Food problems

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One of the principal problems in reviewing the food situation in the 1930s is that official Soviet data on agricultural production cannot reliably be used for the analysis. It is widely accepted that the exaggeration of the actual size of the grain harvest reached 20 to 30 percent in official Soviet statistics in the 1930s (Wheatcroft and Davies, 1994a), although the distortion could be even larger. Conquest (2002) refers to one writer (in the Soviet paper Izvestia, 21 September 1933) saying that "in most cases the threshings (the actual grain obtained at the farm) proved to be 30, 40, or 50 percent lower than the estimated 'biological crop'".

The enormous distortion of official data on grain yields is confirmed by the KGB materials. One Soviet local party official, in his letter to the Politburo dated 12 September 1933, for example, gives some remarkable concrete examples of the exaggeration of official estimates of yields. In one district of the Low Volga region, the state commission on yields estimated the average yield at 5 centners per hectare, although field samples showed 3.6 centners per hectare only and data after threshing showed only 2.2 centners per hectare. In the Middle Volga district, the spring wheat yield was estimated by the commission at 6.2 centners, but field samples (just before harvesting) showed only 3.7 centners per hectare (Viola, Danilov, and Manning, 2002: 791). Thus there could be as much as a 40 to 50 percent difference between the estimates made by the state commission in the spring, and field sample estimates from the harvesting season. Although the State Planning Committee (Gosplan) also concluded that the estimates of the state commission were exaggerated, it made only very moderate corrections (by 7.5 percent) to their data (Viola, Danilov, and Manning, 2001: 794).

The aim of the official figures for yields was to estimate not actual harvests but optimal ones. To achieve this meant fighting to limit losses during all stages of grain production. The commission admitted that about 10 percent of losses took place during harvesting, threshing, transportation, and storing. If losses were any higher (for example, 20 percent), the commission regarded them as the result of sabotage by hostile forces (ibid.: 790). This position was clearly expressed by the high-rank-

Table 5.9.1. Number of reports about food crises and mass famine, 1928-1935*

Year 1928 1929 1930 1931 1932 1933 1934

Table 5.9.1. Number of reports about food crises and mass famine, 1928-1935*







C. Black Earth










Middle Volga




Low Volga









N. Caucasus







West Siberia












All regions








* The numerator shows the total number of reports, including those on food shortages (food crises) and those on mass famine. The denominator indicates only reports on mass famine when deaths caused by famine were observed.

Source: Viola, Danilov, and Manning (2000, 2001, 2002).

* The numerator shows the total number of reports, including those on food shortages (food crises) and those on mass famine. The denominator indicates only reports on mass famine when deaths caused by famine were observed.

Source: Viola, Danilov, and Manning (2000, 2001, 2002).

ing Soviet official V. Molotov in March 1934. He said that the estimation of the "biological yield" was needed to combat the excessive losses of grain in a kolkhoz. There was no reason to estimate "barn yield" from the point of view of state interest. From his statement it can be seen that a kolkhoz had to find a way to limit losses, otherwise it would suffer most because it would incur grain shortages after the state provision (Viola, Danilov, and Manning, 2002: 74). This position makes clear the difference in Soviet statistics before and after 1933. Until 1933, Soviet grain data had certainly been exaggerated but they relied to some extent on field data that was subject to a certain correction (in the case of poorer weather in the summer), although not much. After 1933, it appears from the published data that planned targets were based on the estimate of "biological" (potential) yields rather than actual data. As Conquest put it, "Soviet statistical methods gradually lost their connection with facts" (2002).

Because of the lack of reliable statistical data, historical documents remain the main source of information about food problems. The KGB materials (Viola, Danilov, and Manning, 2000, 2001, 2002) serve here

Table 5.9.2. Official data on the grain reserve per capita per annum (kg) remaining after grain procurement in the major regions of the USSR, 1928-1933*













Central Black











(no data)

(no data)










(no data)

(no data)

Middle Volga










(no data)

(no data)

Low Volga










(no data)

(no data)












(no data)













(no data)

West Siberia










(no data)

(no data)













* The first figure is the grain reserve of a peasant before the procurement according to official statistics. The second figure (in brackets) is the amount of grain after the procurement campaign.

* The first figure is the grain reserve of a peasant before the procurement according to official statistics. The second figure (in brackets) is the amount of grain after the procurement campaign.

Source: statistical report Selskoe khozyastvo SSSR, 1936. The size of the grain deliveries for some regions is available in Viola, Danilov, and Manning, 2000, 2001, 2002.

as the main source of information for the period 1928 to 1936. Conquest's book The Harvest of Sorrow (2002), as well as works by Davies (1980), and Wheatcroft and Davies (2004) are valuable sources of many details about the history of mass famine (or "famine-terror", as Conquest puts it) at the beginning of the 1930s.

Table 5.9.1., based on the KGB reports, reveals that a permanent food crisis existed in the USSR during the first half of the 1930s. The single exception was 1930, when no reports about food problems are found in the KGB materials. If the historical evidence is compared with official statistics on grain production, recalculated on a per capita basis, or on the grain surplus (Table 5.9.2.), it becomes obvious that official statistics by no means reflect the actual food situation in the economic regions of the USSR. According to Soviet norms a region faced the threat of mass famine if grain production per capita was less than 165 kilograms. About 300 kilograms is quite a sufficient amount for a peasant for one year. As we can see, there is no indication of a food crisis or famine in the economic regions (with the single exception of the Urals region in 1931). On the contrary, most regions, even after grain procurement, should have been able to retain a large grain surplus. The official data for the Ukraine for 1932-1933 presents the most striking example. This region, in which millions lost their lives in the great famine of 1932-1933, was characterized by a grain reserve of 435 kilograms per capita remaining after grain procurement that year.

Food problems began in the USSR in 1928. The historical documents confirm that the failure of the grain procurement campaign in 1928-1929 (Table 5.1.) resulted in some food problems in the consumption zone of the USSR. In the late spring of 1929, a review of the food situation around the country, made by the KGB, named the most problematic regions, which included the northern, northwestern and central provinces, such as Pskovskaya, Vologodskaya and Arkhangel-skaya, Leningradskaya, Kaluzhskaya,Yaroslavskaya, and Vladimirskaya. The report states that the food problems were caused by relatively low harvests in the consumption regions and interruptions in bread imports from the production zone of the country. It was mostly the rural population that faced food problems (as urban populations were already subject to rationing). The report states that the food problems had already begun there in the early winter. It also states that several productive regions faced food problems, too. From the end of winter many provinces of the Ukraine suffered from food shortages, but the situation in the Northern Caucasus was said to be satisfactory (Viola, Danilov, and Manning, 2000: 875). Evidently, if some food problems existed in the production zone, they were less severe than in the consumption regions at that time.

The winter of 1929 saw the introduction of bread rationing in Soviet towns. The acuteness of the grain supply situation was such that in the spring of 1929 a top Soviet official (Rykov) proposed the importing of grain, although this proposal was rejected after a "very heated discussion" (Conquest, 2002). These food problems probably forced Stalin to come to his ultimate decision to resolve the problem of state grain procurement once and for all.

The results were already apparent in the following year, 1929-1930, which, while not producing a bigger harvest than 1928, was much more effective with respect to state grain provision. The new grain procurement campaign of 1929-1930 started in as early as August and the targets were very high. In the Ukraine, 896,000 tons of grain, or 23.4 percent of the planned amount, had already been collected by September (Viola, Danilov, and Manning, 2000: 949). In some other regions (the Urals and the Central Black Earth region) the implementation rate of the campaign was three to four times lower. In autumn the element of repression unfolded on a large scale and brought some results. By 25 December 1929, the amount of grain collected already reached 13.6 million tons (84.5 percent of the planned amount). This figure is twice as high as that for the end of 1927 (5.2 million tons) and 1928 (6.3 million tons). The champions of this grain procurement campaign were the Ukraine (4.6 million tons in 1929 and only 0.9 million tons in 1928) and the Central Black Earth region (1.7 million tons in 1929 and just 0.5 million tons in 1928) (ibid.: 93).

At the beginning of winter 1930, the grain procurement campaign was conducted in parallel with the start of the "dekulakization" and collectivization campaigns. Neither political campaign had any beneficial economic effect, despite the further demolition of the food market, and they became major factors in the deterioration of the social situation in the country. Table 5.9.3. (compiled by the KGB itself) shows that from February 1930 the dissatisfaction of the masses became very intense. However, in the winter, food problems were not yet the main reason for peasant protests.

In the spring of 1930 peasants began leaving their kolkhozes because the size of the grain quota for kolkhozniks was higher than for individuals. Reports then appeared about food shortages. The first came from Bashkiria (Urals) on 26 March 1930. It stated that many kolkhozniks were consuming substitute foods (such as orach, a small herbaceous plant or shrub) and that some cases of disease caused by the famine had been observed. One of the main indicators of the food crisis was the mass slaughtering of livestock in the winter of 1929-1930. The KGB report recognized that the main cause of the crisis was excessive grain procurement (Viola, Danilov, and Manning, 2000: 352). By the end of May and early June 1930, numerous KGB reports made mention of famine in the Middle Volga, Ukraine, Urals, and Siberia. Some cases of death as a result of famine were reported in the regions, but the main

Table 5.9.3. Number and cause of mass protests in rural areas of the USSR in 1930



Cause of mass protests













and sowing
































































































































Source: Viola, Danilov, and Manning 2000: 802.

Source: Viola, Danilov, and Manning 2000: 802.

indication of food shortages was still the consumption of substitute foods and the numerous protests against the authorities. The original Table 5.9.3 shows that the crisis peak occurred in May and June when the food problems overshadowed even problems associated with forcible collectivization and the repression and deportation of the "kulaks".

The harvest in the following year, 1930, was the best for many years. During that year the authorities increased the planned grain procurement on at least two occasions, as they were aware that the peasants still had a grain surplus (ibid.: 633). The KGB materials mention several times that the harvest of 1930 was particularly good but also that a large part of it was not harvested due to "a specific condition" in the country that year (Viola, Danilov, and Manning, 2001: 407). A "specific condition" can be understood as including a new wave of collectivization, which started in the autumn of 1930. By September 1930, heavy pressure was being put on individual peasants through large individual grain quotas and other methods. By such means, and also by a renewal of physical pressure, the last half of 1930 saw a reversal of the flow from the kolkhozes. The second wave of dekulakization was one more "specific" factor. The whole situation in rural areas, especially in regions which had been determined as areas for complete collectivization in one to two years (the Northern Caucasus, Middle Volga and Low Volga), was very tense. By continued use of force and economic pressure, the collective farms gradually took over in major grain-producing regions.

Despite high grain quotas and problems with harvesting, no food crises in rural areas were reported in 1930. It is likely that the harvest of 1930 was very good and that it was higher than the Western estimate of 65 million tons. Only a few indicators of food shortages can be found in the KGB materials, and then only in urban areas. In March 1931 the authorities had to find ways to economize on bread. The list of categories of the urban population to be supplied with rationed food became shorter. For example, in the North Caucasus 600,000 were taken off the list (ibid.: 101). One of the reasons for the food problems seems to have been the too rapid growth of the urban population. Between 1929 and 1932, some 12.5 million new workers entered industry, 8.5 million of whom were from rural areas. This increase in the urban population meant, among other things, that more food was needed to supply them. Twenty-six million urban persons were provisioned by the state in 1930. In 1931, the number rose to 33.2 million, or nearly 26 percent. The increase in grain earmarked for their consumption was only 6 percent (Conquest, 2002).

In 1931, the large-scale drought affected some key grain-producing regions and grain production was significantly lower than in 1930 (by 17 percent according to official figures). However, the grain procurement for that year was determined at a higher level than ever before. The amount of grain available for peasants after state procurement was already 20 percent less than in 1930. The grain remaining was inadequate and seemed to give little chance for the peasants to escape famine.

The first KGB report warning about the approaching food shortage in the Middle Volga came as early as the end of September 1931. The report gave a detailed analysis of the food situation in the region. Twenty-seven of the 35 districts located in the area most affected by drought on the left bank of the river Volga had no grain surplus. The report appealed to the central authorities to revise their grain-procurement plan for the region to 1.3 million tons, which could be collected exclusively in the districts where a grain surplus existed (Viola, Danilov, and Manning, 2001: 183). Although this had been done, three months later, in December, information filtered through about a famine in the Middle Volga region. Many cases of the consumption of substitute foodstuffs and some cases of death as a result of famine were registered (ibid.: 327). It was reported that in some kolkhozes the proportion of households wanting to leave the collective farms reached 70 to 80 percent. Also, from October, 162,400 peasants left the region for other regions of the country. Such large-scale migration of peasants was typical for all regions that suffered from the drought of 1931.

The exceptionally dry weather in the Low Volga region lasted only about ten days in 1931. However, the average yield (official figures) reached only 3.8 centners per hectare, while in 1930 it had been about 6 centners per hectare. However, the plan for state provision increased from 1.5 million tons in 1930 to 1.9 million tons in 1931 (ibid.: 203). From December 1931 an acute food crisis began in the region as a result of excessive grain procurement. It was reported that many local peasants consumed substitute foodstuffs and dead animals, and several deaths were also registered (ibid.: 328). About 33 percent of peasants who were still farming on individual farms had to leave the region. By the spring, 21 percent of working horses had been lost because of lack of forage (ibid.: 329).

In Volga-Vyatka a food crisis was reported for the first time in March 1932. Some cases of the eating of substitute foods were observed. The reaction of the peasants to the food crisis was mass migration from the kolkhozes. After October, thousands of households left the kolkhozes and the number grew month by month. In October the number of households (peasant families) that left the kolkhozes was 926, and in February it reached more than 14,000 (ibid.: 326). In Bashkirskaya, the food shortage became evident in the republic in February 1932. Some families on the collective farms were starving. In one kolkhoz, deaths among the cattle reached ten heads per day because of lack of forage. It was reported that on average the peasants had only 83 kilograms of food grain per capita, while the Soviet "hungry norm" was 165 kilograms (ibid.: 270). However, state provision for the region reached 480,000 tons (38 percent of the official grain production). That amount would give an additional 94 kilograms per capita, if no grain was expropriated.

In the Central Black Earth region, the first indications of food problems were registered in mid-February 1932. It was reported that many peasants ate surrogate foods (ibid.: 318). Large-scale losses of working horses were observed there because of a lack of forage. In some districts of the Northern Caucasus the food situation was drastic in March. Thousands of cases of disease caused by malnutrition were registered. The share of collectivized households decreased from 85 to 80

percent (the region was a leader with respect to collectivization) during those few months. About 25,000 peasants left for other regions to find jobs and food (ibid.: 331). Similar reports came from the Urals and Tatarstan.

In the spring of 1932, a food crisis was also reported in Western Siberia. A report from one district there described some cases of eating dead animals (ibid.: 291). At the end of March a special commission investigated the situation and confirmed that many peasants from local kolkhozes were using such dead animals for food. Many families were recorded by the commission as starving. Later it was reported that incidents of the eating of substitute foodstuffs and dead animals had become much more common (ibid.: 345). Western Siberia had realized its planned target for grain deliveries but the harvest was very poor and grain procurement left peasants without any grain at all (ibid.: 313). The official figures presented in Table 5.9.2. show that, even after state grain procurement, peasants of the region had more than 500 kilograms per capita, which shows how distorted the Soviet statistics could be.

The development of the food situation in the Ukraine is of great interest in view of the catastrophic famine the following agricultural year (1932-1933). In normal circumstances, the Ukraine and the North Caucasus provided half of the total marketable grain. In 1931, the Ukraine emerged as the major grain procurement region as well. While the amount of grain procured in the republic reached 7.4 million tons in 1930, in 1931-1932 the plan increased to 8.2 million tons, despite the harvest being poorer than in the previous year (according to official data). This increase was earmarked for export. Additional amounts of grain were needed to make up for the financial shortfall that had resulted from the fall in the grain price on the world markets (ibid.: 198).

In the last days of October it was reported that the grain provision campaign in the Ukraine had proceeded at a higher rate than in 1930. During a special meeting of party leaders devoted to the grain procurement campaign in the Ukraine, the possibility of increasing the grain procurement plan was discussed. The main argument was that in the previous year, after grain procurement, Ukrainian peasants still had "a considerable grain reserve". At the same time, local party officials recognized that the harvest of 1931 was worse than in 1930 because the spring crop had been badly damaged by the drought. One local official said that no actual figures for the harvest of 1931 were yet known, and he added that it was hardly possible to determine a reliable figure at this stage. Nevertheless, the plan to collect 8.2 million tons was considered absolutely realistic. This planned target was again confirmed at the end of December 1931 in a special resolution of the Ukrainian Communist Party. The plan was said to be "absolutely necessary" for the whole economy of the USSR (ibid.: 227). The resolution again called the plan realistic and criticized the fact that the rate of grain procurement had slowed during the last decades. By the end of December 1931, 79 percent of the planned amount of grain had already been collected, but this figure was lower than in the corresponding period of 1930. The resolution called for the undertaking of a "decisive effort" to meet the planned target.

By the end of March 1932, a KGB report reviewed letters from peasants to the Soviet papers, many of which were devoted to the mass famine in the Ukraine (ibid.: 312). A letter to one Soviet paper from a peasant in the Central Black Earth region stated that crowds of starving Ukrainian peasants had invaded the region to sell their clothes and other goods in order to buy food. The peasants argued that grain provision had left them without any grain reserves. In April the KGB reported acute food shortages in some villages of the Ukraine. Many associated diseases and several cases of death were registered. The state of the livestock was reported to be extremely poor. Deaths of working horses were observed on a mass scale because of the lack of feed grain. Throughout the region about 50 percent of horses were no longer capable of being used for farming operations because of their poor physical condition (ibid.: 318).

The food crisis in the Ukraine extended into the summer of 1932 as well. In mid June 1932, a KGB report drew attention to the dramatic food situation in the Ukraine. In some districts there was actual famine and the report recognized that it was a result of the grain procurement campaign (which the authorities were forced to halt only at the end of March). Numerous cases of death as a result of famine were registered. In some villages half of the local population suffered from malnutrition. No dogs or cats could be found in Ukrainian villages, and masses of peasants ate grass and dead animals (ibid.: 389). Another report stated that in some areas deaths and suicides as a result of the famine had been registered. A few cases of cannibalism were also registered. According to the report, all these factors had an impact on the rate and quality of the next sowing campaign (ibid.: 420). An informal source said that a large proportion of arable land (estimated at 50 percent) was left unsown because of shortages of seed, labor, and other resources (ibid.: 407).

In the spring and summer of 1932, the Soviet authorities undertook some steps to relieve the food crisis in the USSR, but they were insufficient. In March a resolution was adopted regarding the cereal balance in the USSR. The resolution obliged all local authorities to reduce cereal consumption to a minimum norm as the grain deficit became a serious problem for the country as a whole (ibid.: 257). On 9 April 1932, a further resolution was adopted by the Central Committee that contained a proposal to return grain allocated for export from ports and to purchase 160,000 tons of grain abroad. In May 1932, the Soviet Union purchased 48,000 tons from Canada in order to supply bread to Eastern Siberia and the Far East, where a food crisis had also occurred (ibid.: 365). A decree of 6 May 1932 permitted private trade in grain by collective farms and collective farmers after state quotas had been fulfilled (Conquest, 2002). In June 1932, the Soviet authorities revised the plan for grain procurement for some regions and permitted peasants to sell their agricultural products on a free market (Viola, Danilov, and Manning, 2001: 382).

At the same time, the Soviet authorities seem to be satisfied with the results for that year. On 7 July 1932 the Central Committee of the CPSU adopted a resolution concerning the results for the grain procurement campaign in 1931-1932, which said that, regardless of the drought affecting many agricultural regions, 22.4 million tons had been collected while in 1930 the figure had been only 21.6 million tons. It was claimed that this success had been achieved on the basis of a victory of the kolkhoz system and the defeat of kulaks in the Russian villages. One month later, the collectivization of peasant households in key regions was announced to be complete.

In the critical year 1932, the USSR's total grain crop was no worse than that of 1931. The problem was that Soviet agriculture had not yet recovered from the famine of 1931, while the state policy had become even harsher. The Ukraine is the most striking example of this. In spring 1933, a catastrophic famine killed millions in the Ukraine. In 1932, this region faced lower harvests than in 1931, and despite the grain quota being halved (from 8.2 to 4.2 million tons), peasants were not able to reserve any more grain than in 1931. The fact that in 1932-1933 the Ukraine (and some other regions) experienced a much larger famine than in 1931 should be attributed exclusively to certain of the concrete political decisions adopted by the Soviet authorities during that disastrous year.

On 7 August 1932, a resolution of the CPSU "On the safeguarding of state property" (drafted by Stalin himself) was adopted. It ordered that all collective farm property, such as cattle, standing crops, and agricultural produce should be so defined. This law (known popularly as the "law of three ears") was famous for its severity. It decreed that offenders were either to be shot, or, in extenuating circumstances, imprisoned for not less than ten years, following the total confiscation of their property. During 1932, 20 percent of all sentences passed in the USSR were in connection with this decree (Conquest, 2002).

Faced with a decline in the amount of grain procured in the late autumn of 1932 (by 1 November only 41 percent of the delivery plan had only been fulfilled) the party adopted measures against local officials in the Ukraine. Soon 237 secretaries of party district committees and 249 chairmen of district executive committees had been replaced. At the same time, 10,000 fresh activists were given permanent employment in the villages, including 3,000 named chairmen of collective farms, as well as party secretaries and organizers. At the same time, the pressure on the peasants increased. Decrees issued on 22 August 1932 and 2 December 1932 determined sentences of up to ten years in concentration camps for those who sold their grain before the fulfillment of the state plan (ibid.). On 29 December 1932, a directive issued by the Politburo concerning the withdrawal of seed fund for failure to fulfill the grain-delivery plan (in the Ukraine) was adopted. The directive ordered all seed from kolkhozes to be withdrawn in five to six days following failure to meet the planned targets (Viola, Danilov, and Manning, 2001: 611).

A decree adopted by the Politburo on 22 January 1933 played an especially grim role in the emergence of mass famine in 1933 in the Ukraine. This directive ordered local authorities to prevent starving peasants from leaving their regions. It stated that in 1932 a serious mistake had been made by local authorities as they had tolerated a large-scale migration of starving peasants from affected regions. This information on the mass migration of peasants from their villages was used by internal and external enemies for "counterrevolutionary" propaganda (ibid.: 635). Another resolution detailed certain measures that were to be undertaken for the implementation of the 22 January directive. Among them was a ban on the sale of railway tickets to peasants unless they had special permission to leave the region (ibid.: 635). A month later, a new Politburo resolution also sanctioned the implementation of the resolution of 22 January in the Low Volga region (ibid.: 644). These resolu tions were adopted at a time when many peasants were about to leave the famine-torn regions. In the Ukraine, in as early as mid-1932, almost three million people were on the move, crowding the stations, trying to get to the towns and seeking more prosperous areas (Conquest, 2002). Special troops were deployed to prevent these peasants from leaving.

The first KGB report2 about mass famine in the Ukraine is dated 16 February. It states that mass famine was developing in some provinces (Kievskaya, Vinnitskaya) of the Ukraine. The KGB monitored the development of the food crisis in the Ukraine during the winter and spring. Conquest (2002) states that people had been dying all winter, but death on a mass scale really began in early March 1933. On 1 March 1933, the KGB compiled detailed statistics on the starving population of Kievskaya province in the Ukraine, where 829 villages were recognized as being affected by famine. The total number of suffering families amounted to 26,525. The number of starving adults reached 93,636, and the number of children 112,199. It was reported that more than 47,000 people had swollen faces, legs, and stomachs. The peasants were eating anything at all—mice, rats, sparrows, ants, and earthworms. About 12,800 peasants died as a result of the famine. Seventy-two incidents of cannibalism and 65 incidents of the eating of corpses were registered in the province. The total grain aid from the state was 1,614 tons, which, with the total number of starving peasants in the province estimated at 206,000, provided only 8 kilograms per person (Viola, Danilov, and Manning, 2001: 646). Similar reports came from Donetskaya, Dnepro-petrovskaya, and other provinces of the Ukraine during March and April. The majority of the starving were members of collective farms rather than individual farmers (ibid.: 653).

At that time, thousands of starving peasants tried to get to the republic's towns. In Kiev, Kharkov, and other big cities, the local authorities had to clear the corpses from the streets every morning. For example, in the city of Poltava in the spring of 1933, the number of dead bodies found in the street reached 150 a day. It was hard work for the state doctors, who were obliged to invent a large spectrum of diagnoses (which include the ironic "sudden illness") in order to hide the real cause of the mass deaths in the Ukrainian towns (Conquest, 2002).

Nor was it only the Ukraine that was affected by mass famine. In March 1933, there were reports of famine in the Northern Caucasus. In many villages peasants ate dogs, cats, and rats, and some cases of cannibalism were also registered in the region (Viola, Danilov, and Manning,

2001: 648). In late March, information about many cases of famine among members of kolkhozes came from the Low Volga, Central Black Earth, and Urals regions. One KGB report confirms that medical workers were afraid to register famine as the cause of death and entered alternative diagnoses in official documents (ibid.: 658). Reports about famine in all these regions became especially numerous in May 1933. There were increasing numbers of reports of mass famine in the North Caucasus, Low Volga, Central Black Earth region, and the Urals. A critical situation was still developing in May in two regions—the North Caucasus and the Ukraine.

It is difficult to say exactly when this mass famine came to an end in 1933. Conquest states that "by the end of May observers noted a virtual end of the deaths by famine on a mass scale, though the death rate remained abnormally high" (2002: 262). Some modern Russian demographers argue that everywhere the rapid increase in mortality had started no earlier than March and that it was more limited in its duration than many experts had previously believed (Andreev, Darsky, and Kharkova, 1998). The last KGB reports about a mass famine in the Nemkommuna province (German Commune) of the Low Volga are dated 1 and 4 June.

It is likely that even these KGB materials are incomplete. It is worth noting that there were three to five times fewer reports from the regions concerning famine in 1932-1933 than in 1921-1922, despite the food crisis being on the same scale (compare Tables 4.5. and 5.9.1.). It seems that in 1933 any information about famine had a more limited distribution at all levels of the Soviet bureaucracy than in the 1920s. No official wanted to emphasize the existence of famine in his report. No word about the famine was allowed to appear in the press, and the Soviet authorities used a very effective policy to misinform the world about the food situation in the country (after visits to the country some famous Western writers confirmed that there was no food crisis in Russia). Certainly, by the end of the summer the famine had abated in the USSR. The ban on foreign correspondents visiting the Ukraine was lifted in the autumn of 1933 (Conquest, 2002).

The total number of human deaths during the great famine of 1932-1933 is still debated. The problem is associated with the incomplete registration of deaths by famine in the conditions of the 1930s. The higher the number of deaths by famine, the more incomplete the demographic statistics. Modern Russian experts estimate that in 1933

about 70 percent of deaths by famine were left without documented registration. According to many experts the total number of deaths as a result of famine in the Ukraine was 4 million, and a comparison of this figure with the official statistics gives 68 percent of non-registered deaths in the region in 1933. Based on this estimate, the total number of lives lost through famine in the Russian Federation could have reached 2.15 million people. A geography of excessive mortality in the Russian Federation highlights mainly the North Caucasus and Low Volga (Andreev, Darsky, and Kharkova, 1998). Figures presented by Western experts are close to this estimate: for the Ukraine 5 million; for the North Caucasus 1 million; and 1 million in other regions of Russia. Thus the total number of famine victims reached 6 to 7 million (Conquest, 2002). These are enormous figures, comparable to the number of deaths in the major wars of our time.

The catastrophe of 1932-1933 shows that the repressive policy against the peasants undermined the prospects for agricultural development in the country. During the winter of 1933, the authorities had in fact already been preparing for a reversion to the normal methods, at the very time when the starving in the Ukraine were being denied help. On 19 January 1933, a new law established a simple grain tax (on land actually under cultivation) instead of grain collections, although this did not come into force until later. On 18 February 1933, permission for the introduction of grain trading in Kiev and Vinnytsia provinces was granted. Grain collection in the Ukraine was officially halted at last on 15 March 1933, and orders were given to release some grain from the army reserves to the villages (ibid.). On 8 May 1933, a decree was adopted about the immediate halting of any mass deportations of peasants and the "putting in order" of arrest procedures. The resolution demanded a reduction in the number of people kept in concentration camps from 800,000 to 400,000 (by the revising of their sentences) (Viola, Danilov, and Manning, 2001: 749).

By the beginning of 1934 there was relative stability in Soviet villages. However, in the spring of 1934 the food situation in the country was again unsatisfactory. Many cases of malnutrition, disease, and even deaths as a result of famine were reported from the Central Black Earth, Ukraine, Volga-Vyatka, and Urals regions (Table 5.9.1.). The prosecutor's office reported the mass slaughtering of livestock in some consumption provinces. In March and April 1934, the size of herds fell by 20 to 30 percent in several areas. The report stated that, according to collective farmers, a shortage of fodder was the main cause of the slaughter (Viola, Danilov, and Manning, 2002: 95). Reports about food problems in the same regions can be found even in July 1934 (Volga-Vyatka, Ukraine, Central Black Earth, Middle Volga, Urals). For example, in the Black Earth region and Middle Volga, a few cases of death as a result of famine among kolkhozniks were registered (ibid.: 197). The food crisis of the spring and summer of 1934 was to some extent a repercussion of the catastrophe of 1932-1933 (Moshkov, 2002). According to Andreev and others, excessive mortality among Soviet people reached its peak in the spring of 1933 and decreased to normal levels only one and a half years later, or by the end of 1934 (Andreev, Darsky, and Kharkova, 1998).

The KGB materials do not contain reports about famine in 1935, other than a few reports indirectly indicating that some food problems existed (for example, local authorities complained of peasants leaving their villages for urban areas because of food problems). The food rationing system was abolished in the USSR in 1935. The harvest of 1935 was one of the best, but the following year, 1936, brought the worst harvest of the decade. The drought of 1936 affected many grain-producing regions of Russia and was even worse than in 1931 (Figure 5.3.). According to official Soviet data (revised in the 1960s), grain production in 1936 was significantly lower than in 1931. The KGB reported a fodder shortage in the country and the dramatic reduction of cattle in many regions, including the central part of European Russia, which was also affected by the drought. In the autumn of 1936 the food situation seems to have been acute. In many areas peasants were in a state of panic, seeing inevitable famine for the coming winter. They tried to slow down the harvesting as much as possible in the hope that the authorities would lower the planned targets. The reports also note the very low quality of the harvest, as peasants tried to leave as many plants in the fields as they could, a common tactic among peasants in previous famines in the 1930s. Many peasants left their villages for employment in urban areas and at new industrial construction sites. From February 1937, some reports emerged about cases of starving kolkhoznik families. However, no reports about mass famine can be found in the KGB materials for 1936-1937. It might be suggested that Stalin's government wanted, and managed, to cope with the food shortage in 1936. Experts point out that the government limited grain exports, wrote of peasant debts, deliv-

Table 5.9.4.Average food consumption in the USSR in the 1930s, as compared with 1913 (kilograms per annum)

Food staples






























Eggs (unit)




















Total intake in Kcal./day 2,069 2,303 2,393 2,1 12

Source: Kiselev and Shagin, 1996.

Total intake in Kcal./day 2,069 2,303 2,393 2,1 12

Source: Kiselev and Shagin, 1996.

ered seed and food credits, etc. (Moshkov, 2002). The most important measure was that the plan for grain procurement was determined at the lowest figure for the 1930s—about 12 million tons. (Wheatcroft and Davies [1994a] give a non-revised figure of 27.6 million tons as the planned grain collection, see Table 5.1. [Viola, Danilov, and Manning, 2002: 800]). For example, the Ukraine was obliged to deliver only 960,000 tons, a much lower figure than in 1931 (8.6 million tons) and 1932 (4.2 million tons) (ibid.: 829). If the procurement plan had not been radically revised, the repetition of mass famine would have been inevitable in many agricultural regions of the USSR.

While, fortunately, there was no recurrence of mass famine in Russia in the second half of the decade, the mass of Soviet peasants certainly suffered malnutrition. By the end of the 1930s, the average Soviet citizen was worse off than before the revolution. According to the cereal balance for the pre-revolutionary period, about 430 kilograms of grain was available for a Russian peasant before the war (Popov, 1925). In 1935, the official economist Strumilin found the average Soviet citizen consumed 261.6 kilograms of grain a year. The Soviet peasants ate approximately the same amount of bread, but less meat, fat, and dairy products. There was a deterioration in food consumption in the Soviet Union between 1930 and 1940, as even the official statistics indicate (Table 5.9.4.). Meat and dairy consumption fell between 1928 and

1940. In 1940, total food consumption was only 2,112 kcal per capita per day, which was considerably less than the Soviet physiological norm (2,400 kcal a day). For most kolkhozniks, their plot, tiny as it was, represented the vital resource for their physical survival.

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