The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cut off from food, Ukrainians recall famine under Stalin, which killed 4 million of them

The Soviet dictator covered up the starvation and cannibalism that stalked Ukraine in the early 1930s

The body of a young woman is seen near Poltava during the famine in Ukraine, Soviet Union, in the spring of 1934. (Getty Images)
7 min

During the worst of the starvation, when Petro Mostovyi was a child, he was afraid to venture to a nearby hamlet because all the residents there were dead. They were still in their houses and barns. But for weeks, no one had been able to bury them.

Houses filled with the dead were common in Ukraine in 1932 and 1933. Those who collected the corpses knew where to stop if they saw ravens nearby. And sometimes the emaciated living were carted away with the deceased.

Desperate, starving people, deprived of their livelihood by ruthless edicts of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, were forced to eat grass, tree bark, flowers, rats, dogs and, in the end, their children, historians have recorded.

People died in the streets, on sidewalks, in train stations, in farm fields and on country roads. About 4 million of them perished in the great famine, known as the Holodomor, or death by hunger.

Today, as Ukraine battles Russian invaders and the dead again lie in the streets of places, including Mariupol, that have been cut off from supplies, memory of the famine and its links to the Kremlin remain strong.

“The famine is one of the things in the back of the heads of the Ukrainians who are fighting on the ground,” said Anne Applebaum, a former Washington Post columnist and the author of the 2017 book “Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine,” which recounts memories like those of Mostovyi.

“It’s a piece of history, and it’s remembered by Ukrainians as an attempt to eradicate” them, she said. “The awareness that they might be eradicated” again is “part of why they’re fighting now.”

Historian Robert Conquest told Congress in 1986, “The Soviet assault on the peasantry, and on the Ukrainian nation,” during the early 1930s “was one of the largest and most devastating events in modern history.”

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Thirteen percent of the Ukrainian population perished, Applebaum wrote, as Stalin enforced “collectivization” through the seizure of private property, livestock and equipment by the state, and brutally punished peasants for failure to meet quotas by taking the last of their food. Fearful of simmering Ukrainian nationalism, Stalin applied economic “sanctions” to regions that could not fulfill government requisitions.

Just as now, people jammed into trains to try to leave the country. “The stations were lined with begging peasants with swollen hands and feet, the women holding up to the carriage windows horrible infants with enormous wobbling heads, stick-like limbs and swollen pointed bellies,” wrote the Hungarian journalist Arthur Koestler, according to Conquest.

A Communist Party official from Vinnytsia, 160 miles southwest of Kyiv, wrote to Stalin in 1932: “All the peasants are moving and leaving … to save themselves from starvation. In the villages, ten to twenty families die from hunger every day, the children run away to wherever they can, all of the train stations are full of peasants trying to get out.”

Corpses appeared in the Kharkiv rail station and on the streets of Kyiv. Around 400 bodies were removed from the streets of the capital in January 1933. The next month, more than 500 were collected, according to Applebaum.

Stalin decided to close the Ukrainian border and make it difficult for people to escape or go from village to village inside Ukraine. He sent in special requisition brigades to scour the homes of the starving for hidden goods. They used long iron poles to probe the earth where people might have secreted food. They searched chimneys.

Hanna Iakivna Onoda remembered that a neighbor had hidden flour under her baby’s cradle, Applebaum reported. But the brigade found it. “She was crying and begging them to leave it because the baby would die of hunger, but they took it all the same,” Onoda remembered. “Crucifiers,” she called them.

The result was a catastrophe. “The horror, the exhaustion, the inhuman indifference to life and constant exposure to the language of hatred left their mark,” Applebaum wrote. “Combined with the complete absence of food they also produced, in the Ukrainian countryside, a very rare form of madness.”

“Many survivors witnessed either cannibalism or, far more often, necrophagy, the consumption of corpses of people who had died of starvation,” she wrote.

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One Ukrainian, Mykola Moskalenko, told of his village’s concern about a neighbor’s missing children: “We entered her house and asked her where her children were. She said that they died and she had buried them in the field. We went to the field but found nothing. They started a search of her home. The children had been cut up. They asked why she had done this, and she answered that her children would not survive anyway, but this way she would.”

In Sumy province, about 200 miles east of Kyiv, a deranged man was arrested for eating his daughter and son, according to Applebaum. A neighbor noticed that he had seemed less swollen from hunger than others and asked why. “I have eaten my children,” he replied, “and if you talk too much, I will eat you.”

A 6-year-old boy who had run away from home was asked why he had fled. “Father will cut me up,” he replied. Two of his sisters had vanished. Such incidents were well known to authorities. In Kharkiv, nine cases of cannibalism or necrophagy were reported in March 1933. Nearly 60 were reported in April. In May, there were over 130, and by June, more than 220. There is no evidence that Moscow did anything to address the tragedy.

The famine peaked in the spring and summer of 1933. In May, the Soviets approved significant aid for Ukraine, with food originally seized from the peasants themselves, Applebaum wrote. Grain quotas were reduced. Repression was eased.

What followed was “the first truly big lie in the politics of the 20th century,” Yale scholar Timothy Snyder said in a 2019 lecture in Austria. Stalin denied the famine happened. It was nothing but a “yarn,” he said, and the starving were not the victims. “The starving are provocateurs,” Snyder said the communists maintained. “Their bloated bellies are deliberate provocations against the Soviet regime.”

Officials ordered death certificates falsified. Records were destroyed. The results of the 1937 census in the Soviet Union were kept from the public because the details were grim. The population count was 8 million short of government projections.

The head of the Census Bureau was arrested and executed by firing squad, Applebaum wrote. His closest aides also were executed. Stalin brought in a new census staff to come up with the numbers. “Under the sun of the Great Socialist Revolution an astonishingly rapid never-before-seen increase in population is taking place,” he declared.

Most in the outside world knew no better, thanks in part to one powerful reporter with the New York Times. British journalist Walter Duranty had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his stories on the supposed success of collectivization and other Soviet policies. He cozied up to the Soviets, twice interviewed Stalin, and then repeated the party’s lies about the famine, according to Applebaum.

“I have made exhaustive inquiries about this alleged famine,” Duranty wrote in the Times on March 31, 1933. “There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation, but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition.”

“These conditions are bad but there is no famine,” he claimed. Earlier that month, nearly 250 bodies had to be removed from the streets of Kyiv.

And as Russian President Vladimir Putin lies to his people today about the invasion of Ukraine, the lie Stalin told about the famine lives on, too, Applebaum wrote.

In 2015, Sputnik News, a Kremlin propaganda website, published an article in English called “Holodomor Hoax.” The famine, it said, was “one of the 20th century’s most famous myths and vitriolic pieces of anti-Soviet propaganda.”

“The arguments had come full circle,” Applebaum wrote. “The post-Soviet Russian state was once again in full denial: the Holodomor did not happen.”