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Ninety years since the Holodomor: Ukrainians remember the 1932-33 famine as the war continues

Camilla Orjuela | 24 November 2023

On November 25, many Ukrainians around the world light a candle in remembrance of the victims of the Holodomor – the famine that took the life of an estimated four million people in 1932-33. This was a disaster caused by Stalin’s brutal attempts to collectivize agriculture and quell the resistance of the Ukrainians. Its memory remains both relevant and contentious as the war with Russia’s invading forces continues.

What happened in Ukraine in the 1930s is an obvious illustration of how famines are caused less by weather conditions and food shortages than by power politics and people’s inability to get access to existing food. In Ukraine and other parts of the Soviet Union, farmers were forced to transfer livestock, land and other possessions to the state – something which seriously damaged the agricultural sector. Those who protested were imprisoned, deported or killed. Ukraine's fertile soil has historically provided the population with food, while also generating a surplus. But under Stalin's rule, peasants and local communities were required to give up large parts of what they produced. While the rural population starved, food was used to facilitate massive industrialization efforts in the Soviet Union by feeding the workers and providing export incomes. Hungry and desperate people were prevented from leaving their villages. As a consequence, children, women and men died in their millions.

For a long time, silence about the great famine prevailed. At the time, the Soviet authorities denied that people starved and restricted access to information. In the decades that followed, the country’s official memory culture focused on paying tribute to heroes – especially those who had fought in the Great Patriotic War, i.e. World War II. Like in many other countries that have experienced mass-starvation, there were no official monuments or commemoration days dedicated to the victims of hunger. Drawing attention to the famine would have depicted both the communist system and its leaders in an unfavorable light. Moreover, many of those who had survived found it difficult to talk about their painful experiences and thus preferred to keep silent.

That Ukrainians around the world nowadays light candles and gather for memorial marches, church services, lectures and other events at the end of November each year is a major shift that has been made possible only in recent years. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Ukraine's independence in 1991, the memory of the famine is no longer repressed. Instead, it has come to play a central role for the Ukraine’s historiography and national identity.

During the many years when it was impossible to speak openly about the famine and the repression that had taken place under Stalin, the memory was kept alive by the diaspora. Many Ukrainians had fled or for other reasons moved to North and South America and Europe. In Canada and the United States, some of them started to collect the stories of those who had survived the terrible famine. In 1983 the first monument was put up in Edmonton in Canada. The sculpture, made of metal, depicts a broken circle that symbolizes lives destroyed by hunger. On it, four hands are stretched out in desperation and resistance. An inscription urges: “Let us all stand on guard against tyranny, violence and inhumanity”. This, and other monument that followed, was not only created to remember the victims of the famine, but also served as a warning against communism more generally. In that way, it was closely entangled with the ongoing Cold War which divided the world into an Eastern and a Western side. The Embassy of the Soviet Union in Canada protested the erection of the monument, which had been enabled by local authorities.

It was also in the diaspora that the concept Holodomor started to be used. Put together by the Ukrainian words holod (hunger) and mor (extermination), it has come to refer to the nature of the famine as deliberately organized and a strategy to destroy the Ukrainian people. The word reminds of Holocaust, the extermination of Jews during World War II. This tragedy has become a global memory and a reference point for how mass atrocities are remembered and dealt with globally. The aim of Ukrainian memory activists in the diaspora was that the Holodomor would be as widely known and strongly condemned as the Holocaust.

It was still risky to draw attention to the famine when one of the first monuments was constructed inside Ukraine. Inhabitants of the village of Targan collected money and created a sculpture of a mourning woman who holds a cross. It was erected in 1988 at a mass grave for famine victims, in memory of the 367 villagers, including infants, who had died. Initiatives to memorialize the Holodomor in Ukraine came both from below and from the political elite. Relatives and other committed villagers played an important role. However, it was only when the political leaders of the newly independent country got involved that the 1930s famine became the focus for official memory-making efforts. Paying attention to the Holodomor became a way for the nation to distance itself from its communist past and form a Ukrainian national identity around the experiences of forced starvation and repression. Especially Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine’s president between 2005 and 2010, was devoted to the memory of Holodomor. Under his rule, local authorities were asked to create memorials in connection with the 75th anniversary of the famine. As a result, there are now thousands of monuments in the country.

Many of the memorials are simple wooden crosses erected in cemeteries or in the center of villages and towns. Angels, lit candles, and ears of wheat or barley are other symbols that appear frequently. When humans are depicted, it is almost always in the shape of women, often a mother with an emaciated, dead or dying child in her arms. The woman’s face and posture express sorrow and care. Sometimes she shows signs either of resignation or strength to continue struggling. The most famous memorial sculpture, “The Bitter Memory of Childhood”, depicts a thin, barefoot girl with long braids; she represents the many children who died in the Holodomor. In her hand are five ears of grain – a reference to a law introduced by Stalin in August 1932 that imposed cruel punishments on anyone who stole something that belonged to the state, even a few straws of wheat left in the field. The statue is located outside Ukraine’s National Museum of the Holodomor-Genocide in Kyiv, but also appears in several other places.

Central to memory politics in Ukraine has also been the recognition of the Holodomor as a genocide against the Ukrainian people. In 2006, a law was passed stating that the famine is to be defined as a genocide. At the same time, denying what happened became illegal. Globally, numerous parliaments and elected bodies have recognized the Holodomor as genocide. This is however an issue that remains contested. Researchers and political representatives make different interpretations of the historical facts. Many argue that Stalin deliberately made use of starvation to suppress the resistance of the Ukrainians and exterminate the Ukrainian people – the intent to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group is central to the definition of genocide. Others emphasize that starvation and oppression also occurred against other ethnic groups in the Soviet Union, such as the Russians and Kazakhs, and that the famine was the result of the communist class struggle and Stalin’s disastrous collectivization project.

Nationally, the memory of the Holodomor has played an important role in uniting the Ukrainian people around a shared identity as victims and survivors. However, the centering of genocide recognition has also led to a focus on the experiences of ethnic Ukrainians at the expense of minority groups, like Russians and Jews, who were also affected. The national leaders’ strong emphasis on the Holodomor has also led to memory conflicts. In Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, directives from above to commemorate the Holodomor met with resistance from local politicians. Many in the city were Russian-speaking and did not consider the historical famine to be a genocide. Nor did they support the idea of a centrally located memorial. When the monument – a statue of a peasant family – was finally inaugurated in 2008, it was placed at the outskirts of the city and local authorities subsequently showed little interest in maintaining it. As the full-scale war started in February 2022, Kharkiv, with its proximity to Russia, was hit hard by aerial bombings. In the face of the Russian invasion, local resistance to memory politics that seeks to distance the city from the Soviet past and Russian dominance has diminished.

When candles are lit in memory of the victims of the Holodomor this year, Ukraine is facing another winter full of hardship. The war continues with no clear end in sight, causing enormous suffering to the population. The ongoing invasion and Ukraine’s efforts to fight back both overshadow and make the memory of the Holodomor more relevant than ever. Once again, people are struggling to survive and once again they mourn the loss of their loved ones. Many draw parallels between the current situation and the famine in the 1930s. They see similarities between Stalin’s repression and Putin’s attempts to incorporate Ukrainian territory into Russia and annihilate the Ukrainian people. “Russia is trying to carry out the same genocide today,” Olya Soroka commented. She heads a global network of Holodomor descendants, which works to ensure that also new generations of Ukrainians learn about and remember the Holodomor.

The support that Ukraine has enjoyed from the West since the invasion has involved concrete arms provisions but also symbolic measures such as the hoisting of Ukrainian flags. There has also been a wave of recognitions of the Holodomor as genocide in elected assemblies, from the European Parliament to various national and sub-national bodies. This is an important signal against Russia, which continues to maintain that the famine was not a genocide. Instead, a new cult around Stalin has developed in Russia. The former leader is praised for his role in World War II and for making the Soviet Union a great power economically and politically. There are also groups who believe that the famine did not happen at all, or was caused solely by poor weather or sabotage by the Ukrainians. The denial of the memory of the Holdomor was expressed in concrete terms last October when a monument to the victims of the famine in Mariupol was removed and destroyed after Russia had occupied the area.

The ongoing war in Ukraine has left many people in Ukraine food insecure and also contributed to hunger in other parts of the world. Today, as many as 238 million people suffer acute food insecurity, according to the World Food Program. Reduced exports of grain and other food items from Ukraine has led to shortage and increased prices and constitute one of several reasons for the increased hunger globally. Ninety years after the devastating famine in Ukraine there is thus reason not only to remember the victims of the past, but also to see to that new hunger deaths are prevented.


Camilla Orjuela is a Professor of Peace and Development Research at the University of Gothenburg, who studies memory and justice after famines.


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