Extermination by Hunger: Red Famine’s Story of Lethal Injustice

Joseph Stalin took a fateful trip to Siberia in January, 1928. Stalin, soon to become the Soviet Union’s supreme leader, traveled to the country’s outskirts to identify the causes of poor agricultural production and food shortages. He concluded that Soviet farming was too small-scale: most peasants tended small farms that were not economically efficient, while larger, more efficient farms were in the hands of better-off peasants whom the Communist Soviet regime derided as exploitative kulaks (literally, “fists”). Stalin’s solution was to replace small-scale farming with collective farming. Peasants would communally hold and tend large farms for which the government would provide tractors and other machinery. In the following years, collectivization of agriculture became one of Stalin’s most important policies—and led to one of the worst famines of the 20th century.

This largely man-made disaster, which took its greatest toll on Ukraine (the Soviet Union’s breadbasket) is recounted in Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum (Doubleday, 2017). Applebaum, a Washington Post columnist and author of two other books on Stalin’s regime, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gulag, draws on Soviet archival documents, oral histories, memoirs, contemporary journalism, and secondary sources to reconstruct the story of what Ukrainians call the Holodomor—roughly “extermination by hunger.” The result is a clearly written, often gripping, popular history of an event that offers defenders of human life and dignity much to ponder and mourn.

Collectivization and famine unfolded in the Soviet Union during 1928-1934. Various agents of the Soviet regime—including local communist parties, the secret police, and thousands of working-class activists from the cities—tried to force peasants to abandon their old farms and join the new collectives, to which they had to turn over their livestock and tools. Meanwhile, farmers designated as kulaks lost all legal rights and had their property confiscated by methods that ranged from progressively more severe taxation to sudden, violent seizure. Dispossessed kulak families would be sent to the gulag’s concentration camps; into exile in other parts of the Soviet Union, where they would have to eke out a living; or to the cities to become workers in Soviet factories.

Collectivization stalled around 1930 in the face of fierce, often violent, peasant resistance. Some peasants rioted, beating up or killing police or other representatives of the Soviet regime. Mobs of peasant women confronted Soviet officials to demand the return of their property or seized grain and other materials from the collective farms. Other peasants turned to more organized armed rebellion. Many peasants perversely—and self-destructively—killed their own livestock and ate, sold, or hoarded the meat rather than hand the livestock over to the collective farms. The number of horses, cattle, and pigs in the Soviet Union fell by about half between 1928 and 1933 and the number of sheep and goats fell even more dramatically.

Despite peasant resistance, the Soviet regime’s superior power prevailed and most peasants were made to join collective farms. Soviet agriculture had been devastated, though. Farmers were unmotivated (and reduced in numbers because of the purges of kulaks), livestock was scarce, the promised machinery from the state was often shoddy, and the violent process of collectivization disrupted the normal planting routine. Also, drought struck Ukraine, Russia, and Kazakhstan in 1931. By autumn 1931, Soviet agriculture was not going to meet the expected state quotas for grain production. Cases of starvation occurred in Ukraine and elsewhere by spring 1932.

Collectivization’s failure posed serious problems for Stalin. He had staked his political standing on the policy. Grain was a vital export that allowed the Soviet Union to buy equipment for its factories. Fear of internal and external opponents might also have shaped Stalin’s thinking, as we shall see. He opted, in 1932, to take a hard line. Ukraine was given a completely unrealistic quota of grain (over 4 million tons) to produce for the regime. Grain exports, while reduced, were not stopped.

Moreover, Soviet officials adopted a series of draconian policies to keep grain from being diverted from state quotas. Theft of grain or anything else from collective farms became a crime punishable at best by 10 years in prison and at worst by death. Farms and villages in Ukraine and elsewhere that did not meet their grain quotas were “blacklisted” and subjected to penalties: they could not purchase manufactured goods, trade agricultural products, or use tractors and other machinery. To keep peasants on the collective farms—and prevent refugee problems—the borders of Ukraine and other regions were closed and peasants were forbidden to migrate to cities.

Starvation peaked in Ukraine in early 1933. After that point, the government began to relax its policies: quotas were lowered and in some cases replaced with a tax, while food and other aid was provided to Ukraine. By 1934, peasants were allowed to grow food on private plots for their own use. The damage had already been done, however.

Precisely how many people died of hunger in Ukraine is unknown. Applebaum cites Ukrainian demographers who reviewed available records and concluded 3.9 million Ukrainians died because of the famine. (Historian Timothy Snyder, in his book Bloodlands, estimates that the famine also claimed about 2 million lives in other parts of the Soviet Union.)

Applebaum tells this horrifying story well, including telling details about the famine’s effects. Starvation caused people to resort to measures such as eating normally inedible fare: wild animals such as squirrels and frogs; pancakes made from crushed acorns, leaves, or grass; or boiled leather shoes. Some resorted to cannibalism.

Red Famine has flaws: the number and complexity of policies issued during this period and the Soviet institutions involved in carrying them out are sometimes hard to keep straight. The book would have benefited from a clear chronology of events, perhaps as an appendix. Moreover, while the focus on Ukraine is understandable given the famine’s severity there, a more wide-ranging history would have been welcome. Collectivization was imposed throughout the Soviet Union and millions starved outside Ukraine. More attention to these other famine victims would be welcome.

Beyond its historical importance, the famine should interest consistent life ethic advocates because of how it illustrates three characteristics of massive, lethal injustice:

  1. Escalating repression and rebellion. Soviet policy toward peasants could be seen partly as a defense against perceived threats to the regime. Applebaum provides useful historical context: collectivization came only a decade after the Russian Civil War, in which Communist control of Ukraine was undermined by peasant rebellions and Ukrainian nationalists supported by neighboring Poland. Veterans of the earlier rebellions took part in the armed resistance to collectivization in 1930. Soviet officials worried that resistance to collectivization was a repetition of the Civil War-era resistance. Fear of open revolution might well have contributed to Stalin taking such a hard line. When Ukrainian Communist Party officials subsequently reported hunger among peasants or criticized high grain quotas, as they did in the early 1930s, this could have seemed to Stalin another sign his rule was being undermined.

    His comments in August 1932 are revealing: “[W]e may lose Ukraine…Keep in mind that the Ukrainian Communist Party includes more than a few rotten elements, conscious and unconscious [nationalists] as well as direct agents of [Poland]. As soon as things get worse, these elements will not be slow in opening a front within (and without) the party against the party.”[1] Thus, repression and rebellion fed each other in an escalating pattern. (Would Soviet peasants have fared better if they had resisted in wholly nonviolent ways? Probably not, but they could hardly have fared worse.)
  2. Demonization and scapegoating. Repressive, paranoid authorities can identify demon figures who can be blamed for problems. Both nationalists and kulak peasants served this purpose for the Soviet regime. Like many demon figures, the kulaks were ill-defined—how wealthy a peasant had to be to qualify as a kulak was unclear—but vagueness allowed Soviet authorities to apply the label freely as political necessity demanded. Peasants too poor to be kulaks might be designated “kulak agents.” One peasant woman who criticized collectivization was accused of having a “kulak quirk in her mind.” Even the chief of the Soviet secret police expressed concern at one point that “middle and poor peasants” were being branded as “dyed-in-the-wool kulaks.”[2]
  3. Suppressing victims’ memory. The Soviet regime tried in various ways to cover up the famine’s loss of life. Although provincial and national death records were kept, other evidence was suppressed. Some local authorities confiscated or destroyed registries of deaths (one claimed that recording deaths was “in the hands of class enemies—kulaks”).[3] When the 1937 census—the first after the famine—found the Soviet population included 6-10 million fewer people than expected, the census was scrapped and a new, ideologically acceptable one created. For good measure, the census bureau’s chief and his colleagues were executed. As one Soviet journal explained, “Enemies of the people set themselves the goal of distorting the real number of the population.”[4]

Defenders would do well to remember these three patterns and watch for them in the contemporary world. The first two warn that massive, lethal injustice may be ongoing; the last warns that such injustice is being forgotten and is therefore more likely to be repeated. Then and now, erasing the victims of atrocities from history makes us less vigilant against atrocities in the future. Red Famine serves as a valuable corrective to this danger.

A version of this essay originally appeared in Life Matters Journal.


[1] Anne Applebaum, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine (New York: Doubleday, 2017), 184.

[2] Ibid., 123-125.

[3] Ibid., 298-299.

[4] Ibid., 300.

© 2018 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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