A vivid account exposes the myths of the catastrophic Ukrainian famine of 1932-3

The terrible famine of 1932-3 hit all the major Soviet grain-growing regions, but Ukraine worst of all. It was not the result of adverse climatic conditions but a product of government policies. This is, in fact, the case with many famines, as Amartya Sen pointed out in his classic study, Poverty and Famines (1981), though the deaths generally occur because of administrative mismanagement and incompetence rather than an intention to murder millions of peasants. The Soviet example is unusual in that Stalin is often accused of having exactly that intention.

The famine followed agricultural collectivisation at the end of the 1920s, a formally voluntary process that was in fact coercive in its implementation. Along with forced-pace industrialisation, it was part of a package of breakthrough modernisation policies launched by Stalin in the first phase of his leadership. Industrial growth needed to be financed by grain exports, which collectivisation was supposed to facilitate through compulsory state procurements and non-negotiable prices. The problem was how to get the grain out of the countryside. The state did not know how much grain the peasants actually had, but suspected (correctly) that much was being hidden. An intense tussle between the state’s agents and peasants over grain deliveries ensued.

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