S02E08 -

The Ukrainian famine, known as the Holodomor, was not a natural famine, and to this day, Russia has not recognized it as a genocide.

In 1932, the Ukraine was a thriving farming nation. At the time, Joseph Stalin was trying to take back control. He was attempting to collectivize all farms, bringing all agriculture under state control. This led to a man‐​made mass starvation in a nation where 85% of the population was farmers.

Why are a majority of people unaware of the 1932 Ukrainian famine, the Holodomor?


Tess Terrible spoke with the following guests throughout this episode; Anne Applebaum, Valentina Kuryliw, and Serhii Plokhii

Thanks to the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium for allowing us to use Holodomor testimonials thoughout this episode.

Music by Cellophane Sam

Further Reading About Holomodor



00:15 Speaker: There’s a set of people who deny that the Holocaust happened.

00:18 Speaker: Yes.

00:19 Speaker: Right?

00:19 Speaker: There’s a lot.

00:19 Speaker: I find that deeply offensive, but I don’t believe that our platform should take that down because I think that there are things that different people get wrong, either… I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong, but I think that they…

00:33 Speaker: In the case of the Holocaust deniers they might be, but go ahead.

00:36 Speaker: It’s hard to impugn intent.

00:38 Speaker: Adolf Hitler was not the demon that the modern propaganda made him ought to be. He was a very decent man and a very peaceful man.

00:46 Speaker: How many books, pamphlets, videos do you send out a year?

00:49 Speaker: Millions, millions. I kind of sow the seeds and other people then build on those ideas.

01:00 Speaker: Despite admitting he was once a member of the American Nazi Party and remains a denier of the Holocaust, Jones got nearly 58,000 votes in 2018.

01:07 Speaker: Hail, Trump, hail our people, hail victory.

01:14 Speaker: It’s pixels and words.

01:16 Speaker: And a swastika is just an image. But it’s not just an image, man. I think you know that. I’m positive, you know that.

01:25 Tess Terrible: It’s troubling to see this existing in 2020. Nearly six million people died in the Holocaust. This episode started as a piece on historical denialism. One of the most common types of historical denialism is Holocaust denial. But while I was researching this, I came across something else, the Holodomor, a genocide that took nearly four million people. And I want to know why I have never heard of it. This is The Pursuit. I’m Tess Terrible. I think I’m gonna start by just asking you what is the Holodomor?

02:19 Valentina Kuryliw: The Holodomor is a word that comes from two Ukrainian words.

02:23 Tess Terrible: This is Valentina Kuryliw. She is the director of the Holodomor Research and Education and Consortium in Canada. Her parents are from the Ukraine.

02:33 Valentina Kuryliw: One is “holod,” which means starvation or famine, and from the second part “moryty,” from the word “moryty” which means to cause a torturous death. So basically, it’s what we consider in the Ukrainian community, a portion of the Ukrainian genocide. Death inflicted by a torturous way through the process of starvation, a man‐​made famine that occurred in 1932, 1933. In 1928, Stalin brought in the first five‐​year plan to reorganize the economy of the country and to basically wipeout all private ownership of anything. And for the Ukrainian farmers who made up about 85% of the population of Ukraine. There were about five million private farms throughout Ukraine that were doing very well in the 1920s. They had more grain than they know what to do with. Of course, under the communist system, private property is taboo and they also needed money and there was nothing that the Soviets could sell to the world in order to gain money. And as a result, they decided to take the cash crop, which is grain, from the Ukrainian farmers. And the easiest way was for them to get control of the land and control of the industry itself.

04:03 Tess Terrible: In 1932, the Ukraine was a thriving farming nation. At the time, Joseph Stalin was trying to take back control. He was attempting to collectivize all farms, bringing all agriculture under state control. But Ukrainians were resistant to communist policies. They didn’t wanna see their independent farms forced into a collectivist social system where the Soviet Union would essentially own the fruit of their labor, so Stalin set out to silence the farmers. We came to know this as the Ukrainian famine or the Holodomor.

04:41 Valentina Kuryliw: They took absolutely every bit of grain that they could find. They even went to the homes of the workers to see whether they had hoarded anything. They came with the steel rods and they looked for things, and then anybody who was caught with that was arrested, deported or shot on the spot or sent to prison.


05:01 Anne Applebaum: One could argue that the origins of the famine lie in Stalin’s collectivization program.

05:08 Tess Terrible: This is Anne Applebaum. She is a journalist and historian and author of the book “The Red Famine.”

05:15 Anne Applebaum: This was a program that began in end of 1929–1930 to collectivize agriculture, meaning that the state occupied and grabbed, actually, land, houses, farm machinery, sometimes horses, all kinds of farm implements and nationalized them. And said, “Right. These are now… Your private farm is now a state farm and you are now working for a state institution. You are not a private farmer working for yourself.” Once you’ve stolen everybody’s land, then the mechanisms were in place to enable you to steal their food and all their possessions as well. And so collectivization was the beginning of this cycle that winds up in mass famine. Again, not only in Ukraine, but the numbers in Ukraine are higher and the evidence in Ukraine for targeted collections of food that were designed to kill people is much stronger. And it seemed partly it was because Stalin feared the uprisings and the resistance to collectivization that he was seeing in Ukraine. He feared that it would lead to a wider, wider resistance and even another civil war.

06:26 Tess Terrible: There is some debate on whether the Holodomor was a genocide or simply just a famine caused by drought.

06:33 Anne Applebaum: It’s very important to understand that the Ukrainian famine was not a natural famine. In other words, it was not caused by drought, it was not caused by shortages, it was not caused by pests or vermin. It was a deliberately organized famine.


06:53 Anne Applebaum: Teams of soldiers actually went from house to house in the Ukrainian countryside and they confiscated people’s food. So they would take everything, not just wheat and grain, which were supposed to be collected for the benefit of the cities, but they also took beans and peas and vegetables of all kinds. Sometimes, they took cows. There’s some reports that they took things like dogs and cats, and they would often come more than once. So they would come to a village and then come back the next day. And if they found that people still had food, they would take more. This was all done theoretically in the name of mandatory collections of food, that were meant to be redistributed in other parts of the Soviet Union, but in practice, everybody who went through this and many of the people who were carrying out these collections understood that the point was to deprive the people on the ground of everything so that they would starve to death. Within three or four months after these collections began, you begin to have very high death rates in Ukraine and these are deaths from starvation.

08:00 Tess Terrible: The world knows very little about Holodomor. There aren’t a lot of accounts from those who survived this event. We will get into why that is later. But for now, this is Holodomor survivor, Maria Bortnyk.

[foreign language]

08:17 Tess Terrible: “When they started to expropriate us, they covered all our potatoes with white powder. Both the large ones that my mother set aside for us and the small ones for our pigs. Then the men prodded the potatoes with rakes so that they would mix with the powder. They poisoned the potatoes, they wrecked everything. They took all the seeds my mother had saved for the next year, they took everything. I don’t know why my mother did this, but before we were expropriated, she dug a big hole near our cellar. And in the fall, she hid 18 bags of potatoes in that hole. There used to be a measure called a pail, and four pails filled a bag. My mother lined the hole with rye sheaves and put 18 bags of potatoes in that hole. Then she knocked down a nearby tree to cover that hole. Nobody found that hole even though they prodded the ground everywhere with steel rods. They prodded in the house and floor to make sure there wasn’t anything buried, but because the tree covered that hole, they couldn’t find the potatoes buried there. And without those potatoes, neither my mother’s family, nor we, would have survived.”

09:39 Tess Terrible: What we do know about the Holodomor is that the Soviet Union actively sought to destroy the Ukrainians’ food and crop. In addition to destroying the food, the Soviet Union also restricted travel outside of the Ukraine.

09:55 Anne Applebaum: To prevent people from leaving Ukraine, and to prevent them from traveling to other parts of the Soviet Union in search of food, there were also rules that were designed to prevent peasants from coming into the cities. So people would be blocked on the roads, they were prohibited from using the trains, and so you often had this phenomenon of hungry people gathering in train stations and begging from passengers, but not being allowed to board trains themselves. So part of what also ensured that a lot of people died was precisely this. People were deprived of food and then they were not allowed to go anywhere else to look for it.

10:29 Tess Terrible: Starvation is a brutal way to die. It often leads to terrible desperation. When you are starving, you will look to any available substance for nutrients. This Holodomor survivor, Nadia Tkachenko.

[foreign language]

10:48 Tess Terrible: “It was against the law to leave the village and go to the city. They didn’t let people out of the village. The famine was deliberately planned. This was a planned death. First, they broke the spirit of the peasant. They knew that if you took away from the peasant everything that grows in the ground: Beets, potatoes, cucumbers, that it would be nearly impossible to survive. There was famine and there was cannibalism. I am telling you the honest truth. In our village, our neighbor swelled from hunger. He couldn’t walk anymore, and he lay on a cot waiting for his death. His sister couldn’t get any food because she was starving. But women, somehow, coped better than men. Men were more vulnerable to starvation. For some reason, women coped better. After our neighbor died, his sister cut the flesh of his thigh, cooked it, and soon after, she died. She didn’t wanna leave the house and her cousin who lived next door went over and found two corpses. They found cooked meat in a pot and decided that the sister had died because she ate her brother’s flesh. My mother used to order us not to stray far from home because there were instances where the children were stolen and their flesh cooked. The famine was something terrible.”

12:20 Tess Terrible: One of the most shocking parts of this genocide is that we don’t actually have an accurate count of how many people died. The death toll was actively covered up.

12:31 Anne Applebaum: Doctors, for example, were ordered when they described the cause of someone’s death, they were not to put famine. They put some other cause. They would put heart attack or something else. And so, we know for a fact that there were deaths that were massaged to appear to have different causes and we also know that they were literally covered up. People were buried in mass grave where there were no individual markings, so death rates weren’t being kept track of. That, of course, presents a problem for record keepers who want precise numbers. The best numbers that we have come from demographers who’ve looked at a range of population documents, and from before the famine and from afterwards, and who have done estimates based on demographic likelihoods of how many people died.

13:17 Anne Applebaum: But we can’t get exact numbers from the period. The only numbers that are actually based on archival research were put together by a team of Ukrainian demographers, and they simply sought to establish reliable numbers of excess death, meaning the number of people who died above an expected average. And they also looked at lost births or the number of births that did not occur by comparison to what would have been expected because of the famine. And they co‐​list around two numbers, which is 3.9 million excess deaths and 0.6 million lost births. And so, that brings the total number of missing Ukrainians to 4 1/2 million. And that would include all the victims, whether they died by the roadside, in prison, in orphanages. And those numbers are based on the number of people living in Ukraine before the famine and afterwards.

14:06 Tess Terrible: I want to know how this is possible. How nearly 4 million people died and the world remains largely ignorant.

14:14 Anne Applebaum: The Soviet Union never acknowledged that the famine happened, and the denial was so important and so intense that Stalin actually refused to allow the publication of a census that was conducted in 1937 because the census showed that there were fewer people in Ukraine than there should have been. And actually, more than that, the census takers in the Census Department were arrested and many died. They were taken to camps and they were… Some were executed.

14:42 Tess Terrible: One of the reasons why, I guess, they never wanted any of this to come out because it’s horrific. It is one of the most horrific genocides of the 20th century, in which food was used as a weapon. And the people who died, there was no mercy for them. They were dehumanized, there was a lot of propaganda against them, so that the people in the cities would not feel sympathy for them, that sort of thing, which is a dehumanization process that happens in genocides. If the world knew about it and was willing to speak about it at that time, they would have been a pariah.

15:18 Anne Applebaum: There was also the major efforts that went on to prevent foreign journalists from writing it and generally, from foreigners knowing about it. Foreign journalists knew that if they mentioned the word “famine”, they were at risk of losing their visas and losing their right to stay in Russia. And so, they avoided writing about it and some later reflected on this as having been a great embarrassment. One famous journalist, Walter Duranty, who was a New York Times correspondent at that time, wrote an article deliberately designed to deny reports of a famine. The headline of the article is, “Russians are hungry, but not starving.”

15:52 Valentina Kuryliw: Western governments knew about it, too, but they didn’t want to upset the Soviets. “We can’t get involved because it is their issue.” Would that happen today? I think, the world today is taking more of an interest in what is happening inside other countries where genocide is occurring. And I hope that we have grown a little stronger as a result of it.


16:33 Valentina Kuryliw: It’s been denied, covered up, and ignored for too long. You know, there are only 26 countries in the world that have recognized it as a genocide or an atrocity, even all of those have not recognized it as a genocide. And some of the big ones haven’t done it, like formally, the United States hasn’t done it. There’s still this stuff that’s there, this baggage. In the same way that Armenians are upset by the Turks, still to this day denying that they had done this as well. The Germans have had to deal with their genocide they created with the Holocaust, haven’t they? But not everyone does. This is wrong. You have to admit to something.

17:18 Tess Terrible: This begs the question: Who gets to decide what is a genocide? Can you tell me more about the UN General Assembly resolution in December of 1946 in defining genocide?

17:34 Anne Applebaum: So the word genocide was actually invented by a Polish Jewish Ukrainian lawyer called Raphael Lemkin, who came from what’s now Western Ukraine. And he was very interested in this concept of states trying to eliminate or destroy other states, trying to eradicate them not just physically, but also culturally. So he began thinking about these things before the Holocaust, before the Second World War. And then, of course, as the Second World War unfolded, he saw his concepts come to life. But after the war, there was a feeling among some that not enough had been done or there hadn’t been a full recognition of what exactly had happened, particularly in Germany during the war. And the UN Convention on Genocide was a reaction to that. The complications of the convention where that it was written by the United Nations and the leaders of the United Nations at that time were The United states and the Soviet Union.

18:26 Anne Applebaum: And the Soviet Union had a very clear interest in defining the notion of genocide very narrowly. It should refer to an event like the Holocaust, the deliberate physical destruction of every member of an ethnic group. And legally and kind of intuitively, people accepted this as the definition. The Ukrainian famine, for example, does not quite fit that definition because it was not an attempt to eradicate every single Ukrainian. The famine was stopped before it killed everybody and there were Ukrainians who participated in it as perpetrators. So it’s not an exact match for what happened to the Jews during the Second World War. Nevertheless, I think it was… Lemkin’s original intention was that the concept should be broader and that it should include state crimes against particular populations. In which case, it would have incorporated the Ukrainian famine. And I feel that this question of whether it or it isn’t a genocide is a legal question of interest to people for political reasons. In fact, it doesn’t grip me as an issue the way… A lot of people find it very, very central to this issue. But yes, I do think it should be recognized as genocide, and I’m happy for the Ukrainian government to go on pursuing that case.

19:44 Tess Terrible: The United States conducted little research on the Holodomor until 1985. In 1985, the US Commission on the Ukraine famine was formed. It was a commission to quote, “Conduct a study of the 1932 to 1933 Ukrainian famine in order to expand the world’s knowledge of the famine and provide the American public with a better understanding of the Soviet system by revealing the Soviet role.” The study concluded that Joseph Stalin and those around him committed genocide against Ukrainians in 1932 to 1933 and the American press cooperated with the Soviet government to deny the existence of a genocide. To this day, Russia has yet to recognize this event as a genocide.


20:51 Valentina Kuryliw: Nothing could be stated in a history book where under the Soviet system for years, right up to independence, to 1991, this was a taboo subject. If you spoke about it, you could be arrested. If you told your children about it, you could be arrested. And you know what a six and seven‐​year‐​old are like. So the parents would not tell their children about it. Grandparents would not tell their children about it. I ended up going to the Soviet Union twice during Soviet times before independence. And on the second time, I was there with my mother who talked to her sister. And I was in their home and my mother brought up the Holodomor. She said, “Do you remember?” Well, she said, “Well, it never happened.” And my mother jumped and she got very angry, and she says, “How can you say that? You know we lived through it.” And then, my uncle pointed to the walls and his ears, that walls have ears. We do not talk about this. For me, I was in my 20s at the time… And I had been born in the West, so I sort of watched all this. It was frightening. You can see the fear in their eyes.

22:14 Tess Terrible: There is so much the world still doesn’t understand about the Holodomor. Partially, due to a loss of historical memory.

22:23 Serhii Plokhii: I come from Ukraine. And one part of my family, they survived by leaving the country, ended up in the Far East.

22:32 Tess Terrible: This is Serhii Plokhii. He is a professor of Ukrainian history and the Director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University.

22:42 Serhii Plokhii: For 20 years, another part of the family survived by leaving the village and going to the city where there were more resources because those were the sides of the industrialization. The discussion of that was not really happening in the family setting, so there was no transition of that memory because talking about something like that to children means the children can actually go and start talking about that to their friends, and on the streets, and so on and so forth, which would put, of course, the adults in trouble. But on the other hand, the scholars who go today and study Ukrainian society as a whole, they say that despite the fact, or maybe because that the trauma was never verbalized, it is still there and it is very profound. The closest parallel would be maybe this 1950s famine in China. Do we hear a lot about that famine today? And again, the reason is the Chinese government, the Chinese Communist Party that is still there, of course. And the power that China exercises in the world. So that pretty much was the situation, the situation before 1991. And that tradition is quite difficult to change despite the fact that, again, things do change. And again, your interested in that topic. I am very grateful for it and grateful for the opportunity to have this interview, and this discussion is a sign of this positive changes in the field.

24:21 Serhii Plokhii: And I think that kinds of campaigns are successful. And look, we know of starvation in North Korea isn’t something we’re talking about very much right now. While the President of the United States is meeting the leader North Korea, somehow the issue of people starving to death in North Korea or people being in concentration camps in North Korea has fallen off the agenda. And this is something like that. Look, we had a long relationship with the Soviet Union, and during the war, Stalin was our ally. After the war, there were always reasons why we need to talk about other things. We don’t have to talk about the famine. And so, for political reasons, it wasn’t interesting or important to people and it fell off the agenda.

25:00 Tess Terrible: I had a hard time finding people to talk to about this event. Growing up in the United States, I, like many of you, learned about the Holocaust. It was part of history curriculum almost every year, but I had never heard of the word Holodomor until I started producing this episode. As the scholars in this episode said, the cover‐​up was very successful. Denial can become truth, if we let it. When history is lost, it is doomed to repeat itself. Thanks for listening. The Pursuit is produced by Landry Ayres, Natalie Dowzicky, and me, Tess Terrible. Music by Cellophane Sam and Blue Dot sessions. Thanks to the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium. The Pursuit is a project of Lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org and the Cato Institute. To learn more, visit www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.