Since Robert Conquest’s pathbreaking The Harvest of Sorrow (1986), Western and Russian, Ukrainian and Kazakh studies based on newly available archives have explained the mechanisms leading to the terrible famines of 1931-1933.
In spite of diverging opinions regarding the sequence of events or the importance of various factors, historians agree that these famines were not the result of poor weather conditions but directly caused by regime policies in place since 1930. Forced collectivization carried out against the will of the vast majority of farming communities led to a catastrophic drop in livestock and a strong decline in agricultural production.
The State strongly increased its levy on harvests and livestock products once market mechanisms (still more or less functional under the NEP) had been broken down. The country’s speedy industrialization was indeed supposed to be financed by massive agricultural exports requiring such predatory levies on harvests that the entire productive cycle was disrupted.
Kazakhstan — early 1931 to early 1933
As elsewhere in the USSR, forced collectivization and “dekulakization” since 1930 had brought about great upheaval in Kazakhstan where, moreover, a vast plan to settle its nomadic herders was underway. In this cattle-rearing and transhumance region, the creation of collective farms and State farms was indeed supposed to force nomad and semi-nomad stockbreeders to settle. Measures were taken to guide Kazakh economy from a “natural economy” to a “socialist economy.” The development of a cereal-based agriculture was intended to break down clannish structures that, according to the communists in charge, maintained the “Kazakh masses” in a state of oppression.
It has been established that the population of Kazakhstan decreased by 1.7 to 2 million people between 1931 and 1933. Approximately 600,000 had fled areas, which were devastated by famine [many across the Chinese border to the related Uighur population in Sinkiang]; the others, between 1.1 and 1.4 million, died of hunger or epidemics.
Ukraine and Kuban — 1932-1933
Famines in Ukraine were different from other famines occurring in the Soviet Union between 1931 and 1933. Ideologically motivated policies implemented since the end of 1929 were directly responsible for the Ukrainian famines even if they had not originally been considered or programmed as such. In 1931, Ukraine, the Kuban and Black Earth regions of Russia delivered a great portion of their agricultural production to the State. The Ukraine, for instance, contributed 42% of its total harvest, an exceptionally high levy that fully disrupted a production cycle already strained by forced collectivization and dekulakization.
On 22 January 1933, Stalin himself drafted a circular ordering the blockade of the Ukrainian countryside on. In February 1933 alone 220,000 Ukrainian peasants trying to flee their villages were stopped by OGPU troops. 190,000 were sent back to their homes, thus condemned to certain death; the remainder were either sent to camps or deported. While millions of farmers died of hunger, the Soviet government exported 1,800,000 tons of cereal to honor debts to Germany and to buy foreign machinery for accelerated industrialization plans. Strategic State reserves, stored in the event of war, exceeded three million tons for the year 1933, a quantity more than sufficient to save the lives of millions of famished farmers. The estimated number of death by famine in Ukraine and in Kuban varies from four million to four and a half million.
Volga region — 1932-1933
Apart from Ukraine and Kuban, other major Soviet grain-producing regions were struck by famine. These more localized famines were also not due to bad weather conditions, but rather to disproportionate levies on collective farm production. The most afflicted areas were the Lower and Middle Volga in Russia where excess mortality reached 300,000 to 400,000 in 1933.
The “special settlements” — 1933
The Northern Region, the Urals, and western Siberia
Following a drastic reduction in “standards of rationing” allocated by the administration to the “specially displaced”, food shortages and famines became recurrent in a great number of “special settlements” of the Northern Region, Karelia, the Urals and western Siberia. According to centralized statistics from the Department of Gulag Special Settlements 151,000 “specially displaced” persons died in 1933, a 14% death rate (1,110,000 persons were registered as “specially displaced” on 1 JANUARY 1933). Even the authorities recognized that the majority of deaths were due to “food dystrophy”.
Excerpted from Nicolas Werth
“Crimes against Humanity under Stalin, 1930-1951”