Ninety years ago, under Soviet rule, Ukraine resembled a “huge Bergen-Belsen,” wrote historian Robert Conquest in his 1985 classic, The Harvest of Sorrow. “A quarter of the rural population was dead or dying. The rest were so exhausted from hunger that they could not even bury their loved ones. At the same time, as in Bergen Belsen, well-fed police or party organizations monitored their victims.” Estimates say that up to ten million perished between 1930 and 1933.
But this cosmic tragedy, the Holodomor, was hushed up in the Soviet Union. For a long time, it went largely unnoticed in the West. Conquest, made famous in 1968 by “The Great Terror – Stalin’s purges in the 1930s”, was one of the most important Eastern European researchers of his time. After the end of the Soviet Union, he was known as “the man who was right”. In the Gorbachev era, he topped the Russian bestseller lists.
His work on the Holodomor, the attempted annihilation of a people through starvation, should be read again today. History repeats itself, the killing is taking place before our eyes. The extinction fantasies that haunt the minds of the Putin regime reflect those of the day before yesterday – including the vocabulary. Anyone who talks about “war” today is risking their freedom; it was just a “special military operation”. Back then the forbidden word was “hunger”. The term was “counter-revolutionary” or was considered propaganda for Hitler.
The roots of this terminology go back even further. As early as 1863, under Alexander II, an edict stated that there was no Ukrainian language, only one dialect. Ukrainian books were banned, schools and publishing houses were closed. Nevertheless, the peasants evaded the brutal Russification. They cultivated the ballads and songs about their heroes in the Hetmanat and Sich, both short-lived phases of Ukrainian independence.
However, the constant attack on language and culture could not extinguish the national feeling of the Ukrainians. The peasants continued to speak Ukrainian and upheld their folklore. The national poet Taras Shevchenko equated humiliation through Russification with serfdom. He was exiled to Siberia for ten years. Why do we know so little about Ukraine? The Russian narrative, which for centuries declared Ukraine to be “Little Russia”, was adopted in the West. Likewise the maps, which always showed Ukraine as part of Russia.
Robert Conquest, however, notes that “the Ukrainians were historically an ancient nation” who have always defied submission. “The Kiev grand dukes ruled over all the Eastern Slavs, but when Kyiv was conquered by the Mongols in 1240, the empire was crushed.” If we knew more about the history of Ukraine’s struggle for freedom, as well as the millions who died of starvation in the Holodomor, we would better understand what the current resistance of the country drives. Deportation, starvation, subjugation are just a new chapter in the nation’s troubled history.
They had turned the most fertile land in the world into a melancholy desert.
British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge in 1933 on the Russian commissars
Just as Stalin was behind the human tragedy of 1930-33, so is Putin acting in the current war. Stalin lied that no Soviet citizen had to starve in the famine. Putin claims against all facts that no civilians have ever been attacked. Crimes that cannot be denied are trivialized as isolated cases.
At that time, the grain and fodder were taken away from the farmers, and the livestock died en masse. Houses crumbled, villages emptied, millions of children, the weakest, lost their lives. The famine turned a fertile land of rolling fields into a weed-infested landscape resembling the situation during the Thirty Years’ War. Today the bombs flatten cities. Villages are empty, fields fallow.
A farmer was once shot for possessing 25 pounds of wheat picked up by his young daughter. There were ten years for the “theft” of potatoes or onions. Ditto for a woman whose husband had starved to death. your crime? She had harvested a hundred ears of corn in her own field. “Wheat thieves” were often shot. The wrong word led to the Gulag. A doctor was convicted who said his sister had starved to death because her groceries had been confiscated. Individual fates that were repeated a thousand times.
And the culprits? From a communist point of view it was the unruly peasants in the Holodomor, today it’s nationalists and Nazis. A political commissar once lectured: “It is a life and death struggle. It took a famine to show them (the Ukrainian peasants) who’s master here. It cost millions of lives, but collectivization has remained. We won the war.”
In 1933, British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge called the Russian commissars “a swarm of locusts that had come over the country and taken everything edible with them. They had turned the most fertile land on earth into a melancholy desert.”
Back then, fields were burned, today silos are shot up
Everything deja vu. Again the culture and identity should be erased, the country subjugated. Since the end of the Soviet Union, for thirty years, Ukrainians have clung to their self-determination. They have known for centuries what the Russian knout means. That is why the vast majority of the people do not want to give up the fight. It knows what’s in store for them when former President and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Putin’s puppet, denounces Ukrainian nationalism as “anti-Russian poison,” an “all-consuming lie.” The subjugation of Ukraine must be “in order to finally build an open Eurasia”, i.e. a new empire. That leaves no room for illusions.
In the 1917 elections to the Constituent Assembly of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, the Bolsheviks received only 10 percent. The people mostly voted for social democrats and social revolutionaries. The Bolsheviks avenged themselves with the very first grain robbery, in line with Lenin’s call: “Send grain, grain, and more grain (to Russia)!”
Today, too, the Putinists use grain as a weapon, blocking, letting through or simply stealing Ukraine’s most important export commodity at will. Ninety years ago fields were burned, today silos are being shot up. Korn is the Ukrainians’ pride and curse at the same time, again and again.
The annihilation of souls by means of speech orders already existed at that time
A year before his assassination in 2015, Putin critic Boris Nemtsov noted: “The Kremlin cultivates and rewards people’s basest instincts to foster hatred and combativity. This hell cannot end peacefully.” The untold devastation and murders of Bucha confirm the prediction. Putin not only denied the events, he also awarded the butchers afterwards in the Kremlin.
Precisely this state-ordered brutalization was denounced by Nikolai Bukharin, the revolutionary from the very beginning, as the worst result of the starvation strategy of 1930-1933. He was depressed by “the profound change in the psyche of those communists who participated in this campaign and, instead of going mad, became professional bureaucrats. For them, terror became the normal method of administration. Obedience to every command from above became a virtue.” Bukharin, Stalin’s “Golden Boy”, did not survive the terror, he was killed in 1938 during the purges.
The totalitarian annihilation of souls by voice command is a familiar story. In his book “LTI” about the Newspeak of the Third Reich, Victor Klemperer showed how it works. Traditional thinking had to be unlearned so that fascism could prevail in people’s minds; George Orwell recorded the strategy in his immortal 1984. If a concept is eliminated, you can no longer think of it. The meaning? As in the Third Reich, the Kremlin’s terminology now wants to determine what the propaganda legitimizes: violence and meanness. As in 1933, today’s Kremlin vocabulary features the telltale syllable “Ent” in “de-Ukrainization” and “denazification.”
Should the Ukrainians stop fighting for their independence, as some western statements advise them? For most, the answer is clear. Because on the other side there are people who use “terror as a normal administrative method”. But there is a comforting difference between then and now. This time Ukraine has the West on its side. He doesn’t ignore them like he did between 1930 and 1933. He sends a stream of arms and billions of dollars. In our time, Ukraine has a chance that it never had in the Holodomor.
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