Russia’s devastating war in Ukraine is not the first time that disputes between the two sides have led to a humanitarian crisis.
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Nearly a century ago, the Soviet Great Famine of 1932–33 caused the death of up to 10 million people, and those deaths were borne disproportionately by Ukrainians, whose mortality rates were around 6 times higher than Russian mortality rates. The cause of the famine and the resulting Ukrainian deaths has been the subject of heated debate among European policymakers and historians.
In Ukraine, the famine is called “Holodomor,” which means an artificial hunger that was organized on a vast scale by a criminal regime against a country’s population. Indeed, Ukrainians and popular historians have long claimed that the famine was an intentional genocide meant to destroy the Ukrainian people. At the same time, some historians have pointed out that Ukrainians may have simply been unlucky because they lived in the agricultural regions that experienced a harvest shortfall due to factors like bad weather.
To explore the issue, Nancy Qian, a professor of managerial economics and decision sciences, and her colleagues Andrei Markevich of the New Economic School in Moscow and Natalya Naumenko of George Mason University constructed a huge dataset of Soviet-era agricultural records, population data, and secret police reports. These data were not available to the public until the fall of the Soviet Union, and they then spent decades buried in library archives. The researchers paired these records with state-of-the art geographical and climate data.
Prior to the study, Qian thought that the outsized effect of the famine on Ukrainians may be a case of a misunderstanding that data could resolve. After all, Ukrainians lived in different places that experienced different conditions and historical policies, and had different age and gender compositions than other groups. Once these differences were accounted for, she thought, Ukrainian famine mortality rates may become more similar to the mortality rates of other ethnic groups.
Instead, she and her colleagues were stunned to eliminate each possible explanation that had been offered to refute bias against Ukrainians in the famine.
The data showed that even if one accounted for all the differences in climate, geography, and demography, and all the of the differences in Czarist and early Soviet policies for the one hundred fifty years leading up to the famine, Ukrainians died at much higher rates during the famine.
To understand whether this bias was intentional or accidental, the authors collected data from the First Five Year Plan, which was designed in 1928 by the central planners of the Soviet Union’s command economy. This plan clearly states how much grain each region was expected to produce, and how much grain the central government planned to procure and take away, which allowed the researchers to understand how much grain central planners meant the local population to keep and eat. These targets show that for two regions that were meant to produce the same amount of grain, the more ethnic Ukrainians there were, the less grain per person the region would keep.
“To us, that was amazing,” Qian says. “They planned to take more grain per person from Ukrainians than Russians. In the beginning, we could not believe it, but that is what the data show.”
The data ultimately revealed that intentional bias against ethnic Ukrainians explained up to 77 percent of famine deaths in the Soviet states of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. And when they looked just at Ukraine, that number shot up to 92 percent.
“It’s clear that high ethnic-Ukrainian famine mortality was the result of policy.”
— Nancy Qian
The results are shocking, Qian says, all the more so because Ukrainians and Soviet leaders had lived in relative peace before this, and the Soviets did not have any specific anti-Ukrainian policies.
But several political, geographic, and economic factors came together in the early 1930s, leading to repression, to starvation, and ultimately to generations of distrust, even before today’s war began.
“It was about Soviet control over agriculture,” Qian says. “Ukrainians in areas that did not produce agriculture were not targeted. It shows us that there does not need to be a tumultuous history between groups for repression to happen. It can happen out of the blue for new economic reasons.”
Mining Soviet Data for Answers
Observations and letters written at the time detail Ukrainians starving in the streets. The researchers hoped to discover just how the Soviet regime created such a famine, and how much was due to bias against Ukrainians.
Because the Soviet regime was so controlling, it kept meticulous records on everything from grain production to mortality data to peasant uprisings.
For seven years, Qian’s coauthors, Naumenko, who was a Ph.D. student at Northwestern at the time, and Markevich, spent their days in basement libraries in Moscow, paging through these records and coding them into the largest dataset ever complied of economic, political, historical, geographic, and climatic factors from the years 1922 to 1940. They even found secret police reports about peasant resistance to the regime to better understand the political ramifications of Soviet policies.
The team then began by cross-referencing the data with economic policies that were instituted during that period.
One of the most consequential of these policies was collectivization, in which the Soviet regime organized peasants into large collective farms controlled by the government. The government then procured grain directly from these farms and distributed it to the urban industrial population while, in theory, leaving enough for the peasants.
This collectivization began in 1929 and was unpopular among Ukrainians. Up until this point, Ukrainians had been allowed to live relatively autonomously, with their own culture, language, and schools. When new policy began, Ukrainians resisted more than other ethnic groups by slaughtering livestock, setting fire to buildings, and killing local officials, according to secret police reports. Those reports also show that 2 million peasants were persecuted and exiled to Siberia. But those who remained also faced a grim fate.
In 1931, grain production fell in Ukraine, but it was still enough to feed all of Ukraine. And the production in the rest of the Soviet Union was enough to feed the people there. In other words, if Moscow had procured less from Ukraine, everyone would have and enough food. But that’s not what happened. The Ukrainians were left with too little food and around one-fifth of them died.
Bias Crossed Administrative Borders
While much of the controversy around the famine has focused on Ukraine, the researchers wanted to look at data for the 6 million ethnic Ukrainians who lived elsewhere. They found that while mortality rates decreased when crossing the border from Ukraine to Russia, that decline disappeared when they controlled for the ethnic-Ukrainian population share of each district in rural areas.
“Administrative boundaries did not matter—ethnic boundaries did,” Qian says. “We were stunned at how perfectly that result lined up. That means the regime was systematically targeting ethnic Ukrainians everywhere.”
Interestingly, Ukrainians in urban areas did not experience higher mortality. That indicates that the government was targeting rural Ukrainian villages because of their agricultural importance and history of particularly high resistance to the regime, Qian says.
The researchers examined other phenomena that could have led to the famine, including weather and cultural norms, but none could explain the additional deaths among Ukrainians. A famine in the region in the late 1800s, for example, did not kill more Ukrainians than other ethnic groups.
“It’s clear that high ethnic-Ukrainian famine mortality was the result of policy,” Qian says.
Replacing People with Machines
The Soviet regime had briefly tried to gain control over agriculture before, in the early 1920s. But peasants resisted, and agricultural production decreased by so much that the economy was near collapse. The regime gave in.
But this time around, Qian says the data suggest that the regime “came in with guns blazing.” The government was more secure in its power, she says, and could afford to lose millions of people in order to gain control of agriculture.
And, indeed, production in the regions most hard hit by famine only briefly suffered.
“The regime replaced dead people with machines,” she says. “The famine turned out to be a temporary economic hit, which they could afford because they were industrializing. And once they got control, they had it for the next 70 years.”
The regime also brought in ethnic Russians to replace the lost Ukrainian labor. The data show that in these regions, the total Ukrainian population dropped sharply at the time of the famine and stayed low for decades. But the total population of ethnic Russians increased and stayed higher for decades.
Before the famine, Ukrainians were the largest ethnic group in agriculturally productive areas. After the famine, Russians were the largest ethnic group.
Understanding the Ramifications of Ethnic Bias
The famine has led to generations of grievances. Studies have shown that how Ukrainians feel about Russia today is highly correlated with how severe the famine was in their region for their great-grandparents.
And Qian says the current war between Russia and Ukraine has echoes of similar needs for control.
“To me, there’s a striking similarity to the early Soviet era,” she says. “They want control over everything to promote some vision of the glory of an empire centered in Russia, and they are willing to pay extraordinary human costs to get what they want.”
Emily Ayshford is a freelance writer in Chicago.
Markevich, Andrei, Natalya Naumenko, and Nancy Qian. 2021. “The Political–Economic Causes of the Soviet Great Famine, 1932–33.” Working paper.
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