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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

What is the crux of Ukraine-Russia dispute?

3 February, 2009 - 00:00

The different approaches of Ukrainian and Russian scholars to the interpretation of the 1932–33 famine in the USSR first manifested themselves fifteen years ago. Practically from the very beginning this essentially scholarly issue turned into a political one. In 2008, the Year to Remember the Victims of the Holodomor, the dispute between politicians and scholars in both countries over this tragic page in our common history had become a quarrel, and the Ukrainian citizens of the Russian Federation were not allowed to carry out the memorial project “Inextinguishable Candle.”

Can both sides reach an understanding? What does it take? While formulating my answers to these questions, it is not my goal to strive for a compromise. A scholar’s task is to show the past the way it actually was.


The staggering amount of new information about the Holodomor is the main result of 2008. The publication of the National Book of Memory with information about the 1932-33 Holodomor in Ukraine was an unprecedented event. The Ukrainian Institute of National Memory succeeded in organizing this publication, which consists of 19 large-format volumes, each with up to 1,000 pages of text, including analytical essays, documents, photos, eyewitness accounts, and a martyrology.

Furthermore, other collections of documents were published, including the four-volume collection of findings of the US Congress Commission on the Ukraine Famine Velykyi holod v Ukraini 1932–1933 rr. (The Great Famine in Ukraine, 1932–1933), monographs, collections of articles, albums, memoirs, and popular books. Scholarly conferences were held in a number of Ukrainian cities and major European and North American universities. Exhibits of Holodomor documents took place in Ukraine and abroad. An impressive monument to the Holodomor victims was unveiled in Kyiv.

Nevertheless, we failed to convince the UN to recognize the Holodomor as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people (primarily because of Russia’s counteraction). Nor did we succeed in convincing a considerable part of our fellow citizens that it was indeed so. Moreover, on Dec. 17–24 the Razumkov Center’s sociological service carried out a poll that revealed a large-scale social allergy to the Holodomor subject. The findings indicated that a mere three percent of the respondents believed that the Holodomor was an event of the national scope.

This kind of allergy has a logical explanation. Not doubting the fact that millions died in the Holodomor, society, nevertheless, rejects political confrontation over this issue, both inside the country and in relations with Russia. What can be done in this situation? First, set forth our arguments and hear the arguments of the other side. Second, bring to the court of international public opinion the refusal of those who lend a deaf ear to the arguments.


One can single out the main topic in the Ukrainian-Russian debate on the Holodomor: the presence or absence of fundamental distinctions between the Holodomor in Ukraine and the famine elsewhere in the Soviet Union. In blocking the recognition of the Holodomor as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people on an international level, Russia chose to deny the regional distinctions in the all-Union famine of 1932–33.

Even a long newspaper article will not suffice to describe all aspects of the Ukrainian-Russian debate. In order to formulate the stand taken by each side and assess it from the scholarly point of view, it is necessary to provide one’s own system of conclusions, along with the most important underlying facts. Therefore, it is necessary to choose the main topic of this debate. I will try to demonstrate how the Ukrainian Holodomor was different from the all-Union famine.


The Institute of History at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine (NANU) collectively published an 888-page-long book dedicated to the 70th anniversary of the Holodomor. We took copies to Moscow to discuss this study with Russia’s leading experts on agrarian history. The discussion took place on March 29, 2004, at the Institute of General History of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The Russian scholars’ response was that the famine in Ukraine was no different from that all over the Soviet Union. Later, V. Danilov and I. Zelenin published an article in the periodical Otechestvennaia istoria (History of the Fatherland). The closing paragraph reads: “If one were to characterize the Holodomor of 1932–33 as a ‘deliberate act of genocide against the Ukrainian peasantry,’ as certain Ukrainian historians insist, then it would be necessary to bear in mind that this act of genocide was in equal measure aimed against the Russian peasantry.”

The above quote has a dear price. Many instantly reject the possibility of genocide against the Soviet people on the part of the functionaries of the workers and peasants’ government. An answer to this could be as follows: “Study the events that took place in Russia, while we will focus on Stalin’s repressions in Ukraine.” But this answer would be purely formal because the famine of 1932–33 is part of our common history.

On the face of it, the Ukrainian SSR and the Russian Federation appear to have suffered from the famine in equal measure. Estimates published in 2001 by the Australian demographer Stephen Wheatcroft indicate that the famine-related excessive death rate in each of the two union republics was approximately the same, totaling 3.5 million. (The Tragedy of the Soviet Village, 1927-1939, vol. 3, pp. 866–887). Calculations made in 2008 by the NANU’s Institute of Demography yielded approximately the same figures that indicate direct losses. These figures tally with my own estimates published in 1990. When analyzing demographic data, which requires special training, I used the help of a Harvard researcher who is known in the international scholarly quarters under the pseudonym of Maksudov. (His real name is Aleksandr Babionyshev. As a dissident, he was expelled from the USSR.)

However, this similarity between the death toll numbers in the two republics is deceptive. At the time, the Russian Federation included the Kuban district of the Northern Caucasus territory and the Kazakh Autonomous Republic, which took the lion’s share of the losses. If we regard the Ukrainian-speaking Kuban area as part of Ukraine (abortive reunion attempts were made in the 1920s) and Kazakhstan as a country outside the Russian Federation (it received the status of a union republic in 1936, and the famine there had its own distinct features), then the excessive death rate in the Russian regions would be equal to hundreds of thousands of lives. In fact, this is enough to speak of genocide, but millions of people starved to death in Ukraine means that some other factor was at play.

After discussing our monograph on the Holodomor in Moscow, I left the city with a firm resolution to find out why Ukraine’s losses were an order of magnitude greater than Russia’s. I admit that I knew even then that the difference in the losses was the result of a carefully camouflaged NKVD operation, which was carried out only in the Ukrainian SSR and Kuban. The only thing I was not sure of was whether this could be proved with documentary evidence. When planning the most heinous act of terrorism in his lifetime, Stalin made sure all tracks were covered.

The task I set myself took many years to fulfill. My research was like a routine police investigation. At times documents I had long known acquired an altogether new meaning when compared with the newly discovered ones. I seldom worked in the archives, mostly using sources that were put in scholarly circulation in sufficient quantities. After all, hundreds of regional ethnographers, archivists, and scholars were tackling the topic of the Holodomor.

Den’/The Day promptly published the first results of my work. These articles would later serve as the basis of a book in the newspaper’s Library Series. Other books were published in 2007-08. Then I wrote the analytical essay “This is how it was,” which opens the concluding volume of the National Book of Memory devoted to the 1932-33 Holodomor in Ukraine. However, the shortest way to the reader in and outside Ukraine is through Den’/The Day, which combines quick access to information, as a newspaper should, with an opportunity to buttress the conclusions with sufficient evidence.


Both the Ukrainian and Russian sides agree that the famine of 1932-33 was caused by state-run grain procurement campaign. To arrive at this conclusion, it is enough to browse through the literature on the subject; its list keeps expanding, now also in Russia.

I am convinced that if the Ukrainian side continues to speak in unison with the Russian side on the subject of grain procurement, it will not be able to convince the opponent that it has a valid point about the genocide. While it is true that the grain procurement policy caused countless deaths, it is very difficult, actually impossible, to prove that this policy was used by the government as a method of deliberate annihilation of fellow citizens.

It is an established fact that initial cause behind the famines in the 1920s and 1940s was a natural disaster, a colossal drought. We also know that in 1930-33 the weather conditions were favorable for the crops. When the leadership of the Communist Party of Ukraine allowed documents relating to the famine of 1932-33 to be published, it had to offer an explanation for the tragedy. A resolution of the CC CPU of Jan. 26, 1990 read: “Archival materials show that the direct cause of the famine in the early 1930s in the republic was the forced grain procurement policy that involved large-scale repressions and proved to be disastrous for the peasantry.”

The state was procuring grain to feed the cities and the army. It also sold grain abroad in order to receive hard currency and purchase the equipment required for the new construction projects that were carried out according to the five-year plan. Grain procurement quotas, disastrous as they were for the peasants, were enforced in all grain-producing regions. The result was a famine in these rural areas, as well as in cities which experienced cuts in bread rations or were denied centralized food supplies altogether.

Famine can undoubtedly serve as an instrument of genocide. However, the Ukrainian politicians who are struggling to have the Holodomor internationally recognized as an act of genocide are using only one argument: considerably more people died of hunger in Ukraine than in Russia. It does not take a stretch of imagination to predict the reaction of the other side when this doubtlessly strong argument is “enhanced” with concrete figures. I say “enhanced” because they speak of the death toll of 10-million and more, without any facts to prove it. For reasons best known to themselves, some politicians push aside demographers and come up with numbers spun out of thin air. This is a naїve stand, considering that demographic statistics have been in the public domain since 1989 and that researchers in many countries in the West have spent years assessing and analyzing these excessive death rates.

Our opponents in Russia recognize the difference in the excessive death rates in the Ukrainian SSR and the neighboring regions, but they refer to an outwardly convincing argument: “The Ukrainian SSR and the Kuban region were the main producers of grain for export, so this is one and only reason why grain procurements were especially damaging there.” One is reminded of the lines from Ivan Krylov’s fable The Wolf and the Lamb: “You are guilty if only because I’m hungry.” Yet it works when it comes to determining whether or not it was an act of genocide. If the state wanted to supply grain to the cities or export it, this government can only be accused of criminal neglect of the peasants’ pressing needs. This neglect resulted in starvation and mass deaths, but in this context it is impossible to speak about death by famine as the ultimate objective of the grain procurement policy. In other words, the Russian side perceives no signs of genocide here.

In contrast to this, the Ukrainian side is only too well aware that grain procurements can be used to step up industrialization (as was the case in Ukraine) and suppress the national liberation struggle. “The rawboned hand of famine” combined with grandiloquent declarations of friendship among peoples was a good way to keep the Ukrainian republic under the Kremlin’s control.

They tell us about Dniprohes (Dnipro Hydropower Plant) and Magnitka [Magnitogorsk Iron and Steel Works], and we, in turn, quote from Stalin’s confidential letter to Kaganovich dated Aug. 11, 1932: “If we don’t set about correcting the situation in Ukraine now, we may lose Ukraine… I repeat, we may lose Ukraine.” (Stalin and Kaganovich. Correspondence, 1931–1936., Moscow, 2001, p. 274— in Russian.) Then what? Each side holds to its view.

Will we succeed in convincing Russian politicians and scholars that Stalin used the grain procurements policy as a form of terror by famine aimed at keeping Ukraine within the boundaries of the Soviet Union? Regrettably, we cannot find out what criteria the Kremlin was guided by when setting grain delivery quotas for the regions. Stalin was not in the habit of putting down motives behind actions. There are only two cases when the impenetrable curtain behind which he stayed was lifted: the letter to Kaganovich of Aug. 11, 1932 quoted above and his well-known May 6, 1933 letter to Mikhail Sholokhov in which he accused grain-growers in the Don region of sabotaging the grain procurement campaign.

Therefore, we only have indirect evidence of the punitive role played by the grain procurements. The personae of the drama that was played out at the time, they could only wonder about the causes behind so badly exaggerated quotas. Here is an example. On July 6, 1932, the GPU commissioner of Novopskovsk raion (Donetsk oblast) submitted a secret report to the head of the GPU of the Ukrainian SSR. This document enables us to see the train of thought of the raion party committee secretary Gorshkov. Commenting on the exaggerated grain procurement quota for the 1931 harvest set for the Ukrainian SSR by Moscow, he noted: “They could have been mistaken about ten to twenty raions, things like that happen, but such mistakes in calculations for nearly all raions of Ukraine is something else altogether. If only they wrote a brief memo explaining the reasons. Now we have to rack our brains, trying to figure all this out. Look at the CChO (Central Chernozem Oblast, then part of the RSFSR and bordering on Ukraine — S.K.)— they have lots of grain, while here people are starving.”

Without doubt, such ruthless procurement of the 1931 and 1932 harvest crops killed hundreds of thousands of peasants in Ukraine and other grain-producing regions of the USSR. It would serve everyone’s benefit if together with Russian scholars we would search Russia’s presidential archives, trying to find documentary evidence that such grain procurements were used as a means of terror by famine at a certain time and in certain regions. Meanwhile, until we can ascertain all circumstances, we have to abandon efforts to characterize the famine of 1932–33 in the USSR as an act of genocide.

Does this mean that we must discard our legislatively fixed concept of the Holodomor as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people? By no means! We must learn to distinguish between the famine in Ukraine in the first half of 1932, which in every way resembles the all-Union famine of 1932, and the Holodomor that took place in the first half of 1933, against the background of the all-Union famine.

Using two years as the dates of the Holodomor is absolutely acceptable, but only because Stalin’s regime took punitive measures, which were not directly related to grain procurements, in the blacklisted Ukrainian villages in November–December 1932. The same measures were applied in January 1933 to all of Ukraine, leading to the Holodomor.

(To be continued)