The Ukrainian Man-Made Famine of 1932-33 | Wilson Center

The Ukrainian Man-Made Famine of 1932-33

A recent conference organized by the Kennan Institute and cosponsored by the Embassy of Ukraine to the United States, the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, and the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation examined new historical data about the Ukrainian famine; the international reaction (and non-reaction) to the famine, and how the famine fits in the context of our understanding of genocide.

Historians have long known that the Soviet Union exported grain harvested in Ukraine and other agricultural centers during Joseph Stalin's forced collectivization of agriculture in the early 1930s in order to finance the rapid industrialization of the Soviet Union. While the collectivization of agriculture lead to the death or displacement of millions throughout the Soviet Union, in Ukraine alone between five and ten million peasants perished of starvation. New evidence from Russian and Ukrainian archives now shows that it was the intent of Stalin and his lieutenants to use starvation as a weapon against perceived potential enemies in Ukraine: "Each year, we learn more and more about the famine in Ukraine. Even so, it is still difficult to grasp the enormity of the tragedy: millions of people, in what was the breadbasket of the then-Soviet Union, were quite literally starved to death," stated Paula Dobriansky, Undersecretary for Global Affairs, U.S. Department of State.

According to Yuri Shapoval of the Institute of Political and Ethnonational Studies in Kyiv, Stalin desired to turn Ukraine into a "model Soviet Republic," but feared that the Ukrainian Communist Party was penetrated by Polish agents and believed that "nationalist tendencies" in the Ukrainian peasantry guaranteed their disloyalty to the Soviet state. Soviet officials used this perception of disloyalty to justify the "special measures" used in Ukraine. Failure to meet a grain quota was met with "in-kind fines" (the confiscation of all food from a farm or village) and "blacklisting" (cutting the farm or village off from all supplies). James Mace of University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy argued that the state-organized mass killing of the rural population combined with the attempted destruction of Ukrainian culture amounts to genocide against the Ukrainian nation. He noted that blockades were imposed to keep food from going in to Ukraine, and to keep starving Ukrainians inside. At the same time, leading elements of Ukrainian society, from teachers to artists, were imprisoned or killed. The Ukrainian alphabet and grammar was changed to correspond more closely with the Russian language.

Abbott Gleason of Brown University agreed that new evidence seems to point to genocide as the correct classification of the tragedy. Evidence demonstrating that Ukraine was singled out beyond other nationalities in the Soviet empire would strengthen the argument. He cautioned that the strictest interpretation of genocide—the intention to exterminate the entire population—does not seem to fit with Stalin's desire to mold Ukraine into a "model Soviet Republic." Mace and Shapoval responded by pointing out that a famine in the Russian Volga region was met with government assistance, and residents were allowed to escape the area to Siberia, whereas the North Caucasus, an area with a substantial Ukrainian population, was targeted with many of the same special measures used in Ukraine. Stalin's plan for Ukraine as a "model Soviet Republic" envisioned the destruction of Ukrainian culture and the deaths of all who would cling to that culture.

The second panel wrestled with the issue of international reaction to the famine in Ukraine at the time. Panelists Eugene Fishel of the Department of State and independent scholar Leonard Leshuk both agreed that there were accurate news accounts of the famine provided by journalists such as Malcolm Muggeridge and Garrett Jones. They were largely drowned out by positive media coverage of the Soviet Union by journalists seeking to curry favor with the Soviet government. The most famous example of such reporting came from Walter Duranty of the New York Times, who denied the famine and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the Soviet Union. Fishel noted that the U.S. government received news of the famine from a number of other sources, including the Ukrainian-American community, international groups such as the Red Cross, and official diplomatic communications from other countries. The U.S. government, and other governments, viewed the famine as a strictly internal matter that did not directly impact on national interests. Moreover, the U.S. government was in negotiations to open diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, and did not wish to derail those negotiations. The Great Depression was underway in America, and the Soviet Union was seen at the time as a potentially important market for U.S. industrial goods.

The final panel attempted to put the Ukrainian famine in the broader context of genocides throughout history. Frank Chalk of Concordia University, Montreal noted that hunger had been used throughout history as a tactic in siege warfare and as a weapon against populations—from the Romans salting the fields of Carthage to colonial powers burning local crops to weaken and suppress revolts. He differentiated famine as a weapon of war from famine as revolutionary social engineering. Examples of the latter include the Ukrainian famine, China during the Great Leap Forward, and Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. David Marcus of Lieff, Cabraser, Heimann and Bernstein, LLP described how man-made famine does not fall into an existing framework under international law, which recognizes genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Famine does not fit neatly into one of these categories, and as a result famines are often left off lists of great crimes against humanity and guilty parties go unpunished. He recommended codifying famine law to criminalize inflicting or creating conditions for famine. Gregory Stanton of Genocide Watch noted that the Ukrainian famine was not illegal under international law at the time. It was not until 1944 that the term genocide was introduced by Raphael Lemkin, and not until the 1948 Geneva Conventions that it was outlawed. Yet "since 1948, there have been at least fifty-five genocides and political mass-murders…with more than eighty million victims," stated Stanton. "The prevention and prosecution of genocide has been plagued by ‘definitionalism.' The most recent example was the State Department's refusal to call the Rawandan genocide by its proper name until it was nearly over."