Cold. Red. Fear. Death: Holodomor

Memorial The Holodomor 1932-1933 death by hunger in Kyiv, Ukraine 2009 | Photo by Andrew J Swan. Courtesy of Flickr

Crunch: the sound of cracking frozen ground underneath one’s foot walking in subzero temperatures. Burning wood: the smell escaping chimneys in the distance where people struggle to keep warm. White clouds around anyone who dares to step outside when their breath freezes in the air under the shadow of the red flag. One can no longer remember whether the bold red color serves as the remembrance of the Paris Commune of 1871 or symbolizes the blood of innocent people. The hammer, meant to evoke industrial workers, foreshadows the forcefulness of the strikes of the Red Army. The sickle, symbolic of agricultural workers, becomes the weapon that cuts them down. The red flag intends to instill one emotion, fear. The flag urged the will to run, to hide, and sometimes to fight the people acting on the behalf of the flag. The fear of the flag ultimately ends in death. The Soviet Union brought death and devastation everywhere its red flag touched the Ukraine in the 1930s.

While the Bolshevik Revolution was led by Lenin, soon Joseph Stalin made sure to rise to power very quickly. Advancing in his position, in 1912, Stalin earned a seat at Vladimir Lenin’s inner circle. Lenin served as head of the Bolshevik Party thus making Stalin one of the head representatives of the Bolshevik party. Lenin had a much softer approach in the face of the Ukrainian resistance; he met and even allowed Ukrainians to continue trading with other nations while hoping to bring them into the fold of the the Soviet Communist centralized new form of government installed in 1917 through the USSR.1

Soon following Stalin’s arrival in Achinsk in 1917, the February Revolution and October Revolution occurred, starting with the revolts in the Russian capital of Petrograd on November 7, 1917, where the transfer of political power shifted from the Russian Tsars to the Soviet Union and to Joseph Stalin. During the Russian Civil War, Stalin made connections with Red Army Generals and slowly consolidated military power for his own accord. Stalin gained control of the Soviet Union behind the scenes. Stalin’s nickname, “man of the steal hand,” came from how he ruthlessly quashed counter-revolutionaries. After winning the Russian Civil War, the Bolshevik party committed to expanding into Europe, starting with Poland. At this time, the Poles were fighting the Red Army in Ukraine.2

By 1921, the Soviets won the battles in the western part of the Ukraine, which was divided-up between Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia. The Soviets rapidly began importing large amounts of grain to feed the hungry people in Moscow and in other major Russian cities. Around this time, a drought occurred in the Ukraine, resulting in widespread starvation. This resulted in an increase of resentment against Lenin and the Soviets who were requisitioning the grain for the cities instead of the countryside where it was produced.3

To soften the resentment from Ukrainians, Lenin lessened his control by decreasing the extraction of grain, and even allowed a free-market exchange of goods. This break of control reset the idea of independence and a renewal of calls for a national Ukrainian identity through fine arts, books, religion, and customs. Lenin sought to be more respectful of Ukrainians. But this would no longer be the case once Stalin ascended to power.4 The Bolshevik party, and therefore, the Soviet Union, grew in power and strength under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin. However, on May 25, 1922, Lenin suffered a stroke while in recovery from a failed assassination attempt. Severely disabled, Lenin went into semi-retirement in Moscow. At this time, Stalin visited Lenin and often acted as the intermediary to the world outside. During this leadership void, the Bolshevik party was distressed about the succession to replace Lenin. The two main candidates for the head of the Bolshevik party were Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky. Lenin shared a more personal and friendly relationship with Trotsky. In contrast, Stalin and Lenin’s strong political bond had deteriorated over time. Lenin condemned Stalin for being power hungry, and removed Stalin from his position as General Secretary. All of Lenin’s critiques were written down and when Stalin read the notes, he was shocked. Lenin had his worst stroke on March 9, 1923, thus ending his political career.5

By the time Vladimir Lenin died on January 21, 1924, Joseph Stalin had secured the position of successor and leader of the Bolshevik party and hence of running the Soviet Union entirely. After the United Opposition in 1927, led by Leon Trotsky, attempted to overthrow Stalin, the dynamics of extractive relations within the Soviet Union changed for the worse. The exploitation of the kulaks and required output from agricultural works increased and added economic pressure. In January of 1928, Stalin personally traveled to Siberia to oversee the extraction of grain from kulak farmers. Stalin not only prompted the starvation of Ukraine, but was exploiting Siberia as well. These seizures outraged Bolshevik members, Nikolai Bukharin and Premier Rykov. They condemned Stalin’s plan for rapid industrialization, all funded on the backs of the kulak farmers. Bukharin was not able to muster aid from higher members of the Communist Party to contradict Stalin. By the months of 1928, a serious shortage of grain stockpiles resulted from the forced collectivization of agriculture. Farmers were forced to unite their land for shared farming with the joint ownership of the government. Collectivization and the increased push for industrialization were all at a high, trying to centralize the economy, which Nikolai Bukharin with the Right Opposition opposed. To eliminate Bukharin as a threat, Stalin accused him of factionalist and capitalist views. The party’s members aided Stalin and removed Bukharin in November of 1929. Any member who questioned or threatened Stalin’s plan for the kulaks were eliminated. Members of the Bolshevik party, such as, Nikolai Bukharin and Premier Rykov tried to stop the exploitation of the kulak farmers in Russia and Ukraine because they knew the treatment of these people in an oppressive manner was wrong and would hurt the Soviet Union in the long run. Joseph Stalin terminated anyone that would protect the kulaks in Russia and Ukraine.6

To Stalin, the renewal of national identity and the reduction of Soviet influence implemented by Vladimir Lenin in years prior in Ukraine was completely unacceptable to him. In the beginning of 1929, over 5,000 Ukrainian scholars, religious leaders, authors, and scientists were arrested on false allegations of planning an armed revolt. Those people either were shot without a trial or deported to prison camps in rural areas of Russia.7

After draining the homeland of Russia, Stalin moved to Ukraine to seek solutions. Stalin imposed the Soviet system of land management known as collectivization. This ended in the seizure of all privately owned farmlands and livestock, in a country where 80 percent of the people were farmers. Among those farmers, were a class of people called Kulaks by the Communists. These formerly wealthy farmers, who obtained 24 or more acres, were now employees of the government working their own land. Stalin believed that any future rebellion would be led by the Kulaks, thus creating the policy “liquidating the Kulaks as a class.”8

A group of people falling over from starvation in Ukraine | Courtsey of Wikimedia Commons

In 1930, Mikhail Kalinin attacked Stalin’s collectivization and industrialization plans. In that summer, Stalin exposed Kalinin’s misappropriation of state funds, which were used on his mistress. Kalinin pleaded with Stalin not to exile him; in return, Kalinin yielded to Stalin’s policies. In September 1930, Stalin proposed to ejecting Premier Rykov, another oppositional view to his policies. The other members of the party back Stalin’s wishes. On December 19, Stalin dismissed Rykov and replaced him with Vyacheslav Molotov. During 1930, the Communist Party silenced all criticism of Stalin. Stalin tyrannized the Politburo, the policy making branch of the Soviet Union.9

By the middle of 1932, nearly 75 percent of the farms in Ukraine had been authoritatively collectivized. On Stalin’s orders, mandatory amounts of food had to be shipped out. The Soviet Union drastically increased orders throughout the months of August and October of 1932 and again in January 1933. This led to food shortages, leaving the people of Ukraine to starve. The plentiful wheat crop of the Ukrainians was exported to the foreign market to gain funds to support “Stalin’s Five Year Plan,” to modernize and industrialize the Soviet Union while gaining financing to build his military. If the abundance of grain stayed in the Ukraine, it would have fed the people for two years.10

The declared “enemies of the people,” the Kulaks were left homeless and without any possessions. It was forbidden by the Soviets to help any homeless Kulaks. Stalin ordered roughly 10 million people to be thrown onto railroad box car and deported for work or prison camps in Siberia. Around a third of these Ukrainians died due to the frigid conditions. Any able-bodied people, men, women, and children, were sent as slaves to work in Soviet mines or factories.11

Back in Ukraine, former land owners were now demoted to low level factory workers on large collective farms. Anyone refusing to participate in the implemented collectivization system was categorized as a Kulak and deported.12

A Soviet propaganda campaign started recruiting young Communist activists who would spread and try to gain support for the Soviet empire. These tries failed. Regardless of the threats and propaganda, the push of rebellion still held in Ukraine. The “kulaks” would burn their fertile land rather than submit to them. They took back their animals and tools, and even went to the extent of assassinating the local Soviet authorities. All of these actions put them under the direct scrutiny of Joseph Stalin.13

Stalin ordered troops and secret police to Ukraine to quash the rebellion. They met enraged farmers with warning shots above their heads, and in some cases just shot them. The Soviet secret police sparked a campaign of fear, all in effort to break the will of the Ukrainian people, including killing rebelling farmers.14

These methods of repression did not stop the rebellion, Ukrainians still persisted. They wanted to go back to their own life of farming. Many refused to work, leaving ready to be harvested wheat and oats in the fields. Again, the Ukrainians put themselves under potential punishment of Joseph Stalin.15

In Moscow, Stalin responded to their persistent rebellion by enacting a policy through the Politburo that intentionally caused mass starvation that killed millions of Ukrainians.16

Soviet Soldier in Ukraine | Courtesy in Wikimedia Commons

The Ukrainian Communist Party urged an appeal to Moscow for the reduced needs of grain quotas and the emergency food aid. In response to this, Stalin ordered 100,000 Russian soldiers to remove members of the Ukrainian Communist Party. The Soviets then sealed the borders of Ukraine, not allowing any food to enter the country, thus turning the country into a huge concentration camp. Soviet soldiers inside Ukraine went to every home and seized any food. Every single ounce of food was appraised to be “sacred property of the State.” If anyone was caught stealing food from the Soviets, he or she would be shot or sent to concentration camps.17

Widespread famine quickly plagued Ukraine, gripping onto the most vulnerable, the children and the elderly. Rather than smiling innocent faces of children, they became sunken with hunger and pain piercing through their eyes. These children were starving to death as a result of Stalin’s policy.18

A man falling over from starvation in Ukraine | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Starving mothers in the countryside sometimes threw their weak children onto passing railroad cars traveling toward large cities such as Kiev, with the hope they could find a better life there. Sadly, the reality of the city was far worse than the countryside. In the cities, children and adults who had come with hope for scraps were dropping dead in the streets. Horse drawn carts carried bodies to dump them in mass graves. Horrifyingly, starving people were sometimes carted to the mass graves because their motionless bodies made them appear to be dead and so they would be buried alive.19

While Soviet soldiers and secret police’s bellies were full and content, starving Ukrainians ate leaves and grass, killed any animal they could find, and others went crazy and resorting to cannibalism in utmost desperation. Parents were caught eating their own children. All of this was inflicted by Joseph Stalin.20

Nearby Soviet-controlled granaries were full from large quantities of ‘reserve’ grain, which had not been exported out of Ukraine. In some locations, grain and potatoes were stored out in the open, protected by barbed wire, and armed guards shot attempting to take the food. Farm animals, titled needed for production, were allowed to eat; however, the people living among them had absolutely nothing in their bellies.21.

By the spring of 1933, the starvation was at its prime. On average 25,000 people died a day in Ukraine. The countryside was plagued with death. The cities were mass graves. Americans, Europeans, Canadians, and Ukrainian lineage around the world responded to the news coverage of the famine with food aid. However, the food supplies would not reach the starving people. The Soviets stopped all shipments at the border. The Soviet Union denied that the famine even existed and denied any foreign aid. Anyone reporting that the famine even was present was charged with supporting anti-Soviet propaganda and could be arrested. The Soviets staged Ukraine for reporters from other parts of the world to come in and “inspect” the country. George Bernard Shaw and Premier Edouard Herriot, a British writer and French politician, came and toured the “manipulated” streets of Ukraine, and was pleased with what they saw and announced to the rest of the world their was no famine.22

In Moscow, six British engineers working in the Soviet Union were arrested and charged with the death penalty. These men allegedly committed sabotage, espionage, and bribery. These “trials” and deaths were merely a distracting from any publicity of the famine in Ukraine. Also, they were a threat to any journalists that went against the Soviet Union and any coverage of the trials. The foreign aid and press followed the Soviet propaganda and came to the conclusion that the famine did not even exist.23

The rest of the world in the midst of the recession following the Great Depression failed to respond even when confidential informants made governments aware of the real suffering in Ukraine. In November of 1933, the United State’s new President, Franklin D. Roosevelt, signed the New Deal. Stalin and Roosevelt negotiated a historic new trade agreement, but also admitted the Soviet Union into the League of Nations. These actions indirectly denied any wrong doing by the Soviets.24

Stalin’s Five Year Plan for the modernization of the Soviet Union depended largely on the purchase of massive amounts of manufactured goods and technology from Western nations. Those nations were unwilling to disrupt lucrative trade agreements with the Soviet Union in order to pursue the matter of the famine.25

The implementation of industrialization throughout the Soviet Union imposed by Joseph Stalin relied heavily on the Western world’s goods and technology. Near the close of 1933, about 25% of the population of Ukraine died, which included three million children, all innocent bystanders in the grab of power. The kulaks or farmers as a class was gone. Soon Stalin, allowed for food aid to enter Ukraine and the famine diminished. The new hope of aid however did not stop the killing of all opposition leaders in the years following. Fear, a powerful motivator, continued lurking around every corner.26


A man dying of starvation | Courtesy in Wikimedia Commons

The Ukrainian famine was gone and hope returned. In June of 1941, the smell of smoke in village towns was overwhelming. The sound of gunshots in the distance sounded loud and consistent. Explosions destroyed buildings everywhere around. As Soviet soldiers swept through the towns, they demolished the workplaces and anything in their paths. All of these precautions were enacted by the Soviets because the German Nazis were to soon invade the Soviet Ukraine. Crops and grain silos and any food stockpiles were burned. Political prisoners were shot. Buildings and factories were sabotaged, leaving a wave of landmines behind to cover their retreat, hoping to discourage and defeat the Nazis. The local Ukrainians in their desperation turned to the Nazis for saving grace, unaware of the worse fate that awaited them. The light of hope in their eyes quickly turned dark when Nazis rounded up local Jewish families, killing over 34,000 in just the first two days and shipping over 800,000 more to concentration camps. Ukrainians realized fear and death came among them yet again. Hopelessness returned when food supplies were seized to support the German advances. Ukrainians suffered famine and death under the shadow of the previous red flag and suffered yet again under the new flag of Nazi Germany.27 Today, as we speak, Russian troops gather en masse on the eastern border of Ukraine on the Russian side, bringing new fears for what the dark future might come.

  1. Valentina Kuryliw,  “Holodomor in Ukraine, the Genocidal Famine 1932-1933: Learning Materials for Teachers and Students,” 2018, Toronto: CIUS Presshttps://education.holodomor.ca/holodomor-in-ukraine-book/.
  2. Nicolas Werth, “The Great Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33,” April 18, 2008, Science Pro. https://www.sciencespo.fr/mass-violence-war-massacre-resistance/fr/document/great-ukrainian-famine-1932-33.html.
  3. Nicolas Werth, “The Great Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33,” April 18, 2008, Science Pro, https://www.sciencespo.fr/mass-violence-war-massacre-resistance/fr/document/great-ukrainian-famine-1932-33.html.
  4. “Genocide in the 20th Century,” 2000, The History Place, https://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/genocide/stalin.htm
  5. “Genocide in the 20th Century,” 2000, The History Place, https://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/genocide/stalin.htm.
  6. “Genocide in the 20th Century,” 2000, The History Place, https://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/genocide/stalin.htm.
  7. David Patrikarakos, “Why Stalin Starved Ukraine?” November 21, 2017, The New Republic. https://newrepublic.com/article/145953/stalin-starved-ukraine.
  8. “Genocide in the 20th Century,” 2000, The History Place, https://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/genocide/stalin.htm.
  9. Patrick Kiger, “How Stalin Starved Millions in the Ukrainian Famine,” April 16, 2019, History Network, https://www.history.com/news/ukrainian-famine-stalin.
  10. “Genocide in the 20th Century,” 2000, The History Place, https://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/genocide/stalin.htm.
  11. “Genocide in the 20th Century,” 2000, The History Place, https://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/genocide/stalin.htm.
  12. “Holodomor: Memories of Ukraine’s silent massacre,” 23 November 2013, BBC News, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-25058256.
  13. “Holodomor: Ukrainian History,” Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/event/Holodomor.
  14. “Holodomor: Memories of Ukraine’s silent massacre,” 23 November 2013, BBC News, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-25058256.
  15. “Holodomor: Ukrainian History,” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/event/Holodomor.
  16. “Holodomor: Ukrainian History,” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/event/Holodomor.
  17. Anne Applebaum, “How Stalin Hid Ukraine’s Famine from the World,” October 13, 2017, The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/10/red-famine-anne-applebaum-ukraine-soviet-union/542610/.
  18. “Ukrainian Famine,” August 31, 2016, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/archives/ukra.html.
  19. “Ukrainian Famine,” August 31, 2016, Library of Congress, href=”https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/archives/ukra.html”>https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/archives/ukra.html.
  20. Anne Applebaum, “How Stalin Hid Ukraine’s Famine from the World,” October 13, 2017, The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2017/10/red-famine-anne-applebaum-ukraine-soviet-union/542610/.
  21. “Ukrainian Famine,” August 31, 2016, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/archives/ukra.html
  22. “Ukrainian Famine,” August 31, 2016, Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/archives/ukra.html.
  23. “Holodomor: Ukrainian History,” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/event/Holodomor.
  24. Valentina Kuryliw, “Holodomor in Ukraine, the Genocidal Famine 1932-1933: Learning Materials for Teachers and Students,” 2018, Toronto: CIUS Press, https://education.holodomor.ca/holodomor-in-ukraine-book/.
  25. Valentina Kuryliw, “Holodomor in Ukraine, the Genocidal Famine 1932-1933: Learning Materials for Teachers and Students,” 2018, Toronto: CIUS Press, https://education.holodomor.ca/holodomor-in-ukraine-book/.
  26. “Genocide in the 20th Century,” 2000, The History Place, https://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/genocide/stalin.htm.
  27. “The Nazi occupation of Soviet Ukraine,” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/place/Ukraine/The-election-of-Volodymyr-Zelensky.

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22 Responses

  1. This is a very informative article. I liked the introduction because it really grabbed my attention. I also liked how the article described what was happening that lead up to the Ukrainians being starved. What the Ukrainians went through was absolutely horrible. Another thing that struck me was the relationship between Lenin and Stalin. I don’t really remember going over their relationship in school so it was interesting to see how they did not get along and how Stalin did not agree with Lenin.

  2. This article was very understanding and made the information connect to the real life event. The Holodomor was a serious, criucial event that proposed severity of the famine that killed the Ukrainians. I had a general idea what the event had been described, but after reading this, I began to realize the true events unfold. With the descriptions and anecdotes explained in the article, they show the victimizing and assault that had been done to the citizens as a whole.

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