Ukrainian famine, 1932-1933

Known in Ukrainian as Holodomor or “death by hunger,’ the Ukrainian famine is categorized as genocide in the annals of history, however muted its presence is in mainstream history textbooks.  In the spring of 1933, Ukraine, a land whose population was 80% peasants at the time, suffered fantastically high death rates. Ukraine was faced with the ultimate paradox- as the ‘breadbasket’ of Europe, the country was ravaged by a famine induced by Stalin’s internationally-concerned programs.  Determined to teach Ukrainian farmers “a lesson they would not forget,” Stalin commenced with a political and social initiative to force collectivization through man-made famine in the country. Within a span of less than a year and a half, the famine genocide brought millions of deaths to the mostly ethnically Ukrainian areas of the northern Caucasus while the Soviet Union simultaneously denied the famine and exported a quantity of grain great enough to feed the entire Ukrainian population.

Stalin’s targeting of Ukrainian farmers proved relentless and insurmountable for the country’s peasantry. Although Stalin flouts political jargon that establishes aims to “liquidate them as a class” and accuses Ukrainians of “bourgeois nationalism”, his actions draw a very different picture in terms of power relations and agency. The year 1928 brought Stalin’s programs that forced farmers off of their land and robbed them of their livestock. In 1930, over one million people were dragged from their homesteads, packed into freight trains, and shipped to remote lands (i.e. Siberia) without food, shelter, or any other provisions. In 1932, secret police were commissioned to arrest any starving peasant caught stealing the smallest amount of food and to confiscate any hidden grain in peasants’ homes. By 1933, Ukrainians are dying at the rate of 25,000 per day, at least half of that being children, with a final count approaching 10 million. Despite such staggering numbers and convincing suggestions to the contrary, Stalin continued to deny famine in Ukraine and to keep international aid out of the country.

One may wonder how such devastation can be kept out of contemporary history lessons, but the power of the press and of the dominant political party is quite extensive. For instance, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Duranty wrote, in the wake of the famine genocide, “Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda. There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.” Sources that claim such hyperbole in recollections of terrific times do no justice to remembering or addressing the ills that facilitate and silence genocide, making doubly necessary analyses and remembrances of situations of violence and mortality in Eastern Europe and all over the world.