Nigel Jones

Why Ukrainians fear the Russians

Why Ukrainians fear the Russians
A placard in Kiev depicts Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Russian president Vladimir Putin (Getty images)
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The Ukrainian word 'Holodomor' meaning 'death by hunger' is not as well known in the West as the word 'Holocaust', but it should be. In 1933, a decade before the Nazis began to deliberately murder some six million European Jews, Stalin's Soviet regime starved to death – equally deliberately – some four million men, women and children in the Ukraine.

That this epic crime has largely disappeared from public memory, mostly forgotten except by historians and the Ukrainian diaspora, is partly down to the second catastrophe that overwhelmed Ukraine in 1941-45 with its invasion and conquest by Hitler's armies. This terrible episode was also successfully covered up and concealed from the world by both Stalin's regime and its western apologists. The shining exceptions were two brave British journalists: Gareth Jones of the Times and Malcolm Muggeridge of the Manchester Guardian.

Jones – whose story was told in the 2019 movie 'Mr Jones', starring James Norton as the intrepid Welsh-born reporter – made three journeys through the famine-stricken Ukraine at the height of the Holodomor. Here's what he saw: 

'I crossed the border from Great Russia into the Ukraine. Everywhere I talked to peasants who walked past. They all had the same story: 'There is no bread. We haven't had bread for over two months. A lot are dying'. The first village had no more potatoes left and the store of buriak (beetroot) was running out.

'They all said: 'The cattle are dying. Nechem kormit. There's nothing to feed them with). We used to feed the world and now we are hungry. How can we sow when we have few horses left? How will we we be able to work in the fields when we are weak from want of food?'

'Then I caught up with a bearded peasant who was walking along. His feet were covered with sacking. We started talking. He spoke in Ukrainian Russian. I gave him a lump of bread and cheese. 'You couldn't buy that anywhere for 20 roubles. There is just no food...we are ruined. We're doomed''.

Travelling by train, Jones ate a sandwich and threw away the crust. It was immediately seized by a fellow passenger and devoured. He then ate an orange and binned the peel, That too was wolfed down. Jones and Muggeridge paid a high price for their fearless reporting of the famine. Muggeridge was withdrawn from Moscow and sacked, while Jones – during a later assignment in Manchuria – was kidnapped and murdered, probably by the Soviet secret police.

Eventually, the starving Ukrainians resorted to cannibalism. They cooked and ate each other and their own children. An Austrian engineer, Alexander Weinberger, took photographs of the dead littering the streets of Kharkov – then Ukraine's capital city – and smuggled them out of Russia. Two of his shots show a famished man sitting down on the pavement, too weak to walk. Moments later the same man keeled over, stone dead. Whole villages starved en masse, with rats feeding on the emaciated bodies. A train rolled into Kiev's main station from Poltava filled only with corpses. With people too faint to dig graves, the dead were left unburied, and epidemics added to the death toll.

Though Stalin's sympathisers like Walter Duranty, the New York Times's man in Moscow, tried to play down or deny the scale of the disaster that had overwhelmed Ukraine, the truth eventually seeped out. Joseph Stalin and his henchmen in the Kremlin had visited a Biblical catastrophe on the vast country that, with its deep black fertile soil, had once been the world's breadbasket. (Even today wheat exports from Ukraine make up 12 per cent of global supply). How and why had they done this?

The monstrous famine in Ukraine was induced by Stalin's decision in 1931 to forcibly collectivise the country's farms. The urban-based Bolshevik leaders had always despised the country's peasants, who they saw as a reactionary, priest-ridden barrier to the country's rapid industrialisation. Lenin himself had remarked with typical callousness that 'the peasant must do a bit of starving' – and starve they certainly did.

In order to feed Russia's cities, thousands of Secret Police fanned out across Ukraine's countryside to confiscate hidden stocks of grain from the kulaks, those peasants owning a few cows or a couple of acres of land, who were now deemed class enemies, and subjected to expropriation, deportation, or simple extermination. Some of the peasants slaughtered their own cattle and then killed themselves and their families rather than submit to the collectivisation.

Stalin bore a personal grudge against Ukraine for having dared to declare itself an independent state in 1918 during the chaos and civil war that followed the Bolshevik takeover. He was indifferent to the plight of its people, and even gloried in their suffering – caused as a direct result of his own decisions – and denounced reports of the famine as 'fiction'. Communist apparatchiks who voiced mild warnings or protests about the unfolding tragedy were arrested and shot. And in the wake of the famine, Stalin gave his hitman – and eventual successor – Nikita Khrushchev – the job of purging the Ukrainian party of dissent. All but one member of Ukraine's politburo was arrested, and thousands of loyal Bolshevik officials were executed.

The tragedy of the Holodomor may have been swallowed up by the still greater greater tragedy of the Second World War and its aftermath, and forgotten by the rest of the world. But Ukraine did not forget. Repeatedly, in the decades that followed Stalin's death, Ukrainian patriots and dissidents struggled to reassert their independence and break free from the suffocating embrace of 'Mother Russia'. Finally, as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, they succeeded.

Now, as Russia's bombs and missiles rain down on the country, and Russian tanks roll across its borders, Ukrainians are steeling themselves for what may be yet more years of darkness and oppression at the hands of Stalin's latter day disciple.

Written byNigel Jones

Nigel Jones is a historian and journalist. His next book ‘Kitty’s Salon: Sex, Spying & Surveillance in the Third Reich’ will be published by Bonnier next year.

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