The Soviet Union emerged from the world’s bloodiest conflict victorious, but at great cost. Twenty million Soviet citizens died during World War II, including 35 percent of men between 18 and 30. More than 20 percent of the population was homeless. And the material damage done by the war was on the order of 20 times the entire prewar annual Soviet GDP. Meanwhile, armed resistance to the brutal Soviet occupation of Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltics continued until the mid-1950s and even 1960s, resulting in hundreds of thousands more deaths.
Moreover, beginning in July 1946, famine once again gripped the Soviet Union. By the time it receded in late 1948, around 1,200,000 people had died, including somewhere between five and eight percent of the population of Moldova, at the time part of the USSR.
Why did so many perish long after the guns had fallen silent on the eastern front? Despite the tragic death toll, the 1946-1948 famine has been given short shrift in the historical literature. Attention has focused on the famines generated by the Civil War of 1917-1921 and Stalin’s collectivization. The 1946-1948 famine is not even mentioned in Amartya Sen’s famous volume on famines.
This has changed since 2000, however, with a series of publications by academics like Michael Ellmann, Nicholas Ganson and Stephen G. Wheatcroft on the nature, course and cause of the famine. Surprisingly, a number of these authors seek to defend Stalinist agricultural policy by arguing that the famine was largely triggered by environmental circumstances. But a plethora of evidence proves the pivotal role played by communist policy and ideology.
The famine began in July 1946 with food shortages in Ukraine and Moldova, initially driven by drought. But these initial grain deficits were relatively small. The death toll only began to swell when the state continued its grain confiscations and refused to distribute emergency supplies to affected populations.
Why was grain confiscated from starving people? There were several reasons, all driven by ideological considerations. The first aim was to feed the Soviet Union’s major cities. The Soviet Union maintained a strict rationing system in the aftermath of the Second World War, prioritizing urban industrial workers—the bulwark of the Soviet state—over the rural population. On October 1, 1946, the Soviet government decided to reduce rations of the rural population by 70 percent, and eliminate all state rations for adult dependents. Non-productive portions of the rural population were not to be fed under state plans.
In addition, Stalin had aimed for two decades to develop an effective emergency “grain bank” of reserve grain for emergencies. Reserve grain stocks actually increased during the famine, doubling between the summer of 1947 and the summer of 1948. One can only deduce that Stalin did not consider those who were dying of starvation to be worth saving with his “reserve.”
Finally, Stalin’s foreign policy exacerbated the catastrophe. In June 1947, the United States officially proposed what would become the Marshall Plan, a program for providing vast amounts of technical and economic assistance to the war-ravaged countries of Europe. Offers of aid were also extended to the Soviet Union and Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe. But, worried about the possible American penetration of his new Eastern bloc satellites, Stalin ordered Poland, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and the other Eastern Bloc states to decline these offers in July 1947. To reward them for their obedience, he extended to them trade agreements that included immediate shipments of grain. Poland, for instance, received 200,000 tons of Soviet grain. Thus, as the famine reached its peak, the Soviet Union exported 2.4 million tons of grain.
These policy decisions played a clear role in worsening the famine. In the words of Michael Ellman, these “famine deaths were not a direct impact of a natural disaster, but were mediated both by Soviet economic policy and by the Soviet entitlement system.” The casualties from the famine were largely rural dependents: women and children who had been allotted no ration tickets by the state because of their lack of productive function for the state. Thirty percent of the victims were infants. When individuals sought to help themselves, they often found themselves facing jail time: In 1947, 300,000 Soviet citizens were arrested for “theft of state property”—meaning, in many cases, eating grain they themselves had grown. Others sought to save themselves in other ways: there were widespread stories of cannibalism in Moldova.
Some effort was made to save the lives of those affected. Local communist administrators set up food kitchens and “loaned grain” at interest to local collective farms. Other efforts originated overseas; despite the growing tensions of the early Cold War, the United States was the largest donor. The largely US-funded United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, the US Red Cross, and other American charities collectively donated $281 million dollars’ worth of food to the Soviet Union during the 1946-1948 famine.
The famine of 1946-1948 was the last major disaster of its kind in the Soviet Union. After Stalin died in 1953, the Soviet Union “abandoned the coercive approach to agriculture” and took the relatively simple measures required to prevent large portions of the rural population from starving to death. Never again would large numbers of Soviet citizens starve. But for the millions who had lost their lives, Stalin’s death came too late.