[Maggie Burke]

The term “holodomor” [golodomor], or death by hunger, refers to the devastating famine in Ukraine in 1932-33. At least 5 million Ukrainians are said to have starved to death (Marcus, 245), and the added impact on the birthrate is calculated to have set the population of Ukraine back by up to 7 million persons (Rudnytsky, 242). The famine occurred during the early stages of collectivization and has been widely argued, especially by Ukrainian and some Western scholars, to have been engineered by Stalin as part of a larger plan to weaken Ukraine and exterminate the ‘rich’ peasants, or kulaks (Conquest, 217-19). The Ukrainian government has declared this famine to be a genocide perpetrated against the Ukrainian people, and Holodomor has become a touchstone of Ukrainian post-Soviet national identity. In academic circles, however, the question of just how much this famine was a result of policies specifically intended by Stalin to cause widespread shortages and death is still debated and remains largely unresolved.

In the early 1930s, as a complement to his collectivization policies, Stalin renewed the drive for dekulakization which had been so strong under the early revolutionary government. This was, in some ways, intended to make collectivization go more smoothly – as peasants with more personal wealth, land, or livestock stood to lose more during the seizure of all property that accompanied the transition to collective farming. It was also a campaign which served to unbalance the peasant populations and thus reduced general resistance to the upheaval which was to come (Conquest). Robert Conquest argues in Harvest of Sorrow that these policies were focused on Ukraine because that republic’s “great national culture” and potential to mount political and social opposition presented a threat – leading to what he terms the regime’s “Ukrainophobia” (217). Under Lenin, policies which had encouraged nationalism in all of the republics had led to a flourishing intelligentsia, political and religious movements, and cultural achievement, and had maintained a higher standard of living and satisfaction with the the regime in the borderlands and among the minorities of the Soviet Union. Stalin reversed these policies in favor of a push for rapid modernization and increased agricultural production (Marcus, 247).

In the beginning stages of collectivization (1929-30), quotas for grain collection by the state were set – that is, the amount of grain owed to the government regardless of the year’s harvest – based upon the maximum possible yield for that area. Previous years in Ukraine had seen an extremely high yield, and, since Soviet agriculture was not immune from Stakhanovite aspirations, the central authorities expected continuing record harvests. As early as 1931, however, over-collection had led to extreme grain shortages. Despite complaints to the center, the collection continued and peasants were sent to the fields to work under armed guard (Conquest 221-222). There does not seem to have been a food shortage in the rest of the country, and even the delegates and soldiers sent in by the authorities are reported to have been well-fed. By contrast, the Ukrainian death rate skyrocketed with large scale fatalities and reports of cannibalism emerging from March of 1933 (236, 243, 257).

The debate surrounding Holodomor is not based on the numbers of the dead or whether or not the famine occurred. The question remaining is whether or not the famine was intentional – whether or not Stalin himself set out specifically to engineer the deaths of Ukrainian peasants. In this debate, arguments fall into two general camps: first, that Stalin purposefully caused this famine with the intent of wiping out either the kulaks as a class or of destroying Ukraine, the strongest Soviet Republic after Russia, and second, that the famine was a result of poorly considered policies and that, while Stalin did little to nothing to help the people of Ukraine once he was aware of what was happening, he had not intended to cause famine. This question of intent brings with it the question of whether this famine constituted genocide. In recent years, international human rights law has come to note that famine is always within human control, always able to be mitigated, and this has been reflected in conceptions of genocide (Marcus 245). The argument for and against classification of Holodomor as a genocide, however, is predicated on the outcome of the first debate – Stalin’s intent.

Some of the most vocal scholars in this debate are Robert Conquest, Michael Ellman, R.W. Davies, and Stephen G. Wheatcroft. Davies and Wheatcroft claim that Stalin accidentally caused but then purposely compounded the famine, while Ellman and Conquest argue that he purposely caused it. Conquest’s position, however, seems to have shifted towards the former in recent years (Davies, 629). The difference between these positions is not as clear as one might hope. All these scholars are, after all, working from the same archival documents, memoirs, and letters. Differences in opinion arise from personal considerations regarding the accuracy of documents such as reported yields, census figures, or the intent behind turns of phrase in a letter. Still other differences arise in the methods of calculating death tables for the famine and determining which deaths can be attributed to it, since little to no census data exists from that time period.

Davies and Wheatcroft argue that Stalin attempted to alleviate the shortages by authorizing a reduction of the collection plans and distribution of secret Politburo food stores to the peasants (627), although they note that these actions were clearly not enough. Stalin believed that the famine was the fault of the peasants, who were not working hard enough, and his decision to use force to ensure that the grain quotas were met indicates a refusal to acknowledge the failure of his own policies (628). They conclude that, although famine may not have been his goal, Stalin “consciously abet[ed] it” by putting “Soviet interests” over prevention of starvation (629). Ellman similarly argues that Stalin’s class historical outlook naturally entailed “a rejection of the idea of giving priority to humanitarian considerations in decision making” (674). His argument is that, while Stalin did orchestrate the famine, his real target was not the Ukrainians as a race or their nationalist spirit, but a specific subset of peasants – the “idlers” and “kulaks” (676). He notes that bad harvests alone would not have led to such a shortage, and the forcible collection of grain as well the export of 1.8 million tons in the middle of a crisis and refusal of aid from both at home and abroad constitutes a deliberate starvation of the people (684).

Ellman, unlike Davies and Wheatcroft, goes on to consider the question of genocide. He notes that “negligent genocide” is not within the scope of the United Nations Genocide Convention (682). Other scholars have made this same point with regard to the question of Holodomor, proposing a differentiation between the classifications of genocide and “genocidal” (Naimark) or a system of degrees of “faminogenic behavior” with the first and second degrees being marked by malicious intent (Marcus, 246-247). One of the primary problems for those who wish to classify Holodomor as genocide is the fact that Stalin cannot be claimed to have targeted this area based on race (Magosci, 246). From his own correspondence, Stalin seems to have approached the question of the famine with the axiom “he who does not work, neither shall he eat” (Ellman, 665). His conviction that laziness played a role in the peasants’ starvation and his desire to exploit that to starve away all the lazy peasants would not have been racially motivated. This was not, then, “an attempt to ‘target the very existence’ of Ukrainians ‘as such’” (683). In contrast with the UN Genocide Convention, the French Criminal Code uses a definition of genocide which is more “relaxed”, and allows for classification based on any arbitrary

characteristic (such as class or political distinctions) whether that identification is self-imposed by the group or in the mind of the genocidiaire (687). The issue underlying the use of this definition of genocide is that, not only does it expand the number of genocides under Stalin and in the Soviet Union, but it also hugely expands the number of genocides committed all over the world, including some in the United States, Great Britain, and elsewhere. Despite these issues, at least eight countries, including the United States and Canada have officially recognized Holodomor as genocide (Wikipedia). There is even a Holodomor Genocide Memorial which was cleared by the US Senate in 2006 (“Ukraine Famine Memorial”) and which officially broke ground in 2008 (Embassy) but has not yet begun actual construction. Spain (690-691). While this problematization does not lessen the tragedy of Holodomor, it does give rise to questions about the way in which we choose to conceptualize both this and other tragedies.


Works Cited

  • David Marcus, “Famine Crimes in International Law,” The American Journal of International Law 97, no. 2 (2003): 245-281.
  • Ivan L. Rudnytsky, “The Soviet Ukraine in Historical Perspective,” Canadian Slavonic Papers/Revue Canadienne des Slavistes 14, no. 2 UKRAINE (1972): 235-250.
  • Robert Conquest, Harvest of Sorrow (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).
  • R.W. Davies and Stephen G. Wheatcroft, “Stalin and the Soviet Famine of 1932-33: A Reply to Ellman,” Europe-Asia Studies 58, no. 4 (2006): 625-633.
  • Michael Ellman, “Stalin and the Soviet Famine of 1932-33 Revisited,” Europe-Asia Studies 59, no. 4 (2007): 663-693.
  • Norman M. Naimark, Stalin’s Genocides (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).
  • Paul Robert Magosci, Ukraine: An Illustrated History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007).
  • Wikipedia, “Holodomor genocide question”, 13 March 2012, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holodomor_genocide_question.
  • “Ukraine Famine Memorial,” US Senate Report 109-244, 20 April 2006.
  • Embassy of Ukraine, “Ukrainian Genocide Memorial groundbreaking ceremony in Washington D.C.” Embassy of Ukraine to the United States of America, 2 December 2008. http://www.mfa.gov.ua/usa/en/news/detail/18139.html.