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Lessons from Melbourne meetings

Ukrainians and Russians will reach agreement on the 1932 — 1933 famine only if aided by the international scholarly community
26 May, 00:00

(Conclusion. For beginning see The Day No. 13 and 14)


It is an established fact that mass terror was the key tool for running the state under Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin. Inappropriate industrial relationships were imposed on petty proprietors through violence and terror, and this took place in a multiethnic country. Thus, terror inevitably took on not only social but also ethnical coloring.

In the Ukraine-Russia debate [on the Holodomor] our opponents defend two main claims: (1) the famine was an unwelcome occurrence for the government, and (b) it stemmed from the socioeconomic policy of the time and was not ethnically selective. One can agree with the first statement, while the second one has to be proven, but the Russian side does not consider itself obliged to provide evidence.

The Holodomor in Ukraine is already recognized as an objective fact in Russia. The collections of documents published in Ukraine, North America, and Europe have been instrumental in this. Under the circumstances there was only one way to prove the fundamental similarity of the Holodomor and the all-Union famine—open one’s archives. The archival documents thus made available show that the Russian countryside also suffered a heavy famine, with numerous cases of cannibalism. The hair-raising scope of the Holodomor is now being attributed to the central government’s special pressure on Ukraine’s agriculture because it specialized in export grain varieties.

There is no denying this pressure, but one must distinguish between the all-Union famine and the Holodomor in Ukraine. The international community and our citizens must be shown how the famine, caused by grain deliveries, evolved into the Holodomor as a result of the confiscation of non-grain foodstuffs and blockading the starving residents in their places of residence.

A refusal to analyze grain deliveries in the context of the Holodomor places the Ukraine-Russia debate on a different plane. It becomes no longer possible to explain the Holodomor by some higher objectives of industrialization and Ukraine’s specialization in export crops. For us the issue on the agenda is to explain why, with the USSR’s on the brink of [economic] collapse, Stalin was not content with stopping the communist storming but, in his own words, dealt a devastating blow to two Ukrainian-speaking regions.

The UN convention of Dec. 9, 1948, does not require documenting the causes behind the crime of genocide. It suffices to demonstrate the intent to kill people by famine and its realization. However, the death of millions of Ukrainian peasants must be considered in broader context, so that it can be recognized as an act of genocide. The UN convention does not recognize genocide on the social basis.

As it was, terror by famine combined with mass terror aimed against the national intelligentsia, apparatchiks, and all of the 500,000 members of the CP(B)U. Just like Stalin’s other terrorist policies, his terror against Ukraine was preemptive. The Kremlin’s policy with regard to Ukraine was incompatible with the constitutional and actual construction of a state-commune. Under its constitution, the Soviet Union was a commonwealth of equal national republics, each entitled to withdraw from the federation. In actuality, it was a unitary entity with maximally centralized governance. This unitary nature was secured by the Kremlin’s dictatorship. The Kremlin rulers were afraid of any manifestations of separatism on the part of Ukraine as the largest national republic in terms of economic and human potential. That was why Ukraine found itself in the epicenter of Stalin’s repressions that lasted for a quarter of a century.

Remarkably, historians may arrive at different conclusions while dealing with the same facts. Trying to prove that the Kremlin had no reason to terrorize Ukraine, Kondrashin writes in his book: “During the Stalin epoch there was neither Ukraine nor Russia, just the unitary Soviet Union where the republics held their nominal status, while in reality they were absolutely dependent parts of a single state organism controlled by the Center.” (pp. 378–379.) Indeed, after the Holodomor and mass terror in 1933–38, Ukraine became a dependent part of a single organism. In 1934 Stalin even allowed its capital to be moved from Kharkiv to Kyiv, the national center of the Ukrainian people. However, one must realize that there were no people left in post-genocidal Ukraine who were capable of exercising their constitutional rights.

We agree that the all-Union famine was unpredicted and unanticipated for the Soviet government. My opponents, however, should acknowledge the apparent possibility of the USSR falling apart if the central government had suffered a crisis. In fact, this is precisely what happened in 1990-91, on Russia’s, rather than Ukraine’s, initiative.


In conjunction with the 70th anniversary of the Holodomor, the Institute of History of Ukraine published a joint monograph entitled Holod 1932—1933 rokiv v Ukraini: prychyny ta naslidky (1932–33 Famine in Ukraine: Causes and Consequences). In March 2004 we visited Moscow and brought copies of this 936-page publication. The Russian Academy’s Institute of General History gathered prestigious historians who were versed in the history of agriculture to discuss the book. Their verdict, formulated by Viktor Danilov and Ivan Zelenin, read: “Should one characterize the famine of 1932–33 as a ‘deliberate act of genocide against the Ukrainian peasantry,’ it would be necessary to bear in mind that this was an act of genocide against the Russian peasantry, in equal measure.”

Volodymyr Vynnychenko said that one should take bromide drops when familiarizing oneself with Ukrainian history. After the debate in Moscow I realized that the rest of the world is not interested in our emotions, and one must approach this problem from the standpoint of abstract science. I have spent these five years writing articles and books. S. Romaniv was the first to bring up the matter of the author’s version. Indeed, such a version exists. It is rooted in the simple idea of separating the famine of 1932 from the Holodomor. In other words, distinguish between the death of hundreds of thousands of people (among them “activists” manipulated by the NKVD) caused by the confiscation of grain from murdering millions by famine after they had been stripped of their non-grain foodstuffs.

It is necessary to combine the analysis of the socioeconomic policy that brought about the all-Union famine of 1932— 33 and that of the “national policy” that resulted in the Holodomor. Methods employed by the Kremlin to wipe out peasants who did not depend on the state (whatever their ethnic origin was) turned out extremely cruel. This could be identified as genocide if the UN convention included social group in its definition of genocide. However, this convention was adopted allowing for the stand taken by the Soviet diplomats, so any mentions of social groups were removed.

Methods used in the Ukrainian SSR and the Kuban to destroy national statehood, which had been created by the Kremlin and put in the Soviet straightjacket, proved especially horrifying. The meetings in Melbourne demonstrated the unique nature of the Ukrainian Holodomor — not in scope but in content. They convinced me that the international scholarly community will become aware of famine as a genocidal tool only when it comes to view the Ukrainian Holodomor as resulting from a certain combination of circumstances, time, and place that occurred in a place that was in the focus of the Kremlin’s socioeconomic and national policies.

Meanwhile, they are still being convinced that genocide in Ukraine relates to the Holocaust. Someone even coined the designation “Ukrainian Holocaust” to refer to the Holodomor rather than the destruction of 1.5 million Jews in Ukraine during the Second World War. This leads to the identification of the Holodomor as an act of genocide on an ethnic basis. Such legal definition of Stalin’s crime presents it as an ethnic cleansing. Ethnic cleansings have always been carried out to benefit some other ethnos. In view of this, Russia’s sharp response to Ukraine’s attempts to have the Holodomor recognized as an act of genocide becomes understandable.

Twenty-five years ago, Montreal hosted the world’s first scholarly conference on the 1932–33 famine in Ukraine. James Mace, then an obscure US researcher, made a presentation and provided evidence supporting his qualification of this famine as an act of genocide on a national basis. He specialized in the Kremlin’s “national policy” and had arrived at the conclusion that Stalin’s terror in Ukraine was aimed not against certain ethnic groups or individuals in a certain sector, but against the citizens of the Ukrainian state that had emerged during the disintegration of the Russian empire, died, and then revived in the form of a Soviet republic. This formulation is confirmed by the evidence accumulated over the past 25 years.

Scholars and the international community need to be convinced with hard facts, rather than emotional statements, that the Holodomor in Ukraine was historically unique. To do so, the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, other academic institutions, universities, and our diaspora must join their efforts.

As before, the stand taken by the diaspora has weight. Is it prepared to alter its usual approaches to the Holodomor? In fact, it won’t take much—just place this tragedy in the context of the all-Union famine and the latter, in the broader context of communist construction. Before flying to Melbourne I happened to meet in Kyiv with the US journalist Clifford J. Levy. He was tasked by The New York Times to figure the Ukraine-Russia confrontation over the Holodomor. We talked for two hours and I explained to him what Romaniv had somewhat ironically referred to as a version of the Holodomor. On March 12, NYT carried the article “A New View of a Famine That Killed Millions.”

The heading touched a sensitive spot in our fellow countrymen in NYC. On March 29, The Ukrainian Weeklyran an editorial objecting that most Ukrainians had long considered this famine an act of genocide, and this view was not new in any way. I agree that there is nothing new in this conclusion. However, we need to remember about the minority of our compatriots and the countries (they are in majority) whose official representatives have a different opinion. We need to consider what arguments can be used to appeal to them. The world has not as yet recognized our famine as an act of genocide, but there are objective grounds upon which to seek this recognition.

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