Academic Papers

The Holodomor: Ukraine’s Artificial Famine – Recognizing a Genocide

Joshua Heinrich

About a week before the Russian attack on Ukraine, I herded about the Holodomor. The Holodomor, a genocide of the Ukrainian peasants, since followed my sphere of interest, not just because in the current war where references to the artificial famine have been made but also because last summer, I read Timothy Snyder’s book: “Bloodlands” where he wrote quite distinctly about the Holodomor as well when the European Parliament and the German Bundestag declared it as a genocide. When asked in one of my Modules to write a speech about topics we discussed, I wanted one that addresses genocide. I also wanted to address parliament because Speeches in parliament, not just in the UK, need to be written with formality but with a passion for reaching as many people outside the Political bubble. After I noticed that the UK did not recognize the Holodomor as a genocide, I was clear that my Speech should address that.

So I imagine you need more food to feed yourself and your family. Imagine getting punished for hiding seeds you could use to have a bit of food. Imagine that you have to consider the unthinkable. And why? Not because of natural circumstances like a poor harvest causing a famine. No, you fear starvation because quotas were forced on you. The percentages were so high that they created an artificial famine. This artificial famine caused you to become desperate, as you had no other way to survive. A regime created tragedy because it was afraid of a people (Ukrainians) who did not want to be a part of that regime’s system and state.

The Holodomor is currently recognized as genocide by 24 nations, many of whom are our allies, such as the US (who recognized it in 2018), Australia (in 1993), Canada (in 2003), Germany (in 2022), and just recently the European Union, just to mention a few. The United Kingdom must follow its allies and do the right thing-what should have been done before-by recognizing the Holodomor as what it is-a genocide. This recognition is overdue, as the Holodomor caused immeasurable suffering and death for those who lived in Soviet-controlled Ukraine during this time but left psychological marks on those who survived it. 

The term “genocide” is rightfully not used that frequently. We do not use that term as often as, for example, mass murder,” as it is less inflationary and politicized. This is mainly because intentions and motivations can differ, meaning all genocide is “mass murder,” but not all mass murder is genocide (Levene, 2002). Apart from the common definitions of genocide, some argue that the critical difference between mass murder and genocide is intent. While mass murder can happen out of the blue, genocide is always planned or at least intended. While not every genocide is as deliberately planned as the Holocaust,[1] which is most often seen as a blueprint for a definition of genocide, we have to acknowledge that genocide cannot happen in a vacuum; there needs to be an idea behind it[2] (Valentino, 2000). This idea of intent is also supported by the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which defines genocide as an act committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group (UN,A/RES/260(III) 1948). This intent to destroy a group is a key factor that differentiates genocide from other forms of mass murder, and it is essential to consider when defining genocide to ensure that those responsible for such crimes are held accountable. While the definition is quite direct in what these acts are.[3](UN, A/RES/260(III) 1948),

Already ticking one box is horrific, but the Soviet Union was able to tick multiple boxes.

Stalin’s famine may have been aimed at peasants who did not want to work on the collective farms created by collectivization socialization, but it ended up hurting more than just the peasants because it was part of Stalin’s plan to punish Ukraine for wanting to be an independent country. As I mentioned in my speech’s introduction, Ukrainian peasants did not want to be a part of Stalin’s forced collectivization. This desire to be an independent nation, or at the very least not be a part of the Soviet Union, resulted in an estimated 3.5-7 million people dying during the Holodomor.

Stalin’s harsh policies caused the famine, which is thought to be one of the worst genocides in human history. It’s a reminder of how bad authoritarianism can be and how important it is to respect the right to self-determination.

In a recent interview with Deutsche Welle (DW), Holodomor survivor Liubov Yards said, “The old bread was not enough, and there was no new bread.” (Ukhina Iryna, 2022)

This heart-breaking account is only a small part of the Holodomor story, but it serves as a testament to the immense suffering inflicted on his people by Stalin.

The Soviet regime tried everything to maintain that situation of misery by prohibiting Ukrainians from leaving the country, forbidding foreign aid to the most affected areas, and punishing those who grew to harvest for those who sold bread (Kuzovova, 2022). Furthermore, Stalin ignored Ukrainian officials who demanded an end to the suffering inflicted on peasants (Synder, 2011). This made people impossible to choose between eating and dying or not eating and possibly dying (Snyder, 2011). Hunger was so severe, and people were so desperate for food that some even resorted to cannibalism, despite being ostracised by society (Applebaum, 2018). Appelbaum 2018, in her book, quotes a police report from 1933 stating that: “A woman passed a 12-year-old boy on her way home, whom she took organs away and other parts of the body placed in a bag. The report continues that she gave the bag to a man who let her shelter for a night; the boy was used to feeding the whole family, and both the woman and man ate him, too (Applebaum, 2018).

I do apologize for that horrific description, but can we blame those who did it? We cannot imagine the dramatic situation during the Holodomor or any genocide because we are in a position of wealth. Any attempt to answer that question would come from an imagined rather than a real standpoint.

Stalin checked multiple boxes of the genocide definition with the Holodomor.

He was responsible for the deaths of up to seven million Ukrainian peasants, which was just mentioned. The Soviet regime killed many members of a particular group by making their lives so unbearable that they perished. And the famine caused bodily and mental harm to those who survived it. I don’t know what you think about it, but personally, ticking off 3/5 of the points is impressive. Impressive, but not in a positive way.

Trauma and memory have survived attempts to downplay or cover them up. The memory created has been an enormous element in Ukrainian independence and its current fight against Russia, where traumas are brought up again, especially in those areas of eastern Ukraine currently occupied by the Russian army, where those who were affected by the Holodomor are now being subjected to a new wave of pain and trauma due to violence and war. (GAUQUELIN, 2022)

In that light, we also need to ask why we did not recognize Holodomor as genocide before if the evidence was in plain sight. Why did the UK not help back then? And how can we prevent genocide in that same region? Let me be clear: we cannot tell for 100% if there might be a genocide or a similar situation in Ukraine. Still, fear among survivors is ever-present, and some have already highlighted that Russia is ticking some boxes with the deportation of children in occupied areas (Borger, 2022). And I am afraid to say that the only way to prevent genocide in that area is not to look away from supporting the nation of Ukraine and organizations on the ground. We must ensure that the international community actively provides aid and resources to Ukraine to monitor and protect the population from any potential genocide, as we can already witness mass murder. However, most importantly, we shall not look away like the last time! By providing aid to Ukraine and supporting human rights organizations, they risk their own safety in that area.

Looking back at the question, why has the UK not recognized the Holodomor as genocide yet? The UK government seems to have legal concerns regarding recognizing a tragedy, like the Holodomor, as genocide. Nonetheless, there have been chances for recognition, such as the 2017 Westminster Hall debate, instigated by the honourable MP for Mid Derbyshire, where the evidence for recognition was presented (HC Deb November 7, Vol. 630 col. 544WH). The Minister Attending then was right: the legal obligations are high, and they’re rightfully so, but as just laid down, evidence is clear and, in fact, has always been clear (HC Deb November 7, Vol. 630 col. 556WH).

The time has come for the government to right a historical wrong by reaffirming our nation’s commitment to human rights and justice and recognizing the Holodomor for what it was- a genocide.

Bloodlands: THE book to help you understand today’s Eastern Europe (2011). Random House.

Ukrainian Holodomor 2017-11-07, .

Applebaum, A. (2018). Red famine.

Borger, J. (2022). Russia is guilty of inciting genocide in Ukraine, the expert report concludes. The Guardian (London). May 27,

Boriak, H. (2008). Population Losses in the Holodomor and the Destruction of Related Archives: New Archival Evidence. Harvard Ukrainian Studies. 30 (1), 199–215. Available from http://www.jstor.org.uow.idm.oclc.org/stable/23611473 .

GAUQUELIN, B. (2022). In Ukraine, war raises spectre of devastating Stalin-era famine. AFP International Text Wire in English. Jun 29,

General Assembly Resolution 260(III) A-C Prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide A/RES/260(III) A-C (09 December 1948) available at : https://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/documents/atrocity-crimes/Doc.1_Convention%20on%20the%20Prevention%20and%20Punishment%20of%20the%20Crime%20of%20Genocide.pdf

Gorbunova, V. and Klymchuk, V. (2020). The Psychological Consequences of the Holodomor in Ukraine. East, West (Edmonton). 7 (2), 33-68. Available from https://doaj.org/article/7e187c5b20a74680a73ab3170263e610 .

HC Deb November 7 2017 Vol. 630 col. 544WH available at: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2017-11-07/debates/2DDCFFB2-39AF-4ED4-8FC7-386570F92BA5/UkrainianHolodomor

HC Deb 7 November 2017 Vol. 630 col. 556WH evadible at: https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2017-11-07/debates/2DDCFFB2-39AF-4ED4-8FC7-386570F92BA5/UkrainianHolodomor

Kulʹchytsʹkyi, S. (2015a). The Holodomor of 1932–33: How and Why? East, West (Edmonton). 2 (1), 93-116. Available from https://explore.openaire.eu/search/publication?articleId=dedup_wf_001::73f8d008d6044cc8da8f463c227ff718 .

Kulʹchytsʹkyi, S. (2015b). The Holodomor of 1932–33: How and Why? East, West (Edmonton). 2 (1), 93-116. Available from.

Kuzovova, N. (2022). Childhood during the Holodomor 1932–1933 in Ukraine (in the South of Ukraine). Journal of Family History. 47 (1), 59-77. Available from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/03631990211020339 .

Levene, M. (2002). The changing face of mass murder: Massacre, genocide, and post-genocide. International Social Science Journal. 54 (4), 443-452. Available from https://search.proquest.com/docview/203260959 .

Richardson-Smith, B. (2021). The Holodomor Genocide or the result of bad planning? Fields: Journal of Huddersfield Student Research. 7 (1), Available from.

Ukhina Iryna (2022). Holodomor survivor: ‘I want to witness this victory’. Holodomor survivor: ‘I want to witness this victory’.available at: https://www.dw.com/en/holodomor-survivor-i-want-to-witness-this-victory/a-63933604

  [1] The Holocaust was a genocide that occurred during World War II, led by the Nazi regime in Germany. It resulted in the systematic persecution and murder of approximately six million Jews and other targeted groups such as Roma, disabled individuals, LGBTQ+ individuals, and political dissidents. The Holocaust can be seen as a blueprint for genocide due to its organized and industrialized nature, including the use of concentration camps, gas chambers, and mass shootings to exterminate targeted groups. The term “genocide” was coined after the Holocaust to describe the intentional destruction of a specific ethnic, racial, or religious group, and the Holocaust serves as a tragic example of the extreme consequences of such atrocities.

[2] “The idea behind it” refers to the underlying intent or motivation behind the genocide, indicating that it is a planned or intended action with a specific purpose, as opposed to spontaneous mass murder. This concept of intent is supported by the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide,

[3] According to that section, acts of destruction are: the mass murder of a group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part ; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group and Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group

Joshua Heinrich

  1. Anne Powell

    This is a very interesting read Joshua and something I didn’t know about. I think it’s a fact that many don’t know about so it is important to publish information to educate people. The world needs reminding of this.
    This is especially poignant in light of the current war and people will want to know.
    Yet another of the atrocities committed by Russian rulers to try to prevent Ukraine from being independent.

    I hope more people read this.

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