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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Legacy of the Famine: Ukraine as a postgenocidal society

18 February, 2003 - 00:00

In 1981, as I embarked on studies of the Great Famine in Ukraine, there were still many unpublished Party documents. After studying national communism within the context of the Ukrainian history of the period, along with documents, speeches, and editorials carried literally every day by the official press of Soviet Ukraine, the main features of the Soviet official policy toward Ukraine became completely clear to me.

At this point a digression is in order. Why should I, a born and bred American, take up such a topic? What did I need it for? I have been asked this question very often and I have often been tempted to ask in turn: Why should millions of Russians, Jews, Armenians, and Ukrainians travel across the ocean to that faraway godforsaken country, my America? I did it because Ukrainian Americans required such research, and fate decreed that the victims chose me. Just as one cannot study the Holocaust without becoming half Jewish in spirit, one cannot study the Famine and not become at least half Ukrainian. I have spent too many years studying it for Ukraine not to have become the greater part of my life. After all, Martin Luther said, “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

The perpetrators’ motive was simple, and all the documents and later research have not changed the overall portrait of the events I first presented in 1982 International Conference on the Holocaust and Genocide in Tel Aviv. I remain convinced that, for Stalin to have complete centralized power in his hands, he found it necessary to physically destroy the second largest Soviet republic, meaning the annihilation of the Ukrainian peasantry, Ukrainian intelligentsia, Ukrainian language, and history as understood by the people; to do away with Ukraine and things Ukrainian as such. The calculation was very simple, very primitive: no people, therefore, no separate country, and thus no problem. Such a policy is GENOCIDE in the classic sense of the word.

Until the end of war communism in 1921, the Bolsheviks cultivated an almost pathological hatred towards what they called bourgeois nationalism. The essence of Lenin’s formula, “rapprochement and merger of nations,” can itself be interpreted as progenocidal, since imposing a single national pattern was proclaimed “historically progressive.” During the first Soviet occupation of Kyiv, Bolshevik forces shot anyone they found in the streets speaking Ukrainian. The famine of 1921-23, killing millions in Ukraine, was obviously exacerbated by Moscow’s economic policy with regard to Ukraine. Food was pumped out of that country in an openly discriminatory manner. In 1919 the head of the second Soviet Ukrainian government, Khristian Rakovsky, in 1919 formally branded Ukrainian a counterrevolutionary language. In 1921, the Council of People’s Commissars of the Russian Federative Soviet Socialist Republic (RFSSR) asked for help only for the starving populace in Volga Basin and the New Economic Policy (NEP) that ended the forced seizure of foodstuffs delayed in Ukraine six months to prolong the prodrazverstka campaign of requisitioning farm produce. It was only with the start of NEP in 1921 that an attempt was made to have Soviet power coexist with non-Russian languages and cultures (resolution On the National Question of the Tenth RKP{b} Congress). In the course of Ukrainization (or “indigenization” proclaimed by the Twelfth Party Congress), in 1923-32, Communists in Ukraine attempted to gain control of the Ukrainian national cultural process by directly participating in it. Halting this policy during the Holodomor of 1932- 33 had all the hallmarks of genocide. To enforce his direct rule in Ukraine, Stalin restored to terrible repression and, finally, to famine. In late October 1932, the All-Union Communist Party (VKP{b}) took the grain procurements campaign under its direct control through Viacheslav Molotov, Chairman of the USSR Council of People’s Commissars, who was appointed chairman of the grain procurements commission in the Ukrainian SSR. (Lazar Kaganovich headed an analogous commission in what was then the South Caucasus Territory, including the heavily Ukrainian Kuban.) On November 18 the Central Committee of the Communist Party (Bolshevik) of Ukraine (KP{b}U), presided over by Molotov, instituted a system of fines payable in kind. This was actually a directive aimed at making collective farmers return to the state grain received as advance payments on crops, and confiscating other foodstuffs in the absence of grain. All this could only be interpreted as a policy meant to cause a famine, the Holodomor.

The CC VKP(b) Politburo resolution of December 14, 1932, signed by Stalin and Molotov, accusing the Ukrainian SSR government and leadership of the North Caucasus Territory of Ukrainian nationalism, this being allegedly the main reason for the unwillingness or inability of the local Communists to comply with the procurements quotas for mythical grain, along with a January 24, 1933 VKP(b) reprimand of the entire KP(b)U, were graphic evidence that the leadership in Moscow sought to end any independent activity by the KP(b)U and Soviet Ukrainian government. The mass terror unleashed against Ukrainian culture in 1933 was additional evidence that Moscow wanted to destroy Ukrainian national identity as the basis of such independent activity. In 1988, the US Commission on the Ukraine Famine, relying on such evidence, determined that the Holodomor was an act of genocide. In 1990, an international commission to study the 1932-33 Holodomor in Ukraine, set up by the World Congress of Free Ukrainians, failed to arrive at an unequivocal conclusion because certain members erroneously considered genocide a matter of legislation ( droit) rather than unchanging law ( loi ), contrary to the basic international instruments. The commission explained its decision, saying the Manmade Famine in Ukraine was organized 15 years before the said documents were adopted, and that an act of genocide could be claimed only the then Soviet government; that none of the actual organizers of the Holodomor were among the living, except Lazar Kaganovich. The nature and scope of the Holodomor in Ukraine remain subject to dispute by foreign experts.

We investigated the issue as best we could. It seems to me that the documents we collected, including eyewitness accounts and our Report to Congress , have played their role. The further work with this material we leave to posterity. We simply could not endure the pain and horror. Stalin’s sociological scorched earth policy maimed Ukraine to such an extent that it created a discontinuity in the normal development of the Ukrainian people, producing a unique situation. While in countries such as Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, etc., the collapse of communism could and did result in the restoration of independence lost by the previous states, in Ukraine, except for its western territories, the Ukrainian nation — as a community possessing a broad consensus regarding its identity, history, and cultural values — has remained in a sense a national minority in its own country. In other words, the people as such was so deformed that when Ukraine finally became independent there was no broad consensus concerning its future. All that remained was the surviving structures of Soviet Ukraine. In 1991, all of us made a fundamental albeit unconscious error in assuming that the newly independent states were new independent states. Now it is clear that in fact hitherto extant but dependent states merely became independent with the same people remaining in basically the same positions, doing basically the same things, and the course of events evolved from there. Postcommunist Ukraine is no longer just an independent Ukrainian SSR, but it is also not a Ukrainian Ukraine, in the subjective sense — with people sharing the same national values and understanding of their identity — in the sense in which Poland is Polish and the Czech Republic is Czech.

All broad historical narratives are to some extent artificial, yet this is a natural process of self-understanding for any given people. In the case of the Soviet Union, there was the artificial incorporation of Ukrainian history and those of other peoples, imposing a different national identity, as seen fit by those in power at the time. In 1950, the late Anna Pankratova made a discovery in the nineteenth edition of her History of the USSR , writing that the Cossack revolution, which began in 1649, was the “Ukrainian war of national liberation led by Bohdan Khmelnytsky.” The apparent subtext was that for Ukrainians “national liberation” meant “reunification” with the big brother, Russia; they were to distinguish between the “Great Patriotic War” and World War II, meaning that they won that war as a “little brother” under the big one’s able guidance and not as a full-fledged member of the United Nations taking part in a world struggle against Nazism. Works in Russian by, say, Mikhail Bulgakov were generally available, but a whole generation of Ukrainian literati known as the rozstriliane vidrodzhennia , the renaissance that was executed, was “erased,” although its representatives were as talented as all those representing Russia’s coterminous silver age (Mykola Khvyliovy, Yury Yanovsky, young Sosiura and Tychyna, along with Mykola Zerov’s neoclassicist poetry and translations from ancient literature). The Soviet regime did its best to “root out and destroy nationalism” (

Bilshovyk Ukrayiny , 1933, No. 7) in the language itself, purging the very vocabulary of the language as the intellectual building blocks of the cultural development in any human community. What was left remained too little to make Ukraine an equal member of the world community of nations.

As I have often said, the late О migr

О Prof. Ivan L. Rudnytsky saw the roots of what would grow as today’s Ukraine as early as 1962: the republic nomenklatura and those beginning to look for and sow the seeds of current national values. Previously, I have referred to these forces as Ukraine’s territorial and the national elites. The tragedy of independent Ukraine is that the territorial, rather than the national elite became the dominant force, its members retaining all the hallmarks of the traditional nomenklatura (think one thing, say another, and do yet a third). The actual Ukrainian economic model remains triangular. This triangle was discernible even in the 1970s: corrupt members of the nomenklatura м illegal entrepreneurs м criminal organizations. Except that narrow professionals were now the hitherto illegal entrepreneurs being replaced by “businessmen” who are more interested in politics than business, while the other sides of the triangle could always be used to get the better of the more productive competitors, causing the productivity of labor to remain low and the people poor. In fact, the situation is the same in Russia. So long as this situation remains, all talk about Ukraine’s European choice will remain just so much empty talk, for the European Union is an above all an economic organization, and this post-Soviet economic model is incompatible with the European one, while all the fine phrases about zlahoda (harmony or accord) actually serve to conceal the absence of any national convictions in most of those who wield power in Ukraine. Members of the territorial elite will provide everything asked of them in the national sphere, because they themselves have nothing to lose here, no national values, nor do they have any real state ones. Much has been written about the inferiority and lack of competitiveness among Ukrainian-language print and other media outlets. Yet who wants to read a hundred times over how much we love Ukraine — and this using slang rather than literary Ukrainian, when most translations of foreign authors read better and are more interesting in Russian?

Only the Ukrainians themselves can decide how they should speak and write. Yet how can they decide this, not knowing the words once banned (again, see Bilshovyk Ukrayiny , 1933, No 7!)? I wish that someday someone would sit, as I have done, over the suppressed works from the 1920s of the Academy of Sciences Institutes of Scientific Language and Living Language. When will the results of their work be published, so that all can examine what was done by that lost generation and then be able to make the most basic building blocks of the nation’s thought?

The main thing is that Ukrainians will never become a full-fledged people and an equal member of European civilization until power flows from the state to a self-organized people able to force those in power to do what the people want. This is precisely what makes us often fail to understand the actual meaning of the concept, civil society. It is not an ideal system, not always completely democratic, but no one has discovered anything better thus far. No state will ever make Ukraine Ukrainian. Only self-organized Ukrainians can do this, and I am deeply convinced that they will.


Prof. James Mace , author of numerous scholarly works and one of the first serious researchers of the 1933 Holodomor, was born February 18, 1952, in Muskogee, Oklahoma. In 1973, he graduated from Oklahoma State University and went on to earn an M.A. and Ph.D. in history at the University of Michigan, in 1981 defending his dissertation, “Communism and the Dilemmas of National Liberation: National Communism in Soviet Ukraine, 1919-33,” later published in book form (Harvard, 1983). Upon completing his graduate studies Dr. Mace was invited to join the famine project at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute where he collected material for Robert Conquest’s Harvest of Despair . In 1986-90, James Mace served as executive director of the US Ukraine Famine Commission, a hybrid body subject to Congress and the president, supervising its daily work and drafting its findings for approval by the full commission. After 1990, he held fellowships at Columbia and Illinois Universities. In 1993, Prof. Mace moved to Ukraine, working first as a supervisory research fellow at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences Institute of Ethnic and Political Studies, then teaching politics at the Kyiv- Mohyla Academy National University and International Christian University. Since 1998, Prof. Mace has been consultant to our English digest, The Day .

By James MACE, The Day