The Holodomor: A Genocide Hidden

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In the spring of 1933, Stalin’s relentless desire to collectivise agriculture tragically combined with his need for absolute control. Through a chilling apparatus of fear and repression, an entire ethnic people, scattered across the north and south, perished in the Holodomor – a genocide. They died alone, in their millions, privately in their homes and publicly in the streets, while the world averted its gaze.

It was a genocide of the Ukrainian people, one whose memory still fuels the roots of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian conflict. Ukraine had spent the 18th and 19th centuries under the control of larger states. During the reign of Catherine the Great, most of Ukraine had been annexed by the Russian Empire, enabling a new endeavour of Russification. The conquest of Ukraine shifted the policy of the Russian Empire towards enforcing a pan-Slavic identity as a means of consolidating control of the region, in turn encouraging pro-Russian sentiment. However, instead of enabling a shift toward a greater Slavic, and ultimately Russian, identity, the suppression of Ukrainian culture further sharpened the divide between the peoples and embittered the Ukraine public.

Upon the fall of the Russian Empire in 1917, Ukraine sought to establish an independent state. However, the newly formed nation was unable to maintain a stable government and endured relentless interference from other countries, weakening it to such an extent that the young nation crumbled upon the formation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1922. Essentially, Ukraine was now a puppet of the Soviet Union, yet national identity and culture remained and even thrived throughout the mid-1920s. However, the blossoming of a wholly Ukrainian identity posed an existential threat to Stalin and his Soviet Union.

In order to quell this growing Ukrainian individuality, Stalin purged hundreds of Ukrainian historians, politicians and intellectuals, as well as destroying Orthodox churches and imprisoning and killing hundreds of priests. By 1928, Stalin sought to fund his ‘Five-Year Plan’ through the collectivisation of agriculture: the consolidation of individual, private farms into collective, state-run farms. This allowed Stalin to obtain surplus farming products while also expanding his control over the peasant class and the grain that they produced. Collectivisation in Ukraine separated the people, the majority of whom were subsistence farmers, thus destroying their remaining independence and forcing the Ukrainians to be entirely reliant on the Soviet Union.

As was to be expected, many of the Ukrainian farmers, when faced with the new reality of surrendering their entire way of life, inveighed against Stalin’s changes. In response, Stalin branded all the farmers who stood against the collectivisation as ‘Kulaks’ (literally meaning “tight-fisted”), effectively labelling them as wealthy peasants. He began a campaign of propaganda promulgating the view that any farmer opposing collectivisation was greedy and gluttonous, often depicting them as rats or parasites and even labelling them as enemies of the state. The vilification of those dubbed ‘Kulaks’ sowed divisions among small communities, and the exile, imprisonment or execution of hundreds of thousands of ‘Kulaks’ facilitated the total Soviet control of Ukrainian farming.

In 1931, Stalin adopted an unrealistic grain procurement plan well beyond the capabilities of Ukrainian farmers. When such quotas were inevitably not met, the Soviets implemented a series of policies to extract as much grain as possible from Ukraine. Stalin established search protocols for Russian soldiers to enter small farming villages and remove all grain belonging to families, and later enacted a law which made stealing even a handful of grain from a farm, punishable by ten years imprisonment or even death. In 1932, the terror of Stalin had resulted in over four million tonnes of grain being extracted from Ukraine, as the famine was beginning to spread.

Across the Soviet Union, in Ukraine, the North Caucasus and Kazakhstan, Stalin’s grip on the grain producing regions grew ever tighter. When food shortages began to devolve into a large-scale famine, many Soviet leaders urged Stalin to address the increasingly dire situation; he only doubled down. While in other parts of the Soviet Union, Stalin’s devotion to the collectivisation of agriculture meant only a momentary concern, his dogged demand of the total submission of the Ukrainian people meant a humanitarian disaster of calamitous proportions.

The next phase in the eventual path toward genocide was the implementation of food fines and ‘Black Boards.’ In late 1932, Soviet soldiers were able to lawfully seize any Ukrainian property that was edible, or even anything that could be traded for food. At the same time, the use of ‘Black Boards’ was underway; any farms or even villages which were unable to meet the impossible Soviet quotas were pillaged of all food and blacklisted from receiving any aid or supplies. As the pressure in Ukraine was mounting, and conditions became increasingly unbearable, the people started to flee. In their thousands, Ukrainians would leave their villages and homes to escape the terror of Stalin. Stalin, in turn, closed the borders.

Therefore, in the spring of 1933, the Holodomor reached its peak. The conditions in Ukraine became catastrophic and so too the death toll; at the height of the genocide 20 people died a minute. Villagers collapsed while walking to cities in search of food; children ate bark and leaves; some even turned to cannibalism. However, it was the immediate response of Stalin that demonstrated that it was, in fact, a wholly intentional genocide. As millions pleaded for aid and refugees fled in their hundreds of thousands, the silence of the regime was damning.

By June 1933, the famine had devastated the entire region and killed millions. Only a third of the workforce in collective farms remained after the genocide, significantly upsetting the production and trade of grain from Ukraine and thus disrupting the rapid industrialisation of the Soviet Union. Stalin, urgently needing to replenish the labour force, loosened the food requisitions and ordered over a hundred thousand farmers from Russia to re-settle in a Ukraine ravaged by famine and barren of life. This influx of labour allowed the pace of industrialisation to resume while Stalin began his next task: the cover-up.

In order to prevent an outpour of foreign aid and sentiment from gushing into Ukraine and relieving the famine, Stalin categorically denied that a famine was even taking place. Soviet officials chose either to understate the catastrophe by labelling it a ‘food shortage’ or simply outright lied about its very existence. To destroy any physical evidence, Stalin prevented the publishing of the 1937 census, which outlined the drastic loss of life in Ukraine and the other devastated regions. It even became illegal in the Soviet Union to write, reference or speak about the famine, punishable by a five-year sentence in a Siberian gulag.

The next step of the disinformation campaign was to extend Soviet influence over the media, both foreign and domestic, to quell rumours of such an event. Those brave enough to publicly criticise Stalin and his orchestration of the genocide had their voices drowned in an ocean of censure and official condemnation, while those who embellished Soviet successes enjoyed benefits and privileges from the state. For the more sceptical, Potemkin villages were erected near the borders the Soviet Union to present to Western media outlets the façade that no such famine had occurred, assuaging doubts and offering plausible deniability to journalists covering the issue.

Stalin’s ability to prevent foreign intervention was also largely achieved through the American journalist Walter Duranty. While all other Western journalists were formally forbidden from visiting Ukraine, the New York Times Moscow correspondent was permitted to travel and report his judgements of the region. Duranty consistently toed the party line, outright denying the existence of any famine and referring to it as simply a food supply issue. Even when other journalists performed illicit trips to Ukraine and the North Caucasus for their publications, Duranty retained his position. It was later revealed that he was aware of the calamity and even noted off the record, in a British Diplomatic Report, that “Ukraine had been bled white.”

Stalin had effectively escaped the consequences of his actions. A people which posed no military threat, no political opposition and made no conceivable provocation toward the Soviet state were exterminated in their millions, solely to enforce the indomitable will of one man

Applebaum, A., 2017. Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine.

Snyder, T., 2010. Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin.