Holodomor comes from the combination of the Ukrainian words holod (hunger) and mor (to exterminate or eliminate).
Between 1932 and 1933, under the totalitarian regime of Josef Stalin, the Soviet Union engineered a famine that killed between 7 and 10 million Ukrainian citizens. The Holodomor famine was part of an attempt by the Soviet regime to not only destroy individual peasants, but also the Ukrainian culture. The Soviet state believed that the Ukrainian peasantry was counterrevolutionary, and their distinct culture and nationalism provoked the Kremlin leadership.
The Soviet government wanted to modernize Ukraine at an unprecedented pace. Stalin determined that the best way to do so was to break the back of the independent peasantry throughout the USSR. To do so he called for the disruption of grain deliveries and forcibly requisitioned grain from the peasants. In 1931 the government collected more than 45% of the entire Ukrainian grain harvest, and all the seed grain for the following year. The peasants were left to slaughter their cattle to survive and this left them with shortened food supplies.
The peasants and local Ukrainian officials did resist the grain collection but this only provoked Stalin to deliver a “knockout blow.” He stated that those who continued to resist deserved to starve. He closed Ukrainian borders and arrested any Ukraine citizen who was found outside the country and sent them back to starve to death. In 1933 Stalin gave his reasoning for the grain seizure stating “the people tried to deliberately undermine the Soviet State. It is a fight to the death…”
For many years there has been debate about whether the famine can be considered a manmade intentional genocide, or a nature caused unintentional famine. However, most scholars agree that there was enough grain produced in Ukraine to feed the peasantry. They also agree that the Soviet government brought on the circumstances that caused the shortage of grain and bad harvests. The state’s reserve of grain was estimated at three million tons, which was enough to provide relief to the starving Ukrainians. The forced requisitioning of the grain by the state drove the region into famine, desperation, and cannibalism. Stalin’s regime did send the grain into other regions of the Soviet Union to fund industrialization and to stop food shortages. The Soviet state chose to feed the cities and not the Ukrainian peasants, whom they saw as national enemies.
The Holodomor was considered an inconvenient truth by western powers, including the United States. In 1933, American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt formally recognized Stalin’s communist regime and signed a trade agreement with the Soviet Union. In order to carry out his sweeping modernization plans for the Soviet Union, Stalin needed to import large amounts of manufactured goods from western nations. These nations, including the United States, saw an opportunity for lucrative trade agreements and chose not to question Stalin’s denial of a large-scale famine in Ukraine.
Only after Ukraine gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991 did those who had lived through the famine begin to speak about the horrors they experienced. Also, after the fall of the Soviet Union, previously inaccessible records and archives were available for the first time. Contained in the archives were eyewitness accounts of the Holodomor that provided significant evidence of the terrible, manmade famine.
Antonina Meleshchenko, from the village of Kosivka, in the region of Kyiv recalled what the famine was like for her family,
“The famine began. People were eating cats, dogs. In the Ros’ river all the frogs were caught out. Children were gathering insects in the fields and died swollen. Stronger peasants were forced to collect the dead to the cemeteries; they were stocked on the carts like firewood, than dropped off into one big pit. The dead were all around: on the roads, near the river, by the fences. I used to have 5 brothers. Altogether 792 souls have died in our village during the famine, in the war years – 135 souls”
Victor Kravchenko, a defector who wrote about his experiences as a Soviet official, stated of the man-made famine:
“What I saw that morning … was inexpressibly horrible. On a battlefield, men die quickly, they fight back … Here I saw people dying in solitude by slow degrees, dying hideously, without the excuse of sacrifice for a cause. They had been trapped and left to starve, each in his own home, by a political decision made in a far-off capital around conference and banquet tables. There was not even the consolation of inevitability to relieve the horror.”
The genocide did not come to light until the late 1980s with the publication of prominent scholar Robert Conquest’s book Harvest of Sorrow. Around the same time, the report of the U.S. Commission on the Ukraine Famine and the International Commission of Inquiry into the 1932-1933 Famine in Ukraine was released. For the first time the famine was gaining worldwide attention.
At the United Nations on November 10, 2003, 25 countries including Russia, Ukraine and the United States signed a joint statement stating, “In the former Soviet Union millions of men, women and children fell victim to the cruel actions and policies of the totalitarian regime. The Great Famine in 1932-33 in Ukraine (Holodomor) took 7-10 million innocent lives…”
In 2006, in an effort to revive Ukrainian patriotism that was stifled under Soviet rule, the Ukrainian Parliament passed a decree labeling the Holodomor as a deliberate act of genocide. The act was meant to raise international awareness of the incident. That same year with the support of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America and the Embassy of Ukraine, the U.S. Congress authorized the government of the Ukraine to establish a memorial on federal land in Washington D.C.
In 2011, after an international competition, Ukrainian-American architect Larysa Kurylas’ design was chosen for the Holodomor Memorial. With her selection, she became one of three women to design a monument in D.C., along with Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and Glenna Goodacre, who designed the Vietnam Women’s Memorial.
The six-foot-tall bronze sculpture rests on a slightly raised granite plinth. “Red Obelisk” European Beech trees were planted behind the memorial along F Street. The memorial faces Massachusetts Avenue with a paved slate plaza separated from the street by a low planter. There is a granite bench that allows visitors to sit and contemplate the event.
Kurylas’ describes her design of a wheat field as “dynamic.” “It changes from high relief on the left edge to deep negative relief on the right, reflecting the transition from a record harvest to a horrible deficit.” As the wheat recedes the words “Holodomor 1932-1933” emerges out of the wall in greater and greater relief.
A bent bronze panel to the right of the sculpture has a short paragraph titled “Famine-Genocide in Ukraine.”
The bronze relief panel states in both English and Ukrainian:
IN MEMORY OF THE MILLIONS
OF INNOCENT VICTIMS
OF A MAN-MADE FAMINE
IN UKRAINE ENGINEERED AND
IMPLEMENTED BY STALIN’S
Last updated: September 19, 2023