Tension between Ukraine and Russia rooted in 'hunger extermination' of 1930s

The fear in Ukraine of a war with Russia has its roots in what happened in the 1930s. Philip Coulter visited Ukraine to look at the effects of the Holodomor, the extermination by famine of 90 years ago.

The Holodomor is an important backdrop to the current upheaval in Ukraine today

A black and white photos of two boys searching for food
Two boys with a cache of potatoes found during the Ukraine famine, or Holomodor, in the former Soviet Union, spring 1934. The famine was intentional, caused by Stalin’s policies towards Ukraine. The food here had been hidden by an elderly woman, whose property had been raided by the secret police. She was deported to Siberia. (Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

*This documentary originally aired in 2009.

The tension we're seeing right now between Ukraine and Russia, which erupted in an invasion of Ukraine by Russia early Thursday, isn't recent. Its roots go back to the defining event of Ukraine's modern history: the Holodomor, or "hunger-extermination" of the 1930s.

Ukraine in 1932 was a satellite of the Soviet Union, one that had long been struggling to find its place as an independent republic in the U.S.S.R. In that year and the one following, Joseph Stalin closed the borders and seized the harvest — almost five million tonnes.

What happened next became known as the Holodomor — "death by starvation" — a man-made famine leading to the deaths of as many as eight million people.

In 2008, IDEAS producer Philip Coulter travelled to Ukraine looking for the traces and legacy of the Holodomor and to find out what happens to a society after such a disaster. 

Coulter met a few survivors, all with vivid memories of bodies in the streets and Soviet soldiers searching for hidden food. 

Katerina Shlionchyk was seven years old during this dreadful time in history. She came from a big family. They owned land, had four horses, two ploughs, several cows and a flock of 50 sheep — they were able to fend for themselves.

Kateryna Shlionchyk is a survivor of the 1932-33 Holodomor in Petrushyn, Ukraine — a village about 50 km from the Belarus border. (Philip Coulter)

But after they were forced off the land, all of her family died from having nothing to eat.

"First, my grandparents, then the smallest children — the one-year old, the two- and three- and five-year-old — they all died, one by one over three days," she told Coulter in his IDEAS documentary, The Great Hunger

"I remember we lived not far from the cemetery. We often saw the carts with the dead going by. It was horrible."

It's as if a stone is in my soul.- Katerina Shlionchy, survivor of the Holodomor

Shlionchyk says she was taken in as a nanny. Her mother worked as a servant and her father and the other men in her family were deported to Siberia.

"I don't know what happened to them, but it's obvious that they died there," she said. "The truth is, there was almost no help. I was lucky to be in a good house and to have kind farmers to work for. People in the village were too poor to help each other."

When Shlionchyk thinks back on those days, she says she can't stop crying. 

"It's as if a stone is in my soul," she told Coulter. "I lost all my relatives and now I'm completely alone."

Hiding food to survive

Maria Lobas attributes her family's survival to the good fortune of having potatoes. 

"But many other people only had white wheat blossoms to eat and to try and make bread from. I remember that whole families were dying out."

Like her neighbours.

"We tried to give them potatoes, but we weren't able to give them enough, so they died. We felt sorry for them, of course, but we felt more sorry for ourselves."

Maria Lobas is 88 years old and is also a survivor of the Holodomor in Petrushyn. She has a daughter in Chernov and a son in Russia. ( Philip Coulter)

Lobas recalls how desperate people were to find food to eat, digging up the bodies of dead cattle, horses or bulls.

"I remember, also, they ate rotten potatoes. They sliced them and made pancakes with these rotten potatoes. After they'd soaked them in water for a while to get rid of the smell."

She says a brigade of five men and women used to go through people's yards searching for food.

"They had long metal poles, twice as long as my walking stick. And they were stabbing the floor and the grounds nearby, searching for hidden stores. They took everything away. Even clothes that we could exchange for food."

"Those who hid them best survived," Lobas told Coulter.

After the Holodomor

Oleksandra Mazur was also a survivor of the famine of 1932-33 and she told Coulter while she doesn't remember the exact day when the Holodomor ended, she does recall the first time she was able to cook with cereal, green wheat stalks and grain.

"I remember that grain we cooked was the tastiest thing I had ever tasted, and I'm sure I'll never taste anything that good again," she said.

Oleksandra Mazur is a survivor of the Holodomor in Petrushyn. (Philip Coulter)

"After the Holodomor, it was only seven years and then the war began. And after the war, another famine, just about as horrible."

Things didn't get easier for Ukraine.

After the Holodomor that left millions dead in the 1930s, the opposition to Moscow was crushed, but the tension with Russia — and how Ukraine should orient itself between East and West — would remain until today.

In 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine declared its independence. By the 2004 Presidential Elections, the old tensions with Russia had returned. The Russia-leaning candidate Viktor Yanukovych, the eventual winner, faced off against the more Western-oriented Viktor Yuschenko, leading to street riots in Kiev. 

WATCH | CBC News on the ground in Ukraine and Russia

CBC News on the ground in Ukraine and Russia

2 years ago
Duration 9:17
As the Russian invasion of Ukraine begins, the CBC's Margaret Evans reports from the streets of Kyiv, while Briar Stewart details the situation in Russia from Rostov-on-Don.

The seesaw of political upheaval — should Ukraine be more oriented to Russia or to the West — persisted all the way to 2014, and the so-called Orange Revolution, in which Yanukovych was removed from power. 

A scene captured by journalist Taras Burnos at the height of the revolution against the Yanukovych government on Feb. 18, 2014, at the barricades on Grushevskogo Street near the Presidential Administration Building. (Taras Burnos)

A month later, Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula, and an insurgency in the Donbas region, involving Russian troops, led to loss of control in the East and the instability we face today.

The Kremlin denied the deadly famine had happened for more than half a century, a great disaster that still plays a vital role in the public memory for the people of Ukraine.

Special thanks to: 

Oleksandr Ivankiv, Prof. Valentyna Borysenko, Prof. Stanislav Kulchytsky , Dr. Vasyl Marochko, Roman Krutsyk , Yuri Shapoval, Dr. Hennadij Boriak, Oleksandr Udod, Roman Serbyn, Stephen Bandera,

Thanks also to Taras Burnos, Ostap Kryvdyk and Roman Horbyk for additional material in today's programme.

*This episode was produced by Philip Coulter.

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