In some internet discussion recently, I’ve seen people link to this Reddit post as evidence that the Soviet Union had no ill intentions in Ukraine. The post is a translation of a decree from the Central Committee of the All-Russian Communist Party.
The argument is that the central Soviet authorities mobilised aid to Ukraine, showing that there was no ill intent towards Ukraine and in fact effort was made to alleviate Ukrainian suffering — the Holodomor, then, was little more than a natural disaster.
Unfortunately for this line of argument, looking at a single primary source without any contextualisation or deeper understanding of the topic isn’t as illuminating as Stalin-apologists would have you believe.
Amount of Aid
Firstly, it is important to understand the amount of aid actually provided in the above decree. 2,000 tons of oats, 3,600,000 poods of corn (~58,968 tonnes), and a total 11,700,000 poods of grain (~ 191,646 tonnes). As the original source shows (conveniently omitted from the Reddit post), a June 23 1932 telegram refused additional grain shipments. Now this sounds like a considerable amount of aid — but is it?
Preceding the June 16 decree to mobilise aid, Petrovsky sent a letter to Molotov and Stalin detailing the state of the famine:
We knew there would be severe pressure and hell to pay during state grain procurements. In my opinion, the CC CP(b)U is guilty of not objecting to, but beginning to fulfill the state’s grain plan of 510 million poods for Ukraine, in the name of maintaining the pace of building socialism and in light of the tense state of international affairs. It was in this sense that I understood the necessity to execute CC AUCP(b) directives on grain procurements, which we adopted for mandatory implementation.
We knew beforehand that fulfilling state grain procurements in Ukraine would be difficult, but what I have seen in the countryside indicates that we have greatly overdone it, we tried too hard. I was in many raion villages and saw a considerable part of the countryside engulfed in famine. There aren’t many, but there are people swollen from starvation, mainly poor peasants and even middle class farmers. They’re eating food scraps from the bottom of the barrel, if any are available. During well-attended meetings in the villages, I am yelled at for nothing, old women cry and men sometimes do also. At times the criticism of the situation created goes very deep and wide: “Why did they create an artificial famine? After all, we had a harvest. Why did they take away the sowing seeds? That did not happen even under the old regime. Why should Ukrainians make treacherous journeys for bread to non-grain producing areas? Why isn’t grain being brought here?” And so on.
It’s difficult to provide explanations under the circumstances. You obviously condemn those who have committed excesses, but generally feel like a carp squirming on a frying pan. In response to the desperate cry for relief [in the form of] sowing seeds and grain for food I promised something with regard to sowing seeds, but told the farmers to find seed in their own region. Concerning grain for food relief I cannot promise anything, or very little. Mass theft is occurring in the villages because of the famine, mainly for poultry: they steal chickens, ducks, take potato scraps, and butcher calves and cows during the night and eat them.
This letter is not only an admission of guilt that requisitions were causing hardship, but it puts the paltry 11.7 million poods of grain in perspective — the Soviet State was requisitioning 510 million poods. Stanislav Kosior, the General Secretary of the Ukrainian SSR Communist Party, issued a telegram to Ukrainian party bosses that there was only enough aid for twenty districts, out of more than 600 (page 181).
Following the Aid
On 6 July, the Ukrainian Politburo met and spoke about reducing the grain procurement plan to 356 million poods. Kagonivich and Molotov, sent to the delegation by Stalin, “categorically refused.” On 24 July, Stalin considered a “partial reduction” of the grain-procurement and on 17 August the Politburo accepted a 40 million pood reduction in grain procurement. (Source). Accompanying this meagre reduction in targets was increasingly brutal requisition tactics, and repression specifically against the Ukrainian nation.
On September 23, the Soviets refused to loan seeds to collective farms.
Resolution of SNK USSR and CC AUCP(b): a number of local organizations have asked for seed loans for Soviet and collective farms. Because this year’s harvest appears to be satisfactory and because the government lowered state grain procurement targets, which should be fully met, the SNK and CC resolve to: First, refuse all requests concerning seed loans. Second, forewarn the Soviet and collective farms that they will not be provided with seeds for winter or spring sowing. Third, hold the chairmen of collective farms, directors of MTS [machine tractor stations] and directors of Soviet farms responsible for issuing all seed for spring sowing by the deadlines established by the SNK and CC (no later than January 15, 1933) and for ensuring its complete safekeeping.
On November 6 the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine“resolve[d] to reduce the delivery of goods (except for matches, salt and kerosene) to those raions that have fallen the furthest behind in grain procurements.”
On November 18, the repression was extended:
In accordance with the resolution of the CC AUCP (b) stating that “the fulfillment of the grain procurement plan is the highest priority mission for collective farms, Soviet farms, MTS and private farmers,”… the CP(b)U CC informs Party organizations that:
…A ban shall be immediately instituted on any and all natural reserves stored in collective farms that are failing to perform grain procurement plan; these reserves shall be inspected [to determine] their real size, places of storage, individuals responsible for their safekeeping; this matter shall be placed under the direct control of raion executive and Party committees.
Raion executive committees shall be authorized to transfer all reserves stored by collective farms that are failing to perform grain procurement plans to the grain procurement reserves…
Upon receipt of this decree, the distribution of any in-kind natural [grain] advances to all collective farms failing to perform grain procurement plans shall be discontinued…
…In those collective farms failing to perform grain procurement plans, all the grain harvested by collective farmers from their home garden plots shall be counted as their in-kind payment for workdays; any excess grain shall be collected towards grain procurements…
… To immediately collect seed grain and foodstuff loans given to private farmers by collective farms in their raions without recourse for appeal;
… Kulaks who have failed to deliver grain shall be subject to repressions provided by Article 58 of the Criminal Code, either through judicial or administrative proceedings.
Villages that were unable to fulfill grain requisition quotas were subject to being “blacklisted.” Blacklisted farms had all food removed, leadership purged, and were closed off from outside assistance.
The following measures shall be imposed upon blacklisted collective farms:
а) Immediate suspension of delivery of goods, cooperative and state trade activities in these villages and removal of all available goods from cooperative and state stores;
b) Full prohibition of kolhosp trading activities between collective farms, collective and private farmers.
c) Suspension of all crediting activities and a demand for pre-term collection of credits and other financial obligations;
d) Investigation and purging of collective farms in these villages, followed by the removal of counterrevolutionary elements and the organizers of grain-collection disruptions;
e) Oblast executive committees shall blacklist and warn collective farms about being blacklisted by issuing appropriate resolutions.
Oblast executive committees shall immediately report the collective farms being blacklisted to the CC.
Despite the ongoing famine and lack of food, requisitions were ordered to go ahead “regardless of conditions”.
On orders of the Council of Peoples’ Commissars, 25,000 tonnes of wheat for export was to be collected in 15 days beginning on 20.ХI. As of the first [of the month] only 13,000 have been shipped. Regardless of conditions, you are to completely fulfill the plans for wheat, barley and corn by December 12.
In December 14–15, the policy of Ukrainisation was replaced with Russification.
Immediately change the language used in offices of Soviet entities and cooperative societies, as well as all newspapers and magazines in the ukrainized raions of the Northern Caucasus, from Ukrainian to Russian, explaining that Russian is more understandable to Kuban residents. Also, prepare to change the language of instruction at schools to Russian by autumn. The CC and RNK order the regional Party and executive committees to immediately investigate the staff workers of schools in ukrainized raions…
Authorize the regional Party and executive committees of the DVK, oblast Party and executive committees of Central Black Earth Oblast, Kazakh regional [Party] committee and [regional] Council of Peoples’ Commissars to immediately discontinue ukrainization in [their] regions, print all ukrainized newspapers, printed materials and publications in the Russian language and, by autumn 1933, prepare the introduction of Russian language school instruction.
This was accompanied by purges of Ukrainian arts and academic institutions. The Ukrainian National Library was purged of staff, the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences was shut down, and the Ukrainian Academy of Agricultural Sciences lost 90% of its presidium. The editorial board of the Ukrainian Soviet Encyclopaedia was disbanded, and the Cinema Studio, the Institute of Soviet Law in Kharkiv, and the Geodesic Administration were all shut. Dozens of songs and over 200 Ukrainian plays were banned. Thousands of teachers were dismissed, as were over half of all directors of Ukrainian pedagogical institutes. Universities, city governments, and factory newspapers were all pressured into adopting the Russian langauge. The repression of Ukrainian poets and writers would become known as the ‘Executed Renaissance’.
On December 22, Kaganovich ordered for reserve and seed grain to be seized in requisitions:
According to local workers, collective farms’ seed reserves are being stocked, as are the insurance [reserves], even in those collective farms where the grain procurement plans are only 50 percent fulfilled. The very raising of the issue of creating and securing reserves, as well as prohibiting the transfer of seed reserves for grain procurement, provide the legal grounds and basis for entrenching the widely-held view that the plans cannot be fulfilled, although this is not said openly. Based on our conversations with oblast workers and during visits to raions and collective farms, we are convinced that this “preoccupation” with reserves, including seed reserves, is seriously hampering and undermining the entire grain procurement plan. These views are being reinforced by the resolution of the CC CP(b)U dated November 18.
For these reasons we consider it necessary to also cancel the CC CP(b)U resolution.
From December 24, all collective farms had five days “without exception” to ship all reserves, including sowing seeds, to fulfill requisition quotas. Resistance would be met with arrest.
1. All collective farms that failed to perform grain procurement plans have five days to ship, without exception, all kolhosp reserves, including sowing seeds, to fulfill grain procurement quotas.
2. Everyone resisting this measure, including communists, shall be arrested and tried.
3. Warn all collective farm heads that if any hidden reserves, stores and the like are found after the set date, then the chairman, and other guilty parties will be brought before the courts and severely punished.
4. Order all raion Party council secretaries, chairmen of raion executive committees and persons authorized by oblast committees to deliver this resolution for signing by the heads of collective farms in 24 hours’ time.
After reports of a mass exodus of villages, the government took steps to stem the flow of refugees:
CC CP(b)U and Ukrainian SSR RNK resolve to:
1. Immediately take decisive measures in every raion to prevent the mass exodus of private and collective farmers, in accordance with the GPU directive sent by Balitsky.
2. Investigate the activities of individuals recruiting the labor force to leave Ukraine, place them under strict control, prevent them from working and remove all suspected counterrevolutionary elements.
3. Conduct widespread explanatory work among collective and private farmers against voluntary departures and abandonment of farms, and warn them that they will be arrested if they depart for other regions.
4. Take measures to suspend the sale of tickets [for travel] beyond Ukraine to villagers who do not have permission to leave from their raion executive committees or industrial and construction state structures showing they have been recruited for one job or another beyond Ukraine’s borders.
Corresponding orders have been issued along the line of the Peoples’ Commissar of Railways and GPU transport [divisions].
5. Provide a brief factual report on the state of affairs with the mass exodus of peasants in your oblasts no later than six o’clock the evening of January 24.
A report from Yagoda to Stalin on 02 February 1933 shows that tens of thousands were attempting to flee. In just eight days, almost 25,000 were intercepted:
As a result of measures taken from January 22 to 30, 24,961 persons were detained fleeing their places of permanent residence, including 18,379 Ukrainians and 6,225 persons from the Northern Caucasus, and 357 persons from other regions.
From the February ban on travel, starvation only grew worse. A report from the Peoples’ Commissariat of Healthcare found the total number of starving in Kyiv oblast grew from 398,201 in 25 March to 493,644 by 15 April. The report noted that the numbers were likely drastically underestimating the situation:
These figures have to be viewed critically, because the numbers of people actually in distress have been underestimated in some raions (e.g.: Tetiyev raion 10,480 [reported] while there are really more than 22,000) and overestimated in other raions (Bila Tserkva reported 30,536, while in reality no more than 20,000 to 22,000). Although the miscalculations do not have a major impact on the total number of people starving in the oblast, they are important for the allocation of foodstuffs and other forms of government relief.
The figures for the people that have died are unreliable, as a review of materials in the regions showed that numbers were much higher. For example, in Skvir raion 802 people were reported to have died from January 1 to March 1, while a review on the ground revealed 1,773 deaths; in Volodarskiy raion 742 deaths were reported as of March 1, when in fact more than 3,000 people had died.
In two reports, the Italian consulate in Kharkiv detailed the situation in Ukraine, concluding that the calamity was a deliberate effort by the central Soviet government to colonise Ukraine. On May 31, the Italian consulate reported:
Famine continues to threaten massive destruction of the population and it’s simply impossible to comprehend how the world can remain indifferent to such a tragedy… What is incontrovertible here is that this famine was caused primarily by an artificially bad harvest aimed at “teaching the peasants a lesson”…There were three apparent motives for such a policy:
1. Passive resistance among the peasantry to collectivization;
2. Belief that this “ethnographic material” will never be suitable for turning into integral Communists;
3. The more or less openly-acknowledged need and convenience of denationalizing raions where Ukrainian and German self-consciousness has been awakened and the resulting threats of potential political hardships in the future. In order to keep the empire together it is better for the Russian population to be dominant…
Conclusion: the current cataclysm will lead to the colonization of Ukraine primarily by Russians. This will change the country’s ethnographic nature. It is quite possible that, in the foreseeable future, nobody will talk about Ukraine or the Ukrainian nation, meaning that the country will be de facto transformed into a Russian region.
And on July 10:
The current situation in Ukraine is horrific. Apart from larger cities and raions within a fifty kilometer radius of cities, the country is engulfed in famine, typhus and dysentery. There are also cases of cholera and even plague which, until recently, were sporadic in number…
The famine has decimated half the rural population…
Some doctors whom I know confirmed that death rates in the villages often reach 80 percent, but never less than 50 percent. Kyiv, Poltava and Sumy regions were most afflicted by the famine and can be described as depopulated.
I am adding yet another name to the list of dead villages: Lutova near Kharkiv. Prior to the famine its population was 1,500. Today, it is just under 90.
The German embassy had similarly dire words in an 18 September 1933 report:
The causes of the famine catastrophe will not be found in natural events, that is to say a bad harvest…
The real reasons for the famine are being kept hidden; they can only be explained by enormous organizational and distribution errors and overexertion of grain procurement measures. Everywhere in the starving areas, villagers share the view that the harvest provided enough food and that famine was caused solely through brutal requisition methods. It remains to be seen whether this was due to gross abuses by local government bodies and local chaos, or on orders from the top, the last kernel of grain was systematically extracted from the villages, to bring the villagers to their knees through famine and force them to work in collective farms…
…Nearly every village has seen deaths from famine; in the worst areas, 25 to 50 percent of the population died out, while in other villages, only individual cases of death from famine were established. Based on village population reduction ratios, the victims of the hunger catastrophe number in the millions. I would, on the other hand, not consider the quoted number of 10 million deaths to be an exaggeration. In addition, most of the remaining population in starving areas has serious health problems due to the hardships endured. This is foremost the case with children, a significant number of whom, crippled by famine, will never have the chance to develop into normal human beings.
A series of reports from the heads of Machine Tractor Stations (each responsible for around 40 kolkhozy) in July 1933 detail rising death tolls. Many beg for aid. From Tarashcha:
The number of villages requiring relief has grown: 15 of 17 villages are afflicted; 1,000 people died in the raion during the month of April; 459 people died in the first five days of May. There have been incidents of death during work in the fields. Feeding stations are being closed due to lack of produce. Urgent food aid is needed.
The rate of mortality has increased in collective farms. Not only slackers, but also good collective farmers are dying. In Sloboda, 120 people died in 10 days. The situation is the same in other villages. People are dying right in the fields while working. Child mortality rates have increased as well, which is particularly dangerous. There is no food aid in the raion. Workforce shortages have been reported in some villages and collective farms. Urgent food aid is needed.
In three villages, Zelena Dubrava, Maidanivka and Hnyzets, acute famine and mortality caused by exhaustion have not been eliminated. In fact their frequency is growing. For instance, in Maidanivka village, 19 people died in March and another 28 in April; 61 people, including 24 able-bodied collective farmers, died in 26 days of May. In these villages there have been incidents of death in the field while working and on the way home from work.
Mortality is reaching catastrophic proportions. In the small village of Nenadykha alone, 113 people died in 20 days during the month of May. Medical clinics have been closed. Many people, especially children, are swollen from famine. They cannot work. There have been many cases of female workers falling in the fields and dying either at home or in the fields. In nurseries, nearly 80 to 70 percent of children are gaunt and swollen. Many schoolchildren are so swollen that that they have a hard time walking to school. Urgent relief is required, especially for the children
Lately the mortality rate has increased significantly. Up to 2,000 people died in 10 days of June. This is significantly more than during the whole month of May. Incidents of death at work have become more frequent than before
It seems clear from these primary documents that the small amount of famine aid provided in June 1932 did not significantly impact the famine, which was clearly exacerbated by ongoing requisitions, increasing repression, bans on travel, and accompanied with attacks against the Ukrainian national identity.
Distribution of Aid
Lastly, it is important to keep in mind that even when aid was distributed, it was not done apolitically. In Towards a Decentred History: The Study of the Holodomor and Ukrainian Histiography, Olga Andriewsky notes that:
Finally, new studies have revealed the very selective — indeed, highly politicized — nature of state assistance in Ukraine in 1932–1933. Soviet authorities, as we know, took great pains to guarantee the supply of food to the industrial workforce and to certain other categories of the population — Red Army personnel and their families, for example. As the latest research has shown, however, in the spring of 1933, famine relief itself became an ideological instrument. The aid that was provided in rural Ukraine at the height of the Famine, when much of the population was starving, was directed, first and foremost, to “conscientious” collective farm workers — those who had worked the highest number of workdays. Rations, as the sources attest, were allocated in connection with spring sowing (T. Boriak 18–21; Werth). 17 The bulk of assistance was delivered in the form of grain seed that was “lent” to collective farms (from reserves that had been seized in Ukraine) with the stipulation that it would be repaid with interest (T. Boriak 15–16). State aid, it seems clear, was aimed at trying to salvage the collective farm system and a workforce necessary to maintain it. At the very same time, Party officials announced a campaign to root out “enemy elements of all kinds who sought to exploit the food problems for their own counter-revolutionary purposes, spreading rumours about the famine and various ‘horrors’” (Werth, fn 25: Vasyl’iev, “Porivnial’nyi analiz” 127). Famine-relief, in this way, became yet another way to determine who lived and who died.
It should be clear that the Holodomor was a man-made disaster, caused by the requisitions of the Soviet state and the accompanying brutal repression. There is a reason why the Holodomor has been described by historians as “what must count as one of the greatest man-made horrors in a century particularly full of them.”
Archived sources available here.