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Food as a weapon. What you should know about Holodomor, the artificial famine that killed millions of Ukrainians

Every year, on the fourth Saturday of November, Ukraine and the world commemorate millions of victims of the Holodomor of 1932-1933. We honor the memory of those who starved to death not because of poor crops or natural disasters but because of Stalin’s purposeful genocide of Ukrainians.

Almost nine decades have passed since this crime. However, the Holodomor is still not unanimously recognized as genocide in the world. There is not a single resolution of the UN General Assembly that would clearly and reasonedly condemn the Soviet totalitarian regime on a par with Nazism.

The National Museum of the Holodomor-Genocide in Kyiv.
Photo: Eduard Kryzhanivskyi

This year, Ukrainians have to honor the memory of the victims of the genocide during a full-scale war with Russia. The war, which is once again accompanied by genocidal practices. However, this time Russian regime no longer hides its goal of eliminating Ukrainian identity.

Moreover, Moscow is once again using food as a weapon, this time – to pressure the international community. For months, the Black Sea was completely blocked by Russia, significantly reducing the number of agricultural products exported from Ukraine. 730,000 people in the world may face famine because of Russia’s aggression. Ukrainian fertile lands are covered with explosives, while Ukrainian crops are stolen from the temporarily occupied territories.

The crimes and tragedies unfold before our eyes and show why remembrance is so important. Those who committed crimes against humanity must be condemned, while the victims must be honored justly. Otherwise, unpunished evil will return again and again. Just like the ongoing Russia’s war against Ukraine, the genocide of the early 1930s was a response to Ukrainians’ desire to live freely and independently on their own land.

Before the tragedy: Ukrainian national revival

At the end of World War I, when empires were collapsing in Europe, numerous nations began building their own states on their ruins. Ukrainians, divided between the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires at that time, were among these nations.

In 1917, the Ukrainian national liberation movement was developing rapidly on the territory of the Russian Empire, where revolutionary events had already begun. Within a year, in January 1918, the Ukrainian Central Rada (the parliament) proclaimed the independence of the Ukrainian People’s Republic. And a year later, on January 22, 1919, another significant event took place – the Ukrainian lands, previously divided between the empires, were united into a single state by the Unification Act (“Akt Zluky”).

Proclamation of the Unification Act in Kyiv. January 22, 1919.
Photo: Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance

From the very beginning, Ukrainians had to defend their state on several fronts simultaneously. In the early 1920s, the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, and the Red Army occupied the Ukrainian People’s Republic. Thus, a large part of Ukraine ended up in the Soviet Union.

However, the experience of statehood did not just vanish into oblivion. Despite the war and political struggles, in just a few years, Ukrainians managed to form state institutions, establish cultural and scientific institutions, and boost national art and literature development.

To strengthen control over captured Ukraine, the Bolsheviks had to take this into consideration. They established a quasi-state Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic (Ukrainian SSR). The communist regime resorted to the policy of “indigenization”, which involved the development of local cultures. And also to the New Economic Policy (NEP), which contributed to the liberalization of the economy.

Therefore, the national revival continued in Ukraine in the 1920s in the cultural sphere. And it was largely focused on Ukrainian traditions and Europe rather than Moscow. The slogan of the Ukrainian communist and writer Mykola Khvylovyi “Get away from Moscow!” became a symbol of that time.

Genocide was organized to subjugate Ukraine

The end of the 1920s became a turning point. Joseph Stalin concentrated full political power in his hands and began forced collectivization and industrialization. With its agricultural and industrial potential, Ukraine was assigned as a source of funds for these ambitious plans. Moscow wasn’t playing around with national movements anymore. The NEP and the policy of “indigenization” were curtailed. The cancellation of the Ukrainization coincided in time with the artificial famine and was a part of the genocidal policy.

One of the first demonstrational political court cases in the Soviet Union took place in 1929 and was directed against Ukrainian intellectuals who were at the forefront of Ukrainization. About 300 people were convicted for participation in a fictitious organization, the Union for the Liberation of Ukraine.

In the same year, tens of thousands of State Political Administration agents (GPU, Soviet intelligence service, and secret police), Сommunist party officials, and common party members arrived in Ukrainian villages to force peasants to join collective farms. The authorities launched a campaign to persecute wealthy peasants, labeled “kurkuls”. In the first four months of 1930, more than 113,000 “kurkuls” were deported from Soviet Ukraine. Thousands of cold freight train cars filled with people left for remote areas of Siberia and Kazakhstan. Deportations of families from the Ukrainian villages continued in the following years.

A family labeled as “kurkuls” on their way to exile.
Photo: Marko Zalizniak / The National Museum of the Holodomor-Genocide

As a result, in February-March 1930, a wave of uprisings and armed demonstrations against the forced collectivization of farms swept through the Ukrainian countryside. That year, more than 4,000 mass protests were recorded in Soviet Ukraine, with 1.2 million peasants participating. Peasant protests took place in different regions of the Soviet Union, but in Ukraine the opposition was particularly large in scale. Too large to be countered by repression alone. The Soviet regime made a tactical retreat but did not give up on the plans to subjugate Ukraine.

The following year, collectivization started again – actively, but slowly this time, family by family instead of the whole village at once. After all, the Soviet authorities managed to collectivize about 70% of peasant farms. However, the collective farming system did not deliver the expected results. In 1931, in order to fulfill the established harvest quotas, almost the entire crop was taken from the peasants.

At the beginning of 1932, Ukrainian villages were already starving, and people did not have enough grain to sow the fields. Collective farm workers wrote letters to the state and party leaders about the situation, Ukrainian communists appealed to the Soviet Union leaders and sent numerous reports of starvation deaths in Ukrainian villages.

“Farmers go to the fields and disappear. In a few days, their bodies are discovered and put in graves, completely without emotion, as if it was normal. And the next day you may already find the body of a person who has just dug graves for the others,” one such letter from June 1932 said.

Vlas Chubar, the head of the government of the Ukrainian SSR, admitted in June 1932 that the famine was caused by excessive levies, which left the peasants with nothing to eat. He wrote about it to Stalin. In the critical situation that had developed, the civilized way out of the crisis was to revise the excessive quotas and provide assistance to the starving peasants. However, the leaders of the Soviet Union in Moscow did neither the first nor the second.

Several families from the starving countryside on their way to Kharkiv on foot.
Photo: Alexander Wienerberger / The National Museum of the Holodomor-Genocide

On the contrary, in August 1932, the authorities issued the infamous “Law of Spikelets”. The “theft” of collective farm property was punished by execution, and even a few ears of wheat picked in the field were considered such.

Joseph Stalin used hunger as a weapon to deal with the Ukrainians, whom he saw as a threat. Simultaneously with the artificial famine aimed at subjugating the Ukrainian countryside, he launched large-scale repressions against Ukrainian communists and officials that were considered not loyal enough. At the same time, the policy of Ukrainization was curtailed, and persecution of Ukrainian artists, cultural figures, and scientists began.

Everything was done to turn Ukraine into, as Stalin said, an “exemplary republic.” The Soviet dictator considered the possible loss of Ukraine a threat to the very existence of the Soviet Union.

In the first half of 1933, demographers observed the explosion of mortality in Ukraine. Most of the millions of starvation deaths happened during this period. The famine occurred in different regions of the USSR, but only in Ukraine, as well as in the Kuban and North Caucasus, areas largely inhabited by ethnic Ukrainians, the death rate was that high. The main reasons were repressive measures that deprived Ukrainian peasants of food and the opportunity to obtain or find any.

At the end of 1932 and in 1933, apart from grain, other food and livestock were forcibly confiscated from the peasants. In January-February 1933, mass searches were conducted in private yards and houses, and all the remains of food that could still be found were withdrawn.

The brigade goes from house to house and takes what it wants from whom it wants, and where it then goes is unknown. There are cases when they take away as much bread as there is, and if you don’t give it, they arrest you and take away all your property. If you don’t give it, they will beat you, and if you don’t let them in the house, they will knock the door down. Some people bought bread, and then the brigade accused them of “stealing from the collective farm”, and then they took cabbage, cucumbers, and everything else from the cellars“, one of the contributors informed the editorial board of the newspaper “Soviet Village” in December 1932 about the “activities” of such a brigade in the village Krasnopillia in then the Odesa (now Kirovohrad) region.

Collective farms, villages, and even entire districts were put on the so-called “black boards” for failure to meet the grain harvest quotas. That essentially meant the introduction of a state of emergency and isolation. Military units surrounded such settlements. Freedom of movement was taken away from the peasants, so few could go elsewhere in search for food. To implement the most severe repressions, party members and soldiers from other parts of the USSR, who had no mercy for the people condemned to death by starvation, were sent to Ukraine.

Conditions that made it almost impossible for Ukrainian peasants to survive were deliberately and artificially created in Soviet Ukraine.

In 1933, Ukrainian villages were desolate and cold. They were like hell on earth. Exhausted and swollen from hunger, both adults and children died a slow and painful death in despair and humiliation, surrounded by silence and indifference. Ukraine resembled a giant concentration camp – watchtowers, closed borders, death, and hopelessness.

Whole villages are dying out in Ukraine. I remember what an agronomist told me in Kharkiv. He went to the Poltava region to sign contracts for planting beets. It was in early spring. They entered the village, enveloped in dead silence. He entered the houses with his companion and saw the dead that had begun to decompose. Saw dead children and a nanny in the nursery.

That is a 1933 entry from Oleksandra Radchenko’s diary. She was a teacher who lived in the Kharkiv region during Holodomor. Oleksandra’s diaries, which she had kept since 1926, were preserved in her criminal case. The Soviet authorities arrested and convicted the teacher because of them. Radchenko’s testimony was found and published by researchers only after the archives of the Soviet military, security, and repressive bodies became public in independent Ukraine.

Another diary, in which the testimonies about Holodomor were recorded, belonged to a peasant Nestor Bilous. It was also preserved in a criminal case.

“People of all ages are dying of hunger, especially children. In some families, all small children from infants to 10-year-olds died,” he wrote in April 1933.

And this is his record from June of the same year: “People are dying of starvation: at railway stations, in Kharkiv, in the fields, and no one is taking them away. For example, Mykola Kostenko died near Taganka about a month ago, and no one has removed the corpse, and Red Army commanders pass by every day. And no one cares that the corpse has already decomposed, and it is impossible to pass by.

The memory of Ukrainian starvation passed through generations

By the method of genocide, Stalin managed to form Soviet Ukraine that did not pose a threat, at least for a while, and to force it into the Soviet imperial project at last.

International lawyer Rafal Lemkin, the author of the term “genocide”, later called the events in Ukraine “a classic example of Soviet genocide.” The very core of rural society in Ukraine, which was at that time the core of the Ukrainian nation, was plundered and destroyed. It took decades for Ukrainian culture to begin recovering from the repressions of the 1930s.

The Soviet dictator managed not only to tame the unruly republic for some time but also to bury the truth about genocide under the lies and falsifications of Soviet propaganda. Even families that survived Holodomor did not talk about what they had experienced for decades. However, the wound continued to bleed. Older generations of Ukrainians could not leave a drop of soup on their plate or a crumb of bread on the table for the rest of their lives. The psychological and sociocultural consequences of this genocide are still being studied.

A young girl with signs of starvation in Kharkiv, 1933.
Photo: Alexander Wienerberger / The National Museum of the Holodomor-Genocide

The scale of the lies and falsifications of the communist totalitarian regime was so great that researchers still cannot name the exact number of people killed in Holodomor – let alone establish all of their names. In academic discussions, the number of victims is from 4 to 10 million.

The path to wider research and public remembrance of the Ukrainian genocide has been truly opened only with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In September 1993, 60 years after the tragedy, Ukraine honored its victims for the first time at the state level. In 2002, the Holodomor of 1932-1933 was recognized as a genocide of Ukrainians by a resolution of the Ukrainian parliament, and in 2006 by a law.

As of November 2022, 19 United Nations Member States have recognized the Holodomor as a genocide at the parliamentary level. Ukrainian society is grateful for their consideration of historical truth and solidarity. However, at the level of the UN General Assembly, there is still no resolution that would clearly and reasonedly condemn the Soviet totalitarian regime. Even though historians and lawyers have long been noting the expediency of condemning the communist totalitarian regime on a par with Nazism and the similarity of both regimes.

For Ukrainians, the terrible history is a reminder that by losing our own state, we become defenseless against the crime of genocide. And thus today, when Russia, а successor of Stalin’s totalitarian regime, seeks to destroy Ukraine, we fight so desperately for it. Ukrainians know what is at stake, especially when today we see how Russia’s forces resort to genocidal methods again in the Ukrainian territories they managed to occupy temporarily.

But here is also a lesson for the world: by turning a blind eye to the heinous crimes of the regimes, we are laying a base for their repetition.

Today, the Russian regime is resorting to genocidal practices in the war against Ukraine. But it also does not shy away from using food as a weapon once again, this time – to pressure the international community. Russia does not care who and where will suffer or even die of hunger.

Only proper commemoration, conviction, and punishment of all perpetrators of crimes against humanity can be a safeguard against their repetition of crimes. And recognizing Holodomor as a genocide and condemning the Soviet totalitarian regime are the inevitable steps on this path.

This article was created in partnership with the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance.