Famines in Soviet Ukraine: What We Still Need to Know

IWMPost Article

Writing about the Soviet famines in Ukraine and their legacies exposes the hierarchies and interconnections of human survival, environment, and materiality as the value of natural resources, animals, and material items grew exponentially during these extreme periods. As millions of people were dying of starvation and illnesses, so were their animals. Wild animals were caught by people en masse. At the same time, material valuables were lost as a result of being exchanged for food and confiscated.

The history of the famines in the Soviet Union, not least the history of the Holodomor of 1932–1933 in Ukraine, has been extensively studied. Yet, academic and public discussions are predominantly centred around their political contexts. While heated debates are bringing new developments into our understanding of their nature, there are many potential areas of knowledge about the most recent of Ukraine’s and Eastern Europe’s famines still to bring to light. If geographical, demographic, and economic aspects of the Soviet famines are well-studied, the material and environmental dimensions of these extreme periods of survival remain almost omitted, as if people were living outside of any places and spaces or were disconnected from everything except the state and power relations.

When trying to understand the history of famines and each individual story of survival, it is important to know what relations people had with the material objects, spaces, and nature surrounding them. When listening to the interviews of Holodomor survivors or reading the reports of the state authorities and eyewitness accounts of the famines of 1921–1923 and 1946–1947, one notices recurring stories about the “disappearance” of cattle and horses, cats and dogs, birds, and grass from yards or streets. Similarly, the documentation of state security authorities and photographic images capture numerous human corpses and carcasses of horses along roads. Trying to make sense of these catastrophes either not immediately seen by the state or “orchestrated” by it, one is immediately plunged into these calamitous images and asks several questions. What resources did people have to survive? What knowledge about the surrounding material and environmental landscapes did they need to possess? How did human survival practices and famines overall impact the nature and spaces—non-human animals, objects, landscapes—that people were part of? How does this knowledge help us to understand the famines?

In looking for answers, the first step is to uncover the interconnections and interdependencies of humans and non-humans. This seems obvious but the ties between people, animals, objects, and spaces become closer and more intertwined in times of extremes. Although in Ukraine’s history the early Soviet period, and the first half of the twentieth century more broadly, is widely considered an era of industrial and social modernization, food shortages and famines were recurrent events. The famines that occured regularly in pre-industrial times were largely caused by environmental factors and social inequalities; in the cases of Soviet Ukraine and Kazakhstan they occurred and were intensified due to deliberate state policies and (in)actions. 

Being the instruments of Soviet collectivization, excessive grain and fodder requisitions left cattle and household animals without sufficient food. As millions of people starved and died, so did their animals. In addition, dekulakization and confiscations left peasant population without their tools of work and valuables. To survive, people tried to save their cows and to live on milk, caught street dogs, hunted wild animals, or sold and exchanged their remaining valuable items. Under these circumstances, animals did not just suffer from hunger, they continued to be physically exploited as labor force or slaughtered (looking at the fate of cattle), or caught en masse due to lack of conventional food in the case of wild animals. 

During the years of Soviet famines, the variety of animals consumed by people expanded dramatically with less common inhabitants of wild nature becoming a source of vital food. While eating fish or boar was common among the people of the Ukrainian steppes and forest-steppe zones, other wild animals—such as groundhogs, gophers, mice, and hedgehogs—entered their diet only in times of dearth as they were forced to extend their cultural and ethical boundaries. As the years of famines coexisted with significant changes in the Soviet economy and agriculture, the impact of new agricultural technologies was colossal. One of the most consequential policies was the pest eradication campaign, which aimed to exterminate gophers from agricultural areas. As these wild animals were traditionally considered as pests, their presence in rural landscapes was not seen in a good light. These changes coincided with the years of hunger, when, together with other wild animals, gophers became one source of human survival.

The Soviet famines also uncovered the multilayered interconnections of human agency and material objects as the value of the latter grew exponentially during these extreme periods of human survival. According to the recollections of the famines’ survivors, the longevity of their lives depended on various household items, such as spoons, wedding rings, earrings, and coins, that became a lifeline for significant number of starving families. Those who survived the famines felt not only trauma but also a loss for their scarce material belongings. Although communist ideology in the early Soviet period had critical views on materiality, it is crucial to consider the changing practices towards the usage of things under the extreme circumstances of famine. Rare, singular valuables were lost as starving families had to give them away in exchange for food. During the famine of 1932–1933, the TORGSYNs shops, which were initially created for foreign customers, almost legally confiscated all remaining valuable possessions that families might have preserved for decades. The stories of lost personal items became the repositories of individual famine experiences.

During a famine as a time of extreme survival, the agency of humans, animals, and material objects is intertwined. As their relations are not horizontal, the agency of animals and materiality had to submit to the purposes of human survival. Causing the death of millions of people, the Soviet state policies impacted the livelihoods of animals and human-material relations. These larger effects of famines spread out beyond the human experience. As all animals, plants, and material objects belonged to the same environment as people, they became either the nonspeaking witnesses of the extremes of human starvation, deprivation, and death, or famine victims themselves. Although Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine has different dynamics than those of Soviet famines, the environment and materiality again serve as witnesses of violence, destruction, and loss.

Seeing these interconnections and interdependencies of human and animal experiences during times of extremes, we need to think of the history of famine as an interspecies catastrophe. To get a nuanced understanding of the Soviet famines in Ukraine and the effects of state’s policies for people and other members of surrounding environments, we have to remember everyone and everything that fell victim to such violences or survived despite them.

Iryna Skubii is a historian, a PhD candidate at Queen’s University, an editor of H-Ukraine, and a visiting fellow at the German Historical Institute in Warsaw. In the summer of 2022, she was a visiting fellow at the IWM.