Regime Changes of Memory: Creating the Official History of the Ukrainian and Chinese Famines under State Socialism and after the Cold War

By Wemheuer, Felix | Kritika, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Regime Changes of Memory: Creating the Official History of the Ukrainian and Chinese Famines under State Socialism and after the Cold War


Wemheuer, Felix, Kritika


The year 2008 marked the 50th anniversary of the Great Leap Forward, which led to the greatest famine in world history. According to Western and Chinese scholars, 15-43 million peasants starved to death between 1959 and 1961. (1) It would be surprising if this anniversary received much attention in Chinese society or in the Western world. By comparison, the Ukrainian famine caused 3-3.5 million deaths by starvation in 1933, (2) based on conservative estimates, or up to 10 million deaths according to Ukrainian official sources. (3) Yet the Ukrainian famine has become an international topic since the mid-1980s as well as part of the new national identity of independent Ukraine. In the official narrative of Ukraine, the famine (Holodomor) is seen as genocide or even a holocaust against the Ukrainian people, committed by the "Russian" government under the leadership of Stalin. Even though the communist movement promised to abolish hunger, famines have occurred in many socialist states, including the Soviet Union in 1919-21, Ukraine in 1932-33 and 1946-47, China in 1959-61, Cambodia in 1979, and North Korea in the 1990s.

The central cause of the famines remains controversial. Scholars disagree about the relative importance of factors such as radical government policies, unrealistic plan targets, high grain-procurement rates, bad weather, or the interaction between the state and the peasants. (4) Furthermore, there is no consensus on whether the socialist governments were able to organize effective famine relief to stop the suffering at the time. There is no doubt that the Chinese and Soviet governments exported grain to foreign countries and rejected international aid while millions of peasants starved. (5) The establishment of new collectives (the kolkhoz and the people's commune) resulted in chaos and a rapid decline of agricultural production in China and the Soviet Union. In China, the policy that ended the famine, which included the legalization of private plots and rural markets and the lowering of grain quotas and exports, was introduced in 1961 but came too late.

Alongside these commonalities between the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China (PRC), it is significant that the Chinese famine was a result of the Great Leap Forward, which had placed the direct transition to communism on the agenda, whereas in the Soviet Union, Stalin had proclaimed only a new stage in the socialist revolution. In 1958, the Chinese Communists started a radical social revolution in Chinese villages with the establishment of public mess halls. With the militarization of the rural workforce in 1958 and the newly founded public mess halls, the Chinese state took over management of the food supply and left the peasants without their own supply base. Some scholars consider the establishment of the public mess halls the most important reason for the famine. (6)

In 1984, Thomas Bernstein attempted to compare the Soviet and the Chinese famines. He argued that the Soviet famine should be understood as punishment for the peasants in a context of conflicts between them and the Communist Party. By contrast, bureaucratic mismanagement based on false reports caused the famine in China. (7) Bernstein believed that the Chinese Communists held no bias against the peasants owing to their experience of a rurally based revolution. Based on recent research, it should be emphasized that the Chinese government had known that peasants were starving since early 1959. In his latest research, Bernstein shows that when famine really broke out in 1959, Mao Zedong could not believe that it was a nationwide disaster as opposed to merely a breakdown at the local level. (8)

This article compares the memories of the Ukrainian and Chinese famines. Since the author is a Sinologist, the article uses English and German sources to discuss the Ukrainian case. The analysis of the Chinese famine is based on field studies and oral-history interviews that the author conducted in China. …

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