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Wheat as Weapon - The grain of Ukraine

Updated: Nov 9, 2023

The history of Ukraine is complex. But on this map from around 1934, is appears simple: Ukraine is part of the USSR. No lines, no internal borders. Just a thick red line between the Soviet Union and the rest of the world.

Ukrain USSR Russia
European Part of USSR - picorial map, c1935

The map accompanies a tourist brochure "Seeing the USSR", published by Intourist, the huge and only official USSR travel agency, founded in 1929. The map and brochure are undated. However, the borders between Poland and the USSR are those that were determined in the Peace of Riga treaty (1921). In 1939 the Ribbentrop-Molotov resulted in the annexation of East Galicia bij Russian troops, shifting the border to the West. Another hint to the date of the map and brochure is the prominent depiction of the Dnieper hydroelectric dam at Zaporozhe, that was completed in 1932.

The brochure gives several examples of demographic data from 1934. This makes it likely that the map is from around 1935.

dam ukraine dnieper ussr
deatil of the Dnieper hydroelectric dam

This map has been produced to attract visitors to the USSR. About 2 years after millions of Ukrainians had died from hunger during the Great Famine, the Holodomor. Whether or not this was a planned famine in order to submiss the Ukraine people, or the result of poorly executed collectivization of agriculture: an estimated of 5 million Ukrainians died from hunger. Cartography to show an 'alternative truth', cartography as propaganda.

This collectivization was part of Stalin's first Five-Year Plan, launched in 1928. Collective farming systems were created. The brochure proudly boasts: "The face of the village is changed. Four-fifths of the peasant farms have been organized into collective farms; 285.000 tractors now work on the fields of the Soviet countryside."

USSR soviet Grain Wheat Tractor Combine
Tractors and combines

On the map the tractors and combines are proudly shown, mainly in the Stalingrad region. In the brochure, pictures of the harvesting of grain suggest an abundancy of food. In fact, grain yield was lower than ever. There were many underlying causes for these low yields: poor weather conditions, low quality of cultivation techniques, plaque animals. In combination with selective food requisitioning, a forced diversification of crops (including cotton and sugar beets), and bad planning resulting in large amounts of grain remaining unharvested, a recipe for disaster was created.

And those who tried to leave the starving Ukrainian countryside were send back: The Ukraine was in lockdown". Apparently, there were still internal borders, despite the lack of them on this map.

This map and brochure are terrifying examples of the lies that can be shown using cartography. Maps and pictures showing abundancy of food, happy and well-fed collective farmers, while in reality one of the worst famines of history had just occurred. A famine that was man-made. We see a a map that suggests any visitor was welcome to witness the miracles of Soviet socialism, while in fact the Soviet authorities attempted everything they could to hide their man-made disasters.

And now, 90 years later, grain from Ukraine is again in the center of attention. Hundreds of tons of grain are trapped in Ukraine because of Russia's blockade of the Black Sea ports. And although by a very different mechanism, again millions of people, are at risk of famine.

Cartography is still being used for propaganda. But fortunately in this era it is much more difficult to hide the truth with maps than to reveal it.



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