The Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine is facing a political decision whether to recognize the Holodomor of 1932-33 as genocide against the people of Ukraine. Parliamentarians will have to make a moral choice. They should be guided by scholars’ conclusions and their own ancestral memory.
Professor Stanislav Kulchytsky was one of the first in Ukraine to study the Holodomor and related problems. The Day’ s readers are familiar with his series of articles published in 2005 and 2006. In the following interview with The Day’ correspondent he unveils his conceptual model for the events that led to terror by famine.
Over the past 15 years historians have carried out a tremendous amount of research into the cluster of problems connected with the Holodomor of 1932-33. Numerous documents, including top secret papers from security service archives, as well as letters, memoirs, and other valuable historical sources have been introduced into scholarly circulation. However, to fully comprehend the nature of the atrocities of those times, we still need to resolve many general questions of a conceptual nature.
The most crucial one is this: in your opinion, whom did the Stalinist terror target — the Ukrainian nation as such, i.e., were people destroyed simply because they were Ukrainians; or Ukrainian peasants, who were hindering Stalin’s plans; or the politically suspect Ukrainian intelligentsia? Who was the object of the Kremlin’s genocide?
“The artificial famine cannot be considered in isolation from other contemporaneous methods of repressions: dekulakization (expropriating the property of wealthy farmers), deportations, arrests of intellectuals, purging state agencies of so-called traitors (i.e., those who sabotaged the directives of party bosses), dismissals from work, and expulsions from the party of rank-and-file communists who voiced their disagreement with the party line of the CPSU(B).
“Terror by famine, i.e., forcing people to live in conditions incompatible with life, is the most insidious type of repression. We do not question documents that attest to other forms of Stalinist terror, but documentary evidence of the 1932-33 famine in the Soviet Union is still subject to various interpretations.
“First of all, death by starvation is not execution by shooting in that it is not recorded in personal files, and files of that kind were not opened. Second, various political forces in contemporary Ukraine and the rest of the world use the Ukrainian Holodomor as an ideological weapon to fight each other. Third, many people cannot shake off their emotions when it comes to assessing the Holodomor. This is not surprising, after all. The above- mentioned factors prevent classifying the Holodomor of 1932-33 as genocide, although objective data — the horrific victim count, for starters — do permit it.
“In answer to your question, I would like to say that the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide adopted on Dec. 9, 1948, does not recognize as genocide the destruction of people based on their social status, e.g., peasants or intellectuals. The convention lists only four groups: national, ethnic, racial, and religious. But this is sufficient. The last two groups are irrelevant, so we can turn our attention just to the first and second. Your question, just like in the survey that the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KMIS) conducted on Sept. 8-14, 2006, narrows down the essence of national genocide to the concept of ethnicity. This formulation leads to a dead end.
“When the KMIS worded the question this way, 26 percent of respondents, convinced of the famine’s artificial nature, claimed that it was directed against Ukrainians as a distinct ethnos, whereas 61 percent pointed out that the famine targeted all Ukrainian citizens, irrespective of their ethnic origin. This view was supported by 30 percent of the population in the western regions, which at the time of the famine were parts of other countries and thus were unaffected; 13 percent in the central regions; 8 percent in the east; and 7 percent in the south.
“Among the respondents there are almost no survivors of the famine, but their whole life experience negates the claim that the government persecuted Ukrainians based on their ethnicity. Before the revolution of 1917 Ukrainians were not recognized at all as a separate nation, and later, in Soviet times, the government had reason to consider the three East Slavic nations as its stronghold in a multiethnic country. Blatant and large-scale Russification of Ukrainians and Belarusians under Brezhnev is attributed to the fact that Russians were no longer threatened by the prospect of becoming a national minority in their own country.
“The Stalinist Kremlin persecuted citizens of Ukraine rather than ethnic Ukrainians, i.e., it targeted Ukrainians with a clearly defined ethnic identity, who then had their own state and constitutional guarantees of reverting to independence at any time. We successfully availed ourselves of these guarantees, so why do we forget this when we speak about the Holodomor of 1933? There is only one explanation why the Soviet Union did not fall apart in the 1930s but in 1991 — terror against all strata of the Ukrainian people, and mass destruction of individuals involved in the creation of the Ukrainian National Republic and the national- liberation struggle from 1917 to 1920. All in all, the same Ukrainians died but the terror was national-based rather than ethnic-based.
“People always evaluate the past through the prism of the present. Historians have even come up with a special term to refer to this trend- presentism. We tend to perceive the Soviet Union the way we remember it. This was a union of republics. An appeal to exercise the constitutional right to withdraw from the union was branded as high treason. For this kind of appeal Levko Lukianenko was sent to death row, but later his verdict was commuted to long-term imprisonment.
“Nevertheless, before the Great Terror of 1937-38 and the great famine of 1932-33, the USSR was a union of states each of which had its own national interests. Soviet Ukraine, for example, demanded that the Kremlin hand over control of the Kuban, a region in which two-thirds of the population was Ukrainian-speaking. The Kremlin refused to offend Russia and even transferred to it two Ukrainian administrative units — Tahanrih and Shakhty districts. Party leaders of the Ukrainian SSR still managed to have administrative bodies, schools, and mass media in all Ukrainian-speaking areas of the Kuban switch from Russian to Ukrainian. However, in the long run, in 1932-33 this exposed the Kuban to the same repressions as those that affected the Ukrainian republic. The surviving natives of the Kuban were ordered to identify themselves as Russian.
If the clue to solving the Holodomor lies in the composition of the Soviet Union, why did the Kremlin resort to terror by famine only against Ukraine or, to be more exact, in this particular case against the Ukrainian SSR and the Kuban?
“Because even in the straitjacket of Soviet statehood Ukraine was a threat to the Kremlin. Ukraine bordered on Europe, had a long experience of a national-liberation struggle, and possessed human and economic resources that equaled the combined resources of all the other Soviet republics. The threat to the Kremlin increased one hundredfold during the crisis caused by the furious pace of the country’s industrialization and the collectivization of agriculture. It peaked in the latter half of 1932, even though from the papers of the day one could only learn about the launch of Dniprohes, the Dnipro hydroelectric power station, and other achievements. The crisis threatened the Stalin team with removal from power and the Soviet Union, with its collapse.
“My answer to your question will not be complete if I do not touch on the history behind the formation of the USSR. There were various ways in which the Bolshevik leaders sought to neutralize Ukraine’s aspirations for independence. They concentrated one million troops on its territory but tried to act not just with brute force. This goal is explained by the constitutional composition of the Soviet Union as a union of equal states. In 1922 Lenin suggested that Russia join the new federation along with Ukraine and other Soviet republics as independent entities. If not for Ukraine, the other republics would have become autonomies within the Russian Federation, i.e., they would have lost their statehood.
How did the terror by famine unfold?
“I studied how the situation in Ukraine changed every week in 1932-33, and I can say that at first there was famine caused by the grain delivery campaign, like in other regions of the USSR. This was a severe famine with cases of cannibalism and tens of thousands of people starving to death. But this was not the Holodomor yet.
The Holodomor in Ukraine was not directly connected with the grain procurements. In October 1932 an extraordinary grain-procurement commission under Molotov’s leadership arrived in Ukraine. It expropriated all the grain, leaving the peasants with nothing except for what they had tucked away in holes in the ground-people, naturally, wanted to survive. The amount of hidden grain was insignificant; after searches the official figures stopped at two million poods.”
“The next developments were as follows. In order to expedite the grain procurements, Molotov’s commission, with Stalin’s direct involvement, forced the Central Committee of the CP(B)U to pass a decree on Nov. 18, 1932, “On Measures to Step up the Grain Procurements.” (Molotov submitted drafts of all documents to Stalin for approval — this can be proved.) On Nov. 20 a similar decree was passed by the Council of People’s Commissars of the Ukrainian SSR.
“So what were these “measures to step up the grain procurements”? Primarily, these were fines in kind-in the form of meat and potatoes — which were imposed on so-called debtors. When commissions that were conducting searches did not find grain (and such commissions as a rule consisted of poor peasants residing in the same village), they had the right to appropriate the peasants’ meat, or lard, and potatoes, part of which was given to the starving have-nots. From November through December 1932 fines in kind were levied less frequently.
“Peasants got accustomed to the constant searches. It is important to note here that Stalin was fully aware that there was no grain in Ukraine! The issue was no longer about grain. On Jan. 1, 1933, he sent a telegram to Kharkiv, ordering the Central Committee of the CP(B)U to notify all raions (and, in turn, the peasants) that the debt had to be repaid immediately. The telegram said, “If grain is found that was stolen or hidden during stock-taking, the authorities will act according to the law enacted on Aug. 7, 1932.” This law, which became popularly known as the “law on five ears of grain,” envisaged the death penalty, or a minimum of ten years in prison, for so-called theft of grain.
“Eyewitnesses of the Holodomor confirm that it was after this telegram from Stalin that an unprecedented wave of exhaustive searches swept the country. When the authorities succeeded in finding grain, the guilty peasants were immediately exiled to Siberia. But where did they actually find grain? I have already mentioned the official statistics for December 1932 through January 1933-fewer than two million poods of grain were found and confiscated.
“What were the grain procurers supposed to do when they failed to find grain at a collective farm? Stalin’s telegram is silent about this. Moreover, there were no regulations, neither from the party nor from the government, allowing the extension of fines in kind to all types of food (not only lard, meat and potatoes, but also watermelons, pumpkins, dried fruit, etc.) that were kept in peasant households until the next harvest. But on the basis of oral instructions handed down from the top, the Chekists confiscated everything. The existence of these instructions is established by similar actions that were conducted in all territories of Ukraine.
“It may be unequivocally asserted that it was because of this telegram from Stalin that all the food on Ukraine’s territory was confiscated. After this, millions of people had nothing with which to fend off starvation. There was only one escape: to pick up and go somewhere, primarily Russia, where they could at least purchase some food. And note this fact: it was no accident that precisely at this time Stalin sent a letter to Kaganovich with a categorical order to blockade Ukraine and the Kuban. Not only train stations, river and other kinds of transport but also exits from villages and dirt roads were blocked. So the people stayed where they were and hundreds of thousands died of hunger every month.”
But why didn’t everyone die?
“Because the goal of terror by famine was not to kill everyone. It had two objectives: to nullify the insurgent potential of the Ukrainian peasantry and to force peasants into conscientious work on collective farms. The food expropriation campaign was hardly over when they began to feed the starving. But the state fed only the able-bodied, not everyone. Pavel Postyshev, who on Jan. 30, 1933, arrived in Ukraine as Stalin’s emissary to organize the sowing campaign, arranged to feed the able-bodied while calmly watching others starve to death. He also launched a punitive campaign against alleged traitors in the Ukrainian party apparatus and a general purge of the Communist Party of Ukraine.”
There is an active political party in Ukraine — it has even found its way into the ruling coalition! — which is dead-set against denouncing the crimes of Stalin’s genocide. I am talking about the Communist Party of Ukraine. How does this affect the historical memory of our people?
“I don’t think one can speak about any palpable influence, as this party has a very narrow constituency. But the fact that over the past 15 years the promotion of history — our true history — among people has been utterly neglected is a different matter altogether. The school system shows some progress: adequate textbooks are available (I won’t mention authors’ names — there are many of them), and our young people can now form a realistic picture of the Holodomor tragedy. But how can the older generation find out the truth? Television is full of soap operas. Therefore, it is vital to establish an Institute of National Memory. We need to reveal the true history of Ukraine.
“As far as the communists are concerned, they cannot deny the famine as such because it was officially acknowledged by Volodymyr Shcherbytsky as far back as 1987. But Shcherbytsky said the cause of the famine was a drought, which was a lie — there was no drought. Even Stalin wrote about the “extremely favorable climatic conditions” in 1932!”
You mentioned school textbooks. Ukraine’s Minister of Education has officially stated his position that the history of the Holodomor must be a component of the school curriculum. To what extent is the Ukrainian tragedy of 1933 covered in these textbooks?
“Today all history textbooks are approved by the Ministry of Education. They contain signposts to data on the Holodomor and maps showing the extent of this catastrophe in Ukraine. This information is available in both school and university textbooks. There is no problem here.”
What about the book by James Mace, which was published by our newspaper?
“It is my deep conviction that this book is a must for all school and university libraries in Ukraine.”
We keep seeing new publications that treat the tragedy of the Holodomor almost exclusively from the “inter-national perspective.” In other words, special attention is paid to the ethnic origins of particular criminals from Stalin’s circle in those years. The key point is: the Holodomor was organized by non-Ukrainians, i.e., by outsiders. Can you comment on this briefly?
“The problem of the Holodomor is clearly being politicized, and your example is another striking piece of evidence. Some national patriots have come forward with claims against Russia. I would like to say that Russia as such was not part of the totalitarian USSR. Of course, it was the state-forming nation, but in practice it was the Kremlin that called the shots. Therefore, you cannot accuse any one nation of the criminal acts committed by the Stalinist government.
“At the same time I want to emphasize, and this is very important, that the Holodomor had a clearly manifested anti-Ukrainian thrust. It was directed against the citizens of the Ukrainian state that had the right to withdraw from the USSR and which eventually did exercise this right.”