“Holodomor” is a term derived from the Ukrainian words for “hunger” and “death.”
It means “death / killing by starvation / hunger,” and it is linked to the 1931-1934 famine throughout the Soviet Union during which nearly four million Ukrainians died.
Causes of the famine have been debated by scholars for decades. It has been attributed to weather, collectivization, global politics and genocide.
The history of the Holodomor dates back to the rapid industrialization of the Soviet Union and a 1929 decision by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to develop mass agricultural collectives.
When the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917 from the newly formed Russian Provisional Government, most of the country was functionally still in a feudal system. After the formation of the Soviet Union, there was a push for rapid industrialization.
This required farmers and peasants to move from the village to the cities taking factory jobs, but such a move would require an update in agriculture as well. Therefore, collectivization was adopted to achieve the state’s goal.
Beginning in 1929, communistic leaders pressured peasants to give up their individual farms, personal property and homes to join a collective farm. While this process took place throughout the Soviet Union, there was heavy resistance in Ukraine even to the point of peasant rebellions.
The pushback concerned Stalin because Ukraine had experienced a decade of cultural revival in which the Ukrainian language and culture were allowed to prosper. Ukrainians possess a long history of capitalism dating back to the 16th century Cossacks, and the uprisings were happening in districts that had fought against the Red Army after the revolution.
To reduce opposition, the Soviet Politburo went on a campaign against the “Kulaks” – defined by the Soviets as anyone who owned land or hired labor – and black-listed uncooperative villages.
Vladimir Lenin called them “bloodsuckers, vampires, plunderers of the people and profiteers, who fatten themselves during famines.” Soviet propaganda portrayed the kulaks as enemies of the state.
During the push for collectivization, a peasant with one or two cows more than his neighbor could be declared a kulak, justifying the state’s right to seize all personal property. Eventually, the Soviets embarked on a policy of “dekulakization” where the state outright seized farms and deported peasants to labor camps or Siberian gulags by the thousands.
While all of this was happening, Soviet officials were noticing a significant reduction in the grain harvest in areas of heavy collectivization prior to 1932. Matters were made worse when the country suffered a very cold and wet winter, leading to many regions planting wheat two to three months late.
The winter was followed by an abnormally dry summer. This resulted in a significant reduction in the expected grain harvest, which created problems for feeding the newly risen industrial class.
To meet the demand of industrial workers and the Red Army, Soviet leadership took action by applying more pressure on the kulaks and collective farms to produce supplies for the nation.
Things came to a head in the winter of 1932-1933 when police and communist party officials began ransacking peasant farms and homes, confiscating everything that was edible, from crops to stores to livestock, and leaving workers with nothing. In many communities, the seed grain needed for the next year was taken.
In addition to confiscations and dekulakization, the Politburo identified rebellious or underperforming farms, villages and towns and restricted them from buying food. Peasants were forbidden from leaving Ukraine, thus making it impossible to secure food.
There were mass graves, reports of cannibalization and rioting between neighbors throughout the country. Between 1931-1934, five million Soviet citizens died of starvation – around four million of the victims lived in Ukraine.
Soviet leaders took advantage of the chaos resulting from the humanitarian crisis it created and began openly persecuting the Ukrainian intelligentsia and suppressing Ukrainian culture and language.
The leadership of the 1917 Ukrainian People’s Republic who stood up to the Bolsheviks were sent to gulags, executed or disappeared. In 1933, an intense period of “russification” began that lasted for decades.
Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term “genocide,” described the Holodomor as “the classic example of Soviet genocide, its longest and broadest experiment in Russification – the destruction of the Ukrainian nation.”
A long period of Soviet denial and repression followed in which Ukrainians feared speaking publicly about the events of the Holodomor until after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Now, there are monuments placed throughout Ukraine to document the famine, and the Ukrainian diaspora recognizes the fourth Saturday in November as Holodomor Remembrance Day.
By 2019, 16 countries, the Vatican and the United States Congress recognized the actions of Joseph Stalin as genocide against the Ukrainian people. To this day, Russian leadership denies the charge of genocide and its role in the “man-made” disaster.
So, why does this matter over 90 years later?
For Ukrainians, this is living memory, which impacts how Ukrainians view the Russian invasion. They do not see a geo-political crisis or a fight for oil. They see disdain for Ukrainians.
When bombs drop on schools, maternity hospitals and historic monuments, they do not see an accident or collateral damage. They see a century-old tactic to force Ukrainians into submission.
Just like the Holodomor, modern Ukrainian leaders are standing up to Russia and they believe a Ukrainian loss only means new persecution and re-russification.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week calling attention to April as Genocide Awareness and Prevention Month. The previous articles in the series are:
Why There Is No Room for Neutrality | Michael Knopf
U.S. Genocide Determination, Rohingya Muslims and the Ongoing Crisis | Scott Stearman
Senior Staff Chaplain and Clinical Ethicist at the Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, Arkansas.