‘We Cannot Be Broken’

We Cannot Be Broken

Lara Kajs | 15 December 2002 |

On the 90th anniversary of the Holodomor famine, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky charged Russia with using tactics similar to those used in the 1932 genocide, in its current assault on his country. ‘Once they wanted to destroy us with hunger, now with darkness and cold” Then he vowed, “We cannot be broken.

Starvation as a Weapon

The Holodomor famine was the intentional starvation of an estimated eight million Ukrainians in a man-made crisis, by the policies of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Holodomor means ‘to kill by starvation’. In 1929 Stalin implemented mass agriculture policies and forced collectivization, as part of his Five-Year Plan. The policies led to famine.

Collectivization meant eliminating small, privately owned farms, and forcing millions of farmers off their own land, into larger communal farms. As eighty percent of the population were traditional farmers, the action had a devastating impact on the Ukrainian people. Stalin created mandatory quotas for food production to be shipped out of Ukraine to other parts of the Soviet Union. However, many Ukrainian farmers saw this as a return to serfdom and resisted. The Soviet Union increased production quotas that were impossible to meet, cut rations to those still in Ukraine, and coordinated food seizures in villages. The result was acute malnutrition and mass starvation.

Armed Soviet troops forcibly seized all livestock and grain from newly collectivized Ukrainian farmers, including the seed needed to plant the next crop. Soviet troops confiscated other property and evicted entire families from the land. Thousands of Ukrainians were forcibly sent by train to uninhabitable places such as Siberia. Stalin called for the arrest and execution of anyone taking food from the fields where they worked. Military blockades were built around Ukraine villages to prevent the transport of food from the outside into the villages. Starvation was used as a weapon.

Oppression of National Identity

For decades, Ukrainians could not process the national trauma because the Soviet Union would not allow it. Soviet authorities banned any discussion of the famine and even went as far as altering historical descriptions such as portraying the famine as a natural disaster that was unavoidable. The Russian government continues to this day, to reject the charge of genocide.

Soviet leadership oppressed the Ukrainian way of life, language, and culture in its effort to control farmers, and also made political repression of Ukrainian national identity as its objective. In comparison with today’s conflict, Russia’s current war against Ukraine stands in this historical narrative.

Fighting for Their Lives

Ukraine has been defending itself against the onslaught of offensives by Russian forces since February. More than eleven million people were displaced within the first sixty days of the invasion by Russian troops. Nearly eight million people have fled the country since the start of the conflict. An estimated eight million have been internally displaced since May. At least eighteen million people in the country are in dire need of humanitarian aid.

Ukraine’s infrastructure is severely damaged. Damage to residential housing is estimated at $50.5 Billion USD. Transportation damages are estimated at $35.5 Billion USD. The total damage to physical infrastructure is an estimated $127 Billion and counting, and the war is not over yet.

Since October, the number and severity of conflict incidents impacting infrastructure have significantly increased. The damage impacts access to energy, including power generating and transmitting facilities, with considerable humanitarian consequences. It is winter. Daytime temperatures are in the mid-thirties, with evening temperatures in the twenties. Much of the country is without electricity, without heat.

In all of this time, Putin’s actions walk a fine line to genocide and cross the line on multiple issues for war crimes. Stalin’s policies were meant to starve Ukraine to death, and Putin’s war was meant to bomb and freeze Ukraine to death.

Fight for Peace and Democracy

On 10 December, Oleksandra Matviychuk, human rights attorney and director of the Center for Civil Liberties in Ukraine, received the (shared) Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. During her impassioned speech, she made a plea for humanity in which she said, “At this moment in history, the only way to secure democracy, human rights, and lasting peace in Ukraine is to fight. The people of Ukraine want peace more than anyone else in the world, but peace cannot be reached by a country under attack, laying down its arms. This would not be peace, but occupation.”

Photo Credit: Memorial the Holodomor 1932-1933 (death by hunger) in Kyiv, Ukraine by Andrew J. Swan. Licensed under CC by NC – ND 2.0