In the years 1932 and 1933, one of the greatest humanitarian disasters in human history occurred in what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in the Soviet Union.
Millions of people died, yet the event was ignored in most of the western press and wasn’t even officially acknowledged by the Soviet government until the 1980s.
Today, most people in the world still aren’t aware of one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century.
Learn more about the Holodomor and the engineered famine that killed millions of people, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
The word Holodomor is a Ukrainian word derived from the phrase moryty holodom, which means to kill by starvation.
The word is intentionally not synonymous with the word for famine. The creation and usage of the word are designed to stress a famine that was inflicted upon someone on purpose. Similar to the difference between the English words ‘murder’ and ‘death’.
With that in mind, to understand the events of the Holodomor we have to back up a few years to years after the Communist Revolution when Lenin was the leader of the Soviet Union.
In theory, in the Soviet Union, all private property was outlawed. However, in 1921 Lenin instituted what was known as the New Economic Program.
During the Russian Civil War which followed the revolution, all businesses in the country were nationalized. However, in what he considered a temporary pragmatic move, Lenin’s New Economic Program allowed for some free-market reforms to exist alongside Soviet state-run enterprises.
For the purposes of this episode, with respect to farmers, he removed the policy of forced grain seizures and replaced it with a tax, which could be payable in grain.
The Soviet agriculture policy during the civil war was a disaster. When anything and everything you produced could and would be taken without any compensation, no one had much of an incentive to work.
Also, the New Economic Program also put farm collectivization on hold and allowed farmers to continue to grow crops on their private plots of land.
Basically, the New Economic Program was more of a pragmatic program to do what worked, rather than an ideological program trying to force the square peg reality into the round hole Marxist theory.
The New Economic Program ended in 1928 with the rise to power of Joseph Stalin. Stalin instituted what became known as the Great Break. This was a dramatic turn in Soviet economic policy.
Stalin outlawed private ownership of land and collectivized farms. The theory was that larger farms would be more efficient and could invest more mechanization like tractors.
One of Stalin’s reasons for collectivizing the farms was that peasants were hoarding grain because the price was too low. Grain that Stalin through, belonged to the Soviet state.
In 1929, Stalin declared war on the kulaks, which were the larger land-owning farmers. He announced the total “liquidation of the kulaks as a class”. All of the kulaks were to be executed or sent to labor camps.
The other thing which happened in 1928 with the rise of Stalin to power, was his focus on crushing Ukrainian separatists. While Stalin’s reforms did apply over the whole country, they were especially harshly enforced in Ukraine.
Just as an example, but the end of the 1930s and the start of the Second World War, about 80% of the Ukrainian intelligentsia, including writers, community leaders, and even local communist party officials, had been killed.
Stalin also reversed Lenin’s policy on grain requisitioning. Moreover, Stalin put much more pressure on Ukrain than on other parts of the Soviet Union.
In 1930, Ukraine produced 27% of the grain in the country but was required to supply 38% of the grain required by the government. In 1931, the percentage which Ukraine was required to produce was 42% of all Soviet grain.
Yet, Stalin did everything in his power to make sure they couldn’t produce it. Stalin instituted the first five-year plan, and everything was now centrally controlled and planned. However, Ukraine was issued fewer tractors and other farm implements than other Soviet regions, the very things which were supposed to make the large collective farms efficient in the first place.
Needless to say, everything resulted in a collapse in agricultural production.
Stalin, however, wanted his grain and it didn’t matter how much was produced.
In 1932, brigades were formed that went looking for hidden grain on farms and in individual homes. Grain that had been stored on collective farms for the next year’s seed, or for emergency purposes, was also confiscated.
Whatever food there was, the central government took.
Moreover, in August 1932, Stalin outlawed the practice of gleaning. Gleaning is when you go into a field that had already been harvested and hunted for the specks of whatever was missed by the harvest. Stalin declared that “People who encroach on socialist property should be considered enemies of the people.”
The penalty for gleaning was death or 10 years in the gulag.
In the first five months after the gleaning law was enacted, 54,645 people had been sentenced to hard labor, and 2,110 were executed.
The worst of the famine began to set in, in the spring of 1932.
Entire villages were put on economic blacklists where they were systematically starved and prevented from obtaining or growing food.
Rather than repurpose grain to feed starving people, Stalin ignored all food aid requests and continued to sell Soviet grain to foreign markets.
Even private assistance from people in cities who were given a ration of food could result in the gulag or the firing squad.
Ukrainians naturally tried to flee to go to neighboring Soviet republics or to leave the country. However, Stalin ordered the NKVD to close off the borders of Ukraine to prevent anyone from fleeing.
Death was everywhere in Ukraine. Bodies would drop in the middle of the street and no one would even bat an eye.
At its peak, an estimated 25,000 people died of hunger every day.
One of the most harrowing accounts of the famine was published in Timothy Snyder’s 2010 book “The Bloodlands”.
Survival was a moral as well as a physical struggle. A woman doctor wrote to a friend in June 1933 that she had not yet become a cannibal, but was “not sure that I shall not be one by the time my letter reaches you.” The good people died first. Those who refused to steal or to prostitute themselves died. Those who gave food to others died. Those who refused to eat corpses died. Those who refused to kill their fellow man died. Parents who resisted cannibalism died before their children did.
Cannibalism became so rampant that the Soviet government had to literally publish posters that said, “To eat your own children is a barbarian act.”
The total number of people who died in the Holodomor is unknown because any official death statistics were purposely buried by the Soviets.
The number range from 2.5 million people to as high as 10 million. The best mathematical estimates that I’ve seen that extrapolate from known demographic data, put the number at around 4.5 million dead just in Ukraine.
The true scale of the death will probably never be known.
While all of this was occurring, Stalin didn’t just control the flow of people coming in and out of Ukraine, he was also controlling the flow of information.
The official Soviet line was that there was no famine in Ukraine. However, there were whispers of some great tragedy unfolding being spread throughout the Soviet Union and eventually to countries around the world.
Here I should note the role of Walter Duranty.
Duranty was the Moscow bureau chief for the New York Times. He was first stationed in Moscow in 1922 and was known for writing articles that were very favorable towards the Soviet government. He defended the practice of sending people to labor camps, and would often just repeat Soviet talking points.
His coverage of the Soviet Union eventually earned him a private interview with Stalin, one of the only ones ever given to a western reporter. That gave him a great deal of status both with the New York Times and with other correspondents in Moscow.
In March of 1933, a British reporter named Gareth Jones made a trip to the Soviet Union, and while there, he managed to sneak into Ukraine and observed for himself what was happening.
When he left, he went to Berlin where he issued a press release on what he found, which was later picked up by newspapers around the world. He noted:
I walked along through villages and twelve collective farms. Everywhere was the cry, ‘There is no bread. We are dying’. …I tramped through the black earth region because that was once the richest farmland in Russia and because the correspondents have been forbidden to go there to see for themselves what is happening.
In the train, a Communist denied to me that there was a famine. I flung a crust of bread which I had been eating from my own supply into a spittoon. A peasant fellow passenger fished it out and ravenously ate it. I threw an orange peel into the spittoon and the peasant again grabbed it and devoured it. The Communist subsided. I stayed overnight in a village where there used to be two hundred oxen and where there now are six. The peasants were eating the cattle fodder and had only a month’s supply left. They told me that many had already died of hunger. Two soldiers came to arrest a thief. They warned me against travel by night, as there were too many ‘starving’ desperate men.
This recounting of the famine was then denied publicly by Duranty. He wrote an article in the Times a week later titled “Russians Hungry, But Not Starving”
In it, he said, In the middle of the diplomatic duel between Great Britain and the Soviet Union over the accused British engineers, there appears from a British source a big scare story in the American press about famine in the Soviet Union, with “thousands already dead and millions menaced by death from starvation”.
In a later article, he called the reports of a famine “exaggeration or malignant propaganda.”
Subsequent research showed that Duranty knew very well what was happening. In 1934, he privately told diplomats at the British Embassy that as many as 10 million people may have died. This has been confirmed by many Americans and British ex-pats who lived in Moscow at the time
The cherry on top of all of this is that Duranty was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his coverage of the Soviet Union. To this day, the prize has never been revoked, even though the New York Times itself has urged the Pulitzer committee to do so.
Gareth Jones was assassinated by the Soviet NKVD in 1935 at the age of 29 while he was on assignment in Mongolia.
There is an excellent movie which was released in 2019 called Mr. Jones, which recounts the story of Gareth Jones and Walter Duranty, and I highly recommend it.
The legacy of the Holodomor is still with us today.
When the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, tens of thousands of Ukrainians fought for the Germans, primarily due to having survived the Holodomor.
The areas of Ukraine which experience the greatest depopulation were repopulated with ethnic Russians. Two of these regions, the easternmost part of Ukraine, Donetsk (Don-YET-sk) and Luhansk (Lu-HAN-sk), are still primarily populated by ethnic Russians today.
The Soviet Union denied there was any famine in Ukraine until the 1980s, and even then the information which was released was scarce.
There are still people today who are Holodomor deniers, who say that the number of deaths was exaggerated or that it was due to natural circumstances. Some extremists claim that it never happened at all.
One of the biggest debates is if the Holodomor should be classified as a genocide. To date, 14 countries recognize the Holodomor as a legal case of genocide, as did Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the term genocide and was responsible for the genocide convention.
One of the reasons why so few people are aware of the Holodomor is because it was purposely kept a secret. There are very few photos that were ever taken, and fewer which were allowed to be kept. There were very few testimonials that were ever given.
By the time the Soviets had been forthcoming with acknowledging it, most of the survivors had died.
The events which occurred in Ukraine 90 years ago still reverberate with us today.
If you look closely at what is on the news, you can see the legacy of the Holodomor.