In late November, Ukraine will again observe Holodomor Day, a day of remembrance for those who died in the Soviet-engineered famine in Ukraine in 1932 and 1933. The Holodomor and efforts to memorialize it have exacerbated existing tensions between Russia and the Ukraine. In 2009, Russian President Dimitry Medvedev sent a letter to the Ukrainian president, calling the Holodomor a "common tragedy" and reminding him that Russians had also died in the famine. Medvedev denied that the Soviet government intentionally targeted Ukrainaians for extermination through starvation.
How many died is still in dispute. Conservative estimates put the number of dead at 2.5 million, other sources up to 10 million, but the most cited number is about 5 million, dead either of starvation directly or starvation-related diseases. The Soviet government confiscated all of the grain, even seed grain, and either exported it to Western Europe to raise money to buy industrial machines or swept it into "emergency reserves" that went untapped as millions starved to death.
Armed Soviet guards were sent to keep control in the villages, and the newly instituted passport system kept peasants from leaving their villages to look for food. They were prevented from foraging or hunting, and their food stocks were taken. In desperation, some resorted to eating the bodies of the dead, and instances of people being killed for food rose. The Soviet government plastered posters in Ukrainian towns reminding the starving population that cannibalism was considered an act of barbarism, and some of those who had resorted to it were tried and sent to prison camps in the vast Soviet gulag system (where, unsurprisingly, cannibalism was also rather common).
The reaction from the West was minute, which researchers find confusing. After all, the genocide of 1 million Armenians had gone mostly unnoticed by a government that considered them too Eastern, too foreign, altogether too Other to get outraged about Turkey's efforts to exterminate them (despite the frantic pleas of the American ambassador, Abram Elkus, who resorted to trying to remind the government that the Armenians were Christians, and shouldn't that sort of obligate the US to intervene?).
But the Ukrainians were Europeans, Christian, relatively close to Western Europe, and America had a sizeable and growing immigrant population from the Ukraine, members of which tried unsuccessfully to sound an alarm about what was happening there. Journalists traveled to the Ukraine and were taken on carefully controlled "trips," where all evidence of famine was hidden, and reported that nothing was amiss. In fact, Walter Duranty, a British journalist who served as the Moscow bureau chief at the New York Times for over ten years, won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Ukraine, in which he called reports of the famine an "exaggeration or malignant propaganda" and referred to reports of the famine in other media as "scare stories."
Duranty was hailed for his positive reporting on the Soviet Union and won great acclaim for his work. Of course, when it was revealed that not only did he know about the scale of the famine and deliberately conceal it, probably due to his own sympathies with Communism and that Soviet officials were blackmailing him by threatening to expose his unorthodox sexual predilections, his reputation began to suffer, culminating in repudiation by the Times' editorial staff and a serious but unsuccessful attempt to revoke his Pulitzer.
There were others who tried to draw national attention to the famine - journalists, members of America's Ukrainian community, and others who managed to travel to the Ukraine without the interference of Soviet officials, but their attempts were overshadowed by writers such as George Bernard Shaw, who were so enamored with socialism that that they refused to believe that a utopian system could produce such a monstrosity.
So, in November, Ukrainian officials hold a day of remembrance at Kiev's Holodomor Memorial, a bronze statue of a skeletal girl in a ragged dress. Visitors leave piles of apples, flowers, and food around her feet. Washington will soon get its own Holodomor Memorial; ground was broken for one in 2008, and President Obama released a statement of recognizance of the Holodomor victims last November.
The debate still rages over whether the Holodomor was a genocide directed specifically at the Ukrainian people by the Soviet government, intending to destroy the stable and independent Ukrainian peasant community, or whether it was merely convenient to starve several million people in the rush to industrialize the Soviet powerhouse. Historians point out that although other communities also had their harvests forcibly taken and faced hunger and disease, Stalin's policies towards the Ukraine were uniquely harsh, including the refusal to allow peasants to forage for food and the execution or deportation of those who tried to, as well as the stationing of armed guards to prevent the peasants from leaving their starving towns.
Famine as a tool of genocide has a long and varied history, the most recent probably being the Ethiopian famine, which was blamed on drought and a poor harvest, helped by televised images of dried-up riverbeds and withered plants. It seemed to escape everyone that Eritrea and other neighboring countries were also experiencing the same weather patterns, and while dealing with a reduced harvest, avoided famine, and that the hardest-hit areas of Ethiopia (Tangay and Wello) also conveniently happened to be where resistance movements to then-Emporer Haile Selassie were the strongest and most organized. After all, it's hard to agitate for political change when you're starving.
Of course, proving a famine is an act of genocide is tricky, as evidenced by the debate over the famine in Ukraine and questions over whether the Ethiopian famine was similarly used to affect specific groups. In the case of Ethiopia, it's true that the weather conditions and poor harvest contributed to the famine, but some historiographers have gone as far as to say that famine, in this century, is by and large a preventable condition (Amartya Sen, Famines and Other Preventable Conditions). Certainly the Ethiopian government contributed to the effects, by ignoring or suppressing reports from those areas and failing to ameliorate the famine in its early stages.
In "Famine Crimes and International Law," published in the American Society of International Law journal in 2003, author David Marcus argues that famine can be classified as a tool of genocide (he uses the term "faminogenic" to refer to government-directed activity that causes, exacerbates, directs, or prevents the amelioration of a famine) when certain policies or behaviors are adopted by the government in connection with a famine, and that such activity can be considered a crime against humanity if it fits certain behaviors.
He argues that the activity of the North Korean government, under which roughly 4 million people have starved to death (while South Korea, experiencing identical weather patterns, has experienced no famine) is one such example. Food aid is diverted, agricultural policies that worsen the famine are purused without regard to their effect, false statistics are published, and food distribution is used as a tool of reward and punishment.
Like the Ukrainian famine, the North Korean famine goes largely ignored by the world community, perhaps for many of the same reasons. Although the amount of food aid that was sent to Ukraine was miniscule, mostly ad hoc contributions by individuals, as opposed to the millions and millions of dollars of food aid that pours into North Korea, both the Soviet and the North Korean governments have made outside intervention impossible and ineffective, at best, and profitable only to the government, at worst. Which in turn begs the question, what can be done when it is the government itself that is the crime against humanity? In North Korea, as in the former USSR, the answer seems to be that only time and entropy are effective in toppling rotten systems.