Great Famine-Outline, Holodomor 1932-1933 in documents of Polish diplomacy and intelligence

See also Robert Kuśnierz’ publications available online:

1. Głód potępienia,2. Wielki Głód, 3. Nie tylko Pawlik Morozow, 4. Hołodomor – Tragedia wsi ukraińskiej w latach 1932-1933, 5. Wiosna nie pachniała kwiatami…, 6. Великий голод і польсько-українські відносини, 7. Документи польської дипломатії про голодомор, 8. Голод в Україні 1932-1933 рр. (за документами польських дипломатів),9. Участь української громадськості Польщі в…, 10. rec. JS Hołodomor – Wielki Głód, 11. Львівська українська преса про голодомор в УСРР

See also Famine pictures and the Holodomor exibit prepared by Kusnierz. Click here for more publications on the Holodomor

The 1932-1933 Holodomor in Polish archives (Polish diplomacy and intelligence on the Great Famine in Ukraine)

The Great Famine in Ukraine of 1932-1933 (Holodomor) is one of the biggest European tragedies of the 20th century. It is also the greatest crime committed by the Bolshevik regime against the Ukrainian nation. According to the latest research of Ukrainian demographers, which was presented at the International Conference, “Holodomor of 1932-1933 in Ukraine: Reasons, Demographic Consequences, Legal Treatment” (Kyiv, 25-26 September 2008) as a result of the artificial famine 3-3.5 million people died. For decades this tragedy was “a non-existent phenomenon” in the Soviet Union as well as other countries under the communist system (also in Poland). The situation changed with Gorbachev’s “perestroika”. Today on the basis of materials from ex-Soviet archives (first of all in Ukraine and the Russian Federation) there have been published many books, articles, documentary collections etc. presenting different aspects of the Holodomor.

To show the whole history of the Great Ukrainian Famine we also need to examine archive materials from countries which had their own diplomatic representations in the former Soviet Union, and in Soviet Ukraine. The British, Italian and German diplomatic reports were published more than 20 years ago, in 1988. Poland, like Germany, Italy and Japan had its own diplomatic offices in Ukraine. However, the Polish diplomatic and intelligence materials were unknown to researchers, until recently. First of all, because nobody in Poland had researched the problem of the Great Famine in Ukraine. The first Polish scientific monograph on the Holodomor appeared only in 2005 (R. Kuśnierz, Ukraina w latach kolektywizacji i Wielkiego Głodu (1929-1933), Toruń 2005).

In 2007, the Author of this article published in the Warsaw Contemporary History Quarterly „Dzieje Najnowsze”, for the first time, 17 Polish diplomatic and intelligence documents on the Great Famine (R. Kuśnierz, Głód na Ukrainie w latach 1932-1933 w świetle zbiorów Archiwum Akt Nowych oraz Centralnego Archiwum Wojskowego w Warszawie,„Dzieje Najnowsze” 2007, no 2, p. 129-159).

In May 2008 – 70 documents in the book Pomór w „raju bolszewickim”. Głód na Ukrainie w latach 1932-1933 w świetle polskich dokumentów dyplomatycznych i dokumentów wywiadu, Toruń 2008.

Archival materials of Polish diplomatic officies in Ukraine as well as from the embassy in Moscow are stored in Warsaw: in the Central Archives of Modern Records (Archiwum Akt Nowych – AAN) and the Central Military Archives (Centralne Archiwum Wojskowe – CAW).

Most of the documents from the Archiwum Akt Nowych were destroyed during World War II. There were left only a few dispatches presenting the tragic plight in the Ukrainian countryside during the famine of 1933 and also showing the situation in the next “post-famine” year, 1934.

These materials are collected in fonds: the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Ministerstwo Spraw Zagranicznych); Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Moscow (Ambasada RP w Moskwie) and Military Attaché at the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Moscow (Attaché Wojskowy przy Ambasadzie RP w Moskwie).

More complete materials on the Holodomor are in the Central Military Archives, especially in a fond: the Second Department of the General Staff of Polish Army (Oddział II Sztabu Głównego). This archive has also many documents showing the situation of Ukraine after the period of Holodomor. There are diplomatic reports addressed to the “dwójka” (in Polish the colloquial name of the Second Department of the General Staff – intelligence) as well as reports of agents and co-workers of Polish intelligence.

The Polish consulates in Kharkiv and Kyiv and the legation in Moscow were a very credible source of information about the situation beyond the Zbrucz River. Not only documents from the Polish state archives confirm this, but also published materials from other countries.

Polish diplomats could themselves quite often observe the terrible misery of the Bolshevik state inhabitants. On 16 March 1933, the head of the Polish Consulate General in Kharkiv, Jan Karszo-Siedlewski, informed that civilian workers bringing wood, coal and other products for the consulate were grabbing potato peelings and other scraps found in the bin, and that workers disposing of garbage had eaten the food prepared for dogs in the consulate backyard.

One of the sources from which Polish diplomats obtained information about the famine were the consulate’s petitioners. Their number grew with the intensifying poverty and hunger. Many people were applying for to leave the Bolshevik state, but only a few succeeded. Their departure depended on the local authorities, who did not want to agree to let anybody leave “the Bolshevik paradise”.

Polish diplomatic offices received a large correspondence describing the plight of the peasants suffering greater hunger. In one such letter a student called Buczak wrote: “The population is dying. It is not always possible to bury the deceased [peasants] because the starving people die browsing through the fields or wandering from one village to another. In summer during the harvest many of the dead were found in the grain fields (Uman, Bila Tserkva, Shevchenko regions). In the spring, 20-30 corpses were buried in a pitevery day. Black ravens are flying over once fertile and rich Ukraine, plucking out the eyes of the unburied dead”.

As well as letters addressed directly to Polish consular staff, there are letters written by inhabitants of the “Bolshevik paradise” to their families in Poland via the Polish consulates. This type of correspondence was chosen because of fear of the Soviet censorship and the consequences of purveying “counterrevolutionary messages” and blackening “the homeland of all workers and peasants”. The “counterrevolutionary messages” were naturally the information about the famine and poverty of the Soviet society. A letter of D. Mashin to his brother Anton living in Poland shows how great was the fear: “You cannot realize what could have happened if somebody had seized this letter. Do not publish it. God forbid if you sent this letter to a newspaper. They could find out that I have written it”.

Diplomats also obtained information about the situation in the Soviet state during consular and business trips. Jan Karszo-Siedlewski from the Kharkiv consulate had a possibility to observe the situation in Ukraine and then to compare it to conditions outside the republic. At the beginning of May 1933, when the famine reached its greatest peak, he travelled from Kharkiv to Moscow for a consular conference. He was astonished at the difference between the Ukrainian countryside and the neighboring Central Chernozem Oblast or even the infertile suburbs of Moscow. Karszo-Siedlewski noted that the Ukrainian villages were in a state of decay, seeming abandoned and miserable. The huts were half-devastated, often without roofs. There were no new farmsteads anywhere. Children and the elderly looked like skeletons. No livestock anywhere. Something was growing on barely 20 percent of the area, 40 percent has just been ploughed and the rest was a wasteland. Nevertheless, during the highest season of sowing, only a few workers and tractors were on the fields. Sowing was being done by the most primitive methods, mostly by hand.

Arriving at the Central Chernozem Oblast, the diplomat emphasized that he had the impression he had come from the Soviet state to Western Europe. There were many more ploughed and sowed fields. The villages were clean, huts renovated, greater prosperity was visible among the inhabitants and you could see grazing livestock. However, over the whole area between Kharkiv and Moscow, the most striking thing was the disastrous condition of the horses which, according to Karszo-Siedlewski’s estimate, were 70-80 percent unfit to work.

Among the Polish diplomatic and intelligence documents are numerous descriptions of the wastefulness of the state and collective farms (sovkhozy and kolkhozy), of the lack of interest of the peasants in working on the fields, the disastrous condition of livestock. The head of the Consulate General in Kharkiv, Adam Stebłowski, wrote in May 1932 that “the horses are so weak that they need to be supported by planks on the pastures, otherwise, they cannot stand on their legs”.

In the documents one can also find much information on the catastrophic situation of starving people including the most awful consequences of the famine – the acts of cannibalism. Jan Karszo-Siedlewski noticed in his report that on 21 February 1933 a railway watchman in a station of Pechenowska (Berdychiv region) was caught eating human flesh. He was denounced by his wife who was forced to cook dinners from the murdered people, whom he brought to house on the pretext of putting them up for the night. The watchman was also selling the flesh of slaughtered people.

The chief of the Eastern Section in the Second Department of the General Staff, Lieutenant Jerzy Niezbrzycki, on the base of the information given by his informant, described the situation in the period between 15 May – 25 June 1933: “There is a great famine in Ukraine. The main center of the hunger is the Poltava region. The villages with 5-6 thousands dwellers before are settled nowadays by 20-30 families (15 June). In one village of approximately 1,000 inhabitants about 50 young people aged 16-20 died in May. In one of the kolkhozes, where about 350 people were working, 10 people a day have been dying through May and June. A great part of those dying at work on the fields was not buried. Houses in the villages stand empty. In the last weeks (in July) the Soviet authorities announced in the towns that they give the houses in the countryside to those who would go there to work. Because of a lack of gravediggers in some villages the corpses were thrown into the basements of abandoned houses. But when the people who were throwing dead bodies into the basements also vanished, the corpses were left unburied at home. The cases where corpses remain unburied for 3-4 days are a daily occurrence. That explains the unbearable stench in some almost completely died-out villages (…)”.

As can be seen, Polish diplomats had very good information about the situation in the “Bolshevik paradise”. But the “civilized world” regarded the famine as the “internal problem” of the Soviet Union. Poland’s government, as those of other Western countries, was aware of what was happening in Ukraine. Despite possessing very reliable information, Polish politicians did not give publicity to the information in order not to provoke the Bolsheviks (in July 1932 Poland signed a Non-Aggression Pact with the Soviet Union).

Robert Kuśnierz

Pomeranian University in Słupsk

More on this topic:

1. Robert Kuśnierz, (ed.) Pomór w „raju bolszewickim”. Głód na Ukrainie w latach 1932-1933 w świetle polskich dokumentów dyplomatycznych i dokumentów wywiadu, Toruń 2008;

2. Robert Kuśnierz, The Question of the Holodomor in Ukraine of 1932-1933 in the Polish Diplomatic and Intelligence Reports, „Holdomor Studies” 2009, no 1, p. 77-90