Facts & History

Holodomor Facts and History:

What does Holodomor mean?

This word is formed from 2 words in Ukrainian: “holod” meaning hunger or starvation, depending on context; and “mor” meaning death or plague. It is likely that the word derives from the expression “moryty holodom” which means “to inflict death by hunger.”

Listen to the Pronunciation of Holodomor

What was the Holodomor?

The term Holodomor refers specifically to the brutal artificial famine imposed by Stalin’s regime on Soviet Ukraine and primarily ethnically Ukrainian areas in the Northern Caucasus in 1932-33.

In its broadest sense, it is also used to describe the Ukrainian genocide that began in 1929 with the massive waves of deadly deportations of Ukraine’s most successful farmers (kurkuls, or kulaks, in Russian) as well as the deportations and executions of Ukraine’s religious, intellectual and cultural leaders, culminating in the devastating forced famine that killed millions more innocent individuals. The genocide in fact continued for several more years with the further destruction of Ukraine’s political leadership, the resettlement of Ukraine’s depopulated areas with other ethnic groups, the prosecution of those who dared to speak of the famine publicly, and the consistent blatant denial of famine by the Soviet regime.

Holodomor Timeline:

The Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin take power in Russia.

The Soviet Union is formed with Ukraine becoming one of the republics.

After Lenin’s death, Joseph Stalin ascends to power.

Stalin introduces a program of agricultural collectivization that forces farmers to give up their private land, equipment and livestock, and join state owned, factory-like collective farms. Stalin decides that collective farms would not only feed the industrial workers in the cities but could also provide a substantial amount of grain to be sold abroad, with the money used to finance his industrialization plans.

Many Ukrainian farmers, known for their independence, still refuse to join the collective farms, which they regarded as similar to returning to the serfdom of earlier centuries. Stalin introduces a policy of “class warfare” in the countryside in order to break down resistance to collectivization. The successful farmers, or kurkuls, (kulaks, in Russian) are branded as the class enemy, and brutal enforcement by regular troops and secret police is used to “liquidate them as a class.” Eventually anyone who resists collectivization is considered a kurkul.

1.5 million Ukrainians fall victim to Stalin’s “dekulakization” policies, Over the extended period of collectivization, armed dekulakization brigades forcibly confiscate land, livestock and other property, and evict entire families. Close to half a million individuals in Ukraine are dragged from their homes, packed into freight trains, and shipped to remote, uninhabited areas such as Siberia where they are left, often without food or shelter. A great many, especially children, die in transit or soon thereafter.

The Soviet government sharply increases Ukraine’s production quotas, ensuring that they could not be met. Starvation becomes widespread. In the summer of 1932, a decree is implemented that calls for the arrest or execution of any person – even a child — found taking as little as a few stalks of wheat or any possible food item from the fields where he worked. By decree, discriminatory voucher systems are implemented, and military blockades are erected around many Ukrainian villages preventing the transport of food into the villages and the hungry from leaving in search of food. Brigades of young activists from other Soviet regions are brought in to sweep through the villages and confiscate hidden grain, and eventually any and all food from the farmers’ homes. Stalin states of Ukraine that “the national question is in essence a rural question” and he and his commanders determine to “teach a lesson through famine” and ultimately, to deal a “crushing blow” to the backbone of Ukraine, its rural population.

By June, at the height of the famine, people in Ukraine are dying at the rate of 30,000 a day, nearly a third of them are children under 10. Between 1932-34, approximately 4 million deaths are attributed to starvation within the borders of Soviet Ukraine. This does not include deportations, executions, or deaths from ordinary causes. Stalin denies to the world that there is any famine in Ukraine, and continues to export millions of tons of grain, more than enough to have saved every starving man, woman and child.

Denial:  Holodomor as inconvenient truth:

Person dead from starvation on the streets of Kharkiv

A Corpse of a Famine Victim
on the streets of Kharkiv, 1933.

“Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda. There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.”
(as reported by the New York Times correspondent and Pulitzer-prize winner Walter Duranty)

Denial of the famine by Soviet authorities was echoed at the time of the famine by some prominent Western journalists, like Walter Duranty. The Soviet Union adamantly refused any outside assistance because the regime officially denied that there was any famine.

Anyone claiming the contrary was accused of spreading anti-Soviet propaganda. Outside the Soviet Union, Western governments adopted a passive attitude toward the famine, although most of them had become aware of the true suffering in Ukraine through confidential diplomatic channels.

In fact, in November 1933, the United States, under newly elected president Franklin D. Roosevelt, chose to formally recognized Stalin’s Communist government and also negotiated a sweeping new trade agreement. The following year, the pattern of denial in the West culminated with the admission of the Soviet Union into the League of Nations. Stalin’s Five-Year Plans for the modernization of the Soviet Union depended largely on the purchase of massive amounts of manufactured goods and technology from Western nations. Those nations were unwilling to disrupt lucrative trade agreements with the Soviet Union in order to pursue the matter of the famine.

Ukraine remembers, the World acknowledges

In the ensuing decades, Ukrainian émigré groups sought acknowledgment of this tragic, massive genocide, but with little success. Not until the late 1980’s, with the publication of eminent scholar Robert Conquest’s “Harvest of Sorrow,” the report of the US Commission on the Ukraine Famine, and the findings of the International Commission of Inquiry into the 1932–33 Famine in Ukraine, and the release of the eye-opening documentary “Harvest of Despair,” did greater world attention come to bear on this event. In Soviet Ukraine, of course, the Holodomor was kept out of official discourse until the late 1980’s, shortly before Ukraine won its independence in 1991. With the fall of the Soviet Union, previously inaccessible archives, as well as the long suppressed oral testimony of Holodomor survivors living in Ukraine, have yielded massive evidence offering incontrovertible proof of Ukraine’s tragic famine genocide of the 1930’s.

On November 28th 2006, the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament of Ukraine) passed a decree defining the Holodomor as a deliberate Act of Genocide. Although the Russian government continues to call Ukraine’s depiction of the famine a “one-sided falsification of history,” it is recognized as genocide by approximately two dozen nations, and is now the focus of considerable international research and documentation.

How many people died during the Holodomor?

At the time of the Holodomor, journalists, diplomats, and other observers on the ground could only guess at the numbers of victims, and estimates varied from 1.5 to over 10 million. Officially, the Soviet government denied that the famine occurred, and death records could not list starvation as a cause death. Later, scholars were hampered by such falsified and inaccessible records and by the criminalization of famine memory.

In the first large-scale academic study of the famine, the 1986 Harvest of Despair, Robert Conquest estimated 5 million deaths from famine for the period 1932-33 in Ukraine (p.306). More recently, demographers with better access to records and with the latest acceptable demographic methods have estimated that specifically for the years 1932-1934, specifically within the borders of Soviet Ukraine, nearly 4 million people died of famine related causes (not counting average annual deaths.) Adding the unborn to this total yields 4.5 million.

What is especially shocking is how such a great number of people succumbed over a very brief period of time: 2 million persons in just 3 months: May-July 1933; 28,000 per day in June of 1933. Furthermore, the greatest mortality in Ukraine occurred not in its most important grain growing regions, but where Stalin perceived the biggest threat to his power and the most resistance to his goals.

Often we hear that the death toll is closer to 7 – 10 million. Those estimates are based on earlier historical estimates, different procedures, and/or broader definitions or parameters; e.g.: extending the time frame to 1929 -1938 to include the period of executions and deaths during deportation and exile outside Ukraine throughout that decade; or including the 1-2 million that died in the neighboring North Caucasus regions which had majority ethnically Ukrainian populations. These are all considerations for further research.