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.
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.