Killing by Hunger

Alexander Wienerberger and Samara Pearce
A peasant girl during the Holodomor, Ukraine’s Stalin-era famine, Kharkiv, 1933

On December 14, 1932, Joseph Stalin and Vyacheslav Molotov, the former as head of the Communist Party, the latter as premier of the Soviet government, signed a decree titled “On the Procurement of Grain in Ukraine, the North Caucasus, and the Western Region.” The country was in the midst of a food crisis that had already caused widespread hunger, but the decree was not concerned with the famine. Its purpose was to mobilize party cadres to continue extracting grain from the countryside so that, among other things, it could be sold abroad to pay for Soviet industrialization. Procurement quotas were not being fulfilled, and the collectivization of agriculture was in trouble, as were the reputation of Stalin and his team and ultimately their chances of staying in power.

The Soviet leaders demanded that their underlings in Ukraine and the North Caucasus—two of the three main grain-producing areas of the USSR—fulfill the grain-procurement quotas for 1932 by January–February 1933. The decree of December 14 ordered the arrest and, if necessary, the execution of collective farm heads and local officials who fell short. Some of the “saboteurs” were mentioned by name: fifteen regional officials were to be sentenced to hard labor for five or ten years—the decree gave the Soviet judiciary a modicum of flexibility in that regard. In the Kuban region of the North Caucasus, the inhabitants of the Poltavskaia settlement were accused of sabotaging the procurement campaign, and the secret police were ordered to deport its entire population to the Soviet north. The village would be resettled by Red Army veterans from central Russia.

But Stalin was not after grain alone. The decree of December 14 also dealt with the politics of culture. All the “saboteurs” listed by name were Soviet cadres from Ukraine, and the Poltavskaia villagers happened to be overwhelmingly Ukrainian as well. The decree ordered local officials in Kuban to change the language of their official correspondence and of public education immediately from Ukrainian to Russian and to stop publishing Ukrainian-language newspapers and journals. It also demanded that the republic’s leaders establish strict control over the “Ukrainization” policy instituted in the 1920s to promote the development of Ukrainian culture, as well as to purge nationalists and agents of foreign powers.

The December 1932 decree turned Stalin’s all-Union grain-extraction campaign into a direct assault on the Ukrainian political elite and the cultural foundations of Ukrainian nation-building, thereby distinguishing the famine in Ukraine from that in other parts of the USSR. Now known in Ukraine as the Holodomor (killing by hunger), the famine of 1932–1933 claimed the lives of close to four million Ukrainians, more than half of all those who starved to death in the Soviet Union during that period. It dramatically changed Ukrainian society and culture, leaving deep…

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