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Stalin’s Rule and Ukraine

In 1927, Stalin emerged as the new leader of the USSR from the power struggle, which took place within the Communist Party after Lenin’s death. In 1928 the first five-year plan for economic changes was accepted. It was based on the projects of industrialisation, urbanisation and collectivisation.


Out of 1500 new facilities built in the USSR, 400 were located in Ukraine. Among them were Dniproges (the biggest hydroelectric power plant in Europe built in 1932), the metallurgic plant in Zaporozhie and the tractor plant in Kharkov. The facilities built during the first five-year plan placed Ukraine among the leading industrial countries of Europe.[28] However, such progress called for the involvement of thousands of workers. To cultivate motivation and enthusiasm, different methods were used. On one hand, the best workers were publicly praised and honoured. On the other hand, being late to or absent from work was considered a criminal offence, which led to punishment.[29]


Another feature of the 1930s was rapid urbanisation. Thousands of workers moved from the rural areas to the cities to work for the developing industry. Andrei K. Sokolov indicates that “between 1926 and 1939 the country’s urban population increased from 18 to 33 per cent”.[30]


The changes in the rural areas were also drastic. Collectivisation (creating collective farms from private ones) was defined by historian Orest Subtelny as “one of the most terrible events in the history of Ukraine”.[31] Peasants’ support for collectivisation was absent and Stalin realised that to achieve his aims both economic and political control had to be enforced. First of all he initiated a campaign against the rich peasants (kurkuls) calling for their elimination as a social class. In practice this meant executions, deportations to the labour camps in Siberia or confiscation of all the kurkuls’ property.[32]

However, not only rich peasants opposed collectivisation. Peasants expressed their discontent by organising armed revolts or killing their own cattle just to prevent the authorities from having it. Consequently, in 1928-1929 the number of livestock in Ukraine halved.[33]


The famine of 1932-1933 (Holodomor) became one of the most tragic events in the history of Ukraine. While the exact number of lives claimed by the famine is unknown, it is thought to range from 5 to 10 million.[34] The harvest of 1932 was only 12 per cent less than the average of 1926-1930. However, the authorities continued with the systematic confiscation of grain from peasants while Stalin upped the grain quota by 44 per cent.[35] Death or ten years at labour camps was announced as a punishment for those who did not contribute to the state’s grain collection. Robert Conquest notes that even though there is no direct proof that the famine was planned by Stalin beforehand, his policies show that he considered it as an effective way to punish Ukrainian peasantry for their resistance to collectivisation and the existence of the ‘kurkul-nationalist element’.[36]

A special law was passed in Moscow prohibiting the distribution of grain to peasants before the state plan was fully executed. Special commissions were searching for grain and even those who were dying of hunger were not allowed to keep anything. According to Subtelny, peasants had to resort to eating cats, dogs, rats, leaves, and even cases of cannibalism were not uncommon. Nevertheless, while the villages were dying of hunger, the party activists kept collecting grain.[37]

Soviet authorities attempted to cover up the events of 1932-33, denying the occurrence of the famine till the last days of the Soviet Union. Only after Ukraine became an independent state was the Holodomor famine admitted. In 2006 the Ukrainian parliament accepted the “About Holodomor in Ukraine in 1932-1933” law, which defined the famine as genocide against the Ukrainian nation. Even though it is still disputable among historians whether or not one can define it as genocide, 26 countries have recognised Holodomor as such.

The Great Terror

The 1930s are known in the Soviet history as the time of Great Terror. Ukraine suffered heavily under Soviet mass repressions. In 1929-1930 45 leading scientists, scholars and writers were arrested for belonging to the fictitious “Union for Ukraine’s Liberation”. This fake organisation invented by the Soviet authorities was declared to be aiming for Stalin’s assassination and the separation of Ukraine from the USSR.[38]

In 1933, repressions against Ukrainian party members started. They were excluded from the party for “ideological mistakes” which in reality amounted to open or potential disagreement with Stalin’s policies.[39] Those who spearheaded the “Ukrainisation” policy in the 1920s were accused of supporting “cultural counterrevolution” and “isolating Ukrainian workers from the beneficial influence of Russian culture”. Thousands of members of the new Soviet intelligentsia were sent to labour camps or executed; out of 240 Ukrainian writers, 200 disappeared. Out of 85 linguists, 62 were killed.[40]

The terror was widespread. Suspicion and fear became the reality of the time. In 1937 Stalin decided to eliminate the Ukrainian Communist Party’s leadership as well as the Ukrainian Soviet government. Three Stalin’s representatives - Vyacheslav Molotov, Nikolay Yezhov and Nikita Khrushchev - were sent to Kiev to carry out the ‘purge’. By June 1938, 17 ministers of the Ukrainian government and almost all members of the Central Committee had been arrested and executed. Overall, the repressions affected 37 per cent of Ukrainian Communist Party members, i.e. about 170 000 people.[41] “It can seem a paradox that they were executing their ‘own men’ – the leading activists of the party and state, famous military commanders,” notes Zaitsev and explains that:

...there was nothing strange about it because “old activists” who had survived conspiracy and tsarist repressions, civil war and believed in the ideals of the revolution were not fit for the ruling class, whilst being “fathers of nation” at the top of the bureaucratic pyramid. They had to be eliminated to assign the new bureaucracy that entered the party after the revolution and did not have old-fashioned revolutionary fantasies and would be faithful to the leader.[42]


[29] Ibid. 500.

[30] A. K. Sokolov ‘From the Countryside to the Cities. A Comparative Historical Analysis of Rural—Urban Migration in Russia and in the Soviet Union During the Industrialization Drive’ in Historical Social Research / Historische Sozialforschung, Vol. 16, No. 2 (58), Quantitative Methods in Soviet Historiography (1991), 110.

[31] Субтельний, Україна, 500.

[32] Ibid. 504.

[33] Ibid. 506.

[34] Р. Конквест, Жнива скорботи. Радянська колективізація і голодомор (Київ: Либідь, 1993), 334-335.

[35] Субтельний, Україна, 508; Conquest (Конквкест, Жнива скорботи, 359) has summarized the main causes of the famine: 1. Extra high requisition norms; 2. Moscow was informed from Kiev that these norms were too high; 3. These norms were implemented until the famine started; 4. Ukrainian activists informed Stalin and the authorities about the famine; 5. Requisitions were continued. Among the additional points were the facts that there was grain in the warehouses but it was not allowed to be given to the peasants, peasants were prohibited to move to the cities, and Russian-Ukrainian border was controlled to prevent grain supplies to the regions of the famine.

[36] Конквкест, Жнива скорботи, 356-357.

[37] Субтельний, Україна, 509.

[38] Ibid. 512.

[39] Ibid. 514.

[40] Ibid. 515.

[41] Ibid. 517.

[42] Ю. Зайцев (Ed.), Історія України (Львів: Світ, 1998), 269.


  • About 15 million persons suffered from Communist repressions in Ukraine
  • On 30 December 1922, along with the Russian, Byelorussian, and Transcaucasian republics, the Ukrainian SSR was one of the founding members of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR)