The Ukrainian terror famine of 1932 - 3 has the dubious honour of being one of the worst crimes in the history of humanity. Over that winter, three to four million people died in one of Europe's most productive regions due to the machinations of the Stalinist state. The breadbasket of the USSR was turned into its graveyard.
The Ukraine had been a problem to Moscow since the revolutionary period, during which the government in Kiev had changed some dozen times. Ukraine had been a battleground in the short Russo-Polish war as both countries fought to install a government amenable to their interests, and the Ukrainian SFR was nominally independent within the Soviet Union. Some in Moscow saw the Ukraine as a divisive force within the Union due to the often contrary attitude of their Communist Party, and among these people was Josef Stalin.
This wasn't the only thing on Stalin's mind as he tried to consolidate power in the Soviet regime. The Soviet state had a problem, which was that it derived its support from the cities but all the food was in the countryside. The peasants had to be persuaded to co-operate in delivering grain so that people in the cities could eat. Moderates in the Politburo had decided that the Soviet peasantry should be encouraged to voluntarily enter collective farms and provide a certain surplus of grain to the state. Like most Russian elites, they saw in the peasantry a mirror image of themselves - in this case, good socialists who would be only too happy to co-operate with Soviet power. Stalin, meanwhile, never harboured such illusions about the peasantry. He was concerned that they were essentially individualist and selfish (neither perception was really correct) and that they could hold the Soviet state, which was based in the cities, to ransom by with-holding grain from the market.
In 1927 he authorized the use of the 'Urals-Siberian method' against the peasantry, which basically meant the forced confiscation of their grain by the state for distribution in the cities. He was doubly keen to get his hands on grain, not only to stabilize the regime in the cities but also to export in exchange for capital goods to help the first Five Year Plan. His use of coercion only made matters worse, as it meant the peasants had little incentive to grow grain for next year if Bolshevik thugs were just going to come and steal it. This meant each year the regime got decreasing returns from the peasants, and by 1929 the Urals-Siberian method was applied to the whole country.
In 1930, the Soviet Union exported 3 million metric tons of grain. This was a twenty-three fold increase over what it had exported the year before, but a depression in worldwide commodity markets meant the price of grain was low. With the Soviet Union dumping grain onto a world market that didn't need it, it only managed to get ten times the amount of foreign currency it had got in 1929. Meanwhile, bread was rationed in the cities and the peasantry starved in the countryside. The peasantry were being squeezed to allow Russia to industrialize.
Along with the forced collection of grain went forced collectivization, an attempt to force all peasants in the Soviet Union onto collective state farms (kolkhozy) which would make it easier to extract grain from them. The peasants weren't keen, and the launching of the program in 1930 led to violence and a widespread peasant disgust with the Soviet state. In the first three months of the year almost 60% of the households in the Union were collectivized on paper, but in reality the countryside was descending into anarchy. To save his political bacon, Stalin published an article in Pravda on March 2 which blamed local Communist Party cadres for excesses.
From then on the regime proceded with greater caution, applying legal and economic measures short of actual violence to try and coerce peasants into the collective farms. Its initial assault had shattered peasant life for ever, and its retreat was only temporary. By 1934, 90% of agriculture would be collectivized. But before this would happen, Stalin would finally have his showdown with the Ukraine in the context of the agricultural question.
Collectivization in the Ukraine was carried out at a more rapid pace, and probably with greater violence than elsewhere. The Ukraine was providing 38% of grain deliveries to the state in 1932, despite only accounting for 27% of the overall Soviet grain harvest. Yet Stalin and his allies in the Moscow party did not believe the Ukraine was delivering all it could. It was suspicious of the Ukrainian Communist Party, which it believed to be weak and full of socially undesirable elements (this meant petit bourgeois, nationalist or individualist elements). In 1932 Stalin demanded half of the Ukrainian grain harvest, and Party activists and soldiers descended on the countryside to take whatever they could. Over the winter, three to four million Ukrainian peasants died from starvation as their grain was sold abroad to finance industrialization. In 1933, the second Five Year Plan began.
The young Bolshevik activist involved in such activity would typically be a semi-educated man from the cities. Such men believed they were doing not just the Soviet state a great service, but also the countryside itself. Those peasants who were class enemies (kulaks) deserved to have their property liquidated, and the rest were somehow involved in the machinations of the class enemy. The countryside could be renewed by the liquidation of rich peasants and private property, as the peasants would have nowhere left to go but the collective farms. Many activists later came to question what they had done in 1932 - 3, and many would later be purged for expressing doubts at the time or at a later date.
Simultaneously with its assault on the independent Ukrainian peasant, the regime assaulted the Ukrainian Communist Party with accusations that it was 'nationalist'. The Ukrainian Communist Party had wanted to take a soft line against its own peasantry, and its leadership paid dearly with a purge. Intellectuals, students and writers who were considered to have nationalist sympathies were exiled or arrested - in all, about two thousand. This wasn't a war of annihilation, as other ethnic groups within Ukraine suffered, but a direct assault against carriers of Ukrainian national feeling, and an attempt to cow the most potentially productive group of peasantry in the USSR. That the way to deal with them was perceived to be sticks and not carrots says a lot about Stalin's attitude towards the peasantry and life in general.
The most passionate and detailed account of the famine is Robert Conquest, Harvest of Sorrow. This should be read in conjunction with Conquest's study of The Great Terror. One is spoilt for choice in general surveys of Stalinism, but the best short introduction is Sheila Fitzpatrick's The Russian Revolution, which relates the Stalinist period to the earlier phases of the revolution. A good but boring textbook is Chris Ward, Stalin's Russia. Never believe anything you read on this subject by Walter Duranty.