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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.