Sheila Fitzpatrick in The Guardian:
The terrible famine of 1932-3 hit all the major Soviet grain-growing regions, but Ukraine worst of all. It was not the result of adverse climatic conditions but a product of government policies. This is, in fact, the case with many famines, as Amartya Sen pointed out in his classic study, Poverty and Famines (1981), though the deaths generally occur because of administrative mismanagement and incompetence rather than an intention to murder millions of peasants. The Soviet example is unusual in that Stalin is often accused of having exactly that intention. The famine followed agricultural collectivisation at the end of the 1920s, a formally voluntary process that was in fact coercive in its implementation. Along with forced-pace industrialisation, it was part of a package of breakthrough modernisation policies launched by Stalin in the first phase of his leadership. Industrial growth needed to be financed by grain exports, which collectivisation was supposed to facilitate through compulsory state procurements and non-negotiable prices. The problem was how to get the grain out of the countryside. The state did not know how much grain the peasants actually had, but suspected (correctly) that much was being hidden. An intense tussle between the state’s agents and peasants over grain deliveries ensued.
That is a brief version of the rational account of collectivisation, but there was an irrational side as well. The Soviet leaders had worked themselves and the population into a frenzy of anxiety about imminent attack from foreign capitalist powers. In Soviet Marxist-Leninist thinking, “class enemies” within the Soviet Union were likely to welcome such an invasion; and such class enemies included “kulaks”, the most prosperous peasants in the villages. Thus collectivisation went hand in glove with a drive against kulaks, or peasants labelled as such, who were liable to expropriation and deportation into the depths of the USSR. Resistance to collectivisation was understood as “kulak sabotage”. Stalin harped on this theme, particularly as relations with peasants deteriorated and procurement problems intensified. Ukrainian officials, including senior ones, tried to tell him that it was no longer a matter of peasants concealing grain: they actually had none, not even for their own survival through the winter and the spring sowing. But Stalin was sceptical on principle of bureaucrats who came with sob stories to explain their own failure to meet targets and discounted the warnings. Angry and paranoid after his wife killed herself in November 1932, he preferred to see the procurement shortfall as the result of sabotage. So there was no let-up in state pressure through the winter of 1932-3, and peasants fleeing the hungry villages were shut out of the cities. Stalin eased up the pressure in the spring of 1933, but it was too late to avert the famine.