Within 10 weeks, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has provided numerous parallels with Hitler’s atrocities during World War 2, among them the use of food as a weapon. However, Ukrainians on the edge of starvation recall the Holodomor, a human-made famine inflicted by the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.
About four million Ukrainians perished from starvation during the Holodomor of 1932-33. Dead, swollen bodies were lying everywhere in the countryside and in cities. Food taken away from starving peasants was used to industrialise the cities that Russian bombs are now destroying.
Now, nearly 90 years after the Holodomor, Russian President Vladimir Putin is again using hunger as a tool to erase Ukrainian identity, along with other inhumane war tactics. However, many more people are likely to be affected.
Mass starvation during the Holodomor happened because Soviet authorities forcibly expropriated food from the countryside and reallocated it elsewhere. Troops – hundreds of city-dwellers – were sent to villages to accelerate grain requisitions. They were instructed to search for food everywhere and take away even the last bits of it.
Survivors of the Russian occupation in Ukrainian towns and villages have experienced similar food searches by the Russian military during the past few months. In places where Russian convoys stop for the night, they forcibly take food and slaughter cattle. Russian occupiers seized more than 100,000 tonnes of grain from Ukrainian farmers that were set aside until the future harvest. They also claimed ownership of agricultural enterprises in the Kherson region, where more than 10% of Ukraine’s grain is produced, and demanded that farmers give them the harvest from the current sowing campaign for free.
Using similar language as in the 1930s, the local administration in the Krasnoyarsk region of Russia has announced a plan to reduce the local food shortages through the expropriation of “food surpluses” from Kherson and possibly other southern regions of Ukraine. Similar policies heavily undermined agricultural productivity and exacerbated the famine in Ukraine 90 years ago.
People who rely on stores to get crucial supplies are struck most by the war-induced food shortages. There are two main problems.
First, Russian soldiers rob grocery stores, leaving scant provisions for those who live in the besieged cities.
Second, they block deliveries of aid by shelling humanitarian corridors. This has caused crises in multiple cities where people are stuck without basic supplies and unable to evacuate.
Today, Mariupol is the city with the most severe humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, with more than 100,000 residents living under constant shelling since the end of February. People there are in desperate need of food, water and basic supplies. Humanitarian convoys are blocked from the city. Those who managed to flee Mariupol recall spending days and nights in basements together with the dead bodies of neighbours and family members whom they could not bury safely. Just as in 1933, people eat anything they can find, including dog food and even stray dogs.
In addition to terrorising the population, Putin is making concrete steps to undermine world food security. The Russian military is destroying agricultural equipment and food stocks, planting explosives in the fields and cutting off access to critical infrastructure.
The war has caused disruptions in spring sowing and harvest collection for winter crops. Since 2014, farmers in the temporarily occupied territories of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions were reluctant to cultivate land because of mines that had exploded in their fields. Now the danger is spreading to other parts of Ukraine.
The Ukrainian Deminers Association reports explosive ordinance on 14% of Ukraine’s territory. This means that pretty much all the parts of Ukraine with a Russian military presence need to be cleared of explosives before the spring sowing can be conducted safely. Many of them are in southern Ukraine, one of the country’s most fertile regions. In addition, farmers are unable to access warehouses near battle zones or deliver fertiliser to the fields. The area sown in Ukraine may decline by 30% due to the war.
Given that Ukraine is among the top exporters of major food produce, the war-induced disruptions threaten hunger far beyond Ukraine’s borders, especially in north Africa and the Middle East.
Russia is blocking Ukrainian grain exports via the sea – the main trade channel. Because 50% of the grain bought by the UN World Food Programme originates from Ukraine, 125 million people globally will be in danger of hunger. Those cynical actions are even worse, as hunger will affect the most vulnerable groups worldwide. The Kremlin’s propaganda is likely to blame anyone but Russia – the EU, Nato, Ukraine, or even local governments of starving countries who “are killing themselves on their own”.
There is evidence of Russia’s attempts to sell grain stolen from Ukraine. One may believe that it will help to mitigate the problem of food shortages because it doesn’t matter who exports Ukrainian grain. But this position is very shortsighted. The disruptions in Ukraine’s agriculture today will exacerbate hunger in the future.
Stalin pursued famine-inducing policies for several years. Among them was the seizure of seed stock when the harvest was not sufficient to provide enough grain to the state. Despite the government’s attempts to mitigate the shortages through the provision of seed loans during the sowing season, the seizure of seed stock severely undermined peasants’ morale and future harvests. Although repressions peaked in 1932, the death toll only peaked the next year. In 1933, 3.5 million people in Soviet Ukraine perished from starvation. This corresponds to 12 deaths per 100 population. The mortality remained elevated throughout 1934.
Almost 11 million people died of the famine in the Soviet Union in the early 1930s. Ukraine was disproportionately affected by the famine: empirical evidence shows that Soviet policies leading to mass starvation were explicitly targeting Ukrainians both within and outside of Ukraine’s border.
The motivation for using food as a weapon is similar for both Stalin and Putin. Historians argue that the famine-inducing policies in the 1930s were caused by the fear that the national spirit of Ukrainians, the largest ethnic minority of the Soviet Union, posed a threat to the Soviet regime. In a similar way, the Ukrainian democratic movement since 2013 is seen as a threat to Putin’s regime.
However, Stalin’s intention was not to destroy Ukraine entirely but to make it more submissive. Putin’s goal is more “ambitious”. Moreover, the global economy today is much more interconnected than 90 years ago. Many countries are already experiencing the toll of war – in the form of food shortages, disruptions of food supplies and skyrocketing food prices. The situation will deteriorate until the Russian army is driven out of Ukraine.
In the pursuit of his imperial ideas, Putin is willing to starve hundreds of millions of people. He will not stop until the world stops him. DM