90 years ago the Soviet-engineered Holodomor atrocity came to an end, but its horrific legacy continues
Jan 3, 2023
ODESA, Ukraine — In the early 1930s, Russia killed four million Ukrainians through a famine now remembered as the “Holodomor.” Although the starvation, Holodomor means “death by hunger,” began as a byproduct of disastrous Soviet agricultural policies, it quickly evolved into a deliberate genocide of the Ukrainian people. Upon the Holodomor’s 90th anniversary this past year, we must remember what happened — especially given Russia’s renewed efforts to extinguish Ukrainian identity.
When the Soviets rose to power in the 1920s, they first hoped to discard the old chains of Russian imperialism and, in the process, neutralize the burgeoning non-Russian independence movements within their empire. During the first few years of Soviet rule, nations that had traditionally been suppressed within the Russian empire, such as Ukraine and Belarus, were allowed to explore and affirm their own cultural identities.
It was like a gasp of fresh air. After decades, if not centuries, of preserving their cultures through underground organizations, non-Russians were finally free to publish books and perform plays in their native tongues. Whereas the old Tsarist regime hoped to Russify its subjects, the Soviet Union initially supported institutions that embraced the unique cultures of its constituent peoples.
It was assumed that socialism would bind these nations together in jubilant freedom, thus allowing the Soviet Union, as a multi-ethnic and cosmopolitan state, to demonstrate its moral superiority over its capitalist predecessors.
But these dreams quickly dissipated. Under the rule of Josef Stalin, the Soviets began to fear that their cultural policies were sowing the seeds of nationalist uprisings. Stalin was particularly afraid of losing Ukraine, the breadbasket of his empire.
So the Soviet Union returned to the Russian chauvinism that it had, for such a brief window, rejected. Academics and writers were persecuted. Linguists who had been commissioned by the Soviet state to document the Ukrainian language were suddenly deemed nationalist saboteurs — they stood accused of fabricating artificial differences between Ukrainian and Russian.
It is in this context that hunger came to the Soviet Union.
The Soviets wanted to quickly industrialize their agrarian empire, and believed that this required collectivized farming. Middle-class peasants, known as kulaks, were “liquified” as a class and either killed or deported to labour camps (gulags) in the far east. At the height of Stalin’s terror,
almost anyone could be deemed a kulak, regardless of their actual profession or wealth. Meanwhile, the rest of the peasants were forced to give up their farm animals and implements and become workers on state-run farms which, in theory, benefited from economies of scale.
In practice, the collective farms were ineptly managed and marred by the inefficiencies inherent to centralized planning. As profits flowed to the state, peasants simply were not paid, which led them to work less energetically. Some private farmers resisted collectivization by hiding their grain and killing and eating their livestock before they could be taken — which led Soviet agents to search for, and seize, any food caches they could find.
These disruptions led to widespread famine across the entire Soviet Union between 1930 and 1933. Although the peasants were starving, the state continued to requisition their grain to supply Soviet cities, where the industrial economy lived, and exported large quantities to the west to finance further industrial development.
Surveillance and punishment were inescapable on the collective farms. Emaciated peasants could be sentenced to death, or a decade of imprisonment, for taking as much as a handful of grain left behind in a field after a harvest.
With great brutality, Stalin industrialized his lands — but at the cost of hunger and death. He naturally blamed the failures of his policies on saboteurs, and so mass deportations continued. The gulags swelled with millions of prisoners who died at astonishing rates.
The famine particularly afflicted two regions: Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Stalin, who was already in the midst of using his de-kulakization campaign to purge Ukraine of any nationalist activism, decided that regional food shortages must have been caused by the Ukrainians themselves.
Historian Timothy Snyder, in his acclaimed 2010 book, Bloodlands, described the Holodomor in great detail and explained how anti-Ukrainian policies exacerbated the famine. Under Stalin’s leadership, Soviet officials decided that food shortages had been caused by Ukrainian nationalists, allegedly at the behest of Polish spies, who were undermining the state and withholding or hiding grain. It was believed that, if Ukrainians were dying on the streets, that was because they were nationalist actors who were, in many cases, intentionally starving themselves to subvert socialism. Snyder recounted how senior officials reassured Stalin that talk of Ukrainians as “innocent victims” was just a “rotten cover-up” for Ukrainian nationalist agitation. Stalin expressed fear that “we could lose Ukraine” and insisted that Ukraine be made into a “fortress.” The Ukrainian borders were tightly sealed and grain was to be exported out of the region as quickly as possible.
Ukraine was subject to lethal policies that were implemented nowhere else. For example, underperforming collective farms were “blacklisted” and denied delivery of all basic necessities, like kerosene and food, which amounted to a communal death sentence. While blacklisting could theoretically occur in other regions, almost all of the blacklisted villages were in Ukraine
Local communists knew that there was simply no more food to extract from their people, but, when they advocated for lowering quotas, they were criticized for being insufficiently loyal to
the Party. When quotas could not be met, these officials were purged and replaced with outsiders who, keen on stomping out “nationalism,” closed their eyes to the suffering around them.
The sum effect of these policies was calamitous. Close to four million Ukrainians died. In some regions, more than a quarter of the rural population perished.
As with most instances of mass death, it can be difficult to emotionally grasp the scale of loss and horror that occurred during the Holodomor. Ironically, Stalin himself provides us with a useful quote here: “a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic.” This is where historians like Snyder, relying on documents, diaries and testimonials from the 1930s, have been invaluable.
In Bloodlands, Snyder recounts the Holodomor’s horrors with unnerving clarity. Whole villages were wiped out, leaving behind absolute silence. Children fell “asleep” in class and women sold themselves on the streets for crumbs. Peasants who died slowly for months used what little strength they had to dig shallow graves for their families, only to be buried the next day. Others dragged themselves to the pits, where they waited for death to take them. Worst of all was the cannibalism. Some parents lost their minds and ate their children, while others offered up their own bodies to their sons and daughters for food. In one orphanage, a group of children devoured a small boy while he was still alive — they tore away strips of his flesh and the boy, delirious with hunger, began to eat himself, too, before dying.
Mass starvation extinguished any sense of morality. All that was left was indifference and madness. Those who were good, who shared their food and refused to steal, died first. What few foreigners were able to pass through Ukraine during this period were shook by what they witnessed — one woman described her fear of the unending quiet of the deserted villages.
And yet, in the eyes of the Soviets, none of these people were victims. They were all demonized as kulak saboteurs and Ukrainian nationalists who conspired against Soviet, which is to say Russian, power.
The Holodomor contributed to the Russification of Ukraine by depopulating eastern and central Ukraine, which created opportunities for Russians to come settle the land. Demographic changes would intensify with the migration of Russians to work in the industrialized Donbas area.
After the famine ended, the Soviets murdered and deported countless more Ukrainians during Stalin’s Great Purge of the late 1930s. Then Hitler’s Germans washed over the land with their own genocidal bloodlust — their ultimate goal was to kill two thirds of Ukraine’s population and enslave the survivors. They were expelled by the Soviets, who re-subjugated Ukraine and continued to hide earlier Stalinist crimes.
In the decades that followed, the Soviet Union downplayed the severity of the Holodomor and denied that the Ukrainians had been intentionally targeted or had suffered more than others. Excluding a brief renaissance of Ukrainian culture in the early 1960s, Ukrainian identity was suppressed — academics working on Ukrainian history and culture were barred from Soviet universities, for example.
The weight of documenting and remembering the Holodomor fell upon survivors who had managed to immigrate to the West. They gave thorough testimonies of what they had experienced and seen, but, in the face of Soviet denialism, were generally ignored or dismissed as “biased.” Few countries were willing to recognize the Holodomor as a genocide.
Everything changed when the Soviet Union collapsed.
In an interview with me, Frank Sysyn, a leading scholar on Ukrainian history, explained how the fall of communism led to a burst of new knowledge on eastern European history. Soviet-era archives that had been almost entirely closed for decades were flung open — and, as a result, academics were able to corroborate the existence, scale and genocidal nature of the Holodomor.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin came to power in 1999, he immediately put an end to this golden age of transparency, although, by that point, a significant amount of material had already been copied or republished elsewhere. According to Sysyn, it is likely that central archives in Moscow still contain a significant amount of undiscovered material.
Yet even without Russian cooperation, there is no shortage of documents to study — because the archives of other post-Soviet states remain open. According to Sysyn, Ukraine’s Soviet-era archives have been invaluable, even if a significant amount of material was moved to Russia in the late Soviet era. These archives have also had the added benefit of forcing academics to challenge their Moscow-dominated viewpoint. “People who would have earlier gone to Moscow instead went to Kyiv — often studying events not specifically dealing with Ukraine, such as general problems with the KGB. That opened them up to understanding Ukraine in new ways. Academia is going through a period of decolonization and de-imperialization in the study of this region, and realizing that it tended to look at the old Soviet Union from almost a solely Moscow-Leningrad perspective,” said Sysyn.
When Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, Ukrainian archivists immediately began sending materials out of the country for safekeeping.
Marta Baziuk, Executive Director of the University of Alberta’s Holodomor Research and Education Consortium, explained in an interview that, while this work was generally successful, historians experienced a “tremendous loss” when, early in the war, a major archive was destroyed in the northern Ukrainian city of Chernihiv.
As the invasion wears on, there have been widespread reports of Moscow destroying Ukrainian books, looting museums and destroying Ukrainian churches. When the Russians destroyed and occupied Mariupol, a coastal city that was once home to over 400,000 people, they even took special effort to dismantle the city’s monument to the victims of the Holodomor.
Russia’s current war against Ukraine did not happen in a historical vacuum. The crimes we see today are merely the latest manifestation of Moscow’s long-standing colonization project, which has been in the works for centuries and will likely not desist anytime soon.
In some ways, Putin’s current war on Ukraine directly builds upon the Holodomor’s legacy. 90 years ago, a genocidal famine broke the resistance of Ukrainians to Soviet rule and ushered in
the Soviet Russification of Ukraine. Now, Putin commits more violence against Ukrainians in the name of defending Russian speakers.
This multi-century war of attrition relies on the concealment of past atrocities. The Ukrainians will only be successfully Russified when they are made to forget their own sense of self, including their own history. No cultural genocide can succeed without the erasure of national memory.
Yet in this respect, Putin has not been successful. The number of countries recognizing the Holodomor as a genocide has exploded since Putin first sent his tanks toward Kyiv, and, according to Baziuk, a similar paradigm shift is transforming academia as well.
Adam Zivo is a freelance writer and weekly columnist at National Post. He is best known for his coverage of the war in Ukraine, as well as for founding and directing LoveisLoveisLove, a Canadian LGBTQ advocacy campaign. Zivo’s work has appeared in the Washington Examiner, Jerusalem Post, Ottawa Citizen, The Diplomat, Xtra Magazine, LGBTQ Nation, IN Magazine, Quillette, and the Daily Hive, among other publications.