Soviet famine of 1932–1933

The Soviet famine of 1932–1933 killed many millions in the major grain-producing areas of the Soviet Union. These areas included Ukraine, Northern Caucasus, Volga Region and Kazakhstan,[1] the South Urals, and West Siberia.[2][3] For the most part, famine was most intense in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and stopped directly at the border between it and the neighboring Russian and Belarusian republics.[4] The manifestation of this famine in the Ukrainian SSR since the 1980s has been referred to as the Holodomor.

Unlike a 1921 famine in the Russian SFSR, information about the famine of 1932–33 was suppressed by the Soviet authorities until perestroika, the political and economic reforms which ended the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.



The government's forced collectivization of agriculture is considered a main reason for the famine, as it caused chaos in the countryside. This included the destruction of peasant activists' possessions, the selling and killing of horses for fear they would be seized, and farmers' refraining from field work. Authorities blamed the agitation on the kulaks (rich peasants) and kolkhozs (collectivized farmers), and accused them of sabotage. The authorities wrongly expected that production would increase as a result of agricultural collectivization, because of plans for exporting agricultural products based on attempts to industrialize.

Central authorities maintained that the collapse was caused by peasants' hiding their grain crops, despite repeated requests from local authorities that their quota be decreased. As a consequence, local activists led searches for hidden stores of grain; this caused seizure of seed corn that should have been used for sowing the next year's crop and the loss of the stocks needed to feed peasant families.

The Law of Spikelets

For those who stayed in the countryside, often the only place where any food could be found was on collective farms, but the peasants were forbidden to eat their own crops. The "Decree About the Protection of Socialist Property" - nicknamed by the farmers the Law of Spikelets - was enacted on August 7, 1932. Under the Decree, political police and party officials were allowed to confiscate unlimited amounts of grain from peasant households. Thus, taking food - even a handful of rotting grain or produce - was considered theft of "socialist property" and could be punished by death or a ten-year prison sentence. Even children could be shot for picking up leftover grain in the fields.


Farmers were dying or fleeing to the cities, where food could be bought in special state-run hard-currency stores, called torgsins, for currency, gold, silver, or other valuables. For example, two torgsins in the city of Kharkov accepted 374 kg of gold worth 294,000 rubles from January to February 1932. By January 1932 there were torgsins in eight Ukrainian cities, by May 1932 there were 26, and in autumn 1932, there were 50 in 36 cities. At the peak of the famine in 1933, the number of torgsins reached 263.


There was a wave of migration due to starvation, although authorities responded by introducing a requirement that passports be used to go between republics, and banning travel by rail.

Internal passports (identity cards) were introduced on 27 December 1932 by Soviet authorities to deal with the mass exodus of peasants from the countryside. Individuals not having such a document could not leave their homes, on pain of administrative penalties, such as internment in a Gulag (Soviet concentration camp). The rural population had no right to passports and thus could not leave their villages without approval. The power to issue passports rested with the head of the kolkhoz, and identity documents were kept by the administration of the collective farms. This measure stayed in place until 1974.

The lack of passports could not completely stop peasants' leaving the countryside, but only a small percentage of those who illegally infiltrated into cities could improve their lot. Unable to find work or possibly buy or beg a little bread, farmers died in the streets of Kharkov, Kiev, Dnipropetrovsk, Poltava, Vinnitsa, Humani, and other major cities of the Ukraine.

Acts of cannibalism

Stories of cannibalism in starving towns during the Great Famine are probably apocryphal.[citation needed] One such example is that of Ksenia Bolotnikowa of the village of Sofijowka, who reportedly killed her daughter.


The famine of 1932-1933 was officially negated, so any discourse on this issue was classified as criminal "anti-Soviet propaganda" until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990-1991. For example, the results of the 1937 census were classified as they revealed the demographic aspect of the Great Famine.

The government used disinformation measures against Western journalists; many contemporary correspondents in the Soviet Union are now accused of deliberate concealment of facts, being referred to as "useful idiots." The most famous of the Great Famine negationists was Walter Duranty, a British journalist whose articles downplayed the famine and its death toll.[5] A similar position was taken by the French Prime Minister Edouard Herriot, who toured the territory of Ukraine during his stay in the Soviet Union.

Estimation of the loss of life

The famine destroyed a significant part of the local populations, especially in the Ukraine. Many villages were destroyed.

  • The 2004 book The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture, 1931–33 by R.W. Davies and S.G. Wheatcroft, gives an estimate of 5.5 to 6.5 million deaths.[6]
  • The Black Book of Communism estimates 6 million deaths in 1932–33.
  • Encyclopædia Britannica estimates that 6 to 8 million people died from hunger in the Soviet Union during this period, of whom 4 to 5 million were Ukrainians.[7]
  • Robert Conquest estimated at least 7 million peasants' deaths from hunger in the European part of the Soviet Union in 1932–33 (5 million in Ukraine, 1 million in the North Caucasus, and 1 million elsewhere), and an additional 1 million of deaths from hunger as a result of collectivization in Kazakhstan.[8]
  • Another study by Michael Ellman using data given by Davies and Wheatcroft estimates "‘about eight and a half million’ victims of famine and repression", combined, in the period 1930–33.[9]
  • In his 2010 book Stalin's Genocides, Norman Naimark estimates that 3 to 5 million Ukrainians died in the famine.[10]

See also


  1. Engerman, David. . 
  2. . 
  3. . 
  4. Tottle, Dougles (1987). . Toronto: Progress Books. pp. 99. 
  5. Eugene Lyons, Assignment in Utopia
  6. Davies and Wheatcroft, p. 401. For a review, see (PDF). Warwick. 
  7. . . Retrieved 2008-06-26. 
  8. Robert Conquest (1986) The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-505180-7, p. 306.
  9. Ellman, Michael (09 2005). (PDF). Europe-Asia Studies (Routledge) 57 (6): 823–41. . Retrieved 2008-07-04. 
  10. Naimark, Norman M. Stalin's Genocides (Human Rights and Crimes against Humanity). Princeton University Press, 2010. p. 131. ISBN 0691147841