Marchenko Nina — Mother of the Year 33

Historiography of Soviet Hunger

One of my previous posts received a comment criticising me for a “glaring point of dishonesty” for “ implicity [sic] insinuat[ing] that the Soviet Union and its socialist economic system actively CAUSED the famines of ’21 ’32 and ’46.” It notes the “overwhelming scholarly consensus that the famine of 32 was NOT any kind of intentional genocide of the Ukrainian people” and that the idea that it was “is a preposterous idea on the face of it.” It supports this with a link to Fraud, Famine and Fascism: The Ukrainian Genocide Myth from Hitler to Harvard by Douglas Tottle.

I thought it important to respond to these claims, expand a little more on the general historiography of the Holodomor, touch on the 1946–7 famine, as our critic Neki seems a little behind the times on the latest research.

Nina Marchenko: The Last Road

Victoria Malko outlines four phases of Holodomor historiography. In summary:

  1. 1930s-1950s: mostly written by journalists and Ukrainian dissidents. This was largely anecdotal and non-scholarly. It is some of these accounts that have come from Nazi sympathisers.
  2. Late 1950s-1980s: the mass starvation is exposed by Western historians and it is first labelled a genocide, and the term “holodomor” is coined. This is also where Conquest’s Harvest of Sorrow is released, which is hugely influential in bringing Holodomor to the forefront of discussion. Conquest is ambivalent around calling it a genocide, but notes “It would hardly be denied that a crime has been committed against the Ukrainian nation”.
  3. From the 1990s, the archives opened up which convincingly proved the criminal nature of the Bolshevik’s actions in Ukraine. It is increasingly recognised as a genocide politically. Scholars like Timothy Snyder and Norman Naimark.
  4. 2010 onwards: the scholarship is increasingly looking at interpreting the social dynamics of holodomor, informed in closer conversation with genocide studies. It is looking at trauma, memory, and bringing in feminist and cultural perspectives on genocide.

The mainstream western (including Ukraine) view on Holodomor is a three-way debate on whether it constitutes genocide under a stricter, legalistic definition (most controversial), a more open interpretation of genocide (for example, one that would capture the American colonisation of the USA as genocide), or whether it was just mass murder as part of a modernisation project (least controversial). It is historical consensus that the famine was man-made and caused by Soviet actions.

Two main schools of thought are summarised here:

  1. There are basically two schools of thought. Some historians see the famine as an artificially organized phenomenon, planned since 1930 by the Stalinist regime to break the particularly strong resistance of Ukrainian peasants to the kolkhoz system. In addition, this plan sought to destroy the Ukrainian nation, at its “national-peasant” core, which constituted a serious obstacle to the transformation of the USSR into a new imperial state dominated by Russia. According to this view, the famine was a genocide.
  2. At the other end of the analytical spectrum are scholars who recognize the criminal nature of the Stalinist policies, but believe that it is necessary to assess all of the famines that took place between 1931–33 (in Kazakhstan, Ukraine, western Siberia and Volga regions) as part of a complex phenomenon shaped by numerous factors, from the geopolitical context to the demands of an accelerated industrialization and modernization drive, in addition to Stalin’s “imperial objectives”.

This debate is also encapsulated in this piece. Namely:

  1. Graziosi, referring to de-kulakization, collectivization, and famines starting in 1919, states that “‘classes’ had but a marginal (although certainly not non-existent) role on what was basically an original, ideologically inspired, very violent and primitive state-building attempt” (P. 52). He claims that there is a strong connection between the peasant revolts of 1918–20 and resistance to these events in 1930–31, and posits a direct relationship between levels of past resistance and Holodomor losses in 1932–33 (this connection is also mentioned by Andriewska). Graziosi then links Stalin’s assertion that “in essence, the national question is a peasant question” with the why of the Holodomor. Thus we have a logical chain: peasant resistance — the nationality question as a peasant question — famine-terror as a means for breaking Ukrainian peasants’ resistance to collectivization and independence aspirations.
  2. Kulchytsky, on the other hand, claims that “class-based destruction led to the Holodomor” (P. 89). He frames his analysis on the genesis and intent of the Holodomor squarely in the context of factors such as Marxist ideology, the elimination of private property (of the peasants), and the imposition of state control of agricultural production. He divides the 1932–33 famine into two parts: a general famine affecting different parts of the Soviet Union during most of 1932, and famine-terror starting in late 1932 through the first part of 1933. Kulchytskyi argues that this second part is the actual Holodomorgenocide. The genocide was caused by Stalin’s “shattering blow,” with total confiscation not just of grain but all food, and physical blockades eliminating the possibility of peasants to search for food in Russia or cities in Ukraine.

Another good example of this debate can be found in Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine which (while stopping short of calling it a genocide) posits a deliberate attempt by Stalin to squash Ukraine, and Shiela Fitzpatrick’s response. Fitzpatrick notes that Red Famine is well researched and constructed, but disputes the idea that it was a deliberate attempt at starvation, and reiterates her argument in Stalin’s Peasants that:

It was not the result of adverse climatic conditions but a product of government policies… The famine followed agricultural collectivisation at the end of the 1920s, a formally voluntary process that was in fact coercive in its implementation. Along with forced-pace industrialisation, it was part of a package of breakthrough modernisation policies launched by Stalin in the first phase of his leadership. Industrial growth needed to be financed by grain exports, which collectivisation was supposed to facilitate through compulsory state procurements and non-negotiable prices.

Here is a key note address to the Harvard University’s Ukrainian Research Institute which again touches on the topic, noting that there are no less than 21 definitions of genocide which makes comparative genocide studies complex. Werth may be a rabid anti-communist, but he is by no means fringe, and his view is shared by Roman Serbyn, a professor emeritus of Russian and East European history at the University of Quebec at Montreal — again, hardly fringe.

If you look at people strongly take the stance that it was not a genocide — such as this article for example — they still take as fact that “there is little doubt that the famine was a man-made famine… there is no doubt that Stalin and his supporters indeed did not help the starving and instead allowed them to die”.

Tadeusz Olszański of the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw has been highly critical of framing holodomor as a genocide, and has been highly critical of Ukrainians, such as former president Viktor Yushchenko, for politicising the issue and using it as a tool of nationalism. Instead of a genocide, he believes the famine should be considered “an instrument of a repression campaign designed to break the resistance of the Ukrainian rural population against communism, and to refer to the repressions as a crime against humanity.”

One of the main books on the not genocide side is The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture, 1931–1933 by the well regarded Wheatcroft and Davies. In this they not only argue Stalin was responsible for the famine but also outlines the current Russian historiography, which they summarise as:

This was an ‘organised famine’, caused by Stalin and his entourage as part of the war against the peasantry throughout the USSR… they claimed that in 1932–33 there was ‘a kind of chain of mutually connected and mutually dependent Stalin actions (fully or not fully conscious) to organise the “great famine”.

M. B. Tauger, who has long argued against the idea that Stalin hoarded mass amounts of grain while millions starved, still concludes with “these findings do not, of course, free Stalin from responsibility for the famine.”

The idea that the 1930s famine were a man-made event caused by Soviet policies is beyond dispute. The current debate is centred around largely the semantic use of “genocide” as well as the form of intent.

Marchenko Nina — The Road of Sorrow

The 1946–47 famine is somewhat more complex, with the impact of WW2 still reverberating through the country. However, does our commentator’s incredulity at the Soviet system causing the famine have much academic backing?

An evenhanded summary of the famine is provided by Russian historian V. F. Zima:

the famine was a consequence of three important factors: post-war difficulties, the drought of 1946 and the food requisitioning policy for the collective and state farms…. the first two factors were in themselves sufficient to provide for a semi-famished existence of the population, and it was the third — food requisitioning that made life impossible.

It was Government actions that made matters worse, tipping things from food insecurity to mass famine. Central planning led to people starving. An unaccountable government led to people starving.

During the famine, surplus stocks in the hands of the state seem to have been sufficient to have fed all those who died of starvation. The famine was a FAD2 (preventable food availability decline) famine, which occurred because a drought caused a bad harvest and hence reduced food availability, but, had the priorities of the government been different, there might have been no famine (or a much smaller one) despite the drought. The selection of victims can be understood in terms of the entitlement approach.

Some key points:

Hence, under the conditions prevailing in the USSR in 1946–7, the relatively large supply of food in the hands of the state is considered by present-day historians to be one of the causes [emphasis in original] of the famine. Under these conditions, large food supplies in the hands of the state did not constitute an effective method for breaking a famine.

…part of the supplies in the hands of the state were the subsistence requirements of the peasantry, obtained by coercion… the poorest part of the population with the greatest need for famine relief (the peasantry) was excluded from the public distribution system

Food was taken from the peasantry by force and then the peasants were excluded from receiving food.

From the conclusion:

There was no inevitable link between the drought and the famine. Had the policies of the government with respect to taxes and procurements, stocks and international trade, been different from what they actually were, there might have been no famine, or only a much smaller one, despite the drought.

…The Joseph–Sen policy of fighting famine by establishing large food supplies in the hands of the state, is frequently effective. However, there can be cases where it is not so, particularly for groups the feeding of which is not a priority of the state. The Soviet 1947 (more precisely 1946–8) famine is one such case. Where (part of) the stocks in the hands of the state are the subsistence requirements of the peasantry, obtained by coercion, the peasantry are excluded from the rationing system, and the state exports grain and holds excess stocks during the famine, then building up or maintaining large state supplies may worsen the famine, at any rate among the peasantry, rather than reducing mortality. The same may apply, in other famines, not to the peasantry but to ethnic/religious groups different from the group/s which hold/s state power

…The famine deaths were not a direct impact of a natural disaster, but were mediated both by Soviet economic policy and by the Soviet entitlement system

This is in line with academic research on famines since the 1980s.

Soviet censorship and propaganda surrounding the famine stopped suitable aid from being received:

One way in which the Soviet Union sought to control the understanding of the postwar famine in Ukraine was by blocking outside observers from the region. The monthly Narrative Report of the US Foreign Agricultural Service in the USSR cuts off abruptly in the midst of the 1946 harvest.

And internal propaganda:

After the war the Soviet government was reluctant to offer all-out assistance to the region. Because it had been occupied, it was suspected of having been disloyal to the Soviet cause during the war.

In the conclusion of The Soviet Famine of 1946–47 in Global and Historical Perspective, Nicholas Ganson writes:

For those in the upper echelons of Soviet power, the goals of preserving amd later building up grain stocks dwarfed the value of human life… The findings in this study support he idea that the Soviet leadership felt justified by its ideology to impose it’s schemes on the whole country. The Soviet leadership was even less apologetic than some have assumed. In cancelling rationing, the state admitted to the the need for sacrifices. The Soviet government pursued its prerogatives to the detriment of the population and sought to convince people through propaganda that it’s policies were justified.

He casts it as a “military-like struggle” which was “the product of… The forging of the Party during the Russian Civil War”, and the Bolsheviks “turned to the stick” in the absence of the proverbial carrot. He writes that:

In the context of the famine, Soviet legislation automatically pitted officialdom against society, because coping mechanism necessary for survival could be and often were interpreted as anti-Soviet… The people strove to survive whilst the leadership sought to organise society to meet its own requirements… One cannot help but wonder what would have happened had the authorities sacrificed ideological control for the sake of allying themselves with the people… but it does not appear that Stalin and his entourage considered that option.

An added bonus comparison to Tsarist response in 1891:

On the other hand, for the Russian Empire/USSR as a whole, the contrast between the effectiveness of Russian relief efforts in 1891–2 and the ineffectiveness of Soviet relief efforts in 1946–7 seems more sensible. In 1892, excess mortality in the Russian Empire seems to have been only about 375,000–400,000 (Robbins, 1975, p. 171). Even allowing for population growth between 1892 and Soviet times, this is a low figure by the standards of Soviet famines. In 1891, the Tsarist government, market forces and local governments reacted quickly and decisively to news of the poor harvest… By August, thousands of railway freight carriages full of grain, purchased by traders attracted by the prospect of good prices and local governments (zemstva) anxious to feed and provide seed for their population, were heading for the famine region

Chervotkin Mykola — Nobody Wanted to Die

It is also important to note the source being put forward by our commentor Neki. Tottle’s Fraud, Famine and Fascism: a book from the 1980s before the Soviet archives were opened up; a book that is out of print and apparently only within 28 libraries worldwide; a book not written by a trained or professional historian, but by a Canadian labour journalist and Communist Party member; a book likely written in collaboration with the Soviet State; and a book so tenuously sourced and argued that the Canadian Communist Kobzar Publishing House refused to publish it.

This book is scarcely cited by academics, and when it is, it is normally scathing. For example, the first citation returned by Google Scholar is Lethal Politics: Soviet Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1917 whose reference to Tottle is “Conquest (p. 329) summarises his evidence of the famine as an intentional policy to defeat Ukrainian nationalism… For opposing arguments see Wheatcroft (1985, p. 134) and Tottle (1987), the latter an unabashed, book-length argumentum ad hominen”. The book does not even make it into the reference list of the second result which simply acknowledges the book’s existence:

Another response was the book by Douglas Tottle issued by the Soviet publishing agency, Progress Books (Tottle 1987). Tottle’s argument was that the Famine-Genocide was fabricated by Ukrainian nationalists in order to conceal their role in the Second World War as collaborators of the Germans.

One of the next citations is from a piece on Historical Fabrications on the Internet which notes “There seems to be little scholarly debate over the actuality of the Ukrainian famine — a 1987 book by Canadian Douglas Tottle was the only book located supporting the view echoed on the aforementioned websites.”

I generally recommend not reading (secondary) sources on the Soviet Union published before the wall came down, except as timepieces. This can apply doubly, or triply, for non-academic, fringe pieces of work that no-one really takes seriously except for ideologues pushing an agenda and who have probably not read the work: if they had, they would realise it is entirely irrelevant to the current state of Ukrainian historiography. Some better sources are listed below:

Applebaum, Ann. Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine.

Bezoa, Brent and Maggi, Stefania. Living in “survival mode:” Intergenerational transmission of trauma from the Holodomor genocide of 1932–1933 in Ukraine. Social Science & Medicine. Volume 134, June 2015, Pages 87–94.

Davies, R. and Wheatcroft, S. The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture, 1931–1933. Springer (2016).

Davies, R. W., et al. “Stalin, Grain Stocks and the Famine of 1932–1933.Slavic Review, vol. 54, no. 3, 1995, pp. 642–657. JSTOR, Accessed 29 Mar. 2020.

Drobnicki, John A. and Asaro, Richard, “Historical Fabrications on the Internet: Recognition, Evaluation, and Use in Bibliographic Instruction” (2001). CUNY Academic Works.

Ellman, M. The 1947 Soviet famine and the entitlement approach to famines. Cambridge Journal of Economics, Volume 24, Issue 5, September 2000, Pages 603–630,

Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Red Famine by Anne Applebaum review — did Stalin deliberately let Ukraine starve?. The Guardian 25 August 2017.

Fitzpatrick, Sheila. Stalin’s Peasants: Resistance and Survival in the Russian Village After Collectivization. Oxford University Press.

Ganson, N. The Soviet Famine of 1946–47 in Global and Historical Perspective.

Kuromiya, Hiroaki (2008) The Soviet Famine of 1932–1933 Reconsidered, Europe-Asia Studies, 60:4, 663–675, DOI: 10.1080/09668130801999912

Marples, David R. (2009) Ethnic Issues in the Famine of 1932–1933 in Ukraine, Europe-Asia Studies, 61:3, 505–518, DOI: 10.1080/09668130902753325

Rummel, R. J. Lethal Politics: Soviet Genocide and Mass Murder Since 1917. Routledge, 2017.

Sysyn, Frank. Thirty Years of Research on the Holodomor: A Balance Sheet. Vol. 2 №1 (2015): East/West: Journal of Ukrainian Studies (ISSN 2292–7956).

Malko, Victoria. The Holodomor as Genocide in Historiography and Memory. Paper presented at the 51st Annual Convention of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies in San Francisco, California, 2019.

Malko, Victoria. Women and the Holodomor-Genocide: Victims, Survivors, Perpetrators. Press at California State University, 2019.

Naimark, Norman. Stalin’s Genocides. Princeton University Press, 2010.

Noack, Christian, Janssen, Lindsay, and Comerford, Vincent. Holodomor and Gorta Mór: Histories, Memories and Representations of Famine in Ukraine and Ireland. Anthem Press, 2012.

Snyder, Timothy. Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin. Random House, 2011.

Werth, Nicholas. The Great Ukrainian Famine of 1932–33. Violence de masse et Résistance — Réseau de recherche, [en ligne], publié le : 18 Avril, 2008, accéder le 17/02/2020,, ISSN 1961–9898.

Wolowyna, Oleh. Review of Contextualizing the Holodomor: The Impact of Thirty Years of Ukrainian Famine Studies ed. by Andrij Makuch and Frank Sysyn. Ab Imperio, vol. 2017 no. 2, 2017, p. 335–341. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/imp.2017.0044.

Olszański, Tadeusz A. “Ukraine Remembers, the World acknowledges” The Holodomor in Ukraine’s historical policy. CES Commentary. Issue 16. 2008.

Sen, Amartya. Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation.

Smith, Jenny Leigh. (2015) The awkward years: defining and managing famines, 1944–1947, History and Technology, 31:3, 206–219, DOI: 10.1080/07341512.2015.1129810

Werth, Nicolas. Harvard Ukrainian Studies Vol. 30, №1/4, After the Holodomor: The Enduring Impact of the Great Famine on Ukraine (2008) , pp. xxix-xxxviii.

Wheatcroft, Stephen G. (2012) The Soviet Famine of 1946–1947, the Weather and Human Agency in Historical Perspective, Europe-Asia Studies, 64:6, 987–1005, DOI: 10.1080/09668136.2012.691725.

Zima, V. F. Famine in the USSR 1946–1947: Origin and consequences. (Голод в СССР 1946–1947 годов: Происхождение и последствия).

Nikolayets Oleksandr — Millions of Ukrainian Peasants

I like history and thinking about freedom. I have a background in International Relations, Strategic Studies and I work for the Military Industrial Complex