Starving Ukraine

12 January 2018

Starving Ukraine: The Holodomor and Canada’s Response
by Serge Cipko
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Keith Foster
$80.00 ISBN 978-0-88977-506-0

Imagine going without food for an entire day. Then imagine being deprived of food for weeks or months. This is the situation Serge Cipko describes in Starving Ukraine: The Holodomor and Canada’s Response, a comprehensive and focused study of starvation in Ukraine, part of the Soviet Union, from 1932 through 1934.

Except in Ukrainian circles, the Holodomor seems to have been largely forgotten. The term comes from two Ukrainian words, moryty holodom, meaning “extermination by hunger.” Citing reports of emaciated children, people eating field mice, and even cannibalism, Cipko says conditions were so severe that Joseph Stalin’s wife committed suicide in protest.

Famine in Ukraine, known as the granary of Europe, had an impact on Saskatchewan, a wheat-producing province with a large Ukrainian population. Saskatchewan small towns such as Hafford, Hague, and Krydor held rallies to support relatives in Ukraine who were asking not for money but for grain and flour.

When Hafford residents tried to gather half a million bushels of wheat for shipment to Ukraine, the Soviet government declined the offer, saying there was no need for assistance. The Kremlin even denied that a famine existed. The Ottawa Citizen wondered if “most of the yarns about famine and disaster in Russia are exaggerated.”

As with any controversial issue, views differed. Cipko exposes conflicting reports about the cause of the famine, noting that the Soviet Union exported twenty-five million bushels of wheat in 1932. According to journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, Soviet soldiers scoured the country like “a swarm of locusts,” taking away “everything edible.” Demographers arrived at a figure of four million dead from starvation in Soviet Ukraine alone.

Cipko offers a worldwide view of starvation in Ukraine. In addition to Ukrainian-language newspapers, he cites international papers as widespread as the New York Times and the Times of India, and Saskatchewan newspapers as local as the Regina Leader-Post, Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, Radisson Comet, and the Rosthern Der Bote. He also cites speeches made in the Saskatchewan legislature.

Newspapers provide one of the primary sources of Cipko’s study. In the era before television, newspapers and radio were the eyes and ears of the world. Since few people could afford a radio during the Great Depression, newspapers were the go-to source for news. Cipko ponders whether the famine would have continued if newspapers had been free to expose the facts.

This 351-page hardcover book has extensive notes, a bibliography, index, chronology of major events, a map, and five illustrations. In an appendix, Cipko provides the full text of a speech by Saskatchewan’s leader of the Liberal opposition, James G. Gardiner, on the issue of supplying wheat to the Soviet Union in 1933, the year Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany.

Starving Ukraine: The Holodomor and Canada’s Response is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand the Holodomor and its impact on Canada and the world.


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