Russia continues the history of the weaponization of food in its behaviors in Ukraine

Russia has refused to let Ukraine export grain to starving nations. It's not the first time Russia has used food as a weapon against Ukraine -- and certainly not the first time access to food has been weaponized by a civilization.

A worker at the Mlybor flour mill in Ukraine is leaning over the components of a flour mill, trying to repair them after repeated shelling from Russian forces.
A worker makes repairs at the Mlybor flour mill facility after it was shelled repeatedly, amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Chernihiv region, Ukraine, May 24, 2022.
Edgar Su / Reuters
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Food has been used as a weapon since the beginning of time.

Russia recently rejected a deal brokered by Western nations to allow Ukraine to export much-needed grain as more nations are threatened by famine.

It is not surprising that the Russians refused the offer, given that the nation has an awful history of using food to fight perceived enemies. In the 1930s Soviet Union dictator Joseph Stalin ordered millions of independent Ukrainian farmers and citizens starved after they refused to join the communist’s collectivization program.

Ukrainian farmers had worked their land for centuries and were productive — frequently leading the world in wheat production. Stalin could not allow the Ukrainians to buck his system, and ordered all grain, livestock and feedstuffs be confiscated in 1932-33.

Confiscated Ukrainian grain was warehoused and guarded by Soviet troops, and those who tried to break into those facilities to get food were shot. Within two years, 3.9 million Ukrainians — about 13% of the population — died from starvation.


Stalin and the leaders that followed him would have been wise to leave the independent farmers alone. Collectivized farms seldom if ever met production goals. Weather problems, poor farm managers, faulty equipment, and unmotivated workers were blamed for the nation’s failure to meet domestic food production goals.

Private land ownership, so cherished in the United States, vanished in the Soviet system.

History records that the Ukrainian crime was the first and worst intentionally caused mass starvation in history. However, there have been others.

Cambodia’s brutal Khmer Rouge, which held power from 1975-79, began its own collectivization program. Urban residents with no knowledge of agriculture were transported against their will to rural collectives.

Anyone who resisted was murdered and soon enough famine hit. Before the Khmer Rouge were done, 1.5 million to 2 million died.

Some in Ireland say the potato plight that devastated food supplies and caused many Irish to leave for the United States was the result of deliberate British policies. The contention is hotly disputed even today.

The Native American tribes that depended on buffalo for food and clothing were dealt a blow when the great herd of buffalo disappeared. It did not help that many treaties were broken, but what hurt nearly as bad were repeating rifles fired by buffalo hunters. Buffalo tongue was wildly popular with East Coast diners and fetched a good price. While tongues were harvested, the remaining carcasses were often left to rot.

Mother — like many others — demanded that plates were clean before anyone left the table. It did not matter if what remained was dreaded rutabaga, cauliflower, or parsnips. It was a waste that bordered on sin because children in other parts of the world starved.


I recently saw a television diet advertisement from a company that offered a pill and counseling to help a person lose weight. The announcer said that there is a psychological component involved. Overeating may stem from childhood when mothers demanded clean plates.

My Mother, and yours, might not agree with that. Boredom, too, was a sign of weakness. It was best cured by time spent doing things that were best avoided.

Cleaning the chicken coop was a prime example. The worst part of that job was cleaning the mess from beneath where the hens roosted.

Ammonia stung the lungs and caused the nose to run. After new sawdust was shoveled in, I promised to never ever be bored again. It was an impossible promise to keep.

The raspberries are threatening to take over the entire garden, she responded. It’s time that we cut some of them off. It was a job that almost rivaled coop cleaning in cruelty.

I’ve strayed a long way from Ukraine, Cambodia, and Ireland. History records the continual battle between the good and the evil in nations and peoples.

Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minnesota, with his wife, Kathy.

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