Opinion: All Ukrainian children know that you should never leave breadcrumbs on the table | Wender Mind Kids

Opinion: All Ukrainian children know that you should never leave breadcrumbs on the table

Editor’s note: Daria Mattingly is a Ukrainian historian specializing in the Holodomor. She holds a PhD from Cambridge University, where she teaches Soviet and Russian history, and is a member of the selection committee for the Danyliw Research Seminar on Contemporary Ukraine, University of Ottawa. The views expressed in this comment are their own. View more opinions on CNN.


Growing up in Ukraine teaches you not to leave breadcrumbs on the table. My generation of Millennials was instilled with this pious reverence for bread from our grandparents who survived the famine of 1932-1933 in Ukraine known as the Holodomor.

I often heard the story of how wild sorrel soup saved my grandmother and her siblings while the grain collected in their village was rotting at the train station. This wheat could have saved so many lives, but “the state” wouldn’t let it. My grandmother couldn’t stand the sight of sorrel for the rest of her life and always kept her cupboard well stocked with salt and flour.

With “glasnost” in the 1980s and Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union shortly thereafter, a new freedom emerged to process this national trauma. The history of the Holodomor caused Ukrainians to see their country as a victim of the Soviet empire. And in recent years, the annexation of Crimea, the conflict in Donbass, and now an all-out war using food as a weapon all fit into this picture.

In the occupied territories, evidence is mounting that Russian forces are stealing grain and equipment from Ukrainian farmers or forcing them to sell produce at extremely low prices. From there it is to be taken by truck to ports in the annexed Crimea and to Russia. The Kremlin denies the allegations.

But such a seemingly coordinated removal of grain from Ukraine is not opportunistic spoils. It is managed centrally, from the troops that arrive at the farm to the trucks that transport the grain to the ports.

Millions of tons of grain are now stranded in Ukrainian ports blocked by Russian ships in the Black Sea. And transporting agricultural products overland to ports in neighboring Romania and Poland is a slow and laborious endeavour.

By controlling the export of Ukrainian wheat, Russia can influence grain prices in the same way it can influence oil and gas prices. It will secure more influence over the countries that depend on its crops, including China, India and Turkey. Furthermore, when grain supplies are limited, poor countries in Asia and Africa will be left with limited supplies and millions will face starvation.

As a scholar of the Holodomor, I see many parallels between the artificial famine nearly a century ago and today’s war. After all, the goal of the 1932-1933 famine and the current war was and is to bring Ukraine under Russian control.

Those looking for the various causes of war should check out the Holodomor. Long before NATO or Putin were even invented, Russian rulers crushed uprisings in Ukraine. The widespread resistance to Soviet rule in Ukraine in the early 1930s was no different.

Like the rest of the USSR, Ukraine on the eve of collectivization was a rural country. But resistance to state takeover of private property was stronger here than anywhere else in the Union. Ukrainian peasants never supported the Bolsheviks, and the unpopular collectivization policy provoked staunch resistance.

In 1930, security services reported to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin that Ukrainian peasants were driving authorities out of many districts, posing a threat to the state. Repression followed and many Ukrainian peasants were sent to Siberia and the North.

Around 4 million people died in the 1932-1933 Holodomor.  Many tried to trade their last belongings for bread, resorted to substitute food, and foraged in the woods for mushrooms and berries.

At the same time, the Ukrainian intelligentsia called for shaking off the Russian imperial embrace in culture. In June 1926, the Central Committee of the Ukrainian Communist (Bolshevik) Party expressed concern over reports that the Ukrainian writer Mykola Khvyliovy was encouraging other intellectuals to “Get out of Moscow!” in their works.

With the spread of the printed word thanks to the Soviet campaign to combat illiteracy, it was only a matter of time before the national movement took root.

While there was widespread famine after collectivization in the Soviet Union, the Kremlin imposed an exceptionally high grain procurement plan on Ukraine in 1932-33. Officially, the grain was needed to fund factory equipment for industrialization.

If the state takes the grain, you can survive because our diet includes more than just wheat. But the Soviet authorities did not stop there. They removed all food as farmers in Ukraine failed to achieve the impossible goals. Special brigades organized by the Soviet authorities searched every nook and cranny for hidden food and valuables.

So that people could not avoid starvation, the fields with the harvests were guarded, the borders of the republic were sealed and refugees were sent to filtration camps. The famine was officially dubbed “nutrition difficulties,” and victims were accused of starving their children to discredit Soviet rule.

Such rhetoric reminds us that the war with the Bucha massacre is now referred to as a “special operation.”

In reality, 4 million men, women and children starved to death during the Holodomor. Many tried to exchange their last belongings for bread, resorted to substitute food, looked for mushrooms and berries in the forest. Mothers were faced with the choice of which child to save. Some left their children in state orphanages in hopes of giving them a better chance of survival. As with other extreme famines, there were reports of cannibalism.

Ironically, it wasn’t the grain, let alone the meager food confiscated from the starving, that funded the GE turbines installed in the power plants and other facilities. It was the gold that was sold to the state at low prices by desperate farmers in 1933.

Even in remote Ukrainian villages, a network of small state shops was set up for the duration of the famine, which bought gold from the population. In exchange for their family heirlooms, the victims received a little flour so they could bake bread for their children. Every crumb of bread was precious.

Simultaneously with the famine, the Kremlin organized show trials of the Ukrainian intelligentsia and political elite. They have been accused of Ukrainian nationalism, spying for the hostile West and other things as far-fetched as calling the current government in Ukraine a Nazi.

Unruly Ukraine posed an existential threat to the Soviet project and its leadership. If collectivization failed here, other Soviet territories might have followed suit. If the national movement prevails, other republics could also challenge Moscow’s authority. In fact, at the height of the Holodomor in March 1933, the party leaders of Soviet Ukraine wrote to Stalin that “famine has not yet taught the Ukrainian collective peasants a lesson.”

For decades, victims were not allowed to speak publicly about the Holodomor, let alone call it a famine. Otherwise, they were persecuted for anti-Soviet propaganda. Western countries, anxious to normalize relations with the Soviet Union in 1933, also overlooked the famine. Not surprisingly, even now, few know about the Holodomor outside of Ukraine.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Holodomor has become a central element of state building in Ukraine. For 30 years, the victims have been commemorated, mass graves identified, witness statements recorded, and the history of the Holodomor taught in schools. The overwhelming majority of Ukrainians view the Holodomor as an act of genocide.

But no one has been held accountable for the deaths of millions, and Russia has from the beginning denied its role in organizing the famine. If no one is responsible for the deaths of 4 million, human life has little value and the crime can easily be committed again.

Over the past three decades, Ukraine has developed an imperfect but functioning democracy, a burgeoning civil society and a strong national identity. At the same time, the Russian autocratic regime consolidated its power by repressing the opposition and civil society and capitalizing on Russian imperial nostalgia.

In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and started the war in Donbass, but Ukraine insisted. In 2022, the gloves will be pulled off and the Kremlin will seek control of Ukraine through conventional warfare.

But history need not repeat itself. Today Ukraine has its state, its professional army, its civil society and, above all, international support. The borders to the west are no longer tight. Europe has taken in millions of Ukrainian refugees – something Ukrainian farmers could not dream of. The West is helping Ukraine to fight for its existence.

Whatever euphemisms the Kremlin uses, the truth cannot be hidden; it always comes out, just like the Holodomor. In fact, the Holodomor can help locate the current war from a historical perspective—and better understand its causes.

The breadcrumbs on my table always remind me of the famine my grandmother survived – and that her story must never be repeated.