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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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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.