See all the ICE Cases
Deploy the ICE Search and Sort Tool (SST)
Go To ICE Expert Site

ICE Case Studies
ICE Case Number 312
by Jim Lee

The Ukrainian Famines

I. Case Background
II. Environment Aspect
III. Conflict Aspect
IV. Env. - Conflict Overlap
V. Related Information


1. Abstract

Ukraine is called the breakbasket of Europe. The rich, loamy soil there is a like peat moss, similar to the American Midwest, where built up over thousands of years. Yet, at three times under the Soviet Union, Ukraine witnessed massive starvations periods. The first event was the famine of 1921 in Russia was a man-made disaster. After shortages and war during World War I and the later Russian Civil War, food shortages emerged. Over the next couple of years millions of Russian peasants died of starvation. Second, his pattern was repeated in 1932-33, when 7-10 million died during famines that were again largely the result of policy and not drought. Finally, in 1946-47 Ukraine was again subjected to export of grain in the midst of starving people. In each case, the richest agricultural region of the country fell into severe starvation in order to export their crops to earn hard currency. Food was used as a political weapon in addition adding a source of income.

2. Description

Prior to World War I there were simmering tensions in Russia as an impoverished population became more desparate. Farming was limited to small rental plots and population growth had made farming on marginal lands a necessity. The Tasar's power was eroding and unrest was rising, when World War I broke out. Late in War World I, Germany was successful in prosecuting the war and the Russian army was in shambles and retreata. Amidst the chaos, the Tsarist government was overthrown with large-scale defections of troops. The Tsarist government fell in 1917 and Russia was controlled a Bolshevik faction. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was signed on March 3, 1918 between Russia and the Central powers (Austria-Hungary, Germany, and Turkey).

Consolidation of power by the Russian Bolsheviks came under immediate threat by food shortages. Most of the regime's supporters were in large urban centers, but there had been a breakdown in the system. A crippled transportation system was unable to get supples from rural to urban areas. The Russian government took food surpluses, especially of the prosperous rural households or kulaks. The requisitioned food supplies for cities and controlled grain production. After many years of war, the War Communism policy (prodrazvyorstka) created a new class of subsistence farmers from more productive agricultural holdings.

A drought in 1921 sent the situation over the edge and the grain transfers led to starvation throughout the lower Volga River region. Add to the structural problem, was the impact of first the World War, and second, the Russian Revolution. Besides immediate deaths, these conflicts disrupted lives and economies that were marginal to start with. Also known as the Povolzhe Famine.

The Holomodor of 1932-33 was the result of the above policies, but add to that forced collectivization, and a desire to suppress Ukrainian nationalism. Ukraine's population dropped by 5-10 percent within this short period. This was the most intense drought Ukraine faced. It was neither just after the the calamities of World War I and II, but during the height of the economic worldwide depression. War was not related to the famines but to politics.

Stalin after all had to consolidate control in Ukraine, the second largest of the Soviet states after Russia. This was not a famine of neglect but of purpose. This policy was not solely applied to Ukraine, but largely so. Ukrainians (and others) were further forbidden to migrate awy from the conflict areas.

The collapse of morals and decency was perhaps the greatest tragedy. The sight of dead bodies was commonplace and people would eat anything, including each other. The Communist party banned to publication of census data fro Ukraine in fear of the destruction it would reveal.

Death Rates During the Holomodor

By Sergento [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The 1946-47 famine has been explained as war weariness and the number in the Soviet armed forces and not one the farm. However, the war ended in May 1945 so there should have been a pick-up in farm production by 1947. Perhaps the more likely reason is that Stalin did not quickly return soldiers to the economic sector but left them in East Europe to consolidate power.

Russia Famine Map

3. Duration:


4. Location

Continent: Europe
Region: East Europe
Country: Russia

The area of greatest impact in 1921 was the lower Volga River Basin. This was in fact the first of three great famines to hit Ukraine under the Soviet Leadership. Many of the victims were Ukrainians, but there were also German, Jews, and ethnic Russians who died as well.

5. Actors: Russia and Ukraine


6. Type of Environmental Problem: Resource

As the population weakened with malnutrition they became more susceptible to disease. Soon cholera and typhus had broken out. The disease outbreak made the situation far worse.

7. Type of Habitat: Temperate

There was also a severe drought in 1921 that pushed the sitation over the edge. All the sides in the Russian Revolution requisitioned food supplies from the local population. There were charges that richer landowners (kulaks) were hoarding supplies while ordinary peasants gave them up, though not willingly.

8. Act and Harm Sites: Russia and Ukraine

Russia had few options other than food exports to earn hard currency. As a result, grain confiscations in the Volga Basin went beyond just seizing surplus supplies. The famine could have been averted with a small amount of the food exports remaining at home. This was a policy also meant to starve.


9. Type of Conflict: Civil

10. Level of Conflict: High

There were high amounts of both direct military deaths from the Russian Civil War as well as indirect ones.

11. Fatality Level of Dispute (military and civilian fatalities): Around 10 Million

Patenaude puts the death toll at for 1921-22 at 2 million, but other estimates range from 1-5 million. Instances of cannibalism were widely reported. Between 7-10 million died in the 1932 famine by one source. Anne Applebaum put the death total at 4 million for 1932-33. A few hundred thousand died in 1946-47 in the aftermath of World War II.

The 1921–1922 famine in Tatarstan was a also an outcome of the War Communism policy. It especially targeted ethnic Germans and Tatars in the lower Volga River region. It was period of mass starvation and drought that also took place in the Tatar ASSR as a result of war communism policy. It also caused famines in the Kazakh region.


12. Environment-Conflict Link and Dynamics: Indirect

While the impact was indirect, the intent was direct. Agricultural products were confiscated from local communities to sell overseas.

13. Level of Strategic Interest: Nation

in terms of relief, the famine had international consequences. Many countries donated food, notably the United States. Maxim Gorky was allowed by Stalin to appeal for aid in light of the famine. Herbert Hoover was then Secretary of Commerce under Warren Harding. Ultimately, American food made its way to the Volga region. Hoover shared no love for the Bolsheviks but was eventually swayed by appeals of child starvation. Western countries refused to lend money to the Soviets, leaving only exports as a means of exchange.

14. Outcome of Dispute: Loss

In 1922, the Russian government began seizing church property and using the the funds to pay for famine relief. Richard Pipes argued that the famine offered the Bolsheviks the opportunity to confiscate church property.

Anne Applebaum sees a stark parallel between what is happening today in Ukraine and the three famines that were brought upon Ukraine. Russian forces in the name of nationalism and power again are attempting to weaken Ukraine by denying food, instigating war, and other means. It is part of a longer struggle between the two peoples over many centuries


15. Related ICE Cases

Go to Ice Search Engine and Scenario Builder

Famine and Conflict Cases

Biafra Famine
South Sudan Civil War and Famine
30 Year's War and Famine
Cromwell's Famine
Vietnam Famine of 1945
Bengal Famine of 1943
North Korea Famine
Burkina Food Riots
Ukraine Famine

16. Relevant Websites and Literature

Kendrick A. Clements, The Life of Herbert Hoover: Imperfect Visionary 1918–1928Springer, 2010.

Betrand M. Patenaude. The Big Show in Bololand. The American Relief Expedition to Soviet Russia in the Famine of 1921. Stanford University Press, 2002. P. 197.
Anne Applebaum, Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine, Doubleday, 2017.

Ricard Pipes

Kazakh Famine