The connection between famines and democracy may not be obvious. but each sheds light upon the other.

The fourth Saturday in each November is Holodomor Remembrance Day which recalls the great Ukrainian famine of 1932-3 in which 2.4m to 7m died in a population of about 30m. The intensity of the distress and suffering was such that more than 2,500 people were convicted of cannibalism.

There is much debate about why it happened. In part it was a dramatic fall in the grain harvest of the Soviet Union following the collectivisation a couple of years earlier. However, there is a widespread view among scholars that Stalin’s actions intensified the Ukranian famine conditions, by diverting supplies to other parts of the USSR but also to quell the Ukrainian independence movement.

So the famine was not simply a shortage of food; it was also the result of human decisions. That is usual; famines can occur in situations where there are additional food supplies. During the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s (1m deaths in a population of 8m) livestock was being exported to England for killing and eating there.

The Irish Famine was a result of potato blight, which ravaged potato crops throughout Europe during the 1840s. The impact in Ireland was disproportionate, as one third of the population was dependent on the potato but the dire situation was compounded by social factors such as absentee landlords.

Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen, who as a 10-year-old observed the Bengal Famine of 1943, proposed Sen’s Law, that famines do not happen in democracies. Bengali food supplies actually rose in the period but they were in store and a distracted British Government did nothing to make them available to the starving. They would have, if it had been a British food shortage.

What happens in a market economy can be illustrated from the Irish experience. The potato blight did not just destroy the crop, it also destroyed the income of the farmers, so they were unable to purchase alternative supplies. The livestock exporters from Ireland or those with grain stocks in Bengal warehouses would have willingly supplied the starving in exchange for cash. Severe starvation is not just a shortage of food but also a shortage of purchasing power.

The Ukrainian story is complicated by the Soviet Union’s not being a market economy, placing an onus on the government to stump up with supplies. That makes its responsibility more evident. In a market economy the parallel responsibility is to ensure there is adequate purchasing power, although sometimes it is more practical to truck in supplies.

I have never forgotten Nobel Laureate Tjalling Koopmans’ Three Essays on the State of Economic Science, probably the first book I ever read as an economics undergraduate. It contains an elegant account of general equilibrium economics and how the price mechanism leads to an efficient competitive equilibrium. Koopmans dealt succinctly with the complication of inadequate income:

     ‘One “hard boiled” alternative would be to assume instantaneous elimination by starvation of those whose resources prove insufficient for survival…’ The shock of this limitation of one of the workhorses of economics was moderated by Koopmans adding ‘an alternative … would be to recognise the existence of income transfers through taxation and social insurance.’

So from my earliest days I have been aware that the market is incapable of delivering an adequate income to all. As Koopmans says, there will be people with insufficient physical, financial and human resources who will starve if dependent upon the market. Famines are an extreme illustration of the principle that capitalism can only have a human face if there is public redistribution of income to support the poor. That is not what happened in Ireland, Bengal and Ukraine or in other instances.

Famines leave psychic scars for generations. Recall that Stalin seems to have used the holodomor (to kill by starvation) to deal with the Ukrainian independence movement of the 1930s. It reappeared recently, memorably in the ‘Euromaidan’ protests throughout Ukraine in 2013, especially at Maidan (Independence) Square in the capital, Kiev. The popular uprising was a rejection of a proposal for closer relations with Russia; it favoured turning west towards the EU. The Holodomor Commemoration Day, instituted in 2006, is a part of the same ambition.

President Putins’ concerns appear to be that Russia does not want to lose an ally or to have a democracy-friendly country on its border. Ukraine is also a deep part of Russia’s history. Kiev was its first capital (although many in the Russian ruling elite today are said to look on Ukrainians with the same visceral disdain that certain English looked on the Irish.) An alternative name for Ukraine is ‘Little Russia’. (Recall the nickname of Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony which uses Ukrainian folk songs.) Perhaps even deeper, Putin and the Oligarchs who surround him must be terrified of a Euromaidan outbreak from the Russian middle class threatening their power,  wealth and comfort.

What is protecting Putin, even more than practice and threat of military adventurism, is that Ukraine is finding the transition to a liberal open-market democracy exceedingly difficult. No one expected the extent of the growth of corruption and crony capitalism after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Many assumed that public ethics were higher under communism than they were under capitalism; they were not. Sadly that has been as true in Ukraine as much as in Russia.

Nineteenth-century Britain, from which our public institutions descended, was not as corrupt as Russia and Ukraine are today. It has taken a long time to get to where we are. (Nor should we forget that the London and New York financial centres are complicitly supporting the Oligarchs.) While we may have hoped that the ex-Soviet Union countries would have turned into our sort of liberal democracies at the witching hour of the fall, the reality is that any transformation will take generations. We can but wish them well, recognising that what we can do – short of war – is very limited. (That said, there are things we can, and should, do to support the development of democracy in Ukraine.)

Symbols have a role. The terrible story which underpins Holodomor – that the autocracy of Stalin could be so brutal (Hitler also tried to starve Russia) – is a reminder of Sen’s law and the benefits of that imperfect institution we call ‘democracy’.

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