“In the old days, we had horses and cows and pigs and chickens. Now we are dying of hunger. In the old days, we fed the world. Now they have taken all we had away from us and we have nothing. In the old days, I should have bade you welcome, and given you as my guest chickens and eggs and milk and fine, white bread. Now we have no bread in the house. They are killing us.”
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The words are spoken by a Ukrainian peasant to the Welsh Journalist Gareth Jones and duly reported in the Daily Express on 6 April 1933. Jones was the first person to report the truth of the famine that Josef Stalin unleashed on Ukraine when he decided its people were hoarding grain that rightly belonged to the State and duly sent his commissars backed by troops to expropriate (read: steal) it. At least 5 million people died from starvation in the USSR between 1931 and 1934 — including 3.9 million Ukrainians. It was a low point even by the standards of the vertiginously bloody 20th century.
Now, almost a century later, soldiers have once more been sent by Moscow to seize Ukrainian grain. Once more, farmers are killed and their barns and stores looted. And once more, the Ukrainian people are being made to pay for the madness of their neighbouring Tsar.
Ukraine is a country cursed by its good luck. It is well-known that it is perennially — and unambiguously — cursed by geography: it sits next to Russia, which has brought it the USSR, Josef Stalin, the gulags and an unsuccessful Cold War. There isn’t really any upside to all this.
Less known is that Ukraine also suffers from its own fecundity. The country is coated in so-called “black soil” (Chernozem), which contains the humus and variety of micro elements that make it the most fertile soil in the world. In it grows massive amounts of barley, wheat, corn, soy, rape seed and sunflowers. Only about 2% of the world’s soil is black soil and about 25% of that is found in Ukraine. The country has around 42 million hectares of agricultural land of which roughly 32 million is cultivated every year — equivalent to roughly one-third of the arable land in the entire European Union. It is an agricultural superpower.
According to former Minister of Agriculture, Roman Leshchenko, “it is no exaggeration to state that Ukraine can feed the world” — and therein lies the problem. Stalin considered Ukraine the “breadbasket” of the Soviet Union and when Hitler dreamt up a demented idea of empire based up on the principle of Lebensraum it was control of Ukraine’s black soil that he hoped would feed the Third Reich. In came the Germans; once more Ukrainian blood flowed.
Since the Russians invaded on 24 February, they have destroyed civilian districts, smashed public infrastructure, and tortured and executed prisoners. They have also stolen farm equipment, shelled food storage sites and stolen thousands of tonnes of grain. It’s systemic and it’s planned and most obvious in the country’s south, where I spent considerable time over the past two months. In both the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts farmers have reported multiple thefts. In the Kherson village of Mala Lepetykha, Russian soldiers reportedly stole 1,500 tons of grain from storage units which they then drove to Crimea.
“It’s very simple,” says Andrey Stavnitser, co-owner and CEO of Ukrainian port operating company TransInvestService. “They’re stealing grain in the areas they have invaded — Mariupol, Kherson Melitopol and so on — which they then take to Crimea, load onto vessels pretending its Russian grain, and then sell. With grain, if you don’t tag it, it’s impossible to tell where it comes from, especially if they mix it with Crimean and Russian grain.”
Then there is the problem that Ukraine cannot export the grain it has. When I first arrived in Odesa last month, I noticed that the city’s most famous sight, the Potemkin steps that connect the harbour to the city, were inaccessible: surrounded by soldiers who had closed the port for fear of Russian attacks. Russia stole Crimea in 2014 and with it the Ukraine’s most important port. Now it has taken Mariupol and, with it, Ukraine’s access to the Azov sea. Now it heads toward Mykolaiv and then eventually, it hopes, Odesa. In the meantime, it is shelling both cities, rendering their ports unusable. Ukraine cannot get its grain out.
This creates a twofold problem. First, Ukraine has 320 million tonnes of grain stuck in the country from last year’s crop, which Stavnitser calculates is costing Ukraine around $15 billion of revenue. To make matters worse, the new crop is ready in late June, which means more will need to be stored if it cannot be sold. But Kyiv usually just sells its grain immediately so it never bothered investing in the appropriate technology for longer-term storage. Now the grain risks going rotten.
Together this creates a second problem that spreads far beyond Ukraine. Several African countries depend on Ukrainian grain. Around 40% of Egyptian milling grain —the grain that is used for bread — comes from Ukraine. If this fails to materialise there won’t be famine but there would likely be widespread hunger. The effect of this on the country, as well as on the region’s political stability, would almost certainly be catastrophic.
And there are dangers closer to home, too. Just this week, Andrew Bailey, the governor of the Bank of England warned that Britain faces an “apocalyptic” rise in food prices caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “[An inflation risk factor] I am going to sound apocalyptic about is food,” he told the Treasury select committee. “Ukraine does have food in store but can’t get it out at the moment.”
In her book Red Famine, the historian Anne Applebaum writes that “long before collectivisation began, the phenomenon of the violent expropriator — a man who brandished a gun, spouted slogans and demanded food — was familiar in Soviet Ukraine.” Now the violent expropriators are back and almost a century later, not only have their goals — the theft of Ukraine’s resources — remained unchanged, but seemingly also their tactics.
The Russian army still fights like the Red Army did during the Second World War. Its tactics remain equally stupid, its brutality equally unchecked. It murders Ukrainian children. It destroys Ukrainian artefacts. It tries to erase all traces of the country’s national identity. No surprise, then, that its incompetence means it has only succeeded in galvanising it. The more Russia stirs memories of the Holodomor the more national feeling it breeds in Ukranians; the more it steals and rapes and kills, the more Ukraine becomes determined to resist — until the end if need be.
But it needs help. While the world buys Russian oil and finances its war, many countries are also buying its grain, some of which is almost certainly stolen from Ukraine. Beginning in March Moscow has struck new deals with Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Iran, Lebanon and Libya. “It is totally unacceptable that anyone can buy grain from Russia because this is fuelling the war,” says Stavnitser. “You cannot protest the war and then go out and do things that only serve to prolong it.”
The next few weeks are likely to prove critical. As Stavnitser concludes: “We all hope the UN succeeds in negotiating humanitarian corridor for grain with Russia and if this happens, we will start exporting last year’s crop fast and also be able to start exporting the new crop in a few weeks’ time. If that doesn’t happen then we will be reduced to using rail and road and some smaller ports and can export only around 1.2 to 1.5 million tonnes [as opposed to 5-6 million]. If this happens then many countries — especially in Africa — will be facing a severe ad urgent food crisis.”
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