Holodomor: the forgotten famine
“You cannot build a revolution with silk gloves”, Josef Stalin once said. The people of Ukraine know this very well: from 1932-3, a large swathe of the Soviet Union was devastated by famine, with Ukraine at the epicentre. This period is named the Holodomor – murder by hunger. I wanted to write this article because 27th November is ‘Holodomor Remembrance Day’ and few people outside Ukraine are aware of this massacre.
I say ‘massacre’ because this famine was man-made, and could have been completely avoided. From 1927, Stalin brutally enforced his economic experiment in central planning. He demanded rapid industrialisation and the collectivisation of agriculture – no matter what the human cost. All farms were to be turned into kolkhozy in order to fulfil the needs of the state. Stalin tried to make this idea more appealing, by turning the poorer peasants against the kulaks – peasants who were slightly richer than the rest, or anyone who was accused of resisting collectivisation. Men, women and children were arrested and deported to horrific labour-camps, where many died under the harsh conditions.
To his surprise, the majority of peasants turned against him, because they saw this policy as a return to serfdom. They resisted with hoarding, black-market trading and eventually violence against the agents sent from the cities. Peasants chose to slaughter their cattle and burn their crops, rather than see them confiscated by the state.
By 1933, events had reached boiling point. The borders of Ukraine were sealed off, and gangs of armed thugs called ‘red brigades’ were sent in to confiscate any remaining food from the population and to punish those who had not ‘fulfilled their quota’ – atrocities were common. Stalin himself signed the order to shoot anyone caught stealing food, even just a few husks.
At its worst, 25, 000 people were dying every day. Driven to despair, peasants began to eat grass, straw, cats, dogs, insects and the corpses of other peasants. The authorities put up posters warning peasants that: “To eat your own children is a barbaric act” – nevertheless, it happened anyway. It is estimated that a total of 6 million civilians died as a result of the famine, although the real number could be double. Ukraine had once been named “the bread-basket of Europe” but within a few years, Communism had turned it into a graveyard.
This famine was not just bad luck, it was a deliberate crime committed against an entire nation. Incredibly, the Soviet Union continued to export a huge amount of grain throughout this period, while deliberately limiting famine relief at the same time. Other stocks of food became rotten, or were dumped in the sea.
When rumours of the famine reached him, Stalin dismissed them as “Trotskyite gossip”. Ukraine was singled out because he felt intimidated by the resurgence in Ukrainian national identity, and decided the country was becoming a hotbed of counter-revolutionary forces. During the famine, he eliminated the intelligentsia and clergy, wiping out the cultural elite of Ukraine, in order to pave the way for russification.
However, Stalin was not the only one responsible. Many Western governments, including Britain, were aware of the famine but didn’t want to intervene. Western journalists and intellectuals acted as ‘useful idiots’ for Stalin, reporting that there was no famine, and that the Soviet Union was far superior to capitalist countries, after being given tours of Potemkin farms by the authorities. For example, the Pulitzer prize winning journalist Walter Duranty, or the socialist-eugenicist, George Bernard Shaw. Only a few brave journalists broke through the Soviet censorship and spread the information to the world. The censorship continued up until the late 80’s. As recently as 2002, the London-based ‘Stalin Society’ have denied that the famine ever happened. Some Russians still view Stalin as a national hero and a great war-leader.
Today, the issue still remains controversial. Within Ukraine, the Communist Party continues to deny that the famine was not natural. The current president of Ukraine has downplayed the extent to which Ukraine was specifically singled out, arguing that many different countries were affected. Russia has said the same thing – it cannot be classified as genocide, if no specific ethnic group was targeted. They accuse Ukrainian nationalists of stirring up anti-Russian sentiment, and point out their collaboration with Nazi Germany.
Personally, I don’t want to wade into this argument. Genocide or not, the Holodomor was a terrible waste of human life, carried out through merciless disregard for human rights, in the name of ideology and political control. I am not trying to demonise Russia, but to make a point about Communism:
The Holodomor was not an isolated event. This is just one of many examples of Communist dictators enslaving nations, and using a combination of violent coercion and economic fairytales to ruin agriculture. The Great Chinese Famine of 1958-61 killed 40 million. Widespread poverty in Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar and Cuba. Chaos in Zimbabwe. 2 million in Cambodia murdered by the Khmer Rouge. In North Korea, the world’s last Stalinist state, malnutrition and famine have been ongoing problems for decades.
Although countries like Russia and China have begun to take baby-steps in the right direction, it will be a long time before the curse of Communism is lifted from the world. However, the recent release of Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar is, perhaps, a sign of progress. It is my hope that the 21st century will finally see the end of Communism.