What happened during the Holodomor is cause for lessons to be learned now.

By Bohdan Nahaylo

November 19, 2023

Kyiv Post


The 90th anniversary this month of the Holodomor – the horrendous crime against the Ukrainian people committed by Stalin and his servile entourage in Moscow in 1932-33, is upon us. Millions perished as a result of it, while the Russian-dominated Soviet state got away with mass murder because of Western naivety and myopia.

Dispatches at that time from a few courageous eyewitness Western correspondents who reported that a deliberate, punitive and in fact genocidal starvation of Ukrainians by the Soviet regime was taking place, were ignored. The outside world did not want to believe that such a massive atrocity was being carrried out. The purveyors of fake news whitewashing the Soviet killers – such as the American Pulitzer Prize Winner Walter Duranty, George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells  – were taken at their word.

This was 1933 and the democratic countries were preoccupied with the fact that Hitler and his Nazi followers had come to power in Germany in 1932. Hence, despite the appalling crime against humanity it had committed in 1932-33 in Ukraine, the USSR was seen as some sort of a counterbalance. The following year it was actually invited to join the League of Nations and the US opened diplomatic ties with it. Within a mere five years, the democratic world was confronted with the error of its ways. In 1939, emboldened by the West’s foolish appeasement, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed a non-aggression pact which set the scene for their attack on, and partitioning of, Poland – which triggered the beginning of World War II. And in December of that year – yes, as late as that – the USSR was expelled from the League of Nations for attacking Finland.

And that’s not the end of the story. In June 1941, Nazi Germany unexpectedly attacked its ally, the Soviet Union. Suddenly, by force of unforetold circumstances, two former enemies – Britain led by Churchill and the USSR headed by the monstrous “Uncle Joe” Stalin became unholy allies.

Later that year, having sat it out on the fence until attacked by Nazi Germany’s ally Japan in Pearl Harbor, the “Isolationist” US joined the anti-Hitler coalition. And how did it end, or rather revolve? In February 1945, the leaders of Britian, the US and USSR met in Yalta, in Crimea, and agreed, in effect, that when Hitler was defeated, the Soviet Union would be free to do as it pleased in eastern Europe.

In other words, without necessarily foreseeing how far Stalin would actually dare to go in expanding the Soviet Union’s imperial might, the representatives of the West’s democratic forces gave carte blanche to the red dictator championing Russia’s imperialistic interests.

What followed?  After the defeat of Nazi Germany, the Cold War between East and West ensued, with Eastern and Central Europe being written off by the West and held in captivity by Soviet Russia, aka USSR, in its “communist bloc.” That lasted until these victim countries themselves threw off Moscow’s control at the end of the 1980s.

And even then, the leaders of the “free world,” the UK’s prime minister Margaret Thatcher and the US president George Bush, were ever so reluctant to have Moscow reduced to size. Right until the end, they were in favor of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev salvaging the Soviet empire even though its subject peoples, like the Ukrainians, wanted out.

And there was more of this myopic naivety, seen as appeasement of Russia, to come. Disarming Ukraine’s nuclear arsenal with empty security pledges, blocking its membership of NATO and playing footsie by some with Russia after the latter seized control of Ukraine’s Crimea and part of eastern Ukraine in 2014.

Yes, late in the day, in 2022, when Russia’s reasserted imperialism and aggression became even too much for Washington, Berlin, Paris and others to stomach, Ukraine began receiving the understanding, recognition and support it had long deserved. But even then there was no closing of the sky over Ukraine and the supply of critical arms was slow in coming.

And what now?  Russia is waging a genocidal war against Ukraine by other means. In 1933 its weapon was the cynical imposition of hunger in Europe’s breadbasket – today it’s through military warfare, missiles, rockets, drones, the destruction of entire towns and cities, port infrastructure, agriculture, ethnic cleansing, and mining, aided and abetted by fake news and disinformation. But Ukraine is holding its own and has proved it can, with Western support, push back the Russian rapacious giant.

Yet even now the voices calling on Ukraine to give in to Russia are growing, and in the US Congress the continuation of support for the beleaguered country – the frontline of the struggle for democratic values and the rule of international law – has been placed in doubt. Fake news, appeasement, isolationsm are trending.

So, as we look back over the last 90 years to the terrible years of the Holodomor, can we say in all honesty that we have learned the lessons from the past and drawn the right conclusions? History may not repeat itself exactly, but it should give us plenty to think about and encourage us to act more responsibly.

At that time – 90 years ago – the insular democratic world did not want to face up to unpleasant realities and the inherent threats. Hopefully, we are now wiser and more resolute. Hopefully!


Bohdan Nahaylo, Chief Editor of Kyiv Post, is a British-Ukrainian journalist and veteran Ukraine watcher based in Kyiv, Ukraine. He was formerly a senior United Nations official and policy adviser, and director of Radio Liberty’s Ukrainian Service.