The history of Ukraine during the 20th century is one of political turmoil, with multiple occupations by foreign countries, all of whom, to a greater or lesser degree, sought to suppress the Ukraine’s separate identity and national consciousness, using the most brutal means at their disposal.
From the early 1920s, Ukraine suffered a series of famines. The earliest, in 1921-22, was caused primarily by drought, but the Soviet government also used it as an opportunity to weaken nationalist sections of Ukrainian society. While the government was consolidating its position, Soviet policy had to concede to Ukrainian nationalist feeling, so that during the early part of the 1920s, Ukrainian culture was allowed to flourish and Ukrainians were given government posts. But by 1927, Stalin was ready both to take on the problem of Ukrainian nationalism, and to drive forward his policies of dekulakisation and collectivisation.
Kulaks (the better off farmers) were seen as a particular threat to collectivisation, and were therefore targeted for destruction as a class. Arrests, expropriation of property, deportations and executions spread to all peasants who resisted orders to join collective farms. By 1931, 75% of Ukrainian peasants were working in collective farms, where productivity fell and wastage increased, at the same time as grain quotas for state use were being increased. The draconian quotas led to starvation on an unimaginable scale.
The quotas demanded by the state could not be met, but in spite of protests by some Ukrainian officials, even harsher laws were passed: forbidding local use of grain until quotas had been met; depriving those collectives who could not meet their quotas of all rights to trade; internal passports to prevent peasants leaving in search of food; and execution for those caught hiding or stealing food.
Estimates of the number of dead vary, partly because records were falsified or destroyed, or simply stopped being kept and partly because of debate about how many deaths were directly attributable to starvation. But it is widely accepted that at the height of the famine, in the spring of 1933:
Ukraine suffered a series of famines between 1921 and 1947. The first was in 1921–22; the second, 1924–25; the third, 1928–29; the fourth, the Holodmor, was between 1932–33; and the last was in 1946–47.
During the famine of 1921–22 approximately one million people died in Ukraine, and some 3 to 4 million died in Russia. There is virtually no information on mortality rates on the famines between 1924-25 and 1928-29. The famine that had the greatest toll on human life was the famine of 1932-33 – the Holodomor. Following WWII Ukraine again faced famine conditions in 1946-47, with hundreds of thousands of victims.
The famines were caused by a combination of food shortages, combined with adverse climatic conditions, poor crop yields, mismanagement, corruption and waste. But the main cause of starvation – particularly in 1932-33 - was the excessive grain requisitions ordered by the Soviet government, in the full knowledge it was condemning people to death.
The Soviet state was ready to sacrifice its people throughout the Soviet Union in the cause of ‘progress’, but the origin and management of food shortages in Ukraine had specific features which distinguish them from the other parts of the USSR.
Moscow responded to the 1921 drought and the ensuing famine that swept the Volga, the Northern Caucasus and the southern steppe lands in Ukraine with two very different policies. Food taxation was suspended in the starving Russian provinces, famine relief was organised and Western aid was requested and accepted. However Ukraine’s famine was denied. Food parcels from the West were returned and bodies of famine victims were scrupulously cleared from roads and railways. To compound matters, Ukraine was ordered to send some of its meagre crop to help Russia. Then later in 1922 Ukraine was forced to export grain and to give refuge to thousands of Russian refugees and Red Army units.
This first famine was a lesson to the Soviet authorities about the efficacy of famine as a tool of state policy. In Ukraine, the famine was seen as an effective way of physically weakening nationalist and anarchist elements which challenged Moscow’s rule of Ukraine.
The Holodomor of 1932-33 was the result of a planned three-pronged attack on Ukraine – through dekulakisation, collectivisation and deliberate and systematically organised famine.