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Remember the Holodomor

The Soviet starvation of Ukraine, 75 years later

Dec 8, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 12 • By CATHY YOUNG
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This year marks the 75th anniversary of one of the most horrific chapters in the history of the Soviet Union: the great famine the Ukrainians call Holodomor, "murder by starvation." This catastrophe, which killed an estimated 6 to 10 million people in 1932-33, was largely the product of deliberate Soviet policies. Inevitably, then, its history is fodder for acrimonious disputes.

Ukraine--which, with Canada and a few other countries, observed Holodomor Remembrance Day on November 23--seeks international recognition for a Ukrainian "genocide." Russia denounces that demand as political exploitation of a wider tragedy. Some Russian human rights activists are skeptical of both positions.

Meanwhile, the famine remains little known in the West, despite efforts by the Ukrainian diaspora. Indeed, the West has its own inglorious history with regard to the famine, starting with the deliberate cover-up by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty.

In the late 1980s, the famine gained new visibility thanks to Robert Conquest's Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (1987) and the TV documentary Harvest of Despair, aired in the United States and Canada. A backlash from the left was quick to follow. Revisionist Sovietologist J. Arch Getty accused Conquest of parroting the propaganda of "exiled nationalists." And in January 1988, the Village Voice ran a lengthy essay by Jeff Coplon (now a contributing editor at New York magazine) titled "In Search of a Soviet Holocaust: A 55-Year-Old Famine Feeds the Right." Coplon sneered at "the prevailing vogue of anti-Stalinism" and dismissed as absurd the idea that the famine had been created by the Communist regime. Such talk, he asserted, was meant to justify U.S. imperialism and whitewash Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazis.

By the time Coplon wrote, however, the Soviet regime was dying. The partial opening of Soviet archives soon confirmed the extent to which Stalin and his henchmen knowingly used hunger to punish resistance and beat the peasantry into submission. Among the finds was a direct order by Stalin to cordon off starving villages and intercept peasants trying to flee in search of food. The post-Soviet leadership of both Russia and Ukraine was willing to acknowledge the Terror-Famine, though differences soon emerged on whether it should be regarded as a Ukrainian genocide or equal-opportunity mass murder.

Ukrainian-Russian relations began to deteriorate after the "Orange Revolution" of late 2004. Russia under Vladimir Putin was sliding deeper into authoritarianism and anti-Western nationalism, while Ukraine, led by President Viktor Yushchenko, sought closer ties to the West. Even as the political mood in Russia began to emphasize the alleged positive aspects of the Soviet past, Yushchenko promoted a view of Soviet-era Ukraine as a "captive nation" under a foreign boot.

In November 2006, the Ukrainian parliament passed a bill proclaiming the Holodomor a genocide and making Holodomor denial "unlawful." An escalation of rhetoric followed; a 2007 statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry accused "certain political circles" in Ukraine of insulting the memory of non-Ukrainian famine victims. Since then, the pro-government Russian press has published dozens of articles assailing Ukraine's stance on the Holodomor as an insidious anti-Russian ploy. This year, President Dmitry Medvedev declined an invitation to Holodomor Remembrance Day ceremonies in Kiev in a petulant letter that dismissed "talk of the so-called Holodomor" as an "immoral" attempt to give a shared tragedy a nationalist spin and also took a swipe at Ukraine's desire to join NATO.

Some independent Russian commentators accuse both governments of playing politics. Thus, an article by St. Petersburg-based scholar Kirill Aleksandrov on the Gazeta.ru website on November 17 argued that the Terror-Famine was not a genocide in the classic sense but a "stratocide"--mass extermination based on social class--directed at the peasantry. Yet, he wrote, the Kremlin cannot fully confront this crime since that would conflict with its quest to build a state ideology that incorporates the "positive value" of the Soviet period. "Unfortunately," Aleksandrov summed up, "the millions of victims of collectivization will be used in Ukraine only for political manipulation and the creation of Russophobic myths, while Russia will consistently try to erase their memory in order to preserve the legitimacy of the current regime, which cannot exist without appealing to Soviet historical tradition."

A starkly different view was offered by journalist Yulia Latynina on the website EJ.ru. Latynina noted that while Stalin's terror affected every segment of Soviet society, specific groups were sometimes singled out--among them the Ukrainian peasant class in the early 1930s. "Stalin was destroying the peasantry by herding it into collective farms," she wrote. "It so happened that the wealthiest peasantry was in Ukraine.     It so happened that Stalin was afraid of Ukraine's independence and undertook special efforts to break Ukraine." Supporters of Ukraine's position also deny that it is "Russophobic," pointing to Yushchenko's explicit statements that the Holodomor was a crime of the Soviet Communist regime, not the Russian people.

Which view is accurate? Scholars still disagree both on the scope of the famine and on its ethnic "specificity." One of the most vocal opponents of the Ukrainian government's view is former Soviet dissident Alexander Babyonyshev (writing under the pen name Sergey Maksudov), now an émigré professor at Harvard, who studied the Terror-Famine in Soviet times when it was politically dangerous.

There is no question that the famine caused deaths beyond Ukraine. It is generally believed that about half of the victims were in Ukraine and the predominantly Ukrainian-populated Russian region of Kuban. The millions of others who perished included Russian peasants and close to a third of the population of Kazakhstan.

There is also no doubt that the famine was man-made. Most Soviet peasants resisted the collectivization that began in the 1930s. When joining collective farms was voluntary, few signed up, and many who did soon left. Forcible collectivization was met with peasant rebellions, ruthlessly suppressed, then with quiet resistance. When villagers realized that collective farming meant backbreaking labor for the state at slave wages, many staged work slowdowns. As a result, grain production targets were not met at a time when Moscow relied on grain exports to finance industrialization. The regime then instituted a policy of ruthless confiscation of grain that left no food for the peasants; in many regions, villages that failed to meet the quota were also forced to surrender all other foodstuffs.

Recent articles detailing the Soviet regime's war on the peasantry, based on Soviet archives, describe a living hell: government agents going door to door confiscating food; families in recalcitrant villages forced out of their homes and left to freeze; men and women tortured to make them reveal hidden stockpiles of food; widespread cannibalism. These horrors were by no means limited to Ukraine.

It is nonetheless true that Stalin's fateful decision to blockade famine-stricken areas, issued in January 1933, was initially directed at Ukraine and Kuban. This has prompted French historian Nicolas Werth, coauthor of The Black Book of Communism, to reconsider his view of the Terror-Famine as ethnically neutral class warfare. In an address at the Harvard Ukrainian Institute on November 18, Werth said he now believes there is sufficient evidence to support the "national interpretation" of the famine. This evidence, in his view, includes the fact that the Holodomor coincided with a Soviet campaign against Ukrainian nationalism, with purges and executions targeting Ukraine's political and cultural elites. Yet Werth concluded with a pointed plea to remember all the victims of the Communist war on the peasantry.

Recognition of the Holodomor as genocide is complicated by several factors. The ethnic component of the Terror-Famine in Ukraine was not driven by a nationalist animus against Ukrainians but by Stalin's paranoia about Ukrainian nationalism and alleged ties to Poland. Moreover, many of the people who carried out the exterminationist policies were ethnic Ukrainians. Perhaps, as Russian historian Boris Sokolov has argued, a proper condemnation of Communist terror requires a new category: mass murder not motivated by ethnic hatred.

The scholarly and political debate will doubtless continue. Last September, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution declaring the Holodomor a genocide; a month later, the European Parliament voted to recognize it as a "crime against humanity" but stopped short of the G-word. Meanwhile, it seems that the only time Russia's government remembers the Russian victims of the Terror-Famine is when it needs them to counter Ukrainian claims about "the so-called Holodomor."

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.