Laura Umetsu, Editor in Chief
When viral videos began to circulate of Ukrainian riot police using flamethrowers to quell angry civilian protesters in Kiev last month, I thought to myself, will the fire be enough?
In December 2013, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets in violent protest over President Yanukovytch’s decision to reject a trade agreement with the European Union in favor of a deal with Russia.
Over the past few years, I have closely followed the tensions between the Russian speaking eastern Ukrainian regions and the Ukrainian speaking west, tensions which hold their roots in a sinister Soviet history of a little known genocide called the Holodomor.
Introduction to the Holodomor
The years of 1932 and 1933 were among the most horrific of Ukraine’s history. In a brutal effort to extinguish Ukrainian nationalism and to force assimilation of the Ukrainian people to his Soviet empire, Josef Stalin decided to starve the farming Ukrainian community into submission.
The reasons are complex, but many East European scholars believe that the chief motivator was economic: Ukraine was and remains one of the most fertile farmlands in Europe. Pre World War II, both Stalin and Hitler saw Ukraine’s fertile soil as a key strategy point in world domination and Ukrainian nationalism as a huge threat to assimilation.
The Genocide: a Timeline
The genocide did not occur all at once. Rather, it occurred in subtle stages that reached horrific peaks in 1932-1933, but did not fully end until well after Stalin’s death.
Kolholzes in 1929: By 1929, Stalin had collectivized the majority of private farms into community farms, called “kolholzes,” and seized all private lands. 25,000 Soviet Communists were sent from Moscow to the rural villages, each charged with replacing the existing village leaders. Many were taken away by force in the night, never to be seen again. When villagers awoke, their leaders were gone, and heavily armed Soviet commissions from Moscow had taken their place.
Anti-farmer/”kulak” campaign: 1929-1930: Stalin’s propaganda team launched a vicious anti-kulak propaganda campaign of posters, which depicted the kulaks as parasitic and subhuman, when in truth those branded as kulaks were among the hardest working – their success as farm managers and need to hire extra help being the fruit of their labors. One such propaganda poster was of a supposed kulak is portrayed as a spider. Another depicted a kulak who was drinking milk directly from a cow’s udders.
Deportation and murder of farmers, early 1930s: Families whom the new Soviet village heads denounced as kulaks were either shot immediately or deported to remote work camps in Siberia. Most children died in transport or shortly after they reached these camps. After they killed a kulak family, the Soviets appropriated their land, livestock, and grain into the collective farms.
Mandatory Grain Quota of Early 1930s: In the early thirties, Stalin imposed mandatory grain quotas on the farmers. These quotas were impossible to reach. Many more were deported and shot for failure to meet the grain quotas. Many farmers sacrificed their seed grain for the next year to make their quotas, thus guaranteeing their starvation doom. This dekulakization, or first genocidal stage, which lasted from 1930 to 1932, killed millions of Ukrainians, and eliminated future resistance.
Confiscation Brigades and Watchtowers, 1932-1933: By 1932, the genocide was well underway. In order to prevent the peasants from hiding the grain, Stalin enacted a sophisticated system of watchtowers and brigades to oversee the grain confiscation. Tall watchtowers were constructed in the fields of the workers harvesting the grain to ensure that the starving harvest workers did not take anything from the fields for their own consumption. Violators were shot on the spot. In addition to confiscating grain, Communist brigades roamed the countryside, looting homes, raping women living alone,taking personal valuables in lieu of grain quotas, confiscating all food, including supper on the stove, which they ate themselves.
Five Ears of Grain, August 7, 1932: On August 7, 1932, Stalin authored and passed a law, known as “Five Ears of Grain” that imposed a sentence of death or 10 years of hard labor in exile for “misappropriation of state property.” The “state property” to which this law alluded to was food or personal valuables that could be taken in payment of arrears of the food quota that was imposed. This new law led to mass shootings and deportations that were often arbitrary in nature. Many of the victims of this law were hungry children who were caught picking ears of corn or wheat in fields that had until very recently belonged to their families.
Genocide Peak of 1933: By the time the famine hit its peak in 1933, Ukrainians were dying of starvation at a rate of 25,000 people a day. At this point, many villages simply stopped recording deaths because they became too numerous to count.
Ukraine’s position remains precarious. Many Westerners outside the Ukrainian community, because of a combination of ignorance poor journalism at the time of the famine and lingering Soviet sympathies, do not classify the Holodomor as genocide.
For many years, to even speak of the Holodomor was taboo. The Soviet government officially denied the Holodomor as genocide, and until recently, the evidence was hidden behind the Iron Curtain of the Soviet Union.
For many Ukrainians today, the Yanukovytch’s bid to entice trade with Russia (which officially denies Holodomor as genocide) is unacceptable.