Since its launch last month, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sent observers around the world scrambling for context. It is a fact, for example, that Russia and Ukraine were once “together” in the communist mega-state that was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. But it is also a fact that such Soviet togetherness hardly ensured warm feelings between the two lands. An especially relevant chapter of their history is known in Ukraine as the Holodomor, or “death by starvation.” Spanning the years 1932 and 1933, this period of famine resulted in three to six million lives lost — and that according to the lower accepted estimates.
“It was genocide,” says the narrator of the Vox “Missing Chapter’ video above, “carried out by a dictator who wanted to keep Ukraine under his control, and would do everything in his power to cover it up for decades. That dictator was, of course, Joseph Stalin, who accompanied brutal methods of rule with tight control of information. “In 1917, after the fall of the Russian Empire, Ukraine briefly gained freedom,” the video explains. “But by 1922, it was forcibly integrated into the newly formed Soviet Union.” A rural and highly fertile land, Ukraine was known as “the breadbasket of the Soviet Union” — hence Stalin’s desire to nip any potential revolution there in the bud.
First came a “widespread, violent purge of Ukrainian intellectuals along with priests and religious structures.” At the same time as they advanced this attempted dismantling of Ukrainian culture, Soviet higher-ups were also implementing Stalin’s five-year plan of industrialization, consolidation, and collectivization, including that of all agriculture. This was the time of the kulak, or “wealthy peasant,” the label invented to disgrace anyone resistant to this process. Any kulaks known to Stalin faced a terrible fate indeed, including exile, imprisonment, and even execution; those farmers who remained then fell victim to the dictator’s engineered famine.
Under the pretext of enforcing deliberately unrealistic grain-production quotas, Stalin’s enforcers seized farms across Ukraine in order to sell their products to the West. Before long, “Soviet police began seizing not just grain, but anything edible.” Farmers were stopped from leaving their homeland, where Stalin intended them to starve, “but even in this unimaginable suffering, Ukrainians fought for their lives and each other.” This video incorporates interviews with a grandson and granddaughter of two such Ukrainians who left behind personal records of the Holodomor. A story of endurance and survival under the very worst circumstances, and ultimately a return to national independence, it goes some way to explaining how and why Ukraine continues to put up such a valiant fight against the forces that have descended upon it.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.