By Wojtek Dabrowski
The children died fastest.
Shivering in Ukraine’s farmhouses at night without any food to nourish their skeletal bodies, they expired by the million, often quietly, too weak to cry.
The loud ones, the orphans who turned to petty crime after their parents died, were rounded up by Soviet Union authorities, held until many starved and were buried in remote parts of the countryside. No aid workers were allowed to enter Ukraine and help.
The Soviet’s raiding squads that came to take the peasants’ food did not explain why they were there and did not tolerate arguments.
Those who opposed the massive food collection were often shot where they stood or snatched away, never to be heard from again.
Survivors were reduced to picking through piles of eggshells and eating anything they could find, from composted vegetable slop to tree bark. If the peasants were lucky, the men who came to take their grain and meat would leave their cats and dogs behind. A cat or a dog could feed a family, at least for a while.
But eventually, even the skimpiest of scraps ran out.
In the winter of 1933, between four and ten million Ukrainians starved to death in a famine so well concealed by the Soviet Union that much of the Western world did not acknowledge it happened until the last days of Communist rule in the 1980s.
“Very often, popular writers in Ukraine refer to it as a holocaust,” said Paul Magocsi, a professor of Eastern European history at the University of Toronto. “Historians are often careful not to use that term terribly widely, other than for the Jewish experience in the Second World War.”
But the case of Ukraine, which was ruled by the iron-fisted Soviet Union, was different than Israel’s.
“The Soviet Union denied that there ever was a famine as late as the very last years of the Soviet regime,” Magocsi said. “This is the reason why one tragedy was known so well and another virtually not at all.”
Today, Ukrainians consider the famine an integral part of their national identity. Meanwhile, the rest of the world — including some members of the Jewish community — continues to debate whether the famine was a wholesale attempt to eradicate an entire race or just a horrible byproduct of misguided policy.
It was in 1929 that the Soviet Union first forced its peasants to organize in so-called “collective” farms under party control. Autocratically governing many Eastern European states such as Poland, Latvia and Estonia, the Soviet Union enforces its collectivisation campaign on the fertile farmlands of Ukraine, which had a reputation as being some of the most productive in Europe.
Collectivization, in theory, meant that all food would be pooled across the Union and distributed according to need. The superpower was entering a period of very rapid industrialization and the food supply has to be guaranteed. That’s why collectivization went from voluntary to mandatory.
“There was no longer tolerance for gradual change,” Magocsi said.
Those who opposed the food redistribution, the authorities decided, must be wealthy land- or labour-owning capitalists, called kulaks. The definition of what a kulak was varied widely, and Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin ended up using the term to brand all undesirable radical elements.
This resulted in the forced deportation of one million people to Siberian work camps in 1929 and 1930.
Meanwhile, the remaining farmers had to deliver a set-in-stone amount of grain each season under the collectivization campaign. Missing the targets was an impossibility, some cold or drought.
And cold and drought did come, in 1931 and 1932. Poor harvests and a drought to Ukraine made it impossible for farmers to deliver the required amount of food. To remedy this, the Communists sent raiding parties into rural Ukraine to seize any and all foodstock available.
“During this process, Stalin and the Communist leadership became convinced that there really was more grain than was being said and that the peasants were lying,” Magocsi said.
While Soviets questioned whether the peasants were lying, it is a fact that they were dying. Historians estimate that as many as 7 million Ukrainians starved to death in 1933 as a result of the Stalinist collectivization campaign — a million more than the six million who perished during the Jewish Holocaust in the 1940s.
In his book The Harvest of Sorrow, historian Robert Conquest estimated seven million people perished, mostly Ukrainians, including three million children, who one observer said “looked like embryos out of alcohol bottles.”
Conquest quotes a railway engineer who, in 1933, entire traincars of dead bodies being carted away from sight by Soviet authorities, to be buried in remote rural areas.
Although Conquest writes that “the verdict of history cannot be other than one of criminal responsibility,” a debate exists whether this man-made famine should be considered a genocidal holocaust.
“I haven’t seen the final evidence that would convince me of genocide,” said Lynne Viola, a history professor at the University of Toronto who specializes in Stalin.
Viola said she isn’t convinced a genocide took place because “I think the attempt to eliminate any sort of traditional authority came earlier, in 1931,” referring to the kulak deportation to Siberia.
And the Canadian Jewish Congress, while it recognizes that a huge and entirely avoidable loss of life took place, refuses to label the famine a holocaust.
“I think one has to show a little bit of historical care in making these comparisons,” said Bernie Farber, the director of the Ontario chapter of the CJC. “There are still many historical questions being raised about whether or not this was a deliberate, manmade attempt at wiping out an entire people.”
A holocaust, by dictionary definition, is a great act of destruction and loss of life. However, linguists caution against using the word to describe massive deathtolls that occur naturally, such as deaths from drought.
But Eugene Yakovitch argues that the famine fits the United Nations definition of genocide.
“I think it’s very important because our famine-genocide … represents a time when food was used as a weapon, and very effectively, too,” said the chair of the Famine-Genocide Committee of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress.
The Jewish community has engraved the Holocaust in the international consciousness with films such as Schindler’s List and books such as Elie Wiesel’s Night. Holocaust education is part and parcel of high school history and English curriculums and vocal organizations such as the CJC exist to remind the world of what happened between 1939 and 1945.
Yakovitch said Ukrainians have had very few resourced, chiefly money, to make the world aware of what only recently became a widely known event.
His committee is responsible for making the media and the public at large aware of the famine and ensuring the world remembers what happened.
The group is currently working on a website to document and educate about what Yakovitch unequivocally believes was genocide.
Despite this, there have been problems with getting media interested in the famine, except around Remembrance Day, and relatively few books have been written on the topic, he said.
Regardless, Yakovitch said the famine’s importance to the Ukrainian history is “probably equivalent to the Holocaust with the Jewish people.”
“Unless people are aware of what can happen when food is used as a weapon, there is a possibility that it can occur again.”