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The Holodomor famine was one of the most shocking events in modern history, claiming the lives of nearly 4 million Ukrainians. It was so brutal that the Kremlin denied its existence for over half a century. The most shocking aspect of Holodomor was that the famine was man-made. Joseph Stalin issued a directive to replace independent Ukrainian farms with state-run collectives whilst stamping out any notions of Ukrainian independence.

But how did Stalin initiate Holodomor? When did Stalin decide to commence such a heinous campaign? What long-standing effects did Holodomor have on Soviet-Ukrainian relations?

Holodomor Meaning

The meaning behind the name 'Holodomor' comes from the Ukrainian 'hunger' (holod) and 'extermination' (mor). Engineered by Joseph Stalin's Soviet government, Holodomor was a man-made famine created to purge the Ukrainian peasantry and elite. The famine decimated Ukraine between 1932 and 1933, killing approximately 3.9 million Ukrainians.

Whilst famine was rife within the Soviet Union in the early 1930s, Holodomor was a unique case. It was a methodically planned genocide engineered by Joseph Stalin to target Ukraine.


This term refers to the mass killing of people from a particular country, religion, or ethnic group.

Holodomor Timeline

Here is a timeline outlining the key events of Holodomor:

1928Joseph Stalin became the unquestioned leader of the USSR.
In October, Stalin launched his First Five-Year Plan – a list of economic goals which sought to develop industry and collectivise agriculture.
1929In December 1929, Stalin's policy of collectivisation brought Ukrainian agriculture under the control of the Soviet state. Those who opposed collectivisation (such as kulaks) were imprisoned or executed.
1930Stalin set an unrealistically high grain quota to be delivered to the Soviet Union.
1931Despite the failure of Ukraine's harvest, grain quotas were increased further.
193240% of Ukraine's harvest was taken by the Soviet state. Villages that didn't make the quotas were 'blacklisted', with their people unable to leave or receive supplies.
In August 1932, Stalin introduced 'The Law of Five Stalks of Grain'; anyone caught stealing grain from a state farm was imprisoned or executed.
In October 1932, 100,000 military personnel arrived in Ukraine, searching houses for hidden grain stores.
By November 1932, over a third of all villages were 'blacklisted'.
1932On 31 December 1932, the Soviet Union introduced an internal passport system. This meant that farmers couldn't move across borders.
1933Ukraine's borders were shut to stop people leaving in search of food.
In January, the Soviet secret police began purging cultural and intellectual leaders.
In June, Holodomor reached its peak; approximately 28,000 people died daily.

Five Year Plans

The Five-Year Plans were a series of economic goals which sought to centralise the economy of the Soviet Union.


The Soviet Union's policy of collectivisation was a policy which sought to bring agriculture under the ownership of the state.

The Law of Five Stalks of Grain

The Law of Five Stalks of Grain decreed that anyone caught taking produce from a collective field would be imprisoned or executed for taking produce that was the state's property.

Holodomor Ukraine

Let's first look at the background of Holodomor in Ukraine. After the end of the First World War, Russia underwent a tumultuous period. The country had endured a considerable death toll, lost vast amounts of territory, and suffered significant food shortages. Furthermore, in February 1917, the Russian Revolution saw the Russian monarchy overthrown and replaced by a Provisional Government.

Holodomor War of Independence StudySmarterFig. 1 - Ukrainian War of Independence

Ukraine took advantage of the events in Russia, declaring itself an independent country and setting up its own Provisional Government. The Soviet Union did not accept this, and Ukraine lost its independence after fighting the Bolsheviks for three years (1918-1921). The majority of Ukraine was assimilated into the Soviet Union, with Ukraine becoming the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1922.

Throughout the early 1920s, the leader of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin, sought to increase his support in Ukraine. He introduced two major policies:

  • New Economic Policy: Established in March 1921, the New Economic Policy allowed private enterprise and granted greater economic freedoms. This benefited independent farmers and small businesses.
  • Indigenisation: Commencing in 1923, the policy of indigenisation sought to promote national and cultural liberalisation in Ukraine; the Ukrainian language was used in government meetings, schools, and the media.

Stalin reversed Lenin's policy of indigenisation during Holodomor.

The Causes of Holodomor

After Lenin died in 1924, Joseph Stalin became head of the Communist Party; by 1929, he was the self-proclaimed dictator of the entire Soviet Union. In 1928 Stalin launched his First Five-Year Plan; one aspect of this policy was collectivisation. Collectivisation gave the Communist Party direct control over Ukrainian agriculture, forcing peasants to renounce their land, houses, and personal property to collective farms.

Collectivisation sparked outrage amongst many Ukrainians. Historians estimate that there were approximately 4,000 demonstrations against the policy.

The often-wealthy peasants who protested against collectivisation were marked 'Kulaks' by the Communist Party. The Kulaks were labelled enemies of the state by Soviet propaganda and were to be eliminated. The Kulaks were executed or deported by the Soviet secret police.

Kulak class

The Kulaks as a class were incongruous with Soviet society as they sought to make capitalist gains in a supposedly 'classless' society.

Holodomor Kulaks StudySmarterFig. 2 - The Kulaks

Holodomor Genocide

Believing that Ukraine threatened the Soviet regime, Stalin raised Ukraine's grain procurement quota by 44%. Such an unrealistic target meant that the majority of the Ukrainian peasantry couldn't eat. Accompanying this quota was the 'Five Stalks of Grain' policy in August 1932; this policy meant that anyone caught taking food from a collective farm could be executed or imprisoned.

As the famine in Ukraine worsened, many people left their homes and tried to flee Ukraine in search of food. As a result, Stalin sealed the borders of Ukraine in January 1933. Stalin then introduced internal passports, which meant farmers could not travel outside their region without permission from the Kremlin.

Holodomor Starvation StudySmarterFig. 3 - Starvation during Holodomor, 1933

The unrealistic grain quotas meant that farms could not produce the necessary amount of grain. This led to a third of villages being 'blacklisted'.

Blacklisted Villages

If a village was blacklisted, it became surrounded by the military and its citizens were stopped from leaving or receiving supplies.

By June 1933, approximately 28,000 Ukrainians were dying per day. Ukrainians ate anything they could, including grass, cats, and dogs. Mass lawlessness engulfed Ukraine, with many instances of looting, lynchings, and even cannibalism.

Holodomor Starved Peasants StudySmarterFig. 4 - Starved peasants on a street in Kharkiv, 1933

Many foreign countries offered aid to the Soviet Union to alleviate the famine. However, Moscow unequivocally rejected all offers and even opted to export Ukrainian foodstuffs abroad rather than feed the people of Ukraine. At the height of Holodomor, the Soviet Union were extracting over 4 million tonnes of grain per year – enough to feed 10 million people for one year.

Despite the Soviets denying its very existence until 1983, since 2006, 16 countries have officially recognised Holodomor as a genocide.

The Political Purge

During Holodomor, the Soviet secret police targeted the Ukrainian intellectual and cultural elite. In essence, Stalin used the famine to cover his campaign to purge figures he saw as a threat to his leadership. Lenin's indigenisation policy was halted, and anyone linked with Ukraine's independence movement in 1917 was executed or imprisoned.

Holodomor Consequences

The Holodomor genocide ended in 1933; the event decimated the Ukrainian population, destroyed Ukraine's identity, and killed off any notion of Ukrainian independence. Here are some of the main results of Holodomor.

Holodomor Death Toll

Whilst no one can precisely calculate the Holodomor death toll, experts estimate that 3.9 million Ukrainians died during Holodomor – approximately 13% of Ukraine's population.

Holodomor Soviet Rule

When Holodomor ended in 1933, Stalin's policy of collectivisation was complete and Ukrainian agriculture was under the control of the Soviet state.

Ukraine's dependence on the Soviet Union after Holodomor

Holodomor prompted a change in mentality in Ukraine, which saw Ukrainian farmers become dependent and subservient to the Soviet Union. It's well-documented that farmers – terrified by the threat of Stalin's wrath and hunger – worked harder than ever, often performing their duties voluntarily in almost serf-like conditions to ensure famine would not strike again.

Holodomor Enduring Damage

For those who survived Holodomor, more trauma was just around the corner. In the following decade, Ukraine would experience The Great Purge (1937-1938), The Second World War, the Nazi occupation of Ukraine, the Holocaust, and the famine of 1946-1947.

Holodomor Ukrainian Identity

Whilst Holodomor was happening, Stalin reversed Lenin's policy of indigenisation and sought to Russify Ukraine. Stalin's Russification policy sought to strengthen Russia's influence over Ukrainian politics, society, and language. This had a long-standing effect on Ukraine; even today – some three decades after Ukraine gained independence – nearly one in eight Ukrainians view Russian as their first language, with television shows translated into Ukrainian and Russian.

Holodomor Demographics

In August 1933, over 100,000 farmers from Belarus and Russia were sent to Ukraine. This changed the population and demographic of Ukraine immensely.

Holodomor Collective Memory

Until 1991 – when Ukraine won its independence – all mentions of famine were banned from accounts in the Soviet Union; Holodomor was banned from public discourse.

Holodomor Legacy

Holodomor, the Holocaust, Stalin's Great Purge – European history between 1930 and 1945 is defined by horror, heinousness, and guilt. Such state-sponsored acts of criminality invoke national trauma and live long in the national consciousness.

In the case of Ukraine, the Soviet Union prevented the nation from grieving. For five decades, the Soviet Union refused Holodomor's existence, doctoring official documents and banning discourse about the famine. Such overt dishonesty only exacerbated national trauma and has gone some way in defining the relationship between Russia and Ukraine.

Holodomor – Key takeaways

  • Holodomor was a man-made famine engineered by Joseph Stalin's Soviet government.
  • The famine decimated Ukraine between 1932 and 1933, killing approximately 3.9 million Ukrainians.
  • During Holodomor, the Soviet secret police targeted the Ukrainian intellectual and cultural elite.
  • Holodomor ended in 1933; the event decimated Ukraine's population, destroyed Ukraine's identity, and killed off any notion of Ukrainian independence.

Frequently Asked Questions about Holodomor

Holodomor was the man-made famine of Ukraine engineered by Joseph Stalin's Soviet government between 1932 and 1933.

Holodomor was caused by Joseph Stalin's policy of collectivisation and his desire to stamp out notions of Ukrainian independence.

It is estimated that 3.9 million people died during Holodomor.

Holodomor ended when Stalin's policy of collectivisation was complete.

Holodomor took place between 1932 and 1933.

Final Holodomor Quiz


What was Holodomor?

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A man-made famine created by the Soviet Union to purge the Ukrainian peasantry and elite.

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When did Holodomor take place?

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Between 1932 and 1933.

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Approximately how many people died during Holodomor?

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3.9 million

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Who was leader of the Soviet Union during Holodomor?

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Joseph Stalin

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When did Ukraine become the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic?

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What was Lenin's policy of indigenisation?

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An effort to promote national and cultural liberalisation in Ukraine.

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What was Collectivisation?

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An economic policy of the Soviet Union which gave the Communist Party direct control over Ukrainian agriculture.

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Which group of farmers protested against collectivisation?

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The Kulaks

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What happened to 'blacklisted villages'?

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Blacklisted villages were surrounded by the military and citizens were stopped from leaving or receiving supplies.

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In June 1933, approximately how many Ukrainians were dying per day?

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