Yesterday, on the badhistory subreddit, a post entitled “Stalin paid the clouds not to rain!” – On Holodomor Denial sprang up to intervene in the Reddit Left-o-sphere’s analysis of the Soviet Famine of 1932-1933. The author, not to be outdone, decides to engage in some of their own bad history. In this text, the author attempts to disprove two claims:
- “There was a famine in Ukraine and other areas of the USSR, but it was the result of weather, and not man-made.
- The claim it was orchestrated deliberately was invented by the Nazis and popularized by them to justify a war with the USSR. This claim has been extended to including the concept of the Holodomor as a tenet of fascism.”
Unfortunately, the author fails to “debunk these claims”, as they intend, but rather display a broad (and probably willful) ignorance of the facts surrounding the Soviet Famine of 1932-1933. The following is an analysis of the author’s treatment of the first claim as well as a clarification of the circumstances of the Holodomor and the wider famine.
“… while it’s agreed that the Holodomor is a democide, it’s heavily debated that it was a genocide. Most scholars have adopted the position that it was not a genocide if genocide is defined at attempting to exterminate an ethnic group. While Ukrainians suffered disproportionately, Kazakhs and south Russians suffered as well, and there is little evidence that it was intended as “punishment” for Ukraine.”
“Democide” is a highly ambiguous term and not generally used in scholarly writing about the Holodomor. I’m not entirely sure where the author got this term (it’s been popularized more recently be some anti-communists in the United States), however, I’m not going to nitpick too much on that. For an interesting article that discusses and frames the Holodomor, check out Stanislav Kul’chits’kii’s article here (in Ukrainian).
The author says that “[m]ost scholars have adopted the position that it was not a genocide…” Actually, many of the scholars that the author cites here (Snyder, Davies, Service, Kiernan) argue that the Holodomor was, in fact, a genocide and a human-engineered famine. Considering the author’s Reddit Flair as “Trostkyist | CWI”, which indicates the ideological skew, it’s no surprise that all of the sources cited are either rabid anti-communists (like Kotkin and Snyder) or Trotskyists (like Cliff). Keeping this in mind, it’s important to note that the author clearly constructs the narrative of a genocide and then refrains from using that term. In typical Trotskyist fashion, the author wishes to have their cake and eat it too.
“Most scholars have adopted the view that it was a deliberate over-requisitioning of grain to export to fund industrialization, and attempts to circumvent the resultant food shortage in Ukraine led to harsher measures by Stalin which did aim to punish. The second debate is over the number of casualties. Many people try to cite that it was over 10 million killed, partly in order to deflect their own culpability in the holocaust and/or try to portray the USSR as worse. The consensus is around 4 million killed.”
I assume the number “around 4 million” is drawn from the number claimed by the Appellate Court in Kiev in 2010 – which is 3,941,000 deaths due to the famine and an additional 6,122,000 in birth deficit. It’s not clear why the author decides to call this a “consensus”, because it certainly is not. However, it is the number present on the Wikipedia page, where, it seems, the author derives the bulk of their argument.
I’d also like to point out here that 100% of the cited sources are in English, indicating that the author didn’t go through the Russian, Ukrainian, or Polish historiography on the Holodomor (where there are equally lively and challenging debates.) Even this BBC article (although in Russian) shows that historians are still arguing about the death tolls of the famine, because reliable data just doesn’t exist.
“In regards to claim one, the only scholar who seriously holds this position is Mark Tauger. Who has been dismissed as completely wrong by every other scholar in the field. Put simply, there is no real evidence for the effect of weather on the harvest. While there were dry periods in 1932, it was nothing that abnormal. This is pretty evident from the fact that no where else in Eastern Europe was there a significant food shortage, despite them sharing the exact same climate. Areas of depopulation of 15-20% run right up to the Polish border at that time and then mysteriously stop. In fact, not even Tauger argues that rain was the cause – because Tauger argues that the famine was the result of plant diseases. Of course this falls prey to the same problem as the drought hypothesis, namely, why does the famine stop at the Polish border?”
First, Tauger is not the only scholar who seriously holds this position. J. Arch Getty very famously took Robert Conquest to task in the pages of The London Review of Books in 1987 for claiming that the Holodomor was an intentional famine. Stephan Merl (article in German) also criticizes the dominant narrative of the Holodomor. As does Sheila Fitzpatrick, which makes it especially interesting that the author included her book on the Russian Revolution in the sources – a book, that, I might add, has nothing to do with the Holodomor. There’s also this thorough article by Viktor Kondrashin (in Russian).
Second, Tauger very clearly argues that it was a combination of drought and agricultural pests. Not a single scholar denies that weather had some effect on the harvests in the relevant years (with the exception of Robert Conquest). Even Wheatcroft and Davies (cited by the author) demonstrate that grain yield in 1931 and 1932 was significantly lower than previous and subsequent years. It’s surprising to me that the author does not even properly cite the English-language sources, which are obviously the only sources they are able to read. Perhaps it is a case of deliberately ignoring the facts or perhaps it is a case of simply being ignorant of them.
Third, the author apparently doesn’t understand how food production and distribution works. First of all, the Soviet Union was reliant upon one area (modern-day eastern Ukraine and the Kuban region of Russia) as the major grain-supplier for the entire country, referred to as the “Breadbasket” of the USSR. The author also says that all of Eastern Europe “shar[e] the exact same climate”, which is demonstrably false, as is evidenced by the presence of the Carpathian Mountains in modern-day Northwest Ukraine. Second of all, however, although the scale of the famine was substantially larger in the Soviet Union, crop yields decreased all over Eastern Europe (not just magically ending at the Polish border at the time, which, it should be noted, goes through modern-day Ukraine). This is why people were dying of starvation all over the Soviet Union (not just in Ukraine). After all, the Holodomor is just a piece of the greater Soviet Famine of 1932-1933.
“In any case, even assuming that there was a natural component, their explanation still doesn’t prevent Stalin from being responsible. Since around 1800, there has been a high enough rate of agricultural production worldwide that any famine since then has effectively been man-made, even assuming an agricultural component.”
Every famine has been effectively human-engineered since 1800? According to whom?
The author zig-zags between saying that the Soviet Famine was used as a measure by Stalin to punish any recalcitrant peasants and at the same time denying that it was a genocide. I will say it unequivocally, if Soviet government intentionally caused the famine of 1932-1933, then it was a genocide. However, none of the evidence leads to that unproblematic conclusion.
The lack of sources, except just the sloppy copy and paste job at the end shows the amateurish pseudo-scholarship by the author. First of all, the author includes sources that do not comment on the Soviet Famine or the Holodomor at all. Second of all, the author fails to include any sources that disagree with the argument put forth. Predictably, the author also omits sources that complicate the narrative.
The glaring omission from the text is the fact that there isn’t a single shred of evidence that the famine was human-engineered. Not a memo, a letter, or a decree from anyone within the Soviet government calling for the initiation or continuation of a famine in the Soviet Union (or in Soviet Ukraine). How is it that for all the archives that have been scoured and for all the official documents people have found from the Stalinist era, no one has been able to find anything that indicates an intentional extermination of the Ukrainian people?
Ultimately, the author creates an easy, uncomplicated history where Stalin, the evil dictator, wanted to starve out the peasant population. This isn’t convincing. Anyone who has studied the circumstances surrounding the Holodomor must at least take pause when such claims are made based entirely on English-language literature. The use of Famine Politics in order to establish a lazy anti-Stalin paradigm helps no one in reaching a realistic conclusion based on facts and evidence. A thoughtful approach to the subject may not lead one to say that Stalin “paid the clouds not to rain”, but it certainly doesn’t lead to the author’s conclusion either.