Ukraine has always been invaluable to Russia as a ready source of grain. For centuries, the fertile black earth of the Eastern European plains was cultivated by kulaks (prosperous peasant fanners) who led a traditional way of life attached to their patches of land. When Stalin came to power in 1924, he instigated a reign of terror in the Ukraine that ranks among the foremost of his crimes against humanity. Over the next few years, he imposed a ruthless policy of collectivization.
The kulaks’ land was seized for state farms and they were forced to work their own land as state employees. Many rebelled and were shot. In 1928, Stalin piled on the pressure by increasing the kulaks’ taxes at the same time as requisitioning ever-larger quotas of grain.
By 1932 the demands of the state had become insatiable. At the end of that year the kulaks were forced to surrender their seed grain, without which they could not plant the following year’s harvest. From February to August 1933 they were ordered to hand over all foodstuffs; at the same time travel restrictions were imposed and the secret police brutally sniffed out any hoarders. The effect was to create a famine of such horrendous proportions that, having devoured first their livestock then cats and dogs and rodents, the starving finally resorted to infanticide and cannibalism.
The quota demands were lifted in 1933, by which time whole villages lay deserted. Survivors were transported to the Siberian gulags (forced labor camps) and Russian settlers were sent into the Ukraine to replace the dead. For years, successive governments of the USSR denied the famine had ever happened. To this day, although Russia accepts that incompetent agricultural policies contributed to mass starvation, it still denies there was any deliberate policy of genocide – officially, Holodomor never happened.
Death toll: Around eight million. Those who did not die of starvation were killed in the gulags.
You should know: It later emerged that the thousands of tons of grain seized by the state had not been redistributed around the Soviet Empire, whether through sheer bungling incompetence or by design, the authorities had simply put it into storage; while entire villages starved to death the local granaries, locked and guarded, were piled high with grain supplies.