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The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture, 1931-1933

Author(s):Wheatcroft, R. W. Davies and Stephen G.
Reviewer(s):Tauger, Mark B.

Published by EH.NET (November 2004)

R. W. Davies and Stephen G. Wheatcroft, The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture, 1931-1933. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. xvii + 555 pp. $90 (cloth), ISBN: 0-333-31107-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Mark B. Tauger, Department of History, West Virginia University.

Popular media and most historians for decades have described the great famine that struck most of the USSR in the early 1930s as “man-made,” very often even a “genocide” that Stalin perpetrated intentionally against Ukrainians and sometimes other national groups to destroy them as nations. The most famous exposition of this view is the book Harvest of Sorrow, now almost two decades old, by the prolific (and problematic) historian Robert Conquest, but this perspective can be found in History Channel documentaries on Stalin, many textbooks of Soviet history, Western and even World Civilization, and many writings on Stalinism, on the history of famines, and on genocide.

This perspective, however, is wrong. The famine that took place was not limited to Ukraine or even to rural areas of the USSR, it was not fundamentally or exclusively man-made, and it was far from the intention of Stalin and others in the Soviet leadership to create such as disaster. A small but growing literature relying on new archival documents and a critical approach to other sources has shown the flaws in the “genocide” or “intentionalist” interpretation of the famine and has developed an alternative interpretation. The book under review, The Years of Hunger, by Robert Davies and Stephen Wheatcroft, is the latest and largest of these revisionist interpretations. It presents more evidence than any previous study documenting the intentions of Soviet leaders and the character of the agrarian and agricultural crises of these years.

This book is the fifth and latest in the series on Soviet history that Edward Carr began in the 1950s (and that ultimately ran to 17 volumes) and that Robert Davies (who collaborated with Carr in the later volumes of his series) continued in the 1980s. Like those studies, its format is chronological and narrative, but unlike most of the previous volumes this one relies very extensively on new archival and published archival sources. In the present volume, Davies and Wheatcroft pick up in the middle of the story that Davies began in volumes one and two (The Socialist Offensive: The Collectivization of Soviet Agriculture, 1929-1930 and The Soviet Collective Farm, 1929-1930), with chapters on the second campaigns of collectivization and dekulakization in 1930-1931. These campaigns were linked: the main means of collectivization was dekulakization, the removal from villages of allegedly “well-off” exploiting peasants and others who opposed too openly the program of collectivization, and officials considered dekulakization necessary to enable collective farms to work. These campaigns involved much less violence than the first such campaigns in early 1930, but also were more “successful”: more than 60 percent of peasant families were in collective farms by late summer 1931, a plateau not surpassed for three years.

The authors then narrate the cycle of agricultural policies and performance: sowing and harvest plans and actual work in 1931, the campaign to procure grain and other crops from the villages after the harvest, and the same cycles in 1932 and 1933. They describe how officials repeatedly projected unrealistically optimistic plans for plowing, crop sowing, and harvests, and how agricultural and peasant realities frustrated these plans to varying degrees, and how officials responded to these realities, in particular years. In 1931 the leadership projected the largest increase in sowings up to that time, and this plan was mostly fulfilled, but a severe drought in spring and summer reduced or destroyed much of the potential harvest, reflected in steadily declining estimates of the harvest on the part of government statistical personnel and increasing reports of starving villagers. Nonetheless, the regime projected high procurements and attempted to impose them, with the result that more regions of the country were left without food, causing millions of peasants, especially from Ukraine and Kazakhstan, to flee their homes seeking food and work. Similar conditions caused massive labor turnover in factories during this period, which Davies discusses in the preceding volume in the series (Crisis and Progress in the Soviet Economy). Meanwhile the government (exercising the foreign trade monopoly it had instituted in the early 1920s) exported some four million tons of grain to pay for massive imports of machinery, including tractors.

Agricultural planning and work in 1932 took place under much worse conditions than in 1931, with significant shortages and starvation in many regions. The authors narrate the high-level disputes and decision-making that led to emergency distributions of seed and food to shortage areas, the May laws of 1932 that legalized private trade (after three years of uncertain status), and in general a relaxation of policies. Farmers did not fulfill the sowing plans, however, and the harvest decreased even relative to that of 1931 by a complex mix of natural disasters and mismanagement. While official projections of the harvest dropped substantially, however, Soviet leaders refused to believe that another catastrophe like 1931 had occurred, and pressed forward with only a moderately reduced procurement plan. Implementing this plan, however, brought a tremendous struggle between regime and peasants, simultaneous with a disastrous decline in food supplies for the towns, and widespread theft and attempted theft at all stages of distribution. In response, Stalin wrote a law issued on 7 August that imposed death penalties or 10-year exile for theft of “socialist property.” The authors provide valuable detail about the alteration of harshness and moderation at different levels and in different periods in enforcement of this decree.

By the beginning of 1933, the procurement plan had not been fulfilled, and authorities at all levels received continuous reports documenting a massive famine, widespread deaths from starvation, and desperate demands from officials at all levels for food allotments from diminishing reserves. Peasants and workers around the country fled their homes seeking food and survival, and the authorities issued several additional laws attempting to prevent this movement, including the reestablishment of an internal passport system, harsh penalties for workers who left their jobs without authorization, and apprehension and return to their homes of peasants from the southern grain regions, most severely struck by famine. It was in this context of great economic crisis that the regime again undertook to plan and guide farm work. This time they lowered their targets, provided extensive albeit insufficient relief in food, seed, and forage, and dispatched more than 20,000 industrial workers, all Communist Party members, to eliminate opposition in the collective farms and mobilized them for the year’s work. The result, however, despite the horrible conditions, was a very successful harvest in 1933 that ended the famine in most regions.

The book then goes on to present capsule narratives of specific aspects of agricultural production and particular sectors. So production of crops besides grain, including potatoes, sugar beets, and fiber crops generally followed the same pattern as grain, and thus were directly or indirectly affected by the famine. Livestock breeding underwent a “disaster” because of losses from the process of collectivization, from crop failures that reduced forage, from mismanagement in the farms, from high procurements, and finally from the famine itself, as peasants slaughtered animals (ignoring laws prohibiting it) to survive. The worst region of the livestock crisis was Kazakhstan, where Soviet collectivization policies aimed initially to settle in villages the majority nomadic population (a policy similar to that employed in some colonial countries and in some developing countries since independence). In the face of a searing famine in the region and the flight (to China) or death of more than one-third of the population, the regime in 1933 relaxed its policies, but the effects of the famine were not overcome for years.

The authors also examine the two main socialist sectors. The state farms (sovkhozy), which were large, ideally mechanized specialized farms that held more than 10 percent of the sown area, had tremendous difficulties in these years after limited success in 1929-1930. In 1931-1932 these farms suffered catastrophic declines in production, from causes that included natural disaster, mismanagement, and shortages of equipment and supplies because of the overall Soviet economic crisis of the time. From 1933 on, the sovkhozy began a recovery, facilitated by the government’s transfer of land from these farms to land-short collectives. On the collective farms (kolkhozy) the authors examine in some detail labor organization and remuneration, which were difficult managerial problems to solve in these almost unprecedented institutions. The regime in these years moved from a network of varied farms following diverse policies to a system in which the main organizational structures and remuneration procedures were prescribed from central government agencies with the intent of insuring the proper mix of incentives and obligations.

The final chapter examines the 1931-1933 famine in comparison to the two most noted recent famines in Russian history, those of 1891 and 1918-1922. The authors describe how these earlier famines resulted from natural disaster and (in 1918-21) the difficulties the Bolshevik government had in moving food from villages to towns through requisitions. They then analyze the 1931-1933 crisis in three categories: the urban food crisis of 1928-1933; the famine in Kazakhstan; and the rural famine of 1932-1933. They discuss different estimates of mortality, questioning the highest estimates but acknowledging the uncertainties in the population data. They estimate that mortality from the famine was in the range of four to six million deaths.

This chapter concludes with their explanation of the causes of the famine. They argue on the basis of the available data on food production and mortality that this was a famine caused by shortage, or “food availability decline” [FAD], in which “entitlements” or distribution factors played a contributory role (p. 417, using the terms employed by Amartya Sen). They emphasize, however, that the crisis of which the famine was the culmination began with the economic disruption caused by the massive investments of the first five-year plan and the simultaneous food supply difficulties of 1927-1929, the so-called “grain crisis.” By means of the first five-year plan and collectivization, Soviet leaders intended clearly to increase food production, but two years of natural disasters and agricultural disruption lowered harvests drastically and forced the government to ration food in insufficient quantities to all but the limited groups whom the authorities considered absolutely necessary to supply.

The authors attribute the small harvests in the crisis years to four factors. The intense sowing plans that demanded increased areas under crops disrupted the crop rotations left from the 1920s and thereby brought soil exhaustion. Draft forces declined, despite the import, production, and provision to agriculture of increasing numbers of tractors, because lack of forage (from both procurements and crop failures) and collectivization (which facilitated the spread of epizootics) brought massive deaths of horses. This draft situation in turn, combined with disaffection of the peasants, brought a decline in cultivation quality. Finally, exceptionally bad weather caused serious declines in output independently of all the other factors.

They conclude the main text with a brief summary of their discussion of the Soviet government’s confused and ambivalent responses to the famine. The authorities overestimated harvests and tried to impose high procurement quotas, but they also reduced those quotas when difficulties developed, and returned procured grain to villages for food and seed; they decided in the face of crisis to feed the cities as well as possible, but they also made significant efforts to support agricultural recovery, though this failed for millions of people. In response to intentionalist arguments (citing Conquest), they conclude that Soviet leaders, even if their actions contributed to the famine crisis, found it unexpected and extremely undesirable. They connect the famine crisis in larger terms to the Russian past, to the earlier agrarian crises, but most of all to the decision to industrialize at “breakneck speed” (p. 441). The book concludes with an appendix on grain harvest data, and 49 tables on farm production, food distribution, population, and certain other topics.

With its extensive use and intensive examination of archival and published sources on high-level policy discussion and decisions in this crisis, including the formerly secret records of the Politburo (the special files or osobie papki) and the now published correspondence of Stalin with some of his top lieutenants like Kaganovich and Molotov, this study decisively refutes intentionalist explanations of the 1931-1933 famine. None of these sources contain any evidence indicating that Stalin or his officials intended or wanted to create a genocidal famine to suppress Ukrainian nationalism or any other such objective. The decisions that these officials made, such as the impositions and then reductions of procurement quotas, or the lowering of rations for certain sectors of the population, represented short term, desperate, and often mistaken responses to the developing emergencies of these years, and not components of an overarching destructive intent. Even the underlying fact of the overly rapid industrialization program and the disruptions it caused reflected not destructive but constructive aims, even if the implementation of these plans by ill-educated fanatics in various state agencies had disastrous consequences. This study, therefore, documents that great Soviet famine of 1931-1933 was a complex economic event first of all, rooted in environmental conditions as well as in Soviet policies.

Given this, however, and given the enormous amount of work that went into this study, like all of Davies’ previous work, nonetheless the authors make a number of important problematic assertions and leave certain crucial issues unresolved. I will focus on two of these.

First, the authors assert at the end of their chapter on the collective farms (p. 397) that because the kolkhozy transferred a large part of their produce to the state, these farms represented a throwback to serfdom, with the state as the serf owner. This point actually does not support the connection they make between the kolkhoz system and serfdom, in particular because they also document the fact, which has been clear from other sources as well, that ordinarily peasants received a significant share of their food supplies from the crops they grew on the collective farms’ fields, in addition to the crops they grew on their “private plots.” Under serfdom, the peasants received only the food they grew on their own lands; what they produced on the demesne lands went to the pomeshchiki (the Russian noble landlord), with the exception of famines when pomeshchiki by Russian law were expected to share some of the reserves with the peasants. One of the main points of this book (and of previous studies) is that the procurements took most or all of kolkhoz grain reserves in 1931 and 1932 because of the crop failures of those years, and did not represent the usual pattern: in all other years farms had substantial portions of their crops left over after procurements for their own use, as in 1933. It makes more sense economically and institutionally to interpret the high procurement quotas as combining elements of taxation and rent rather than exclusively as atavisms.

Furthermore, in the same section the authors show that the farms had significant incomes from their sales of crops and other products, even at the low state purchase prices as well as on the free market legalized in 1932, which they used to pay the peasant-members for their work, and to purchase new equipment and supplies, albeit in very limited amounts in 1931-1932. Under serfdom, peasants were not paid for their produce on demesne. Even given the situation in these crisis years, the kolkhozy were not recreated serf villages, but can be better understood as semi-autonomous production units highly subsidized by the government. The authors also document the significant movement of peasants from the farms by “otkhod,” labor migration, a process that was one of the objectives of collectivization and that the regime encouraged and relied on for industrial labor. The government did attempt to control this movement by means of the internal passport system, but that system was not imposed until 1933, in response to the famine crisis, and as earlier research has shown, the passport system restrained peasant movement, both temporary and permanent, from villages to towns very little.

Further, serfdom in early modern Russia was part of a whole complex of controls over the population that had the goal of limiting not only the geographical but also the economic and social mobility of almost the entire population, rural and urban, as for example in the elaborate regulations of the 1649 law code. The Soviet system of the 1930s, by contrast, was oriented toward social mobility, promoting and educating workers and peasants to responsible posts. For example, no Russian peasant ever came close to becoming a Russian emperor before 1917, but under the Soviet regime four men of peasant origin came to rule that country: Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, and Gorbachev. Many other former peasants and workers moved up to high positions; while some tragically ended up victims of the great Communist witch hunts of the 1930s to the 1950s, most did not, and held positions that they would never have attained under the servile system. Even those who stayed in the farms in many cases attained technical knowledge and skills (despite the influence of Lysenko) and used it to bring about a significant increase in farm production in the 1950s to 1970s. To describe the kolkhoz as a revival of serfdom as Davies and Wheatcroft do here is a substantial distortion of historical fact.

Second, the book still does not satisfactorily explain why the famine took place when it did and especially why it ended. The authors’ chapters on agriculture and procurements in 1933, which was of course the crucial agricultural year because this was when the famine basically ended, are substantially shorter than those on 1931 and 1932 and have a certain “rushed” quality. Davies and Wheatcroft identify several objective factors to which they attribute the declines in food production in 1931-1933 that in great part caused the famine. Most of those factors that they identify for 1932, however, still prevailed or were even worse in 1933. The decline in livestock numbers and draft forces, for example, continued into 1933 and possibly 1934 (depending on how one calculates the value of a tractor); the disorder in crop rotation was not overcome even by the reduced sowing plans of 1933, or for some years thereafter. Most important, famine conditions were much worse. The authors cite a few sources claiming that peasants somehow knew in 1933 that they had to work hard (p. 238), but they also acknowledge in another context that at least some peasants worked hard in 1932 as well (p. 418). In any case, all evidence about peasants’ resistance is anecdotal and can be shown not to be representative of their views and actions generally (see my article “Soviet Peasants and Collectivization: Resistance and Adaptation”). Without any doubt, however, working conditions for peasants in 1933, because of the more severe famine conditions, were much worse in 1933 than in 1932.

Given these inconsistencies, there remains one factor in explaining the cause of the small harvest of 1932 that can account for the improved harvest in 1933, and that is the complex of environmental factors in 1932. As I documented in a recent publication, the USSR experienced an unusual environmental disaster in 1932: extremely wet and humid weather that gave rise to severe plant disease infestations, especially rust. Ukraine had double or triple the normal rainfall in 1932. Both the weather conditions and the rust spread from Eastern Europe, as plant pathologists at the time documented. Soviet plant pathologists in particular estimated that rust and other fungal diseases reduced the potential harvest in 1932 by almost nine million tons, which is the largest documented harvest loss from any single cause in Soviet history (Natural Disaster and Human Action, p. 19). One Soviet source did estimate higher rust losses in 1933 than 1932 for two provinces in the Central Blackearth Region, which is a small region of the country (approximately 5 percent of the total sown area). Davies and Wheatcroft cite this and imply that it applied to the rest of the country (p. 131-132 fn. 137), but that source does not document larger losses from rust in 1933 anywhere else. Further, the exceptional weather and agricultural conditions of 1932 did not generally recur in 1933. Consequently I would still argue, against Davies and Wheatcroft, that the weather and infestations of 1932 were the most important causes of the small harvest in 1932 and the larger one in 1933. I would also like to point out for the record here that the criticism they make (p. 444-445) of my harvest data is invalid and represents an unjustified statistical manipulation of what are in fact the only genuine harvest data for 1932 (see “The 1932 Harvest”).

And this leads to my main complaint about their work. It is true that this volume represents considerable work on their part. But it is also true that several other scholars, including the present reviewer, reached the same or similar conclusions that they reached, using some of the same sources and arguments that they did, years before them, and Davies and Wheatcroft were familiar with this earlier work. In my publications I also cited several other publications of other scholars and observers that reached or suggested similar conclusions. Yet they do not acknowledge anywhere in this book that their conclusions agree with those of earlier work. When they cite such earlier work, they almost always criticize it on some small point but never acknowledge that work’s contribution to the argument they are making. The fact that they reached conclusions similar to other sources does not absolve them of the responsibility of acknowledging their agreement with previous scholarship.

In making this complaint, however, I do not seek to minimize the enormous contribution that this study makes. The Years of Hunger represents a major step toward a more complete and unbiased understanding of this catastrophic event in Soviet and world history. While it adds conclusive evidence to refute intentionalist interpretations of the famine, however, it still leaves us with fundamental uncertainties about why the famine happened and why it ended when and in the way it did.


Robert Conquest, The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine, Oxford University Press 1986.

R. W. Davies, The Industrialization of Soviet Russia: v. 1: The Socialist Offensive: The Collectivization of Soviet Agriculture, 1929-1930, Harvard University Press 1980. v. 2: The Soviet Collective Farm, 1929-1930, Harvard University Press, 1980. v. 3: The Soviet Economy in Turmoil, 1929-1930, Macmillan 1989 (revised edition 1998). v. 4: Crisis and Progress in the Soviet Economy, Macmillan 1996.

Mark Tauger, “Soviet Peasants and Collectivization: Resistance and Adaptation,” Journal of Peasant Studies 31 no. 3-4, April-July 2004.

Mark Tauger, “Natural Disaster and Human Action in the Soviet Famine of 1931-1933,” Carl Beck Papers in Russian and East European Studies, no. 1506, 2001.

Mark Tauger, “The 1932 Harvest and the Famine of 1933,” Slavic Review 50 no. 1, Spring 1990.

Mark Tauger has published several articles and short monographs on the 1931-1933 famine and other famines in Soviet history, Soviet agriculture, and recently on Amartya Sen’s theories and the Bengal famine of 1943 (Journal of Peasant Studies 31 no. 1, October 2003)

Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII