The last time Moscow used food as a weapon, 4 million people died (OPINION)


Publisher’s note: Daria Mattingly is a Ukrainian historian specializing in the Holodomor. She has a PhD from the University of Cambridge, where she teaches Soviet and Russian history, and she is on the selection committee for the Danyliw Research Seminar on Contemporary Ukraine, University of Ottawa. The opinions expressed in this comment belong solely to the author of it.

(CNN) — Growing up in the Ukraine, one learns not to leave crumbs on the table. My generation of millennials was taught this devout reverence for bread by our grandparents, who survived the 1932-1933 famine in Ukraine, known as the Holodomor.

Many times I heard the story of how a soup with wild sorrel saved my grandmother and her siblings while the grain harvested in her village was left to rot in the train station. That wheat could have saved so many lives, but “the State” did not allow it. My grandmother could not bear to even look at sorrel for the rest of her life, and she always kept her pantry well stocked with salt and flour.

With the “glasnost” in the 1980s, and Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union soon after, came a new freedom to process this national trauma. The Holodomor story made Ukrainians see their country as a victim of the Soviet empire. And in recent years, the annexation of Crimea, the conflict in Donbas and now the full-scale war, in which food is used as a weapon, fit that picture.

In the occupied territories, there are more and more more tests that Russian forces are stealing grain and equipment from Ukrainian farmers or forcing them to sell the products at extremely low prices. From there, they are apparently trucked to the ports of annexed Crimea and to Russia. The Kremlin denies the accusations.

But this apparently coordinated withdrawal of grain from Ukraine is not opportunistic looting. It is centrally managed, from the troops that arrive in the fields to the trucks that transport the grain to the ports.

Meanwhile, millions of tons of grain are stuck in Ukrainian ports, blocked by Russian ships in the Black Sea. And getting agricultural products overland to the ports of neighboring Romania and Poland is a slow and arduous task.

By controlling the export of Ukrainian wheat, Russia can influence grain prices just like it does with oil and gas. This will ensure greater influence over countries that depend on its grain, such as China, India and Turkey. Furthermore, if grain supplies are limited, poor countries in Asia and Africa will be left with limited supplies and millions of people will face famine.

As a Holodomor researcher, I see many parallels between the man-made famine of nearly a century ago and the war of today. After all, the goal of the famine of 1932-1933 and of the current war was and is to bring Ukraine under Russian control.

Those looking for the various reasons for the war should investigate the Holodomor. Long before NATO or Putin were conceived, Russian rulers were putting down uprisings in Ukraine. The widespread resistance to Soviet rule in Ukraine in the early 1930s was no different.

Like the rest of the USSR, Ukraine was a rural country on the eve of collectivization. However, resistance to the state takeover of private property here was fiercer than anywhere else in the Soviet Union. Ukrainian peasants never supported the Bolsheviks, and the unpopular policy of collectivization provoked strong resistance.

In 1930, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was informed by the security services that Ukrainian peasants had expelled the authorities from many districts, posing a danger to the state. Repressions continued and many Ukrainian peasants were sent to Siberia and north.

About 4 million people died in the Holodomor of 1932-1933. Many tried to trade their last possessions for bread, resorted to eating substitute foods, and foraged for mushrooms and berries in the woods.

At the same time, Ukraine’s intellectuals demanded to shake off the Russian imperial embrace in culture. In June 1926, the Central Committee of the Ukrainian Communist (Bolshevik) Party expressed concern over reports that the Ukrainian writer Mykola Khvyliovy encouraged other intellectuals to “Get away from Moscow!” in his works.

With the spread of the printed word thanks to the Soviet anti-illiteracy campaign, it was only a matter of time before the national movement gained strength.

While there was widespread famine following the collectivization in the Soviet Union, the Kremlin imposed an exceptionally high grain procurement plan on Ukraine in 1932-33. Officially, the grain was needed to finance the equipping of factories for industrialization.

If the State keeps the grain, we can survive, since our diet includes more than just wheat. But the Soviet authorities did not stop there. They withdrew all the food, since the Ukrainian peasants did not meet the impossible objectives. special brigades Organized by the Soviet authorities, they searched every corner for food and hidden valuables.

To ensure that people could not escape famine, fields with crops were guarded, the borders of the republic were sealed, and refugees were sent to filtration camps. The famine was officially called “food difficulties” and the victims were accused of starving their children to discredit the Soviet government.

This rhetoric reminds us of the war that today is called “special operation”, with the Bucha massacre.

In fact, 4 millions of men, women and children starved to death during the Holodomor. Many tried to exchange their last possessions for bread, they resorted to eating substitutes for food, they foraged for mushrooms and berries in the woods. The mothers had to choose which child to save. Some left their children in state orphanages in the hope of giving them a better chance of survival. As in other extreme famines, there were reports of cannibalism.

Ironically, it wasn’t grain, or even the meager food confiscated from the hungry, that paid for the GE turbines installed in power plants and other equipment. Was the gold sold cheap to the state by desperate peasants in 1933.

While the famine lasted, a network of small state stores was created that bought gold from the population, even in the most remote Ukrainian villages. In exchange for their family heirlooms, the victims received a little flour so they could bake bread for their children. Every breadcrumb was valuable.

Parallel to the famine, the Kremlin organized show trials against Ukraine’s intellectuals and political elite. They were accused of Ukrainian nationalism, spying for the hostile West, and other things that sound as outlandish as describing the current Ukrainian government as Nazi.

The recalcitrant Ukraine represented an existential threat to the Soviet project and its leadership. If collectivization failed here, other Soviet regions might have followed suit. If the national movement prevails, other republics could also challenge Moscow’s authority. Indeed, at the height of the Holodomor, in March 1933, party leaders in Soviet Ukraine wrote to Stalin that “the famine has not yet taught the Ukrainian collective farmers a lesson.”

For decades, victims were not allowed to talk about the Holodomor in public or even call it a famine. Otherwise, they faced persecution for anti-Soviet propaganda. Western countries, eager to normalize relations with the Soviet Union in 1933, also ignored the famine. No wonder, even now, few know about the Holodomor outside Ukraine.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Holodomor became the center of nation building in Ukraine. Over the past 30 years, victims have been remembered, the location of mass graves established, testimonies recorded, and the history of the Holodomor taught in schools. The vast majority of Ukrainians consider the Holodomor a act of genocide.

However, no one was held responsible for the deaths of millions of people, and Russia has denied its role in staging the famine from the start. When no one is responsible for the deaths of 4 million, human life has little value, and the crime can easily be repeated.

Over the past three decades, Ukraine has developed an imperfect but functional democracy, a nascent civil society, and a national identity of its own. At the same time, the autocratic Russian regime consolidated its power by suppressing the opposition and civil society and taking advantage of Russia’s imperial nostalgia.

In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and launched the war in Donbas, but Ukraine persisted. In 2022, the fight is to the death, and the Kremlin seeks to establish control over Ukraine through conventional warfare.

But history does not have to repeat itself. Today Ukraine has its state, its professional army, its civil society and, most importantly, international support. The borders with the West are no longer sealed. Europe welcomed millions of Ukrainian refugees, something that Ukrainian peasants could not dream of. The West is helping Ukraine to fight for its existence.

Whatever euphemisms the Kremlin uses, the truth is impossible to hide; it always comes to light, as happened with the Holodomor. In fact, the Holodomor can help put the current war in historical perspective, and better understand its reasons.

The breadcrumbs on my table always remind me of the famine my grandmother survived, and that her story must never be repeated.



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