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The Holodomor Question

This is a black and white image taken in Kyiv in 1932-33. This image depicts what was known as the “blackboard” or really to be what we would call blacklisted names of villagers that had been found out to have hidden food or supplies, which was a crime, would be listed on a blackboard. You would have been deemed an enemy of the state if the officials found any food after the massive collection had taken place. (2)

General prime source for this blog is book Red Famine by Anne Applebaum.

History reminds us that in the 1932-33 period in the USSR, Stalin caused mass starvation in the Ukraine by the confiscation the grain and other food stuffs produced there for the consumption others in the USSR while leaving little to none for the locals. Such was the famine’s devastation that Ukrainian emigre publications coined a new word to describe its barbarity: ‘Holodomor,’ a combination of the Ukrainian words for hunger (holod) and extermination (mor). It is not disputed that in this time frame, 5 million people died from starvation in the USSR including 3.9 million Ukrainians. The issue to be discussed related to Stalin’s intentions towards the Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. This Holodomor is still a big issue that effects the current conflict and relations between Ukraine and Putin’s Russia.

Black and white image taken in 1932-33 in Kharkiv depicting a mass grave used to bury the deal from the Ukraine famine. (2)

The Bolsheviks in 1918, under the leadership of Lenin, referred to the Ukraine as “Southwest Russia” having no independence, unique cultural identity or more specifically a separate language. There was a brief effort for Ukrainian independence after Russia signed the Brest-Litovsk treaty but quickly “General Mykhail Muraviev, the commanding officer, declared he was bringing back Russian rule from the “far North,” and ordered the immediate execution of suspected nationalists. His men shot anyone heard speaking Ukrainian in public and destroyed any evidence of Ukrainian rule, including the Ukrainian street signs that had replaced Russian street signs only weeks before.”Applebaum, Anne. Red Famine (p. 24). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Starting in 1918, the Russians clearly acknowledged the agricultural “bread basket” potential of the Ukraine region to be used for the critical supply of food/grain for the Red Guard and upper party officials at the expense of the peasants in the Ukraine. Collectivization process was soon setup and the identification and prosecution of “kulaks” as counter-revolutionaries was begun. As long as the annual two harvests were as provided as expected, the collectives in the Ukraine part of Russia were able to survive.

This is a black and white image taken in Donetsk in 1932-33. the image depicts a woman and child being kicked out of their home in the winter. They are pulling a wagon of things that they are allowed to take with them.

The book, Red Famine, then discusses many expects of the events in the Ukraine during the 1920s but specifically during what is called the Holodomor from summer/fall of 1932 through spring/summer of 1933. I have included some significant quotations from Applebaum text that are included below where the author documents the starvation effects of the Holodomor as well as the attitudes and leadership of party officials and specifically Josef Stalin:

A) Stalin’s policies that autumn led inexorably to famine all across the grain-growing regions of the USSR. But in November and December 1932 he twisted the knife further in Ukraine, deliberately creating a deeper crisis. Step by step, using bureaucratic language and dull legal terminology, the Soviet leadership, aided by their cowed Ukrainian counterparts, launched a famine within the famine, a disaster specifically targeted at Ukraine and Ukrainians. (p.190).

B) On 18 November the Ukrainian communists carried out his wishes. The party issued a resolution declaring that “the full delivery of grain procurement plans is the principal duty of all collective farms,” to be prioritized above and beyond anything else, including the collection of grain reserves, seed reserves, animal fodder and, ominously, daily food supplies. In practice, both individual and collective farmers were forbidden from holding back anything at all. Even those allowed to keep grain in the past had to give it back. Any collective farmer who produced grain for his family on a private plot now had to turn that over too.22 No excuses were accepted. (p. 191).

C) Dead bodies caused a sanitary crisis. In January 1933 the city of Kyiv had to remove 400 corpses from the streets. In February the number rose to 518, and in just the first eight days of March there were 248.64 (p. 201).

D) As winter turned to spring, and the lack of food took its toll, the vast majority of peasants ceased to fight back. Even those who had rebelled in 1930 stayed silent. The reason for this was physical, not psychological. A starving person is simply too weak to fight back. Hunger overwhelms even the urge to object. (p. 236)

E) . . . survived the famine because her father was a party leader who had access to a special Communist Party shop providing grain and sugar. The highest party officials also had ration cards, which enabled them to make purchases that were impossible for others. Privileges were also extended to their children, as those less fortunate remembered: “There was a special school for the children of the bosses. There was a canteen inside…breathtaking smells spread from that kitchen . . (p.235)

Applebaum continued for 200 pages with detailed documentation of the events and meaning of the Holodomor and the responsibility of the party officials, specifically Josef Stalin, for the deaths by starvation in Ukraine the 1932-33 period. Although the propaganda from the USSR, even to today, denies the details, there was established in 1984 the International Commission of Inquiry Into the 1932-33 Famine in Ukraine . The final report was issued in 1990 with the following conclusions: 1) 4.5 million Ukrainian victims died and the responsibility of the famine was placed on the central government of the USSR. 2) the policy of the USSR disregarded the precepts of basic morality and must be vigorously condemned. 3) The commission does not believe that the famine was systematically organized to crush the Ukraine nation once and for all but did use the famine to crown the new policy of denationalization. 4) The commission concluded that the Soviet authorities, without actively wanting the famine, most likely took advantage of it to force peasant to accept policies they strongly opposed. That commission’s report is available online. There is also an organization in Canada that focuses on the Holodomor at https://education.holodomor.ca. The photo images in this blog are from that website.

I found the details of this Holodomor book very difficult to read as it reflected the absolute lack of humanity shown by the party officials of the USSR, as lead by Josef Stalin, in the 1920-1933 time period.

By Tom Patton

Senior citizen scholar auditing classes at Virginia Tech.

19 replies on “The Holodomor Question”

Hey Tom I enjoyed reading your post. After I read it I understand now why the Ukrainians hold such a grudge against Russia. It’s such a shame how the soviets and nazis as well exploited Ukraine. I don’t understand how one group of people could be so looked down on. Oh I saw the note you posted from your time in the Soviet Union, that was very interesting!

I feel as though this post leaves out some very crucial facts about the Soviet famine of 1932-1933. The fact that the famine was more severe in the Ukraine than in the rest of the country only makes sense, since the Ukraine was the main grain growing region of the USSR, and that 40% of Kazakhs died and millions of Russians in the black earth region of Southern Russia. This is important because the Soviet Government had to balance famine relief aid to many regions of the USSR, not just the Ukraine. Additionally, previously many peasants withheld their grain from collectors in an attempt to sell it on the market at a higher price, so the Government was suspicious about this happening again and were hesitant on sending aid. While I agree this was a humanitarian tragedy I do not believe it was a genocide, and it further disturbers me that today the biggest advocates of the ‘holodomor’ are Ukrainian nationalist who see no problem with the countries collaboration with the Germans during their occupation of the Ukraine which lead to the deaths of millions of citizens and Jew’s.

I really liked reading this post Tom and I have to say that I can understand the Ukrainians having such anger towards Russia due to them trying to wipe out everything about them as if they never existed and kind of having them looked as second class citizens who had to fend for themselves. Also enjoyed seeing the note you had on Slack which was pretty cool to learn.

Tom, your post is very insightful in its focus on the tremendous human cost that came with the aspirations of Stalin and the Soviet state. The quotations you provided clearly demonstrate how the Bolshevik ideology often outweighed regard for human life as well as practical public policy considerations. What is also interesting is how people seem to fail to learn from history and repeat the same mistakes (e.g. Mao’s Great Leap Forward) with similar results. I enjoyed learning more about the Holodomor and Ukraine during the implementation of Collectivization.

What an impressive post, Tom — you’ve got some terrific comments and questions here and I’m looking forward to the discussion. The book you’re using is an important book, and one that generated a lot of controversy. I’m going to flag a couple of book reviews for us to chew on in the Slack Channel. And will also note that Sarah Cameron’s book (Hungry Steppe) that I mentioned last week (details on Drive) is a valuable counterpoint to this study.

The point that you ignored were the efforts on the part of the Communist Party, and specifically Stalin, to completely obliterate the culture, language and desires for independence of the people of the Ukraine. The party wanted only “Southwest Russia” for its grain and no mention of the Ukraine. Hence, the efforts to completely remove the grain and other food stuffs during the famine as a way of accomplishing that goal. Yes, the biggest advocates of the ‘holodomor’ are Ukrainians but then they were the victims. Rarely do the oppressors of an event take the side of the oppressed in an effort to correct historical record. One only has to look at the history of the oppression of the Kurds by the Turkish government to see the similarity in the Ukraine. Of course the Ukrainians worked with the Germans in WWII as the treatment by the Russians was far worse. Today, Russia is still trying to recapture the land area called Ukraine as being “Southwest Russia”. Putin’s Russia took the Crimea Peninsula which is Ukrainian territory in order to have their naval base for the Black Sea.

I disagree with the statement that the Soviet Government wanted to “obliterate Ukrainian identity”. It is a fact that under the Soviet Union is when Ukrainian culture flourished, especially immediately after formation of the Soviet Union under the policy of Korenizatsiya, which promoted the use of a republics native language. Yes the Soviet government fought against manifestations of nationalism, but they also fought against Russian and other forms of nationalism in the USSR. I do agree that under Stalin the USSR took a more Russian nationalist approach but it was not the level of “obliterating Ukrainian culture. It it certainly did not reach the Tsarists level of Russification where they did try and obliterate the culture of almost all non-Russian ethnic groups. Also the statement that the Ukraine was referred to as “southwest Russia” I find hard to believe, as every primary and secondary source I have read dating back to the Russian revolution refers to the Ukraine as the Ukraine. The only cases I have seen the Ukraine being refereed to as southwest Russia is in statements by Tsarists officials and Tsarists era maps of Russia.

I don’t want to say that I enjoyed reading this post, only because the details about the Holodomor are so troubling. However, I think that this is an excellent post, and I learned just how badly Ukraine was targeted by the Soviet Union and how they used famine to subjugate them. I was unaware of how many people lost their lives as a result of Soviet policy during this time.

I must say, that one thing I find interesting regarding the Holodomor, is the number of deniers that still exist to this day. Many, even in this day of vast information, deny its genocidal intentions. The documentation and evidence is endless, of it being an intentional genocidal act. I wonder why denial of genocides like the Holodomor or the Armenian Genocide is not as scrutinized, or why there is so little focus towards them in courses, compared to other genocides like the genocides of the Natives of the New World and the Holocaust. I wish that there were courses and movies dedicated to these other genocides, as most understand and know a lot about the other genocides, but know very little about the Armenian Genocide and the Holodomor. I think that all genocides are important to discuss so that they don’t happen again.

Tom,
I found your post so insightful in regards to the information we’ve been consuming this past week. After reading the Freeze text and various analyses from the “Seventeen Moments” website, I find it hard to believe that this famine could be seen as anything but genocidal. The lengths that Stalin was willing to go to meet his ends are honestly repulsive; and as others have stated above, it’s unbelievable that people never learn from these mistakes. Furthermore, it’s interesting to see that people are willing to downplay atrocities such as this so that they can justify their own beliefs. I loved your post, as well as the excerpts from the Applebaum text that was able to give even more perspective to your analysis.

Chris, the Ukrainians were not so much looked down on as but as a perceived threat because of their nationalistic feelings which the Soviets had to eliminate for the good of Russia. Power always means complete control of the population.

De’Vonte, control always means limiting or removing any opposition which the Soviets did very well. Ukraine was certainly not the only area to feel the use of power by the party to maintain control.

Chase, thanks for your note. All people that have been oppressed in this world do feel anger towards the oppressors and when it is appropriate will express that feeling in a way that promotes either a positive or negative response. In becoming a free nation, Ukraine will recover their dignity unless Putin takes actions that limits their new freedom.

Eric, yes history continues to repeat itself in the 20th century. China and Cambodia are two recent examples of the use of power to maintain government control by losing the regard for human life.

I did download and read the article and it was a good counterpoint to the points raised in the Applebaum’s book. I do believe that “Moscow did not purposely organised the famine to exterminate the Ukrainians” but once underway, Moscow allowed it to proceed as a way of achieving their goals of only Russian nationalism.

Andrew, the oppressors never rewrite history to truthfully examine their bad acts, such examination is always done by the remaining oppressed or subsequent generations. If the oppressed a few in number the response is limited unless other groups take up the challenge. Even today, the Japanese are not taught the real truth of the history of the involvement of Japan in WWII.

Kendall, I read a brief article about Anne Applebaum’s book and then decided to download the whole book on Kindle. It took about 3 minutes. I then spent 4 to 5 hours reading from the book. The power of modern technology! Yes, the obsession to remain in power drives many leaders to take repressive action against their own people to keep that power. The results of such actions are always ignored or buried in history unless others identify and expose those actions.

Hey Tom, great post and very insightful into a non-Russian subgroup. All through the article I’m wondering why the Ukrainians didn’t try and resist more urgently and forcefully? Were there any significant (nationally known) counter-protest movements?

Landry, I don’t think that there were any real opportunities to resist more forcefully because all previous attempts were stopped by mass execution of the leaders and participants in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

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