Editor’s Note: Daria Mattingly is a Ukrainian historian specializing in the Holodomor. She holds a PhD from Cambridge University, where she teaches Soviet and Russian history, and is on the selection committee of the Danyliw Research Seminar on Contemporary Ukraine, University of Ottawa. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Growing up in Ukraine, one learns not to leave breadcrumbs on the table. My generation of Millennials was taught this pious reverence to bread by our grandparents who survived the 1932-1933 famine in Ukraine – known as the Holodomor.
Many a time I heard the story of how a soup with wild sorrel saved my grandmother and her siblings while the grain collected from her village was left to rot at the train station. That wheat could have saved so many lives, but “the state” did not allow it. My grandmother could not stand the sight of sorrel for the rest of her life, and always kept her cupboard well stocked with salt and flour.
With “glasnost” in the 1980s, and Ukrainian independence from the Soviet Union shortly after, came a new freedom to process this national trauma. The history of the Holodomor prompted Ukrainians to see their country as the victim of the Soviet empire. And in recent years, the annexation of Crimea, conflict in Donbas and now all-out war where food is being used as a weapon, fit that picture.
In the occupied territories, there is mounting evidence Russian forces are stealing grain and equipment from Ukrainian farmers or forcing them to sell produce at extremely low prices. From there, it is reportedly taken by trucks to ports in the annexed Crimea and Russia. The Kremlin denies the allegations.
But such an apparently coordinated removal of grain from Ukraine is not an opportunist loot. It is centrally managed, from the troops arriving at the farm to the trucks transporting grain to the ports.
Meanwhile, millions of tons of grain are stuck in Ukrainian ports, blockaded by Russian ships in the Black Sea. And taking agricultural produce overland to the ports in neighboring Romania and Poland is a slow and arduous enterprise.
By controlling the export of Ukrainian wheat, Russia can influence the prices on grain just as it does with oil and gas. It will secure more leverage over the countries relying on its grain, including China, India and Turkey. Moreover, if grain supply is limited, poor countries in Asia and Africa will be left with limited supplies and millions will face starvation.
As a scholar of the Holodomor, I see many parallels between the artificial famine of almost a century ago and today’s war. After all, the aim of the 1932-1933 famine and the current war, was and is to bring Ukraine under Russia’s control.
Those searching for the war’s various reasons should look into the Holodomor. Long before NATO or Putin were even conceived, Russian rulers were putting down uprisings in Ukraine. Sweeping resistance to the Soviet rule in Ukraine in the early 1930s was no different.
Like the rest of the USSR, Ukraine was a rural country on the eve of collectivization. Yet, the resistance to the state takeover of private property here was fiercer than anywhere else in the Union. Ukrainian peasants never supported the Bolsheviks, and the unpopular collectivization policy provoked staunch resistance.
In 1930, security services reported to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin that Ukrainian peasants expelled authorities from many districts, which spelt danger for the state. Repressions followed and many Ukrainian peasants were sent to Siberia and the north.
At the same time, Ukrainian intelligentsia called for shaking off Russian imperial embrace in culture. In June 1926, the Central Committee of the Ukrainian Communist (Bolshevik) Party expressed concern at reports that Ukrainian writer Mykola Khvyliovy encouraged other intellectuals to get “Away from Moscow!” in their works.
With the spread of the printed word thanks to the Soviet campaign of battling illiteracy, it was only a matter of time before the national movement gained traction.
While there was a widespread famine following collectivization in the Soviet Union, the Kremlin imposed an exceptionally high grain procurement plan on Ukraine in 1932-33. Officially, the grain was needed to fund the factory equipment for industrialization.
If the state takes the grain, one can survive, as our diet includes more than just wheat. But the Soviet authorities didn’t stop there. They removed all the foodstuffs since peasants in Ukraine failed to meet the impossible targets. Special brigades organized by the Soviet authorities searched in every nook and crevice for hidden food and valuables.
To ensure people could not escape starvation, the fields with crops were guarded, the republic’s borders sealed, and refugees sent to filtration camps. The famine was officially called “food difficulties,” and the victims were accused of starving their children to death to discredit Soviet rule.
Such rhetoric reminds us of the war being called a “special operation” today, with the Bucha massacre described as a “fake” by Russian officials.
In reality, 4 million men, women and children starved to death during the Holodomor. Many tried to exchange their last possessions for bread, resorted to eating food surrogates, scavenged for mushrooms and berries in the woods. Mothers faced a choice of which child to save. Some left their children at the state-run orphanages in hope of giving them a better chance for survival. Like in other extreme famines, there were reports of cannibalism.
Ironically, it was not the grain, never mind meager foodstuffs confiscated from the starving, that paid for GE turbines installed in the power stations and other equipment. It was the gold sold at low prices to the state by the desperate peasants in 1933.
A network of small state-owned shops buying gold from the population was set up for the duration of the famine, even in remote Ukrainian villages. In exchange for their family heirlooms, victims received a little flour so they could bake bread for their children. Every breadcrumb was precious.
Concurrently with the famine, the Kremlin organized show trials of the Ukrainian intelligentsia and political elite. They were accused of Ukrainian nationalism, spying for the hostile West and other things that sound as outlandish as describing today’s government in Ukraine as Nazi.
Recalcitrant Ukraine posed an existential threat to the Soviet project and its leadership. If collectivization failed here, other Soviet regions might have followed suit. If the national movement prevails, other republics could challenge Moscow’s authority too. Indeed, at the height of the Holodomor, in March 1933 the party leaders in Soviet Ukraine wrote to Stalin that “the famine has not yet taught Ukrainian collective farmers a lesson.”
For decades the victims were not allowed to talk about the Holodomor in public or even call it a famine. Otherwise, they faced persecution for anti-Soviet propaganda. Western countries, eager to normalize their relations with the Soviet Union in 1933, overlooked the famine too. Unsurprisingly, few know about the Holodomor outside Ukraine even now.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Holodomor became central to nation-building in Ukraine. For the last 30 years, the victims have been remembered, the location of mass graves established, testimonies recorded, history of the Holodomor is taught at schools. The overwhelming majority of Ukrainians consider the Holodomor an act of genocide.
Yet no one was held accountable for the death of millions, and Russia has been denying its role in organizing the famine from the beginning. When no one is responsible for the death of 4 million, human life holds little value, and the crime can be easily re-committed.
Over the past three decades, Ukraine has developed an imperfect but functioning democracy, budding civil society, and a distinct national identity. At the same time, the Russian autocratic regime solidified its power by suppressing opposition and civil society and tapping into Russian imperial nostalgia.
In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and launched the war in Donbas, yet Ukraine persisted. In 2022, the gloves are off, and the Kremlin seeks to establish control over Ukraine through conventional warfare.
But history does not need to repeat itself. Today Ukraine has its state, professional army, civil society and, more importantly, international support. The borders with the West are no longer sealed. Europe welcomed millions of Ukrainian refugees – something Ukrainian peasants could not dream of. The West is helping Ukraine to fight for its existence.
Whatever euphemisms the Kremlin uses, the truth is impossible to hide; it always comes out, just like it did with the Holodomor. Indeed, the Holodomor can help locate the current war from a historical perspective – and better understand its reasons.
The breadcrumbs on my table always remind me of the famine my grandmother survived – and that its history must never repeat.