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Case Study:

The Great Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33

Last modified: 20 July 2012
Nicolas Werth

April 2008

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Nicolas Werth, The Great Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33, Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, [online], published on 18 April 2008, accessed 29 January 2015, URL : http://www.massviolence.org/The-1932-1933-Great-Famine-in-Ukraine, ISSN 1961-9898

Over four million people starved to death between the fall of 1932 and the summer of 1933 in Ukraine and the Kuban, an administrative unit of the Russian Republic in the northern Caucasus populated largely by Ukrainians. Up until Gorbachev’s perestroika, this tragedy was never spoken of in the USSR. The 1932-33 famine was officially recognized in Ukraine only in December 1987 during a speech given by Shcherbytskyi, the First Secretary of the Ukrainian Communist Party, on the 70th anniversary of the establishment of the Ukrainian Republic. Since then, the opening up of once inaccessible archives has brought to light a number of documents that have made it possible to analyze and better understand the political mechanisms behind the genesis and aggravation of the famine in Ukraine and Kuban, and the role of the Soviet leadership in this process. These sources include secret resolutions passed by the Politburo or the Central Committee of the Ukrainian Communist Party, Stalin’s correspondence with his closest collaborators Molotov and Kaganovich, and secret police reports on the situation in the countryside, in particular at the “collection fronts”. The documents also help to delineate the particular characteristics of the Ukrainian famine vis-à-vis other famines that ravished a slew of regions in the USSR in 1931-33, including Kazakhstan, where between 1.1-1.4 million died (or almost one third of the indigenous Kazakh population), and western Siberia and the Volga area, with several hundred thousand victims (Abylhozin, Aldazumanov and Kozybaev, 1992; Ohayon, 2006; Malyseva and Poznanskii, 1999; Ivnitskii, 2000).

Any discussion of the contributions of recent studies on the Ukrainian famine must acknowledge the pioneering works that first sought to pierce the deafening silence surrounding this taboo event. Among these, one cannot overstate the major role played by Robert Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow (1986), which underlined the link between the famine and the national question, a key issue that the American historian Terry Martin has recently subject to deeper analysis on the basis of new materials in his book The Affirmative Action Empire (2001). James Mace also produced several important works before the opening up of the Soviet archives, including Communism and the Dilemmas of National Liberation (1983), while the Ukrainian Association of the Victims of the Communist Terror published testimonies by famine victims in The Black Deeds of the Kremlin (1955). Information and insights provided by more recent studies incorporating newly accessible archival sources allow us to reconstruct the processes behind the political decisions taken, the sequence of events, and the responsibility borne by the Soviet leaders who drove the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine. The more important of these latter include works and compilations of various types of documents — correspondence, resolutions, directives, decrees, speeches, etc… — by V. P. Danilov, N. A. Ivnitskii, S.V. Kulchytskyi, and I. Shapoval and V. Vasilev, A. Graziosi, and R. W. Davies and S. G. Wheatcroft, among others (see bibliography).

Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence® - ISSN 1961-9898