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The Great Man-made Famine in Ukraine - Tales from History
753    Dibyendu Banerjee    27/07/2022

To know the background, reason and outcome of the great man-made famine or Terror Famine in Ukraine, which became infamous in the history of mankind as Holodomor, killing millions of Ukrainians during 1931-1932, it is necessary to know the early history of the country. It is believed that in the 7th century BC, a group of ancient tribes of nomadic warriors, called the Scythians or Sakas, originally living in what is now southern Siberia, arrived and settled in what is now Ukraine.


Later, while the Greeks settled on the north coast of the Black Sea and founded their city-states in the region, Slavs settled in Ukraine in the 5th and 6th centuries AD. Long after that, Swedish Vikings sailed along rivers into the heart of Eastern Europe, when some of them settled in Ukraine in the 9th century and in 882, a Viking named Oleg captured Kyiv making it the capital of a powerful state. Later, the country was converted to Christianity by Vladimir I, in 988.

man made famine
The Tarter warriors

But during the 11th and 12th centuries, the once powerful state broke up into fragments and in 1240, the Mongols, led by Batu, the grandson of Genghis Khan, conquered the southern and eastern portion of Ukraine. Nevertheless, the northern and western Ukraine remained independent until the 14th century, when it was taken over by the Poles and Lithuanians, who gradually drove back the Mongols or Tartars from the region.


But, despite everything, the Tartars still held Crimea and in the 15th century, they came under the domination of the Turkish Empire .In the 15th and 16th centuries, some serfs, the agricultural labourers bound by the feudal system to the land owners, ran away from Polish landlords and settled on the steppes of Ukraine. They came to be known Kozaky or Cossacks, meaning freemen, who formed self-governing communities and eventually became united to form the Cossack Hetmanate led by a hetman.

man made famine
Old Ukrainian villagers

The political scenario changed abruptly in the late 17th century, when Poland came to dominate the western Ukraine, while Russia took the control of the eastern Ukraine. Finally, with the determination to absorb eastern Ukraine into Russia, Catherine the Great, the then Empress of Russia, ousted the Cossack Hetmanate from the area in 1764. By that time, as Poland was declining, Russia and Austria decided to help themselves to Polish territory, when most of the western Ukraine was taken by Russia, except for a thin ribbon of land in the far west, which went to Austria. After that, with the conquest of Crimea in 1783, Ukraine became firmly under Russian control. But in the wake of nationalism in Ukraine from the mid-19th century, while Russia was engaged in the civil war in 1918, Ukraine became independent for a short while, only to be forced to become a part of the Soviet Union in 1921. However, despite being a part of the Soviet Union, the Russian rulers had a deep-rooted ill-feeling and hatred towards the Ukrainians for their sincere national feeling.

man made famine
Starved peasants on a street

In the years 1932 and 1933, a catastrophic famine swept across the Soviet Union, due to the decision of the Soviet Politburo, led by Joseph Stalin in 1929, to impose forced collectivization of agriculture as a part of the first five-year plan of the Soviet Union, when millions of peasants were forced off their land and made to join state farms. However, collectivization led to a drop in production, the disorganization of the rural economy and food shortages, which ultimately turned into a famine.


The famine was a direct assault on the Ukrainian peasantry, which had stubbornly continued to resist collectivization, as it was an intentional attack on the Ukrainian village, which is traditionally a key element of the Ukrainian national culture.

man made famine
Dead on the street. Ukraine 1933

However, during that time, there was no trace of famine in Ukraine and although the Ukrainian grain harvest of 1932 had resulted in below-average yields, mostly due to collectivization, it was more than sufficient to sustain the population. But Stalin was worried about the attitude of the Ukrainians, who fought against the Red Army during the Russian Civil War. Nevertheless, the elite leadership of the Soviet Communist Party took a series of decisions that deepened the famine in the Ukrainian countryside. They set requisition quotas for the Ukraine at an impossibly high level and at the same time, the peasants were barred to keep any grain, even for their daily consumption, until they had met their quotas, which were simply confiscated by the officials, as they wanted the peasants to starve. While almost two million tons of food were exported out of Ukraine, the farms, villages and towns in Ukraine were placed on blacklists, preventing them from receiving food from outside. In addition, every household was searched by the special teams of policemen and local Party activists routinely, for procuring and confiscating foodstuffs. The crisis reached its peak in the winter of 1932–1933, when a cordon was drawn around the Ukrainian republic to prevent escape from the country and motivated by hunger, fear and a decade of hateful propaganda, organized groups started to ransack households of the peasants and take away everything edible, from crops to personal food stocks, even the farm animals and pets. Literally, the Ukrainians were trapped. They had no food, no way to escape and they had no other way, but to wait and die.

man made famine
Guarding the warehouse

The end result was a disastrous catastrophe. In his mission to crush the Ukrainian peasants, Joseph Stalin caused a terrible famine in 1932-33 that took the lives of millions of innocent people. As the situation was going out of control, the starved and helpless people desperately tried to do anything that could save their lives. While the grand old members died first, others became thieves and women became prostitutes. Even, some turned to cannibalism and the Soviet government had to put signs reminding the survivors that to eat your children is barbaric.

man made famine
man made famine

At least 5 million people perished of hunger all across the Soviet Union and among them, nearly 4 million were Ukrainians, who died not because of crop failure, but because they had been deliberately deprived of food. This horrific artificial famine became infamous in history as Holodomor, a term derived from the Ukrainian words holod for hunger and mor for extermination. However, neither the Ukrainian famine nor the broader Soviet famine was ever officially recognised by the USSR and it was actively suppressed in the country.

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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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