Sift. Shift. Lift.

The history and legacy of the Holodomor

November 2020

Hello friends,

Thank you for subscribing to the inaugural issue of Sift. Shift. Lift. I am so glad you are here.

This month, we delve into the history and legacy of the Holodomor (ˌhɒlədəˈmɔː). The word may or may not be familiar to you. It is Ukrainian for extermination or death (mor) by hunger (holod), and it refers to a famine that ravaged Soviet Ukraine in 1932-33. A famine that killed millions of people.[1]

The Holodomor was not your average famine. It was the direct result of policies and decrees Josef Stalin and the Soviet Politburo designed to appropriate the rich, fertile farmland of Ukraine. The direct result of a system designed to repress the people of Ukraine. A genocide, according to pre-eminent scholars like Timothy Snyder and Raphael Lemkin (who first used the term “genocide”).[2]

When writing about the Holodomor, researchers often begin with Stalin’s Five Year Plan and his dogged drive towards collectivization and subsequent dekulakization. They begin in 1929, when Communist agitators descended on rural Ukraine and pressured peasants to give their property – land and, sometimes, houses – to the State. Those who resisted were branded as kulaks (a derogatory name for landowners) and exiled or killed.

The harsh measures meted out by the Soviets and their supporters had some unsurprising consequences. As resistors were sent to work in labour camps or to sit in packed jail cells, the number of people able to work in the fields declined. Those who remained were poorly paid, if they were paid at all, and forced to pay high fines and quotas. Their motivation and ability to work for the collectives waned. Food shortages and small uprisings ensued.  

In response, the Soviet Politburo intensified its acts of oppression. Villages were forced to relinquish more and more of their harvests to the State. People were forbidden to travel outside Ukraine in search of work. Aid was denied (or misappropriated). At the peak of the Holodomor in 1933, Communist activists and police forces raided people’s homes, taking everything, including, in some cases, the half-baked bread in the oven.

Hunger took its toll on the people of Ukraine[3]. Rare photos, letters and other documents from this time recall mass graves, orphaned children wandering alone in the woods, corpses rotting in the streets, lawlessness, even cannibalism.

Throughout the Holodomor, Stalin denied the extent of the famine. Journalists were complicit in masking the Soviet atrocities. Those few who, like Canadian journalist Rhea Clyman and Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, dared to write honestly about the famine were deported, banned from re-entering the U.S.S.R. and, in the case of Jones, harassed and belittled. (Walter Duranty of the New York Times published an article called “Russians Hungry, But Not Starving” (March 31, 1933), which condemned Jones’ reporting as “a big scare story.”)

Jones was kidnapped and murdered (allegedly by either the Russian NKVD or Chinese bandits) in Inner Mongolia in August 1935. His reports from Ukraine have been vital to the work of historians, many of whom, contrast his journalistic integrity with the political pandering of Duranty and his ilk.

It is difficult to study the Holodomor and not see parallels in our world today. From the rise in nationalism and autocracy to the famine in Yemen. From the presence of Russian military in Ukraine to the cries of fake news by populist leaders.

Ready to dig deeper? Here are some resources to help us sift through the research, shift our awareness by exploring art, and then lift up organizations that honour the victims of the Holodomor and dedicate time and resources to fighting against genocide.


Free livestream event: 2020 Toronto Annual Ukrainian Famine Lecture (Nov. 19, 2020 at 7:30 EST)

Selected Online Resources

Recommended Books (Non-fiction)


Visual Art and Photography




Join me on Instagram throughout the month of November for reflections on the Holodomor (among other interests). I look forward to continuing this learning journey with you..

Next month Sift. Shift. Lift. takes a close look at displacement, anti-Black racism and two examples of so-called "urban renewal" in Canada. 

[1] The number varies. Conservative estimates put the death toll at three million (Timothy Snyder) or 3.9 million (Anne Applebaum) whereas former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko argued that the Holodomor claimed the lives of 20 million people. It is not uncommon for scholars, politicians and activists to say that the Holodomor claimed between seven and 10 million lives.

[2] They have their detractors, however, who argue that the Holodomor never occurred or, if it did occur, was not premeditated.

[3] It is important to note that the people of Ukraine included many well-established ethic minorities, including those who identified as Jewish, German, Belarussian, Bulgarian and Greek. All four of my great-grandparents were Germans from the Ukraine who came to Canada as refugees during the turmoil of the early 20th century. They narrowly escaped the Holodomor but it is believed that their family members and friends who remained in Ukraine did not. My interest in the Holodomor is deeply personal.