by Harold Hutchison
- Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February is not the first time that Moscow has tried to quell Ukrainian independence.
- In the 1930s, under Josef Stalin, Russia engaged in a genocidal four-pronged attack on Ukraine known as the Holodomor.
- The term Holodomor is a combination of the words “starvation” and “inflicting death,” and was frequently cited by those who supported Ukrainian independence from Moscow.
- Estimates of the dead range from 3.9 million to in excess of 20 million.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine may have begun in February, but this is not the first time that Russia has taken drastic action to try to quell Ukrainian dreams of independence, engineering a man-made famine and killing millions, according to historians.
In the 1930s, during Josef Stalin’s rule of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was subjected to what the U.S. Committee for Ukrainian Holodomor-Genocide Awareness called a man-made famine. The devastating famine became known as the “Holodomor,” which Smithsonian magazine described as a combination of the Ukrainian words for “starvation” and “inflicting death.”
“Holodomor was one of the worst famines and crimes in history, orchestrated against the Ukrainian people by Stalin, who was looking in part to crush the kulaks, the land-owning farmers,” Paul Kengor, a Cold War historian and professor at Grove City College in Pennsylvania told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
The exact death toll of the Holodomor has been disputed. Then-Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko claimed the toll was at 20 million in a 2005 address to Congress, while the Court of Appeals for Kyiv estimated the toll was just over 10 million. Most historians place the death toll at around 3.9 million. The reason behind the horror was the desire to quash Ukrainian independence, according to the U.S. Committee for Ukrainian Holodomor-Genocide Awareness.
“I think it’s helpful to distinguish independence that is political independence and there is cultural independence,” Yuri Shevchuk, a lecturer of the Ukrainian language at Columbia University, told the Daily Caller News Foundation. “The two are sometimes simultaneous and sometimes take their own trajectories.”
“Russians still considered Ukraine to be part of the Imperial realm,” Shevchuk told the DCNF.
Ukraine secured political independence in the wake of Russia’s departure from World War I, Shevchuk said, but was eventually taken over by the Soviet Union in 1923.
“The defeat of Ukrainian political independence did not mean the end of Ukrainian cultural independence,” Shevchuk explained, adding that the Soviet Union began to embrace a policy of supporting local culture as a way to gain support, resulting in what he described as “an explosion of Ukrainian cultural development.”
Shevchuk added that the Soviets grew concerned about “losing Ukraine to this increasingly assertive sense of local worth, of Ukrainians being increasingly proud of their local identity, and also increasingly sure of their being able to run themselves independently of Russia.”
After the slogan “away from Moscow, full steam to psychological Europe” began to take hold, the Soviet leadership panicked, and fearing that their grip on Ukraine was slipping, they took steps that led to the Holodomor, Shevchuk said.
“It is important to understand that the word cannot be reduced only to the physical destruction of some four-plus million of Ukrainian independent peasants,” Shevchuk told the DCNF. Instead, he said that it was akin to a “four-pronged attack” that Stalin’s regime carried out.
“The first one was the blow to the head,” Shevchuk said, defining it as the “physical destruction” of Ukraine’s political, cultural, and scientific elite.
“The blow to the heart” was delivered simultaneously, Shevchuk said, saying that “all forms of Ukrainian spiritual self-organization” were destroyed. Ukrainian priests were killed or sent to the gulag, while Ukrainian churches were banned. The measures included repurposing churches for secular purposes like grain storage, according to the Holodomor Research Library.
“The blow to the body” targeted Ukrainian peasantry, which Shevchuk described as “the principal carrier of Ukrainian identity,” and included the aspect of the Holodomor most are familiar with; the famine engineered by the Soviet regime under Stalin. Shevchuk noted that many Ukrainian cities were “Russified” as part of this attack.
The famine was orchestrated through the confiscation of grain after Ukrainian peasants failed to meet unrealistic production quotas in the wake of production shortfalls, according to History.com.
“Where did all bread disappear, I do not really know, maybe they have taken it all abroad. The authorities have confiscated it, removed from the villages, loaded grain into the railway coaches and took it away someplace,” Olexandra Rafalska, a survivor of the Holdomor, said in remarks preserved by the Holodomor Resource Library.
Shevchuk explained that the fourth prong was to have Russian settlers move into the areas of the Ukraine that had been depopulated as a way of “finally cleansing those areas of any Ukrainian presence.”
“All these elements are present now in the new page, the new Russian-Ukrainian war,” Shevchuk told the DCNF. “If you look at what Putin does in the Crimea, in the Donbas, and what his plans were for Ukraine, they included the execution lists of prominent representatives of Ukrainian culture, writers, journalists, scholars.”
Shevchuk added that in Crimea and occupied parts of Donbas, the Russians had been taking steps to shut down “every Ukrainian cultural institution that existed.”
The Russian embassy in Washington D.C. did not respond to a request for comment by the DCNF.