A Case of Genocide in the Ukrainian Famine of 1921-1923. Famine as a Weapon

TitleA Case of Genocide in the Ukrainian Famine of 1921-1923. Famine as a Weapon
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsRieber, Alfred J.
Author(s) of reviewed materialVeryha, Wasyl
PublisherLewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press
ISBN Number978-0-7734-5278-7
Full Text

Whether the Ukrainian famine of 1921-23 was the result of a conscious policy of the Bolshevik government to destroy the Ukrainian people (genocide) or a combination of natural disasters, human error, miscalculations and incompetence has become one of central questions of post-Soviet Ukrainian historiography. In this study, Wasyl Veryha, who has written several general histories of Ukraine, takes a position which is close to the former interpretation. He only uses the term genocide once in the book but what he means by the term is not always clear or consistent. At one point he states that the famine was “used as a weapon to subdue a hostile nation” (297). On the same page he defines it as a policy of destroying the democratic opposition of the Ukrainian intelligentsia and the Church, which were certainly hostile to Soviet power but not necessarily the equivalent of the nation as a whole. Moreover, it is difficult to understand how mass starvation could be used to single out specific social groups like the intelligentsia and the clergy. However, either way, Veryha’s definition meets the criteria established by the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1948, which describes genocide as “acts committed to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” (Italics added).

Veryha has used a wide range of published and unpublished sources. Although he had no access to Ukrainian or Russian archives, he worked at the Hoover Institution Archives at Stanford University. He consulted the contemporary Russian and Ukrainian language press, publications of the American Relief Administration and other agencies involved in famine relief, as well as Soviet documentary collections published after the Second World War. He has read all the pertinent secondary literature. The appendixes include the full texts of agreements, protocols and other official documents of the period. The text is amply footnoted.

The author does not deny and fully documents the natural causes of the famine and the vast destruction of the Ukrainian infrastructure during the years of war, revolution, and civil war that intensified the impact of the shortfalls in the production of grain and meat. But he attributes the major problem of feeding the Ukrainian population to the decision by the central government under drought conditions to extract forcefully grain from Ukraine and transport it to the starving people, mainly Russians of the Volga Valley and the industrial centers of Moscow and Petrograd. He analyzes closely the public and private statements of the Soviet leaders in seeking to explain their reasons behind this choice. From his account it is clear that Lenin and others assumed, quite wrongly and without adequate information, that Ukraine had produced and held larger reserves of grain than was in fact the case. Relying on the first hand testimony of representatives of the American Relief Administration, especially Frank Goldner whose book On the Trail of the Russian Famine (Stanford, 1927) has long been a standard work, Veryha demonstrates that the efforts of the foreign relief were frequently frustrated and hampered by the local Soviet authorities and decision makers at the center. To be sure, any foreigners who sought to operate their own organizations or enterprises in the Soviet Union ran into the same obstacles and suspicions of their motives. These pages reveal bureaucratic inefficiencies, conflicts between Kharkov and Moscow, and even the complaints by party members, like Mykola Skrypnyk and Christian Rakovskii which by themselves helps explain much of the failure to cope with the effects of starvation.

The author also points to the relative lack of Soviet press coverage of the famine in Ukraine or the relief efforts in comparison to the suffering in the Volga area. But in the final analysis he asserts that standing in the shadows of all these factors was a conscious and sustained effort to destroy resistance to Soviet power in Ukraine. The problem remains of supplying adequate proof. The author has found no smoking gun, no private admission or public decree that even implies that the famine was used for that purpose.

For this reader two important conclusions emerge from this book. First, many of the Soviet leaders shared a set of deep-seated biases about Ukrainian society: a misconception about the productive capacity of Ukrainian agriculture, the unwillingness of the peasants to share the burdens of Soviet society, and the persistence of lawless elements in the countryside. On top of that they nourished suspicions of foreign interference and sensitivity to émigré and anti-Soviet propaganda. On the administrative level, Soviet rule was still disorganized, the bureaucracy inadequately staffed, the lines of authority blurred between center and periphery. Taking all these factors into consideration, it is not necessary to resort to a conspiracy to explain one of the great human tragedies of the Soviet period.


Alfred J. Rieber

Central European University