Putin’s war in Ukraine has stirred memories of the second World War and before that the devastating Ukrainian famine of the early 1930s. The latter was the product of Moscow’s ruthless ambition to collectivise peasant agriculture. Ukraine and Kazakhstan bore the brunt of this giant exercise in social engineering which was driven by Bolshevik notions of a new communist order.
As in the invasion of Ukraine today, the campaign was conducted with almost unlimited ferocity. Beginning in 1929 collectivisation meant that rural families were stripped of their land and forced to work on collective farms. Most Ukrainians lived on the land, so inevitably there was peasant resistance. Force majeure prevailed. Those opposing the new social order were either executed, often summarily, or deported in their tens of thousands to gulags inside Russia.
Such was the chaos in the rural economy that by 1932-33 famine conditions gripped Ukraine. These were exacerbated by policies to squeeze as much grain as possible from the peasants, not only to feed the towns and cities of the Soviet Union but also for export.
Despite widespread starvation, Stalin and his Ukrainian collaborators saw no reason to pause their onslaught. This included eliminating “social-class enemies”, viewed as obstacles on the way to achieving a blood-red Soviet utopia.
A closely intertwined objective was countering Ukrainian nationalism and other “counter-revolutionary elements.” As viewed from Moscow, expressions of Ukrainian independence had to be crushed – a sentiment still alive today.
For many Ukrainians the famine was seen as Holodomor, the use of hunger as a weapon to destroy a subject population. This genocidal interpretation is not, however, accepted by all historians. Similarly, there is debate as to how many died in the famine. Estimates vary from wildly exaggerated claims of 10 million to more rigorous estimates in the range of 2.6 million to 4 million deaths (out of a population of 31 million). It hardly needs saying that even the lower end of the range indicates appalling levels of suffering.
Though separated by almost a century and situated at different edges of Europe, some see parallels between the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s and the Irish Famine of the 1840s. The power imbalance between Britain and Ireland in the 1840s and between Russia and Ukraine in recent centuries might suggest a basis for such comparisons. There are no doubt parallels, as with other famines elsewhere, but there are also dangers in conflating two very different catastrophic experiences.
In Ireland the British state sought to alleviate, admittedly inadequately, the effects of a massive failure of the food supply due to the potato blight
One similarity is that excess death rates (deaths above normal) in the two famines were not far apart. In Ireland famine deaths amounted to 12 to 14 per cent of the population. In the Ukrainian case the intensity may have been much the same. However, deaths in Ukraine were piled into a short space of time, suggesting malign human agency played a major role.
Ideology influenced both famines. Indeed, one Irish commentator has recently suggested that the Irish and Ukrainian famines were both examples of “politically-motivated famine under imperial rule”.
I have argued elsewhere that Ireland in the 19th century cannot be seen as simply a colony of Britain ach sin scéal eile. But the more immediate point is that ideology mattered to vastly differing degrees in the two situations.
In the Ukrainian famine state terror was deployed in a manner that has no obvious counterpart in Ireland. Stalinist anger at assumed peasant recalcitrance informed and motivated mass terror, wholesale seizures of grain, executions and deportations. Robert Conquest’s great work, The Harvest of Sorrow, contains in its subtitle the term “Terror-Famine”, which well captures the dual aspect of the Ukrainian tragedy.
By contrast, in Ireland the British state sought to alleviate, admittedly inadequately, the effects of a massive failure of the food supply due to the potato blight.
In the spring of 1847, 750,000 people were employed on public works schemes, and in the summer of that year 3 million were being fed at food depots across Ireland. Close on £10 million was spent by central government (£1 billion in present-day values) to combat hunger. These are hardly the actions of a state bent on mass killings or mass deaths.
There is little doubt that much more could have been done to preserve life. Throwing the burden of famine relief back onto local government in Ireland in the autumn of 1847 was disastrous (though in line with conventional economic thinking that held individuals and local communities responsible for local poverty). That many lives were saved by virtue of British state intervention is also beyond doubt.
There seems little merit or indeed dignity in seeking to fuse (or confuse) the agonies of Ukraine in the 1930s with narratives of Irish suffering in the 1840s
There is a tendency within some strains of nationalist thought to appropriate imaginatively the sufferings of others in the pursuit of contemporary ideological or political objectives. Thus, the Great Famine has been likened to the Shoah, or the Jewish Holocaust. In fairness, notions of an Irish holocaust are to be found more frequently on the wilder shores of Irish-America than in the homeland.
As bombs rain down on Ukrainian civilians, as their cities and towns are being incinerated by missiles, as mass graves are being unearthed in zones vacated by Russian troops, there seems little merit or indeed dignity in seeking to fuse (or confuse) the agonies of Ukraine in the 1930s with narratives of Irish suffering in the 1840s.
In the one case the oppressor marched with guns and drums, hotfoot from the imperial capital. In the other the then unnamed but deadly invader (phytophthora infestans) came out of the biosphere.