the expertise to recognize diseased crops on the fields. More of this later in the article.
The crop-failure was not caused by the Soviet system. In fact other countries at the same time also experienced droughts and famine. However, capitalist-colonialist regimes behaved much more cruelly in these situations:
“The Soviet regime was not unique in this experience: other major agricultural countries in the world also encountered major natural disasters and food crises in the early 1930s. The United States in 1930-1931 endured what was termed “the great southern drought,” which affected twenty-three states from Texas to West Virginia, brought immense suffering and increased mortality, and caused a major political scandal when Herbert Hoover refused to allocate food relief from federal government resources… French colonies in western Africa in 1931-1932 endured a drought, locust infestation, and the worst famine ever recorded there, though the French authorities continued to demand taxes.” (Tauger, pp. 9-10)
Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution was a poor underdeveloped country. As such, it was food insecure and at the mercy of natural disasters and crop failures. To combat droughts, pests, floods and other disasters it would’ve been necessary to build massive irrigation projects, drains, pesticide industries and to improve the soil. Something which the Russian Empire had completely neglected. It fell upon the shoulders of the Soviet government to overcome these challenges.
“Russia itself has endured more than one hundred fifty famines in its thousand years of recorded history, virtually all of which resulted directly from natural disasters, in most cases drought…” (Tauger, p. 7)
“The grain crisis and famine of 1928-1929 were among the main factors that led Soviet leaders… to undertake the collectivization of agriculture. Even in 1930 many regions had unfavorable weather and crop failures… The domestic context of the 1931-1933 famine, therefore, was one of chronic food insecurity. Natural disasters, especially drought alone or in combination with other environmental factors… repeatedly caused crop failures during the early years of the Soviet Union and threatened to revive the food crises and famine of the Civil War period…” (Tauger, p. 9)
Before the famine many grain-growing areas only had 25% of the necessary rain:
“[D]rought played a central role in precipitating the famine crisis… In the main spring-grain maturation period of mid-April to mid-June, precipitation in the southern Urals and Western Siberia was one-fourth of the amount that agronomists there considered necessary for normal plant growth.” (Tauger, p. 11)
“Serious famine conditions in villages and towns in Ukraine by early 1932 required special food relief. The regime admitted the seriousness of this drought publicly, in particular by holding a conference on drought in October 1931 attended by agricultural specialists as well as Sovnarkom chairman Viacheslav Molotov and other high officials. The government also established a meteorological monitoring service and began plans for construction of major irrigation projects along the Volga and in other drought-prone areas. The Central Committee also dispatched seed and food loans to most of the severely affected regions.” (Tauger, p. 12)
Collected grain had to be sent back to the farms, because otherwise they wouldn’t have any seed-grain to sow:
“This was the situation throughout the eastern regions. The Urals oblast’ … had to obtain a seed and provisions loan of 350,000 tons, 45 percent of its procurements. Kazakstan received back 36 percent. Western Siberia 22 percent, Bashkiria 20 percent.” (Tauger, p. 12)
WINTERKILL AND TEMPERATURE FLUCTUATIONS
“Other weather conditions quite distinct from drought affected the 1932 crop. In January 1932 a sudden warm spell in the southern regions of the Soviet Union caused fall-sown crops to start growing, after which winter temperatures returned and killed a portion of the crop. In Ukraine this winterkill destroyed at least 12 percent of fall-sown crops, more than double the long-term average; in one district 62 percent of winter crops failed.” (Tauger, p. 13)
It may sound paradoxical but despite the early drought and snow which prevented sowing and killed crops, the rest of the year was actually much too humid. Heavy rainfall (as much as triple the normal rain) destroyed crops and the humidity stimulated the spread of plant-diseases, massive growth of the insect population and weeds, which also destroyed crops.
“And most important, despite the regional droughts mentioned above, 1932 was overall a warm and humid year. In several regions heavy rains damaged crops and reduced yields… [there was] heavy rainfall in 1932 which was double or triple the normal amount in many regions. “ (Tauger, pp. 13-14)
“such rainfall encourages the spread of crop diseases. This type of problem chronically affected the Soviet Union… The most important infestation in 1932 came from several varieties of rust, a category of fungi that can infest grains and many other plants…” (Tauger, p. 15)
The most sinister aspect of grain-rust and other such diseases, is that they are hard to detect. Crops can look normal for a long time but be inedible:
“Although in some cases rust will kill grain plants, rusted grain ordinarily will continue to grow, form ears, and in general appear normal; but the grain heads will not “fill,” so that the harvest will seem “light” and consist of small grains, or of fewer normal-sized grains, and disproportionately of husks and other fibrous materials. In other words, a field of wheat (or barley, rye, oats, or other grain, all of which are susceptible to rust) could appear entirely normal and promising, and yet because of the infestation could produce an extremely low yield… Rusts have been the most common and the most destructive infestations of grain crops, and remain so today… In 1935, wheat stem rust caused losses of more than 50 percent in North Dakota and Minnesota…” (Tauger, p. 15)
“In 1932, however, a large epiphytotic of rust, one of the most severe recorded, affected all Eastern Europe… Studies of estates in Germany found losses of 40 to 80 percent of wheat crops, a scale not seen in decades, if ever… In Hungary, a leading specialist described the rust epidemic that year as the worst in generations; additional reports from elsewhere in the Balkans, Czechoslovakia, and Poland referred to “fantastic” losses.” (Tauger, p. 16)
“Identifying rust required specialized knowledge and training… peasants in the North Caucasus could not distinguish between rust and other diseases…This problem was by no means limited to the USSR; a study of wheat growing in Maryland in 1929 found an inverse relation between the condition of the crop and its final yield, because the high rainfall that stimulated plant growth also fostered plant diseases: “A farmer observing a lush stand reported a high condition, not recognizing the development of the disease before harvest time.” The fact that rust was difficult for nonspecialists to detect helps to explain the numerous claims in memoirs and testimonies of a good 1932 harvest Famine survivors in the Volga region whom the Russian historian Viktor Kondrashin interviewed, however, remembered that in the 1932 harvest the ears were somehow “empty,” the characteristic one would expect from rusted grain.” (Tauger, p.17)
“While rust infestations were not a new problem in Russia, the extreme outbreak in 1932 took agronomists by surprise…” (Tauger, p.18)
“Rust was not the only plant disease to affect Soviet agriculture in 1932: large outbreaks of smut also caused substantial losses. Smut spreads through the soil or from contaminated seed, and like rust does not alter greatly the external appearance of the crop… the disease not only destroys grain in infested plants but also easily contaminates healthy grain in the harvest… Smut had been a severe problem in Soviet agriculture during NEP [in the 1920s]. Infestations in many parts of the country in 1922 caused substantial losses, in extreme cases more than 80 percent…” (Tauger, p. 18)
INSECTS AND PESTS
“The warm, humid weather in 1932 also led to severe insect infestations, including locusts, field moths, and other insects on grain and sugar beets… [There was a] failure of winter sowings due to pests and the above-mentioned winterkill in 333 districts in Ukraine, encompassing an area of 747,984 hectares, which inducted 8.6 percent of winter sowings and 10.5 percent of winter wheat.” (Tauger, p. 20)
“Weeds were a major problem through the famine period… The unusually warm and wet weather in 1932 greatly stimulated this weed growth” (Tauger, p. 40)
LACK OF HORSES AND OTHER DRAUGHT ANIMALS
Lack of horses contributed to the famine. The majority of animals were owned by rich peasants (kulaks). Most poor peasants only owned a single horse or cow, and one third of peasants didn’t own any. Because most animals were concentrated in the hands of kulaks, they were able to slaughter large amounts of them as a form of economic warfare. However, the biggest cause for lack of horses was the famine itself:
“Animals were the immediate victims of shortages in 1930-1933 since starving peasants had no choice but to feed themselves first from the dwindling reserves” (Tauger, p. 22)
“By April 1932 30-40 percent of the horses were incapable of work.” (Tauger, p. 24)
It would be a mistake to blame the famine on sabotage by kulaks or by capitalists, but instances of sabotage did occur:
“some 5,000 tractors purchased from the American company “Oliver” had leaking radiators and loud sounds in their mufflers, transmissions, and motors… Allis-Chalmers tractors purchased in 1930 arrived with missing parts.”
(Tauger, p. 24)
The Soviet Union was producing tens of thousands of tractors during 1932 but this was not enough to meet the growing need, due to the unexpected catastrophe.
Soil science was invented in Russia because of the extreme soil exhaustion in the final period of the Russian Empire. This continued to be a problem for the early USSR especially when it was decided to try to cultivate new lands and increase crop-area. Grain was a priority, so peasants neglected crop-rotation which caused exhaustion of the soil. This was due to ignorance but also due to economic motivators. The government also considered that to solve the grain-shortage this was acceptable for a period of 5 years maximum, but no more. However, already in 1932 the Politburo issued a decree to increase crop-rotation and thus combat soil exhaustion.
“soil exhaustion from repeated sowings of grain in the same fields and lack of crop rotations caused serious declines in yield… This situation reflected a general problem in the Soviet Union: despite its vast size, [due to the Czarist backwardness] the country had surprisingly little good agricultural land; at this time the United States had more land under crops than the Soviet Union.” (Tauger, pp. 38-39)
“[I]n September 1932 the Politburo formed a commission… to raise crop yields and combat weeds. Stalin and Molotov themselves joined this commission, and the result was the decree of 29 September “on measures for raising harvest yields.” This decree ordered that all party, state, and economic organizations focus their work on raising harvest yields “as the central task of agricultural development at the present moment” and specified measures to increase grain sowings at the expense of technical crops and to introduce crop rotations.” (Tauger, p. 46)
During collectivization of agriculture the Communists deported many rural capitalists (kulaks) from their land and gave the land to poor and landless peasants. It is often claimed that this “ruined” Russian farming. However, that’s false:
“the common assertion that dekulakization removed the best farmers from farming contains two arguments that are questionable at best… “poor” or “middle” peasants were potentially just as competent farmers as the “kulaks.” Dekulakization, therefore, would not have removed all the best farmers, even if officials applied the policy to remove the “well-off’ farmers.” (Tauger, p. 26)
It is also often claimed that the famine resulted from massive peasant resistance. This is also false:
“Peasant resistance and unwillingness to work in the collective farms are fundamental themes in discussions of the famine and Soviet agriculture generally… My research on Soviet farm labor policies and actual peasant practices and my reading of this literature, however, has made me skeptical of the argument for labor resistance… for peasant resistance to have been sufficient to cause the low 1932 harvest an extremely large number of peasants would have had to act this way… the argument asserts that the majority of peasants attempted to deprive their families and fellow villagers of sufficient food to last until the next harvest. This interpretation, therefore, requires us to believe that most peasants acted against their own and their neighbors’ self-interest. This viewpoint is difficult to accept both on general human terms and particularly when applied to peasants in Russia and Ukraine. The great majority of these peasants had lived for centuries in corporate villages that had instilled certain basic cooperative values, and the kolkhozy perpetuated basic features of these villages.” (Tauger, p. 28)
“Although observers at the time argued, as do some scholars today, that peasant resistance took forms that diminished the harvest, the evidence… leads to a more ambivalent conclusion. Some peasants’ actions clearly indicated that they sought to do as much as possible to save the harvest… in some cases peasants restored kolkhozy (reports referred to cases in the Middle Volga, Nizhnii Novgorod, and Moscow regions)…” (Tauger, p. 33-34)
There was real sabotage committed by kulaks and middle-peasants who had been persuaded by kulaks. This sabotage still wasn’t among the main causes of the famine:
“Only in certain types of actions can we discern a clear, conscious effort to reduce food production… In some cases …[saboteurs] attacked kolkhozniki working in the fields in order to induce them to join with the leavers and divide up the farm… In the Middle Volga, Nizhnii Novgorod, Ivanovo, and Northern regions, arson destroyed thousands of hectares of unharvested grain and hundreds of tons of harvested grain, in addition to hundreds of thousand of hectares of forests, cut timber, housing, and fuel. In some places [saboteurs] attacked officials and other peasants involved in harvest work and destroyed harvest machinery” (Tauger, p. 33-34)
However, there were no real signs of massive peasant resistance. Tauger states that from what we can see: “at least some peasants worked hard, and this situation was not limited to Ukraine.” and other peasants “may not have worked less” (Tauger, p. 36)
In reality, the Soviet government relied on the workers (industrial but also agricultural) and poor and middle peasants:
“the regime’s actions during and after the famine indicated that they did not see the peasants exclusively as enemies. For example, the political departments formed in MTS and sovkhozy in early 1933 to organize farm work during the famine… promoting thousands of peasants… and… relied on the peasants to overcome the crisis. ” (Tauger, p. 49)
In reality, older sources which described alleged peasant resistance may simply have mistaken fallow land as “abandoned by resisting peasants”. Eventually these stories became widespread in anti-communist circles and were repeated constantly:
“[C]ritical observers may have mistaken fallows as abandoned lands.” (Tauger, p. 39)
Peasant resistance was also exaggerated because the government “may have misinterpreted as a protest what may have been simply a farm with more labor than it could employ” (Tauger, p. 36)
Anti-communists have claimed that the USSR was only able to “force” peasants to farm during this period due to extreme repression such as punishing those farms who refused to sell excess grain. However, according to Tauger the repression was not quite so severe:
“repressive measures… however, seem to have had limited effects.” (Tauger, p. 37)
Instead of believing in conspiracy theories, it is much more likely that the peasants farmed simply because it was in everybody’s best interest. The collective farm movement was not something completely alien to them, and the movement itself relied on tens of millions of peasants and activists.
DID THE USSR EXPORT FOOD DURING THE FAMINE?
The USSR needed capital to purchase industrial goods, machines and to hire foreign experts. This was part of the Soviet Industrial Revolution, to turn a backward country into a modern industrial country. The Russian Empire also used to expert raw-materials (mainly grain and cotton) because it was a backward agrarian state. The USSR tried to escape this backwardness.
“[T]hat put the Soviet Union under intense pressure to export commodities”
(Tauger, p. 44)
The USSR tried to achieve some level of economic independence but was being squeezed ruthlessly by foreign countries, which forced it to export:
“According to the commercial counselor of the British Embassy in Moscow, writing in late 1931, “failure [by the Soviet government] to meet its obligations would certainly bring disaster in its train. Not only would further credits cease, but all future exports, all Soviet shipping entering foreign ports, all Soviet property already in foreign countries would be liable to seizure to cover sums due. Admission of insolvency would endanger the achievement of all aspirations based on the five-year plan and might indeed imperil the existence of the government itself” (PRO FO 371. 15607 N7648/ 167/38, 6-7). German Chancellor Bruening told a British diplomat in Berlin in early 1932 that if the Soviets “did not meet their bills in some form or other, their credit would be destroyed for good and all” (PRO FO 371 16327 N456/ 158/38).” (Tauger, “The 1932 Harvest and the Famine of 1933”)
It is often claimed that the government supposedly had lots of food, but simply exported all of it. This is a conspiracy theory, and is not based on any reliable evidence.
“The amount of grain exported during the peak of the famine in the first half of 1933, however, approximately 220,000 tons, was small, less than 1 percent of the lowest harvest estimates, and the regime was using virtually all the rest of the available harvest to feed people.” (Tauger, p. 6)
“Total aid to famine regions was more than double exports for the first half of 1933.”
(Tauger, “The 1932 Harvest and the Famine of 1933”)
“The severity and geographical extent of the famine, the sharp decline in exports in 1932-1933, seed requirements, and the chaos in the Soviet Union in these years, all lead to the conclusion that even a complete cessation of exports would not have been enough to prevent famine.” (Tauger, “The 1932 Harvest and the Famine of 1933”)
The fact is that even if all exports had been stopped, it wouldn’t have prevented the famine. However, it would have made industrialization impossible and thus kept the country in poverty, and at risk of future famines. Industrialization was a necessity in order to end famines. If the harvest of 1932 had been successful, as everyone hoped, then there would not have been any famine. However, the USSR at the time was still not industrialized and therefore was to a large extent at the mercy of environmental factors outside of their control.
“The [low] harvest of 1932 essentially made a famine inevitable.“
(Tauger, “The 1932 Harvest and the Famine of 1933”)
“Any study that asserts that the harvest was not extraordinarily low and that the famine was a political measure intentionally imposed through excessive procurements is clearly based on an insufficient source base and an uncritical approach to the official sources. The evidence cited above demonstrates that the 1932-1933 famine was the result of a genuine shortage, a substantial decline in the availability of food… [The famine was] the result of the largest in a series of natural disasters… it is clear that the small harvests of 1931-1932 created shortages that affected virtually everyone in the country and that the Soviet regime did not have the internal resources to alleviate the crisis.” (Tauger, p. 48)
The famine ended in 1933 when the collective farms produced a successful crop, much larger then ones before. The collective system demonstrated its effectiveness by increasing crop yields continually.
Holodomor, myth and reality
Blood_Lies by Grover Furr (Best short book to read on the topic)
Fraud, Famine and Fascism by Douglas Tottle
Collectivization and the “Ukrainian holocaust” (from Another View of Stalin)
Famine of 1932 (from “the Real Stalin” series)