Harnessing history to politics, part II

The Icelandic historian Thorarinn Hjartarson has written a piece about the 1932–33 famine in Ukraine. What follows is most of the second part of his analysis.

Causes of grain shortage

Historians explain the food shortage in the Soviet Union in 1933 in various ways. The predominant view is that the dramatic changes imposed by the collectivisation campaign led to confusion and chaos. This is the view held by, among others, R.W. Davies and St. Wheatcroft. This is, incidentally, also the view held by the current government in Moscow.

Others give preference to environmental circumstances as causal factors. Mark B. Tauger is probably the main proponent in the West of such views.

Tauger writes that the famine was primarily a consequence of a number of natural circumstances during the period 1931–32 that were not referred to in official statistics at the time (Stalin, Soviet Agriculture and Collectivization“, p. 112). A drought ravaged the land in 1931, whereas excessive precipitation and humidity was the problem in 1932 (in Ukraine precipitation was almost three times the average). The harvest looked promising during the summer, but various kinds of mould and mildew infected the harvest, particularly in Ukraine and North Caucasus, where as much as 70% of the harvest was damaged in large areas.

Tauger refers to figures from state farms (sovkhozi) in Ukraine in 1932, according to which only 60% of the required quota had been achieved. On the other hand, Tauger finds an abrupt 60 % harvest increase from 1932 to 1933, specifically in Ukraine. (The 1932 Harvest…, p. 81)



Collectivisation, which was imposed – at breakneck speed – in 1930, revolutionised ownership and production in the countryside, where all the food was produced. More than half of all farms had been collectivised as early as in 1931. Such a “shock therapy” naturally spawned a whole series of problems that would necessarily lead to a decline in production; from discontent to anger and outright resistance among farmers, compounded by violence against owners of large farms.

Meanwhile, investment prioritised industry, and there was an exodus from the countryside to the towns. In short: Chaos.

What followed were two years of poor harvests, 1931 and 1932. Food was rationed in all of the country’s cities, and rations were repeatedly reduced both years. Tauger describes the ensuing chaos and some of the authorities’ reactions: People fled from factories and from collective farms, so there were millions of people just drifting throughout the country, in search of better conditions. Towards the end of 1932, the authorities re-introduced a “tsarist” rule requiring “internal passports”. (Ibid p. 86-87). The authorities particularly wanted to stop the influx of people to areas affected by food shortages. The internal passport requirement has been interpreted as part and parcel of Stalin’s authoritarian style, and of his genocidal intentions. In reality, it is more a reflection of the extent of chaos in the country at this point….

If the chaos in the country was a direct consequence of the collectivisation campaign, the subsequent famine can be said to be so too. In fact that is what the majority of historians studying the issue have concluded. Though meteorological conditions may have reduced the harvest, as described above, we should safely be able to say that harvest reduction hit the Soviet Union, and not least Ukraine, at a difficult point in time.

Mark B. Tauger is not convinced that collectivisation as such caused the famine. For one thing the harvest of 1933 was excellent, also in Ukraine, in spite of the fact that the grain seeds had been sown during the spring when the famine was at its worst (Tauger, Soviet Peasants and Collectivization, 1930-39: Resistance and Adaptation, p. 84-85).

In order to assess the effects of collectivisation, we have to take a look at the prevailing conditions at the time and also during the period preceding it. There were Socialist uprisings here and there in Europe at the end of the war in 1918, but only in one country was there a successful revolution, and that country was inhabited mainly by peasants engaged in primitive agriculture. According to Marxist theory, socialism required a well-developed industrial society. A bone of contention among the Bolsheviks was whether it was possible to create industry in a Soviet society without any help from other socialist countries, and if so, how.

The economic basis was rickety, indeed. Robert C. Allen, Professor of Economic History at New York University, Abu Dhabi, and Senior Research Fellow of Nuffield College, Oxford, is the author of Farm to Factory. A Reinterpretation of the Soviet Industrial Revolution (2003). This is an extensive study of statistical material in several countries, including tsarist Russia …. Judging from official figures, the economy and productivity of Soviet Russia in the twenties – the period referred to as NEP (1921-28) – was equivalent to that of South-East Asia and the poorest parts of South America. The country had little in common with countries such as Germany and the USA (Allen, p. 3-4).

The crux of the problem was the backwardness of agriculture. Allen compares agriculture in the European part of Russia to agriculture in areas in Canada with similar meteorological and topographic conditions. … According to his calculations, production per hectare in the twenties was very similar in the two areas. However, production per working person was 8 times greater in Canada. (Allen p. 73).

In 1928, 82% of the Soviet population lived in rural areas, working under relatively primitive conditions. Villages were over-populated and produced only a slim surplus to send to markets in the cities. The country was thus vulnerable to harvest fluctuations and food insecurity, and famines occurred fairly frequently. After all, one of the main demands of the October Revolution had been “Bread!” Hence there were several famines during the twenties. The worst of them was at the end of the civil war in 1921-22, when fatalities probably numbered about 5 million. Another serious famine occurred in 1928-1929, and not without reason.

After the October revolution, agricultural productivity decreased. One important reason for this was that the proportion of people living in rural areas had grown from less than 70% (in the last year before the war, 1913) to 82% in 1928. Per capita production in Russia/the Soviet Union was thus almost the same in 1928 as in 1900, and it had fallen since 1913 (Allen, p. 5).

The Russian Revolution had to a large extent been a peasant revolution. Peasants divided the major landowners’ land between them. This they felt entitled to do in view of the revolutionary activities in the cities. … As a result, the number of farms rose from 16 million in 1913 to 28 million in 1928.

Creating industry without foreign investment requires enormous economic effort. For the Soviet Union, there were few other sources of capital than the country’s agricultural sector. However, most farmers were still living practically in a barter-economy. They had little surplus to sell. What little excess production reached the cities was produced by large farms. Determining prices of industrial goods versus agricultural goods became a source of contention towards the end of the NEP period. When business conditions benefited the agricultural sector, owners of the large farms were the ones to thrive, something that stimulated capitalism within the sector. When, on the other hand, business conditions benefited industrial production, agricultural produce was not delivered to the market and the reciprocal exchange of goods between the sectors shrank.

One consequence of all the land partitioning was thus that the amount of agricultural produce for sale in the cities fell sharply. In 1928, it shrank by 24% compared to 1913. As for the most important of all the agricultural commodities, grain, the reduction of produce that reached the cities was 50%; likewise for potatoes and vegetables. The Communist Party and its policies were in deep trouble (Allen, p. 79-81).

Moreover, wheat and grain in general had constituted the country’s main exports during tsarist times. Exported grain in 1928 amounted to no more than 1:20 as compared to in 1913. …

In other words, the agricultural sector proved incapable of a substantial rise in productivity under the prevailing conditions, and as a result society as a whole was vulnerable to imminent famines. …

To ensure food security in the country and to stimulate industrialisation, the Communist Party decided to restructure the entire agricultural sector.

Collectivisation as a prerequisite for industrialisation

They opted for a fairly drastic measure: that of the collectivisation campaign. I won’t go into the details of how it was performed, but briefly look at the outcome in terms of production and productivity.

Production fell in 1931 and 1932, but rose during the following years. In 1937 the country’s total production was 10% higher than in 1928. More importantly, though, the supply of grain to the cities had risen by 62%. This can be explained by the fact that productivity had doubled after the collectivisation, not least since the new, large agricultural units could sustain tractors and other mechanised farming equipment. As a result, fewer working hands were needed, so large numbers of people left the land to work in industrial plants. During the thirties, 25 million people moved from rural communities to thriving and rapidly growing industrial towns (Allen, p. 100-101).

It seems clear, then, that though the collectivisation campaign was far from pretty, it did ensure future food security for the Soviet Union. Also, it seems to me, while recent history is dotted with numerous and terrible famines, only some are stridently flagged as “crimes against humanity”. The Holodomor narrative appears to be a cynical manipulation of a tragedy for political purposes.

I should add that the ongoing accelerating ecological breakdown is indeed a crime against humanity. Its results will include global famine. It is currently being hastened by Russia, Ukraine, the USA, the EU and other NATO countries. The victims: the largely powerless inhabitants of the countries perpetrating the crime and, to an even greater degree, the populations of the Global South.