Skip to Main Content

Genocide and the Holocaust (October 2023): Stalin and the Holodomor

By Claudene Sproles

Stalin and the Holodomor

Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin cemented the Soviet Union as a world military and industrial power through his brutal totalitarianism and thirty-year reign of terror. Rather than targeting outside groups, Stalin subjected Soviet citizens to deportation, torture, massacres, vicious interrogations, and famine through his brutal policies, in large part because of his extreme paranoia. In his book Stalin’s Genocides, Norman Naimark argues that Stalin oversaw several genocidal actions, such as the destruction of the peasant class; the starvation of Ukraine; state violence directed against specific nationalities, including Poles, Koreans, Chechens, and Kazakhs; and the frequent purges of military and government officials.

The most well-known genocidal event of the Stalin era was the Holodomor, the Ukrainian famine of 1932–33. Stalin stripped the Kulaks, or land-owning peasants, of all their property and turned all available farmland into large collective, state-owned farms. The Kulaks themselves were often deported or executed, and those few remaining were forced to work on the large collectives. The ensuing, widespread famine directly resulted from Stalin’s war against peasant farmers and unrealistic production quotas and policies deliberately designed to starve the Ukrainian populace. Estimates contend that approximately three to five million people died during the famine.7

For a complete summary of the Holodomor, including primary documents, legal opinions, and eyewitness accounts, readers are advised to consult the The Holodomor Reader, edited by Bohdan Klid and Alexander J. Motyl and published by the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies. Additionally, Anne Applebaum’s thorough investigation of the Holodomor, Red Famine, recounts Stalin’s brutal crackdown on the kulaks, whom he deemed enemies of the state, and the circumstances that created widespread famine.

Lesser known than the Holodomor is the famine in Kazakhstan from 1930 to 1933, also a result of Stalin’s genocidal policies. Approximately 1.5 million Kazakhs perished from confiscation of resources and collectivization, similar to events in Ukraine. Sarah I. Cameron describes the Kazakh famine in her book The Hungry Steppe.

Stalin’s brutality and indiscriminate killing were not limited to the countryside or ethnic minorities. His paranoia and suspicion also led to several Communist Party purges, affecting even high-ranking officials, close friends, ex-Kulaks, priests, industrial workers, and military leadership. In the 1930s, the Great Terror (also known as the Great Purge) employed mass surveillance and the secret police to gather supposed enemies of the Soviet state. Victims were either executed or sent to Siberian labor camps. James Harris explores these purges and their effects on the Soviets’ military preparedness for World War II in The Great Fear.

7. Norman Naimark, Stalin’s Genocides, Princeton, 2010, p. 131.

Works Cited