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How did the West forget about the Holodomor?

Christine Lehnen
November 30, 2022

4 million people were starved to death in Ukraine from 1932 to 1933. Stalin denied the famine ever happened. Why did the West turn a blind eye to it?

A woman stands on a stage. She is wearing a pink and red outfit with a green apron.
An actress perfoms in 'The revolution lets its children starve' Image: Ana Lukenda

For half a century, one of the worst catastrophes of the 20th century never even got so much as a passing mention in history books: From 1932 to 1933, some 8 million people died of hunger in the Soviet Union, including about 4 million people in Ukraine, which even then was considered the "granary of Europe."  Also in the Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan, in the North Caucasus, on the Volga and in Western Siberia, more than 2 million people died of hunger.

The Soviet dictator Stalin and his regime deliberately let them starve to death — and afterwards simply pretended the atrocity had never taken place. To this day, the Russian regime denies any responsibility for the famine, which the German parliament will recognize as a genocide on November 30, 2022.

Stalin's denial of the truth and the subsequent loss of the Holodomor to public memory is what historian Gerhard Simon calls the "final act of the crime." There was no cemetery, no memory, no eulology for the victims of the famine. "Nobody spoke about it, nobody wrote about it," Simon wrote in a 2013 article "80 Years since the Holdomor — the Great Famine in Ukraine." 

A family stands before a statue in darkness.
Today, Ukraine commemorates the Holodomor that historians describe as 'the worst trauma in its history' Image: Valentyn Ogirenko/REUTERS

Starvation coined as 'food shortage' 

Yet it was no secret that the Holodomor (Ukrainian for "death by starvation") was taking place. Gareth Jones, a British journalist, visited the Soviet Union and the affected regions of Ukraine in the 1930s. Born in 1905 in Wales, Jones served as political adviser to British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, learned Russian and traveled to the Soviet Union, driven by a great curiousity about communism and its utopian promises.

What he brought back with him was the account of an atrocious famine, which was claiming the lives of millions of people. He held a press conference in Berlin in March 1933 where he was the first to officially speak not of a "food shortage," as Stalinist propaganda would have it, but of a deadly famine.

"Gareth Jones was the only Western journalist who had travelled to the areas of Ukraine affected by the Holodomor," explains Andre Erlen, a member of the theater ensemble "Futur 3." 

"Nevertheless, people would not believe him, and his reports were countered by articles from Moscow, written by Western correspondents, which were full of Soviet propaganda." His reports on the famine were discredited even by Pulitzer-winning colleagues in the 1930s.

A man stands on a stage, reading a newspaper.
Welsh journalist, Gareth Jones, is brought back to life in the Futur 3 stage production Image: Ana Lukenda

Western left wants to believe the Soviet Union

Together with his colleague Stefan Kraft, Erlen is the artistic director of the play "The Revolution Lets Its Children Starve," which addresses the Holodomor in Ukraine. In the work that premiered this month at the Schauspiel house in Cologne, Gareth Jones and his reports are resurrected for the stage, and the play asks the audience to consider why no one in the West wanted to listen to him.

"The European left wanted to prop up the Soviet project and the utopian project of communism," explains Kraft. That is why they denied the famine. "Everyone could have known about the Holodomor, even then, it was in the newspapers." But they didn't want to know.

Mehrere Menschen in Kostümen stehen auf einer Bühne
The stage production in Cologne includes two performes who have had to flee the war in UkraineImage: Ana Lukenda

Kraft sees a parallel to German foreign policy since 1945 towards the Soviet Union and later Russia. Kraft says that policy choices were influenced by a "bad conscience" towards the Soviet Union and its successor state, where Nazi Germany had committed terrible atrocities. In the German desire for atonement, Ukraine and other Soviet republics, such as Kazakhstan, were simply overlooked.

For decades, researchers in the West focused on Moscow rather than Ukraine, the North Caucasus or Kazakhstan, which Karl Schlögel, renowned historian of Eastern Europe, recently called a crucial mistake.

A 'great arc' of violence 

It took Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 for the German Bundestag to recognise the Holodomor as an act of genocide. US historian Anne Applebaum has no doubt that it must be considered as such: "It was a planned and ordered mass murder," she told Deutschlandfunk in an interview.

Germany foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock with a black face mask on, stands in front of a statue against a snowy background.
German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, visited the Holodomor memorial in Kyiv on February 7, 2022Image: Efrem Lukatsky/AP/picture alliance

For Andre Erlen, the debate about the Holodomor should go even further. "The Holodomor should be perceived as part of a long experience of violence. This is another kind of colonial history," Erlen said, referring to the oppression of Ukraine by the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and modern Russia.

"For Ukrainians, there is this narrative that there has been oppression for 300 years," he elaborates. "In every era you find displacement, oppression, the banning of the Ukrainian language or songs that you're not allowed to sing." In their stage production, they want to draw attention to this "big picture" of the experience of violence in Ukraine — which has been overlooked in the West for too long. 

Edited by: Brenda Haas