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The Soviet Famine of 1931-33: Politically Motivated or Ecological Disaster?

The Soviet Famine of 1931-33: Politically Motivated or Ecological Disaster?

Stephen Wheatcroft, Professor of History, University of Melbourne, Australia, presented new information on the famine based on extensive archival data now available on the tragedy of the Soviet countryside, in a talk sponsored by the Center for European & Eurasian Studies on May 5, 2003.

By Carla Thorson

Was the great Soviet famine of 1931-1933 purposely designed by the Soviet leadership to quell Ukrainian nationalism or was it an accident of ecological dimensions? Professor Stephen Wheatcroft, University of Melbourne Australia argued that neither is entirely correct, based on extensive archival research from the period. 

In a talk sponsored by the Center for European & Eurasian Studies at UCLA on May 5th, Wheatcroft also challenged previous estimates of the number of people who died during the famine.  His conclusions are based on statistical analysis of demographic and economic data, gathered while working among a large group of Western, Russian, and Asian scholars analyzing a vast collection of formerly secret Soviet documents, to be published in 6 volumes, entitled Tragediia Sovetskoi Derevni (The Tragedy of the Soviet Countryside).  These volumes contain extensive evidence that this was a Soviet-wide famine, and the data presented here permit a more accurate assessment of the human tragedy.

 In 1987, Robert Conquest (Stanford University)  published "Harvest of Sorrow" the first full history of collectivization, dekulakization and the famine, in which he argued that these events were largely manmade and politically motivated.  He estimated the deaths during this period from these policies combined at 14.5 million (7 million of these from the famine itself).  Mark B. Tauger (University of West Virginia) along with other scholars has since challenged Conquest's account.  Two articles by Tauger , "The 1932 Harvest and the Soviet Famine of 1932-1933," Slavic Review, Spring 1991, and "Natural Disaster and Human Actions in the Soviet Famine of 1931-1933, Carl Beck Papers in Russian and East European Studies, June 2001, present evidence that the famine resulted directly from a poor harvest, a harvest that was much smaller than officially acknowledged.  He argues that this small harvest was in turn the result of a complex of natural disasters that [with one small exception] no previous scholars have ever discussed or even mentioned.

 Wheatcroft suggested that the answer lies somewhere in between.  Soviet state procurement policies clearly contributed to the famine, but it was not a grand design on the part of the Bolsheviks, nor was it entirely directed at Ukrainians.  He argued that the famine was an accidental consequence of ill-conceived policies, and that Ukraine suffered inordinantly for demographic reasons. At the same time, he did not go so far as to say that the Tauger assessment is entirely accurate.  He agreed that ecological factors were clearly significant, but he suggested that comparative study of the causes of modern famine worldwide indicate that most are caused by problems with exchange entitlements (a disequilibrium in the market) and not because of declining food availability.  The Soviet famine, in his view, is no exception.  Throughout the 1920s, the Soviet government had relied increasingly on state requisitioning of grain from the countryside to feed the urban population, and this policy over the years left the peasantry with no reserves. As early as, 1927 a grain procurement crisis had already developed, but it was the natural factors of insufficient rainfall in Spring of 1930, 1931, and 1932 and too much rain during midsummer in these years that contributed to the smaller harvest, based on weather data now available.  There is also archival evidence of natural phenomena like wheat rust and ergotism that infected the grain supplies.

Finally, on the basis of substantial analysis of Soviet registration documents and mortality statistics, Wheatcroft concluded that the estimates of the human losses have been grossly exaggerated.  In his view, the number of deaths due to the famine should be more accurately reported at around 4.5 million.  A number, he was careful to point, that represents a horrendous human tragedy.  But a tragedy at 4.5 million people is not any greater tragedy if the number is inflated to 7 million or more.

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Published: Monday, May 5, 2003