How A 1930s Soviet Famine Targeted Ukraine — And Why It Matters More Than Ever
Ukraine and countries around the world recognize the Holodomor, the famine which killed millions of Ukrainians in the early 1930s, as a genocide caused by Soviet authorities. But Russia still refuses to admit responsibility. A new study uses agricultural records and mathematical modeling to show that the famine clearly targeted Ukrainians.
KYIV — The Holodomor was one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of the 20th century. In the course of just two years, from 1932 to 1933, between 5 and 10.8 million people died of hunger in the Soviet Union — at least 2.6 to 3.9 million of them in Ukraine alone.
Until the 1980s, the Soviet government denied that the tragedy happened at all. Modern Russian historians now agree that the famine was caused by human action. But while Ukraine, the European Parliament, the U.S. and Canada, among other countries, have all recognized Holodomor as a genocide, most Russian historians still disagree, arguing that people also died in other grain-producing regions of the Soviet Union.
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This historical dispute has strong political significance. The Ukrainian government often repeats its demand for apology and restitution from Russia, the legal successor to the USSR, for orchestrating the famine. The Kremlin says describing the Holodomor as a genocide is anti-Russian propaganda. After its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Russian forces dismantled memorials to the Holodomor in occupied cities of Mariupol and Kreminna.
"The famine in Ukraine was chosen as a way to subdue the Ukrainian people," says former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko. "The goal was to bleed Ukraine, to undermine its strength and thus eliminate the possibility of restoring Ukrainian statehood."
Ukrainians in Munich, Germany remember the Holodomor Genocide on the 90th anniversary of the famine in 2022.
There was enough grain
Using mathematical models and Soviet-era records, a team of economists have estimated the contribution of Soviet economic policy to the high death rate of Ukrainians during the famine, and whether the data suggest the famine targeted Ukrainians.
Andrei Markevich at the University of Helsinki and New Economic School in Moscow, Natalya Naumenko at George Mason University and Nancy Qian at Northwestern University presented their results at the American Economic Association conference in January 2023.
They began their study with a thesis: the harvest of 1932 in Ukraine was smaller than in previous years, but would have been enough to feed the population. The harvest in the rest of the USSR would also have been sufficient for people there, without taking grain from Ukraine. The main cause of the famine therefore was not a decrease in grain production, but instead the removal of grain from Ukraine, whose agriculture had already been destroyed by Soviet collectivization — the forced integration of individual landholdings and labor into collective state-controlled farms.
In 1932, the minimum grain allowance per person was 0.78 kilograms per day. But that year, Soviet authorities left Ukraine 31% less than this minimum amount needed to survive.
Kazakhstan and Russian regions that survived the famine were also allocated less grain, but the study shows that more was taken from Ukrainian areas.
On average years, mortality in Ukraine at the time was 18 people per 1,000. In 1932, that number rose to 22, and the following year to 60 people per 1,000 — more than three times higher. In Russia and Belarus, the mortality rate also rose, but far less dramatically: from 22 people per 1000 in 1932 to 30 people in 1933.
The study also found that across the USSR, more people died in regions that had more Ukrainians. Mortality followed national, not administrative, boundaries. At the time, a quarter of Ukrainians lived in other regions of the USSR, outside Ukraine. In those regions, the mortality rate was as high as in Ukraine itself. Soviet authorities also took more grain from regions with more Ukrainians, and allocated them less.
The first five-year plan for the Soviet economy, which was adopted in 1928, called for more grain to be removed from Ukraine, the study found. The plan also left less grain in a region populated by Ukrainians than in an area with the same level of harvesting where there were no Ukrainians.
The result: in 1926, before the famine, Ukrainians made up 21.3% of the USSR's population. In 1939, the number had plummeted to 16.5%.
Starved peasants on a street in Kharkiv, 1933.
Economists cannot answer this question, but they offer theories for further study.
During collectivization and the Civil War, Ukrainians stubbornly resisted Soviet policies. The state oppressed Ukrainians as a means of controlling agriculture, which accounted for half of the USSR's GDP.
Ukraine and southern Russia were the most agriculturally productive regions. Collectivization ensured control of grain production and distribution, which was necessary for industrialization. By exporting grain, the Communist government paid for technology and employees for new factories.
"The basis of the national question, its inner essence, is still the question of the peasant. It explains that the peasantry represents the main army of the national movement and that without a peasant army, there is not and cannot be a powerful national movement. This is what they mean when they say that the national question is essentially a peasant question," Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin said in 1925.
"Every Ukrainian is a potential nationalist," said former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, recalling the words of Stalin's colleague Lazar Kaganovich, who headed the Communist Party of Ukraine from 1925 to 1928.
Communists thought that Ukrainians must be hiding grain from the government and, therefore, could be required to supply more grain to the USSR: they would find somewhere to hide grain and save themselves from starving to death. This may have been possible in 1928-1930, but not in 1932-1933. Similar logic led to the famine in China in 1959-1961: authorities were sure that peasants were hiding some of their crops, and that, afraid it would be confiscated, they did not report their harvests to the government. But in China, the famine killed without regard to nationality, while in the Soviet Union, Ukrainians were the primary victims, regardless of where they lived.