The fusion of two Ukrainian words, “hólod” (famine) and “mor” (extermination), has given rise to the neologism Holodomor, the “extermination by famine” that Stalin provoked in Ukraine in the early 1930s: one of the most Dantesque episodes in a 20th century that witnessed so many tragedies.
The main victim was the Ukrainian peasantry, and the Holodomor, however much it was hidden or denied for years, has become the greatest rift separating two peoples, who by history, language and culture should be described as brothers.
The extermination by starvation of six million peasants and shepherds imposed by Stalin has its origins in Marx‘s hatred of the peasantry, whom he labelled “cretins” because of their attachment to tradition and property. The Communist Manifesto called for the “expropriation of landed property and the application of land rent to public expenditure” and the “creation of industrial armies, chiefly in the countryside”. Note that it does not speak of “landowners”, but of land ownership in general, thus including that in the hands of small and medium-sized landowners, the largest social group in all pre-industrial countries. In fact, it was called for its disappearance, to be replaced by “armies”.
Photograph by Alexander Wienerberger in some unidentified region of Ukraine during the famine in 1933.
Marx knew how the Industrial Revolution had come about in England and knew that it would have been impossible without profound changes in the agrarian world, which produced three major effects: agrarian income was transferred to industry, peasants left the villages and became proletarians, and the countryside generated the food surpluses necessary for the urbanisation associated with industrialisation. These goals were achieved through the “enclosure laws”, which were passed in the United Kingdom over the course of a century (they were passed district by district). These changes were part of the so-called “primitive capital accumulation process”, which was essential to generate the vast resources needed to get industrialisation off the ground. In the Industrial Revolution as developed by capitalism, the peasantry had been the great victim. But as we can see, Marx foresaw nothing different for a communist regime inspired by his ideas.
When Lenin seized power in Russia through his coup d’état in October 1917, he was not, however, in a position to implement Marx’s idea. Quite simply: the Russian proletariat was almost non-existent, while the peasantry was by far the largest social group. That is why he did not dare to take the land from the peasants, and what he did was to divide up the landed estates of the landlords. Moreover, faced with the calamitous situation into which the Russian economy was plunged by the application of communist dogmas, in 1921 he decreed the so-called New Economic Policy, which in practice meant reinforcing private ownership of land as a way of encouraging productivity. Its effects were extraordinary, especially in such fertile agricultural regions as the Ukraine. But this departure from the dogma that the abolition of private property was considered unbearable in the long run by the communists, who only accepted it as a temporary solution.
If Lenin had to compromise with the peasantry in order to seize and usurp power, so it was with the nationalities. Marxist dogma regarded the idea of the nation as an invention of the bourgeoisie to distract the proletariat from its reality as an oppressed class. But given the attachment of humans to their national identity, and to gain more allies, Lenin claimed that the Tsarist Empire was a “prison of peoples”, who would be liberated from the Russian yoke when his revolutionary government, which proclaimed the “right to self-determination”, was established. The Tsarist Empire was thus replaced by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. One of these was the Ukraine. In 1923 the Ukrainian Soviet Republic issued the first decree on the “Ukrainianisation” of political, administrative, educational and cultural life.
After Lenin’s death in 1924, a sharp struggle for power began, from which Stalin emerged victorious. And the new leader was very clear that the important thing was to bring about an accelerated industrialisation of the USSR, and he also believed that the policies of decentralisation had gone too far. The NEP entered a terminal phase in 1927, as did the policy of Ukrainianisation. Articles began to appear in the Soviet press about a seemingly dangerous “Ukrainian nationalist counter-revolution” underway.
In 1928 Stalin launched his First Five-Year Plan, which was to run until 1932. He wanted to lay the foundations he considered necessary for economic development: to collectivise agriculture and mechanise it, to produce energy in enormous quantities, and to create a powerful heavy industry.
Poster of the First Five-Year Plan
Until then, the peasants could pay the state a tax in kind and sell the rest of their harvest on the market. With the creation of the so-called “Kolkhozes”, Collective Farms, which the peasants were obliged to join, the situation changed drastically. The “Kolkhozes” could only buy from a single seller, the Soviet state, which sold them at the highest price whatever they needed. And they could only sell to one buyer, the same state, which paid them derisory prices and which, from 1928 onwards, again confiscated as much agricultural production as it deemed necessary. The peasantry, naturally, opposed this with all the energy it could muster. And in such a prosperous agricultural region as the Ukraine, the peasantry spoke mainly Ukrainian, they felt Ukrainian.
From 1929 onwards, the communist security agencies launched extremely harsh campaigns of repression, under the pretext of suppressing various Ukrainian nationalist organisations. Some were non-existent, others almost irrelevant, and others existed only in exile, but all of them were turned by the political police into powerful counter-revolutionary organisations that had to be liquidated. The communist press warned against the “danger” posed by the Ukrainian Liberation Union (SVU), the Ukrainian National Centre (UNT), the Ukrainian Military Organisation (UVO), and the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). The right breeding ground was being created to justify repression.
But the enemy by definition for communist ambitions in the countryside was a figure christened “the Kulak”, the well-off peasant. A “class” enemy who had to be exterminated. The prosperous Ukrainian peasantry was presented as a mass of “Kulaks”.