Larry Slawson received his Masters Degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian History.
Was the Ukraine Famine of 1932 a Genocide or Natural Disaster?
The “Great Famine” of the Ukraine occurred during the early 1930s and resulted in the death of several million Soviet citizens over the course of a year. Reports suggest that the famine, in total, claimed anywhere from three to ten million lives. The official death toll is unknown, however, due to the numerous cover-ups by the Soviet Union, and the Communist Party’s denial of the famine for several decades.
While the famine’s causes have been traced to a variety of events, historians have been unable to effectively answer the question of whether the disaster was intentional or the result of natural causes. Furthermore, scholars continue to be divided on the issue of “genocide,” and whether Joseph Stalin’s actions (or inaction) during the Great Famine can be equated to charges of mass murder. This article will examine the interpretations made by historians over the last thirty years and their attempts to uncover the famine’s true origins. In doing so, this paper will incorporate views by both Western historians and Eastern European scholars in order to address how interpretations have differed significantly between the West and East over the past few decades.
Early Research: 1980s
In the decades following the famine, historians presented multiple interpretations on the event. Until the 1980s, the central debate amongst historians was between those who denied the existence of famine in the Ukraine, and those who acknowledged a famine had occurred, but argued that it resulted from natural causes such as weather that led to a poor harvest in 1932. This debate arose from the failure of the Soviet Union to release government reports on the famine. Cold War policies between the East and West, therefore, played a significant role in hampering early historical research into the incident since the Soviet Union did not wish to disclose any documents that could be used by Western countries to criticize their communist economic policies. While documents were limited, however, survivor accounts remained an excellent way for historians to gain a greater understanding of the Ukrainian famine. Lev Kopelev and Miron Dolot, two survivors of the Great Famine, introduced their own experiences regarding the event in the early 1980s. Both suggested that the famine resulted from deliberate starvation policies carried out by Stalin (Dolot, 1). These starvation policies, as observed by both authors, resulted from Stalin’s desire to wage “war” upon the kulaks, who were upper-class farmers in the Ukraine, and the peasantry as a means of bringing about economic stability to the Soviet Union (Kopelev, 256).
In the 1980s, the Soviet policies of “Glasnost” and “Perestroika” allowed for greater access to once sealed documents regarding the Ukrainian famine. In his monumental book Harvest of Sorrow, Robert Conquest, a United States historian of the Soviet Union, used these documents, as well as the survivor accounts of Dolot and Kopelev, to his advantage, and introduced to the world a new interpretation of the Ukrainian famine. It is here that the modern historiographical debate over the famine began.
According to Conquest, the “terror-famine,” as he calls it, directly resulted from the attack upon the kulak peasantry by Stalin, and the implementation of collectivization policies aimed at eliminating land ownership and pushing the peasantry into “collective farms” directed by the Communist Party (Conquest, 4). According to Conquest, Stalin deliberately set targets for grain production that were impossible to achieve, and systematically removed nearly all of the food supplies available to the Ukrainians (Conquest, 4). Stalin then did the unthinkable when he prevented any outside help from helping the starving peasants (Conquest, 4). As Conquest proclaims, this action by Stalin was aimed at undermining Ukrainian nationalism, which the Soviet leadership viewed as a tremendous threat to the security of the Soviet Union (Conquest, 4). This attack, under the pretext of collectivization, therefore allowed Stalin to effectively eliminate political adversaries and perceived “enemies” of the Soviet Union in one swift move. Conquest concludes that Stalin’s attack upon the kulaks and Ukrainian peasantry was nothing short of ethnic genocide.
This new take on the Ukrainian famine inspired the development of many more historical interpretations in the years that followed Conquest’s publication. The argument of premeditated “genocide” on behalf of Stalin was a central part of this new debate. With the collapse of the Soviet Union following the end of the Cold War, many more documents and government reports became available for historians to research. Hennadii Boriak, a researcher for the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, states that prior to the Soviet collapse information was very limited since no documents regarding the famine had been distributed from the Soviet archives until the end of the Cold War (Boriak, 22). In this “pre-archival” period, “Western historiography” was entirely reliant on survivor accounts, journalism, and photographs (Boriak, 22). This, in turn, greatly limited Robert Conquest’s investigation of the Ukrainian famine, and led many historians to question the legitimacy of his argument. With the arrival of the “archival” period, following the end of the Cold War, Boriak states that a vast amount of “written information” became available for historians (Boriak, 22). This arrival of new information, in turn, allowed for the emergence of greater scholarly debate on the issue.
Modern Day Ukraine
1990s Research and Historiography
In 1991, Mark Tauger, a history professor at the University of West Virginia, offered a perspective that greatly differed from Robert Conquest’s genocide interpretation. According to Tauger, the idea of genocide was not logical since many of the sources researched by Conquest were largely “unreliable” (Tauger, 70). Rather, the Ukrainian famine was a consequence of the failed economic policies of collectivization that were exacerbated by a bad harvest in 1932. Tauger relied on various grain procurement data to substantiate his claim, and concluded that the famine resulted from a low harvest in 1932 that created a “genuine shortage” of available food across the Ukraine (Tauger, 84). According to Tauger, collectivization did not help the supply crisis of the early Thirties, but rather intensified the already present shortages (Tauger, 89). Therefore, Tauger suggested that it was hard to accept the famine as a “conscious act of genocide,” since various Soviet decrees and reports indicated that the famine directly resulted from economic policies and “forced industrialization” rather than a conscious genocidal policy carried out against the Ukrainians, as Conquest suggests (Tauger, 89).
During the 1990s, the rift between Conquest and Tauger over “genocide” became a key component of the famine debate, and led to further investigations by leading historians. Some historians such as D’Ann Penner rejected both Conquest’s and Tauger’s interpretation and developed their own conclusions regarding the event. In 1998, Penner, an oral historian at the Southern Institute for Education and Research, proposed that the Ukrainian famine of 1932 did not result from premeditated genocide or failed economic policies, but was a direct result of farmers resisting Stalin’s collectivization efforts, which in turn, was viewed by the Soviet leadership as a “declaration of war” against the Communist Party (Penner, 51). In her article “Stalin and the Ital’ianka of 1932-1933 in the Don Region,” Penner expands the focus to include areas in the North Caucasus in order to substantiate her claims. This was an entirely new take on the famine, as previous historians like Conquest and Tauger focused their investigations solely on the Ukraine.
According to Penner, Stalin’s “quota-setting” for grain procurement triggered great resistance against the Soviet leadership as peasants began to slack in their work duties, and purposely misplaced grain intended for exportation to the Soviet Union (Penner, 37). These various forms of protest greatly “enraged” Stalin (Penner, 37). As a result, Penner concludes that the peasant’s “indirectly contributed to the famine” since they helped diminish the overall amount of grain available to the Central Party for distribution across the Soviet Union (Penner, 38). In turn, the Soviet leadership organized actions aimed at “breaking” the peasant resistance (Penner, 44). Mass-killing on a genocidal scale, however, was not the intention of the Communist Party, as peasants were greatly needed for grain production and were far more valuable to the Soviets alive than dead. As Penner concludes: “Starvation politics were used to discipline and instruct,” not to kill on a massive scale (Penner, 52).
Historiographical Trends: 2000s–Present
Penner effectively supported her argument by researching areas affected by the famine outside of the Ukraine. The persuasiveness of her article, in turn, inspired additional research that dealt specifically with the issue of collectivization and its effect upon the peasantry. In 2001, shortly after Penner’s article was published, three Soviet historians, Sergei Maksudov, Niccolo Pianciola, and Gijs Kessler, each addressed the Great Famine’s effects in Kazakhstan and the Urals region in order to develop a greater understanding of the famine’s historical context.
Using demographic records, Sergei Maksudov concluded that nearly 12-percent of the combined population of the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and the North Caucasus died as a result of the Great Famine (Maksudov, 224). Within Kazakhstan alone, Niccolo Pianciola estimated that nearly 38 percent of the entire population were killed as a result of Stalin’s collectivization drives (Pianciola, 237). According to Gijs Kessler, the Urals did not suffer quite as badly as the other regions. Nevertheless, death from malnourishment and hunger slightly outpaced the overall birth rate in the Urals region in 1933, leading to a slight decline in population (Kessler, 259). Thus, each of these historians determined that Stalin’s collectivization policies and the famine were “intimately connected” to one another (Kessler, 263). What they did not address, however, was whether or not “mass death” was a goal of the Soviet leadership in their battle against the peasantry for complete control of these areas (Pianciola, 246).
The shocking realities of collectivization described by Maksudov, Pianciola, and Kessler developed a new area of interest in the historiographical debate. The dispute between proponents of genocide and failed economic policies collapsed virtually overnight, and a new controversial topic made its way to the forefront of the debate. A general consensus arose among historians, as it became increasingly accepted that the Ukrainian famine did not result from natural causes, as proposed by Mark Tauger. Rather, most historians agreed with Conquest that the famine resulted from man-made causes. The question that remained, however, was whether or not the event accidentally occurred, or was deliberately orchestrated by Stalin.
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In 2004, nearly two decades after the publication of Robert Conquest’s Harvest of Sorrow, R.W. Davies, in conjunction with Stephen Wheatcroft, proposed a new interpretation regarding the question of genocide. Like Conquest, both Davies and Wheatcroft in their book The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture 1931-1933, attempted to portray Stalin as the direct perpetrator of the famine (Davies and Wheatcroft, 441). However, they differed from Conquest in dismissing the case of intentionality and premeditated genocide. Both argued that the famine, instead, resulted from a flawed Soviet system of collectivization that established unrealistic goals, and which were established by men that had little understanding of economics and agriculture (Davies and Wheatcroft, 441). Davies and Wheatcroft both argued that genocide was still an appropriate term to describe the Ukrainian famine since Stalin could have undertaken measures to alleviate the mass-starvation that took place across the Ukraine (Davies and Wheatcroft, 441). Both authors, however, also professed a growing concern with Conquest’s intentionality, and “ethnic genocide” debate.
In 2007, Michael Ellman, an economics professor at the University of Amsterdam, published an article entitled “Stalin and the Soviet Famine of 1932-1933 Revisited” that largely agreed with the interpretations proposed by Davies and Wheatcroft, as well as Maksudov, Pianciola, and Kessler, by proclaiming that Stalin directly contributed to the Ukrainian famine through his collectivization policies. Like Davies and Wheatcroft, Ellman concluded that Stalin never had the intention “to implement a starvation policy,” and that the tragedy unfolded as a result of “ignorance” and Stalin’s “over-optimism” of collectivization” (Ellman, 665). Additionally, like D’Ann Penner before him, Ellman perceived the idea of hunger to be a means of discipline for the peasants (Ellman, 672). Ellman agreed with Penner that Stalin needed the peasants for military service, and for industrial and agricultural output (Ellman, 676). Therefore, deliberately killing off the peasants did not seem plausible.
Michael Ellman, however, differed from Davies and Wheatcroft by stating that the term “genocide” may not be an entirely accurate means of describing what transpired in the Ukraine. He believed that this was especially true if one took into account current international laws regarding what constitutes “genocide.” Ellman instead argued that Stalin, from a strictly legal definition, was only guilty of “crimes against humanity” since he did not think that Stalin deliberately attacked the Ukraine with the intention of mass-killings through starvation (Ellman, 681). Ellman argued that only through a “relaxed definition” of genocide could Stalin ever be implicated on charges of mass-murder (Ellman, 691). Allowing for a “relaxed definition” of genocide, however, would also make “genocide a common historical event” since countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States, and other western countries could also be found guilty of past genocidal crimes (Ellman, 691). Therefore, Ellman concluded that only international law should be used as the standard, thus, absolving Stalin of genocide charges altogether.
It is important to note that Ellman’s article was published around the time that the Ukrainian government began making requests for the United Nations to acknowledge that Stalin’s actions in the Great Famine were genocidal (Ellman, 664). It is highly probable that the actions undertaken by the Ukrainian government served as a catalyst for Ellman’s interpretation, as he sought to dissuade a growing number of scholars within the Ukraine from accepting their government’s claims of genocide as a legitimate answer to the famine’s causation.
In 2008, Hiroaki Kuromiya, a history professor at Indiana University, revisited the debate caused by Davies and Wheatcroft’s monograph in 2004 that resulted in both Mark Tauger and Michael Ellman offering incisive criticisms of Davies and Wheatcroft’s new theory (Kuromiya, 663). In his article “The Soviet Famine of 1932-1933 Reconsidered,” Kuromiya completely dismissed the earlier interpretation proposed by Mark Tauger, since he believed that his argument of the Ukrainian famine resulting from a bad harvest completely removed any possibility of the famine being man-made (Kuromiya, 663). As Kuromiya argues, the famine could have been avoided had Stalin offered help and ended his harsh collectivization policies (Kuromiya, 663). Yet, Stalin chose not to. In addition, Kuromiya suggested that Michael Ellman’s assessment of “genocide” being an appropriate term to describe Stalin’s actions was highly relevant to the historiographical debate (Kuromiya, 663). He added, however, that there was simply not enough information available for historians to effectively conclude whether or not Stalin knowingly committed genocide, and whether this exonerated or implicated him on charges of mass-murder (Kuromiya, 670).
Aside from offering his criticisms of past interpretations, Kuromiya also seized the opportunity to insert his own analysis into the historiographical debate over genocide. Kuromiya proposed that the “foreign factor” had been completely ignored in the famine debates, and should be discussed since the Soviet Union during this time was facing extensive foreign threats on both its Eastern and Western borders from Germany, Poland, and Japan (Kuromiya, 670). With these growing threats facing the Soviet Union, Kuromiya states that soldiers and military personnel took precedence over the citizen, especially with regard to food supplies (Kuromiya, 671). Kuromiya also stated that rebel activities became common throughout the Soviet Union around the time of the Great Famine. As a result, Stalin intensified pressure on these various “anti-Soviet activities” as a means of securing the borders and maintaining the welfare of the Soviet Union (Kuromiya, 672). These stern actions undertaken by Stalin, in turn, eliminated adversaries, but also intensified existing famines (Kuromiya, 672).
Shortly after Kuromiya’s publication, a counter-movement emerged among historians that challenged all existing interpretations that had followed Robert Conquest’s original analysis of the Great Famine. These historians included both David Marples and Norman Naimark, who set the tone for the next (and current) phase of the historiographical debate with their declaration that “ethnic genocide” was a key factor among the Ukrainian famine’s causes.
In 2009, David Marples, a history professor at the University of Alberta, returned to Robert Conquest’s early interpretation as a means of explaining the famine in the Ukraine. Marples, like Conquest, believed that the famine was a direct result of genocide aimed at the destruction of the Ukrainian people. Marples justified his claims by describing the extreme collectivization policies carried out against the peasantry, the Soviets’ denial of food to many villages, and Stalin’s attacks upon nationalism, of which were directed “predominately” against the Ukrainians (Marples, 514). Instead, Marples proposed that Stalin chose to carry out this ethnic-based attack because he greatly feared the possibility of a Ukrainian uprising (Marples, 506). As a result, Marples was largely dismissive of nearly all the earlier interpretations by historians since they did not examine whether or not Stalin may have devised the famine as a form of ethnic extermination (Marples, 506).
Norman Naimark, an Eastern European history professor at Stanford University, makes the same point as Marples. In his book Stalin’s Genocides, Naimark maintains that the Ukrainian famine was a clear case of “ethnic genocide” by Stalin (Naimark, 5). Naimark, like Marples, finds fault with Davies and Wheatcroft’s “unintentional” interpretation, and Mark Tauger’s “bad harvest” analysis of the famine. Additionally, he rejects Michael Ellman’s unwillingness to decide if the famine could be considered “genocidal” due to current international laws. According to Naimark, Stalin was guilty regardless of the legal definition (Naimark, 4). Thus, Naimark’s and Marple’s interpretation is highly reminiscent of Robert Conquest’s Harvest of Sorrow of 1986. This is significant since Naimark’s explanation of the Ukrainian famine is one of the most recent interpretations. It is interesting that after nearly thirty years of research, some historians have chosen to return back to the initial interpretation that initiated the modern historiography on the Great Ukrainian famine.
In conclusion, all of the historians under discussion agree that further research is necessary to uncover the true causes of the Ukrainian famine. However, research into the famine appears to be at a standstill. David Marples attributes this halt to the growing rift between Western and Eastern scholars regarding the debate over genocide. Whereas Ukrainians generally view the event as a “holodomor,” or forced starvation, Western scholars tend to ignore this aspect entirely (Marples, 506). Marples proposes that in order to fully understand the Ukrainian famine, scholars should set aside previous interpretations, since so many exist, and begin a new form of analysis with the “ethnic question” at the forefront of the debate (Marples, 515–516). Setting aside other interpretations would allow for an unprecedented amount of scholarly cooperation between the West and East that had not existed in years prior (Marples, 515–516). Marples believes that this cooperation, in turn, would allow the historiographical debate to move forward and enable better interpretations in the near future (Marples, 515–516).
In the meantime, further research is needed for areas outside of Ukraine in order to address the “Great Famine” in its entirety. Additionally, there is a great potential for further interpretations to be made. The famine debate is only a few decades old, and it is likely that there are still plenty of documents and reports to be deciphered by historians in the near future. Advances in research on the Ukrainian famine will only continue, however, if scholars from the West and from Eastern Europe learn to cooperate more effectively and put aside “preconceived” biases, just as David Marples has proclaimed (Marples, 516).
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 Larry Slawson