The Soviet Famines: A Stalinist Genocide?



Nick Shepley is a history teacher at Kings Monkton School, an independent school in Cardiff, Wales. He is the author of numerous ebooks, including "The Palmer Raids and the Red Scare: 1918-1920," "Russia's Struggle With Modernity: From the Romanovs to the Bolsheviks 1815-1929," and "Red Sun at War."

In 1931, one of the most successful public propaganda campaigns in support of an action that resulted in mass killing was mounted. At the height of the collectivization campaign in the Soviet Union and the resultant famines, a range of voices, mostly Western, were galvanized in support of the Stalinist regime.

Walter Duranty, the New York Times correspondent in Moscow, later described by journalist Malcolm Muggeridge as “the biggest liar I have ever met,” claimed openly, and in full knowledge of the real facts, that whilst there may be shortages in the USSR, there was no famine.

Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb, before visiting the country, based many of their assumptions on Duranty's reports, and similarly dismissed talk of famine while they were in Russia at the height of the catastrophe as “unfounded.”

The subsequent rise of Nazism in Germany from 1933 onwards occupied much of the attention of the Western media, with only one or two correspondents, Muggeridge and Western Mail reporter Gareth Williams, telling the story of the famines in Britain and America. The audience for their reportage was small, and Duranty's reportage highly respected and believed.

Even though the pre-war crimes of Hitler's regime paled in comparison to the Soviet famines (and that was just one of the many miseries in the Soviet Union during the 1930s), the fear of Nazism and the degree of fascination with it obscured the Soviet famines from much Western attention. If there was a contemporaneous process of obscuring the actual existence of the famines, the process by which their presence in history was obscured can be traced to the aftermath of World War II.

With the focus of world attention on the horrors of Auschwitz and Hitler's Final Solution, the language of the new United Nations approach to genocide was formed, presenting it as a specifically racial crime. The USSR, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, was able to shape the drafting of the definition of genocide in order to deflect any accusation that the famines were a form of genocide. This, and the regime's earlier apologists, have created considerable difficulties for advocates of defining the famines as genocide. But Stalin's deliberate conflation of class and ethnicity led him to enforce starvation policies against specific regions and ethnic groups.

In this essay, I intend to examine the argument set forward by Timothy Snyder in his book Bloodlands, which is the most recent title to explicitly accuse the Stalinist regime of a genocide in the Soviet famines of the early 1930s. I will avoid the term Holodomor, as this refers specifically to the Ukrainian famine, and whilst there is a preponderance of evidence set out by Snyder against the regime that relates specifically to the Ukraine, the narrow term Holodomor ignores a comparable tragedy in Kazakhstan. Also, when using the term “kulak” -- meaning a wealthy peasant -- it is important to remember that many of those labelled with being kulaks were anything but, and that it is difficult to argue that anything resembling a kulak class, as described by the Soviet state, really existed at all. The majority of those who were accused of being a new rural bourgeois counterrevolutionary class were simply peasants with slightly more agricultural know-how or a better work ethic than their less successful neighbors. The alleged kulaks were destroyed not only by the famine, but also a systematic terror directed by the state.

That there was a death toll of at least five million people in the famines is not in dispute. The question, as with the Nazi genocides of a decade later, is that of intention. Whilst the case against Hitler was successfully made even before the end of hostilities in 1945, and intentionalists and functionalists have never disagreed over Hitler's actual culpability for the Holocaust, the case against Stalin has been, oddly enough, more difficult to prove.

This is seemingly counterintuitive, for unlike Hitler, Stalin wrote down most of his orders (often scrawling comments on the margins of lists of people to be executed), but, as with Hitler, there is an evolving canon of historical writing that examines the notion of intention. Historiographies of the Third Reich have moved, in general, from intentionalist theories of a Nazi “master plan” to more ambiguous but nuanced views, such as Hans Mommsen's argument of cumulative radicalization and Ian Kershaw's 'working toward the Führer' model. Soviet famine historiographies seem to have done almost the opposite, moving away from the 'functionalist' view that the famines were a brutal but unintentional product of industrialization towards the Snyder view that Stalin introduced seven deliberate policies to exterminate the kulak population and bring the Ukraine to heel. Snyder and Norman Naimark, who wrote Stalin's Genocides, both accuse Stalin directly of genocide, and in his indictment of Stalin, Snyder raises seven points at which he believes brutal and clumsy policies moved beyond simply a harsh return to the famine-inducing policies of Lenin's War Communism and become an extermination plan. They are:

One, that at the height of the naturally occurring famine in November 1932, state-supplied food advances given to peasants who beat their targets had to be returned, depriving the few areas with surpluses of any grain they had.

Two, two days later, a similar meat penalty was introduced, and peasants unable to hit grain quotas had to pay a penalty in meat instead.

Three, a blacklist was established, and all farms failing to meet quotas were expected to surrender fifteen times the regular monthly target. This led activists and police to arrive and take all foodstuffs, right down to family store cupboards, as a punishment. Farms on the blacklist were also banned from trading at all, making their plight even more desperate.

Four, Stalin's security chief for the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, Vsevolod Balytsky, told a receptive Stalin that the famine in Ukraine was a nationalist plot, connected to Poland. Stalin was deeply suspicious of the Poles, and this argument from Balytsky made all Ukrainian nationalists -- even those linked to earlier Soviet initiatives encouraging Ukrainian culture -- enemies of the state. If Stalin cannot be judged as a conventional genocidaire today, this is at least evidence of a plan of cultural genocide.

Five, Soviet authorities failed to deviate from or lessen requisition quotas from an already starving Ukraine. Owing to Ukraine's traditional role as the Russian empire's breadbasket, it now had to supply a third of the entire quota for the USSR, which could only be done by a policy of mass starvation, Snyder calls it "a death sentence for three million people."

Six, Stalin sealed the borders in January 1933, preventing peasants from escaping to find food elsewhere, and Ukrainian peasants were denied internal passports. This took away any chance of escaping the hunger and the requisitions, which, seven, continued long after quotas were met in 1933.

There are intriguing parallels with the Holocaust. In both instances security and the fear of a conspiratorial threat were cited as motivation. In both instances Stalin and Hitler existed in a web of relations with henchmen who interpreted their leaders' will, and who devised policies and initiatives to bring that about. The difference between the two leaders is that Hitler, according to Kershaw, spoke in "broad visions" and rarely committed his name to any official paperwork, whereas Stalin was much more comfortable going into specifics with his subordinates. The general approach of Hitler is one facet of the Nazi functionalist argument, that Hitler's lack of precision created an environment where events radicalized. The same cannot be said of Stalin. He was not guilty of being too "general," instead he clearly articulated his views, frequently in writing. In 1933, he made it clear that although the kulak class had been ostensibly destroyed, there were still many crypto-kulaks who existed, appearing to be loyal Soviet citizens but in fact engaging in sabotage.

He wrote: "In order to see through such a cunning enemy and not to succumb to demagogy, one must possess revolutionary vigilance; one must possess the ability to tear the mask from the face of the enemy and reveal to the collective farmers his real counter-revolutionary features." He added: "The kulaks have been defeated, but they are far from having been crushed yet. More than that, they will not be crushed very soon if the Communists go round gaping in smug contentment, in the belief that the kulaks will themselves walk into their graves, in the process of their spontaneous development, so to speak." The death of an entire class, whether a physical or a figurative death is clearly advocated here, but was it, as with the Holocaust, the result of failed policies that eventually made mass murder an ideological necessity.

Norman Naimark thinks not. For Naimark, the continuity between the anti-peasant rhetoric and mass killings under Vladimir Lenin during the first Soviet famine of 1920-22, brought about by requisitioning under war communism, and the Stalinist famines, is clear. He cites Lenin’s orders to hang the peasants from the hilltops who were protesting against requisitioning and the resultant famine as evidence, quoting Lenin as saying "Hang without fail, so the people see."

Whilst Stalin's famines did follow the failed collectivization of agriculture, which in turn was motivated by the Five-Year Plans, the initial ideological drive to destroy the kulaks was deep seated in Bolshevik thinking. The new element that Stalin brought to the events of the early 1930s was the national question, and his own paranoid thinking, that there were entire "suspect peoples" out there, particularly Ukrainians but also Poles and Kazakhs.

The first major work that accused Stalin of genocide was Harvest of Sorrow by Robert Conquest. Conquest, already an accomplished writer on Stalin by the time the book was published in 1986, made an unambiguous judgement regarding Stalin's intentions, stating that Stalin was fully aware of the famine and refused to allow anyone in his inner circle to speak openly of it. "Stalin could at any time have ordered the release of grain, and held off until at least late spring in the clear knowledge that the famine was doing its worst."

He adds:

That Stalin was fully informed does not quite prove that he had planned the famine from the first. His continuing to employ the policies which had produced the famine, after the famine had clearly declared itself, and indeed to demand the more rigorous application, does, however show that he regarded the weapon of famine as acceptable.

Conquest goes on to argue that the final piece damning evidence against Stalin was the sealing of Ukraine's borders, cementing what had been a natural disaster augmented by man-made political errors as mass murder. Conquest later recanted some of these more deterministic positions later on, after he was challenged by Mark Tauger, who claimed Harvest of Sorrow was so full of errors and inconsistencies it was practically Cold War propaganda. Conquest, a member of the Communist Party in his twenties and an avowed anti-communist later in life, is certainly open to a charge of bias. But that doesn't mean that his writing isn't well respected and viewed as an impressive body of scholarly work. Conquest states in the end of Harvest of Sorrow that he cannot help but judge, and that in some way, to judge is the role of the historian.

Tauger, in a letter to Conquest, claimed that the famine was for the most part caused by natural disaster, and the available food was simply insufficient to feed both towns and cities. This, Tauger claims, is something completely ignored by Conquest. Tauger claims that the real causes of the insufficient harvest of 1932 were the policies and practices of collectivization, and so he follows Stephen Devereux economic, as opposed to political, interpretation, which Devereux advanced in his 1994 book Theories of Famine. However, he does give some parting reference to the importance of the national question, suggesting that the decision as to who to allocate food to was "an important part of the famine." This admission seems to take much away from Tauger's rather more sympathetic approach towards Stalin's famines. As Snyder highlights out in his seven points, decision-making by 1933 had taken on a distinctly anti-Ukrainian tone, as Stalin came to see the Ukrainian peoples as suspect.

Tauger, however, reserves his most withering criticism for Stephane Courtois's and Nicolas Werth's The Black Book Of Communism, which makes the unequivocal claim of genocide and presents the Soviet famines as part of a century-long global continuum of communist terror. Tauger attacks their thesis in much the same way that he criticized Conquest, claiming that their claims are inaccurate, based on poorly sourced or partial evidence and are heavily biased.

The Black Book found defenders in historian Tony Judt and the writer Anne Applebaum (who wrote Gulag: A History) and Tauger himself has been criticized in recent years for adopting the opposite extreme opinion and finding the Stalin regime largely blameless for the famine, though not for collectivization.

Robert Davies and Stephen Wheatcroft have emerged as challengers to the intentionalist view, but their critiques have been far less radical than those put forward by Tauger. In fact, both writers have in recent years found areas of compromise with Conquest, who gradually moved towards the view that Stalin had no prior intention to cause a famine, but who chose to favor industrial workers over peasants during the famine. This is not to confuse his position with Tauger's, who ignores many of the Stalinist actions highlighted by Conquest and Snyder once that the famine was underway.

Historian Michael Ellman was also criticised by Davies and Wheatcroft for advocating the genocide question, and responded in his essay "Stalin and the Soviet Famine 1932-33, Revisited."

Davies and Wheatcroft adopt a functionalist explanation of the famines, focusing on the misinterpretation of Lenin's slogan, repeated by Stalin, "He who does not work, neither shall he eat," by local authorities. Initially, they argue, Lenin had directed this slogan at the middle classes during the Russian Civil War, not intending mass famine but a proletarianization of Russia's bourgeoisie. Stalin's rhetoric during the famine was targeted at the kulaks as supposed rural capitalists but also at "idlers" who had brought the famine on themselves. The presumption of idleness and the interpretation of rhetoric, in Wheatcroft's and Davies's view, led to a radicalization of starvation policies. This would be compatible with a broader view of both Nazi and Stalinist functionalism, similar to Kershaw's "working towards the Führer" concept. Ellman refutes this notion, however; he agreed that at the start of the collectivization policy there probably was no starvation plan, but by February 1933 there certainly was, and it was a policy that acted as a cheap alternative to mass deportation, which secret policemen Genrikh Yagoda, then deputy head of the State Political Directorate (OGPU), and Gulag chief Matvei Berman estimated would cost 1.4 billion roubles.

Ellman makes three charges against Stalin:

One, that he exported 1.8 million tons of grain during the famine, a deliberate policy of starvation (Ellman estimates, perhaps too neatly, that this would have fed five million people, which is the standard estimate for fatalities in the Holodomor alone). Like Snyder he also claims that the prevention of migration from Ukraine was also a deliberate act of starvation policy, though Stalin claimed his rationale at the time was to prevent "troublemakers" from spreading rumours and discontent across the western USSR.

Two, acts of omission were also part of Stalin's crimes, and that a failure to accept offers of overseas aid was part of a starvation policy.

Three, Ellman also criticises the functionalist notion put forward by Davies and Wheatcroft that Stalin was not the progenitor of starvation policies, but the reluctant adopter of OGPU designs. On the contrary, he argues that Yagoda was actually demoted during this time for being insufficiently enthusiastic about mass starvation.

Ellman claims an "archival revolution" in Soviet historiography since the end of the Cold War has enabled historians a far greater insight into the thoughts and motivations of Stalin. This he argues, has given far greater evidence of Stalin's intentions and therefore culpability. Nazi intentionalist arguments are frequently weak owing to Hitler's dislike of paperwork and the mass destruction of documentation in 1945, causing writers such as Lucy Dawidowicz to overly rely on Mein Kampf. Stalinist internationalists, on the other hand, are enjoying a renaissance with new access to archives, and this perhaps accounts for new intentionalist theories and a wave of new debates regarding Stalin's famines.

The end of communism in the 1990s has given Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and the other former republics of the USSR the opportunity to create historical narratives for themselves that are not imposed by Moscow. For much of the post-war era, speaking about the Soviet famines has either been an official crime or strongly discouraged, but the movement to have the famines, and the Holodomor, in particular internationally accepted as genocide has had some notable successes. Countries such as Canada and Australia, with sizeable Ukrainian minorities, have both risked their relationships with the Russian Federation by recognizing the Ukrainian famine as genocide. They were joined by the European Union in 2003.

But when Ukrainian President Victor Yankuvich said in 2010 that "it would be wrong and unfair to recognize the Holodomor as an act of genocide against [only] one nation," he faced a furious attack from opposition parties and members of the public. Evidently in Ukraine, the memory of the crime is a powerful part of national identity, and the search for recognition of Ukrainian loss is an important part of the resolution of shared trauma. Yankuvich reflected a line that is more readily accepted in Russia. Pressure groups from Ukraine and its various émigré communities across the world have been particularly insistent that Walter Duranty, the U.S. journalist corrupted by the Soviets, be posthumously stripped of the Pulitzer Prize he was awarded for covering Stalin's show trials.

It is difficult to fully judge the validity of the genocide charge without examining the arguments of Raphael Lemkin, the man who first coined the term.

Lemkin, a Polish Jew, fled Poland in 1939 after fighting the German invasion, eventually making his way to America. He had been a lawyer before the war and had specialized in what he was later to call genocide, studying the Turkish atrocities against the Armenians in 1915. Lemkin already had fixed ideas about genocide long before the end of World War II, when he discovered that most of his relatives were killed in the Holocaust. His seminal work on genocide, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, formed the basis for the Nuremberg trials and the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and the Punishment of Genocide. It was this document that Naimark argues the Soviet Union refused to endorse unless the classification of "social groups" was removed.

Lemkin himself spoke out about the Ukrainian famine in 1953, claiming that it fulfilled the necessary criteria of genocide with or without this categorization:

The Ukrainian is not and never has been a Russian. His culture, his temperament, his language, his religion, are all different. ... [T]o eliminate [Ukrainian] nationalism .. .the Ukrainian peasantry was sacrificed ... a famine was necessary for the Soviet and so they got one to order. ... [I]f the Soviet program succeeds completely, if the intelligentsia, the priest, and the peasant can be eliminated [then] Ukraine will be as dead as if every Ukrainian were killed, for it will have lost that part of it which has kept and developed its culture, its beliefs, its common ideas, which have guided it and given it a soul, which, in short, made it a nation. ...This is not simply a case of mass murder. It is a case of genocide, of the destruction, not of individuals only, but of a culture and a nation.

Ellman offers a similar legal evaluation, first stating that Stalin's crimes were a combination of acts of omission and commission, and the debate, Ellman claims, hinges on the issue of intent. He argues that Davies's and Wheatcroft's understanding of intent, that it is "only taking an action whose outcome is solely to cause deaths amongst the peasantry" is too narrow. Ellman argues that legal opinion is largely consistent on the idea that intent can be proven if the defendant took an action and could forsee it would most likely have lethal consequences. Ellman argues that Stalin's sealing of Ukraine's borders is a case in point. It would be difficult to argue that he was not aware of the death sentence he was most likely imposing on the fleeing peasants. Stalin's indifference, as opposed to the active prosecution, to the deaths of millions is no defense.

Ellman points out that the UN also stipulates that a genocide can be the destruction "in whole or in part" of a national group; however, a later ruling at the International Criminal Court indicated that the mass killing of individuals needs to be concentrated in a small geographical area in order for it to be considered genocide. This weakens the legalistic case, in Ellman's view, and he stated that if he were a juror in the trial against the Soviet state, he would have to return a "not guilty" or "not proven" verdict as the evidence can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Ellman believes there is little in the way of concrete proof of intention, but he also argues that there is enough evidence to convict Stalin and his conspirators of crimes against humanity, a charge that requires a lower threshold of intentionalist proof. The fact that Nazism stands guilty of genocide where Soviet communism today does not, perhaps is a clear case of victor's justice, and it might also be related to the fact that Stalin's indifference to the suffering of others and his prevailing goal of industrialization differed subtly in emphasis from the Nazis' explicit desire to annihilate the Jewish people. But Stalin has only prevailed in a legalistic sense; in other moral indices of guilt he does not fare very well at all.

Both Snyder and Naimark have made bold and deeply deterministic cases against Stalinism, and as we have read, Lemkin himself was the first person to apply the term genocide to the regime.

The various functionalist and economic arguments that portray Stalin's famines as crimes of omission, tragic side effects of a flawed ideology imposed on the USSR in a rush for industrialization, fail to take into account Stalin's seven clear acts of commission, as laid out by Snyder. The most lenient interpretation that functionalists could possibly reach in these cases is one of negligence, but as Ellman points out, this is difficult to sustain given the provable knowledge that Stalin clearly had about the extent of the death toll and about the likely consequences of sealing the border.

Similar famines, such as the 1892 Volga famine, claimed just 5 percent of the estimated deaths of the Stalinist famine, and whilst this was certainly a crime of negligence by the tsarist regime of Alexander III, it was far smaller in its scope because whilst the regime failed to act, it did not actively intervene to exacerbate the situation.

The distinguishing features of the Ukrainian famine are therefore the features that Snyder has listed. It is perhaps unlikely that the decisions Stalin and other Soviet officals made was solely motivated by a desire to destroy an entire people, but Stalin's class-based perspective made these actions seem perfectly reasonable and straightforward. If the standard of intentional proof required by the United Nations is lowered, the case for Stalin as a genocidaire, as Snyder and Naimark have both done, is more convincing, and it also raises numerous other questions about other Soviet crimes.

The Holocaust -- as a single, monolithic, and defining horror of our age -- has come to shape the terms of the debate about genocide, and the legalistic manner of Nuremberg puts a premium on establishing intention. It is from these discourses that modern notions of Holocaust intentionalist and functionalist historiography have sprung. Whilst this has deeply enriched the debate regarding the Third Reich, it has, by extension, placed constraints on how we can interpret Stalin's crimes. Any popular comparison between the two invariably partially exonerates Stalin because of a lack of perceived malice aforethought, even though his crimes were comparable to Hitler. The interpretation that has evolved as a result of this, one which has been challenged by Snyder's Bloodlands, is one of a Soviet communism, that whilst brutal, was innocent of premeditation (though the purges are another story entirely).

An excerpt from the Black Book of Communism articulates the legacy of the Holocaust on Soviet famine historiography:

After 1945 the Jewish genocide became a byword for modern barbarism, the epitome of twentieth-century mass terror. ... [M]ore recently, a single-minded focus on the Jewish genocide in an attempt to characterize the Holocaust as a unique atrocity has also prevented the assessment of other episodes of comparable magnitude in the Communist world. After all, it seems scarcely plausible that the victors who had helped bring about the destruction of a genocidal apparatus might themselves have put the very same methods into practice. When faced with this paradox, people generally preferred to bury their heads in sand.

The existence of Soviet crimes presented a generation of postwar commentators and thinkers in the West with an inconvenient challenge to the useful binary opposition that existed from the 1930s onwards. As it has become essentially impossible to make the case that Soviet communism is good because Nazism is bad, there have been ever more numerous challenges to the functionalist economic argument. The legalistic case against Stalin as genocidaire may have not yet been made, but a wider moral case for the Soviet famines to be considered genocides is strong and compelling.

Suggested Reading




  • Robert Conquest: Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (1987)






  • Stephen Devereux: Theories of Famine (1993)
  • Eric Hobsbawm: The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 (1994)
  • Alan Bullock: Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives (1996)
  • Orlando Figes: A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891-1924 (1998)
  • Sheila Fitzpatrick: Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s (1999)
  • Anna Reid: Borderland: A Journey through the History of Ukraine (2000)






  • Ian Kershaw: Hitler: 1936-1945: Nemesis (2001)
  • Cormac Ó Gráda: Famine: A Short History (2009)
  • Timothy Snyder: Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2010)
  • Norman M. Naimark: Stalin's Genocides (2012)

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