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1919-1923 - Famine in Ukraine

The first man-made famine in Ukraine lasted from 1921 to 1923, and took possibly 1.5 to 2 million lives. In spite of the drought in its southern provinces, Ukraine had enough grain to feed its population, provided the foodstuffs were kept in the country and not exported. But during these two years Soviet authorities removed enough agricultural produce from Ukraine to feed several times the population which died from hunger. Ukrainian grain was sent to Russia both years to feed the cities and the famished population on the Volga. (A severe famine was also ravaging southern Russia, especially the Volga region.

During the last years of the Great War, after the breakdown of the Russian front, the German troops under Field Marshall Eichhorn penetrated the Ukraine, instituted there a kind of monarchy under the Hetman Skoropadski, carried off much grain to Germany and proceded with a regular transformation of the country into a colony. After the conclusion of the armistice with the Allies in the Winter of 1918 the German troops had to leave Ukraine. During the following three years (1918-1920) the Ukraine was a theatre of incessant bloody struggles. After the collapse of the feudal reign of the Hetman, forcibly instituted by the Germans, came the rule of the Ukrainian nationalist bourgeoisie and the kulaks (rich peasants), under Petlura. This was ended by the Red troops and the Ukrainian workers. Later on the entire Ukraine was occupied by the counter-revolutionary army of Denikin, until it, too, was forced to flee. Then came the period of the "bands". Throughout the country countless "bands" roamed about, robbing, assaulting; they were composed of former officers, rich peasants and underworld elements. Calling themselves the carriers of the "Ukrainian National Movement", they fought everywhere against the Ukrainian Soviet Power, at the same time practising pillage.

After the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, Ukrainians in both empires proclaimed their independence and established national republics. In 1919 the two republics united into one Ukrainian national state. This unification, however, could not withstand the aggression of both the Red and White Russian forces and the hostile Polish forces in western Ukraine. Ukraine again was partitioned, with western Ukraine incorporated into the new Polish state and the rest of Ukraine established as the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in March 1919 [which was later incorporated into the Soviet Union when it was formed in December 1922].

Having overthrown the rule of the Hetman, the peasantry settled down, and the Ukrainian Directorium having been unable to take over the leadership of this powerful popular movement, the Bolsheviki once more appeared in the Ukraine. By this time (February, 1919) Soviet Russia was already suffering famine, and the conquests of the Soviet government amounted to all purposes to nothing more than a campaign of the starving north of Russia for the grain of the south. It was at that time the Ukrainian peasantry had the chance to learn by experience what the Commissaries and Soviet rule really meant. Again forcible requisitions were inaugurated, punitive expeditions and foraging parties appeared in the villages, and the whole Ukraine was thrown into turmoil and began to teem with numerous rebel bands of the peasantry. The Resistance of the Peasantry Makhno, Struk Tutunik, Zeleny, Angel, Sokolovsky and many other rebel leaders were destroying the railroads, seizing the towns, occupying entire districts, while the population was everywhere voluntarily complementing their dwindling ranks, feeding, concealing and in every way assisting them in their struggle for the peasantry and their rights against the uninvited authority of the strangers from the north. The Soviets had no support among the population in their rear. The peasantry on the whole joined the struggle against the new authorities, who were entirely strange to and not understood by the peasantry and regarded by the latter as robbers. Thus it required only the slight pressure of the Denikine army in order to compel the Soviet authorities to flee to the north, abandoning the Ukraine again.

The advance of the Bolshevist hosts upon Odessa during May 1919 was carried on with murder and rapine, turning the rich agricultural districts of the Ukraine into a wilderness. The rule of Bolshevism was introduced, with nationalization, confiscation and outrage. Instead of the Ukraine supplying the rest of Russia with grain, as Lenin had intended, that country was itself brought to the verge of famine.

To overcome opposition in Ukraine the bolshevist government tried to form among the poorest in the Ukraine villages "committees of the wretched." The members of these, owning neither cattle nor plough had never developed their bit of land. The Soviets entrusted to these committees the distribution of the harvest among the village people. This put a premium on idleness and resulted in the farmers refusing to cultivate the land of the former large estates. And so by the spring of 1919 only 20 per cent of the grain land was planted and this meant famine for 1920, for Ukraine was the granary of all Russia and of part of Europe.

The summer of 1920 found Ukraine occupied in turn by the Bolshevikj, Poles and Wrangel forces, while the struggle of the peasantry for their land and their liberty was going on at three fronts simultaneously. This struggle continued in Ukraine, and the Soviet authority existed only in the cities and along railway lines, to all practical purposes. Starving north Russia sent forth scores of thousands of Soviet employes and bag speculators (persons dealing in foodstuffs carried in bags on their backs) to the fertile Ukraine provinces, in quest of food, while about two hundred thousand Soviet troops were stationed in the cities, towns and hamlets of the Ukraine. Starving families from north Russia migrated to the south to escape death by starvation.

The peasantry, embittered by requisitions and other outrages of the Bolsheviki, was in ferment. The persistent and unrelenting hatred of the peasant for all authority imposed upon him without his consent had gone down to the very roots of the people's conscience. Time and again, the rebels destroyed entire sections of railway lines, going even so far as plowing up the roadbed, levelling it to the ground. This, of course, is easily understood, for it was the railroads which enabled the Bolshevist Commissaries and their punitive and requisitioning detachments to travel to the rural districts. Hence, why not destroy these railway lines, why not attempt at least for a brief time to bar the road to their native villages for those strangers who are coming to rob the property, to disturb the peace and threaten the very life of the peasant? So, for instance, a small Bolshevist detachment may be surprised on the road by the peasantry, and that is the last that will be seen of it, disappearing without a trace. Cases are on record where the Communists were buried alive by the score. A feeling of incredible savage cruelty and vindictiveness which had not been observed among the masses ever since the times of Gonta and Zhelezniak has reappeared in the Ukraine in all its former intensity.

Many were the various governments that ruled the Ukrainian peasantry during the three years from 1917 through 1920, but nothing except executions, shootings, nothing but robbery and looting of the property accumulated by the peasantry through hard and honest toil, nothing but outrageous treatment, did the peasant experience at the hands of these intruders. Not only have the peasants lost faith in the authority and justice of government, not only have they been disappointed with the slogans under which the various governments had appealed to them, but they have altogether arrived at a state where they reject all government whatever. The gulf between town and country has grown to incredible proportions, and one may frequently hear the peasants talk among themselves that "it were best to fence in the cities with barbed wire and let them all starve to death."

In the winter of 1920-1921 there was a mass uprising of Ukrainian peasants against the Soviet power, which S. Petliura had expected in spring of 1920 when he was in the offensive with the Poles against Kyiv. Possessed peasantry rose against the trade prohibition and surplus-appropriation system. Most efficient units of the Red Army, headed by V. Bliukher, H. Kotovskyi, O. Parkhomenko, were sent to struggle with the peasants' detachments. But the army itself also mainly consisted of peasants and became less and less reliable. In the spring of 1921, V. Lenin had to refuse from the surplus-appropriation system and to renew free trade. New Economic Policy (NEP) replaced the old communist one. The transition to NEP proceeded painfully and under pressure of evident realities of the economic life. The introduction of NEP in Ukraine was halted by famine. As a result of the catastrophic drought of 1921, the famine embraced the Volga region, Northern Caucasus, and the Southern provinces of Ukraine. The harvest of 1921 in most regions of the Left Bank and Right Bank was rather sufficient and its redistribution in favor of Southern provinces could prevent the famine.

But Moscow required not to stop the supply of industrial centers of Russia. Lenin was not disturbed by the state in the Volga region nor in Ukraine, but by breaks in Moscow, Petrohrad and other cities. That is why the famine in Ukraine was kept a secret. Food cargoes of the American Administration of Aid (APA), which were sent to Russia from August 1921, passed by Ukraine. Numerous commissions rendering aid to starving people worked in the country, but food supplies went to the Volga region and to refugees. In 1921-1922 about 439,000 people from the Volga region, the Urals, and Kazakhstan found refuge in Ukraine.

In 1921 the situation in certain parts of the Soviet Ukraine was as serious as in the Volga region. By early 1922 the whole of the 4 goubernias of Odessa, Nicolaev, Yekaterinioslav (Katerynoslav), and Donetz, as well as the southern parts of Krementchoug, Poltava and Kharkov, were stricken by famine. Of a total population of about 16 million in these goubernias, between four and five millions were starving, and before the new harvest the number had risen to between six and seven million. Almost the whole population of Ukrania was suffering to a certain extent from lack of food and all the conveniences of life, but millions were literally starving to death.

The Soviet Union was formed on December 30, 1922. Ukraine changed its status from independent republic to a union republic.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:34:04 ZULU