This Man-Made Famine Killed Millions in the 30s But was Denied by the Soviet Union


Holodomor has a grizzly translation; it literally means “death by hunger “(specifically through being worked to death). It was the term used to define the aftermath of Stalin’s Five Year Plan after an estimated 2.4-7.5 million people in the Soviet Ukraine died from starvation. The estimated death toll is higher, particularly when the scope is widened to include other affected areas, such as Kazakhstan, which was also struck particularly hard.

Starved peasants on a street in Kharkiv, 1933. Harvard University Press

The hideous disaster smothered the country of Ukraine in widespread famine that spanned the years of 1932-1933. At that time, the United States and other countries around the world were knee-deep in the perils that came with Great Depression. The famine went largely unnoticed even though millions were dying. To make matters more complex, it was a man made disaster. Its duplicitous genesis was linked directly with Stalin’s blueprint for the Soviet empire’s success. In an attempt to fast-forward the Soviet Union into the Industrial Age, Stalin introduced a Five Year Plan. It itemized the empire’s future into a step-by-step process that began with the collectivization of agriculture. As the bread basket of the region, the Ukraine took the brunt of the burden.


Between 1932 and 1933, the former Soviet Union was seeking desperately to upgrade and transform its society. The peasant farming situation haunted Russian and historically was a touchy subject. Since the time of serfdom (serfs were homeless peasants who lived and worked on wealth estates), and after it, imbalances existed between peasant farmers and food production. A large portion of food production never made it to the cities, which resulted in food shortages on a frequent basis. During the Revolutions and World War I, this was not so unusual, and was maybe even seen by some as acceptable. When the food shortages continued until long after the guns of battle had been put away, tempers flared and fingers were pointed.

Many concluded it was the fault of peasant farmers. The farmers were reluctant to transition from traditional methods used for farming; new equipment was pricey and required going into debt. Standard practice was for the farmer to consume what was needed and sell the rest at the markets. A hidden paradoxical element existed that was noticeable only through numbers: since World War I ended, peasant farmers had acquired around 1 million more square kilometers of fertile land, from which they were consuming around 80% of the food grown, as compared to only 50% before the war.

Stalin and Lenin, 1919. Public Domain

None of the Communist Party agreed with the way farming had been run. Lenin argued that small farm ownership grew capitalism. Stalin agreed with that and concluded collectivism was the best solution, but he took the idea one step further. With his Five Year Plan, his desire was to rapidly and abruptly combine peasant farming with industrial innovation. The desired outcome was a surplus of food. With food flooding the cities, Stalin was keeping one of Lenin’s promises for “Land, Peace and Bread.” With primal needs taken care of, comrades could focus their ambitions on any number of other tasks. The Soviet Union would be an innovative empire.

Out With The Old. In With The New: New Economic Policy and Collectivization

Working out the specifics of collectivization, it was decided vast swaths of land would be run cooperatively by the peasants. They made up more than 80% of the population and would provide more than enough manpower. From the peasant point of view, the deal was an abomination. The small parcels acquired since 1861 ended serfdom were being taken away in return for co-op work. In theory, the peasants stood to make more money.

Meanwhile, the agricultural production in the Soviet Union continued to operate under the New Economic Policy (NEA). It sounded good in name, but prices of grain remained unstable. By 1928, shortages of rye, wheat, and other grains worsened. The empire was 2 million tons shy of being able to feed its population. After importing what was needed to make up for shortages, the government began seizing control of grain produced by peasants. This solidified discontent felt by farmers. By the following year, they hit the government back.