John Mitchinson explores how the horrors of the Holodomor still underpin Ukrainian identity

There is a cartoon doing the social media rounds in which an old scholar tells a younger colleague: “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. Yet those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it.” It’s hard not to feel the sting of that after the past few brutal weeks. 

But, if ever there was a moment when historical literacy matters, it’s now.

Let’s take just one historical episode from the long and complex history of Ukraine: the devastating famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in 1932-33. 

The very fact that we still can’t agree how many died is significant. News of the famine was repressed at the time and its very existence was denied by the Soviet authorities for decades afterwards. In his 2021 essay, ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’, Vladimir Putin’s breezes over it as “the common tragedy of collectivisation and famine” – which blurs the historical fact that far more people died of famine in Ukraine in those two years than in any other part of the Soviet Union.

Putin also takes special care to criticise the Ukrainian Government’s portrayal of the famine as a genocide carried out by the Soviet Union. The Ukrainian Parliament has no such qualms: it first officially recognised it as a genocide in 2003, and gave it a name: the Holodomor, which means ‘death by hunger’ in Ukrainian (from holod, ‘hunger’; and mor, ‘plague’).

In 2021, a poll found that 85% of Ukrainians now believe that the Holodomor was an act of genocide. Not all historians agree, but what is not in doubt is that at least three to five million Ukrainians died of starvation and that this was in large part caused by decisions taken by Stalin and his senior officials.

The key failing was an inability to admit that his Five Year Plan to transform the Soviet Union into an industrial powerhouse was in serious trouble. In particular, the collectivisation of farming was proving unworkable. 

Given that Ukraine was responsible for producing a quarter of the Soviet Union’s annual grain harvest, the local implications were catastrophic. 

Stalin’s response was denial followed by revenge. 

Ukraine’s impossibly high grain quotas were increased still further and even the seed corn – reserved to produce the following year’s crop – was seized. The agricultural economy in Ukraine rapidly collapsed and mass starvation followed.

Grotesquely, the blame for this was laid unequivocally at the door of the peasants themselves. Starvation was an act of rebellion. In Bloodlands, his searing history of central Europe between Hitler and Stalin, Timothy Snyder captures this chilling inversion: “A peasant slowly dying of hunger was, despite appearances, a saboteur working for the capitalist powers in their campaign to discredit the Soviet Union.”

For two years, rural Ukraine spiralled into unimaginable horror. To starve to death is a slow and utterly degrading experience, dissolving morality as surely as it destroys the physical body.

“The good people died first,” writes Snyder. “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.”

Astonishingly, very little about this humanitarian catastrophe found its way into Western newspapers. 

The first-hand reports of the young British journalists Gareth Jones and Malcolm Muggeridge were rare exceptions. Jones, a former foreign advisor to Lloyd George, penned shocking eye-witness accounts of the starvation he’d witnessed in Ukraine in 1933 which earned him a lifetime ban from the Soviet Union. It seems very likely that his death in China two years later was ordered by Stalin. 

It certainly annoyed other journalists happy to peddle the official Soviet line. The New York Times’ Moscow correspondent (and Pulitzer Prize-winner) Walter Duranty called Jones’ report “a big scare story”. His own assessment, in a line worthy of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, was that there was “no actual starvation” but only “widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition”. As George Orwell (a keen admirer of Jones’ journalism) would later demonstrate, ‘fake news’ has a long history.

Vladimir Putin may believe that “the true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia” and that it is the Ukrainian Government that is denying the past to justify independence. But recent Ukrainian history tells another story. 

As Snyder reminds us, during the years Stalin and Hitler were in power, “more people were killed in Ukraine than anywhere else in the bloodlands, or in Europe, or in the world”. 

The Holodomor may not exist in the official Russian record, but it is a painful historical fact for Ukrainians. They have not forgotten; nor, as Ukrainian lives are being lost once more through decisions taken in Moscow, are they likely to forgive.

John Mitchinson is a writer and publisher and co-founder of Unbound, the world’s leading crowdfunding platform for books. He was one of the founders of BBC’s ‘QI

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