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Ukraine: Famine -- Eliminating An 'Enemy' Class Through Collectivization (Part 1)

Ukrainians are commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Stalin regime's forced farm-collectivization program -- a process that culminated in a man-made famine in one of the world's most fertile regions. An estimated 7 and 11 million people died of starvation, mostly in Ukraine but also in the North Caucasus, Kazakhstan, and Russia. In a three-part series, RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky reports on the motivation behind Josef Stalin's notorious plan, the memories of those who survived the famine, and why even today so little is known about the tragedy.

Prague, 8 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- This year marks the 70th anniversary of a collectivization program masterminded by former Soviet leader Josef Stalin that claimed the lives of millions of people, mostly Ukrainian peasant farmers.

An artificial famine of devastating proportions was the culmination of a savage piece of human engineering designed to eliminate an economic class that the Communists viewed as their fierce opponents. It was also intended to break the will of Ukrainians -- Communists and non-Communists alike -- who clung to their national identity.

The tsarist-era owners of sweeping plots of land had already been killed or driven out by the 1917 Communist revolution. But the Soviet leadership also despised the millions of peasant farmers who took their place, maintaining small farms and growing mostly grain. To the Communists, such farmers were a threatening example of self-reliance and capitalism.

Stalin, in particular, saw Ukrainian peasants as forming the front line of the Ukrainian nationalist movement he so intensely disliked. He resented the compromises Moscow had been forced to make with Ukrainian Communists -- compromises that gave them a degree of autonomy and that saw a revival of Ukrainian culture and language.

The Soviets divided the peasants into different categories. The primary class enemy was the kulak, relatively well-off farmers who could afford to own several heads of livestock and occasionally hire help with plowing or harvesting. To eliminate the kulaks, the Communists hoped to gain the support from poorer peasant farmers by drumming up class resentment.

In late 1929, Stalin launched a "dekulakization" program centered on Ukraine but encompassing the North Caucuses -- which had high proportions of ethnic Ukrainians among peoples like the Kuban Cossacks -- and Kazakhstan.

A venomous propaganda war fomented hatred against kulaks and their families, portraying them as a threat equal to an invading foreign army. Communists and brigades of so-called "activists" backed by Soviet secret police brutally stripped the kulaks of their homes and possessions, shooting those who resisted and deporting millions to Siberia and the Far North.

In 1931, Teodora Soroka was an 11-year-old girl in what was branded as a kulak family in a village in Ukraine's Poltavschyna region.

"My grandfather hired laborers for harvesting and plowing when necessary and, in the fall, when they harvested wheat, he hired people," she says. "And because of that, the Soviet authorities persecuted him terribly. Not just him, but the entire family because they called him an exploiter. They destroyed my family in a completely inhumane way."

Around 7.5 million people, including one million in Kazakhstan, are estimated to have died during the period of "dekulakization." Many kulaks resorted to slaughtering their livestock and burning down their homes rather than seeing them confiscated. Thousands were shot for opposing the brigades sent to strip them of their property. Many died during the weeks of transport in unheated trains to labor camps, with little food to sustain them. The largest percentage perished in the first years after their deportation.

Soroka's grandfather and father were among those deported. She never saw them again. She, together with her mother, sister, aunt, and seven cousins, remained in Poltavschyna, not knowing that the still-greater horror of famine awaited them. Nearly all of her family died of starvation in 1933.

Together with "dekulakization," a process of collectivization was under way. The Communists imposed crippling grain demands on peasant farmers to make it unprofitable to sustain their small holdings and pressure them into joining collective farms.

Moscow sent 25,000 trusted Communists from Russia to organize collective and state farms. The secret police and often the army were used to terrorize peasants into joining. The Communists were dismayed that even after the vicious propaganda campaign most peasants sympathized more with kulaks than with the Communist Party.

Many of these poorer peasants were ultimately reclassified as kulaks themselves. Most joined the collective farms reluctantly. Many were executed for trying to sell off or slaughter their livestock rather than donating them to the collective farms.

The authorities worked vigorously to extract the unrealistically high grain yields demanded by Moscow, leaving pitifully little with which the farmers could feed themselves and their families.

The collective farms were notoriously inefficient. Even so -- and against the pleas of even senior Ukrainian Communist leaders -- Stalin in 1932 increased grain quotas in Ukraine, the North Caucasus, and Russia's Volga region. The demand made famine inevitable.

Communist loyalists during the Soviet era -- and some even today -- have blamed the famine on a poor harvest in 1932. But even Soviet records show the year's harvest as satisfactory. Soroka remembers the peasants were pleased.

"The collectivization of wheat had begun in 1932. In 1932 there was a big harvest. People said the grain had grown so high that the heads of people walking in the fields couldn't be seen. The stalks were so heavy with grain that they snapped. Nobody foresaw such a good harvest in 1932. When the Soviet authorities said [the famine] was the fault of a poor harvest, they were lying," she says.

As hunger begun to take a firmer grip on the peasant population, the communist authorities used force and terror to fulfill the grain quotas which left peasants and collective farms with little or nothing to sustain themselves with. Thousands of peasants who tried to hide grain or other food to feed their families were executed, as were many local Communist officials who objected to a policy that brought starvation to many areas as 1932 approached its end.

The book "Harvest of Sorrow" by British historian Robert Conquest is considered the most comprehensive study of the period. In it, he says Stalin was aware that the excessive grain requisitions would lead to famine, but persisted in order to destroy what he saw as the double threat of peasant anti-Communism and Ukrainian nationalism.

Soroka says she has no doubt this was the case.

"They thought up the idea of an artificial famine as the easiest way to break Ukraine's neck and to take control of Ukraine at little cost to themselves." Starvation was rampant in 1933, claiming at least seven million lives.

Part two of this series on Ukraine's famine focuses on eyewitness accounts of the events, including instances of cannibalism.

Holodomor: The Great Famine

Slide Show
Holodomor: The Great Famine

Survivors remember the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine that killed millions of their countrymen. Play