Holodomor: The Soviet-era famine that claimed the lives of over 3 million Ukrainians

Questions about the Holodomor, aka the Terror-Famine? Here we present the origin story and give you facts on the history of the Holodomor, an event that killed over 3 million Ukrainians.

Meaning of Holodomor

Most people may have never heard the word “Holodomor” and those who have may not know what it means. The word “Holodomor” means “death by hunger”. It was derived from two Ukrainian words, ‘holod’, meaning “hunger”, and ‘mor’, meaning “plague”. It became the term used to describe artificial famine or terror-famine planned and unleashed upon the people of Ukraine by the policies of Soviet Union dictator Joseph Stalin in the 1930s.

However, this word was not used in Ukraine until the late-1980s, after the historical documents were declassified and published. Though it was used outside Ukraine from the 1930s by newspapers in Czechoslovakia and spoken by Ukrainian immigrants in the United States by 1978.

Some history scholars have described it as “Ukraine’s holocaust” because it is reported over 3.8 million people died; however, some have disputed this, stating it was not mass extermination of people based on race or religion.

Irrespective of the semantics used, there is no dispute that this actually happened. Ever since details of the sheer horrors that took place during the famine were revealed, the Ukrainian government has set aside every fourth Saturday in November to remember the millions of lives that were lost.

What caused Holodomor?

Holodomor: Origin Story, Causes and Effects

For many decades, the true cause of the Holodomor has been debated by historians as well as politicians. Some have argued it was a man-made famine and therefore should be called genocide, while few argued it was caused by natural factors that were escalated by poor policies.

However, there is no doubt whatsoever that the origin of the famine was the result of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin’s policy of collectivize agriculture that began in the late 1920s.

Stalin’s Collectivize Agriculture

In 1861 Russian Emperor Alexander II granted millions of serfs (peasants who were owned privately by the lords) the freedom to be full citizens. This meant the Serfs had the right to marry and own properties as well as businesses. They also had the right to buy land from their landlords.

Soon the peasants were cultivating their own lands and were requesting the lands be redistributed. Fast forward to the late 1910s, when the tsardom made way for Vladimir Lenin-led Bolshevik regime. Sensing the dissatisfaction of the peasants, Lenin promised them that the lands would be redistributed to accommodate them but this promise was never fulfilled.

In 1928, Joseph Stalin, who never believed it was right for peasants to own their own farms, sought to seize the grains cultivated by the farmers. But he was met with resistance from the peasants, who refused to relinquish their grains.

Typical of Stalin Soviet Era, all forms of resistance to policy was eliminated, and the poor peasants were forced to hand over their grains to the state. This policy resulted in the peasants cutting down on production. Some left farming entirely and moved to the cities to find work.

Due to the somewhat violent resistance posed by the peasants, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which was headed by Joseph Stalin, announced the collectivization program in November 1929. This meant the state would control individual farmlands, and the state would sell all farm products. The peasants did not have the right to sell their grains anymore.

There were two components of collectivization, which were kolkhozes (farms controlled by the Soviet Union) and sovkhozes (farms controlled by the states). The peasants who conformed were given better lands to work on and tax breaks, while those who refused to comply were forced to work in harsh conditions.

The taxes imposed on the peasants were used to fund Stalin’s ambitious industrialization plan. The peasants resisted this policy venomously, most of them armed themselves while working on their farms, while some would rather kill their livestock for food instead of handing them over to the state. All in all, the policy was a massive disaster, as there was a year in year out reduction in dairy products and meat.

The overall aim of Stalin’s collectivize agriculture was to increase food production which would result in the state selling the proceeds of the farms to fund the industrialization plan as well as feed the nation. It also sought to modernize the agricultural sector by consolidating the lands under government control hence enabling the use of scientific methods of cultivation. It was predicted that the collectivize policy would increase food production by 50% and increase the funds for industrialization by over 200%. Unfortunately, the system did the opposite, it had a negative effect on the economy as it led to food shortages and a disorganized farming system.

Still met with resistance by the end of 1929, Stalin appointed udarnik, also called Shock brigades, from different parts of Europe to force the peasants to give in and join the collective farms. By January 1929, the boundaries between farmlands were eliminated, and by 1930 over 11 million households had joined the collectivization which turned out to be the worst mistake for some families.

READ MORE: How Joseph Stalin Rose to Power

The Resistance

The peasants were afraid this system would lead to the return of the serfs system, which had been abolished in the 1860s. They felt betrayed by the Communist Party, and they made their protest peaceful by writing letters to the Shock brigades and the collectors. The wealthy peasants (kulaks) explained at meetings that collectivization would lead to starvation, but those warnings fell on deaf ears, rather the government made up false stories, claiming the Kulaks were hiding food to cause artificial famine.

By 1932, food production was at an all-time low. The situation was made much worse by a poor harvest that season. The peasants, who barely had anything to eat, were forced the little produce they had to the government.

Believing strongly that the famine was man-made, Stalin meted out harsh punishments to the Kulaks, which ranged from deportation and exile to labor camps, to the dispossession of properties.

The Ukrainian Famine

The Great Famine that killed millions of Ukrainians. Image: Despondent Ukrainians pass by the corpse of a starved man on a street in Kharkiv, Ukraine, 1932

Food rations were cut, especially in Ukraine and some parts of Kazakhstan. This led to violent uprisings in most parts of Ukraine.

For fear of losing Ukraine as well as anger with the resistance mounted by the peasants, the leadership of the Communist Party took various decisions that escalated the famine in Ukraine. Some of those misguided decisions were:

  1. Despite poor harvests and growing starvation, peasants in Ukraine were forced to relinquish extra grain in order to meet the targeted quota.

  2. Ukrainian peasants who could not meet their targets were forced to relinquish their livestock.

  3. Those who did not or could not conform to the above demands were blacklisted, meaning the peasants would give about 14 times what they were expected to give. Also any food or livestock found on their lands were seized. The blacklisted peasants could not sell or buy foodstuff and they would not receive food rations from the government. In other words, they were left to starve to death.

  4. Ukrainian officials and religious leaders were targeted by the Kremlin’s secret service (i.e. the State Political Directorates). Assault, arrests, and executions were some of the tools used by the secret police to bring the peasants in line.

  5. The policy of Ukrainization which allowed Ukrainians to speak their own language was stopped. This was Stalin’s attempt to exterminate the identity and culture of Ukrainians.

  6. The final blow was sealing off the Ukrainian borders. Peasants were not allowed to flee to other parts of the Soviet Union. Any peasant found trying to flee Ukraine would be tortured and then sent back to the villages to die of starvation.

The Systemic Famine

The above decisions resulted in widespread famine across Ukraine as well as the grain-growing region of Kazakhstan. It is reported that between three to five million people died in Ukraine alone.

Despite pleas by the Ukrainian officials to the Kremlin, Stalin refused to send help to the people; rather, the Soviet leader instructed that western journalists be banned from entering Ukraine. This iron curtain over Ukraine was aimed at preventing the world from knowing the true extent of the famine and hardships in Ukraine.

Coverage of the Holodomor in foreign press. Image – Chicago American’s front page

There was a complete information blockade in Ukraine, and the few journalists that found out how bad things were in Ukraine mysteriously disappeared or were killed. Take the example of Gareth Jones, who first reported the famine. Jones was later found dead under very mysterious circumstances.

Aggravated by the severe winter, it was reported peasants resorted to cannibalism in order to survive, and over 2,000 people were convicted for cannibalism.

Some brave Western journalists were able to leak news of the systemic famine to the world. For example, resourceful photographers like Alexander Wienerberger were able to give the world a glimpse of what was happening in Ukraine despite the repeated denial and cover ups from the Kremlin.

It is also alleged that Stalin told British politician Winston Churchill that over 10 million people had died from collectivized agriculture, although there is no documented evidence to back this claim.

READ MORE: Major Facts on the History of the Collapse of the Soviet Union

The natural cause debate

There some few scholars that have disputed that the Soviet Union’s policies were not to blame for Holodomor. Those historians argue that the famine was caused by natural factors, such as drought and the harsh winter. Infestation of insects was also attributed as one of the causes of the famine. While some have erroneously blamed the peasants’ lack of motivation to work as the main cause of the famine.

It is generally held that the Holodomor was not chiefly caused by natural events; instead, it was the result of the bad policies taken by Stalin and his ministers. As of 2022, many countries in the West believe that the Holodomor in 1933 was undoubtedly a genocide

Final Word

As the saying goes, Nothing stays hidden forever. Despite the Soviet’s hard-fought attempts to cover up the atrocities committed during Holodomor, such as repressing the census figures showing a significant decline in population in certain parts of the Soviet Union and the KGB controlling the archives for the Holodomor period, full details of the hardship eventually got unearthed.

Thanks to the bravery of some survivors who kept memoirs of the events that transpired during the Holodomor, we have a clear picture of what the Terror-Famine was. Over the years more and more details have emerged of the Great Famine. In 1986, during the Chernobyl disaster, the Ukrainian poet Ivan Drach was the first Ukrainian to publicly speak of Holodomor. And after Ukraine gained independence, monuments were erected by the government so the world could see and remember the millions of lives that were claimed by the Holodomor.

The Holodomor

There are quite a number of monuments across the world that honor the victims of the Holodomor. Image (L-R): A memorial cross in Kharkiv, Ukraine; Roman Kowal’s Holodomor Memorial in Winnipeg, Canada; and Monument to the Victims of the Holodomor, Lublin, Poland

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *