Until it declared its independence in 1991, so precipitating the end of the Soviet empire, most of Ukraine and its rich farmland had been a Russian possession for three centuries.
One of Stalin’s first jobs after the Bolshevik putsch in 1917 was to impose Soviet rule upon Ukraine and other non-Russian “nationalities”. Peasants all across Ukraine, most of them individual farmers, erupted in revolt against the Bolsheviks. They wanted socialism and local democracy, not Soviet rule.
The revolt was put down in 1921, but it caused Stalin always thereafter to fear the link between peasant revolt, a potential “peasant army”, and Ukrainian national consciousness inspired by intellectuals. Both the peasantry and Ukrainian nationalism therefore had to be destroyed.
Stalin also needed Ukrainian grain to feed industrial workers and the Red army. Between 250 000 and 500 000 people in southern Ukraine died of starvation in 1921-1922 after their food had been confiscated.
In the second great famine that Stalin visited upon Ukraine, this time in the early 1930s, 3.9 million Ukrainians were starved to death in what is known as the Holodomor (meaning hunger and extermination).
The process had numerous components. Peasants were to be forced to surrender their land, livestock, and tools to the collective farms that Stalin was personally absolutely bent on creating. Village-based local government was destroyed and replaced with centralised Soviet power. Thousands of fanatical young urban activists who knew nothing of farming were deployed to enforce collectivisation.
Peasants feared that collectivisation would ruin them, so they resisted. They slaughtered their livestock rather than hand it over to collective farms. Across the Soviet Union (for collectivisation and resistance to it went far beyond Ukraine) the number of cattle and horses dropped by nearly half, while the number of sheep, goats, and pigs dropped from 172 million to 62 million.
The more prosperous peasants – kulaks – were subjected to endless vilification as counter-revolutionary capitalists and targeted for exile to Siberia, deportation as slave labour to Gulag camps, or deployment to the industrial workforce.
A massive purge of cultural, religious, publishing, and educational institutions accompanied the campaign to eliminate the kulaks as a class. Hundreds of plays were banned, dictionaries subjected to censorship, churches destroyed, icons smashed, bells broken, and 200 000 members of the intelligentsia arrested.
While kulaks had to be eliminated as a class, intellectuals identified with any ideas of Ukrainian self-determination had also to be discredited and destroyed. Totalitarian control could not tolerate the flowering of Ukrainian national consciousness which had occurred during the 1920s and might inspire another revolt against Soviet rule. Soviet power had to be absolute. Party cadres and OGPU, the secret police, were everywhere.
Collectivisation was widely hated. Peasants on collective farms were reduced by the Bolsheviks to the serfdom from which they had been liberated in 1861 by Tsar Alexander II. They worked as little as possible. Tractors and other machines were not maintained.
But it was not crop failure, bad weather, or even collectivisation per se that caused the famine. It was rather a set of policies imposed on Stalin’s personal orders, starting with the deadly requisitioning of all their food and the means of producing it. People did not starve to death. They were starved to death.
Just about everything was confiscated. Grain, livestock, animal fodder, cats and dogs, seeds needed for the next planting. Fruit was taken from trees, vegetables from kitchen gardens, honey from beehives, tools from sheds. Homes were searched for hidden crusts of bread or handfuls of potatoes. If activists arrived when a family was eating a meagre supper, they took the food away or poured soup on to the floor. Walls were torn down and floorboards ripped up in case food had been hidden there. Cooking utensils were also confiscated.
Guards were mounted to ensure that starving peasants did not steal from fields on collective farms. Spies watched for smoke from chimneys and then went to the house to seize whatever was being cooked. Neighbours who spied on neighbours were rewarded with part of any food that was found. Starvation made people too weak to do any work in the fields to try to produce food.
As 3.9 million Ukrainians were starved to death, the Soviets exported some of the farm products that had been produced, as they needed hard foreign currency to buy equipment for their industrialisation drive. In 1933, for example, 5 433 tonnes of butter and 1 037 of bacon were exported from Ukraine alone. Soviet exporters continued to ship eggs, poultry, apples, nuts, honey, jam, and tinned fish, meat, and vegetables abroad. When longshoremen in Odessa refused to load pigs on to a ship for export, the army had to do the job.
Collective farms and villages which did not produce their quotas were blacklisted. They could no longer buy matches, salt, paraffin, or any manufactured or industrial goods. Nor could they obtain credit.
Died of starvation
When starving peasants and their families left their villages in the hope of finding food in the towns, they were packed on to trains and removed. When they crossed into Russia or Belarus to search for food the borders were closed. Eventually nobody could leave a village without permission. Whole families, whole villages, simply died of starvation. Wolves moved into some of the empty houses.
Every stage of the process of collectivisation, dekulakization, and requisitioning was accompanied by massive and sometimes violent resistance. But eventually repression and hunger made continued resistance impossible.
Many people survived because they had been able to save the family cow from collectivisation or confiscation. They could drink the milk or barter some of it for grain or bread. They removed the thatch from the roof of their home to feed to the cow.
Some of those who survived did so by selling wedding rings or war medals to obtain money to buy a few days’ or weeks’ food. Others stole from one another. They ate whatever they could find: flowers, bark from oak trees, rats, ants, even horse manure. Some survived on mushrooms found in forests. When a person died of starvation he would be eaten. Cannibalism was rife: people killed their parents or children or younger brothers and sisters and ate them.
But somebody had to bring in the harvest. So the Soviet authorities agreed to supply food aid to Ukraine. Individual farmers who had survived the famine joined the collectives, surrendering their homes and properties. They could no longer resist the monstrous power of the state.
Officials sent to Ukraine found that whole villages had simply died. Most people, horses, and oxen were dead. There was now a drastic shortage of labour in the Ukrainian countryside, so thousands of Russians were persuaded to move to Ukraine or were later deported there. The resettlement of Russians in Ukraine continued for many years subsequently.
The famine that Stalin inflicted upon Ukraine reached its height in 1933, the very year that Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. The Holodomor was every bit as deliberate as the Holocaust.
* Most of the information in this article is taken from Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum, published in 2017. The first major study of the famine was The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivisation and the Terror Famine by Robert Conquest, published in 1986.
1st Published on The Daily Friend.