During the early 1930s millions of people died of starvation in Ukraine. (Wikimedia Commons)

One of the gravest atrocities of the 20th century and most tragic chapters in Ukrainian history is the Holodomor.

The Holodomor, or “extermination by hunger,” was a famine engineered by Joseph Stalin that killed 3 million to 7 million Ukrainians between 1932 and 1933. Yet for many years the details of repression and deprivation that reduced Ukraine’s population by nearly one-fifth were largely unknown outside of the Soviet Union.

Robert Conquest received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005 for his work on Soviet history that shed light on the terror during the Stalin era. (© AP Images)

That changed when late historian and prominent Holodomor researcher Robert Conquest wrote a detailed account of the “terror-famine.” His 1986 book The Harvest of Sorrow is a full history of Stalin’s crimes against the Soviet Union’s peasantry, including the Holodomor.

In researching his book, Conquest relied on firsthand accounts by emigres, on census and economic data, and on media accounts. The scale of the Holodomor is evident in Conquest’s prose: He describes the Ukrainian territory of 40 million inhabitants as “one vast Belsen,” referring to the infamous Nazi concentration camp in Germany. Referring to his book’s length, he writes, “In the actions here recorded about 20 human lives were lost for, not every word, but every letter, in the book.”

History of the Holodomor

In 1929 Stalin launched a campaign of political repression — including arrests, deportations and executions — against millions of better-off peasants throughout the Soviet Union. At the same time Stalin introduced collectivization, thereby abolishing private land ownership and forcing the remaining peasants into state-controlled farms.

The famine in Ukraine began in 1932, as Stalin’s collectivization began to take effect. When Stalin encountered unexpected resistance from the Ukrainian peasants, the regime responded by raising the quota for the amount of grain to be produced for the government to an unrealistic level. Peasants who resisted or refused to comply with Stalin’s orders were often arrested or had their homes destroyed.

Bags of grain were regularly confiscated from Ukrainian households during the Holodomor. (Courtesy photo)

“Ukraine was deliberately targeted by Stalin and made to bear responsibility for the general crisis” of the Soviet leader’s policy, said American historian and author Timothy Snyder, in an interview with ShareAmerica. “Ukraine was subjected therefore to particular instruments … the sealing of the borders, the seizure of the seed needed to plant the crops for the next year, and so on,” which led to massive numbers of Ukrainians starving to death.

The end of the Holodomor came in the fall of 1933 when Stalin believed that the Ukrainians had been defeated and finally allowed them to keep a small portion of what they grew.

Remembering the victims

A view of the Holodomor Memorial in Washington as final touches are being made in preparation for its official opening on November 7. (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)

On August 4, the Holodomor Memorial was installed in Washington near the U.S. Capitol in memory of the millions of innocent victims who perished during Stalin’s forced famine in Ukraine. A dedication of the monument is scheduled to take place November 7.

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