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Fintan O’Toole: Putin’s war revives the spectre of famine across the world

Famine came to 1840s Ireland and 1930s Ukraine. Now it threatens the wider world

In Bloodlands, his brilliant and terrible history of the killing fields of central Europe between 1932 and 1945, Timothy Snyder has a devastating few lines about the famine that Joseph Stalin inflicted on Ukraine. They describe a great silence.

“Ukraine”, he writes, “had gone mute. Peasants had killed their livestock (or lost it to the state), they had killed their chickens, they had killed their cats and their dogs. They had scared the birds away by hunting them. The human beings had fled too, if they were lucky; more likely they too were dead, or too weak to make noise.”

Likewise, the 19th-century folklorist and collector of Irish traditional music George Petrie wrote of “the sudden silence of the fields” during our Great Hunger and of the “awful, unwonted silence, which during the Famine and subsequent years almost everywhere prevailed” in the Irish countryside. “The land of song was no longer tuneful; or, if a human sound met the traveller’s ear, it was only that of the feeble and despairing wail for the dead.”

It is a twist of history that there are places in rural Ireland whose population is now, because of this influx, returning to its level before the Great Hunger

The historian Liam Kennedy recently warned in The Irish Times against any easy conflation of the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s with the Great Hunger of the 1840s. There is, as he rightly pointed out, a crucial difference. The first was directly caused by the government in Moscow, which seized the ample harvests of grain from the farmers who grew it. The second, though exacerbated by misgovernment and twisted ideologies in London, was essentially a natural disaster, the failure of the staple crop.

It is nonetheless true that, in proportion to the size of their populations, the two worst famines in modern Europe were in Ukraine and Ireland. They were not the only ones – the Netherlands suffered a famine in the winter of 1944-45 that claimed about 20,000 lives. But the "sudden silence of the fields", the terrible hush that follows mass death and depopulation, is probably a phenomenon known only to the inhabitants of our island and of the country from which so many millions are now fleeing Russia's murderous invasion.

Ukraine’s trauma of mass starvation is much more recent than Ireland’s, of course. And it was, as Snyder documents, just one part of an even larger catastrophe in which 14 million civilians were murdered in 12 years in a zone that stretched from Poland and the Baltic countries through Belarus and Ukraine.

Nonetheless, Ireland is surely the only country in western Europe in which we can still casually date ordinary experiences by reference to mass starvation.

In Rosita Boland's fascinating piece about old family-run shops in last Saturday's Irish Times, for example, the owner of Bourke's drapery in Carrick-on-Suir remarks that "We traded through the Famine, and amazingly, it didn't affect our business at all."

You couldn’t imagine hearing or reading such a sentence in England or France. But presumably you could imagine it in Ukraine.

This lends a special kind of poignancy to the arrival of tens of thousands of Ukrainian refugees in Ireland. It is a bittersweet twist of history that there are places in rural Ireland whose population is now, because of this influx, suddenly returning to the level it had reached before the Great Hunger.

A place I know well, for example, is the village of Ballyvaughan in the Burren. What I did not know until I learned it from the NUIG archaeologist Maggie Ronayne a few years ago was that it was one of a cluster of settlements. The others – notably Lios an Rú – disappeared after the Famine, victims of the “sudden silence of the fields”.

But in the last few weeks the population of Ballyvaughan has been doubled almost overnight by the arrival of 260 refugees from Ukraine. This is a huge challenge for a small community, but it’s also an astonishingly abrupt reversal of a demographic trend that started in the 1840s. I’m sure this is far from unique in rural Ireland right now.

There is, though, another dimension to this story. It is not just that we have these human links between famines on the western and eastern flanks of Europe.

It is also, more darkly, that Vladimir Putin’s assault on Ukraine itself revives the spectre of famine for hundreds of millions of people around the world.

The terrible silence that descended on the great wheatfields of the steppe in the 20th century must not be allowed to envelop anyone else in the 21st

Ukraine and Russia provide about 30 per cent of the world's wheat and barley, a fifth of its maize, and more than half of its sunflower oil. So prices of grain are soaring – they are already 34 per cent up on last year and are at the highest level ever recorded by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation.

The cost of fertiliser (much of the global supply is produced in Belarus and Russia) has doubled. The fuels needed for agricultural production have also become much more expensive.

We are all feeling the consequences of these disruptions to global food supply and of the inflation of prices. But rich countries can take this pain – the poor ones can’t.

This is a disaster for the world’s most vulnerable people, whose lives had already been made more precarious by the Covid pandemic. Since 2019, the number of people experiencing hunger has increased by 46 million in Africa, about 57 million in Asia, and about 14 million in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The victims of Putin’s war, in other words, are not just in Ukraine. The spectacular violence he has unleashed casts a more mundane but no less deadly shadow on people who live very far away on different continents.

The Irish and the Ukrainians share a memory of mass hunger and of the way it shatters communities, societies and cultures. We know how starvation can do even more to strip people of their dignity than directly violent assault.

What Snyder writes of Ukraine in the 1930s could have been written of Ireland in the 1840s: “The good people died first. Those who refused to steal or prostitute themselves died. Those who gave food to others died.”

It is hard to get over hunger’s assault on human decency, its destruction of morality and kindness, on love and care and meaning. We’re still not quite over it after 175 years. We share with our new arrivals some collective memory of what hunger does to people and to nations.

We should therefore also share a determination not to allow the suffering of the faraway victims of Putin’s barbarism to be occluded by the gripping and horrifying drama of his war. The terrible silence that descended on the great wheatfields of the steppe in the 20th century, and on the potato drills of Mayo in the 19th, must not be allowed to envelop anyone else in the 21st.