Grain quotas and starvation

Dekulakisation and deportation deprived Soviet agriculture of its best farmers. Productivity fell while wastage increased, with the loss of millions of tonnes of grain in Ukraine. Along with poor weather conditions, it partly explains why the Ukrainian harvests of 1931 and 1932 were lower than the official figures used by Moscow in its procurement plans. Insisting on high quotas, Moscow took 7.5 million tonnes of grain in 1930 and over 7 million in 1931. It planned to match this figure in 1932. State procurement meant that 30% of Ukrainian production in 1930 and 41% of production in 1932 were lost to Ukraine.

By the summer of 1932 the Ukrainian leadership realised it would not be able to deliver the quota it had earlier agreed to, and wrote to the Kremlin about the danger of wide-scale starvation. In the autumn of 1932, Kharkiv leaders informed the Kremlin about famine in the region only to be ridiculed. Although the quota was lowered, the state still extracted 4.2 million tonnes of grain – enough to feed 12 million people for one year.

The confiscation of food according to the laws governing the running of the collectives, made life even harder for Ukrainian peasants. In theory the land worked by the collectives belonged to the state while the harvest belonged to the collective. But the collective could only divide the harvest after the state had its share and reserves were set aside for the next sowing. The collective farmers (kolkhozniks) had to fend for themselves in any way they could. Then, on 7 August 1932 Stalin brought in a new law which made the “plunder of state property” punishable by death or ten years’ imprisonment.

Soon 55,000 people were arrested for pilfering grain that they had cultivated themselves, and 2,000 people were condemned to death. In November 1932 a blacklist was introduced to punish those collectives that failed to meet their monthly quotas. A blacklisted collective lost the right to all commercial transactions, including the sale of salt, matches and kerosene.

Individual peasants who were behind in meeting their quotas were subjected to food fines and confiscations, which often meant everything edible including food found on kitchen tables. Groups of activists went from home to home searching for hidden food reserves. To stop the peasants fleeing, an internal passport system was introduced in December 1932 but only city dwellers were allowed to hold these, meaning that peasants were effectively confined to their villages.

Without enough food, the peasant population starved. Famine broke out in the winter of 1931 and 1932 and reached a plateau in spring. Hundreds and thousands of people died before the new harvest brought any relief. More food shortages were experienced in the autumn of 1932 and again peaked in spring. Anything edible was eaten, from domestic cats and dogs, anything growing or flowering, including weeds, leaves from trees and chaff.

Millions of people died. The exact number of people who died by starvation will never be known – death due to malnutrition was either not recorded, or records were falsified. In some cases records were destroyed or suppressed.

As in the 1920s, the existence of the famine was denied, grain continued to be exported to the West from Ukraine, and journalists were forbidden from travelling alone. Those who wrote about the famine, including Malcolm Muggeridge and Gareth Jones, were subjected to official campaigns to discredit them. While Western governments knew about the famine, they avoided confrontation with Stalin and continued to buy Ukrainian grain.

Next: The number of dead

Guarding the harvest

Report to S.V. Kosior about the number of famine victims in the Kyiv region - 22 June 1933