The European democracy still haunted by the ghosts of famine

Anti-government protesters in Kiev (Getty Images)

A couple of years ago my youngest son spent several months living in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. When I asked him what it was like there, he said: “It’s deeply corrupt.” Ukraine became independent in 1991, as the former USSR broke up. It made me sad to think this newly independent republic had succumbed to this civic and political plague, from which we in the UK are (largely) protected from. Other countries formerly behind the Iron Curtain, such as Poland and Hungary, are not described as “deeply corrupt.” So what happened in Ukraine to blight it like this?

I found the answer in Anne Applebaum’s superb study: Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine. Applebaum’s focus is on the “Holodomor”, the appalling, deliberately engineered famine in which, between 1932 and 1933, it is reliably estimated that over three million Ukrainians died of starvation. I hadn’t known until I read her book that after the Russian Revolution in 1917 there was a genuine Ukrainian national movement, led by poets, artists, historians and writers – the Ukrainian intelligentsia – quite distinct from the Russian Bolshevik movement led by Lenin.

Inevitably the Bolsheviks, using their characteristic terror tactics throughout an area that Russia had always regarded as “southwest Russia”, crushed this short-lived authentic expression of national identity. It was followed, after Lenin’s death, by Stalin’s vicious policy of forced collectivization of farms alongside the destruction of the “kulak” class of wealthier, entrepreneurial peasants. Although this cruel as well as inefficient policy was widespread throughout Russia, it hit Ukraine, Russian’s traditional breadbasket, the hardest.

The country’s peasants were placed in an impossible position: if they worked hard and became kulaks, they became “enemies of the people”; if they didn’t, they remained in poverty. Naturally they loathed collectivization; underpaid and unmotivated they ensured that collective farms yielded much less than their own private plots and farms had done. Stalin, infuriated by what he saw as opposition to Soviet economic progress, ordered local communist officials to enforce a draconian policy. By 1932-33 it was in full swing: the forcible removal of villagers’ privately stored food, blacklists of “troublemakers” who were denied ration books, roadblocks and border controls to corral starving peasants within their villages and to stop them fleeing to Poland or the cities.

The result was unimaginable horror, soberly described by the author in painful detail. This was not the result of a series of bad harvests but the orchestrated starvation of millions of people. Its effects were far-reaching: not just the fact that for seventy years – until Ukrainian independence – the history of the Holodomor was rigorously suppressed so that Ukrainian survivors and witnesses could not give voice to their national trauma; but also because the post-Revolutionary Ukrainian elite had been destroyed and “Those who replaced them were…taught to be wary, careful, cowed.”

Applebaum adds, “The state became a thing to be feared, not admired; politicians and bureaucrats were never again seen as benign public servants. The political passivity in Ukraine, the tolerance of corruption and the general wariness of state institutions, even democratic ones – all of these contemporary Ukrainian political pathologies date back to 1933.”

Now, when I hear of the current corruption that bedevils Ukraine, I do not dismiss it as inevitable; I have begun to understand that it is caused by much more profound and malign influences than a natural human propensity to greed and selfishness – from which we in the UK, with its very different history, are also not immune.