Harnessing history to politics

The Icelandic historian Thorarinn Hjartarson has written a piece about the 1932–33 famine in Ukraine. What follows is most of the first part of his analysis. The quotes included by the author were translated by him to Icelandic from English. Since I have been unable to consult all his sources, I must include some of the quotes indirectly, foregoing quotation marks.

On 23 March, the Icelandic National Assembly (Allting) unanimously approved the following resolution: “The Allting declares that the Ukrainian famine of 1932–1933 was a genocide.”

The statement accompanying the resolution reads:

The famine was a direct consequence of forced collectivisation, and was systematically used as retribution… The Soviet authorities’ aim was to suppress Ukrainian national sensibilities. Hence the Ukrainians were deliberately starved for political purposes.

A multinational effort

The Icelandic National Assembly (Allting) has taken the extraordinary step of determining the cause of a famine that occurred 90 years ago in Ukraine. I am not aware of any Icelandic historian who has discussed it, and it is hardly likely that members of the Allting have been able to acquaint themselves with its circumstances. Most probably, quite a few of them had never even heard about it. But do we really have to know? As long as others “know”, we should be on the safe side, no? This is, after all, a multinational effort, a response to the “plea from Ukraine” in which the expression “genocide” is used to describe the famine in question.

The essence of the Icelandic resolution and the accompanying statement is that the famine was perpetrated by the authorities in Moscow, “deliberately and for political reasons” and that it was targeted particularly against the Ukrainian population.

Why is the Allting adopting such a resolution? No resolution has been adopted about, say, the famine in Bengal in 1943, which killed millions. That affair would be closer to home, as it were, since the British were in charge there. The answer is pretty obvious: the purpose of the resolution is to support today’s Ukrainians in their war and to thwart today’s Russia and stir up more russophobia.

A famine ravaged in the Soviet Union during the winter and spring of 1933. According to Wikipedia it claimed 5.5–8.7 million lives, 3.3–5 millions of whom were in Ukraine. There is little controversy about the extent of the famine. Most historians today, including Timothy Snyder and Stephan G. Wheatcroft, who differ in most other respects, set the number of lost lives in Ukraine at around 3.5 million. Ukrainian nationalists, however, multiply that figure to 7 million, and the West-leaning former President Jushenko stated, on his visit to the USA in 2006 that “Holodomor claimed 20 million Ukrainian lives”.

During the Cold War, proponents of the blood-curdling theory that the famine was genocide – deliberately carried out by the authorities in Moscow against the Ukrainians – were mainly Ukrainian emigrants in the West.

The British historian Robert Conquest introduced it to the field of historical study with his book Harvest of Sorrow in 1986. Conquest was already world-famous after having written his anti-Communist magnum opus The Great Terror in 1968, about “Stalin’s purges”. In the 1986 book (Harvest of…) he maintained that the famine in Ukraine had been a deliberately engendered scourge upon the people. It was the result not of any food shortage, but of the authorities’ rigorous demands for and collection of grain in the wake of the collectivisation campaign in 1930. Conquest wrote that the lesson to be learned appeared to be that Communist ideology served as the basis for an unparalleled genocide of men, women and children. In other words the lesson he had learned was about the malevolence of Communism.

He quotes Ukrainian scholars who hold that collectivisation was imposed on the Ukrainian people with the specific purpose of suppressing the Ukrainian separatist movement and to do away with the social foundation underlying Ukrainian nationalism: private ownership of land (Harvest of Sorrow, p. 219). However, the collectivisation was implemented in the same manner elsewhere in the Soviet Union. Was it intended as a scourge on other peoples too? As theories goes, this one seems a bit far-fetched.

On the independence of Ukraine in 1991, and particularly after anti-Russian forces came to power and the orange revolution (2004), the Holodomor theory has become the bedrock of Ukrainian nationalism and national conscience and has been taught in all schools. Under the leadership of Viktor Júsjenkó (2005-2010) the Holodomor Law was enacted in 2006.

Section 1 states that Holodomor 1932–1933 was the genocide of the Ukrainian people.

Section 2 states that Public denial of Holodomor amounts to an insult against the memory of millions of Holodomor’s victims and an offence against the dignity of the Ukrainian people, and is punishable by law.

This law still applies, and Ukrainian nationalism systematically seeks to erase the distinction between the past and the present in order to nurture anti-Russian sentiment. Putin is said to continue where Stalin left off.

Harnessing history to politics is not a Ukrainian invention, but prohibiting discussion and alternative interpretations is undoubtedly a bit over the top. The Russian Duma’s reaction in 2008 to Kiev’s historical analysis was: “the famine in 1933 does not qualify as genocide according to the internationally accepted definition of the term”.

The purpose of the multinational declaration stating that the famine amounted to genocide is twofold:1) It serves to perpetuate the disrepute of Communism 2) It is a weapon in the ongoing campaign against present and past Russia.

So what actually happened in Ukraine in 1932–33?

Asking Ukrainians will probably not be helpful, since any surviving doubts about the official storyline are punishable by law.

During the cold war, discussion in the West about the Soviet Union tended to be highly politicised and dichotomous. Political sympathies inevitably coloured analyses of the country’s history and the ideological dividing line between opponents ran between (market) liberal and socialist sympathies. The narrative about the collectivisation held a fairly prominent position in that discussion, not least because that was a field in which anti-communist authors held excellent ammunition.

With the gradual opening of the Soviet archives starting under Gorbachov, we have seen the emergence of interpretations that tend to explain developments around 1930 in economic rather than political terms. However, ever since Ukraine was dragged into a geopolitical confrontation in the wake of the Orange Revolution in 2004, the Maidan Revolution in 2014 and the invasion of Russia in 2022, Ukrainian history has once again increasingly been understood from a political and moral perspective, cf. The Turn Away from Economic Explanations for Soviet Famines.

What side we are on about our interpretation of history tends to determine what side we are on in the present conflict and vice versa.

Timothy Snyder

In 2010, a book published by the US history professor Timothy Snyder became a best-seller in the USA, Germany and Poland: Bloodlands. Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, about the Soviet Union, Poland and Ukraine from 1932 to 1945. Morally, he basically equates Stalin’s and Hitler’s regimes and adds that we now know, having discussed Soviet documents for 20 years, that in 1932, Stalin turned collective farming’s famine into a politically motivated deliberate starvation campaign. (Chapter 1). He adds that Stalin’s campaign targeted the Ukrainians because of their nationality.

Snyder has no primary references about the famine, but he supports his claim by extensively quoting nationalist Ukrainian historians. His book has lent academic credence to the Holodomor narrative. Snyder is much appreciated in Ukraine and has been a guest of President Zelensky.

He is using history as a political crowbar. Ever since the occupation of Crimea in 2014, he has written a barrage of articles explaining how Putin is an existential threat not only to Ukraine but to all of Europe and that he continues where Stalin left off.

Davies and Wheatcroft

Over the past twenty years or so, the British professor, R.W. Davis has been the West’s grand old man about Soviet economic history. (He died in 2021.) Together with E.H. Carr, he wrote the last volume of the great History of Soviet Russia. His bibliography includes the seven-volume Industrialisation of Soviet Russia, one volume of which is called The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture 1931-1933. The co-author to that volume is Professor Stephen Wheatcroft, based in Melbourne, whose specialist field is Soviet social, economic and demographic history, as well as agriculture and famines all over the world. He has engaged in detailed studies of the Soviet collectivisation campaign.

Davies and Wheatcroft’s book is the single most detailed and thorough book about the “grain crisis” in the Soviet Union in the 1930s that has ever been published, at least in the West. One of the main conclusions of the book is that the famine was a result of a severe grain shortage in the country, not that grain was withheld from people. The authors take pains to dismiss Robert Conquest’s claims on that score, not least because those claims had been so widely disseminated and trumpeted.

[The following is a back translation:] Our studies about the famine have led us to completely different conclusions than those reached by Dr. Conquest. He argues that Stalin “wanted the famine”, that the Soviet authorities did not want to deal with it successfully and that the famine was deliberately imposed on Ukraine. The story we are telling in our book is the story of Soviet authorities struggling with a famine crisis that to some extent was caused by their own failed policies, but which at any rate was unexpected and unwelcome. Their agricultural policies were formed by conditions preceding the revolution, by civil war experiences, by the situation on the international stage, by intractable geographical and meteorological conditions as well as by the modus operandi of the Soviet system during the Stalin era. They were formed by people with inadequate relevant training. Above all, the famine was a consequence of the decision to industrialise agricultural land in record time.

R.W. Davies og Stephen G Wheatcroft, The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture 1931-1933, p. 441

The book includes a footnote quoting R. Conquest explaining that he had not maintained that Stalin had intentionally caused the famine in 1933, only that when the famine was imminent, he could have prevented it. Here Wheatcroft writes that when he and Davies confronted R. Conquest with evidence about the extent of the crisis and the number of secret emergency measures taken by the Politbureau to mitigate it, he withdrew his previous criticism.

Was there a grain shortage

What was the real extent of the crisis, i.e. the size of the harvest following the summer of 1932? Encyclopedia Britannica reflects the prevailing line of thought in the West, explaining that the famine was no less than an attack on Ukrainian farmers; that it was engendered deliberately is inferred from there being no preconditions for any famine in Ukraine; that the harvest there in 1932 had been less than average, (partially due to the chaos caused by the collectivisation) but sufficient to feed the population.

This is the crux of the matter, then. The Holodomor narrative is underpinned by the assumption that the harvest in 1932 was normal, so that the sole cause of the famine was the state’s excessive grain collection. Was that the case? Stephen Wheatcroft writes, in 2018:

The famine was associated with two years of harvest failure in 1931 and 1932. 1931 was a year of drought with demonstrably excessive temperatures and low rainfall in the early summer injuring the flowering and filling out of the grain. 1932 was a year in which the biological yield (prior to harvesting) was relatively normal, but in which harvest losses were excessively high as a result of damp weather during the harvest period, and a slow progression of the harvesting which greatly increased harvest losses. …In 1931 and 1932 the level of grain actually available for use was dangerously low.

Roundtable on Soviet Famines
Mark B. Tauger

Mark B. Tauger, professor at West Virginia University is one of the world’s most prominent specialists on famines and has devoted 30 years to studies of famines in the Russian empire and the Soviet Union. In 1991 an article by him appeared in Slavic Review: “The 1932 harvest and the Famine of 1933”.

One important conclusion reached by Tauger in that article is that publicly available harvest figures for the years following 1930 were extremely unreliable. The figures for expected yields tended to be exaggerated, and the authorities’ demands for and collection of grain (so-called procurement quotas) were based on those figures. Modern assessments of the causes of the famine are also based on those figures. He writes that due to the drought-reduced harvest in 1931,

the 1932 grain procurement quota, and the amount of grain actually collected, were both much smaller than those of any other year in the 1930s. The Central Committee lowered the planned procurement quota in a 6 May 1932 decree,… from the 1931 quota of 22.4 million tons to 18.1 million tons;

The 1932 Harvest…, p. 71

Although the procurement quota had been sharply reduced, harvesting in 1932 did not go well and 10% was missing from the much reduced quota that was collected. As a result there were violent confrontations between collectors and farmers in the autumn of 1932, not least when it became clear that there was insufficient grain to feed the country’s population.

At the time, the authorities always operated with overoptimistic assessments of the amount of threshed grain. Tauger refers to annual reports from collective farms (in 1933, we find reports from about 150 thousand collective farms handed in when the harvest was over) which indicate that the harvest was poor compared to official expectations.

Tauger also points out that the famine was not limited to Ukraine:

Soviet regional mortality figures for the early 1930s, compiled by TsUNKhU [the Soviet Statistical bureau] and recently published by Wheatcroft, show that while the famine was more severe in certain Ukrainian oblasts than elsewhere, it was by no means limited to Ukraine. Both urban and rural mortality rates in 1933 considerably increased over those of 1932 in most regions, and in the Volga basin,Urals, Siberia, and central agricultural regions, they approached or equalled Ukrainian levels.

Ibid, p. 87

In Bloddlands (p. 41–42) Snyder maintains that Stalin’s governmnt had not cut back grain exports in 1932–33 and did not send relief to the affected areas. Tauger provides exact figures:

Due to the poor harvest in 1931 and the need to transport grain to areas affected by famine, the government reduced grain exports from 5.2 million tonnes in 1931 to 1.73 million tonnes in 1932. They declined to 1.68 million in 1933

Ibid p. 88

There is no doubt that grain collection during the autumn and early winter of 1932 was extremely harsh…. Moreover, the authorities did not understand until too late and poorly the truth about the real amount of grain, the local shortages and the imminent famine.

Only in November were the procurement quotas reduced for North Caucasus and Ukraine. In February 1933, grain seed and grain for food was sent back to areas where the need was greatest, 320 tonnes to Ukraine and 240 tonnes to North Caucasus. By April, total aid to Ukraine had exceeded 560 thousand tonnes.

Ibid p. 88

To my mind, Thorarinn Hjartarson has convincingly made the case
1) that the famine was ghastly, but that it was not due to malevolent intentions on the part of the Soviet authorities;
2) that when one country wishes to support another country, it should be wary of hot-headed political rhetoric.

When engaged in contests or conflicts, humans tend to forget what differentiates them from other mammals.

I may or may not translate and publish the rest of T. Hj.’s analysis where he examines various theories as to why the grain harvest was poor two years in a row.