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The famine of 1932 took millions of lives, before the Soviet authorities took some measures to alleviate the lives of the peasants. During the whole time, and for decades afterwards, the affair was kept secret. Contrast this to the famine of 1921: Back then, the Bolshevik Government called for international aid very early. The American Relief Administration was granted wide autonomy in how to organize its aid effort and managed to save millions of children.

Why was the later famine kept secret, then? There was a precedent for a rather successful international aid effort. The chief reasons I can think of were:

  • The actual extent of the famine was not known to the highest authorities while it happened (One reason for the famine was a very good harvest the year before, that led to the authorities setting unrealistically high quotas)
  • The authorities wanted to keep the famine a secret nationally (this they actually did, by prohibiting travel among other things), and so kept it secret internationally
  • The Soviet leadership feared an imminent war with its western neighbors (western Ukraine was part of Poland at the time) and wanted to hide its weakness

But ultimately, I don't know, so why did they keep it secret?

My sources so far:
Felix Wemheuer: Der große Hunger. Hungersnöte unter Stalin und Mao
Roman Danyluk: Freiheit und Gerechtigkeit. Eine Geschichter der Ukraine aus libertärer Sicht

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    Because he caused it as he wanted to commit genocide against Ukrainians? – Bregalad Jun 23 '15 at 8:50
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    wrong: Kazakhstan was hit harder (every third Kazak died!), no surviving evidence of a planned mass murder against Ukrainians (while the SUkept documents on many other crimes), Ucraine was ethnically very diverse at the time and starvation hits everyone ... If this is a topic you want to discus seriously, ask for evidence against or for a planned genocide as a separate question, a comment thread is inappropriate for this. – mart Jun 23 '15 at 9:04
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    As usual, Mr. Durden conceals a germ of truth in an attempt at wit. How could the worker's paradise experience famine. Who would have the courage to suggest that anything in Stalin's empire had any imperfection? How long would such a person have lived? Stalin's Soviet Union was perfect in any way, because any imperfection would have reflected badly on Stalin, and the first law of the universe was that no one criticized Stalin and lived. – Mark C. Wallace Jun 23 '15 at 11:04
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    @mart Someone lost their keys again. – yannis Jun 24 '15 at 9:48
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    @anixx can you please, please, move this discussion to a better place? Someone pose the question "Was the 32 famine a targeted killing of Ukrainians" and lets look at serious answers. – mart Jun 24 '15 at 21:04
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1932

There are two chief interpretations of the 1932 Soviet famine, or especially the more infamous Ukrainian component, the Holodomor. That the famine was at least partially caused or exacerbated by Soviet policies is well established. The main difference between the schools of thought is the degree to which Soviet authorities perpetuated or even intentionally orchestrated the famine and its resultant immense human costs.

Regardless of your preferred interpretation, there are obvious and compelling reasons to keep quiet about the disaster. It is a constant feature throughout history for ruling regimes to take pride in their ability to govern well, or at least not horribly. This is true both institutionally and on an individual level. Causing a catastrophic famine, even inadvertently, is not the sort of thing people like to be held responsible for. And the Soviet government was responsible for this particular famine.

In the famine of 1932/1933, the policies adopted by the highest Soviet authorities had devastating effects ... while Soviet citizens starved, grain was exported from their country. In Ukraine, peasants were forbidden to travel to areas of Russia where there was grain. There is little dispute today that the famine of 1932/1933 in Ukraine could have been avoided and that the Soviet regime was responsible for it.

- Curran, Declan, Lubomyr Luciuk, and Andrew G. Newby, eds. Famines in European Economic History: The Last Great European Famines Reconsidered. Routledge, 2015.

Even if the famine had been a genuinely unintentional outcome of disastrous policies, the Soviet government could quite understandably decide against owning up to its mistakes. Particularly so when the failure occurred at a time the Soviet Union was trying to convince observers both domestic and abroad of its philosophical superiority. In that case, one way to pretend there was nothing wrong with your policies, is to pretend that the catastrophe they caused isn't happening.

You obviously disagree with the other interpretation, that the famine was intentionally caused or exacerbated by Soviet policies. I'll note that being intentional does not necessarily dictate the famine was a genocide - it has also been thought to have been an attempt to break the peasantry in order to further state control.

Stalin believed that the peasants were concealing food and that local party officials were not ruthless enough in taking it from them. So Party pressure was drastically increased to teach the peasants a great lesson: The state simply took its procurement quota without regard to what would be left over ... And the famine worked. It at last brought victory to the Party in the countryside. The peasants would never again have the will to defy Soviet power.

- Malia, Martin. Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia. Simon and Schuster, 2008.

The specifics are unimportant, however. It should be immediately obvious that intentionally starving your own peasants is the sort of thing governments tend to keep secret.


1921

A commenter questioned why this was not the case for the 1921 famine. That disaster was triggered directly by droughts, but also exacerbated by the Soviet policies. By seizing all surplus from the peasants to fuel the war effort, the Bolsheviks left them with no reserves to survive on in the event of crop failures.

Note that, unsurprisingly, the Soviet leadership denied their share of the responsibility.

Quite naturally, of course, they said nothing about the famine actually being the terrible result of the Civil War. All the landowners and capitalists who had begun their offensive against us in 1918 tried to make out that the famine was the result of socialist economy.

- Lenin's speech at the Fourth Congress Of The Communist International, 13 November 1922

However, a major difference is that unlike 1932, the Soviet Union of 1921 was in an extremely precarious state. Russia, already exhausted by the First World War, had not quite finished fighting its bloody civil war. The nascent Soviet regime had defeated its main white army rivals by 1920, but remain beset by insurrections and discontent, including the Tambov and Kronstadt rebellions.

Millions of desperate, starving peasants has not generally been a recipe for stability. Stalin in 1932 could shrug off the death of millions as a statistic. To the far weaker Soviet state of 1921, however, the famine was a potentially lethal disaster. While the reluctance to take responsibility for policy failures was the same, the Soviet leader felt the famine to be an existential threat, a threat that would take foreign assistance to weather.

By March 15, 1921, no less than Vladimir Lenin himself warned the 10th Party Congress that:

If there is a crop failure, it will be impossible to appropriate any surplus because there will be no surplus. Food would have to be taken out of the mouths of the peasants ... since we cannot take anything from people who do not have the means of satisfying their own hunger, the government will perish.

- Weissman, Benjamin M. Herbert Hoover and Famine Relief to Soviet Russia, 1921-1923. Vol. 134. Hoover Press, 1974.

Lenin's fears would materialise over the following rainless months. It became apparent by June that a famine was in progress, and that the central government could do very little to alleviate the stricken provinces. Lenin would later reflect that:

In 1921 discontent undoubtedly prevailed among a vast section of the peasantry. Then there was the famine ... the famine was indeed a great and grave disaster which threatened to nullify the results of all our organisational and revolutionary efforts.

- Lenin's speech at the Fourth Congress Of The Communist International, 13 November 1922

Even then the Soviets remained reluctant to officially admit the famine, only allowing Maxim Gorky to make a public appeal to the West for assistance in July. Fortunately, this successfully drew in Herbert Hoover and his American Relief Association. Still, an agreement for how they could operate in Russia was only reached on 20 August.

Considering that accounts of an extremely severe famine were published in Pravda as early as 26 June, this was not really very early at all, as far as disaster relief goes. Moreover, although the ARA was ultimately given a wide berth, this only came about at Hoover's insistence that they were necessary conditions for operating the relief operation.

In fact, the sticking points are revealing of Soviet designs:

The negotiations dragged on for ten days, bogging down over the American insistence on guarantees that the aid would not be diverted to the Red Army and over Soviet reluctance to grant true freedom of action to the ARA representatives in Russia.

- McElroy, Robert W. Morality and American Foreign Policy: the Role of Ethics in International Affairs. Princeton University Press, 2014

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    Interesting stuff, but it doesn't explicitly deal with the OP's comparison with the 1921 famine. I presume the difference is that that was a natural disaster rather than one caused by poor policy - but either way a line or two clearing that up would be a very useful addition. – Bob Tway Jun 23 '15 at 10:26
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    In 21 socialism was brand new, so it's natural they made mistakes, because they had to do some trial and error in order to get a working socialist empire. In 32 however... – Bregalad Jun 23 '15 at 11:37
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    In addition to Bregalad's comment, in 1921 the SU was still fighting its civil war, and was in its seventh year of conflict (counting from the beginning of WWI); famine in such a situation was neither unexpected not easily attributable to a failure of the government. And the administration was not as strongly controlled by the secret police, which probably meant that it was easier to warn when things did not work well than in 1932. – SJuan76 Jun 23 '15 at 13:55
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    I think this is a good comparison, I'll still wait a bit with the accept to see if others make different points. +1. – mart Jun 24 '15 at 11:01
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    That the famine was "intentionally orchestrated" is not a scientific point of view. It is not considered by any professional historian. Hundres of letters between Stalin and Kosior and others show that the famine was a surprise and the cause was not known (because the harvest was good). Stalin questioned the subordinates. – Anixx Jun 24 '15 at 11:12
-5

Frankly, a very strange (in its naivete) question... I really do not want to offend.

Where did you see a bureacracy that likes to admit its errors and failings, especially on such a major scale?

Even in the best (supposedly) democracies of the modern world (say, Denmark or Norway) I cannot recall any recent headlines reading something like (fictional headline, fictional numbers)

"Swedish foreign ministry happily admits they erred in going along with decision to add 100 million more visas for refugees from Middle East. As a self-punishment, they humbly agree to lower their salaries by 0.3%"

or (similar caveat)

"British government says, oh my gosh, we were so stupid going for this Brexit thing; everyone resigns"

Of course, many governments are often happy to admit, and even to gloat over, mistakes made by their predeccessors or bad things done a long time ago - we are not talking about that here, clearly.

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    This reads more as an extended comment than an attempt to answer the question. – Steve Bird Jul 26 '17 at 22:04
  • Steve, how is my "comment" not an answer? Imagine you are asked a question "why did Bush administration not admit they were wrong about Iraqi WMDs?" How can anyone (except W, Cheney and couple of other guys) answer that more or less properly except simply saying something like "where did you see any major bureacracy admit a major mistake made by this very same bureaucracy and by these same people in charge?" I claim this is a proper answer... or would you like me to cite some psych studies explaining why people do not like admitting mistakes (especially if they can be sued) etc.? – JimT Jul 26 '17 at 23:39
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    Sorry, -1. You have a sound general point but it's not enough to settle this specific case. The question itself contained a reference to the 1921 in which the Bolshevik government admitted the famine. Now, of course, there are huge differences between the situation in 1921 and 1932 which can explain that - and that's the whole point. Your argument is too broad to admit such differences. – Felix Goldberg Jul 27 '17 at 2:17
  • @JimT As Felix's comment says, your answer addresses a broader question of why government coverups happen that wasn't specifically asked. – Steve Bird Jul 27 '17 at 5:13

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