Just about the time the United States is celebrating Thanksgiving in a warm atmosphere of family and delicious food, Ukraine commemorates a tragedy little known in the west, also related to food. It is called the Holodomor, which doesn’t translate directly into English, although the basic idea is of a man-made famine or, as one article puts it, ‘extermination by starvation.’*
A famine, technically, is more along the lines of a food shortage due to crop failure or natural disaster, which is why this term doesn’t quite fit. The harvest of 1932 itself is not the primary factor, although it was only about 60% of the previous year’s harvest.
The precise causes of the famine are still under debate, because some scholars attribute a portion of the famine to the forced collectivization process, changes in the crops planted during the collectivization, and dreadful supervision of the changes. Ukrainians were not eager to submit to collectivization, so some scholars and historians point to evidence that the crops were confiscated by Soviet leadership as an attack on Ukrainian nationalism.
That food was confiscated is not disputed, however.
One very telling fact points directly to a specific intentionality behind the food confiscation: one region would have people dying of starvation and a neighboring region would not. The only thing separating these regions was a political border. One author writes that the famine which existed on the Ukrainian side of the border didn’t exist on the other side of it, and that population growth in neighboring areas radically differed. It is also clear that urban workers had food when people in the countryside did not, indicating a specific strategy of keeping the new socialist ideals on track while forcing changes of old ideas.
When rations were finally cut in the cities, workers were shown propaganda films depicting farmers as trying to keep grain for themselves. However, the peasants and farmers were already starving when the urban rations were cut. Photos from the period are profoundly disturbing.
Whatever the actual cause or causes of the food shortages and mass deaths, the Soviets hid the events of that year from the outside world, denying the existence of the famine at the time and for more than 50 years afterward in a carefully planned strategy of deliberate dissemination of false and inaccurate information.
The unavoidable fact that makes the events of this year+ period a monumental tragedy is that millions of people died, and in a very short period of time. Estimates vary quite a bit, ranging from 3-10 million, but many scholars settle on a number of 7 million, based on analyses of information available from that time.
Even if the figure is 3 million dead in about 16 months’ time, this is over 6,000 dead per day, without bombs, gas chambers, or concentration camps, people dying slow, painful deaths. That’s two September 11ths per day, for more than a year. Or half the total of the Holocaust, but in a year and half.
As we begin to think about the upcoming season of celebration and joy, may this November 22nd Day of Remembrance here in Ukraine serve as a stark reminder of the “indictment of Christmas” as the Desiring God** folks put it in their 2012 advent book: Sin is real. Sin destroys. We need to be saved from it, completely and for all time, and only God himself, becoming material, can meet our desperate need.
I invite you to let this atrocity help you to see the reality of the sin in your own heart. Sin is real. Let us deeply grasp the depth of our sinfulness. Sin destroys. Let’s struggle and wrestle with how truly bad we are without Christ (and then how truly bad we still are as we submit to his transforming surgery of grace in our hearts.) Otherwise, we reduce the upcoming celebration of this wondrous salvation from that hideous destruction to a merely sentimental rehearsal of happy nostalgia, with extremely high hopes of another successful performance again this year.*much of this information was taken from the Wikipedia article available at the time this was originally written two years ago. I apologize here for not properly citing that information at the time, and for not being able to find the exact quotes and proper citations for this usage. **again, I cannot yet locate the original material, so I don’t know if I’ve properly given credit for the words (perhaps) borrowed here.