Stalin, Ukrainians, and Demographic Replacement

Stalin, Ukrainians, and Demographic Replacement. By Iryna Vushko.

The history of Russian intervention into Ukrainian affairs … has a very precarious meaning: the ruthless shelling of civilians, the destruction of hospitals, maternity wards, neonatal care units, daycare, and schools. We have paid an enormous human price for Russia’s claims of shared culture and legacy. And we want none of it.

Stalin was to Ukrainians somewhat like Hitler was to Jews:

The Soviet Union was, indeed, much worse than its imperial predecessor. The most severe consequences affected not ethnic Russians but other nationalities — primarily, the Soviet West, and Ukraine, in particular. Repressions against national minorities in the Soviet Union were more brutal than against ethnic Russians. …

The year 1929 marked a new beginning in Stalinist policies at home and abroad. As part of the so-called “Great Turn,” Stalin ordered the complete collectivization of agriculture and set up quotas for grain requisition. The grain, ironically, would later be sold to the West for profit. Ukraine was the Soviet and European granary, and it was affected most by the new policies.

The bad weather and the drought in 1932 resulted in poor agricultural performance, and grain requisitions were well below the targeted quotas. Stalin blamed nationalist resistance. It was the nationalists, he believed, who brainwashed the peasants, forcing them into acts of defiance. He dispatched security forces to Ukraine to “facilitate” requisitions. By the early spring of 1933, Soviet security forces went house to house in Ukrainian villages removing any traces of agricultural produce as well as stock they could find to the point that nothing was left. …

Peasants dying on the street during the Holodomor, the great Ukrainian famine of early 1930s

Between three and five million people died in Ukraine between 1932 and 1933 as the result of an artificial famine, a lot of them spending the last months or weeks of their lives in sheer agony, feeding on grass, soil, and frogs. In utter desperation, some turned to cannibalism. Many who died were young children. This tragedy remains largely unknown in the Western political and intellectual discourse, which has focused mainly on Hitler and his crimes. …

The inhuman horrors of the famine in Soviet Ukraine never quite made into 20th-century European historical narratives. We would later learn about Russian losses and Russian sufferings during WWII, even though that war also severely affected life in Ukraine as well as Belarus. As Timothy Snyder has brought to our attention, over and over again, Ukraine was part of the Bloodlands — a territory in which millions upon millions of non-combatants were mass-murdered during WWII by both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russian forces. …

Demographic replacement:

As Ukrainians died of starvation and later perished in the war, ethnic Russians moved in to take their space.

Eastern Ukraine had been subjected to Russification since the pre-1918 imperial period, but it took new forms under the Soviet Union. These included the massive loss of Ukrainian populations in the 1930s and the 1940s as a result of the famine and repressions during the war, all while Russification grew stronger. Russian became the language of the elites, while Ukrainian persisted largely in the countryside. Over the decades, however, the boundaries between Russians and Ukrainians in the East became looser.

The traumas of the 1930s and the 1940s may seem to be in the distant past, irrelevant to the present. But Putin and the war that started in Ukraine in 2014 shook this balance. At that time, a lot of those who grew up speaking Russian started switching to Ukrainian and identifying themselves in sharp opposition to everything Russian. …

Ukrainian partisans:

Western Ukraine became Soviet as a result of the Soviet-Germany non-aggression treaty in 1939 and Soviet aggression into Eastern Poland. …

When the Soviets were finalizing their control of Western Ukraine, the Ukrainians refused to give up fighting over the territories that they considered as their own. In Western Ukraine, the partisan warfare between Ukrainians and the regular Soviets continued intermittently through to 1949. This is a story of defiance against all odds that is largely unknown in Western political and intellectual discourses. …

Just like nearly everyone else around me, I learned Russian not because I wanted to but because I had no choice. I became a Soviet pioneer not because I wanted to but because I had no choice. My and my peers’ parents, in the meantime, offered us many other choices at home. My father’s sizable library at home had a large collection of Ukrainian classics — all of them in Ukrainian. The only Russian titles I remember from childhood are university-level textbooks in chemistry and civil engineering — my parent’s specialties. …

Led to the present:

This story should help us understand what a lot of people in the West now perceive as almost inconceivable: the brutality of Soviet (now Russian) tactics, and Ukrainian resistance against the enormous odds.

Several days before the beginning of the war Putin is now waging, when the peace option had still been on the table, an Israeli colleague of mine asked if Ukrainians would resist. I was surprised that he would even ask. “Of course,” I responded, then thinking to myself: what other options do we have? … I knew we would resist, with or without Western support or intervention.

I’m pretty sure Putin skipped over these bits in his invasion speech. Now his artillery is writing another chapter of bad blood with his neighbors.