Holodomor: Ukraine’s Unspoken Genocide

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on february the 24th of this year 2022 russia launched a full-scale invasion of their neighbor ukraine plunging europe into the worst armed conflict it’s seen since the second world war in the worst humanitarian disaster since the breakup of yugoslavia in the 1990s the conflict represents a massive shift in the calculus of both the european and wider world order and for the future it’ll be talked about decades after the gun stop firing for russia and ukraine the conflict is another chapter in a long history between the two countries a history marked by episodes of acrimony and in some cases horrific disaster today we’ll be looking back at the last time russia inflicted a severe crisis on ukraine in the early days of the soviet union this is the story of the hollow de moore a man-made famine and the worst that ukraine has ever seen ukraine has a long history one defined by its geography the land sits at the confluence of the eurasian steppes the tanipa river and the black sea all of which have influenced ukraine’s culture and past from the times of the greek city-states all the way through to the russian empire the region was characterized by outsiders as a wild frontier inhabited by hardy people who were fiercely independent it was also recognized as an economic powerhouse with the black soil of the donipa river base and forming one of the most productive agricultural regions in all of europe it remains that way to this day ukraine has in recent years established itself along with russia as one of the world’s largest exporters of grain such richness in the soil attracts rivals and ukraine’s flat geography made it naturally attractive to invaders much like mesopotamia in the middle east the first power to exert itself in the region was the kievan ruse a large trading federation that russia belarus and ukraine tend to see as the beginning of their modern history the next thousand years would see ukraine pass between one empire after another from lithuania to poland to the ottomans to russia a ukrainian national identity always existed in some form or another during this time from the dawn cossacks living more or less independent from the kings of poland or the sars of russia as well as cultural figures like the pert terrace shivchenko but they never got the chance to form their own independent state to go along with their nation until the upheaval of the first world war in 1917 following the february revolution sar nichols ii was forced to abdicate the russian throne for the first time ever russia had no monarchy and it became an open question as to what would replace it liberalism communism or something else given that the russian empire was composed of many different ethnic minorities the atmosphere of revolution that had deposed the tsar soon spread to them in the form of nationalism one of those minorities was the ukrainians meeting in march of 1917 barely a month after nicholas’s abdication a council of ukrainian politicians declared autonomy though not independence from russia this was accepted by the russian provisional government but the calculus changed with the october revolution later that year the bolshevik’s relationship with nationalism is a bit complicated but it was clear that many high-ranking officials including vladimir lenin saw ukraine as an immutable part of russia and their new soviet union the ukrainians obviously didn’t see it that way and ukraine became a key battleground in the ensuing russian civil war that followed the october revolution the russian civil war is even by historical standards extremely complicated and so to oversimplify the bolsheviks one and ukraine was partitioned between the ussr and a newly independent poland the bolsheviks set about attempting to purge the ukrainian national identity identifying it as separatism academics were jailed exiled or shot the ukrainian language in all its forms was ban with party officials pointedly refusing to use it while still calling themselves ukrainian but with all of the repression happening the true hardship was only just beginning for the bolsheviks would now find themselves governing a country that couldn’t feed itself from the start of world war 1 to the end of world war ii a period of 31 years lasting from 1914 to 1945 the soviet union’s single greatest problem was that of food when world war one began massive amounts of young men were drawn from rural communities depriving russian farms of manpower to work the fields soon the agricultural economy came under strain and russia began to starve indeed one of the key slogans of the bolsheviks was peace land bread referring to the policies of getting out of world war one redistributing aristocratic land to the poor and providing food for a populace that was going hungry the first two promises proved easier to deliver on than the third not least because of the bolshevik’s complicated relationship with the largest demographic of their country the peasants the peasants were an important foundation of the state being the primary source of food for most soviet citizens during the russian civil war the bolshevik simply seized grain from the presence in order to feed the cities if the city starved the bolsheviks wouldn’t survive since the urban poor were their base of support shockingly this had the effect of turning many peasants against the bolsheviks but even before that many were already not keen on the new communist state some were old-fashioned conservatives who didn’t like the anti-christian stance of the bolsheviks while others were pro-socialist but anti-bolshevik altogether this left a pillar of society that was overwhelmingly either apathetic or actively against the new regime this was baffling to the bolsheviks as they believed that the poor peasantry would have naturally supported them and so where persuasion failed they used force any peasants who opposed the bolsheviks were labeled a kulak a derisive word that referred to well-off peasants who owned land and many people found themselves on the wrong side ukraine in particular was hard hit by these crackdowns with some villagers having hundreds massacred or even their entire adult male populations wiped out as a form of retaliation sometimes for as little as the killing of a single red army soldier following the end of the civil war the bolsheviks realized they could not safely ignore the peasantry particularly those in ukraine they had to be kept under control but they should be also formally included in the state’s communist ideology which was originally limited to just the urban workers to that in the bolsheviks identified the peasantry and the workers as one and the same symbolizing their supposed unity in an icon known the world over the famous hammer and sickle emblazoned on the soviet flag in 1922 the system did work at least in holding down descent but it didn’t fix the fact that soviet union was starving hundreds of thousands of people were still missing from the farmlands and this combined with the bolsheviks confiscation of grain from the peasants and a bad harvest started a famine in the years of 1920 and 1921. hundreds of thousands of people left their homes in search of food and it was estimated that between two and five million people died including 250 000 and half a million ukrainians faced with the scale of the problem the party leadership grudgingly made the call to allow foreign charities to distribute food aid including an american one led by future president herbert hoover which alleviated the worst of the problems and no doubt saved many thousands of lives following the famine russia was the most peaceful it had been in a decade it was also horrifically scarred millions were dead and many more were living in poverty hundreds of thousands of orphaned children roamed the streets of cities abandoned by the state and by society as vladimir lenin described it russia as a country resembled a man beaten with an inch of his life furthermore the agricultural sector still wasn’t stable with rising industrial prices and falling food prices causing farmers to lower their output in an episode known as the scissors crisis despite his notoriously opinionated personality even lenin recognized that it would take some desperate measures to help the country recover so for the first time in his life he took the pragmatic approach permitting limited private enterprise to boost the economy this new economic policy or nep was controversial among bolshevik circles particularly with a certain leon trotsky who criticized it as going against marxist orthodoxy but lenin the foremost bolshevik of them all was beyond reproach and so the nep went forward the enemy itself is rather complex but it was essentially state capitalism on the model of china’s the other important point is that it worked at least for a while true the country was essentially starting from zero meaning things could hardly have gotten worse but from 1922 to 1925 production in most sectors particularly in agriculture increased greatly inconveniently around this same time lennon’s health rapidly deteriorated and then he died this left his new country in a state of contention as to who would succeed him and by extension what direction the government’s policies would take it is at this point that our next character enters the picture joseph stalin was named general secretary of the communist party in 1922. this position allowed him to slowly build allies throughout the apparatus of the soviet state by giving plum positions to those aligned with him stalin proceeded to patiently wait in the background following lenin’s death and eventually emerged as the most powerful figure in the government forcing all his potential rivals out of politics that of course would not be the end of the story for many of them but there were more immediate ramifications from stalin’s rise first stalin did not believe in the new economic policy that had helped to stave off hunger in the earlier decade at first he had supported the policy but that was only because trotsky had opposed it once he was gone stalin turned around and denounced the policy just as trotsky had done by this point the cracks in the policy had caused once again an unproductive agricultural sector stalin believed that any grain crisis was best solved with force in part because of the second big change that came with stalin paranoia stalin was famously paranoid constantly worrying about plots conspiracies and threats inside and out he believed that the capitalist west would one day mobilize to crush the soviet union to protect themselves against the revolution he believed that the ussr’s neighbors including japan and poland were secretly fermenting nationalism in ukraine to undermine soviet rule he believed the world was out to get him and his country so what did all this mean well it meant that when stalin ordered the secret police to start arresting grain traders and to search peasant homes the discovery of large quantities of grain being held back from the markets caused stalin to believe that a conspiracy was afoot he dismissed the idea that people had logically decided to wait until food prices went up to sell their grain for more money no to him this was evidence that he was right and the counter-revolutionaries were holding back the soviet union most notably the culax the thorough demonization of the kulags had continued a pace during the 1920s but kulek’s continued to be the most productive farmers building larger estates than the other peasants stalin recognized this and concluded that the secret of productivity in agriculture was scale this actually was the opposite of the reality larger estates came from productivity but it worked for stalin ideologically and politically he wanted the soviet union to industrialize as soon as possible believing that it would make the state more powerful and more communist as such he wanted fewer people working in agriculture while also boosting agricultural production so how to square this circle well after having the misguided epiphany of scale and productivity stalin decided that he would boost soviet agriculture through large state-owned farms and that the peasants would give up their private land to join them collectivization as this was called is well known as one of the most disastrous policies to ever come out of communism it was tried in many countries and it failed every time causing entire agriculture sectors to collapse and widespread hunger to emerge as a result stalin’s collectivization was the first of its kind and he was aware of the costs that it might impose but he didn’t care he was building a work estate not a peasant state and he believed that collectivizing agriculture would make the peasants behave more like workers but there was a more ominous reason too in building the soviet state stalin sought to crush any national identities in favor of creating a universal soviet identity to that end stalin saw the peasants of ukraine as being inextricably linked to ukrainian nationalism which he viewed as a threat to the state this threat was of course greatly exaggerated but stalin took it seriously all the same even if collectivization harmed the ukrainian peasantry stalin believed that such harm would also weaken ukrainian nationalism securing soviet rule in ukraine it’s a shockingly cynical viewpoint and it would have equally shocking consequences in the years to come collectivization and the accompanying decologization began in earnest in 1928 the effort was carried out with harassment haranguing and often with violence and intimidation millions of peasants were herded into carcoses or collective farms with their properties handed over to it and they were set to work on unrealistic quotas for grain harvests anyone labeled a culak was deported often to siberia in the first labor camps that would later become the gulag system very few went along with this willingly many peasants saw the collectivization effort as a second serfdom as in the days of the tsar state officials were beaten and sometimes killed when grain was confiscated angry mobs would storm the storage buildings and take it back when asked to hand over their cat all to the state farms many peasants instead slaughtered them in defiance still others voted with their feet between 1928 and 1932 10 million peasants left the rural farmsteads for the urban factories joining the industrial workforce now none of this really made much difference to stalin and other party leaders who only saw that the rate of collectivization was preceding a pace this convinced them that agricultural production was about to increase by an order of magnitude and so the central government made a fateful and disastrous decision they would export soviet grain abroad the same grain that was supposed to be feeding soviet citizens so let’s review the events of the last two decades the soviet union has lost millions of productive farm workers to war famine repression and other things the peasant communities are scarred and almost universally against the soviet government and the agriculture sector is going through a structural upheaval lowering its productivity with what little it produces now being exported outside of the country the situation is absolutely primed for collapse and collapse it did in the summer of 1932 the central government in moscow declared that ukraine’s collective farms were required to meet their still unrealistic quotas without exception it was gradually becoming clear that disagreeing with stalin meant losing your job your freedom and well possibly your life and so party officials in ukraine set about to meet that quota by absolutely any means necessary this meant confiscating whatever food was left in the homes of millions of ukrainian peasants on the collective farms things were even worse peasants had everything confiscated even down to their daily food rations hunger proliferated and some started stealing in response the theft of state property was made a capital offense punishable by 10 years of hard labor or death other times ruinous fines were levied upon anyone who hoarded or stole food which were often used as a pretext for further crackdowns and theft of food the entire time the food that was being collected was being exported out of the country and stalin refused to change course or to alter food aid to ukraine no foreign charities would be allowed into the country at this time the government also formalized a system of blacklists whereby villages and farms that failed to meet their grain quotas were sanctioned from receiving supplies of industrial goods or raw materials like fuel soon they were banned from trading entirely meaning that peasants who lived on underperforming farms were barred from trading with or for grain essentially entire villages were outlawed from possessing food the famine was largely localized within ukraine one ukrainian worker remarked interestingly enough beyond kharkiv where russian territory starts there was no hunger wandering ukrainians searching for food found little sympathy in the neighboring soviet republics of russia and belarus in response to this flight stalin simply closed the ukrainian borders and any ukrainians found outside of the country were returned to it thousands of people who had fled the starvation were sent back to it in addition a new internal passport sister was introduced thai ukrainians to the lands they lived on just as serfdom had done all the while mass confiscations continued at pace peasants were encouraged to inform on their neighbors if they had food in exchange for up to a third of what was taken as the hunger deepened more people began taking the deal selling out their neighbors so their own families just wouldn’t starve anyone who tried to resist was beaten or tortured with the common method being to slam people’s hands indoors others had their clothes taken before they were thrown out into the winter snow there was widespread suffering any livestock that remains was led away or slaughtered even pets including cats and dogs were killed for food or killed and then confiscated the suffering soon turned to dying to the point where even being alive was reason for suspicion if no one in a family had died that meant the family had food and they were harassed by local party activists for it the common humanity that bound these communities together was ripped apart in the face of the starvation people who had otherwise been kind or generous to one another suddenly treated others with spite or even hatred even family members weren’t safe relatives were thrown out of houses for being burdens or murdered for stealing food from the house children stopped listening to their parents or parents abandoned their children unable to bear watching them starved to death and even worse things happen too at one point during the famine authorities put up posters declaring to eat your own children is a barbarian act the most harrowing message of all was that these posters needed to be put up at all cannibalism was reportedly widespread during the famine some say that the practice became normalized out of extreme need while other mostly first-hand accounts say that the incident almost always inspired intervention from the community over 2500 people were tried and sentenced for eating other human beings and yes sometimes it was their own close family early on there was some violent pushback in the form of attempted murders on party officials but that didn’t last long as the famine grew worse and the starving people became simply too weak to fight back they had no energy to resist or even be angry about the situation what started out as widespread rage and anger became collective apathy and indifference vasily grossman described the phenomenon as such in the beginning starvation drives a person out of the house in its first stage he is tormented and driven as though by fire and torn both in the guts and in the soul then a day comes when the starving person crawls back into his house and the meaning of this is that famine starvation has won the human being cannot be saved he lies down on his bed and stays there in the eyes of many these starving people were as good as dead people who weren’t even dead yet were carried off on corpse carts in a grim echo of the famous monty python sketch some were thrown into mass graves still alive and buried few tried to help them so this continued for more than a year until the spring of 1933 when the shortage of food subsided at last the central government finally approved food aid to ukraine in may of that year using food that originally been confiscated from those same peasants the harvest came up well at least when considering the decimation of the peasantry and the government phased out its grain requisition for a percentage-based tax instead meaning peasants were no longer robbed of their entire food supply to meet unrealistic quotas with this the famine subsided slowly over the summer and fall of 1933. the final death toll of the famine is unclear but it ranges from 2 million on the low end to 10 million on the high end the real number is likely between 3 and 5 million out of a population of 31 million that meant that more than one in every 10 ukrainians were killed by hunger a hunger that was deliberately aggravated by the man in charge through policies that were misguided at best and malevolent at worst beyond the death toll many thousands also succeeded in leaving ukraine and generations of people have never returned [Music] following the end of the famine soviet authorities unsurprisingly covered up the true death toll of the disaster they blamed the culax and nationalism for the disaster in public nobody acknowledged the famine not even those who had lived through it either because of fear of speaking out or a desire to forget the entire thing some kept diaries hiding them from the authorities the suffering inflicted on ukraine by the holodomor was not the end of the pain a mere 10 years after the famine’s end the beer marked of nazi germany would march through ukraine subjecting it to one of the harshest occupations anywhere in europe after world war ii ukraine finally entered what could reasonably be called a peaceful time until the disaster at chernobyl nuclear power plant put a final punctuation mark on ukraine’s soviet history it’s little surprise that ukraine was instrumental in the dissolution of the soviet union today ukraine has a holiday holiday more memorial day on the fourth saturday of every november to remember the year that inflicted so much loss with its language its history and its culture it is clear to everyone in the world not named vladimir putin that ukraine is a nation with a long history of suffering but also a long history of pride that makes the russian invasion of ukraine including the besieging and starving of ukrainian cities all the more criminal one can only hope that when the guns stop firing it’ll be for the last time you