Holodomor and remembering our common humanity

Holodomor, the great famine of 1932-33 in Ukraine, holds profound lessons for genocide prevention activists today. This intentional programme of mass starvation shows how genocide does not merely emerge from racial or religious tensions, but may reflect a single-mindedness in political actors too willing to sacrifice human dignity as a means to an end.

The origins of Stalin’s desire to eliminate the Kulaks is easily understood. Following the Revolution of 1917, the Russian Communists seized power from most areas of the former Russian Empire - including the newly independent republic of Ukraine. After a period of fending off the Communist threat, Ukraine eventually succumbed and was placed under the stewardship of a Russian-backed Communist government. However, this arrangement was only made with some concessions to the Ukrainian nationalist movement, particularly in cultural matters. As the Ukrainian people took advantage of this opportunity, and their distinctly European culture boomed, the Communist authorities became anxious and began to suppress the new Ukrainian identity. Notably at this time, Ukraine was home to an economically independent peasantry which kept the flame of anti-Communist sentiment burning even after independence ended.

Once it became clear that the support among the peasantry for collectivisation was absent, Stalin called for the elimination of the kulaks (wealthy independent peasants) as a class. This campaign manifested itself in executions, deportations to Siberian labour camps, and the confiscation of property. An ideology which put little emphasis on the value of human life in itself, subordinating every moral issue to class conflict, moved to genocide as a means to an end with ease. The programme was so egregious that poorer peasants resorted to killing their own cattle, rather than allowing the Russian Communists to benefit from them. In Moscow, a law was passed that prohibited the distribution of grain to peasants until such a time as collectivisation was fully achieved. Stalin and those around him knew that people were starving to death in Ukraine by late 1932, but deliberately prevented them from travelling to areas where more food was available. The crime perpetrated against the Ukranian people caused moral as well as physical damage, as widespread reports of cannibalism attest. Timothy Snyder observes that “The good people died first. Those who refused to steal or to prostitute themselves died”.

Part of the horror of Holodomor is the ease with which sympathetic Westerners justified the atrocity. As Walter Duranty, a Pulitzer prize winner, put it “you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs”. George Orwell demonstrated how the values of human dignity and rights were put in service of political goals by those who “considered [it] equally proper to publicise famines when they happened in India and to conceal them when they happened in the Ukraine”. Put simply, the failure to elevate the value of human lives above political squabbles - however grand in implication - can transform the wisest men into genocide deniers.

Ultimately, Holodomor was one of the greatest tragedies of Ukranian history. Between 5 and 10 million Ukrainians were killed in order to advance the Soviet agricultural plan. Yet today it is often described as a ‘secret’ genocide, particularly in comparison to the holocaust. Some feel that the fading away of Communism in the West is a reason to ignore this atrocity in favour of those, like the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide, which might be more relevant to societies riven by racial tension. However, in a time when political divisions widen apace it is important to see that we should think of our shared humanity first. Communist ideology blinded Stalin and many Soviets to the essential values of human life and independence when they stood in the way of collectivisation. In order to make the idea of ‘never again’ a reality, it is as important to tackle such extreme tendencies as it is racism.


This blog post was written by Tom Ryan, STAND UK's Policy Coordinator, who studies Politics and IR at Cambridge University.