Ninety years ago in Ukraine
The coming of spring in Ukraine has drawn the curtain on a grim winter dominated by power cuts caused by Russian airstrikes on civilian infrastructure. The resilience of the Ukrainian people in the face of Moscow’s efforts to subjugate them by depriving them of heat and light made a strong impression on many observers. The events of this winter have also drawn comparisons with another brutal winter in Ukraine, exactly 90 years ago, when Moscow attempted to overcome Ukrainian resistance by depriving the population of food.
During the winter of 1932-33, in the midst of a poor harvest, teams of activists roamed the Ukrainian countryside moving from village to village, house to house, searching for food that they were told was being hoarded by greedy peasants. Any grain they found, even the tiniest quantities, was requisitioned for the state. The local peasants began to hide grain under floorboards or in holes in the ground. The activist squads searched for loose floorboards and freshly dug earth to reveal such hiding places.
The requisitions were ostensibly geared towards fulfilling the first Five-Year Plan – the centrepiece of Joseph Stalin’s planned economy aimed at much-needed industrialisation and modernisation of the Soviet economy. To meet the plan’s goals for economic growth, the country needed hard currency to import modern machinery and equipment from abroad – machinery that it was not yet able to manufacture itself.
Back in the 1930s, with its energy industry still undeveloped, the USSR's key means of gaining hard currency lay in grain exports, and its most fertile land was in Ukraine – already known as the Breadbasket of Europe. As well as plentiful supplies of grain, Ukraine also had a huge peasant population to sow and harvest it.
Stalin’s Five-Year Plan was hugely ambitious. It was aimed at propelling the backward Soviet economy into the big league of industrialised nations; transforming a rural, peasant society into an urbanised industrial powerhouse. Nobody could accuse Stalin of lack of vision. But his plan was not only ambitious, it was totally unrealistic.
Soviet grain production inevitably failed to meet the inflated targets set by the bureaucrats drawing up the Five-Year Plan. But the planned export volumes still needed to be met to enable the country to fulfil its international trade obligations and achieve its hard currency goals. The activist squads searching cellars and yards for hoarded grain were tasked with requisitioning more than was actually produced.
The inevitable result was widespread food shortages across all the grain-producing lands of the USSR. The famine peaked in the summer of 1933, when the daily death toll from starvation is estimated at around 28,000. During this period, the Soviet Union exported 4.3 million tonnes of grain from Ukraine.
While other grain-producing regions of the USSR also suffered from famine, Ukraine was singled out for special treatment. Stalin’s policy of collectivisation had begun in 1929 and met with savage resistance from the Ukrainian peasantry. For generations, the peasants had farmed their own plots, often at subsistence levels, with any surplus sold to private traders. The most successful peasants – known as Kulaks in Soviet terminology – increased their landholdings and supplemented their grain production by rearing livestock.
Collectivisation aimed to put an end to private ownership of all land, livestock and farm equipment, by transferring the peasants – with force if necessary – to vast collective farms producing agricultural output for the state. But many Ukrainian peasants refused to join the new collectives, organising rebellions and sabotaging equipment.
The unrest brought back memories of the Russian civil war, which had raged in Ukraine just a decade earlier. Following the Revolution of 1917, the Bolsheviks had failed to gain control of Ukraine, as violence, anarchy and uprisings brought carnage to the countryside. It took them three years to crush a nascent nationalist movement, subjugate numerous peasant rebellions and finally impose Soviet power on Ukraine.
During collectivisation, fearful of a repeat of the violence and anarchy, Stalin imposed a crackdown on any individual, family or community that had shown support for the Ukrainian nationalist movement in 1917-21. These groups were singled out for even harsher treatment than the rest of the population. As well as requisitioning their grain, all dried goods, vegetables and – most damaging of all – livestock, were taken away, leaving families with nothing and effectively condemning them to death by starvation.
The hunger drove people mad. Stories of parents killing and eating their children were not uncommon. Others gave their children to orphanages in the hope of saving them from starvation. Roadsides were littered with the dead and dying. Nobody knows exactly how many people starved to death in Ukraine in 1932-33, but recent research puts the figure at around 4 million.
For Stalin, the Holodomor – as the forced famine is now known – served its purpose. The will of the Ukrainian people to resist was broken. Weakened by starvation, those who had cheated death joined the new collective farms without putting up any further opposition. All vestiges of Ukrainian nationalism and the Ukrainian independence movement had been strangled and did not re-emerge until the end of the Soviet Union more than half a century later. Stalin’s goal of Sovietising and subjugating Ukraine to Moscow’s rule was realised.
Stalin forbade any mention of the famine in the press and removed any references to the events of the Holodomor from official records, even falsifying census data to cover up the excess deaths. Ninety years later, Russia’s post-Soviet dictator Vladimir Putin bars the media from reporting on the conflict in Ukraine, making it a crime even to refer to it as a war. But in today’s world of globalised social media and amid overwhelming western support for Kyiv, Putin’s attempts to subjugate the Ukrainian people is far less likely to succeed.
To read more about the Holodomor, I recommend Anne Applebaum's prize-winning book Red Famine: Stalin's war on Ukraine published in 2017.
The warning signs were visible in Russia from the early days of Vladimir Putin’s presidency, but few in the West were looking for them. Instead, US President George W Bush famously said of him in 2001, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. I was able to get a sense of his soul.” The UK prime minister at the time, Tony Blair, engaged in a charm offensive with Putin, arguing that he should be allowed “a position on the top table” of international affairs and describing him as "an intelligent man [whose] reform programme is the right reform programme.”
And yet this was at a time when the Russian armed forces had already flattened the Chechen capital, Grozny, a tactic it repeated later in Aleppo and more recently in Mariupol and Bakhmut. The roots of Putin’s crackdown on dissent at home can also be traced back to his early years in office.
To mark the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt – who served as Chief Rabbi of Moscow from 1993 until his departure from Russia following its invasion of Ukraine – published a fascinating article in the American news publication Foreign Policy that sheds light on the Kremlin’s infiltration of religious leadership.
“I arrived in Soviet Russia in 1989, as perestroika and glasnost were in full swing, to help rebuild the Jewish community destroyed by 70 years of Communist rule,” he writes.
“One winter day in 2003, the Federal Security Service (FSB) official who was assigned to the Moscow Choral Synagogue at the time—a man I’ll call Oleg (his name has been changed purposely)—invited me to come to a police station at 40 Sadovnichevskaya Street. Oleg and his colleague started saying that I, a Swiss citizen, had been using a business multiple entry visa to stay in Russia, which is illegal since I was a religious worker; however, they were ready to overlook this issue if I started reporting to them. They pressed me to sign something, yet I refused categorically, saying that it is against Jewish law to inform on others.
“After badgering me for over an hour, they finally let me go. I was shaken to the core of my being. Oleg came back twice to try to convince me. Once he even stopped my car in the street—from that moment on, I understood that the driver might be working for the FSB as well.”
Rabbi Goldschmidt was briefly deported from Russia in 2005 and notes that at least 11 other rabbis have been forced out of the country over the last decade because they failed to toe the party line.
Rabbi Goldschmidt was aware of many attempts by the FSB to recruit leading figures in the Jewish community, and described how FSB agents “regularly monitored, visited, and intimidated” religious leaders. As early as 2000, the Kremlin formed an alliance with the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia, which Putin was able to use to manipulate support from Jewish leaders at home and get them to do his bidding abroad, effectively silencing dissent from the Jewish community. The Federation’s chairman, Rabbi Alexander Boroda, spoke out last year in support of the need for the “denazification” of Ukraine.
The Kremlin’s success in controlling and instrumentalising Russia’s Jewish community mirrors the tactics it employed on the Russian Orthodox Church, which has played a leading role in the war narrative. As Rabbi Goldschmidt says, “Religion has been weaponised—and perverted—to justify crimes against humanity”.
“The Russian Orthodox Church, decimated and almost destroyed after seventy years of Communist rule, finally found its voice with the creation of the Russian Federation in 1991, but experienced a real renaissance only with the ascent of Vladimir Putin to power in 2000. By 2020, the Church had built as many churches and monasteries (roughly 10,000) in Russia as before the 1917 revolution,” the rabbi writes.
He quotes James Billington, a US academic and Russia expert, who described how the Orthodox Church could choose to become a vehicle of democratisation, or it could side with an authoritarian government and reap the benefits, such as the building of magnificent churches all over the country. The Russian Orthodox Church leader, Patriarch Kirill, chose the latter.
“In a country devoid of ideology, the Church paired with the state to provide a new ideology for the regime’s anti-Western propaganda and, to some extent, replaced the Communist Party in its creation of culture and values. The Church’s mandate evolved to provide ideological backing for the regime’s lack of support for human rights, democracy, and free elections, directing it to attack the West’s support for gay rights and sexual permissiveness,” the rabbi continues.
Patriarch Kirill gave his blessing to Putin’s quest to recreate the Soviet Union, mobilising the clergy to exert influence on their congregations to support this goal. The Patriarch himself is a fervent advocate of the “special military operation” in Ukraine, giving it the status of a holy war.
Rabbi Goldschmidt points out that, “the voices in the Church that did not support the invasion were immediately silenced—Metropolitan Hilarion, the head of external relations and essentially the number two in the Moscow Patriarchate, was exiled to the Orthodox backwater of Budapest, Hungary, over his refusal to support the war.”
The Kremlin has successfully managed the FSB’s infiltration of Russia’s Muslim leaders as well as the leadership of the Russian Orthodox and Jewish communities. The Grand Mufti of Russia, Talgat Tadzhuddin has voiced support for the war, while the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is a key Putin ally.
The full article can be found here: https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/02/28/moscow-chief-rabbi-putin-fsb-religion-patriarch-kirill/
Keeping stories alive
This blog aims to discuss historical events relating to the Jewish communities of Ukraine, and of Eastern Europe more widely. As a storyteller, I hope to keep alive stories of the past and remember those who told or experienced them. Like so many others, I am deeply troubled by the war in Ukraine and for the foreseeable future, most articles published here will focus on the war, with an emphasis on parallels with other tumultuous periods in Ukraine's tragic history.