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Mass Crimes under Stalin (1930-1953)

Last modified: 21 December 2009
Nicolas Werth

March 2008

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Nicolas Werth, Mass Crimes under Stalin (1930-1953), Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, [online], published on 14 March 2008, accessed 27 May 2015, URL : http://www.massviolence.org/Mass-crimes-under-Stalin-1930-1953, ISSN 1961-9898

 Deportation of the Ukrainian and Kuban farming communities as part of the autumn 1932 "collection campaign"****

In the autumn of 1932, during the particularly frantic "procurement campaign" which was launched in the great grain producing regions (Ukraine, Kuban, Lower and Middle Volga) in order to achieve the exportation program in this last year of the 1st Five Year Plan, not merely kulak families but entire peasant communities, accused of "sabotaging the procurement campaign," were deported. Thus, in November-December 1932, three Cossack stanitsy (large boroughs) of Kuban (Medvedovskaya, Umanskaya, Poltavskaya) were entirely emptied of their population, which was deported to Siberia, the Ural and Kazakhstan (45,600 deported). Shortly thereafter, demobilized soldiers of the Red Army settled in these stanitsy with their families. This collective deportation (the only precedent of which had been the deportation of Terek Cossacks at the end of 1920 was) signaled a major shift between the 1930-1931 Dekulakization and ethnic deportations of entire communities as of 1935 (Martin, 1998: 300; Shapoval & Vassiliev, 2001: 119-120).

 The 1931-1933 famines***

Since Robert Conquest’s 1986 pathbreaking book, The Harvest of Sorrow, a number of Western but also 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. The situation was exacerbated in Kazakhstan with forced sedentarization of nomad and semi-nomad stockbreeders took place, and in the Ukraine with the Stalin’s “national interpretation” (T.Martin) developed in the summer of 1932 regarding the specific status of this federate state.
It is thus in Kazakhstan and in the ethnic Ukrainian regions (Ukraine and Kuban) that famine was most widespread. Regional specificities however remained.

Beginning 1931-beginning 1933: Famine in Kazakhstan.
As elsewhere in the USSR, forced collectivization and "Dekulakization" since 1930 had brought about great upheaval in Kazakhstan where moreover a vast plan of sedentarization was underway. In this cattle rearing and transhumance region, the creation of kolkhozes and sovkhozes 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 "Kazakh masses" in a state of oppression. Achieving a record of forced collectivization and forced sedentarization as well as tripling mandatory meat deliveries led to a strong decrease in livestock. At the end of the 1920’s, the largest livestock count in the entire USSR was in Kazakhstan. An 85% reduction over three years (1929-1931) resulted in great impoverishment of the Kazakh population.

As of the summer of 1930, Kazakh authorities received confidential reports from the OGPU concerning the rise of "food shortages." At the beginning of 1931, Stalin was informed by Soviet consular authorities in China of mass migrations of Kazakhs to Xinjiang. In 1931, Kazakh nomads, dispossessed of their herds, accelerated the exodus in particular towards Western Siberia. Until the summer of 1932, the leaders of the Kazakh Communist Party failed to admit the reasons of mass exodus and refused to mention "food shortages." The first aid released by Moscow in July 1932 was absurd, barely 50,000 tons of cereal, some ten kilos per person. Four months later, Stalin accused the Kazakh Communists of "engaging in kulak sabotage of the agricultural produce delivery plan" (Telegram from Stalin to the leadership of the Kazakh Communist Party, November 21, 1932, in Danilov, Manning & Viola, eds, 2003: vol III, 548-549).

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; the others - between 1.1 and 1.4 million died of hunger or epidemics. At the end of 1920, the population of Kazakhstan was estimated at 6,5 million people, of which 3,8 million were Kazakh, the great majority nomadic or semi-nomadic stockbreeders. It was precisely these Kazakh stockbreeders who were most severely struck by famine that caused the death of approximately one third of the indigenous population - a proportion without equivalent in any region of the USSR (Tatimov, Kozybaev & Abylhozin, eds, 1991; Ohayon, 2006).

1932-1933: Famine in the Ukraine and Kuban.
Famines in the 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 indeed directly responsible for the Ukrainian famines even if they had not originally been considered or programmed as such. In 1931, the Ukraine, Kuban and the Central Region of the Black Soil 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. For the year 1932, at the same time as the first famines were breaking out in the provinces of Kharkov, Kiev, Dniepropetrovsk and Odessa, the Soviet government set mandatory deliveries at an even higher level as in 1931 (7 million tons for the Ukraine). Until the summer of 1932, famine in the Ukraine had fit into the general pattern of famine resulting from forced collectivization. With Stalin’s "national interpretation of the famine" (Martin, 2001) in the summer of 1932, famine in the Ukraine changed in its very nature. Indeed, Stalin had duly noted Ukrainian opposition to the collection plan, which the Ukrainian communists had rejected as "unrealistic" during the IIIrd Conference of the Ukrainian Communist Party (July 6-10, 1932). Recently published correspondence between Stalin and his main collaborators shows how, in the summer of 1932, Stalin convinced himself that a vast resistance front, from simple kolkhoz workers to Ukrainian communist leaders, was preventing the agricultural produce necessary for urban food supply and for export from being delivered to the State (Stalin i Kaganovic, Perepiska 1931-1936, 2001). He thus decided to use hunger as a weapon to punish Ukrainian peasantry well aware of its national specificity and refusing the "new serfdom" imposed by the central power. Stalin undertook a targeted policy of repression against the Ukraine and Kuban, mainly populated by Ukrainians. His two closest collaborators, Viacheslav Molotov and Lazar Kaganovich, were sent as "plenipotentiaries" to the Ukraine and to the Northern Caucasus with the mission to "purge" local communist organizations and to complete the "collection plan." Armed detachments of "activists" from Russia and political police units engaged in punitive actions throughout Ukrainian kolkhozes in order "to collect grain by storm," even taking the grain needed for future seeding as well as the small "advances" kolkhoz workers received in kind for their year-long labor. Villages, which had not completed the "collection plan," were "blacklisted:" shops were shut down and imports of foodstuffs or manufactured goods were prohibited. Lastly, in order to avoid a massive rush of famished peasants towards cities and to prevent the news of famine from spreading, sale of train tickets was suspended and army detachments along with the political police were deployed around famished zones to halt any exodus. Stalin in person had written the circular ordering the blockade of the Ukrainian countryside on January 22, 1933. In February 1933 alone, 220,000 Ukrainian peasants who had tried 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 were dying of hunger, the Soviet government exported 1,800,000 tons of cereal in order to honor debts contracted toward Germany and buy foreign machinery, which was supposed to enable the achievement of the accelerated industrialization plans. Strategic State reserves, stored in the event of war, exceeded three million tons for the year 1933. This quantity was more than sufficient to save millions of famished farmers. The estimated number of death by famine in the Ukraine and in Kuban varies from four million to four and a half million (Shapoval & Vassiliev, 2001; Danilov, Manning & Viola, eds, 2003, vol. III).

1932-1933: Famine in the Volga region.
Apart from the Ukraine and Kuban, other great 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 kolkhoz production. The most afflicted areas were the Lower and Middle Volga where excess mortality reached 300,000 to 400,000 in 1933 (Kondrasin & Penner, eds, 2002).

1933: Famine in the "special settlements" (Northern Region, the Ural, 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 Ural and Western Siberia. According to centralized statistics from the Department of Special Settlements of the Gulag, 151,000 "specially displaced" persons died in 1933, amounting to a 14% death rate (on January 1, 1933, 1,110,000 persons were registered as "specially displaced"). Even the authorities recognized that the majority of deaths were due to "food dystrophy" (Zemskov, 2003: 22-26; Viola, 2005: 5-22)

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