Holodomor: The Secret Holocaust in Ukraine
Written by James Perloff
resisted Soviet attempts at collectivization in the 1920s and '30s,
the Soviet Union under Stalin
used labor camps, executions, and starvation
(Holodomor) to kill millions of Ukrainians.
In 1933, the recently
elected administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt granted official U.S.
to the Soviet Union for the first time. Especially repugnant was that this
was granted even though Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had just concluded a
of genocide against Ukraine that left over 10 million dead. This atrocity was
to the Roosevelt administration, but not to the American people at large,
to suppression of the story by the Western press — as we shall show.
Ukraine's Untold Tragedy
The Ukrainian genocide remains largely unknown.
After 76 years, the blood
of the victims still cries for truth, and the guilt
of the perpetrators for exposure.
Many Americans are barely acquainted with Ukraine, even though it is Europe's second
largest country after Russia, and has been a distinct land and people for centuries.
One reason for this unfamiliarity is that Ukraine has rarely known political independence;
it was under Russia's heel throughout much of its existence — under Soviet
prior to 1991, and under Czarist Russia before that. Many American
little or nothing of Ukraine in their history classes because
the nation had been
relegated to the status of a Russian "province."
Stalin accomplished genocide against Ukraine by two means. One was
and deportations to labor camps. But his second tool of murder
was more unique:
an artificial famine created by confiscation of all food. Ukrainians
call this the Holodomor,
translated by one modern Ukrainian dictionary
as "artificial hunger, organized on a vast
scale by the criminal regime
against the country's population," but often simply
translated as "murder
Ukraine was the last place one would have expected famine, for it had been known
for centuries as the "breadbasket of Europe." French diplomat Blaise de Vigenère wrote
in 1573: "Ukraine is overflowing with honey and wax.... The soil of this country is so
good and fertile that when you leave a plow in the field, it becomes overgrown
after two or three days. It will be difficult to find." The 18th-century
Joseph Marshall wrote: "The Ukraine is the richest province
of the Russian empire....
The soil is a black loam.... I think I have never seen
such deep plowing as these
peasants give their ground."
In the aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution,
Ukraine became part of a bloody
battlefield of fighting between the Bolsheviks
(the group that eventually became the
Communist Party of the Soviet Union), Czarist
Whites, and Ukrainian nationalists.
Ultimately, of course, the Bolsheviks prevailed,
but Lenin shrewdly recognized that
concessions would be necessary to gain Ukraine's
cooperation as a member of the
unstable young USSR. To exploit Ukrainians' long-standing
resentment of Czarist domination,
he permitted them to retain much of their national
culture. Ukrainians experienced a
relatively high degree of freedom extending
into the mid-1920s. The Ukrainian Autocephalous
Orthodox Church and non-communist
Ukrainian Academy of Sciences were allowed to
operate independently. However,
as the Soviet Union consolidated its power, and
Joseph Stalin ascended to the
party's top, these freedoms became expendable,
and Ukrainian nationalism, at
first exploited, now became viewed as a liability.
Despite a communist push for collectivization, Ukraine's farms had mostly remained
the foundation of their success. But in 1929, the Central Committee
of the Soviet Union's
Communist Party decided to embark on a program of total
farms were to be completely replaced by collectives
— in Ukraine known as kolkhozes.
This was, of course, consistent
with Marxist ideology: the Communist Manifesto had called
of private property.
Intense pressure was placed upon Ukrainian peasants to join the kolkhozes. Twenty-five
thousand fanatical young communists from the USSR's cities were sent to Ukraine to
compel the transition. These became known as the Twenty-Five Thousanders; each
was assigned a particular locality, and was accompanied by a weapons-bearing communist
entourage, including members of the GPU (secret police, forerunner
of the KGB). A communist commission was established in each village.
Holodomor survivor Miron Dolot, in his book Execution by Hunger, describes what
happened soon after a commission was started in his village by
Twenty-Five Thousander, Comrade Zeitlin:
We did not have to
wait too long for Comrade Zeitlin's strategy to reveal itself.
The first incident occurred very early on a cold January morning in 1930 while people
in our village were still asleep. Fifteen villagers were arrested, and
someone said that the Checkists [GPU] had arrived in the village
The most prominent villagers were among those arrested.... This was frightening.
Our official leadership had been taken away in one night. The farmers,
mostly illiterate and ignorant, were thereby left much more defenseless.
The leaders of Dolot's village were never seen
Ukraine, the Twenty-Five Thousanders held mandatory village meetings
in which they demanded that all peasants relinquish private farming and "volunteer"
to join a collective. Most peasants fiercely resisted. In principle, of course, there is nothing
wrong with farmers pooling their resources and efforts in a cooperative venture.
But this was not what the communists meant by collectivization. On the kolkhozes,
the government owned everything — the land, animals, equipment, and produce.
The worker kept no fruits of his labor, and was at the state's mercy to receive a pittance of pay.
never succeeded. As the eminent Sovietologist Robert Conquest noted
"Wherever they had existed they had, with all the advantages given them by
regime, done worse than the individual farm." On the kolkhozes, livestock, poorly
cared for, easily died, and equipment fell into disrepair. This was because the workers
did not own them, nor did they have any stake in the collective. This illustrated the
conflict between Marxist ideology and the reality of human nature. Making matters
worse, the collectives were organized by the Twenty-Five Thousanders, who, being
urban youths, had no agricultural experience; their ignorance of
basics often became the butt of jokes among local Ukrainians.
To force the villagers into collectives, the communists threatened
them with being
declared enemies of the state, to be dealt with by the GPU. Jails
— unfamiliar to
Ukrainian peasants — began appearing in every village.
To instill additional fear,
Soviet army units were brought in, lodging themselves
in homes without permission.
Torturous punishments were devised, such as "path
treading," in which a resisting
peasant would be forced to walk through
the snow to the next village, there to be
interrogated by its officials, and
if he still refused to join a collective, walk to the next
village. This would
carry on until the peasant either died of exhaustion or bent to the
A very effective method was to simply seize a family's food supply.
with seeing their children starve, many peasants gave in.
By the summer of 1932,
80 percent of Ukraine's farmland had been forcibly collectivized.
Scapegoat for Communist Failure
But since the kolkhozes failed to produce
as predicted by Marxist theory, and with
many peasants still refusing to join,
Stalin sought a scapegoat. It was announced
that the failure of collectivization
was due to sabotage by "kulaks." These were the
more prosperous peasants.
Merely owning a cow, hiring another peasant, or having
a tin roof (instead of
the more common thatched roof) were all considered evidence
that one was a kulak.
Of course, in any
economy, some people thrive more than others. This is usually
owing to industriousness
and efficiency. According to Marxist doctrine, however,
all wealthier peasants
(kulaks) were "bloodsuckers" and "parasites" who had grown
rich by exploiting poorer peasants and who were now subverting collectivization.
announced that the solution to better grain production was to "struggle against
the capitalist elements of the peasantry, against the kulaks," and he proclaimed the
goal of "liquidation of the kulaks as a class." In reality, however, Ukraine had
never had a distinct social class of kulaks — this concept was a Marxist invention.
Those accused of being kulaks were either shot,
deported to remote slave labor camps
in Russia, or put in local labor details.
Few survived. One could be accused of being a
kulak on the flimsiest evidence.
Some peasants accused others merely out of envy
or dislike. As one Soviet writer
later noted: "It was easy to do a man in; you wrote a denunciation;
did not even have to sign it. All you had to say was that he had paid people to work
for him as hired hands, or that he had owned three cows." Some very poor peasants
were accused of being kulaks simply because they were religiously devout. And ironically,
many of the "rich" kulaks earned less income than the communist officials prosecuting them!
"Dekulakization" slaughtered millions.
Ironically, this process killed off the most
productive farmers, guaranteeing a smaller
harvest and a more impoverished Soviet
Union. The remaining farmers did not dare
take steps to improve their lands or
prosper, for fear they would be reclassified as kulaks.
But Stalin accomplished
his true goal: destroying leadership
that might oppose the complete subjugation
This campaign extended beyond kulaks to broadly attacking all vestiges
of Ukrainian nationalism. As Dolot notes, the Soviet Communist Party
sent [Pavel] Postyshev, a sadistically
cruel Russian chauvinist, as its viceroy to
His appointment played a crucial role in the lives of all Ukrainians. It was
Postyshev who brought along and implemented a new Soviet Russian policy in
Ukraine. It was an openly proclaimed policy of deliberate and unrestricted destruction
of everything Ukrainian. From now on, we were continually reminded
that there were
us whom we must destroy.... This new campaign
the Ukrainian national movement had resulted in the annihilation of the
Ukrainian central government as well as all Ukrainian cultural, educational, and social institutions.
The Ukrainian Language Institute, Ukrainian Institute of Philosophy, Ukrainian State
Publishing House, and countless other institutions were purged, their leaders murdered
or imprisoned. So fanatical was the war on nationalism that even the colorful embroidered
national costumes Ukrainians wore were seized. Eyewitness Yefrosyniya Poplavets recalls:
"To save our embroidered shirts we put them on under our old ragged jackets. It didn't work!
They undressed us and took the shirts to eradicate any national spirit in the household."
But perhaps the
most intense thrust was against the church, for it represented not only
of Ukrainian solidarity, but the Gospel whose principles inherently oppose those
Marxism. The Communist Party declared: "The church is the kulak's agitprop."
Priests were executed or sent to labor camps; church land was confiscated; monasteries
were closed. The churches — some of them centuries-old national monuments —
were either demolished, or turned into cinemas, libraries, barracks and other secular
uses for the state. Church icons were smashed; books and archives were burned;
church bells were even sold as scrap. By the end of 1930, 80 percent of all Ukraine's
village churches had been shut down. These measures were applied not only against
Ukraine's Orthodox churches, but against other denominations and
for as Marx had said, "Religion is the opiate of the masses."
"Murder by Hunger"
Yet the worst still awaited Ukraine. By 1932,
virtually all kulaks had been liquidated,
but many of the remaining poor peasants
still resisted communism and collectivization.
Stalin now began war upon Ukraine's
poorest — ironically those who,
in Marxist doctrine, should have been esteemed
as "the proletariat."
In 1932, Stalin demanded that Ukraine increase its grain output by 44 percent.
Such a goal would have been unachievable even if the communists had not already
ruined the nation's productivity by eliminating the best farmers and forcing others onto
the feeble collectives. That year, not a single village was able to meet the
impossible quota, which far exceeded Ukraine's best output in the pre-collective years.
Stalin then issued
one of the cruelest orders of his dark career: if quotas were not
met, all grain
was to be confiscated. As one Soviet author much later wrote: "All the
without exception was requisitioned for the fulfillment of the Plan, including
that set aside for sowing, fodder, and even that previously issued to the kolkhozniki
as payment for their work." The authorization included seizure of all food from all
households. Any home that did not turn over all its grain was accused of "hoarding"
state property. One villager recalled the process by which communist "brigades"
Every brigade had a so-called "specialist" for searching out grain.
He was equipped with a long iron crow-bar with which he probed for
The brigade went from house
to house. At first they entered homes and asked,
much grain have you got for the government?" "I haven't any.
If you don't believe me search for yourselves," was the usual laconic answer.
And so the "search" began. They searched in the house, in the attic,
and the cellar. Then they went outside
and searched the barn, pig pen, granary
and the straw
pile. They measured the oven and calculated if it was large enough
to hold hidden grain behind the brickwork. They broke beams in the attic, pounded
on the floor of the house, tramped the whole yard and garden.
If they found a suspicious-looking spot, in went the crow-bar.
They measured the thickness of the walls, and inspected them for bulges where
grain could have been concealed. Sometimes they completely tore
walls.... Nothing in the houses remained
intact or untouched. They upturned
the cribs of babies, and the babies themselves were thoroughly
frisked, not to mention the other family members. They looked for "hidden grain"
in and under men's and women's clothing. Even the smallest amount that was
found was confiscated. If so much as a small can or jar of seeds
was found that
had been set aside for spring planting,
it was taken
away, and the owner was accused of hiding
food from the state.
Of course, to avoid starvation, nearly every family did attempt to conceal food.
But experience soon made the brigades proficient at detecting even the most clever hiding places.
The result was
mass starvation that took millions of lives during the terrible winter
Food was nearly impossible to find anywhere. Many begged
neighbors for potato
skins or other scraps — only to find their neighbors equally destitute.
There was still some food on the collectives,
which the communists did not deplete like
households. However, in August 1932
the Communist Party of the USSR had passed a
law mandating the death penalty
for theft of "social property." Watchtowers were built
on the collectives,
manned by trigger-happy young communists. Thousands of peasants
were shot for
attempting to take a handful of grain or a
few beets from the kolkhozes,
to feed their starving families.
Unable to get food, many ate whatever could pass for it — weeds, leaves, tree bark,
and insects. The luckiest were able to survive secretly on small woodland animals.
American journalist Thomas Walker wrote:
About twenty miles south of Kiev (Kyiv),
I came upon a village that was practically
by starvation. There had been fifteen houses in this village and a population
of forty-odd persons. Every dog and cat had been eaten. The horses and oxen had
all been appropriated by the Bolsheviks to stock the collective farms. In one hut
they were cooking a mess that defied analysis. There were bones,
and what looked like a boot top in this
pot. The way the remaining half dozen
watched this slimy mess showed the state of their hunger.
A few people even resorted to cannibalism, eating
who had died and, in some cases, murdering those still living.
Many peasants attempted
to reach Ukraine's cities like Kiev, where factory workers
were still allowed
a little pay and food. However, in December 1932 the communists
"internal passport." This made it impossible for a villager to
a city job without the Party's permission, which was almost universally denied.
Other peasants hoped to get to Poland, Romania,
or even Russia, where there was
no famine. But emigration was strictly forbidden.
Ukrainian train stations were swamped
with the starving, who hoped to sneak aboard
a train, or beg in hopes that a passenger
on a passing train might throw them
a bread crust. They were repelled by GPU guards,
who found themselves faced with
the problem of removing countless corpses of
the starving who littered these
British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, who secretly investigated Ukraine without
Soviet permission, was able to escape communist censorship by sending
home to the Manchester Guardian in a diplomatic bag. He reported:
On a recent visit to the Northern Caucasus
and the Ukraine, I saw something
of the battle that
is going on between the government and the peasants.... On
the one side, millions of starving peasants, their bodies often swollen from
lack of food; on the other, soldier members of the GPU carrying out the instructions
of the dictatorship of the proletariat. They had gone over the country like a swarm
of locusts and taken away everything edible; they had
shot or exiled thousands of
peasants, sometimes whole
villages; they had reduced some of the most fertile
in the world to a melancholy desert.
At the famine's height, 25,000 people per day were dying. As the
winter wore on,
Ukraine became a panorama of horror. The roadsides were filled
with the corpses
of those who died seeking food. The bodies, many of which snow
until the spring thaw, were unceremoniously dumped into mass graves
by the communists.
Many others died of starvation in their own homes. Some chose to end the process by
suicide, commonly by hanging — if they had the strength to do it. "They just sat,"
writes Dolot of his fellow villagers, "or lay down silently, too feeble even to talk.
The bodies of some were reduced to skeletons, with their skin hanging grayish-yellow
and loose over their bones. Their faces looked like rubber masks with large,
immobile eyes. Their necks seemed to have shrunk onto their shoulders.
The look in their eyes was glassy, heralding their approaching death."
on the other hand, ate excellent rations, and party bosses even
ones. In Robert Conquest's Harvest of Sorrow,
we read the following account
of the party officials' dining hall at Pohrebyshcha:
Day and night it was guarded by militia keeping the
starving peasants away from
the restaurant.... In the
dining room, at very low prices, white bread, meat, poultry,
canned fruit and delicacies, wines and sweets were served to
the district bosses.... Around these oases famine and death were raging.
But perhaps the
worst paradox: although much of the confiscated grain was exported
to the West,
large portions were simply dumped into the sea by the Soviets, or allowed
rot. For example, a huge supply of grain lay decaying under GPU guard at Reshetylivka
Station in Poltava Province. Passing it in a train, an American correspondent saw
"huge pyramids of grain, piled high, and smoking from internal combustion." In the
Lubotino region, thousands of tons of confiscated potatoes were allowed to rot,
surrounded by barbed wire.
All this underscores the true purpose of the food confiscation: genocide. Sergio Gradenigo,
the Italian consul in Moscow, wrote in a dispatch to Rome on May 31, 1933:
The famine has been
deliberately planned by the Moscow government and implemented
by means of brutal requisition. The definite aim of this crime is to liquidate the Ukrainian
problem over a few months, sacrificing from 10 to 15 million people. Do not consider
figure to be exaggerated: I'm sure it could even
have been reached and exceeded by now.
While there is disagreement over how many lives the genocide claimed,
figures have turned out to be rather accurate. In Harvest of
Sorrow, historian Robert Conquest,
considered by many the leading authority
on the famine, put the toll at 14.5 million. About
half of these deaths represent
the liquidation of the kulaks, via execution and slow
death in gulags, while
the famine itself claimed the lives of approximately seven million,
three million children.
Helping Stalin Hide the Holocaust
How did a holocaust of these dimensions remain unknown in the West?
Soviets suppressed all information regarding the famine. Russia's
press was prohibited from discussing it, and for ordinary citizens,
just mentioning the famine carried a penalty of three to five years' imprisonment.
Although some Western
observers did report the magnitude of the Ukrainians' plight,
such comments were
extremely rare. During the famine, the Soviets prohibited foreign
from visiting Ukraine. But just as significant was the cooperation of influential
Western writers sympathetic to communism. The Fabian Socialist George Bernard Shaw,
after receiving a tour carefully orchestrated by the Soviets, proclaimed in
"I did not see a single under-nourished person in Russia, young or old."
But by far the worst offender was Walter Duranty,
New York Times' Moscow bureau
chief from 1922 to 1936. Duranty enjoyed
personal access to Stalin, called him
"the greatest living statesman,"
and even praised the dictator's notorious show trials.
To call Duranty a Soviet
sympathizer greatly understates his role. Journalist Joseph Alsop
a "KGB agent," and Malcolm Muggeridge called him
liar of any journalist I have met in 50 years of journalism."
Duranty's published denials of Ukraine's Holodomor were perhaps
the vilest acts of
his career. In November 1932, he brazenly told his New
York Times readers,
"There is no famine or actual starvation nor is
there likely to be." He denounced as
"liars" the few brave writers
who reported the famine, which he called "malignant propaganda."
accumulating reports made the massive deaths hard to dispute, Duranty switched
tactics from outright denial to downplay. He wrote in the Times in March 1933:
"There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation but there is widespread mortality
from deaths due to malnutrition."
Incredibly, Duranty was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for
"dispassionate, interpretive reporting of the news from Russia."
Some will ask: did the Ukrainians resist the
genocide? Yes! Throughout Stalin's war,
hundreds of riots and revolts, on various
scales, erupted throughout Ukraine. There are
even a number of stories where
groups of heroic women overran the communist-guarded
kolkhozes and seized
grain for their starving children. And it
was not unusual for a village's local
party tyrant to suddenly be found dead.
However, such resistance was brutally suppressed. The Soviets had passed gun
registration decrees in 1926, 1928, and 1929, and few Ukrainians owned effective
weapons. Resistance largely constituted pitchforks against machine guns. The GPU
and Soviet army dealt with revolts; aircraft were brought in to suppress the
more serious ones. And the famine of 1932-33 left peasants too weak to resist.
at Last, Tragedy Not Forgotten
The Holodomor stands as a permanent warning of what happens when unlimited state
power destroys God-given rights. A cursory review of America's Bill of Rights demonstrates
that virtually every right mentioned was trampled on by Stalin in Ukraine. Yet although
the dictator used every means to eradicate the people's will, the national
spirit lived on unbreakably, until Ukraine gained its independence in 1991.
Here in the United States, Ukrainian-American
organizations such as the
Ukrainian Congress Committee of America (UCCA), Ukrainian Genocide Famine Foundation,
and others work diligently to maintain awareness of the Holodomor.
Last year, they
helped commemorate the genocide's 75th anniversary. And largely
thanks to their efforts,
in 2008 the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution
deploring the genocidal famine.
One of UCCA's ongoing campaigns — which
The New American heartily
endorses — is for the long-deserved revocation
of Walter Duranty's Pulitzer Prize.
James Perloff is the author of
The Shadows of Power: The Council on Foreign Relations and the American Decline