What did the outside world in the 1930s know about the Soviet famine and the ‘Holodomor’ in Ukraine?

Passers-by and the corpse of a starved man on a street in Kharkiv, Ukraine, USSR, 1932. Public domain photo by Alexander Wienerberger — Diocesan Archive of Vienna (Diözesanarchiv Wien)/BA Innitzer, via Wikipedia.

Many Ukrainians marked the 90th anniversary of the Holodomor by sharing the memories passed on by their families about the experience of the man-made famine in Soviet Ukraine from 1932 to 1933 that killed millions of Ukrainians. That got me wondering how informed the world at large was about it at the time.

The Holodomor, a term that can be translated as “mass murder by hunger,” was part of the wider famine that affected the major grain-producing areas of the Soviet Union, including Kuban in southern Russia, Kazakhstan and the Caucasus. However, the Moscow regime's actions included repressively targeting the Ukrainian peasant populations and depriving them of food, leading scholars and governments to classify it as genocide. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “of the estimated five million people who died in the Soviet Union, almost four million were Ukrainians.”

Before November this year, Ukraine and 14 other countries recognized the Holodomor as an act of genocide against Ukrainians by the totalitarian regime of Joseph Stalin. By the 90th anniversary this year, Germany, Ireland, Moldova, Romania, Brazil, the Czech Republic and the Vatican, as well as the Belarus opposition in exile also did so, raising the number to 22.

Deliberate repressive measures that targeted Ukrainians in the USSR in 1932 and 1933 included appropriating Ukrainian grain while closing off the border between Ukraine SSR and other Soviet republics, and prohibiting the transport of food to affected areas.

In Ukraine, Holodomor Memorial Day is commemorated every fourth Saturday of November. However, remembrance of the Holodomor is not commonplace outside of Ukraine. Therefore, many Ukrainians used social networks as a way to raise awareness especially because they see the ongoing Russian aggression against their country as a continuation of the same imperial repression.

Journalist Margo Gontar, for example, explained how her great-grandfather used his boots to steal grain from a warehouse to feed the family:

Other accounts listed short, heartbreaking excerpts from family oral histories.

On the other hand, historian Taras Bilous offered an “unconventional” story about how the father of his Russian grand-grandmother smuggled a bag of grain from the Lipetsk region in Russia to the Donbas in Ukraine.

Reading these testimonies, I began to wonder what my own ancestors who lived in the 1930s knew or could have known about these events. I couldn't get any first-hand accounts from my own grandparents since they are all deceased, so I decided to look for archived copies of newspapers from that time period available in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, using the online archive of the National Library of Serbia.

I doubt any of my grandparents read them at the time because they were just kids in 1932, but I think they reflect the public awareness within the Yugoslav media sphere at the start of the famine.

The first such article, from the front page of the newspaper Vreme from Belgrade published on November 30, 1932, is short enough to be translated in its entirety.

Ужасна глад у Совјетској Русији

Глад је већа од оне 1921  године

Варшава, 29 новембра. — Пољски листови објављују онеспокојавајуће вести о глади у Русији. Садашња глад, у погледу ужаса, надмаша глад иѕ 1921 године. Цене намирница  скачу из дана у дан, и достижу већ фантастичне бројеве. Пола килограма масла продаје  се данас ѕа 20 рубаља (400 динара), кило сапуна за  20 рубаља, четврт литра млека за  четири рубље…

Чак и страни инжињери пате од ове несташице, јер се у провинцији ништа не може купити, чак ни са страним валутама. Ова ситуација изазвана је нарочито отпором сељака против политике совјетске владе.

По пољским листовима странци говоре нарочито о запуштеном стању земљорадничке културе. Сама „Правда“ бележи, да је коров по њивама у Кавказу висок преко једног метра. (Време)

Horrible Hunger in Soviet Russia

The famine is worse than the one in 1921

Warsaw, November 29. — Polish newspapers publish disturbing news about hunger in Russia. The current famine, in regard to the horror, surpasses the famine of 1921. Grocery prices increase day by day reaching fantastic amounts. Half a kilogram of oil is sold today for 20 rubles (400 dinars), kilo of soap for 20 rubles, quarter liter of milk for four rubles…

Even foreign engineers suffer from these shortages, because nothing can be bought in the provinces, even using foreign currencies. This situation was caused by peasant resistance to the policies of Soviet government.

Polish newspapers quote foreigners’ accounts on the neglected state of the agriculture. Even [Soviet regime newspaper] “Pravda” notes that weeds in the fields in Caucasus has grown over one meter tall. (Vreme)

It should be noted that awareness of the context of Soviet Russia, including the famine of 1921–1922 resulting from the Russian Civil War, was quite high in Yugoslavia, which at the time sheltered over 40,000 refugees or White Russian émigrés who escaped communist rule during the early 1920s. 

The prices listed in the article are enormous, even if one considers that the official Soviet currency exchange course always overvalued the ruble. The New York Times from December 31, 1931 notes that “the ruble is nominally worth 50 cents.” Using an inflation calculator, we get the nominal value of one 1932 ruble as around USD 11 in today's money. Therefore, the prices listed in the article, adjusted for inflation, would be as follows: 1 kilogram of oil about USD 440, 1 kilogram of soap, USD 220, 1 liter of milk, USD 176.

The “foreign engineers” mentioned in the article were a major factor in the USSR at the time. The industrialization that was a priority of Stalin's regime relied on imported know-how and technology from the West, including the prolonged stay of US experts engaged in building Soviet factories.

A major reason for the Holodomor was the USSR's need to increase grain exports in order to acquire hard currency to pay foreign companies for such imports, especially those related to building military-industrial plants.

In its issue of January 1, 1933, in an article with the sensationalist headline “Civil War in Russia,” which referenced a German newspaper, Vreme reported that the peasant unrest had grown beyond the levels of “dissatisfaction,” “sedition” or “uprising.”

Реон је цео југ и југоисток совјетске Уније. Званични назив овога што се тамо одиграва јестее борба против кулака. Међутим за све је јасно да су то не кулаци већ баш колхозници, тј. они сељаци који су вођени самом совјетском влашћу. И сада се совјетска власт ухватила у коштац са њима борећи се за свој даљи опстанак и живот!
Узроци су сасвим јасни: потпуна пропаст економске политике. Виљем Штајн, добро обавештени московски дописник „Фосише цајтунг“ пише: „Пропаст социјалистичке земљорадње више се не може оспоравати“. Исто тако добро обавештени „Социјалистички весник“ доноси чланак под насловом „Ишчезла је друга Пјатилетка“ и ту позивајући се на совјетску штампу прича о томе како се после „свечаних фанфара за време припрема друге пјетилетке” та реч потпуно изгубила из стубаца совјетских новина.
Пропаст на пољопривредном фронту и пропаст на индустријском фронту!
Зар то нису озбиљни узроци грађанског рата?

The affected area (district) is the whole South and South East of the Soviet Union. Official designation of what is going on there is a fight against “kulaks” [rich counter-revolutionary peasants].
However it’s clear to everybody that these are no kulaks, but kolkhozniks, i.e. those peasants that had been led by the Soviet authorities themselves. And now the Soviet government is fighting with them, struggling for its further survival and life!
The reasons are quite clear: complete disaster of the economic policies. Wilhelm Stein, well informed Moscow correspondent of the Vossische Zeitung wrote that the “demise of socialist agriculture can't be denied no longer.” The similarly well informed Socialist Newspaper has an article titled “Disappearance of the  second Five Year Plan,” noting that after “much fanfare during the preparations of the second Five Year Plan”  this term had no longer been mentioned in the Soviet press.
Disaster at the front of agriculture and the front of industry!
Are not these reasons enough for a start of Civil War?

The article then provides details about the punitive expedition taken by the Soviet regime, led by seasoned Bolshevik and long-term Central Committee member, Anastas Mikoyan (1895–1978).

Сада су један део Украјине на левој обали Дњепра, затим Донски округ и Кубањ где је устало неколико хиљада козака, Вороњешка и Курска губернија, доњи ток Волге, северни Кавказ и Закавказје стављени под власт трупа ГПУ које се боре против оних који “искривљују партијску линију”. Целокупна ова војска била је под командом Микојана, чији се штаб, као и у добро старо време, налазио у нарочитој железничкој композицији. На расположењу “главнокомандујућег” било је око 20.000 комуниста, чланова партије, окривљених због проневера, крађа и сличних дела, хтела им се пружити могућност да својом ревношћу и добром службом оперу своје раније грехе, и да се истакну у борби за “социјалистичку отаџбину”.
Са овом војском тренираних чекиста и злочинаца – комуниста, Микојан је почео свој посао “умиривања” на простору већем но што је цела Средња Европа.

Now a part of  Ukraine on the left bank of Dnipro, then the area of Don and the region of Kuban, where several thousand Cossacks have risen, as well as the governorates of Voronezh and Kursk, the lower Volga River basin, Northern Caucasus and Transcaucasia are placed under rule of  GPU [the USSR  state security service and secret police from 1923 to 1934] troops, who fight “those who skew the Party line.” This whole army was under command of Mikoyan, whose headquarters, like in the good old times, was stationed in a special train. The “commander in chief” had at his disposal around 20,000 communists, party members accused of embezzlement, theft and similar crimes, who were given an opportunity to clean up their earlier sins, and show themselves in the  fight for the “socialist fatherland.”  With this army [composed] of trained members of Soviet secret police Cheka and communist criminals, Mikoyan started his job of “pacifying” this  area which is larger than the whole Central Europe.

The reprisals were so harsh that they incited a collective protest by all Communist Party and administrative institutions of the Stavropol Governorate. After GPU troops executed 200 kolkhoznik members of Komsomol, the population of Nogai Steppe (in the North Caucasus, today southern Russia) attempted to acquire any weapons to meet the advance of Mikoyan's punitive expedition, staging ambushes. The resistance included the assassination of the GPU head in Tiflis i.e. Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia.

Front page of Belgrade daily Vreme from January 1, 1933, with an article ‘Civil War Russia.’ Image based on digitized newspaper from the Serbian National Library. Public domain.

According to the Vreme article, Moscow tried to defuse the tensions by sending Andrei Bubnov (1883–1937) to take charge. He executed or arrested some of the most notorious Mikoyan underlings, while Pravda blamed the local Communist Party officials for the “failure of the general policy line, the failure of the Five Year Plan and the collectivisation.”

At the end, article author A.R.K. Parfenov notes that “purges” are expected, as workers and regular Communist Party members with clenched teeth dream of the need for the “strong arm” that will change the direction. He noted that the rhetoric is similar to the one before the start of the October Revolution and that communist leadership is dismayed in expectation of major changes.

The two articles in this post offer but a glimpse of the situation, and much further research would be needed to get the full picture of how much the world outside of the Soviet Union knew about the horrible events of the 1930s. The Holodomor resulted in an estimated seven to 10 million victims of starvation at first, but also subsequently of related consequences. At first glance, it seems that the ethnic cleansing and genocide aspects were not discussed in the international press.

The Stalinist purges that the second article warned about, and the Gulag system that was operational till the 1950s, directly killed over one to two more million humans (including Commander Bubnov in 1937).

Understanding and remembering these events is an essential first step to preventing a reprise of similar horrors, especially at a time when a Moscow regime is stealing Ukrainian grain, again.

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