The Great Famine-Genocide in Soviet Ukraine (Holodomor)


by Jonathan DeMersseman
April 24, 1997


The uninitiated visitor to Mammoth cave often has wonders about its size. More often than not, when voiced, this question takes the form "How much of the cave has been discovered"? Guides' responses range from gentle to belittling, but invariably they point out that all of the known area of the cave has been explored. Other passages may be searched for and chambers may be re-measured, but in the end "you don't know what you don't know."

In discussing the victims of Stalinism we face a similar problem. We can only discuss the victims of whom we know. The range of estimations made so far would significantly increase the scope of the terror which characterized Stalin's regime, if the larger estimates prove reliable. But as with caves we cannot surmise what we do not know. Ironically, Stalin ordered the arrest and execution of many of USSR's ablest statisticians because they were either too precise or misunderstood the degree to which the regime wanted to distort first grain production and then population as collectivization and terror took their toll. Besides this the Soviets lacked the Nazi propensity for historical documentation of their butchery.

Difficulties persist in extracting the truth from Stalinist exaggeration, and restricted access to the Russian archives kept serious scholarly research away from much authoritative data for over thirty years after Stalin's death.

Politically and ideologically motivated propaganda further obfuscate the issue. Traditionally, Western scholars and Soviet dissidents offered damning estimates of the numbers of victims in the ongoing purges. In contrast, approved Soviet and Western Marxist historians along with Liberals sympathetic to the regime provided much lower figures. In this struggle both sides must protect their flanks. The imperative for the traditional "cold-warrior" Sovietologists remains locating ever more convincing proof of Stalinist crimes, because they fight against the decay of evidence and the deaths of witnesses and participants. Conversely, the revisionists feel a growing compulsion to hedge their bets, as archaeologists uncover mass graves like Kuropaty.1 The questions endure: Will revisionists concede enough ground to protect any claim to legitimacy? Will historiographers continue uncovering sufficient supporting evidence for traditionalists to retain the ground they have already claimed?

In discussing Stalinism's victims we must consider a variety of interconnected facets in the regime's ongoing campaign of terror over the course of its existence. One may divide these into five broad and somewhat overlapping time periods: 1) the consolidation of power, 2) collectivization until the terror, 3) "the great terror," 4) the great patriotic war, and 5) the post-war era. We will explore each of these separately, with a discussion of how they relate to one another, and attempt to put various estimates into perspective. For simplicity's sake we will consider those who were executed and those who died in prison together, and similarly those deported will be included among those imprisoned. I do not feel compelled to justify these groupings at length, the rationale being based in the similarity of their results.

Consolidating Power

In 1928, a new phenomena in Soviet jurisprudence appeared, one that became a staple in the Russian media of the Stalinist era: the show trial.2 These trials ushered in the use of the class enemy, the "bourgeios specialist," or "wrecker." The first of these, the Shakhty case was brought against 53 workers and engineers in the Donbass coal mining region. In the early summer of 1928, government prosecutors charged these men with wrecking. Four of the men were acquitted, and another four received suspended sentences. Ten received terms of one to three years, while the majority, thirty-four, were given four to ten years. The remaining eleven received the death penalty; after six sentences were commuted, a firing squad executed the five condemned Shakhtyites in July.3 The import of these cases lies in both their development of Stalinist judicial technique and their use of novel use of torture as a means to terrorize and extract confession.4 Conquest notes another effect, a marked decrease in technical specialists following the Shakty trial.

The result was a collapse of standards. We are told, for example, by 1930 more than half the "engineers" in the soviet union had no proper training.This indicates a central tendency of Stalinism, and of Stalin's mind.He seems to have believed, or to have instinctively felt, that the professionally qualified could easily be replaced by fresh cadres of sounder political loyalties. The results were always disastrous.5

Two other trials followed Shakhty in the winter of '30-31, that of the "Industrial Party" and the "Union Bureau." Charges again focused on wrecking, and the cases served to strengthen the prejudices which the first established. All three trials-media events in which the press uncritically accepted the accusations-served the dual political role of giving the regime a locus of blame for their own failures and "increasing class hatred, partisan hatred and xenophobia."6 While the number of direct victims in each case was relatively small, history unfortunately tells us that Stalin's blood lust was still in its infancy. One point that history has revealed less clearly is the numbers of indirect deaths caused by the Soviet's crude industrialization.


Chronologically intermingled and interconnected with the assault on technicians and specialists, as early as 1927 Stalin began working to undermine NEP and the peasantry as a whole. Unlike the show trials that were paraded in the media at home an abroad, this phase of Stalin's assertion of power was conducted in relative secrecy and a complete press blackout. From 1927 to 1933, the Stalinist leadership struggled to force its will upon the peasantry while fighting off the Right, which had typically supported the rural population. The war began when government grain quotas failed to reach the expected levels; the regime began requisitioning grain, essentially revoking NEP and reinstating war communism. The peasantry, particularly those with initiative, i.e. the Kulaks, responded by decreasing production and selling their means of increased production. 7 This led to an even deeper grain crisis the following year. This crisis was mostly a perception in the mind of the leadership; Conquest notes that in 1928 grain production declined slightly while agricultural production actually rose.

Collectivization's roots begin with Stalin's belief that NEP must be ended and that to accomplish this required "the liquidation of the Kulaks as a class." By the end of 1929, nearly one million Kulak families, a vague appellation of shifting political meaning, "were deprived of their farms and property and sent into exile or forced labor." It was during this phase that Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago began to receive its massive population.

The remaining peasants were encouraged to collectivize. This too was a disaster of epic proportions. The peasantry was required to produce artificially inflated quantities of grain of which the state claimed the first and greatest share, leaving the peasants with the remainder, which in the majority of cases amounted to nothing. The state's grain quotas were brutally enforced. Theft from the state even in piddling measure was punished with death. Stalin then cut off the rural areas from the rest of Russia. The result was a calculated and artificial famine. Conquest sums up the "Leader's" view of his struggle with the peasantry, and especially the Ukrainian peasantry, as a fight to the death. He adds bitterly, "When Stalin was engaged in a fight to the death, there was always plenty of death to go round." He calculates the following casualties for the period of collectivization:

Peasant dead: 1930-37   11,000,000
Arrested in this period dying in camps later   3,500,000

  Total   14,500,000

Of these:
Dead as a result of dekulakization   6,500,000
Dead in the Kazakh catastrophe   1,000,000
Dead in the 1932-33 famine:   7,000,000

Famine in Ukraine   5,000,000
Famine in the North Caucasus   1,000,000
Famine elsewhere   1,000,000

These figures are, of course, disputed by prominent Revisionists. Though their figures are closer in this arena than others. They put the rural death toll during collectivization at approximately 9.5 million.

During the its height Nadezhda Alliluyeva, Stalin's wife, learned of the famine through classmates. They wrongly that "if only Comrade Stalin knew," something would be done. Something was-they were arrested. Shortly afterward she committed suicide. With her, scholars note, Stalin lost any love he might have retained for humanity. With her died any Nadezhda for Russia.

One other atrocity to note in this period was the assassination of Kirov, which marked the beginning of Stalin's display that he was more than willing to shed Bolshevik blood. Earlier in the decade he had declared such a desire, in the case of Riutin, whose execution was stopped by the action of the politburo. The many of intervening members of the politburo would soon find themselves in Riutin's position without anyone in a position to extricate them. After Kirov's murder, Stalin had Kamenev and Zinoviev, who had served on the Troika with him in the early to mid-1920's, arrested along with Tomsky. Tomsky committed suicide. Kamenev and Zinoviev were executed in 1936.

"The Great Terror"

Beginning in 1937 Stalinist Terror entered an error of hitherto unseen active terror against Stalin's political adversaries, both real and imagined. The centerpieces of this era which is known as "The Great Terror," "The Great Purge," or the "Yezhovshina" after the head of the NKVD, Nikolai Yezhov, were the trial of many of Stalin's former accomplices on fabricated charges. By the end of 1938 almost every important old Bolshevik had been executed: Bukharin, Rykov, and Krestinsky. The last holdout, Trotsky, was murdered in 1940.

This action toward party notables mirrored the purges directed against lesser party members. Again Conquest provides estimates of 1 million executed and 2 million dying in the camps, with 1 million and 8 million remaining in the prisons and camps, respectively, at the end of 1938. Alec Nove, citing other sources, disputes these figures, figuring the number in the gulags at the close of 1938 at 1.32 million, increasing to only 1.34 million by the end of 1939. His figures also show a drastically lower number of camp deaths, 166,000 for the period 1937-39, but report an seemingly high numbers (868,500 and 102,000) for those released and escaped. These statistics are backed up in a second article by Stephen Wheatcroft. The weakness in the Revisionist estimations is that they credulously rely on primarily Stalinist sources or sources sympathetic to the regime. Naturally, such sources will attempt to deflate to whatever degree possible, the extent of the terror.

Beginning in 1937, the military was also purged. The special attention that the NKVD paid to the military caste during the purge would greatly increase the suffering of the entire population in the coming years.

Rapoport and Alexeev report that 620 general officers of the RKKA and 31 flag officers of the Soviet Navy died in the repressions between 1935 and 1940. For the same categories others found 40 fewer divisional commanders.

Grover Furr claims to have uncovered facts that "constitute as least a prima facie case that some real military conspiracy involving Tukhachevskii may have actually existed." Even if we uncritically accept Furr's argument that the Soviet Marshal had committed treason, this still accounts for only one death out of a purge of 650 generals and admirals. Then again if we accept his evidence and apply it to the remaining staff we can affirm that almost all of them betrayed the Soviet Union-if we define betrayal as having served as an observer abroad and having complimented the host nation's army. (A crime for which we could both be shot, no doubt.) According to the numbers presented by Conquest this removed 84% of the armed forces' strategic commanders and 94% of its ranking political officers. Stalin freed some 70 general officers prior to the outbreak of hostilities, with an additional 15 receiving freedom and rehabilitation following the June 1957 plenum of the Central Committee. Sadly, those released to serve in the war, both at the tactical and the strategic level suffered from loss of self-assurance and a shattered sense of initiative, critical to the front-line officer.

While this effectively decapitated the Red Army at the strategic level, more work remained. The party and the NKVD weeded out a vast array of tactical commanders, support commanders, and political commissars. Estimates in the casualties suffered by the armed forces display the typically marked variance between revisionists and traditionalist, if not in raw numbers then certainly in representative percentages. Roger R. Reese begins with the lower figures purged for Red Army officers offered by Conquest. He then offers the most inflated figures available concerning the size of the officer corps, which he, like Nove and Wheatcroft, accepts uncritically, and arrives at a figure of no more than 9.7 percent purged.

Conquest and Rapoport/Alexeev conservatively put the loss at 27,000 and 20-25,000 respectively, allowing that it could have been much greater, upwards of 50 percent of the officer corps. As we shall see, the results of the Red Army purge only yield more Soviet blood.

The Great Patriotic War

To properly discuss the impact of Stalinism on the war, one must consider the effective loss of a large segment of the officer corps had on the armed forces. Not only did it place advanced leadership positions in the hands of junior officers reducing unit effectiveness, but it damaged the confidence of the remaining senior officers, who dared not make any move that might be considered provocative. This fact combined with an unbelievable ineptness on the part of the Stalin leadership created a disastrous victory, which cannot be blamed on a lack of manpower or material, which the Soviets had in abundance. Rapoport and Alexeev conclude their analysis comparing the cost of Stalinist victory with Nazi defeat thus:

So then 45:6 [combined], 22:3 [military], such were the ratios of losses borne by the Soviet and German people. The difference in population size between the two countries does not reduce the enormity. Germany sacrificed 8.6 percent of its population on the alter of war; we gave 23 percent, almost a quarter of the nation. That is the cost of Stalin's genius, of his policies-inalterably right for all times-the cost of destroying the Army in peacetime, of unanimous and enthusiastic approval. God, bless Russia! Spare us from such trials and such leaders!

Conquest further extends the tragedy, suggesting that many of the Soviet POWs in Germany could have survived if Stalin had met with Nazi officials in Sweden to enact the terms of the Geneva Convention. As it was approximately 2.6 million Russian soldiers died in Nazi POW camps, over 10 percent of the military losses.

In his assessment of deaths and displacement during World War II, Roy Medvedev gives fairly detailed anecdotal information concerning the actions of the NKVD against numerous people groups within the USSR. Entire populations of Karelian Finns, Siberian Koreans, Ingush, Chechen, and were deported away from their native lands on the pretext of collaboration with the enemy. Soviet Germans numbering some 400,000 were sent east in August 1941. In 1943, 100,000 Kalmyks and Karachi were likewise removed. Stalin deported 200,000 Tatars following the liberation of Crimea in 1944. Of the Chechen and Ingush population it is reckoned that over 200,000 of their 1944 population perished during transportation to Siberia and Central Asia.

This would have been a little over one-third of the 500,000 Chechens and Ingush whom the NKVD deported; one-third serves as a standard figure for deaths during and shortly following deportation. This does not take into account the forcible removal of some "one million Poles and several hundred thousand Balts to the Soviet Union." Moreover one must ask what the collateral damage was to the Soviet population, when the leadership diverted so much material and so many divisions to the capture, transportation, and supervision of these "enemy" populations.

The Post-war Era

Among the atrocities committed by Stalin after the cessation of hostilities, Roy Mevedev notes increasing repression of intellectuals and other prominent figures, growth of official anti-Semitism, and the introduction of Stalinist terror to eastern Europe.

Again strong on anecdote and weak on statistics, Medvedev, exemplifies the lesser but continuing degree with which repression continued following the war. Many prominent war figures favored by fortune, General Zhukhov among them, stepped away, voluntarily and involuntarily, from the spotlight which Stalin was unwilling to share. Similar to the period preceding the war some of Stalin's wartime politburo found themselves staring at the wrong end of a Kalishnikov.

Perhaps the most vicious aspect of post-war Stalinism lies in the introduction of his particular strain of communism to Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Albania, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany. Medvedev gives no figures for repressions in these nations, but it follows from his demands at Yalta and Potsdam that Stalin bears at least partial and indirect responsibility for the crimes committed in the name of the peoples' republics of Eastern Europe.


Other issues remain which there is no room to explore in the confines of this paper. For instance, what effect did the miscalculations of Stalinism have in the near and long-term on the life expectancies of Soviet citizens? How many collateral deaths occurred from incompetent construction, etc. due to Stalin's mistrust and subsequent dismissal of "bourgeois specialists"? At the theoretical extreme, how much potential population was lost due to Stalinism, i.e., what would the population of a comparable state with "normal" Western political processes have been, or even harder to estimate, what would the reproductive tendencies of the Soviet population have been under a more vigorous economy in which children presented less of a financial strain?

Among traditional scholars I see the greatest danger for statistical inaccuracy stemming from inadequate distinction between overlapping populations. For example, do deaths from forced labor, such as the White Sea Canal, exaggerate numbers reported as deaths from collectivization-considering that many of the canal workers were Kulaks who died in within a few months of their internment. Similarly, how many Chechen-Ingush purged were purged in the Great Terror and have sufficient safeguards been taken to exclude an overlap with the deportees of 1943-44? This weakness doubtlessly shows up in this writing both from a lack of access to the majority of primary sources but moreover the enormity of the task, to which scholars have devoted lifetimes. Double inclusion of this sort may account for a small, still significant exaggeration of the affected population. However, I doubt their errors were as gross as some of the tremendous understatements made by revisionist historians seeking to gloss over the Stalinist record.


End Notes
NEP is the English accronymn for the Novaya Ekonomicheskaya Programma or New Economic Program which was instituted in 1921 by Lenin and his politburo. It allowed a semi-capitalist system to function at the individual level.


The Kulaks, a Russian word for fist (denoting fiscal tightness), were a "class" of peasant, generally a bit better off, often owning a head or two of livestock, and hiring one or more fellow peasants as sharecroppers.


Nedezhda is the Russian word hope.


1) Conquest notes in "Academe and the Soviet Myth" that the precursor to the Revisionists, Jerry F. Hough's claims of "ten thousand or so" victims and later a "figure in the low hundreds of thousands" were totally disgraced by the discovery of the Kuropaty grave site. The National Interest. Return
2) Conquest, A Reassessment. pp. 34-35.
3) Mevedev, pp. 258-259.
4) ibid., 259.
5) Conquest, Stalin, p. 155.
6) ibid.
7) Medvedev, pp. 219-220
8) Conquest, Harvest, p. 89
9) Numerous sources quoting Stalin from Pravda Dec. 27, 1929.
10) Fainsod, p. 529.
11) Conquest, Stalin, p. 163-5.
12) Ibid., 164.
13) Conquest, Harvest, p. 306.
14) Nove, p. 267. Nove, here admits the possibility of tampering, allowing that deaths could have been as high as 11 million. Also in fairness to him, he claims a higher number of Kazakh deaths than Conquest or Medvedev.
15) Conquest, Stalin, p. 169.
16) A Reassessment. pp. 485-486.
17) Nove, p. 270.
18) Wheatcroft.
19) Rapoport, Vitaly and Yuri Alexeev. High Treason: Essays on the History of the Red Army. Ed. Vladimir G. Treml. Co-Ed. & Trans. Bruce Adams. Duke UP: Durham, 1985. p. 365-374.
20) Rapoport and Alexeev report the repression of 195 division commanders, 41 more than Conquest cites from Ogonek and 9 more than the total number of divisions that he cites. To further the confusion on p. 276 Rapoport and Alexeev list a total of 199 divisional commanders, of whom 136 were repressed with eleven being freed by 1940.
21) Furr, Grover. "New Light on Old Strories about Marshal Tukhachevskii: Some Documents Reconsidered." Russian History. 13, Nos 2-3 (Summer-Fall 1986), 293-308.
22) According to Khrushchev's Secret Speech as reported in A Reassessment, p. 451.
23) Conquest. A Reassessment. p. 450.
24) Rapoport and Alexeev, p. 375. (on p. 276 a figure of 60 is given)
25) Conquest, A Reassessment. Quoting S.T. Biryuzov. p.455.
26) Stalinist Terror. p. 9.
27) Conquest. A Reassessment. p. 450. Rapoport and Alexeev, p. 277.
28) Rapoport and Alexeev. pp. 342-6.
29) ibid., p. 359. It should be noted that their extreme figure of 45 million is based on 1959 census data may include many purge victims-the result, if they do not, compounds the devastation to a terrifying degree.
30) Conquest Stalin. p. 241
31) Royde-Smith, p. 1023.
32) Medvedev, pp. 771-2. He estimates the number of Koreans to be no less than 300,000.
33) Adelman, p. 113. Medvedev lists Soviet Germans affected as 1.5 million.
34) FCO Background brief, p. 2.
35) Adelman, p. 113.
36) Medvedev, ch. 13.
37) Medvedev, pp. 791-2.
Adelman, Jonathan R. "Soviet Secret Police." Terror and Communist Politics: The Role of the Secret Police in Communist States. Ed. Jonathan R. Adelman. Westview: Boulder, 1984.
Beck, F. and W. Godin. Russian Purge and the Extraction of Confession. Trans. Eric Mosbacher and David Porter. Viking: New York, 1951.
Brezezinski, Zbigniew K. The Permanent Purge: Politics in Soviet Totalitarianism. Harvard UP: Cambridge, 1956.
Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror. Revised ed. Pelican: Harmondsworth, UK, 1971.
Conquest, Robert. Inside Stalin's Secret Police: NKVD Politics, 1936-39. MacMillan: Hong Kong, 1985.
Conquest, Robert. The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine. Oxford UP: New York, 1986.
Conquest, Robert. The Great Terror: A Reassessment. Oxford UP: New York, 1990.
Conquest, Robert. Stalin: Breaker of Nations. Viking: New York, 1991.
Conquest, Robert. "Academe and the Soviet Myth" The National Interest.
Fainsod, Merle. How Russia is Ruled. Revised ed. Harvard UP: Cambridge, 1986.
FCO Background brief- Independence Issues in Chechnya.
Fleischhauer, Ingeborg and Benjamin Pinkus. The Soviet Germans: Past and Present. Ed. Edith Rogovin Frankel. St. Martin's: New York, 1986.
Furr, Grover. "New Light on Old Strories about Marshal Tukhachevskii: Some Documents Reconsidered." Russian History. 13, Nos 2-3 (Summer-Fall 1986), 293-308.
The Last Empire: Nationality and the Soviet Future. Ed. Robert Conquest. Hoover Institute: Stanford, 1986.
Levytsky, Boris. The Stalinist Terror in the Thirties: Documentation from the Soviet Press. Hoover Institute: Stanford, 1974.
Medvedev, Roy. Let History Judge: The Origins and Consequences of Stalinism. Revised and expanded ed. Ed./Trans. George Shriver. Columbia UP: New York, 1989.
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Rapoport, Vitaly and Yuri Alexeev. High Treason: Essays on the History of the Red Army. Ed. Vladimir G. Treml. Co-Ed. & Trans. Bruce Adams. Duke UP: Durham, 1985. p. 365-374.
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Article found on the web at:



How Many Died: A Summary of Stalin's Victims--Author's note
by Jonathan DeMersseman


This paper represents an effort to put in HTML a summation of the Stalinist period, respecting those who were killed or imprisoned under Stalin's rule from 1924-1953. In researching to write this paper I was shocked to find only two HTML references in English on the subject of the Stalinist era, the more thorough of which consisted of a series of diatribes by a Communist organization, shamelessly defending and legitimizing these unspeakable crimes against humanity. This document will serve as a ballance until more serious scholarly work is available.


At the time of writing, I am a Senior at the University of Kentucky, in my final semester in Russian and Eastern Area Studies.


I do not claim to be a Sovietologist. I am beholden to a wide range of scholars whose work I compared and analyzed. They are cited within. All citations are linked by numbers to endnotes in the document. I would particularly like to express my gratitude to Robert Conquest, who has worked tirelessly to illuminate this dark era for Western eyes. I would also like to thank Dr. Robert Pringle, visiting professor to the Patterson School for pricking my interest in Stalinism.


Because I want this work to be informative to a wide readership I have also marked items that deserve explanation to benefit those who are not familiar with the Russian language or the Stalinist period. Explanitory notes are linked as well. If there is terminology with which you are unfamiliar ask me.


I welcome critique to revise and improve what is available here, and look forward to the work of actual scholars to appear on the World Wide Web and replace my admittedly amatuer effort.


Jonathan DeMersseman,
Senior Student, University of Kentucky, 1997

Editors Note: