Desperate, starving people, robbed of their livelihoods by the ruthless edicts of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, were forced to eat grass, tree bark, flowers, rats, dogs and, at the end, their children, historians have reported.
People died in the streets, on sidewalks, in train stations, in fields and on country roads.
About 4 million of them perished in the great famine, known like the Holodomor, or death by starvation.
Today, as Ukraine battles Russian invaders and the dead again lie on the streets of places, including Mariupol, that were Cut off from supplies, the memory of the famine and its links with the Kremlin remain strong.
“Famine is one of the things in the back of the heads of Ukrainians fighting on the ground,” said Anne Applebaum, former Washington Post columnist and author of the 2017 book Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine. , ” which recounts memories like that of Petro Mostovyi.
“It’s a piece of history, and Ukrainians remember it as an attempt to eradicate them,” she said. “And the realization that they could be eradicated…is again part of why they’re fighting now.”
Historian Robert Conquest told Congress in 1986: “The Soviet assault on the peasantry and on the Ukrainian nation, [in] 1930-33 was one of the most significant and devastating events in modern history.
Thirteen percent of Ukraine’s population perished, Applebaum wrote, as Stalin imposed “collectivization” – the seizure of private property, livestock and equipment by the state – and brutally punished the peasants for not respecting the quotas by taking the rest of their food.
Also fearful of Ukraine’s latent nationalism, Stalin applied economic “sanctions” to regions that could not respond to government requisitions.
Just like now, people have piled into trains in an attempt to leave the country.
“The train stations were lined with beggar peasants with swollen hands and feet, women holding horrible infants with huge wobbly heads, stick-like limbs and swollen pointed bellies out of carriage windows,” the reporter wrote. Hungarian Arthur Koestler, according to Conquest.
A Communist Party official from Vinnytsia, 160 miles southwest of Kiev, wrote to Stalin in 1932: “All the peasants are moving and leaving…to save themselves from starvation. In the villages, ten to twenty families die of hunger every day, children run away wherever they can, all the stations are full of peasants trying to get out.
Corpses appeared in the Kharkiv railway station and on the streets of Kiev. Four hundred bodies were removed from the streets of Kiev in January 1933. By February, 518 had been recovered, according to Applebaum.
Stalin’s solution was to close the Ukrainian border and prevent people from escaping or going from village to village inside Ukraine. He sent special requisition squads to search the homes of the starving for hidden goods.
They used long iron poles to probe the earth where people might have secreted food. They searched the chimneys.
Hanna Iakivna Onoda recalled a neighbor hiding flour under her baby’s crib, Applebaum reported. But the squad found him.
“She was crying and begging them to leave him because the baby was starving, but they … took him anyway,” Onoda recalled.
“Crucifiers,” she called them.
The result was a disaster.
“Horror, exhaustion, callous indifference to life, and constant exposure to the language of hate have left their mark,” Applebaum wrote. “Combined with the complete absence of food, they have also produced, in the Ukrainian countryside, a very rare form of madness … cannibalism.”
“Many survivors witnessed either cannibalism or, much more often, necrophagy, the eating of the corpses of people who had died of starvation,” she wrote.
A Ukrainian, Mykola Moskalenko, recounted his village’s concern over the missing children of a neighbour: “We entered her house and asked her where her children were. She said they were dead and she buried them in the field. We went to the field but found nothing. They began a search of his home: the children had been cut up. … They asked why she did this, and she replied that her children would not survive anyway, but this way she would.
In Sumy province, about 200 miles east of Kiev, a deranged man was arrested for eating his daughter and son, according to Applebaum. A neighbor noticed that he seemed less bloated with hunger than the others and asked why.
“I ate my children,” he replied, “and if you talk too much, I will eat you.”
A 6-year-old boy who ran away from home was asked why he ran away. “Father will cut me up,” he replied. Two of her sisters had already disappeared.
Such incidents were well known to the authorities. In Kharkiv, nine cases of cannibalism or necrophagy were reported in March 1933. Fifty-eight were reported in April. In May there were 132 and in June 221. There is no evidence that Moscow did anything to remedy the tragedy.
The famine peaked in the spring and summer of 1933. In May, the Soviets approved significant aid to Ukraine – with food initially seized from the peasants themselves, Applebaum wrote. Cereal quotas have been reduced. Repression has eased.
What followed was “the first real big lie in 20th century politics,” Yale scholar Timothy Snyder said at a 2019 conference in Austria.
Stalin denied that the famine had taken place. It was nothing but a “thread”, he said.
Besides, the hungry were not the victims. “The hungry are provocateurs,” Snyder said, backed the Communists. “Their bloated bellies are deliberate provocations against the Soviet regime.”
The authorities ordered the falsification of death certificates. The records have been destroyed. The results of the 1937 census in the Soviet Union were hidden from the public, as the details were murky. The population count was 8 million lower than government projections.
The head of the census bureau was arrested and executed by firing squad, Applebaum wrote. His closest associates were also executed. Stalin brought in new census staff to find the right numbers.
“Under the sun of the Great Socialist Revolution, an astonishingly rapid and unprecedented population increase is occurring,” he said.
Most people in the outside world didn’t know any better — thanks, in part, to a powerful New York Times reporter.
British-born Walter Duranty had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his articles on the supposed success of collectivization and other Soviet policies. He got close to the Soviets, interviewed Stalin twice, then repeated the party’s starvation lies, according to Applebaum.
“I have made thorough inquiries into this alleged famine,” Duranty wrote in The Times on March 31, 1933. “Here are the facts. … There is no real famine or deaths from starvation, but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.
“These conditions are bad but there is no famine,” he said.
Earlier that month, 248 bodies had to be removed from the streets of Kiev.
And just as Russian President Vladimir Putin today lies to his people about invading Ukraine, so does Stalin’s lie about starvation, Applebaum wrote.
In 2015, Sputnik News, a Kremlin propaganda site, published an article in English titled “Holodomor Hoax.” The famine, he said, was “one of the most famous myths of the 20th century and vitriolic pieces of anti-Soviet propaganda”.
“The arguments had come full circle,” Applebaum wrote. “The post-Soviet Russian state was once again in denial: the Holodomor didn’t happen.”