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Exploring the Darker Side of Everything

The Holodomor – Ukraine’s Soviet Terror-Famine


On February 24th of this year, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of their neighbor, Ukraine, plunging Europe into the worst armed conflict it’s seen since the Second World War, and the worst humanitarian disaster since the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The conflict represents a massive shift in the calculus of both the European and wider world order, and for the future, it will be talked about decades after the guns stop firing.

For Russia and Ukraine, the conflict is another chapter in a long history between the two countries, a history marked by episodes of acrimony and, in some cases, horrific disaster. Today, we’re going to be looking back at the last time Russia inflicted a severe crisis on Ukraine, in the early days of the Soviet Union. This is the story of the Holodomor, a man-made famine and the worst that Ukraine has ever seen.

The Borderland

Border guard by Igor Zarembo is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Ukraine has a long history, one defined by its geography. The land sits at the confluence of the Eurasian steppes, the Dnieper River, and the Black Sea, all of which have influenced Ukraine’s culture and past. From the times of the Greek city states all the way through to the Russian Empire, the region was characterized by outsiders as a wild frontier, inhabited by hardy people who were fiercely independent. It was also recognized as an economic powerhouse, with the “black soil” of the Dnieper River basin forming one of the most productive agricultural regions in all of Europe. It remains that way to this day – Ukraine has, in recent years, established itself along with Russia as one of the world’s largest exporters of grain.

Such richness in the soil attracts rivals, and Ukraine’s flat geography made it naturally attractive to invaders, much like Mesopotamia in the Middle East. The first power to exert itself in the region was the Kyivan Rus’, a large trading federation that Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine tend to see as the beginning of their modern history.

The next thousand years would see Ukraine passed between one empire after another, from Lithuania to Poland to the Ottomans to Russia. A Ukrainian national identity always existed, in some form or another, during this time, from the Don Cossacks living more or less independent from the Kings of Poland or the Tsars of Russia, as well as cultural figures like the poet Taras Shevchenko. But they never got the chance to form their own independent state to go along with their nation, until the upheaval of the First World War.

In 1917, following the February Revolution, Tsar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate the Russian throne. For the first time ever, Russia had no monarchy, and it became an open question as to what would replace it – liberalism, communism, or something else. Given that the Russian Empire was composed of many different ethnic minorities, the atmosphere of revolution that had deposed the Tsar soon spread to them in the form of nationalism. One of those minorities was the Ukrainians.

Meeting in March of 1917, barely a month after Nicholas’ abdication, a council of Ukrainian politicians declared autonomy, though not independence, from Russia. This was accepted by the Russian provisional government, but the calculus changed with the October Revolution later that year. The Bolsheviks’ relationship with nationalism is rather complicated, but it was clear that many high ranking officials, including Vladimir Lenin, saw Ukraine as an immutable part of Russia, and their new Soviet Union.

The Ukrainians, obviously, did not see it that way, and Ukraine became a key battleground in the ensuing Russian Civil War that followed the October Revolution. The Russian Civil War is, even by historical standards, extremely complicated, and so to oversimplify, the Bolsheviks won, and Ukraine was partitioned between the USSR and a newly independent Poland. The Bolsheviks set about attempting to purge the Ukrainian national identity, identifying it as “separatism”. Academics were jailed, exiled, or shot; the Ukrainian language, in all its forms, was banned, with party officials pointedly refusing to use it while still calling themselves Ukrainian.

But with all of the repression happening, the true hardship was only just beginning. For the Bolsheviks would now find themselves governing a country that couldn’t feed itself.

The Bandit Government

From the start of World War I to the end of World War II, a period of 31 years lasting from 1914 to 1945, the Soviet Union’s single greatest problem was that of food. When World War I began, massive amounts of young men were drawn from rural communities, depriving Russian farms of manpower to work the fields. Soon, the agricultural economy came under strain, and Russia began to starve. Indeed, one of the key slogans of the Bolsheviks was, “Peace, Land, Bread”, referring to the policies of getting out of World War I, redistributing aristocratic land to the poor, and providing food for a populace that was going hungry. The first two promises proved easier to deliver on than the third, not least because of the Bolsheviks’ complicated relationship with the largest demographic of their country – the peasants.

The peasants were an important foundation of the state, being the primary source of food for most Soviet citizens. During the Russian Civil War, the Bolsheviks simply seized grain from the peasants in order to feed the cities; if the cities starved, the Bolsheviks wouldn’t survive, since the urban poor were their base of support. Shockingly, this had the effect of turning many peasants against the Bolsheviks. But even before that, many were already not keen on the new communist state. Some were old-fashioned conservatives who didn’t like the anti-Christian stance of the Bolsheviks, while others were pro-socialist, but anti-Bolshevik. Altogether, this left a pillar of society that was overwhelmingly either apathetic or actively against the new regime.

This was baffling to the Bolsheviks, as they believed that the poor peasantry would’ve naturally supported them. Where persuasion failed, they used force. Any peasants who opposed the Bolsheviks was labelled a “kulak”, a derisive word that referred to well-off peasants who owned land, and many people found themselves on the wrong side. Ukraine in particular was hard-hit by these crackdowns, with some villages having hundreds massacred, or their entire adult male populations wiped out, as a form of retaliation, sometimes for something as little as the killing of a single Red Army soldier.

Following the end of the Civil War, the Bolsheviks realized that they could not safely ignore the peasantry, particularly those in Ukraine. They had to be kept under control, but they should also be formally included in the state’s communist ideology, which was originally limited to just the urban workers. To that end, the Bolsheviks identified the peasantry and the workers as one and the same, symbolizing their supposed unity in an icon known the world over: the famous hammer and sickle, emblazoned on the Soviet flag in 1922.

This system did work, at least in holding down dissent. But it didn’t fix the fact that the Soviet Union was starving. Hundreds of thousands of people were still missing from the farmlands, and this, combined with the Bolsheviks’ confiscation of grain from the peasants and a bad harvest, started a famine in the years of 1920-21. Hundreds of thousands of people left their homes in search of food, and it was estimated that between two and five million people died, including 250,000 and 500,000 Ukrainians. Faced with the scale of the problem, the party leadership grudgingly made the call to allow foreign charities to distribute food aid, including an American one led by future president Herbert Hoover, which alleviated the worst of the problems and no doubt saved many thousands of lives.

Following the famine, Russia was the most peaceful it had been in a decade. It was also horrifically scarred. Millions were dead, and many more were living in poverty. Hundreds of thousands of orphaned children roamed the streets of cities, abandoned by the state and society. As Vladimir Lenin described it, Russia as a country resembled “a man beaten to within an inch of his life.” Furthermore, the agricultural sector still wasn’t stable, with rising industrial prices and falling food prices causing farmers to lower their output, in an episode known as the “Scissors Crisis”. It sounds more interesting than it was.

Despite his notoriously opinionated personality, even Lenin recognized that it would take some desperate measures to help the country recover. So, for the first time in his life, he took the pragmatic approach, permitting limited private enterprise to boost the economy. This New Economic Policy, or NEP, was controversial among Bolshevik circles, particularly from a certain Leon Trotsky, who criticized it as going against Marxist orthodoxy.

But Lenin, the foremost Bolshevik of them all, was beyond reproach, and so the NEP went forward. The NEP itself is rather complex, but it was essentially state capitalism on the model of China’s. The other important point is that it worked, at least for a while. True, the country was essentially starting from zero, meaning things could hardly have gotten worse, but from 1922 to 1925, production in most sectors, particularly in agriculture, increased greatly.

Inconveniently, around this same time, Lenin’s health rapidly deteriorated, and then he died. This left his new country in a state of contention as to who would succeed him, and by extension, what direction the government’s policies would take. It is at this point that our next character enters the picture.

Man of Steel

From left to right, Russian leader Josef Stalin, Soviet politician Nikolai Bukharin, commissar of workers G.K. Orjonikidzie, and commissar of railroads Jan Rudzutak, seen Nov. 21, 1930. (AP Photo) CC-BY-NC-SA

Josef Stalin was named General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1922. This position allowed him to slowly build allies throughout the apparatus of the Soviet state, by giving plum positions to those aligned with him. Stalin proceeded to patiently wait in the background following Lenin’s death, and eventually emerged as the most powerful figure in the government, forcing all his potential rivals out of politics. That, of course, would not be the end of the story for many of them, but there were more immediate ramifications from Stalin’s rise.

First, Stalin did not believe in the New Economic Policy that had helped to stave off hunger earlier in the decade. At first, he had supported the policy, but that was only because Trotsky had opposed it. Once he was gone, Stalin turned around and denounced the policy, just as Trotsky had done. By this point, the cracks in the policy had caused, once again, an unproductive agricultural sector. Stalin believed that any grain crisis was best solved with force, in part because of the second big change that came with Stalin – paranoia.

Stalin was famously paranoid, constantly worrying about plots, conspiracies, and threats inside and out. He believed that the capitalist West would one day mobilize to crush the Soviet Union, to protect themselves against the revolution. He believed that the USSR’s neighbors, including Japan and Poland, were secretly fomenting nationalism in Ukraine to undermine Soviet rule. He believed that the world was out to get him, and his country.

What did this mean? It meant that, when Stalin ordered the secret police to start arresting grain traders and to search peasant homes, the discovery of large quantities of grain being held back from the markets caused Stalin to believe that a conspiracy was afoot. He dismissed the idea that people had logically decided to wait until food prices went up, to sell their grain for more money; to him, this was evidence that he was right, and that counterrevolutionaries were holding back the Soviet Union, most notably the kulaks.

The thorough demonization of the kulaks had continued apace during the 1920s. But kulaks continued to be the most productive farmers, building larger estates than other peasants. Stalin recognized this, and concluded that the secret of productivity in agriculture was scale. This was the opposite of the reality – larger estates came from productivity – but it worked for Stalin ideologically and politically. He wanted the Soviet Union to industrialize as soon as possible, believing that it would make the state more powerful and more communist. As such, he wanted fewer people working in agriculture, while also boosting agricultural production. How to square this circle? Well, after having the misguided epiphany of scale and productivity, Stalin decided that he would boost Soviet agriculture through large, state-owned farms, and that the peasants would give up their private land to join them.

Collectivization, as this was called, is well known as one of the most disastrous policies to come out of communism. It was tried in many countries, and it failed every time, causing entire agricultural sectors to collapse and widespread hunger as a result. Stalin’s collectivization was the first of its kind, and he was aware of the costs that it might impose. But he didn’t care. He was building a worker’s state, not a peasant’s state, and he believed that collectivizing agriculture would make the peasants behave more like workers.

There was a more ominous reason, too. In building the Soviet state, Stalin sought to crush any national identities, in favor of creating a universal Soviet identity. To that end, Stalin saw the peasants of Ukraine as being inextricably linked to Ukrainian nationalism, which he viewed as a threat to the state. This threat was, of course, greatly exaggerated, but Stalin took it seriously, all the same. Even if collectivization harmed the Ukrainian peasantry, Stalin believed that such harm would also weaken Ukrainian nationalism, securing Soviet rule in Ukraine. It’s a shockingly cynical viewpoint, and it would have equally shocking consequences in the years to come.

Collectivization, and the accompanying “dekulakization”, began in earnest in 1928. The effort was carried out with harassment, haranguing, and often with violence and intimidation. Millions of peasants were herded onto kolkhozes, or collective farms, with their properties handed over to it, and set to work on unrealistic quotas for grain harvests. Anyone labelled a kulak was deported, often to Siberia, in the first labor camps that would become the Gulag system.

Very few went along with this willingly. Many peasants saw the collectivization effort as a second serfdom, as in the days of the Tsar. State officials were beaten and sometimes killed; when grain was confiscated, angry mobs would storm the storage buildings and take it back. When asked to hand over their cattle to the state farms, many peasants instead slaughtered them in defiance. Still others voted with their feet; between 1928 and 1932, ten million peasants left the rural farmsteads for the urban factories, joining the industrial workforce.

None of this made much difference to Stalin and other party leaders, who only saw that the rate of collectivization was proceeding apace. This convinced them that agricultural production was about to increase by an order of magnitude, and so the central government made a fateful, and disastrous, decision – they would export Soviet grain abroad, the same grain that was supposed to be feeding Soviet citizens.

Let’s review the events of the last two decades. The Soviet Union has lost millions of productive farm workers to war, famine, repression, and otherwise. The peasant communities are scarred and almost universally against the Soviet government. And the agricultural sector is going through a structural upheaval, lowering its productivity, with what little it produces now being exported outside of the country. The situation is primed for collapse. And collapse it did.

The Great Hunger

In summer of 1932, the central government in Moscow declared that Ukraine’s collective farms were required to meet their still-unrealistic quotas, without exception. It was gradually becoming clear that disagreeing with Stalin meant losing your job, your freedom, and possibly your life, and so party officials in Ukraine set about to meet that quota by any means necessary. This meant confiscating whatever food was left, in the homes of millions of Ukrainian peasants.

On the collective farms, things were even worse. Peasants had everything confiscated, even down to their daily food rations. Hunger proliferated, and some started stealing. In response, the theft of “state property” was made a capital offense, punishable by ten years of hard labor, or death. Other times, ruinous fines were levied upon anyone who hoarded or stole food, which were often used as a pretext for further crackdowns and theft of food. The entire time, the food that was being collected was being exported out of the country, and Stalin refused to change course, or to alter food aid to Ukraine. No foreign charities would be allowed into the country this time.

The government also formalized a system of “blacklists”, whereby villages and farms that failed to meet their grain quotas were sanctioned from receiving supplies of industrial goods or raw materials like fuel. Soon they were banned from trading entirely, meaning that peasants who lived on underperforming farms were barred from trading with, or for, grain. Essentially, entire villages were outlawed from possessing food.

The famine was largely localized within Ukraine. One Ukrainian worker remarked, “Interestingly enough, beyond Kharkiv where the Russian territory starts there was no hunger.” Wandering Ukrainians, searching for food, found little sympathy in the neighboring Soviet Republics of Russia and Belarus. In response to this flight, Stalin simply closed the Ukrainian borders, and any Ukrainians found outside of the country were returned to it. Thousands of people who had fled the starvation were sent back to it. In addition, a new internal passport system was introduced, tying Ukrainians to the lands they lived on, just as serfdom had done.

All the while, mass confiscations continued apace. Peasants were encouraged to inform on their neighbors if they had food, in exchange for up to a third of what was taken. As the hunger deepened, more people began taking this deal, selling out their neighbors so that their own families wouldn’t starve. Anyone who tried to resist was beaten or tortured, with a common method being to slam people’s hands in doors. Others had their clothes taken before they were thrown out into the winter snows.

There was widespread suffering. Any livestock that remained were led away or slaughtered; even pets, including cats and dogs, were killed for food, or killed and then confiscated. The suffering soon turned to dying, to the point where even being alive was reason for suspicion; if no one in a family had died, that meant the family had food, and they were harassed by local party activists for it.

The common humanity that bound these communities together was ripped apart in the face of the starvation. People who had otherwise been kind or generous to one another suddenly treated others with spite or hatred. Even family members weren’t safe. Relatives were thrown out of houses for being burdens, or murdered for stealing food from the house; children stopped listening to their parents, or parents abandoned their children, unable to bear watching them starve to death. And even worse things happened, too. At one point during the famine, authorities put up posters declaring: “To eat your own children is a barbarian act.” The more harrowing message was that the posters needed to be put up at all.

Cannibalism was reportedly widespread during the famine. Some say that the practice became normalized, out of extreme need, while other, mostly first-hand accounts say that the incident almost always inspired intervention from the community. Over 2,500 people were tried and sentenced for eating other human beings. And yes, sometimes, it was their own close family.

Early on, there was some violent pushback, in the form of attempted murders on party officials. But that didn’t last long, as the famine grew worse and the starving people became simply too weak to fight back. They had no energy to resist, or even be angry about the situation; what started out as widespread rage and anger became collective apathy and indifference. Vasily Grossman described the phenomenon like this:

“In the beginning, starvation drives a person out of the house. In its first stage, he is tormented and driven as though by fire and torn both in the guts and in the soul. …then a day comes when the starving person crawls back into his house. And the meaning of this is that famine, starvation, has won. The human being cannot be saved. He lies down on his bed and stays there.”

In the eyes of many, these starving people were as good as dead. People who weren’t even dead yet were carried off on corpse carts, in a grim echo of a famous Monty Python sketch. Some were thrown into mass graves, still alive, and buried. Few tried to help them.

So this continued, for more than a year, until after the Spring of 1933, when the shortage of food subsided at last. The central government finally approved food aid to Ukraine in May of that year, using food that had originally been confiscated from the same peasants. The harvest came up well, at least when considering the decimation of the peasantry. And the government phased out its grain requisition for a percentage-based tax instead, meaning peasants were no longer robbed of their entire food storage to meet unrealistic quotas. With this, the famine subsided slowly over the summer and fall of 1933.

The final death toll of the famine is unclear, but it ranges from 2 million on the low end, to 10 million on the high end. The real number is likely between 3 and 5 million. Out of a population of 31 million, that meant more than one in every ten Ukrainians were killed by hunger, a hunger that was deliberately aggravated by the man in charge, through policies that were misguided at best, and malevolent at worst. Beyond the death toll, many thousands also succeeded in leaving Ukraine, and generations of people have never returned.

Vichnaya Pamyat

Following the end of the famine, Soviet authorities, unsurprisingly, covered up the true death toll of the disaster. They blamed the kulaks and nationalism for the disaster. In public, nobody acknowledged the famine, not even those who had lived through it, either because of fear of speaking out or a desire to forget the entire thing. Some kept diaries, hiding them from the authorities.

The suffering inflicted on Ukraine by the Holodomor was not the end of the pain. A mere ten years after the famine’s end, the Wehrmacht of Nazi Germany would march through Ukraine, subjecting it to one of the harshest occupations anywhere in Europe. After World War II, Ukraine finally entered what could reasonably be called a peaceful time, until the disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant put a final punctuation mark on Ukraine’s Soviet history. It’s little surprise that Ukraine was instrumental in the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Today, Ukraine has a holiday, Holodomor Memorial Day, on the fourth Saturday of every November, to remember the year that inflicted so much loss.

With its language, its history, and its culture, it is clear to everyone in the world not named Vladimir Putin that Ukraine is a nation, with a long history of suffering, but also of pride. That makes the Russian invasion of Ukraine, including the besieging and starving of Ukrainian cities, all the more criminal. One can only hope that when the guns stop firing, it is for the last time.

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