By Hank Beckman -
Anybody still not quite grasping the Ukrainian perspective on the Russian invasion of their homeland needs to become familiar with a particular word—Holodomor.
It’s a word fashioned out of two Ukrainian words, Holod (hunger), and mor (extermination).
Unlike the Holocaust, the transAtlantic slave trade, or atrocities committed against various Indian tribes in North America, most Americans are unfamiliar with the word’s significance.
Many have no doubt also heard about the genocide in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, the slaughtering of the Tutsis in Rwanda and other African countries, and the massacre at My Lai. But the Holodomor remains curiously absent from popular history.
If knowledge of Ukrainian history of the last century happens to sneak up on an unsuspecting undergraduate, they would know that Holodomor refers to one of the most horrendous genocides of the Twentieth Century.
In 1929, Josef Stalin, in keeping with the Communist drive for a command economy directed from an all-powerful central government, made the decision to collectivize agriculture throughout the Soviet Empire.
This policy involved confiscating property, land, and sometimes even homes from the peasant class that mostly consisted of sustenance farming, but also some that were relatively well-off, becoming especially vilified as “Kulaks.”
While the collectives were forced on peasants throughout other regions controlled by the Soviets, Ukraine was singled out for special punishment because the peasants had stubbornly resisted Soviet rule, at one point even staging armed rebellions.
So in addition to the food scarcity resulting from agricultural yields falling 60 percent short of projections, Stalin ordered that Ukraine be cut off from any food shipments.
The already perilous situation collapsed into mass starvation, with estimates of anywhere from 5 to 9 million people perishing throughout the area; several estimates list 3.9 million Ukrainians being among the victims.
At the height of the famine, corpses lined the streets of cities, law and civil society all but collapsed; people even resorted to cannibalism to survive.
There are other sources doing a better job of telling the Holodomor story than can be done in this short column.
One of them is Atlantic writer Anne Applebaum, whose 2017 book, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, is considered by many to be a must-read for the modern reader; another is Mass Starvation: the History and Future of Famine, by Tufts University’s Alex de Waal.
Those interested in an official, deep dive into the subject can peruse the 500-page U.S. Congressional report on the matter issued in 1988, which concluded that Stalin had committed genocide against the Ukrainian people. It’s easily accessible online.
A recent cinematic treatment of the subject is the 2019 film Mr. Jones, loosely based on the story of Gareth Jones, the young Welsh journalist who got word of the atrocity to the world and likely died at the hands of one of Stalin’s assassins.
The movie also relates the role of New York Times reporter Walter Duranty and his shameless dispatches absolving the Soviets of any intentional wrongdoing. To say that refusing to revoke the Pulitzer Prize for foreign reporting awarded to Duranty was not the Pulitzer Board’s finest moment might be the understatement of the century.
So it’s not only the current violence that Putin is inflicting on his neighbors; that alone would obviously be enough to outrage the citizens of any nation. It’s the horror that still may come that no doubt stiffens Ukrainian spines in their fight against Putin’s hordes.
In the last century, not quite 100 years ago—not some distant, less enlightened time—a Soviet leader ordered policies that would result in the starvation of millions of Ukrainians—the deliberate starvation of millions of people. It makes little difference to Ukrainians that it’s the Russian Federation, not the Soviet Union, invading their homeland, or that Stalin was actually Georgian; what will matter to Vitali Six-pack is that their neighbor is threatening his homeland with extinction again.
Think about the national memory we retain for events like the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, the carnage of the Second World War, the Kennedy Assassination, or the Cuban Missile Crisis; consider the Holocaust, the Civil Rights movement, and the murders of Emmitt Till and Martin Luther King.
Those events not only helped shape events that followed, but informed the perspectives and mindsets of all Americans, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity. They are part of our historic, emotional DNA, our national narrative, if you will, and they influence our lives to this very day.
And then think about how Ukrainians must feel about living in constant fear that a bigger, more powerful neighbor likely has few qualms about inflicting the most horrendous harm on them, as the Russians are busy proving as I write this, bombing hospitals, private residences, and murdering children.
We should all have great reservations about the way the United States has approached Ukrainian issues since the end of the Cold War; dangling NATO membership in front them, which, along with the West granting NATO membership to countries right on Mother Russia’s border, can only be perceived as a blatant provocation to someone as already suspicious as Vladimir Putin.
In particular, expanding NATO after explicitly promising the Russians that the West would undertake no such policy can only be seen by Moscow as treachery of the highest order.
No person of influence should advocate the United States leaping into the fight with no-fly zone, which would likely lead to a shooting war with one of the world’s premier nuclear powers.
Whatever the Ukrainians are suffering, however brutal and mendacious Putin may be, no rational person thinks the answer to the current war is a bigger war, possibly nuclear, that would kill millions of people and essentially destroy Western Civilization.
That said, to understand the Ukrainian perspective requires we put aside ideology, partisanship or any preconceived notions about geopolitics and this particular crisis. Take the strategic proclamations coming from talking heads on cable TV who two months ago couldn’t locate Ukraine on a map with the healthy grain of salt they deserve.
And leave the question of blame to historians who can be depended on to spend the next several decades digging into events. (As John Kennedy once said of historians, “Those bastards. They are always there with their pencils out.”)
Just understand what the Ukrainian people are thinking as Putin’s troops surround their cities and try to shell them into submission; understand they’re aware of the very real possibility of deliberate starvation. Understand that they know a Russian leader has done it before.