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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

Letters from Kharkiv

The truth about the Holodomor through the eyes of Italian diplomats
20 November, 2007 - 00:00

Our newspaper recently published an interview with the Italian academic Andrea Graziosi, which he granted to Marianna Soronevych, editor in chief of Ukrainska hazeta v Italii (The Ukrainian Newspaper in Italy). The interview was held at the Embassy of Ukraine in the Italian Republic after Dr. Graziosi, a professor at the University of Naples Federico II, was awarded the Order of Yaroslav the Wise, 5th Class. This high distinction was conferred on the Italian scholar “for his considerable personal contribution to researching the manmade famines in Ukraine, for urging the international community to recognize the 1932-33 Holodomor as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people, and his intense civic activities with respect to honoring the memory of the victims of this tragedy,” states the decree issued by the president of Ukraine.

In the following interview, Graziosi opines for the first time that “Stalin did not intend to exterminate all the Ukrainians; he just wanted to kill a few million in order to make the others obey his power.” He also talks about his publications on the Holodomor. “Archival documents, including the dispatches of Italian consuls in Ukraine in the 1930s, were published long ago in the US, Italy, and France. I called them by the same title as the file in which they were kept — Letters from Kharkiv . Now I am writing a history of the Soviet Union from its formation to its collapse, as well as about the 1930s civil war in Ukraine and the Second World War. I hope these works will be published soon,” Graziosi said.

After publishing this interview, we explored the possibility of translating Letters from Kharkiv into Ukrainian. By sheer coincidence we learned that this is already being done. We asked our regular contributor Prof. Yuri Shapoval, who acted as a consultant to the Ukrainian edition of Letters from Kharkiv , to tell us more about Graziosi’s work.

In a few days, the Kharkiv-based Folio Publishers is expected to issue an extremely interesting and important book called Letters from Kharkiv. These letters are in fact reports from Italian diplomats who were posted in the USSR in 1930-34, in which they describe the famine situation. The book is being published through the efforts of the Institute of Italian Culture in Kyiv. This academic institution invited me to take part in this interesting project as a scholarly editor and the author of a brief afterword.

I agreed with pleasure, not in the least because it was Prof. Andrea Graziosi, a colleague and a good friend of mine, who discovered the Italian diplomats’ letters, which he found in 1987 at Italy’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “These documents lead one to reckon with one of the 20th-century’s biggest European tragedies,” Prof. Graziosi writes in the foreword to the book. “They radically changed my idea of Soviet history and my overall vision of the last century. This is why their publication in Ukraine fills me with joy.”

What is also important is that these documents were found even earlier by Basilian monks, who handed them over to the US Commission that researched the famine in the mid-1980s. The Italian diplomats’ accounts were attached to the commission’s Report to Congress. So this evidence is of paramount importance for understanding the causes and consequences of the Holodomor. Published in Italy, France, and the US, these documents are finally appearing in print in the very place where these tragic events took place, fortunately long ago.

As Prof. Nicola Franco Balloni, director of the Institute of Italian Culture in Kyiv, rightly states in his foreword to Letters from Kharkiv, the Ukrainian-language edition is the most complete documentary evidence of the 1930s famine in the USSR, gathered by members of Italy’s diplomatic mission. “The evidence of Italian diplomats,” Prof. Balloni emphasizes, “who were forced to work in the difficult conditions of the Stalin and Mussolini regimes, but were able to remain impartial witnesses of these infernal events, was in fact of no use to Il Duce. For certain reasons, he wanted to maintain good relations with the USSR. However, the times of dictators are ending, but documents remain and, aimed at the descendants of the victims of tyranny, they teach them to remember the tragic past for the sake of the future.”

In the early 1930s, Italy had an embassy in Moscow, as well as a well-ramified network of consular agencies, including consulates in Leningrad, Odesa, and Tbilisi, and vice-consulates in Kharkiv, Batumi, and Novorossiisk. It is the reports from the three latter consular offices and the Moscow- based embassy that were included in Letters from Kharkiv. The people who headed the consular agencies in Kharkiv, Batumi, and Novorossiisk were not professional diplomats but former army officers, who had served well during World War One. Most of the documents cited in the book were prepared by Sergio Gradenigo (1886- 1966), who had worked in Ukraine in 1931-34. He headed the Kharkiv vice-consulate (later elevated to a Royal Consulate) and, at the end of his mission, the newly-formed Consulate General in Kyiv, where the capital of Soviet Ukraine moved in 1934, and, later, a consular representation in Italy. After finishing his term in Ukraine, he served as a volunteer in the Tevere Division in the Italian-Ethiopian War of 1935-36. In 1948 Gradenigo immigrated to Argentina, where he taught and wrote until his death.

What were these reports by the Italian diplomats? They contain very specific information as well as reflections — sometimes merciless, sometimes sympathetic — of foreigners, which were by and large correct assessments and analyses of governmental actions and human behavior.

But let me make a general remark before going into greater detail. Ukraine and the Northern Caucasus had been supplying more than half of all the grain produced in the USSR. Speaking of Ukraine, Stalin noted in 1931that “a number of granaries are in a state of devastation and famine.” Yet the Kremlin believed that Ukraine had enormous reserves of grain that the collective farms and independent farmers were allegedly hiding. This is why the government resorted to brutal measures to procure grain. More than 150,000 people died in 1931 alone. In March and April 1932 there were large numbers of starving people in Ukrainian villages, and cities were full of children who had been abandoned by their parents. This was a distress signal that did not, however, stop the authorities. On July 7, 1932, the Central Committee of the All- Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) passed a resolution on the state grain deliveries. The main idea of the resolution was to fulfill the plan at any cost.

The Stalinist leadership clearly saw two genuine enemies: firstly, the peasants, who were unwilling to work on collective farms and die in the name of industrialization (seeking to avoid the famine caused by meeting the compulsory grain procurement targets, peasants began withdrawing en masse from collective farms); and secondly, the not-so-reliable political-state leadership of Ukraine, which to a certain degree was pursuing a “flexible” line in its dealings with the Kremlin’s demands and tragic local realities. This is why Stalin sent his trusted lieutenants to Ukraine and applied tough sanctions against the peasants, which turned into genocide. In late October 1932, in pursuance of the CC AUCP(b) Politburo resolution of Oct. 22, 1932, an extraordinary commission headed by Viacheslav Molotov, Chairman of the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR, began to work in Ukraine. As early as Oct. 29 Molotov cabled to Stalin, “We had to severely criticize the Ukrainian organization, especially the party’s Central Committee, for failure to launch full- scale requisitioning.” Sharing Stalin’s mistrust of the local authorities, Molotov also demanded that Moscow officials be sent to the Ukrainian SSR to achieve the desirable effect.

Molotov gave a powerful impetus to the repressions. The Politburo of the CC AUCP(b) resolved on Nov. 5, 1932, to increase coercion in the state grain delivery campaign, in particular to boost the role of law-enforcement bodies. A number of measures were drafted, such as immediate trials of cases connected to the state grain deliveries, the organization of circuit court proceedings and the creation of additional courts in every region, and meting out severe punishments. All cases were to be spotlighted in the national and local press.

“The famine continues to take a heavy toll of human lives on such an enormous scale that it is absolutely unclear how the world can remain indifferent to this catastrophe. Through merciless requisitions (which I have repeatedly reported), the Moscow government allowed not just a famine, for this is not quite the precise word, but the complete absence of any means of existence,” a stunned Gradenigo pointed out in his communication dated May 31, 1933.

A little earlier, in February 1932, Gradenigo sent a piece of bread, the kind that was being consumed in Kharkiv at the time, to Italy’s ambassador Bernardo Attolico in Moscow. In one of his messages to Rome the ambassador wrote about the shortage of bread: “It is difficult to imagine that the quality of the food item, so important to the dietary regime in the USSR, should be so bad, as this little piece of bread shows. The truth...is hidden in the real conditions of the decline into which collectivization has thrown Russian agriculture, which is too patriarchal to endure without disastrous consequences an injection of modernization in the shape of collectivization.”

Peasants were fleeing Ukraine to save themselves from the famine. The authorities blocked their departure, captured them, and sent them back. The report of the Italian consulate in Batumi, dated Jan. 20, 1933, provides a detailed description of the way the authorities pushed out the Ukrainian peasants who were fleeing from the famine to Transcaucasia: “The expellees are herded into customs warehouses, where they wait for a steamship. Those who can pay for the passage are separated from those who cannot. The latter are gathered a few hours before departure and escorted by police to a free market, where they can sell what they have with them in order to raise money for a ticket. The police keep curious onlookers away from them and only let in those who are really going to buy something — a coat, a pair of boots, etc. Clearly, lack of time robs these wretched people of the opportunity to bargain, which is advantageous to buyers. All this occurs in complete orderliness and silence, which does not diminish the sad impression of this scene, which turns a marketplace into something like a slave market for a few hours.”

The organs of repression and punishment vested with the exclusive right to record deaths, block information on the famine, and carry out punitive actions were a mighty force. The diplomats’ letters cite some influential secret police officers describing the tragic situation in quite a realistic way. For example, Gradenigo writes in May 1933, “Comrade Frenkel, a member of the OGPU Collegium, admitted to an acquaintance of ours that about 250 corpses of those who starved to death are picked up on the streets of Kharkiv every night. On my part, I can confirm that I saw trucks carrying 10- 15 corpses past the consulate at midnight. Since there are three large neighborhoods under construction next to the consulate, one of the trucks halted by the fence, and two operatives wielding pitchforks got off to search for corpses. I saw 7 people, i.e., two men, one woman, and four children, being picked up with these pitchforks. Other people woke up and vanished as if they were shadows. One of the operatives doing this job said to me, ‘You don’t have this in your country, do you?’”

Incidentally, when I was writing the commentaries, I kept in mind the aforesaid “Comrade Frenkel,” about whom I will write more in detail some other time. This Mikhail Frenkel (1888-1938) held top administrative positions in the GPU of the Ukrainian SSR and was later the chief billeting official at the Administrative and Economic Directorate of the NKVD of the Ukrainian SSR. In 1924 he had been prosecuted for smuggling, but the case was dismissed. In February 1938 he was arrested and accused of spying for Poland and “wrecking” (creating “poor” living conditions for the highest-ranking NKVD officers). He died on March 8, 1938, as a result of savage beatings that were administered to him in the inner prison of the Directorate of State Security of the NKVD of the Ukrainian SSR.

On March 20, 1933, Italy’s Ambassador Attolico, wrote to Rome: “The impression is that the only strong link, the real backbone of the entire Soviet system, is the GPU, which is usually able to achieve, through its typically fast and violent methods, what even the best propaganda cannot.”

Meanwhile, we find in these diplomatic documents evidence of what communist propaganda was doing. Leone Sircana, the vice- consul in Novorossiisk, reported the following to the Italian Embassy in Moscow on April 8, 1933: “It is like mocking the beastly condition to which millions of people have been reduced to claim that the Soviets have launched the world’s most powerful radio transmitter, which is supposed to overwhelm perhaps all the other voices on the airways and beam to the oppressed peoples of Europe and Asia Moscow’s revelations about ‘the incredible achievements of the Bolshevik miracle’. Or we read that the workers of Novorossiisk are donating one percent of their starvation wages (in paper rubles) to the cause of combating fascist terror, and so on. This typical revolutionary fervor catches your eye in banner slogans, newspaper headlines, the hidebound and mindless phrases of articles and speeches, but it never finds any response. Countering these purely bureaucratic onslaughts on capitalism, fascism, and kulaks and the no less bureaucratic glorification of Bolshevik successes is the huge, patient, callous, and indifferent mass (or herd?) of these hapless people, who listen without hearing and look without seeing and whose mind, now even more stupefied than ever, has only one vision: a small piece of brown bread, underbaked and mixed with the most incredible and most varied ingredients, to which they are still entitled and which they must share with their large family, old and infirm relatives, not to mention those who do not have even this right, or the painful and bitter despair from the fact that Moscow requisitions everything that the earth offers and, as the peasant deceives himself, is supposed to belong to him.”

The famine in Ukraine turned into an instrument not only of terror but also of the “nationalities policy.” This radically distinguished the situation in Ukraine from that in, say, Russia or Kazakhstan, where famine-related losses were also very high. On Dec. 14, 1932, Stalin and Molotov signed a resolution of the CC AUCP(b) and the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR, which demanded “correct Ukrainization” in Ukraine and other regions densely populated by ethnic Ukrainians. The document also demanded a struggle against Petliurites and other ‘counterrevolutionary” elements, who this time were accused of organizing the famine.

This not only meant the end of the policy of “Ukrainization.” This was the decisive phase of the liquidation of the “Ukraine-centered” potential that was never supposed to revive, and the brutally and carefully organized punishment turned into genocide. “Since famine always begets a revolution (in this case, it would be a counterrevolution),” one of the documents says, “the greatest burden of the famine was placed on the Ukrainian peasants, who were politically the most dangerous and resisted the issue of collectivization as much as they could. No matter what kind of famine he is suffering from, the peasant cannot launch an offensive on the city and become dangerous to the regime, above all, for purely organizational reasons.” The Stalinist regime used the Holodomor and false stories about those who were responsible for it as a concrete pretext for mass-scale repressive campaigns, purges, and the like.

On May 22, 1933, Gradenigo wrote in his regular message to the Italian Embassy in Moscow, “The current disaster will lead to the colonization of Ukraine, mostly by the Russian population. This will change its ethnographic nature. In all probability, we will not have to speak about Ukraine and the Ukrainian people in the very near future and, consequently, there will be no Ukrainian problem because Ukraine will in fact become part of Russia.”

Contrary to this sad forecast, Letters from Kharkiv is being published in independent Ukraine, which remembers its history and — I do believe! — is ready to learn its lessons.

Yurii Shapoval is a professor and Doctor of Sciences (History).