General Essay

The Holodomor, 1932–1933 — The Genocidal Famine in Ukraine

One of the most devastating events of the twentieth century occurred in Ukraine, which had been incorporated into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1922.  A genocide was carried out against the Ukrainian population in 1932–1933, which subsequently was denied, dismissed and hidden from world scrutiny for more than seven decades.

Although Ukrainians in the West had long maintained that millions had died, including several million children, as the result of a state-organized famine in 1932–1933, the true nature of the Holodomor came to light only as archives in Moscow and Ukraine were opened following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. This death toll was above and beyond countless numbers of Ukrainians who were executed by firing squads, deported to Siberia or sent to the Gulag.

The word Holodomor is used to describe death or murder inflicted by starvation. It comes from two Ukrainian words: “holod,” meaning starvation or famine, and “moryty,” to inflict death. For generations, the very mention of the Famine was forbidden in Ukraine, and the Holodomor was often a bitter secret among survivors, hidden even from their own children.

In the western world, this great human tragedy was little known or acknowledged. How and why did this happen and who was responsible for the death of these millions?

Historical Background

After 250 years of Russian Tsarist rule, Ukrainians declared independence from Russia in January 1918 in the midst of war and revolution. Ravaged by war, revolution and invasion by various armies, Ukraine finally lost the battle for independence as it was overrun by Red Army forces pf Bolshevik Russia.. By 1921, Ukraine was partitioned, with the central and eastern regions controlled by Russian Communist forces and the western regions controlled by Poland, Romania and Hungary. Ukrainians thus became the largest minority nationality within the newly formed USSR. To appease the large non-Russian populations within the Soviet Union, in 1921 the Soviet leadership launched a New Economic Policy that provided greater economic freedom and permitted private enterprise, mainly independent farms and small businesses. To increase support for the Communist regime, in 1923 a policy of indigenization (korenizatsiia) was introduced, which sought to develop the non-Russian Soviet republics economically and culturally. Through much of the 1920s, Ukrainian village populations flourished — socially, politically, educationally and demographically, bringing about an increase in the number of successful independent farmers on the black soil of Ukraine. The Ukrainian SSR also experienced a notable cultural rebirth, with writers, artists and intellectuals creating innovative new works in the Ukrainian language.

First Five-Year Plan and lead-up to the Genocidal Famine

By 1928 Stalin had won the power struggle within the Communist Party and became the sole and undisputed leader of the USSR. His rule was characterized by the ruthless elimination of anyone and anything he perceived as a threat to his power. For Stalin, the independent-minded farmers and cultural freedoms in Ukraine constituted such threats. Starting in 1929, Ukraine’s writers, artists, educators, intellectuals and cultural elites were liquidated for being “too Ukrainian” and not “Soviet” enough. In 1930 Stalin wiped out Ukraine’s independent church, the Ukrainian Autocephalous (independent) Orthodox Church, and its clergy. Following the destruction of the intellectuals and the church, the Ukrainian farmers, who made up 80 percent of Ukraine’s population and thus were carriers of the language and culture, were next to be dealt a mortal blow.

In 1928 the First Five-Year Plan of the Soviet Union was put in place, which had as its aim the rapid industrialization of the USSR at any cost. As part of the Five-Year Plan of 1928–1933, the Soviet leaders conducted a massive reorganization of privately owned farms into collective (state-owned) farms and imposed high crop requisition quotas. It was the sale of grain that was to pay for industrialization. Independent farmers were forced to give up to the state their private land, livestock and equipment, without compensation. They simply became workers of the collective farm, who would be paid only if the collective farm handed over to the state the quota in crops set by Moscow.

The opposition of Ukrainian farmers to collectivization was vocal and revolts were widespread. The Soviet state reacted quickly and ruthlessly. First, the more well-to-do farmers and their families were labelled by the state as kurkuls (kulaks), and these village leaders were targeted and demonized in the press by the Soviet government as “anti-Soviet, unwanted elements.” Beginning in 1929-1930, 1 500,000 so-called kurkuls/kulaks in Ukraine were systematically destroyed by firing squads or deported to Siberian concentration camps. Moreover, anyone opposed to collectivization was conveniently labelled a kurkul/kulak and dealt with accordingly.

Having disposed of the leaders and best farmers in Ukraine, the Soviet regime continued with the forced collectivization of agriculture, and the remaining farmers became the target. Several measures were implemented. The state imposed huge quotas for wheat, which were especially severe in Ukraine. Any opposition to collectivization was met by brutal force. Secret police (OGPU) and Red Army units were sent to villages to collect the every last bit of grain by force. Next, the state implemented policies that ensured not just the collection of quotas, nor collectivization, but the death of millions of farmers in Ukrainian villages. Communist brigades were sent out to search the homes of individual farmers, not only for hidden grain and seed but to confiscate all kinds of foodstuffs — onions, pumpkins, vegetables put up in jars for the winter — anything the families might use to survive the winter.

A law enacted in August 1932 (“The Law of Five Ears of Grain”) stated that anyone, even a child, caught taking any produce from a collective field could be shot or imprisoned for stealing “socialist property.” A decree in January 1933 sealed the borders.  To further ensure that Ukrainian farmers did not leave their villages to seek food in the cities, the Soviet government started a system of internal passports, denied to farmers, so that they could not travel or obtain a train ticket without permission. Those caught attempting to flee to the cities or beyond Ukraine’s borders, where conditions were better, were imprisoned or sent home to die. Over one-third of the villages in Ukraine and the Kuban (an area in the Russian republic adjacent to Ukraine, where the population was mostly Ukrainian) were put on a “blacklist” (“chorna doshka”) for failing to meet grain quotas and were forbidden from receiving any supplies. This was essentially a collective death sentence for these villages. Settlers from Russia and Belarus were later brought in to resettle these depopulated areas.

In the meantime, the wheat stored in government warehouses was either sold abroad for export, rotted from mismanagement, or used for the production of alcohol.

To minimize possible sympathies for the suffering of the local population, Stalin also attacked local political leaders in Ukraine, imprisoning many and putting others to death. Some committed suicide. These Ukrainian Communists were replaced with party members from outside the Ukrainian SSR. Having brought the Ukrainian farmers to their knees and eliminated the political leadership that might harbour Ukrainian national consciousness, there was little open opposition to Soviet rule. On the collective farms, those who survived became little better than slave labourers on land cultivated by their ancestors, which had served as the “breadbasket of Europe” for centuries. In the summer of 1933, Stalin gave orders to open the granaries to a devastated and defeated nation, which had lost millions of its citizens.


Why did this happen? This remains a very important question for historians. For decades, the USSR denied outright that the Famine had taken place, to say nothing of the charge that it was man-made, or artificial. One school of post-Soviet historians attributes the loss of life to “excesses” or difficulties in the process of collectivization. There is no question that the disruption of agricultural life through the reorganization of land ownership and cultivation methods led to deaths, but this point of view does not account for the disproportionate, massive starvation that occurred in Ukraine and the Kuban.

Another school of historians has concluded that the Famine was deliberate and linked to a broader Soviet policy to subjugate the Ukrainian people. With the fall of the Soviet Union and opening of Soviet-era archives, researchers have been able to demonstrate that Soviet authorities undertook measures specifically in Ukraine with the knowledge that the result would be the deaths of millions of Ukrainians by starvation. The most recent research leaves little doubt that the Holodomor was a calculated act of genocide.

Nationalities policy

As can be expected, the economy was not the only concern of the newly created state — establishing Soviet power over the different nationalities was also a major concern. In 1923 the Soviets launched a policy called indigenization (korenizatsia), which was aimed at attracting members of local nationalities into the Communist party. In Ukraine this policy was called Ukrainization. It led to a cultural renaissance, growth in Ukrainian national consciousness and also a more favourable view of the USSR. Ukrainians were nationally conscious of their origins, loved their language and culture, and considered themselves a separate and distinct ethnic group equal to the Russians. However, the resistance to collectivization and to forced grain requisitions in Ukraine were in Stalin’s mind related to a growing Ukrainian nationalism that he feared could lead to the separation of Ukraine from the USSR. In August 1932, at a critical time in the events leading to the Holodomor, Stalin expressed his concern that “if we do not correct the situation … we could lose Ukraine.”

That explains the fact that the peasantry constitutes the main army of the national movement, that there is no powerful national movement without the peasant army, nor can there be. That is what is meant when it is said that, in essence, the national question is a peasant question.

Accessed March 11, 2011,

Reaction to the Ukrainian Genocidal Famine

Foreign journalists stationed inside the USSR largely ignored the Holodomor in the 1930s, while most governments, whose countries were going through the Great Depression, knew but did nothing.

The Cover-Up

The journalist, Walter Duranty, of the The New York Times, who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his articles about the USSR, wrote that:

There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation, but there is widespread mortality from disease due to malnutrition… conditions are bad. But there is no famine.

There were a few journalists who wrote about starvation in Ukraine, such as the Welshman Gareth Jones, who wrote for the New York American and Los Angeles Examiner, and Malcolm Muggeridge, a British foreign correspondent. In his article “War on the Peasants” in the Fortnightly Review, May 1, 1933, Muggeridge wrote:

On one side, millions of starving peasants, their bellies often swollen from lack of food; on the other, soldiers, members of the GPU (secret police) carrying out the instructions of the dictatorship of the proletariat. They had gone over the country like a swarm of locusts and taken away everything edible, they had shot or exiled thousands of peasants, sometimes whole villages, they had reduced some of the most fertile land in the
world to a melancholy desert.

In fact, in 1932, Soviet wheat from Ukraine — confiscated from Ukrainian farmers by Red Army troops and secret police — was dumped on world markets at ridiculously low prices. Even Canadian farmers suffered because they could not match the low prices set for Soviet grain. No one could believe that the people who had grown the wheat were being starved to death.

The Genocide the World Forgot

In Ukraine, it was impossible to mention publicly, teach about, or to discuss the Holodomor openly until the late 1980s. Information about the Famine was only available in the West, mostly from eyewitness testimonies of refugees who had survived the event and escaped from the Soviet Union after World War Two.

A succession of Soviet governments maintained a formal denial that the Holodomor had taken place. Even today, authorities of the Russian Federation admit that there were famines in the 1930s in the USSR, but refuse to acknowledge the deliberate nature of the Famine in 1932–1933 in Ukraine. The truth about the Holodomor started to become available to the citizens of Ukraine only on the eve of the break-up of the USSR. Eyewitness accounts and documentary evidence emerged that showed that Ukraine was indeed targeted for starvation in the wake of a shift in Soviet nationality policy.

The Holodomor is commemorated each year on the fourth Saturday in November. Canada and numerous other countries have recognized the Holodomor as genocide. Across Canada, many school boards commemorate the Holodomor each year on the fourth Friday in November. We remember and honour its victims and dedicate ourselves to preventing such crimes from occurring again. There are many ways of bringing about the destruction of a nation or its parts — starvation was just one of the methods used against the Ukrainians in the twentieth century.

They are just too many to forget.

[Excerpt From Holodomor in Ukraine, The Genocidal Famine 1932-33: Teaching Materials for Teachers and Students – By Valentina Kuryliw]


Conquest, R., Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror Famine. Oxford University Press, 1987.

Pyrih, Ruslan. ed., Holodomor of 1932-33 in Ukraine: Documents and Materials. National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, Institute of History of Ukraine, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine, Kyiv Mohyla Academy Publishing House, Kyiv, 2008.

Areas affected by the Famine

Reprinted with the permission of the League of Ukrainian Canadians from the exhibit/CD “Holodomor: Genocide by Famine.”

Reprinted with the permission of the League of Ukrainian Canadians from the exhibit/CD “Holodomor: Genocide by Famine.”