As the world watches Russian leader Vladimir Putin's barbaric attempt to conquer Ukraine, a roughly Texas-sized nation along the Black Sea to the west of Russia, many are not aware of another brutal crime against Ukraine that happened roughly 90 years ago. Known as the Holodomor, a term derived from the Ukrainian words for hunger ("holod") and extermination ("mor"), it was a time from 1932 to 1933 when millions of Ukrainians were starved to death by the regime of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, a figure for whom Putin has expressed admiration.
"The Holodomor was a consequence of Stalin's forced collectivization policy, which was launched in 1929 with the aim of revolutionizing the countryside to convert it to what was perceived to be a better form of agriculture," according to Stephen Norris, a professor of history and director of the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Ukraine was seen as a place where that goal could be accomplished quickly. And to further communist ideology, Stalin's policy also aimed to eliminate "kulaks," the class of well-to-do peasant farmers that the Soviet regime saw as enemies of the people.
But collective farming didn't work out well, and combined with bad weather, harvests suffered and famine began spreading across the Soviet Union in the early 1930s. But the Ukrainians, who had sought unsuccessfully to become independent after the collapse of the Russian empire before being taken over by the Bolsheviks and absorbed into the USSR in 1922, bore the brunt of the resulting famine. Stalin's regime used the famine as an opportunity to punish them. In December 1932, the regime ordered Communist party officials in Ukraine to produce more food for the rest of the USSR, even if they had to take it by force from farmers.
Teams of crop-confiscating thugs were sent to roam through Ukraine and take all the grain, vegetables, and even farm animals they could find, as this report on the Holodomor compiled by a U.S. congressional commission in 1988 lays out in grisly detail. They went into farmers' homes and tore apart their stoves and even dug into the floors and surrounding outside grounds to make sure they weren't holding back anything. Anyone who was caught hiding food, or stealing it, was severely punished. Even taking a few beets from a collective farm could earn a person a seven-year prison sentence. Two young boys were beaten and suffocated for the crime of hiding fish and frogs they had caught. At the same time, Ukraine's borders were sealed to keep Ukrainians from fleeing in search of food.
As survivors recalled in testimony to the commission, people grew so desperate that they ate leaves, weeds, old potato and beet peelings, and even killed and ate dogs and cats. Emaciated people who had grown too weak to move died in their homes and collapsed in the streets.
The commission report concluded that Stalin and his inner circle knew the suffering that his government's policies were causing. It didn't matter. "Crushing the Ukrainian peasantry made it possible for Stalin to curtail Ukrainian national self-assertion," the commission report noted.
According to Norris, the Stalin regime's decree also contained other measures to subjugate Ukraine, such as ordering local officials to stop using the Ukrainian language, so that "the crisis of collectivization became specifically directed at Ukrainians and at Ukrainian nationhood."
Hiding the Famine From the World
But hardly anyone in the outside world knew of the horror that was being inflicted upon Ukraine, in part because Western foreign correspondents generally didn't want to run afoul of Stalin and risk being kicked out of the Soviet Union, as historian Anne Applebaum wrote in this 2017 Atlantic article. The New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his coverage, relied upon Stalin's regime as his primary source of information, and actually insisted in March 1933 that there was no famine (The New York Times has since repudiated his reporting). Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, who saw the deprivation firsthand by taking an unauthorized walking tour of Ukraine in 1933, actually was derided by his peers for trying to make the terrible truth known.
The famine was a forbidden subject in the Soviet Union, which suppressed its own 1937 census and arrested and executed officials who had organized it, in an effort to conceal the massive loss of life.
But the Ukrainians refused to forget, and after Ukraine became an independent nation in 1991, their voices got louder. In 2006, the Ukrainian Parliament voted to declare the Holodomor a genocide against the Ukrainian people and, in 2008, the National Museum of the Holodomor-Genocide opened in Kyiv.
"The Museum is a memorial and educational site and certainly its existence — along with the 2006 vote — has formed an important component of Ukrainian nationhood over the last 15 years and how Ukrainians view Russia," Norris explains in an email.
Russian Denial of Genocide
Ukrainians' insistence that the Holodomor be seen as genocide hasn't gone over well in Russia, where scholars and news commentators have questioned whether it even occurred at all. More importantly, their interpretation of it as a formative event in their national history clashes with Putin's view, expressed in a speech Feb. 21, 2022, that Ukraine isn't even a country, and that Ukrainians' sense of nationhood is built "on the denial of everything that unites us."
But that sort of talk — and Russian denialism about the Holodomor — has only added insult to the injury inflicted by the brutality of the 2022 Russian attack.
"Although it is hard to know this without actual research, we have good reasons to believe that the schism between Russia and Ukraine that the Holodomor incited is one factor why the resistance in the current war is so fierce," Arturas Rozenas, an associate professor of politics at New York University, says in an email. "I do not believe it is the actual memory of the Holodomor that is driving this, but rather the more abstract sense of tragedy that a subjugation by Russia represents for Ukraine."
"Ukraine's experience in the 20th century was extraordinarily traumatic, and much of that tragic history was caused by invading armies and the totalitarian regimes that followed in their wake," Trevor Erlacher says via email. He's an historian and author specializing in modern Ukraine and an academic adviser at the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies. "The Holodomor is certainly a part of that memory of national suffering, but so are World War II, the Holocaust, forced migrations, the Gulag and the Chernobyl nuclear disaster."
"In view of this history, Ukrainians are fighting like hell because defeat or capitulation would mean inviting the horrors of the 20th century into the present," Erlacher says. "They view their defense against the Russian onslaught as a struggle for their survival as a people. They understand Putin's neocolonial war as an act of genocide against them, and with good reason. The sense that everything is on the line, that there is no possibility of compromise, derives from the Ukrainian experience of domination by Moscow, which has led to famine, terror, despotism and the marginalization of their national culture."
That may be why after the onslaught of 2022, Ukrainians are still fighting back, and have surprised the world with their courage and resourcefulness.