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Russia Falsely Blames the Famine That Killed Millions of Ukrainians on the West

A victim of the Holodomor in Kharkiv, Ukraine, in a photo by Alexander Wienerberger, 1932 or 1933. (Diocesan Archive of Vienna (Diözesanarchiv Wien)/BA Innitzer)
A victim of the Holodomor in Kharkiv, Ukraine, in a photo by Alexander Wienerberger, 1932 or 1933. (Diocesan Archive of Vienna (Diözesanarchiv Wien)/BA Innitzer)
Maria Zakharova

Maria Zakharova

Spokesperson, Russian Foreign Ministry

"Its (the Holodomor) main reason was a large-scale crop failure. To a large extent, the famine was also promoted by Western countries, which demanded that the USSR pay with grain in foreign trade operations with them."


On November 30, the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, adopted a resolution recognizing the devastating period of 1930s famine known as the Holodomor as a genocide of the Ukrainian people.

Between 1931 and 1934, at least 5 million people died of hunger in Ukraine, Russia and other parts of the Soviet Union as Josef Stalin attempted to collectivize agriculture. Production plummeted. Conditions became so dire that people died in the streets. Some of the starving turned to cannibalism.

Ukraine recognized the Holodomor as genocide in 2006. Since then, sixteen other countries have followed suit, including the United States. Argentina, Chile and Spain have declared it an “an act of extermination,” according to the Holodomor Museum in Kyiv.

Responding to the Bundestag declaration, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova claimed the Holodomor was caused by events beyond Soviet authorities’ control:

“Its (the Holodomor) main reason was a large-scale crop failure. To a large extent, the famine was also promoted by Western countries, which demanded that the USSR pay with grain in foreign trade operations with them.”

That is false. In fact, the overwhelming consensus among scholars is that the famine resulted from Stalin’s failed farming policies and brutal oppression of the peasant population. The word Holodomor derives from the Ukrainian holod (starvation) and mor (extermination).

In 1929, the Soviet Communist Party under Stalin launched collectivization – the forced integration of individual land holdings and labor into state-controlled collective and state farms. The policy required farmers to rent their land, personal property and housing to state-controlled farms.

Wealthy and dissenting peasants were sentenced to long terms of hard labor or executed. Some 5 million people were deported to Siberia. Food production dropped dramatically, shortages emerged and the peasants rebelled, sometimes violently.

As noted by the Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine, which is maintained by a team of scholars and editors from the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies (CIUS), the resistance to Soviet collectivization was particularly strong in Ukraine:

“In Soviet Ukraine, the scale of protests and riots, which reached their peak in early 1930, was greater than in the other Soviet republics. According to figures collected by the Unified State Political Administration (the OGPU — the Soviet secret police), 4,098 disturbances occurred in Soviet Ukraine (29.7 percent of the USSR total) with over a million participants (38.7 per cent of the USSR total), at a time when the republic accounted for about 20 percent of the USSR population.”

Ukraine, as the center of grain production, was known as the Russian Empire’s breadbasket. Peasants in Ukraine were more affluent and didn’t want to give their property to the state. Also, many farmers had supported in efforts to create an independent Ukrainian state in 1917–1920, in resistance to the Bolsheviks who had engineered the communist revolution in Russia.

Under collectivization, farmers in the Soviet Union had to fulfill mandatory grain quotas. The communist government used this grain to feed the country’s growing urban population and to finance the purchase of equipment from abroad, as part of the Soviet industrialization program.

In 1930, for example, 22.3 million tons of grain were harvested in Ukraine. The state took 35 percent of the total – 7.7 million tons of grain. In 1931, Ukraine harvested 13.8 tons of grain, of which the state took 7.25 million tons, or 53 percent of the total.

The small amount of grain that the state left for the farmers wasn’t enough to survive.

On December 28, 1931, Karl Karlson, vice chairman of the GPU (secret police) of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR), wrote in a top-secret report:

“This year’s grain-procurement campaign is taking place in the context of widely held opinions that the plans are unrealistic and cannot be fulfilled…

“In the village of Moskalivka in Vovchansk raion, a group of up to sixty collective farmers, mostly women, presented themselves in orderly fashion to the village council and demanded that bread be distributed. There were shouts: ‘Give us bread, we’re hungry’."

According to Bohdan Klid, research director at Canada’s Holodomor Research and Education Consortium, Ukraine’s food shortages were caused by the Soviet authorities’ confiscatory measures and unrealistically high grain quotas.

Stalin cracked down:

“When famine broke out in Ukraine … top Soviet Ukrainian government leaders informed the Kremlin of starvation, requesting aid and a reduction in the grain quota for the country. The Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, called instead for an intensification of grain collection efforts. He also voiced his distrust of Ukrainian officials, suspecting many of them as nationalists, and expressed fear that opposition to his policies in Ukraine could intensify, possibly leading to Ukraine’s secession from the Soviet Union.”

In 1932, Ukrainian farmers again failed to meet the quotas. In response, authorities stepped up their requisitioning campaign, seizing even seeds, meat and potatoes. Special teams were sent to search the houses to confiscate grain and other foodstuffs.

On August 7, 1932, the Soviets issued a decree known as the “Law of Five Spikelets,” under which the theft of even a few stalks of grain became an act of sabotage, punishable with death by firing squad. The entire harvest was declared “equivalent to state property.” To protect it, soldiers were placed on watchtowers so that no one could take even five spikelets.

Starving rural inhabitants tried leaving their villages to find food, but the government issued a decree forbidding it. Thousands who managed to get away were detained and sent back. This meant they were effectively sentenced to death through starvation.

In the early spring of 1933, British journalist Gareth Jones was able to travel from Moscow to Ukraine, even though Western journalists were forbidden from traveling outside the capital. Jones spent two weeks collecting evidence of the famine in Ukraine and wrote in an article published in the Manchester Guardian on March 29, 1933:

“I walked alone through villages and twelve collective farms. Everywhere was the cry, ‘There is no bread; we are dying’. …In a train a Communist denied to me that there was a famine. I flung into the spittoon a crust of bread I had been eating from my own supply. The peasant, my fellow-passenger, fished it out and ravenously ate it. I threw orange peel into the spittoon. The peasant again grabbed and devoured it. The Communist subsided.”

For more than half a century, the Soviet Union denied the Holodomor had occurred. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the archives of the Soviet Communist Party secret police and government confirmed that deliberate actions were to blame.

According to an account in Britannica by journalist and historian Anne Applebaum, Ukrainian researchers determined that the overall death toll included 3.9 million Ukrainians, with mass graves dug in the countryside and corpses lining the streets of cities. But there was more:

“The famine was accompanied by a broader assault on Ukrainian identity. While peasants were dying by the millions, agents of the Soviet secret police were targeting the Ukrainian political establishment and intelligentsia. The famine provided cover for a campaign of repression and persecution that was carried out against Ukrainian culture and Ukrainian religious leaders. The official policy of Ukrainization, which had encouraged the use of the Ukrainian language, was effectively halted.”

Contemporary Russia maintains the Holodomor is not a genocide of Ukraine because it was “a severe famine broke out in the Soviet Union” in 1932-1933, that killed many nationalities.

Zakharova's unsupported claim that the West demanded grain for payment is a stretch, based on the Holodomor Museum's information on grain exports during the famine:

"At the time when millions of Ukrainians were dying in severe hunger agony, the Soviet government exported Ukrainian grain to other republics of the USSR. The restriction of grain exports in 1931 and its complete cessation in 1932−1933 could have prevented the famine.

"Moreover, such decisions in no way influenced the process of industrialization because during this period world prices on wheat fell down. The USSR received significantly more profits from the export of timber and oil products.

"In addition, quite large volumes of grain were accumulated in the state reserves, but these resources were not used to assist the hungry Ukraine. This shows the intentional actions for the organization of famine in Ukraine."