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Lessons from Melbourne meetings

Ukrainians and Russians will reach agreement on the 1932 — 33 famine only if aided by the international scholarly community
28 April, 00:00
Photo by Ruslan KANIUKA, The Day

In late March 2009 a workshop seminar on comparative analyses of famines in various countries took place in Melbourne. This was the first time when the leading European, North American, and Asian scholars gathered to discuss this sensitive issue.

The Melbourne meetings demonstrated that we, Ukrainians, must prove our point to the international community, which still has doubts about the genocidal nature of the Holodomor. In the course of discussions with our foreign colleagues we realized the points at issue.

We have to persuade the rest of the world to recognize the Law “On the Holodomor of 1932–33 in Ukraine,” passed by the Verkhovna Rada, along with the conclusion on genocide. However, the diplomatic, scholarly, and educational efforts aimed at winning this international recognition must be substantially corrected.


Melbourne has a population of 3.5 million, yet in terms of territory it is one of world’s largest cities. You see few people in the streets except the downtown business center. Most people use cars or bicycles. Skyscrapers are found only in the business center. Most other structures are private houses and long two-storied apartment buildings. There are high rises here and there, mostly inhabited by recent immigrants. The architecture is an impressive mix of the classical Victorian and ultramodern styles. Melbourne society is multiethnic, yet the traditions of Great Britain are unmistakable (including left-hand traffic).

There are several universities, including the oldest University of Melbourne with the main building located downtown. Its planning and architecture remind one of Cambridge and Harvard campuses. The UM is on the world’s 20 top universities list. It has 45,000 students, including over 10,000 foreign nationals from a hundred countries, the largest groups coming from the People’s Republic of China, South Korea, India, and Indochina.

The University initiates Soviet studies following the arrival of Dr. Stephen Wheatcroft as a representative of the Birmingham school of economic history founded by Edward Carr. This team of scholars maintains contacts with research centers in North America, Europe, and Russia. Over the past couple of decades, the University of Melbourne has established effective contacts with major Asian research centers. All this helped organize a representative conference of scholars specializing in 20th-century demographic disasters.

The Melbourne meetings dealt with three major subjects: the 1932–33 famine in the USSR, famines in various regions of the world during the Second World War, and the 1959–61 famine in China.

The subject of the Holodomor in Ukraine was presented by Valerii Vasyliev, Stephen Wheatcroft, and Stanislav Kulchytsky. The famine in Kazakhstan was analyzed by Sarah Cameron (Yale University), Robert Kindler (Humboldt University, Berlin), and Niccolo Pianciola (University of Trento, Italy). Viktor Kondrashin (Penza University, Russia) dwelt on the famine in the Volga Region.

Dr. Cormac O’Grada (University College Dublin) delivered a report on the 1943–44 famine in Bengal. Christina Twomey, senior lecturer with the School of Historical Studies, Monash University, Melbourne, and Dr. Andrew Brown-May (University of Melbourne) reported on the famine in India. Val Noone (UM) and Violetta Hionidou (Newcastle University) reported on the famine in Greece. John Barber (Cambridge, UK) demonstrated the consequences of the Nazi siege of Leningrad. His report was accompanied by a strikingly revealing documentary made by a Leningrad studio for physicians back in 1943. Dr. Wheatcroft dwelled on the famine in the part of the Soviet Union that was not occupied by the Wehrmacht during the Second World War.

In today’s China any references to the 1959–61 famine are strongly discouraged, the only exceptions being Hong Kong and, to an extent, Shanghai. As it was, Dr. Gao Wangling (Renmin University, Beijing) delivered a lecture on the subject. Analyses of this famine were also present in the reports of Dr. James Kung and Dr. Zhao Zhongwei (University of Hong Kong), Dr. Stephen Morgan (University of Nottingham, UK), Dr. Felix Wemhejer (University of Vienna), Dr. Wei Ha (UN), and Dr. Winnie Fung (Harvard).

The topic of the Holodomor in Ukraine was in the limelight. First, it was considered at both the workshop seminar and the conference. Second, there was a roundtable after the conference that debated whether this famine could be recognized as an act of genocide. The debate involved scholars (among them Dr. Roman Serbyn, University of Quebec at Montreal), as well as representatives of the Ukrainian and Russian ethnic communities in Australia.


Stephen Romaniw, President of the Australian Federation of Ukrainian Organizations (AFUO), one of the organizers of the roundtable, was satisfied with the debate. Even though every side retained its view on the matter, for him the important thing was that the issue had been brought to the attention of the international scholarly community. Mr. Romaniw politely commented on my report, saying that he found my version interesting, although he was apparently satisfied only with the conclusion that the Holodomor should be recognized as an act of genocide.

Is it good when an inference about an act of genocide stems from a version — in other words, from a hypothesis? One of my books has a subheading “Interpretation of Facts.” Some may place historical facts in a different sequence, yet it is necessary to deal with hypotheses. When passing judgment on an act of genocide, it is impossible to reduce yourself to determining the scale of this demographic catastrophe. It is necessary to explain the reasons behind this disaster. After verification this hypothesis may become a theory.

I often hear that my studies of the Holodomor have been ordered from “upstairs.” In trying to prove this, my critics seek discrepancies in my statements made at different periods. They believe that this will help them lessen the value of my recent conclusions. Second, a scholarly quest may produce results that that will be the exact opposite of the previous findings. I have spent 20 years reconsidering a lot of my previous statements and finally adopted a new version of this act of genocide. Previously I contented myself with pointing to the scope of this demographic catastrophe. This was an emotional rather than scholarly stand.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union there have appeared dozens of prestigious research papers dealing with the 1932–33 famine. Whereas the topic of the Kazakhstan famine keeps being strongly discouraged by the Kazakhstan authorities, there are scholars in the West who are willing to study it. In Russia all research on the famine is geared toward preventing Ukraine from having the Holodomor acknowledged by the international community as an act of genocide, but the Russian scholars’ findings have their value, regardless of what the authors of all those monographs or compilers of documentary collections were actually after. I will try to prove my point by referring to V. Kondrashin’s fundamental work “The Famine of 1932–33: Tragedy of the Russian Countryside” published in 2008 by Russia’s Rossiskaia Politicheskaia Entsyklopedia (ROSSPEN) Publishers.

Let me first give you an outline of my version. It is easy to ascertain that the Stalin-sired communist economic storming in 1929–32 pushed the USSR’s national economy to the brink of total collapse, the same kind collapse that had befallen the Soviet republics during another such “storm period” in 1918–20. The party leadership wanted to translate into life the utopian dream of a society without private ownership, without commodity-money-market relationships.

Faced with this imminent collapse, Stalin acknowledged the collective and individual farmers’ ownership rights to their produce and replaced the arbitrary and uncontrollable prodrazverstka (quota system) with an in-kind tax. As a result, the project for constructing a state-commune was not completed, but the collapse was overcome, although the Moscow government found itself faced with unanticipated famines in many regions of the USSR, including Ukraine.

In January 1933 Stalin ordered confiscation of non-grain foodstuffs in peasants’ households in the Ukrainian SSR and the Kuban. This mission was carried out by the NKVD and resulted in conditions incompatible with survival. Historians must prove that this mission was indeed carried out, while legal scholars must determine whether it conforms to the criteria of the Dec. 9, 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

I started working on another Holodomor monograph in 2005 (the first one was published in 1991). While working on it, I contributed articles to The Day and then the editors published them as a book in 2007. My monograph with my new interpretation of the Holodomor also appeared in print. In these books I argue that the NKVD mission was disguised as a forceful grain procurement campaign. It resulted in the death of millions of Ukrainian villagers. It remained unnoticed in the conditions when a famine swept across the Soviet Union, hundreds of thousands starved to death, an information blockade was imposed on Ukraine, and people were physically prevented from leaving their places of residence. Stalin subsequently ordered the execution of three out of the five party functionaries who were in charge of this mission (Vsevolod Balytsky, Yurii Yevdokymov, and Pavel Postyshev), while the other two survived — Lazar Kaganovich and Viacheslav Molotov.

Reconstructing events relating to the Holodomor in Ukraine is like collecting the fragments of a broken vase with a portrait on it. Of course, you can accuse a researcher of noting nothing else but facts that support the genocide theory. You can collect such fragments and put them together where they fit, but whichever way you go about this broken vase, it shows Stalin’s image in the end.

Regrettably, my opponents refuse to hold a public debate with me. The “building material” of my version is either ignored or misinterpreted, as evidenced by the Melbourne meetings and by Kondrashin’s book. Therefore, I see the sense of this article in defending my stand on the matter.


While in Melbourne, I was once again convinced that it is very important to agree on the key concepts. I mean the concepts of genocide and terror-famine. The latter was coined by Robert Conquest [in his book The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine] in 1986. This scholar believed that terror-famine was a genocidal tool.

Many believe that terror-famine has nothing to do with genocide. We all know that terror, as enforced by a government, individual, or group, is aimed at forcing people to behave in a certain way by intimidating them. Our colleagues in the West should realize the difference between the “Red Terror” in Soviet Russia — it was instituted in December 1917, when the Cheka was formed — and terror in other countries. The Red Terror acquired an unprecedented scope in a country whose population was mostly made up of small-time owners and where a quazi-Marxist utopia of a state without private ownership was being translated into life — I mean Lenin’s idea of a state-commune. The Bolsheviks physically destroyed their enemies—and those they referred to as “former people.” They never hesitated to annihilate or exile entire social strata and ethnic communities to remote regions. As a result, the Red Terror remained a tool of intimidation, sometimes turning into a genocidal weapon.

I can understand the Western researchers’ cautious attitude to the Holodomor in Ukraine, in particular its identification as an act of genocide. In Melbourne we dealt with cases of famine caused by natural phenomena, hostilities, or governnments. All agreed that the large-scale famines in the USSR (1932–33) and China (1959–61) were to be blamed on their governments that were implementing socioeconomic reforms using the trial-and-error method.

The USSR’s “great breakthrough” and China’s “great leap forward” produced the same result: a deep-reaching economic crisis. Under the circumstances these government increased pressure on the peasantry, demanding greater output and resorting to confiscation of crops in order meet the demands that they regarded as top priority ones. Confiscation of harvest yields resulted in man-made famines and the death of a great number of people. The Soviet government sacrificed people in the countryside to secure grain deliveries to big cities and workers involved in major new construction projects, as well as for exports. Grain was being exchanged for foreign equipment to be used in construction projects — and this looked especially cynical against the backdrop of famine. Yet this kind of policy should not be identified with genocide because it had its own final objective.

Does the death toll have any importance for the conclusion on the genocidal nature of a famine? None of those who took part in the Melbourne meetings qualified the 1959–61 famine in China, which killed some 30 million peasants, as an act of genocide, just as none of the presenters and discussants described the famine in Kazakhstan as an act of genocide.

What follows from the above? People were killed by famines engineered by their governments in both cases: (a) when the government took away their grain, leaving their households without any other foodstuffs; (b) when people the state confiscated all food while putting a physical and informational fence around the areas that had been robbed in this fashion. In the first case people starved to death, while in the second case they were killed by terror-famine. We will never convince anyone that the Holodomor was an act of genocide if we keep telling them that the reason behind it was the grain delivery campaign.

This campaign killed hundreds of thousands of peasants in various regions of the Soviet Union, in particular in Ukraine. Tens — if not hundreds — of thousands of urban residents died because certain population groups were denied centralized bread supplies. The high death toll during the 1932 famine in the Ukrainian SSR and the one in 1933, in the ethnic German community of the Volga Region, was caused by excessive official grain delivery quotas. However, it is impossible to ascertain what caused them to be set so high for the regions. Anyone can deny that the Kremlin paid “special attention” to Ukrainians or ethnic Germans and attribute such excessive quotas to the fact that these regions produced grain for exports.

Unlike the grain delivery campaign, confiscation of all foodstuffs meant one thing: killing people by famine. This aspect cannot be interpreted otherwise. Therefore, we must follow in Robert Conquest’s footsteps and admit that what the Kremlin had in mind for the Ukrainian SSR and the Kuban in the RSFSR was terror-famine.

Russia believes that Ukraine wants to single out its famine, compared to the one that befell the whole Soviet Union at the time, simply because it wants to blame today’s Russia for that act of genocide. Indeed, we hear such accusations from politicos and irresponsible journalists. However, scholars have to limit themselves to what happened in Ukraine because accessing archives in Russia, especially in conjunction with this issue, is a big problem. During the workshop seminar Kondrashin claimed that the famine death toll in the Lower Volga Region (where the ethnic Germans lived) was comparable with that in Ukraine. If so, all there is left to be done is ascertaining whether there was a terrorist aspect to this high death toll and then determining whether or not what took place in that region can be qualified as an act of genocide. Ours is a different task. We have to prove that the famine in Ukraine was a terror-famine, an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people.

Let me start by stating that the replacement of prodrazverstka with an in-kind tax was carried out simultaneously with that terrorist act against the Ukrainian SSR and the Kuban. This is proof that Stalin did single out these two Ukrainian-speaking regions from the rest of the country. He combined the economic measures that had proved effective in 1921 with acts of terrorism in these regions.

It is important to stress that the complete information blockade of the campaign to confiscate all non-grain foodstuffs was combined with the consistent implementation of Lenin’s motto: “If any would not work, neither should he eat.” This is further proof that killing people by famine was combined with bullying, as a traditional function of terror.

There is a chapter in my 2007 monograph that is entitled “Education by Murder.” It deals with intimidation as a function of terror-famine. Let me quote from Oleksandr Odyntsov, then People’s Commissar of Agriculture of the Ukrainian SSR. After inspecting the worst famine-stricken areas in Kyiv oblast, he had this to say: “People are getting increasingly aware, especially in the famine-affected areas, of what is happening; they hate idlers and thieves. The conscientious collective farmers want these idlers and thieves killed by hunger.” A surprising inference, but we must understand that this commissar had to abide by Stalin’s instructions (although he was nonetheless purged later). Stalin addressed an all-Union congress of advanced collective farmers on Feb. 19, 1933, saying that Lenin’s motto about giving food only to those who worked was especially topical and aimed against those who did not want to work but desired to benefit from those who did.

Apparently, the intimidation aspect Soviet terror is clearly apparent in the Ukrainian Holodomor. Now we will proceed to examine its second aspect, namely the mechanism designed to kill a great many people by famine.

(To be continued)

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