Great Famine Strikes the Soviet Union Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In the Soviet Union, forced collectivization and the seizure of foodstuffs by the central government resulted in the deaths of millions of peasants. Huge numbers of people were either murdered outright or died as a result of horrific conditions in state-run camps, although Joseph Stalin’s government attempted to hide its crimes from the world.

Summary of Event

In October of 1928, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin rolled out the First Five-Year Plan First Five-Year Plan (Soviet Union)[First Five Year Plan] for the Soviet Union’s economic transformation. The plan promised to ensure the comprehensive development of industry throughout the Soviet Union and included a plan to modernize Soviet agriculture, which remained largely unchanged from its days under the czars: Most peasants still lived in small villages and followed traditional methods of agriculture. [kw]Great Famine Strikes the Soviet Union (Dec., 1932-Spring, 1934) [kw]Famine Strikes the Soviet Union, Great (Dec., 1932-Spring, 1934) [kw]Soviet Union, Great Famine Strikes the (Dec., 1932-Spring, 1934) Agriculture;famines Disasters;famines Famines;Soviet Union Terror Famine Soviet Union;Terror Famine [g]Soviet Union;Dec., 1932-Spring, 1934: Great Famine Strikes the Soviet Union[08170] [c]Agriculture;Dec., 1932-Spring, 1934: Great Famine Strikes the Soviet Union[08170] [c]Disasters;Dec., 1932-Spring, 1934: Great Famine Strikes the Soviet Union[08170] [c]Government and politics;Dec., 1932-Spring, 1934: Great Famine Strikes the Soviet Union[08170] [c]Human rights;Dec., 1932-Spring, 1934: Great Famine Strikes the Soviet Union[08170] Stalin, Joseph [p]Stalin, Joseph;Terror Famine Khrushchev, Nikita S. Morozov, Pavlik

The Five-Year Plan was supposed to transform Soviet peasants into an agricultural proletariat. Although some would become direct employees of state-owned farms, the rural equivalent of factories, the majority were expected to join cooperative enterprises known as collective farms, in which they would pool their tools and labor and share in the proceeds. These new farms would be provided with modern farm machinery that would help bring Soviet agricultural productivity in line with that of industrialized Western nations.

In theory, the transition was supposed to be voluntary, and a great deal of publicity was devoted to the first few peasants who joined. However, only the poorest of peasants stood to gain anything under the new arrangement, and so most simply ignored the call to collectivize. Many resisted the government’s attempts to compel their participation.

Stalin’s response to attempts at resistance was brutal and coercive. The prosperous peasants, often known as kulaks (the Russian word for “fist”), were condemned as enemies of the people. Another group, known as subkulaks, was theoretically composed of peasants too prosperous to be grouped among the very poor and not prosperous enough to be kulaks, although in reality this group included anyone who objected to collectivization. Kulaks and subkulaks were arrested in huge numbers and sent to prison camps in obscure regions of Siberia, where many began building their own camps immediately after disembarking from the deportation trains. Thousands died of exposure within days of their arrival: Prisoners often wore nothing but the clothes they had on at the time of their arrest in the far warmer lands of Ukraine and the northern Caucasus.

Many of the peasants who were not arrested were accused of hoarding food. Arbitrary production quotas from the central planning agencies were enforced by the secret police, whose members operated under the assumption that peasants had plenty of food and that they were simply hiding it from the government. Agents regularly broke into peasant huts and barns to take whatever they found, and in response desperate peasants sought food wherever they could, often picking fallen grain from the fields. Stalin reacted by promulgating even harsher laws. A person could be shot for “stealing” as little as five heads of wheat. The mere possession of grain, even if it was being stored for the next year’s planting, was considered evidence of hoarding, and the accused were often executed without even the pretense of a trial.

Children were encouraged to inform on their parents for hoarding grain or for otherwise resisting collectivization. The most famous case was that of Pavlik Morozov, a fourteen-year-old member of the Young Pioneers (the state-sanctioned youth organization) who turned in his father—who had been the head of the village soviet in Gerasimovka—and was subsequently murdered by a group of villagers led by his uncle. The Soviet government quickly made Morozov a martyr and erected a shrine to him in the house where his father’s trial had been held. Stalin’s background as a former seminarian was perversely expressed in the development of the cults centered on Morozov and others like him, including Kolya Myagotin, Kolya Yakovlev, Kychan Dzhalkylov, and Promya Kolibin. At least one mother who lost her son in the collectivization and resulting famine said that she would rather see her child killed than have him twisted into the type of person who would betray family to the government.

Whole families perished during the artificial scarcity: Some collapsed from exhaustion while in search of food, while others died quietly in their huts. Starving peasants who searched for food in the towns and cities were turned away, and some became so maddened by hunger that they filled their bellies with anything remotely edible, including tree bark and grass. Others were so desperate that they turned to preying on their fellow human beings, eating what little flesh remained on the bones of those who had already starved or murdering people outright. Nikita S. Khrushchev’s memoirs grimly recounted the author’s memory of finding a peasant woman ranting that she had already eaten her daughter and was now salting her son’s flesh.

In March of 1930, Stalin issued a proclamation called “Dizzy with Success,” a tactical retreat in which he criticized the “excesses” of collectivization, but this meager action did little to slow famine’s rising tide, and the disruption of agriculture and widespread starvation continued for several years. Furthermore, Stalin refused to seek international aid and determinedly concealed the famine’s extent. Western democracies were largely unaware of the massive numbers of deaths; Stalin did not want to give the world powers reason to doubt the First Five-Year Plan. In order to prevent the unauthorized flow of information, Stalin established strict controls on travel, and any contact between Soviet and foreign citizens was automatically suspect.


Forced collectivization and the resulting famine dealt huge blows to Soviet agriculture. Agricultural productivity plummeted just as the Soviet Union was most in need of food to fuel the industrialization imposed by the First Five-Year Plan. Production would not return to precollectivization levels until 1940, just before the Nazi invasion inflicted further destruction on the Soviet Union’s principal agricultural regions. The problems at the root of the Soviet systems of collective farming and central planning prevented the country’s agricultural advancement and made it permanently incapable of feeding its citizens. Even Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1980’s-era program of perestroika (restructuring) proved incapable of remedying the situation. Furthermore, Stalinist policies discouraged farmers’ attempts to take any initiative, and this legacy continued to plague Russian farmers after the Soviet Union’s fall.

The famine’s human cost was enormous but could not be acknowledged under Stalin’s inflexible policies. Noted Soviet writer Boris Pasternak suggested that the 1936-1937 Great Terror, in which thousands of Soviets suspected of opposing Stalin were killed, was the direct result of collectivization’s failure: Because the catastrophe of collectivization could not be acknowledged, Soviet citizens were taught to ignore the evidence of their own experience and believe what they were told. This absurd situation spawned show trials Show trials, Soviet Union in which the Bolshevik Revolution’s founding fathers confessed to outlandish accusations that they had spied for foreign governments and had conspired to destroy the government that in reality they had risked everything to create. Agriculture;famines Disasters;famines Famines;Soviet Union Terror Famine Soviet Union;Terror Famine

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Belov, Fedor. The History of a Soviet Collective Farm. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1955. A study of the experiences of a single collective farm through the 1930’s and beyond.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Conquest, Robert. The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986. A comprehensive history of the period by the noted expert on the subsequent Great Terror.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Khrushchev, Nikita S. Khrushchev Remembers. Boston: Little, Brown, 1970. A revealing primary source, although it must be read with some skepticism given Khrushchev’s complicity in many of the crimes he describes and his desire to minimize his own culpability.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewin, M. Russian Peasants and Soviet Power: A Study of Collectivization. New York: W. W. Norton, 1968. An in-depth scholarly study of collectivization.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rayfield, Donald. Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him. New York: Random House, 2004. Carefully researched study of the relationship between Stalin and his chief henchmen. Describes Stalin’s ability to manipulate those around him.

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