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Collective Famine on the Brink of Genocide, the Atrocity of Joseph Stalin

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Genocide Case Study: Holodomor

In June of 1933, a doctor residing in Ukraine wrote in a letter how she had not resorted to cannibalism yet but was not “sure that [she] shall not be one by the time [her] letter reaches you”. In the course of a year between 1932 and 1933, approximately 8 million lives were lost in a man-made famine, contemporarily known as the Holodomor, or what translates to “Death by Hunger”, by Soviet leader at the time, Joseph Stalin. His ambitions of instigating collectivization and unrealistic requisition quotas caused great agricultural shortage that was insufficient to feed the Ukrainian peasantry. Based on the 2nd Article of the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide1 (1948), Genocide is any act of killing, causing serious bodily or mental harm, inflicting living conditions negatively, preventing births and forcibly transferring children in whole or in part of a certain group with intent. The Holodomor constitutes as genocide according to the U.N. definition as Stalin’s agricultural policy inflicted living conditions that lead to deaths of Ukrainian peasantry, was done with Stalin’s intent of breaking Ukrainian spirit and advocated his aims of liquidation of “kulaks”, a social group of Ukrainian peasantry who resisted collectivization.

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The political decisions made by Joseph Stalin when he rose to power resulted in deterioration of living conditions of Ukrainian peasantry that eventually lead to mass starvation to death, which is parallel to the third act classified as genocide according to the United Nations. In 1928, the Soviet government confiscated over 25 million private farms and merged them together to form kolkhozes or collective farms to push the agricultural policy of collectivization. Collectivization was first introduced in the USSR to reinforce Stalin’s Five Year Plans that demanded unrealistic requisition quotas to assist in amplifying industrial advancements as agreed on in 1925 by the XIV Congress of the Communist Party. It was the socialist agricultural policy that aims to consolidate independent farms and laborers to form collective state-owned farms thus reducing economic capability of farmers. Due to the fact that these requisition quotas were set at an unachievable standard, less and less crops belonged to the people instead of the socialist state. As a result, people began rapidly dying of hunger and even resorting to extreme measures of survival including theft of socialist property and even cannibalism. In an excerpt of Timothy Snyder’s 2010 publication Bloodlands, he wrote, “The good people died first.” Referring to those who remained within humanity and refused to eat corpses, kill one another and steal. In the course of one short year, an estimated amount of up to 8 million famine-tied deaths occurred, making the Holodomor or Terror-Famine home to the greatest number of deaths relative to its time frame in massacre history.

Above that, what makes the Holodomor embody genocide is the intent tied to it. The great famine was the outcome of intentionally shrinking access to fundamental resources by deprivation of agricultural development. Some scholars believe that the famine was in fact not intentional, but simply collateral damage of industrial development. However, evidenced in the government’s lack of concern and efforts of reparation of the famine states otherwise. By the third quarter of 1932, crops did not satisfy the requisition quotas and led to grain shortage and furthermore mass surge of famine. Instead of making changes to their agricultural policy to alleviate the situation, the government began confiscating grain and other food resources solely in rural areas of Ukraine and Kuban. This reinforces the idea that the Bolsheviks intentionally targeted the ethnic Ukrainians as a subordinate group at the time, as 62% of Kuban population was made up of ethnic Ukrainians and at least 10% of the entire Ukrainian population was lost with up to 4.8 million Ukrainian deaths. This would make sense as in the 1920s, Ukraine went through a phase of national consciousness and sovereign interest. As a result, the Bolsheviks, with their imperialist nature, felt threatened and compelled to break the spirit of Ukrainian peasantry. Seeing that the Soviet Union was in favor of industrial development, Stalin took this as an opportunity to subliminally eliminate any threats against his communist party.

Besides utilizing the man-made famine, Joseph Stalin also openly killed members of the Ukrainian social group he defined as “kulaks” in attempts of eliminating risks of resistance, which is parallel to the first act classified as genocide according to the United Nations. When collectivization was first inaugurated, the private farm owners resisted this new policy in fear of loosing economic capability and flexibility. The peasantry would kill livestock and destroy crops as a form of protest against the new policy. However among them were a group of relatively ‘wealthier’ peasants in a sense that they owned more livestock and would often hire other peasants to assist them. Stalin recognized this social group as the “kulaks”. There was a program instigated by Stalin and the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs or the NKVD called “Dekulakization”, which was another word for the liquidation of kulaks by subjecting them to capital punishment or deporting them to labor camps in remote areas of Russia. However, some scholars believe that there was no definite social class that was parallel to what Stalin considered “kulaks”. Furthermore, even the government did not have any suitable trials that proved or disproved of an individual being a part of the kulaks; so much as an accusation could get people killed. To gain the support of ‘poorer’ peasants, Stalin was quick to scapegoat the kulaks saying that they exploited poorer peasantry for personal economic gain and thus being the source of failure in achieving a “classless society”. His attempts were not in vain as this made the peasants turn against one another in hopes of eliminating a rival.

In brief, it can be deducted that the Holodomor does in fact constitute as a genocide according to the U.N.’s definition of genocide as it negatively imposed living conditions of Ukrainian peasants that eventually lead to their deaths by famine, was done with intent to eliminate Ukrainians as a minority and lead to the liquidation of a social group of Ukrainians called the “kulaks”. This demographic calamity also exemplifies how power shapes intergroup relationships and can result to approaches as intolerant as genocide. In this case the power being in the hands of a socialist dictator who turned to totalitarian ruling measures such as genocide to ensure his position of authority.

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