"Do you know what is famine? It is when you are very hungry, but there is nothing to eat. There was nothing to eat yesterday, there is nothing to eat today, and there will be nothing tomorrow". These are the words, written by my grandmother, Yevdokia Rokytianska, in her diary about the famine of 1932-1933. This man-made famine, also known as the Holodomor (from Ukrainian extermination (mor) by hunger (holod)) took the lives of around 4.5 million (3.9 million deaths and 600 000 unborn children) in Ukraine, although the exact number will never be known as the Soviet Union and later Russia did everything possible to cover up the true scale of the tragedy.
The Holodmor was in the middle of two more famines in Ukraine: 1921-1923 and 1946-1947. While all three were artificially created, the famine of 1932-1933 stands out by the sheer numbers of those affected and determination of Joseph Stalin’s government to use it as a tool to exterminate everything Ukrainian. Rural residents, which constituted around 80 per cent of the Ukrainian population in the 1930s, were widely seen by the Soviet authorities as the foundation of the national movement and carriers of the Ukrainian traditions, culture, and language. A strong sense of national identity of Ukrainian villagers, combined with their individualist mentality, contradicted the ideology of the Soviet Union. That is why they were hit by the Holodomor the hardest. Prohibited from leaving the place of their residence and harshly persecuted for any attempt to secure food for themselves and their family, rural farmers and villagers were the primary victims of the Holodomor. Professor Andrea Graziosicalls the Holodomor “the first genocide that was methodically planned out and perpetrated by depriving the very people who were producers of food of their nourishment (for survival).”
Ninety years later, after Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, we hear again about the genocide of Ukrainians and the threat of famine more and more often. This time, however, the discussions of famine and hunger are not confined to the territory of Ukraine, but cover Africa, Asia and the Middle East, and, according to the UN, are likely to have global reverberations through increased prices, restricted access to and lack of food. This is due to the importance of Ukraine in the global food supply chain, which to many came as a surprise. Long known as the “breadbasket of Europe”, Ukraine is an important exporter of grain and other foodstuffs such as sunflower oil. Before February 2022’s invasion, the country exported around 6 million tons of agricultural products to the Middle East, Asia and Africa on a monthly basis. As Russia has blocked Ukraine’s Black Sea ports with battleships and sea mines, currently the country exports only 15-20% of the pre-war volumes by rail, road and via the Danube River. On 12 July, soon after Ukraine regained control over the Snake Island in the Black Sea, nearly one hundred ships with grain found themselves in a “traffic jam” on the Danube, trying to take last year’s Ukrainian grain to its consumers abroad. On 1 August, the first grain shipment since the start of the invasion left the port of Odesa in a test of the deal, brokered by Turkey and the UN, to end the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports. While this is an important step aimed at avoiding widespread famine worldwide, Ukrainian farmers and rural residents are likely to continue to suffer from Russian attacks enduring irreplaceable losses.
At the moment of writing, around 20 per cent of Ukrainian arable land remained under Russian occupation. In theory, even in this situation, the country, which has nearly a quarter of the world’s most fertile soil, known as chornozem, should be able not only to meet the domestic demand, but also have a surplus of agricultural products for export. In practice, however, harvesting the grain, for example, has been extremely dangerous in Ukraine. Russian missiles deliberately target the fields: during just 3 days, on 3-5 July, 150 hectares were set ablaze in the Kherson region due to Russian shelling. Many fields in Kharkiv, Dnipro and Zaporizhzhya regions have been hit by Russian missiles and burned down, too. Recently, a video of a Russian missile exploding over the field and releasing several balls of fire, before burning the grain to the ground, has been captured in the South of Ukraine. Watching something like this, as millions of people around the world go hungry, is devastating.
What is more, farmers on occupied territories are unable to sell their produce to the government-controlled areas, and many are forced to see it rot in the fields. The same fate might await the harvest in some of the areas remaining under Ukraine’s control. The inability to sell last year’s grain means that prices inside the country are unfavourable for the farmers. With no space to store the new harvest, reduced labour available and the constant danger of shelling or mines, some fields might be left unharvested. And it is not just the farmers that suffer from the Russian aggression. Villagers from de-occupied territories reported that they had been forbidden to plant their land in the spring with Russian soldiers threatening them with the repetition of the Holodomor.
Currently, as we have entered the sixth month of the war, the losses to Ukrainian agriculture are estimated at 27 billion USD. These are calculated on the basis of unharvested grain, destroyed granaries and stolen grain and equipment.
Looking at the evidence of Russia’s destructive action on Ukrainian soil targeting farmers, rural residents and civilian population in general, it is easy to see how this is driving the international community’s concerns about the global hunger. As global prices for wheat, corn and sunflower oil increased by over 33%, we are currently dealing with the problem of access to food, which can quickly turn into the problem of lack of food if Russia continues its war of destruction.
Given the interconnectedness of the world today, the full impact of this war, especially on the most vulnerable populations in and outside of Ukraine, is impossible to predict. This is yet another reason to continue supporting Ukraine and for politicians and leaders to keep making the case for long-term commitment to Ukraine while resisting the information fatigue. It should be all too clear that, what happens on Ukrainian territory, will affect whether millions of people worldwide have anything to eat.
Dr Anastasiia Kudlenko
Research Fellow, the University of Warwick