UKRAINIAN FAMINE The expulsion of a Ukrainian Kulak family, 1930–33.
Viewed from the ruins of Murrisk Abbey in midsummer, the slanting light of the setting sun exposes lingering traces of lazy beds on the northern slopes of Croagh Patrick at heights where it is barely credible that they could have supported dense crops of potatoes.
Walking back to the main road, as the spectral National Famine Memorial comes into view, I recalled the submission put together in 1996 by the Murrisk Development Association, illustrated by photographs of the late Liam Lyons. It won for the village the privilege of hosting this evocative John Behan sculpture.
I read a lot over Christmas and didn’t get out much. Two books served to turn my thoughts to famines: their causes, courses and long-tailed consequences. The first was Anne Applebaum’s searing account of the Ukrainian famine of 1930–1933, ‘Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine’. The second was Charles Read’s recently published ‘The Great Famine in Ireland and Britain’s Financial Crisis’.
I came to realise that these two famines have similarities as well as differences and both raise disturbing questions that continue to trouble the relationship of our two nations with our dominant near neighbours.
Neither crop failure nor bad weather triggered the onset of the Ukrainian famine of 1930–33, known as the Holodomor. Historians agree that this was an act of state aggression by the USSR under its murderous leader, Joseph Stalin.
Ukrainian farms were forcibly collectivised, farmers (the Kulaks) were ejected from their holdings, food stocks were seized to feed the newly industrialising Soviet cities during the first Five-Year Plan, and starving peasants were prevented from moving to seek food or work elsewhere. Exports of Ukrainian grain continued during the famine, the proceeds being used to finance Soviet industrialisation.
It is estimated that up to a million people died.
The Great Irish Famine
The immediate cause of the Irish famine of 1845-47 was the failure of a single crop, the potato, that provided the main item of food for a population living in primitive and isolated conditions mainly all along the western Atlantic coast.
Small farms were not collectivised in the Soviet sense but were owned and controlled by a tiny number of mainly English landowners with limited concern for the welfare of their tenants.
While this segment of the Irish population starved and a million died, food products produced mainly elsewhere in Ireland continued to be exported to the British market.
Unlike in the Holodomor, those who did not starve to death were actively encouraged to emigrate. The National Famine Memorial is a stylised representation of a famine ship, commemorating the million who fled to seek safety in other lands.
While the facts of both famines are well understood and broadly accepted, the question of ‘intent’ is still hotly disputed. Well before the famine, economist Thomas Malthus had written ‘the land in Ireland is infinitely more peopled than that in England; and to give full effect to the natural resources of the country, a great part of the population should be swept from the soil’.
In the case of the Holodomor, there is little doubt that Stalin created the conditions for famine as part of an explicit policy of forced collectivisation and industrialisation. It also gave Stalin an excuse to suppress the Ukrainian national movement that threatened the consolidation of the USSR.
In the case of the Irish famine, the narrow issue explored by Charles Read was the extraordinarily abrupt cutback of UK Treasury funding of relief in May 1847, when the depredations of the second year of crop failure were approaching their most damaging phase.
Read rejects the genocide thesis of John Mitchel and Tim Pat Coogan out of hand and finds the laissez-faire explanation unsatisfactory (a laissez-faire policy is the belief that governments should not interfere with market mechanisms). Instead, he proposes a UK banking and financial crisis as his explanation for the sudden disappearance of famine relief support in 1847 when it was most needed. I fear that if you believe that, you will also believe that Stalin did his best during the Holodomor to support the Ukrainian farmers!
The concept of genocide raises relevant issues and originated in Ukraine, where Professor Raphael Lemkin invented it by combining the Greek word ‘genos’, meaning race or nation, with the Latin word ‘cide’, meaning killing. The UN defines it as ‘acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group’.
Most countries wanted a broader definition, but the USSR opposed that. They possibly have some sense of shame that appears to be lacking in the English. Neither the Holodomor nor the Irish Famine would have met the UN criterion.
Famines are never single acts but are drawn out processes. In the Irish case, the seeds of the future famine were sown during the 18th-century Penal Laws, which condemned a large element of the population to poor, overcrowded land on the western seaboard, which remained isolated and underdeveloped even into the 20th century. The Irish Famine, just like the Ethiopian Famine of 1983–85, occurred in regions with extremely limited road and transport networks, which created serious development and supply problems and precarious security situations.
No precautionary actions were taken by the authorities before 1845, and actions to address the crisis when it arrived were half-hearted and ineffectual. This was not genocide. But it certainly was callous and criminal indifference to the plight of the Irish famine victims. In the words of Anne Applebaum, the history of famine is a tragedy with no happy ending.
John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.