Russia’s latest move in its war with Ukraine, to pull out of a deal that allowed Ukrainian grain shipments through the Black Sea, reignites fears of a global food crisis. The arrangement – brokered by the UN in July – had enabled Ukraine to export more than 9 million tonnes of grain and oilseed products to the world market, while allowing Russia to export food and fertiliser. The deal helped avert a famine in parts of Africa and other low-income countries, and prompted a 15% drop in food prices.
Russia suspended the arrangement for an “indefinite term” in response to a drone attack at the weekend on its naval base at Sevastopol in Crimea – home to its iconic Black Sea Fleet. Moscow has called the incident a terrorist attack and blamed the British navy for coordinating it – an accusation dismissed by the UK government.
Kyiv says Russia’s decision leaves more than 200 Ukrainian vessels blocked in port or at sea. Other participants in the deal have vowed to continue with it, while some European countries are working to boost Ukrainian grain exports via land routes. The United Nations, Nato, the European Union and US have all urged Russia to reverse its decision to pull out of the deal, under which Moscow guaranteed safe passage for cargo ships carrying grain from Black Sea ports that had previously been blocked because of the war.
Nato has accused Russian president Vladimir Putin of “weaponising food”, while US secretary of state Antony Blinken called on “all parties to keep this essential, life-saving initiative functioning”. It would appear that Putin is blackmailing the West with the threat of a global food crisis in response to Ukraine’s recent successes on the battlefield.
Ukraine has long been known as Europe’s breadbasket, with grain exports of more than 45 million tonnes a year making it one of the world’s largest exporters. Russia’s invasion in February led to the closure of its seaports, which halted all grain shipments, driving up food prices and contributing to fears of famine in many parts of the world. Soaring food costs this year had pushed an estimated 47 million people into severe hunger.
Russia’s own most productive grain-producing areas lie directly to the north of Ukraine, and much of its grain passes through Black Sea ports. The Russian Empire was largely built on grain revenues, with wide swaths of the fertile steppe land of present-day Ukraine seized for Russia by Catherine the Great, and trade routes were much the same as they are today, with grain transported to the Black Sea for export.
Grain was shipped from Odesa, the region’s major port, to the fast-expanding cities of London, Liverpool, Amsterdam and Antwerp, where it was ground into flour to feed the growing working classes of western Europe and help fuel industrialisation from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. Jewish grain merchants based in and around Kyiv and Odesa were the middle-men in this enterprise – among them my great-great grandfather, Berl Shnier.
Berl was born in 1860 in the Jewish shtetl of Pavoloch, southwest of Kyiv. His father owned a millet mill, where he used an abacus to calculate his prices, scratching chalk marks onto the stone wall for his accounts. Being illiterate, his marks were incomprehensible to anyone but himself. Unlike his father, Berl attended school, learning to read and write not only Yiddish and Hebrew, but later Ukrainian, Polish and Russian too. With his father’s help, he deciphered and transcribed onto paper the chalk marks along the wall. By the time he was twenty, he had grown his father’s business to trade millet with Jewish dealers from Riga and Kaliningrad to the Caucasus.
As time passed, Berl expanded into wheat, rye, corn, buckwheat and barley; later he added dried pulses, developing a network of agents, dealers and shippers and broadening his business right across Europe – as far as England – and throughout Central Asia.
The local train station at Popilnia, some twelve miles away, was on the Kyiv-Odesa line and became the hub of his business, providing news of current market prices and export rates. It’s difficult to believe looking at contemporary photographs of the sleepy railway buildings, but the station at Popilnia was a buzzing hive of activity. Here Berl would pass the hours drinking tea with his fellow traders, discussing prices and agreeing complex speculative contracts based on potential production months or years ahead.
In February-March each year, he would spend a month in Kyiv for the annual commodities exchange, where agents and dealers from all over Europe congregated to meet suppliers, examine the quality of produce and negotiate prices. He spent the evenings in the company of brokers, money-lenders, merchants and travelling salesmen, discussing their successes and failures and the business news of the day.
Berl died in 1924, shortly before he was due to emigrate to Canada, where his granddaughter Pearl – my grandmother – was raising money and arranging documentation to enable the rest of her family to join her in Winnipeg.
Russian air strikes on the centre of Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities this week killed at least 19 people and injured dozens more. The missile attacks came two days after the bombing of the Kerch bridge, the only direct link between Russia and Crimea – the area of Ukraine annexed by Russia in 2014. Russia’s former president Dmitry Medvedev described the air assault as the "first episode" of Moscow's planned response to the bridge attack.
Vladimir Putin labelled the explosions that took out a section of the road bridge and caused significant damage to the rail line as “terrorist acts” by Ukraine and promised a harsh response. Moscow has blamed Ukraine’s security services for the attack, which occurred when a truck blew up while crossing the heavily fortified bridge, killing four people. Ukraine has not claimed responsibility for the actions.
Although the Kerch bridge might appear an obvious focus for a Ukrainian attack, given its strategic and symbolic worth to Russia – and to Putin in particular – it is no surprise that it has not been targeted successfully until now.
The 12-mile steel and concrete bridge is heavily defended. It is fortified with Russian air defence missile batteries, and surrounded by barges with radar reflectors to act as radar decoys and confuse Ukrainian missiles. The bridge is also patrolled by elite troops and combat air defences, with attack helicopters at the ready nearby. Even with its sophisticated weaponry supplied by the West, Ukraine lacks the means to inflict lasting damage on such a structure.
For Ukraine, the bridge is a key military target, given its role as a strategic supply and logistics route for Russian forces on the southern front centred around Kherson, taken by Russia in the early days of the war and still the only major Ukrainian city to have fallen to the enemy. A Ukrainian operation to seize back territory around Kherson was already seeing some success before the bridge attack. The Kerch bridge is also crucial for the supply of food, fuel and other goods to Crimea itself.
The bridge is important in symbolic as well as practical terms. It is a manifestation of Russia’s annexation of Crimea – the only direct link between Russia’s transport network and the Crimean peninsula. Costing $3.6bn, it was built by a firm belonging to Putin ally Arkady Rotenberg – a former judo partner of the Russian president – and is the longest bridge in Europe. In 2018, Putin himself opened it to great fanfare by ceremoniously driving a truck across the strait. The bridge was described by Russian state media at the time as “the construction of the century”. That the explosions occurred a day after Putin’s 70th birthday will not have been lost on him.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014 followed immediately after the Revolution of Dignity – Kyiv’s long and bitter Maidan uprising that forced then-president Viktor Yanukovych to stand down after months of brutal government crackdowns on protestors. The demonstrations had begun as a protest over Yanukovych’s failure to sign an association agreement with the European Union, following an eleventh-hour reversal under pressure from Putin. The Russian president had threatened to cut of gas supplies to Ukraine, while dangling a carrot of advantageous participation in his latest project – a Eurasian customs union.
Crimea has always been somewhat apart from the rest of Ukraine. It became part of the Russian Empire in 1783 following a battle against Ottoman forces. Within the Soviet Union, it was transferred from the Russian to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954, with the official rationale that its transfer commemorated the 300th anniversary of the reunification of Ukraine with Russia (a reference to the 1654 Pereiaslav Agreement) and in recognition of the territorial proximity of Crimea to Ukraine and their cultural, economic and agricultural affinities.
Neither of these justifications stands up to much scrutiny. Although Crimea is attached by land to Ukraine – via the isthmus of Perekop – and had important economic and infrastructural ties with Ukraine, its cultural and military links were always stronger with Russia.
Ever since Tsarist times, Crimea had been the site of key military bases and was a symbol of Imperial Russian power against the Ottoman Turks. The naval base at Sevastopol is famously the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. What is more, the ethnic mix of Crimea’s population of just over a million at the time of its transfer to Ukraine was roughly three-quarters Russian and a quarter Ukrainian. The peninsula had been populated for centuries primarily by Crimean Tatars, until 1944 when Joseph Stalin had ordered the ethnic cleansing of Crimea, deporting the Tatars en masse to Central Asia. Smaller populations of Armenians, Bulgarians and Greeks were also expelled from Crimea.
According to an article by the author and academic Mark Kramer for the US think tank, the Wilson Center, the real reasons for the Soviet authorities’ decision to transfer Crimea to Ukraine are quite different.
Of particular importance, he says, was the role of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev who, at the time of the transfer in February 1954, was still trying to consolidate his position in the post-Stalin power struggle. For Khrushchev, securing Crimea for Ukraine was a means of winning support from local Ukrainian elites – in particular Oleksy Kyrychenko, who had become first secretary of the Communist Party of Ukraine – in his battle for power with Soviet prime minister Georgy Malenkov.
Khrushchev himself had served as the head of Ukraine’s Communist Party until 1949, and had overseen brutal efforts to enforce Soviet control over an unwilling and restive population in the parts of western Ukraine annexed from Poland in 1939. In the wake of the atrocities, Kramer says, the transfer of Crimea acted as a means to fortify and perpetuate Soviet control over Ukraine, with the addition of around 860,000 ethnic Russians to an already large Russian minority in Ukraine.
In his closing remarks at the session of the Supreme Soviet in 1954, chairman Kliment Voroshilov declared that “enemies of Russia” had “repeatedly tried to take the Crimean peninsula from Russia and use it to steal and ravage Russian lands”. How ironic his comments appear today, in light of the 2014 annexation and the current war, with Russia itself first taking Crimea from Ukraine and now using it as a supply and logistics hub to steal and ravage Ukrainian lands.
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.