Between 1932-33 the USSR experienced a sever famine. Portions of the Volga, the Northern Urals, the South Caucuses, Western Siberia, and Kazakhstan all experienced famine conditions. The largest area in which the famine took place was the Ukrainian SSR, the “bread-basket” of Europe, where in 1933 famine conditions were the most severe. The famine and the famine experience of 1932-33 in the Ukrainian territories has become known as the “Holodomor,” the Ukrainian word for “murder by hunger.” The estimated number of victims in the Ukrainian SSR is still a subject of debate; however most scholars conclude that between 3 and 10 million Ukrainians died as a result of hunger in the Ukrainian countryside.

Because the famine was exceptionally severe in Ukraine and also affected territories populated by Ukrainians within the Russian SFSR, some have posited that the famine must be seen in national terms, as genocide perpetrated by the Soviet leadership against the Ukrainians in order to quell nationalist tendencies within the republic. The fact that USSR destroyed the 1937 census which showed dramatic population losses and would not officially acknowledge that a famine occurred until 1986 only added to the debate about its causes.

Over the next 70 years the issue of the famine became more an issue of international relations than one of historical considerations. In this c I will show how acknowledgment of the famine, in both the East and the West, rested entirely on political and ideological interests. When the West desired political and economic engagement with the Soviet Union it officially denied the famine’s existence, at the height of the Cold War anti-Soviet and anti-Communist elements used the famine as an ideological weapon. This paper will show that to this day the issue of the famine is divisive, and though the Soviet Union has fallen, political, national, and ideological loyalties have played a significant role in how politicians and scholars address the issue.

Most of the debate is around the national question – was the famine a genocide of the Ukrainian population? In 1933 the only group that advocated this position was the Ukrainian émigré community in the West, as well as a few noted Western journalists. The United States, Britain, and other European countries did not acknowledge the famine, even though they were aware of the conditions.

After the “iron curtain” fell after the Second World War, the ideological battle for the world’s hearts and minds turned against the Soviet Union. The deliberate effort to paint the Soviet Union as a totalitarian dictatorship which enslaves and oppresses its population become a central weapon in the Cold War arsenal geared at hearts and minds. What better way to denounce an ideology and government then to paint it as having committed genocide on its own people?

The issue of the famine became central in this tactic. By the late 1980s several important Western studies and an official US Commission on the famine forced the United States to admit to its existence, the issue of genocide however remained unresolved.

From the beginning the 1932-33 famine in Soviet Ukraine was different from previous famines. Unlike the 1921-23 famines in Ukraine and Russia, the circumstances of the famine were kept quit, aide was not allowed to enter the countryside, and the Soviets made mentioning the famine a punishable offense. Despite the massive denial that the Soviet apparatus engaged in, witnesses to the famine were able to report on famine conditions in Soviet Ukraine. The most noted Westerners to do so was Welsh journalist Gareth Jones and British reporters William H. Chamberlin and Malcolm Muggeridge. These reports openly called the situation in Ukraine and Russia “famine.”

In the West, Ukrainian Diaspora newspapers consistently published accounts of the “man-made famine in Ukraine,” calling it a “reign of terror” created to deliberately “starve to death millions of Ukrainians in an effort to quell the Ukrainian national movement.”1 Ukrainians who had family members in Soviet Ukraine wrote letters to government officials in the United States and Britain asking for aid. In a June 1934 note to Sir Waldron Smithers in the House of Commons, Sir Laurence Collier, from the Foreign Office Northern Department wrote: “we have certain amount of information about the famine conditions in the south of Russia, similar to what has appeared in the press and there is no obligation on our part to make it public.”2 Collier concluded that the Foreign Office does not “want to make it public, however, because the Soviet Government would resent it and our relations with them would be prejudice.”3

Despite the consistent attempts to raise awareness by the Ukrainian Diaspora and certain Western journalists, the Soviet Union maintained that the stories of the famine were anti-Soviet propaganda. The Soviets used several examples to maintain that there was no hunger, including the fact that in 1932-33 the USSR exported at least one million tons of grain to foreign governments.

American journalist Walter Duranty wrote articles for The New York Times which consistently denied the famine despite having visited famine stricken areas, and later in life admitting that the famine caused the deaths of millions of people.4 The visits of Westerners such as George Bernard Shaw and French premier Eduard Herriot, who returned with glowing accounts of Soviet achievement, only added to the Western confusion of the real situation in Soviet Ukraine.5 American historian Dennis J. Dunn writes:

FDR determined before he was elected president that he had to change public opinion on Stalin and the Soviet Union. During the 1932 presidential campaign he held a well-publicized meeting with Walter Duranty, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York times, whose support of Stalin and his policies was well known. Duranty denied that there was a “terror-famine” in the Soviet Union and, in line with the convergence school, countered those who produced evidence of the tragedy with the argument that one had to break a few eggs to make the omelet of modernization. The implication of the meeting was that there was no genocide in Soviet Russia, and if some peasants were dead, it was the inevitable result of Stalin’s understandable effort to develop the Soviet Union quickly, especially in the face of Japanese threats. Roosevelt did not discuss the terror-famine with Duranty but simply asked some chatty questions about Soviet gold production and Soviet reliability as a trading partner.6

The reasons for a lack of Western empathy towards the plight of the peasantry in the Soviet Union can only be understood in a political context. In the 1930s the United States had been suffering from the Great Depression, Roosevelt hoped that official recognition of the Soviet Union would lead to economic opportunities as well as create an alliance able to offset the developing aggressors in Asia and Europe. For the Soviet Union, official recognition by the United States meant much needed trade relations. Historians such as Dennis J. Dunn and David Mayers have seen Roosevelt’s and the State Departments focus on “side issues” such as repayment of loans and that Americans in the USSR be guaranteed civil and religious rights rather than on the issue of the “terror-famine” in Ukraine rendered Roosevelt and the State Department as “being a passive accomplice to Stalin in the Ukraine.”7

Western governments did not acknowledge the famine on political grounds. The economic and political circumstances of the 1930s made it advantageous for Western countries to avoid conflict with the Soviet Union in regards to the Soviet actions in the Ukrainian countryside. Despite the desperate appeals of the Ukrainian Diaspora and the detailed accounts offered by some Western journalists, the pro-Soviet factions in Western society dismissed these reports and appeals as rumors, anti-Soviet propaganda, and labeled the groups and individuals as instigators of discord.

From the beginning the famine became an issue tied to political, national, and ideological dialogue. Between 1930 and 1945, members of the Ukrainian Diaspora regarded the famine as an act of genocide perpetrated against the Ukrainian nations; members of the pro-Soviet faction, made up of governments and several mainstream media outlets, viewed discussing the famine as unproductive for trade and foreign policy; members of the vast socialist movements saw allegations and acknowledgments of a massive man-made famine as an ideological setback to the emergent socialist power.

The emergence of the Soviet Union and the United States as the leading superpowers divided the world into East and West and changed the dialogue concerning the 1932-33 famine in the West. The arsenal which was used in the Cold War was that of ideology and propaganda, an active anti-Soviet and anti-Communist effort was conducted in the West and an active anti-American and anti-capitalist effort was conducted in the East.

The year 1953 was the 20th anniversary of the famine, and the Ukrainian Diaspora, which had always tended to be extremely anti-Soviet, set about publicizing the anniversary with a series of publications and demonstrations. In 1953 the Ukrainian Association of Victims of Russian Communist Terror published The Black Deeds of the Kremlin: A White Book. The two-volumes of the book dealt with the terror and the famine, labeling the genocide as a work particular to “Russian” communists. Thus by the 1950s even the Ukrainian Diaspora was engaged in labeling the Soviet Union in ethnic Russian terms and ignoring the Ukrainians who were engaged in the collectivization process, including Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, a Ukrainian. The famine even made it into the notoriously inaccurate 1958 anti-communist publication The Naked Communist, written by the conservative American commentator W. Cleon Skousen. In a sub-chapter on “Khrushchev as the Dictator of the Ukraine” Skousen wrote:

Stalin therefore assigned Khrushchev the task of going back to the Ukraine and forcing his own people to live under the lash of total Communist suppression. The Red leaders had been using wholesale executions to stifle resistance. Khrushchev said he had a better way. He would use mass starvation!8

By the 50th anniversary of the famine in 1983, the Ukrainian Diaspora organized an extensive list of publications. The Ukrainian National Association published The Great Famine: The Unknown Holocaust; the National Committee to Commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Artificial Famine in Ukraine 1932-33 published Stephan Oleskiw’s The Agony of a Nation; The World Congress of Free Ukrainians released Walter Dushnyck’s 50 Years Ago: The Famine Holocaust in Ukraine: Terror and Human Misery as Instruments of Soviet Russian Imperialism; the French group known as the Club des Amis de l’Ukraine published a facsimile of French newspaper articles on the 1933 famine under the title La Famine en 1933. These publications were biased indictments not only of Soviet ideology but what was seen as a natural Muscovite aggression against Russia, yet they served the Ukrainian Diaspora’s agenda of rousing awareness concerning the famine. These publications also served the broader anti-Soviet campaign.

In the 1980s when Western “Cold Warriors” attempted to label the Soviet Union as an “evil empire,” and the Ukrainian émigré community assisted in these efforts by maintaining that the Soviet Union was indeed an empire which commits genocide. The vast amount of famine-research and agitation was conducted during the Reagan administration.

In 1984 American historian James E. Mace was appointed chairman of the US Commission on the Famine in Ukraine, which for the next four years relied on hundreds of statements by witnesses and survivors of the Famine, as well as on thousands of documents. In 1988, when the US Commission on the Famine in Ukraine released its studies, Mace was the first Western scholar to maintain that the Famine was an act of genocide perpetrated against the Ukrainians as a nation, a statement that was also supported by his PhD thesis/book with its focus on national self-assertion in Ukraine during the 1920s and early 1930s.9

In 1984, The American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank located in Washington D.C., issued The Man-Made Famine in Ukraine, a book consisting of essays by Robert Conquest, James Mace, Dana Dalrymple, and Michael Nowak – the leading American scholars on the issue. Considering The American Enterprise Institute has always held staunch anti-communist ideals, it was obvious that the conservative right was appropriating the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine towards their political cause, thus by the 1980s the famine of 1932-33 had entered the mainstream political dialogue of the Cold War.

In 1986 several academic and general-public publications appeared that analyzed the Famine in Ukraine in an objective method. The most widely distributed and easily accessible work in the West was Robert Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine. Conquest, who was a senior scholar at the Hoover Institution at the time, was commissioned by the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University to produce a work on the Famine.

The Harvest of Sorrow was a careful study based primarily on documents in Western libraries, completed with assistance from James Mace. That same year the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies published, Famine in Ukraine 1932-33, a collection of academic essays edited by Roman Serbyn and Bohdan Krawchenko. These essays debated the causes of the famine, the probable number of victims, the concepts of genocide and ethnocide, and the role of Stalin. Historians such as Conquest, Mace, Serbyn used the term “genocide” to describe the Soviet actions in the Ukrainian countryside.

Despite the extensive research conducted by objective scholars such as Conquest and Mace, supporters of the Soviet Union, such as Western socialists and liberals, saw the allegation of genocide, and even famine, as an attack not only on the Soviet Union but on the ideology of socialism. The fact that certain conservative groups and commentators had appropriated the famine into the Cold War dialogue made the issue of the famine seem less credible and tarnished by political ideology.

The infamous 1988 Village Voice article by American journalist Jeff Coplon exhibited the frustration that the liberal and socialist tendency within the United States felt in regards to the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine.

In the article “In Search of a Soviet Holocaust: A 55-Year-Old Famine Feeds the Right” Coplon argued that the right, composed mostly of “well-to-do” Ukrainian émigrés, right wing and fascist Ukrainian groups such as the Ukrainian Canadian Committee and the World Congress of Free Ukrainians, and the Ukrainian National Association which published Svoboda and the Ukrainian Weekly, was falsely reporting on the famine. Coplon claimed that the right wing has used the famine for their own purpose, while at the same time condoning anti-Semitism and forgiving the crimes of Ukrainian nationalists who were part of the OUN and now lived in the United States and Canada. Coplon writes:

Just as the Nazis used the OUN for their own ends, so has Reagan exploited the famine, from his purple-prosed commemoration of “this callous act” to his backing of the Mace commission. Faced with failing fascist allies around the world, from Nicaragua to South Africa, the US war lobby needs to boost anti-Communism as never before. Public enthusiasm to fight for the contras will not come easy. But if people could be convinced that Communism is worse than fascism; that Stalin was an insane monster, even worse than Hitler; that the seven million died in more unspeakable agony than the six million … Well, we just might be set up for the next Gulf of Tonkin. One cannot appease an Evil Empire, after all.10

Coplon also concluded that

Coupled with the old nationalist canard of “Judeo- Bolshevism,” faminology could help justify anti-Semitism, collaboration, even genocide. An eye for an eye; a Nazi holocaust in return for a “Jewish famine.”11

On the Western academic front, historians such as Stepehn G. Wheatcroft, Moshe Lewin, R. W. Davies, Mark B. Tauger, Grover Furr, and Lynn Viola argued that the famine should be looked upon from a class standpoint, and that no documentary evidence suggests that the famine was a result of a genocidal nationality policy towards the Ukrainian people. Ukrainian scholars maintained that the genocide framework works only if one looks at the Ukrainian territory and the Ukrainian people as a distinct nation and country. In the 1980s most Western scholars, with the exception of Conquest, Mace, and a host of Ukrainian-Diaspora, scholars have maintained that there is no evidence that the famine was genocide.

The term “famine” (golod) was first used in the Soviet Union in 1986 to describe the events in Ukraine in 1932-33 in the official work Istoriia sovetskogo krest’ianstva.12 Whether the publicity of the 1983 50th anniversary commemorations or the publications of works such as Conquest’s played a catalyst in such an admission has not been resolved, yet the soon-to-be release of the “Mace Commission’s” findings can arguably have played a part in the 1987 official admission of the Famine.

On 16 July 1987, an article in the Kyiv published newspaper Literaturna Ukraina mentioned the Famine twice.13 In October a reference to the famine as resulting in high losses appeared in Sovetskaya Rossiya by Russian-Soviet historian Viktor Danilov.14 In November an article by Russian-Soviet demographer Mark Toll’ts appeared in Ogonyok alleging that the reason the 1937 census was banned was to cover-up the Famine in Ukraine.((Tol’ts, Mark. “Skol’ko Zhe Nas Togda Bylo?” Ogonyok, no. 51 (1987), 10-11.))

Perhaps the most important date in Soviet famine historiography was when in December of 1987 Ukrainian Party leader Volodymyr Scherbytsky declared that there indeed had been a famine in Ukraine in 1932-33. Such an admission allowed Ukrainian and Russian Soviet historians to begin actively pursuing the study of the famine.

With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the declaration of an independent Ukraine in August of that year, the story of the famine has remained a controversial aspect of debate. Soviet loyalties transferred into Russian loyalties, and the issue of the famine remained divisive among Western scholars and liberals as well as within Ukraine.

Historically in Western Ukrainians are prone to be closer to Western Europe and less open to Russian influence. Western Ukrainians are also historically more nationalistic, and view Russian influence on Ukrainian culture and politics negatively. Though the famine affected more Eastern parts of Ukraine, Western Ukrainians have generally been supportive in viewing the 1932-33 famine as genocide, while Ukrainians in the East are less so. This ambiguity and ambivalence towards a traumatic period in a national history is influenced partially by old imperial-era preconceptions about national, political, and ethnic loyalties. The “pro-Russian” Ukrainians tend to see the genocide-famine argument in a Cold War context, arguing that by maintaining that the Soviets perpetrated genocide against Ukrainians is actually arguing that the Russians had committed genocide, as the concept of the Soviet Union as being inherently “Russian” is still a part of many peoples post-Soviet psyche.

In 2004 the “Orange Revolution” brought in a highly nationalistic president, Victor Yuschenko, who made entry into the EU a priority, distanced himself from Moscow, and enacted legislation which officially recognized the 1932-33 famine as genocide. Such legislation became a subject of strong debate between Western, Ukrainian, and Russian historians. Adding to the debate was Yuschenko’s attempt to pass legislation which would criminalize genocide denial, putting it into the same category as denying the Holocaust. Such legislation threatened many academics who did not support the genocide theory, and perhaps only fanned the anti-genocide debate.

The official policy of the Russian Federation towards what Medvedev called the “so-called Holodomor,” is that of denial. The Russian side maintains that the issue of genocide is a divisive tactic created to disrupt the unity between the Russian and Ukrainian people. In 2010 the new pro-Russian president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich, has stated that he does not believe the famine in Ukraine was genocide. To this day there is no consensus in academia or politics on the causes of the 1932-33 famine.

The 1932-33 famine raises many issues, among them is the timeline of the Cold War, and proves to us that there are several “cold wars” with different beginnings and different ends. For the Ukrainian Diaspora the Cold War began in 1918, as it did for the White Russians, and for almost all nations and nationalities that looked at the Soviet Union from a nationalist framework. In the 1930s the Cold War for the Ukrainian-Diaspora turned into a hot war, with what they saw as a deliberate attack on the Ukrainian nation through methods of collectivization, dekulakization, and the purges. This concept of different cold war’s allows modern scholars to study the history of Soviet nationality policy from a national perspective rather than the pluralistic “communal apartment” framework which has dominated the field.

The story of the famine’s historiography teaches us that historical consensus and politics are never separated, especially if the topic is tied to national memory, emotional overtones, and addresses issues of political and ethnic loyalties. The only consensus that most academics and politicians make is that the famine could have been prevented; its causes and consequences are a matter of heated debate.

From the moments that the famine ravaged the Ukrainian countryside the Soviets launched an aggressive campaign to quell notions of its existence, a campaign that continued well into the days of glasnost.

During the 1930s and 1940s Western governments, though fully aware about the conditions ignored the deaths of millions out of political opportunities. During the Cold War the famine became a tool of the anti-communist campaign, appropriated by the right wing, and publicized by the Ukrainian Diaspora as an evil inherent to the Soviets, the Russians, and to all communists. The fall of the Soviet Union did not resolve the many layers of controversy, and remains to this day to be a decisive issue, an issue which came to light and academic debate in context of Cold War politics, an issue that continues to test loyalties and academic frameworks.


Works Cited

  • “Ukrainian Mass Demonstration in New York.” Ukrainian Weekly, November 24, 1933. Print.
    Carynnyk, Marco, Lubomyr Y. Luciuk, Bohdan S. Kordan, and Great Britain. Foreign Office. The Foreign Office and the Famine : British Documents on Ukraine and the Great Famine of 1932-1933, Studies in East European Nationalisms. Kingston, Ont. ; Vestal, N.Y.: Limestone Press, 1988. Print.
  • Conquest, Robert. The Harvest of Sorrow : Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. Print.
  • Coplon, Jeff. “In Search of a Soviet Holocaust.” College of Humanities and Social Sciences. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 May 2010. <>.
  • Dunn, Dennis J.. Caught Between Roosevelt & Stalin: America’s Ambassadors to Moscow. Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1998. Print.
  • Economakis, Evel. “Soviet Interpretations of Collectivization.” The Slavonic and East European Review 69, no. 2 (1991). Print.
  • Mayers, David Allan. The Ambassadors and America’s Soviet Policy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.
  • Marples, David R. Heroes and Villains: Creating National History in Contemporary Ukraine. Budapest ; New York: Central European University Press, 2007. Print.
  • Oliinyk, Mykola. “Chas I My.” Literaturna Ukraina (1987). Print.
  • Skousen, W Cleon. Naked Communist. 10th, Nov. 1961 ed. New York: Ensign Publishing Company, 1961. Print.
  • Subtelny, Orest. Ukraine: A History. 4th ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009. Print.
  • Titiunyik, Hryhir. “Vichna Zahadka: Avtobiohraffia.” Literaturna Ukraina (1987). Print.
  • Tol’ts, Mark. “Skol’ko Zhe Nas Togda Bylo?” Ogonyok, no. 51 (1987). Print.



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  1. Ukrainian Mass Demonstration in New York.” Ukrainian Weekly, November 24, 1933, 1.  

  2. Carynnyk, Marco, Lubomyr Y. Luciuk, Bohdan S. Kordan, and Great Britain. Foreign Office. The Foreign Office and the Famine : British Documents on Ukraine and the Great Famine of 1932-1933, Studies in East European Nationalisms. (Kingston, Ont. ; Vestal, N.Y.: Limestone Press, 1988), 397. 

  3. Ibid. 

  4. Duranty won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his “profundity, impartiality, sound judgment and exceptional clarity” in reporting on the USSR. In 1932 Duranty reported that “there is no famine or actual starvation, nor is there likely to be. . . In 1933 he was the first correspondent to be admitted to the famine regions, and reported that ‘the use of the word famine in connection with the North Caucasus is sheer absurdity.’” Conquest, Robert. The Harvest of Sorrow : Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986: 319. 

  5. Subtelny, Orest. Ukraine: A History. 4th ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2009), 416. 

  6. Dunn, Dennis J.. Caught Between Roosevelt & Stalin: America’s Ambassadors to Moscow. Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky, 1998: 7 

  7. Mayers, David Allan. The Ambassadors and America’s Soviet Policy. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 105. 

  8. Skousen, W Cleon. Naked Communist. 10th, Nov. 1961 ed. (New York: Ensign Publishing Company, 1961, 210. 

  9. Marples, David R. Heroes and Villains: Creating National History in Contemporary Ukraine. (Budapest ; New York: Central European University Press, 2007), 64-65. 

  10. Coplon, Jeff. “In Search of a Soviet Holocaust.” College of Humanities and Social Sciences. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 May 2010. <>. 

  11. Ibid. 

  12. Economakis, Evel. “Soviet Interpretations of Collectivization.” The Slavonic and East European Review 69, no. 2 (1991), 275. 

  13. Oliinyk, Mykola. “Chas I My.” Literaturna Ukraina (1987), 5.and Titiunyik, Hryhir. “Vichna Zahadka: Avtobiohraffia.” Literaturna Ukraina (1987), 6. 

  14. Marples, David R. Heroes and Villains : Creating National History in Contemporary Ukraine. (Budapest ; New York: Central European University Press, 2007), 36.