Through a glass darkly – 68

It has been a  rather dispiriting few weeks. Apart from France, the quality of rugby in the Six Nations has been pretty poor. Scotland have got steadily worse as the Six Nations progresses. It now seems as if their opening win over England was a false dawn. My younger brother, Peter,  is terminally ill. But it was very good to spend time with him, and with Alice, and with Paul and Jean, down in England last week.

with Peter and Paul at Baddesley Clinton

And then there is the news from Ukraine … 

Bad pictures from Ukraine

We came back from Kyiv on January 11th, our 47th wedding anniversary. The Russian troops invaded Ukraine in the early hours of February 24th, incidentally Susie’s birthday. Three weeks later we are alternately angry and despondent, shocked and silent, as we watch the images on our television. As the story of the invasion unfolds. With a succession of attacks on civilians, on schools and hospitals and apartment blocks. Tens of thousands may have died. Two million women and children, perhaps three million, have fled Ukraine into Poland and beyond.

Stalin and Putin

During our six weeks in Ukraine we knew that Russian troops were massing on the borders, in both Russia and Belarus. But I did not believe that they would invade. I thought that Putin could gain all his objectives by the threat of invasion; Europe and America would take him seriously as a world statesman. Western leaders would seek to ‘do business’ with him. Russia’s place on the world stage would be strengthened. Concessions could no doubt be extracted as regards Russian authority over the disputed areas, the Crimea and in the Donbas. Now it seems that I was totally wrong. Three weeks after the invasion it seems that Putin is prepared to destroy the country that he was claiming to liberate. It reminds me of an American in Vietnam, I don’t remember who, claiming, ‘We had to destroy the village in order to save it’.

For blustering Boris the events in Ukraine are the ultimate dead cat. All that stuff about Partygate – a drinking culture at no 10 Downing Street, civil servants sent out to fill suitcases with wine bottles, a whole raft of people who thought that the rules didn’t apply to them, a Prime Minister with a disregard for the truth, lying to the Commons and obstructing a police enquiry – all that is now forgotten. The Russian invasion has offered him the chance to don his tin hat and to polish up his Churchill impersonation. Next it will be siren suits and a big cigar. Neither posting photos of Liz Truss in a tank, nor putting Chelski football club up for sale, is likely to bring much comfort to the people of Ukraine. The Ukrainian President, a clown who became a politician [rather than the other way around], would like NATO and the Europeans to intervene with a no fly zone. Sadly perhaps, no western leader is prepared to do anything that might result in an escalation of the war.

We are happy to pray for peace with friends at Priestfield and at St Peter’s and elsewhere. There is a worldwide prayer initiative, of which we are please to be a very small part. We pray for friends from Christ Church, Kyiv, who are now scattered. Some but not all have fled the country. And I pray too that Putin will be removed from office by one of his own people, aware of the damage his actions doing to a country that neither understands nor wants what he is doing in their name. As we have been waiting for the peace initiative to gain some traction I have been reading Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, another book by Anne Applebaum, the American-Polish historian. It is a book that sets what is now happening into a historical context, showing that Putin is following in Stalin’s footsteps.

Anne Applebaum: Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine

The Ukrainian Revolution, 1917

The book offers a magisterial account of the famine in Ukraine in the mid-1930s, a deliberate attempt by Stalin to suppress any idea of Ukrainian nationalism. The story begins in April 1917, when, after the collapse of the Russian Empire, there seemed a real prospect of a free Ukraine. But the spread of national consciousness, foreign recognition, and even the Brest-Litovsk treaty were not enough to build a Ukrainian state. There was a great divide between those who supported a Ukrainian national government and the Bolsheviks. All the Bolshevik leaders were raised in the Russian empire and shared a contempt for Ukraine. And they were ambivalent about nationalism.

The Bolshevik leaders were obsessed with food supply. Imperial Russia’s centralised food supply system was in chaos. The policy of ‘War Communism’ involved taking grain from the peasants at gun-point and distributing it to the industrial workers in the cities. Linked to food collection in Ukraine, the Bolsheviks banned Ukrainian newspapers and the use of Ukrainian in schools. 

Famine and Truce, the 1920s

The Ukrainian peasant revolution of 1918-20 led to widespread anarchy and chaos. The Bolsheviks forced an uneasy truce on Ukraine in 1920-21. There was mandatory grain collection. But bad weather and incompetent food collection policies led to a huge drop in the yield; which fell to just 5% of the former harvest. Widespread famine resulted. Unlike what happened later, this was no secret. Aid came from the American Relief Association [the ARA], under Herbert Hoover. In 1922 they were feeding 11 million people daily. Yet Lenin continued to put pressure on Ukraine peasants to supply more grain,

By 1927 it was clear that Lenin’s New Economic Policy had failed.  Living standards in the Soviet Union were lower than they had been under the tsars. All food was rationed and scarce. Stalin, who had succeeded Lenin in 1924, used the  grain crisis as a weapon against his political rivals. He brought back ‘extraordinary measures’ and declared a state of emergency. All trading in grain was now a criminal activity. The Ukrainian peasants were in an impossible situation: if they worked hard and built up their farms, they became ‘enemies of the people’; the other option was to remain bedniaks, poor peasants. The Soviet Union comprehensively destroyed their incentive to produce more grain.  Instead they favoured large state-owned farms; collectivisation matched Stalin’s plans for Soviet industry. The ‘Great Upheaval’ was a return to the principles of War Communism. Someone had to be blamed for the slow pace of Soviet growth. Ukrainian intellectuals and all who favoured Ukrainian independence became the scapegoats. Show trials followed. The Ukrainian Bolshevik [newspaper] commented: “the proletarian court is examining a case not only of the Petliurite scum, but also judging in historical retrospect all of Ukrainian nationalism, nationalistic parties, their treacherous policies, … … , of Ukraine’s independence.”  From  1927 onwards the Soviet press continued to denounce ‘Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism’.

In the 1920s the presence of the Soviet state in Ukrainian villages was minimal. Ten years after the revolution people were disappointed. The Bolshevik triumph had been a hollow victory. But in 1929 new faces appeared: the ‘Twenty-Five Thousanders’ were outsiders, urban activists, who were recruited to manage the drive towards collective farms. Collectivisation was Stalin’s personal policy, driven from above. But the Twenty-Five Thousanders knew nothing about agriculture. Their aim was to eliminate the class of kulaks, small independent farmers. Especially Poles and Germans. The policy degenerated into plunder, with the collectivisation brigades resorting to intimidation and torture. Large numbers of deported kulaks were sent to the Gulag.

Soviet soldiers confiscating grain

Collectivisation: Revolution in the Countryside

During the winter of 1929-30 all across the USSR local leaders, successful farmers, priests, and village elders were deposed, arrested, and deported. The policy led to massive and widespread resistance, often chaotic. Peasants slaughtered their animals rather than hand them over to collective farms that they did not trust. Between 1928 and 1933 the number of cattle and horses in the USSR dropped by a half. Stalin blamed the failure of collectivisation on local party members. OGPU counted some 2,000 mass protests in Ukraine, many of them by women. There was organised resistance to a much hated policy. “Moscow’s paranoia about the counter-revolutionary potential of Ukraine continued after the Second World War, and into the 1970s and 1980s. It was taught to every successive generation of secret policemen, from the OGPU to the NKVD to the KGB, as well as every successive generation of party leaders. Perhaps it even helped mould the thinking of the post-Soviet elite, long after the USSR ceased to exist.

In autumn 1932 Stalin twisted the knife further in Ukraine, launching a famine within a famine. The result of the Holodomor was to extinguish the Ukrainian national movement. Moscow was determined to squeeze grain, and other foodstuffs, out of Ukraine. They could give up their grain reserves and risk starvation; or keep some reserves hidden and risk arrest or even execution. Blacklists were vigorously applied to reinforce grain collection policy. Farms and villages that did not meet their targets were blacklisted. Increasing numbers of refugees began to flee from Ukraine into neighbouring Poland. It was clear that a widespread famine was coming.

During winter 1932-33 teams began operating across Ukraine searching not just for grain but for anything that was edible. They took fruit from the trees, seeds and vegetables from the gardens, as well as honey and beehives, butter and milk, meat and sausages. In many places they also took away the family cow. The searchers used iron rods to seek out buried food.. During the searches violence was often used. Just being alive attracted suspicion, suggesting that a family had food. A grain confiscator wrote: “I persuaded myself, explained to myself … We were performing our revolutionary duty. We were obtaining grain for the socialist fatherland. For the five-year plan.”. The teams used beatings, confiscation of belongings, and other forms of violence and torture. The brigades had good reason to believe that the party leadership at the highest level sanctioned extreme cruelty and supported the removal of all  food and possessions from the peasantry.

Starvation: Spring and Summer 1933

Survivors recalled the physical effects of starvation and of the related conditions – scurvy, joint pain, night blindness, dropsy, swollen bellies and body sores. Personalities were changed by hunger and normal behaviour ceased. Many families were driven to unimaginable decisions. There was suspicion of strangers and outsiders. Honest people were transformed into thieves. Adults were driven to killing their own children. The dead were buried without coffins. Some very ill people were buried alive. There were multiple reports of cannibalism; where parents had eaten the flesh of children who had died of starvation, or where starving family members had killed weaker ones. In March 1933 the OGPU in Kyiv were receiving 10 reports of cannibalism every day.

The Holodomor

To survive people ate anything: rotten food, horses, cats, rats, squirrels; moss, acorns, leaves; wild birds. Many peasants owed their survival to having held onto the family cow. People sold their possessions to buy food. Bartering with city-dwellers who had received food coupons allowed some to survive. Many country dwellers turned their children over to the state. Many orphanages more than doubled in size.


The famine reached its peak in spring 1933. Statistics about deaths are hard to establish. Before the famine life expectancy for rural men was 42-44 years. Males born in Ukraine in 1933 had a life expectancy of 5 years. Life never did return to normal. But the grain procurement plan for Ukraine was reduced for 1934. In 1934 no vegetables were requisitioned. And Ukrainians slowly stopped dying of hunger. There was now a drastic shortage of labour in the Ukrainian countryside. In late 1933 came the first resettlement ;programme; 117,000 peasants arrived from Russia and from Belarus. Subsequent programmes followed. They were a form of Russification.

Between 1959 and 1970 over a million Russians migrated to Ukraine, drawn to the republic by the opportunities that a population depleted by war, famine, and purges had created for new residents.

By the 1970s and 1980s the idea of a Ukrainian national movement seemed  dead and buried.

In the official Soviet world the Ukrainian famine did not exist. There was a taboo on speaking of the famine in public. The first indications which came in the 1937 census were shocking. But Stalin ordered the statisticians to be shot. Many foreign diplomats and journalists were aware that things were going wrong. But the USSR imposed strict controls on reporters. And both European and American politicians were anxious not to jeopardise their friendly relationship with the USSR.

Epilogue: The Ukrainian Question Reconsidered

Those who lived through the famine always understood it as an act of state aggression. Starvation  was the result of  forcible removal of food from people’s homes. Stalin did not seek to kill all Ukrainians; but he did seek to eliminate the most active and  engaged, in both the cities and the countryside. Should this be called an act  of genocide ?

NB The term genocide was invented by Raphael Lemkin, a legal scholar from the University of Lviv. “The city had been Polish until the 18th century, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It became Polish after the First World War, Soviet after the Red Army invasion of 1939; German between 1941 and 1944; part of Soviet Ukraine until 1993; and the of an independent Ukraine.” 

The famine is a unifying national memory for Ukrainians; seen by many as a Russian crime against the country. Conversely in 2008 the Russian press denounced the commemorations in Ukraine as Russophobic. So – the Ukrainian famine continues to shape the thinking of Ukrainians and Russians about themselves and about each other. The Russification that followed the famine has left its mark. Many Russians do not accept that Ukraine is a separate country with a separate history. 

The Holodomor popularised hate speech. Those who organised the famine felt justified because the victims were ‘enemies of the people’. In 2014 when Russian special forces invaded the Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Russian state media portrayed them as patriots fighting against fascists and Nazis from Kyiv. Eighty years later there are still echoes of Stalin’s fear of Ukraine, or rather the fear of unrest spreading from Ukraine to Russia. If Ukraine were to become more integrated with western Europe, Russians might want something similar for themselves. “Today’s  Russian government” [Applebaum is writing in 2017] “uses disinformation, corruption, and military force to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty just as Soviet governments did in in the past.” Seeing young Ukrainians demonstrating against corruption and in favour of the rule of law greatly disturbs Russian leaders. So the talk of war and enemies is very useful to these leaders who cannot explain stagnant living standards, nor indeed their own wealth and power. As Putin persists in a senseless and vicious invasion it does feel as if history is repeating itself.

Stalin and Putin

March 2022

Published by europhilevicar

I am a retired vicar living on the south side of Edinburgh. I am a historian manqué, I worked in educational publishing for 20 years, and after ordination worked in churches in the Scottish Borders and then in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. I have a lovely and long-suffering wife, two children, and four delightful grand-children

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