Millions of Ukrainians were starved to death by Soviet authorities in 1932-33. Then as now, Kremlin leaders seized grain as a means of crushing resistance.
By Marta Baziuk
Nov. 20, 2022
In its brutal war on Ukraine, among Russia’s lethal weapons are control of Ukrainian grain and manipulation of food security. Russian forces have stolen some 200,000 metric tons of grain from Ukraine, trucking it across the border into Russia, and Russia maintains a chokehold on Ukraine’s exports, threatening to pull out of an agreement that ensured the flow of grain from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports.
In response to Russia’s weaponization of food, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy this week called on the international community to join his country in its initiative “Grain from Ukraine,” aimed at supplying some of the world’s poorest countries. Speaking via video link to a meeting of the G20 leaders, he said Ukraine is ready to export 45 million tons of food this year, adding, “Let a significant part of it be directed to those who suffer the most.”
As Zelenskyy pointed out, Ukrainians have experienced first-hand how food can be weaponized. Each year on the fourth Saturday of November, Ukrainian communities the world over commemorate the millions who were starved to death by Soviet authorities in 1932-33 in what is now known as the Holodomor. Then as now, Kremlin leaders seized Ukrainian grain as a means of crushing resistance. Then as now, they engaged in relentless propaganda to demonize their victims and justify their persecution, casting the Ukrainians who opposed them as treacherous, less than human and deserving extermination.
During the Holodomor, search brigades went house to house throughout the Ukrainian countryside, confiscating not only the grain grown by peasant farmers but in many cases, all foodstuffs. The loss of life was horrific. In June 1933, the height of the famine, 28,000 people were dying each day.
How a genocidal crime of this scale can remain little known offers us a lesson in the power of disinformation. At the time of the Holodomor, the USSR refused offers of international food aid, denying that Ukrainians were starving. For more than 50 years until its collapse, the Soviet Union denied that millions had starved, slandering those who sought to bring the Holodomor to light.
Russia today also uses disinformation to divert attention from its crimes aimed at destroying Ukraine as an independent country. The aim of disinformation is often not so much to convince us as to sow enough confusion that we shrug our collective shoulders and conclude “Who can really be sure what is true?” The point is that we end up taking no action. An example is Russia’s
claims that its war is a “special operation” to “de-nazify” Ukraine. While the charge may seem ridiculous — Ukraine’s democratically elected president is Jewish — if the cynical narrative contributes to hesitation to support Ukraine, it has achieved its goal.
The commemorative events that are held each November recognize the dignity of every human life taken during the Holodomor, lives that the perpetrators in their denials strove to erase. They also serve as declarations that what happened nearly a century ago matters and that the truth prevails.
This November marks the start of the 90th anniversary year of the Holodomor. In the shadow of the Russian invasion, commemorations take on new meaning. We remember not only the victims of the Holodomor, but mourn the tens of thousands who have died as a result of Russia’s current war and those who have sacrificed their lives defending Ukraine’s right to exist.
In 1932-33, Ukrainians did not have an independent country. They lacked the standing to counter disinformation on the international stage, to get food aid to their starving compatriots and to bring the perpetrators to justice. In commemorating the Holodomor this anniversary year, Ukrainians are exposing and countering the use of food as a weapon and insisting that justice be served — both for victims of the Holodomor and of Russia’s war today.
Marta Baziuk is executive director of the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta, with offices in Toronto.