Skeletons in the closet in the light of perestroika
Recently, engaging in polemics with Professor Ivan Khmil on the pages of The Day, I remembered an English saying about skeletons in the closet, which the Soviet past is so rich in. The newspaper’s limited space kept me from dwelling on this subject then. Ukraine observed the Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Famines and Political Repressions on November 24. Let others speak on the events in question, leaving me to tell you how Gorbachev’s perestroika opened the most horrible closet of the Stalin epoch with its millions of victims of the terror famine. Prof. Khmil’s fellow Party members had a design of their own when they wanted to have his material published on the eve of parliamentary elections. I also have a design, hoping, though, that it will produce quite an opposite result.
The 1933 famine has always been common knowledge. But for those born in and after the thirties this knowledge was rather uncertain and vague. Parents never told their children about the famine, trying to keep them safe. Any public discussions of this subject could end with a prison term. The taboo persisted even later, when the GULAG had already vanished.
Perhaps the youth of today will find the previous passage rather dim. Let me tell you what happened in the summer of 1966. The then chairman of the Ukrainian Society for Friendship and Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries Yury Smolych requested me and a colleague of mine to write a series of newspaper articles on Ukraine’s economic development dedicated to the fiftieth anniversary of Soviet power. The newspaper, News from Ukraine, was distributed exclusively among the Western diaspora and regularly perused by Petro Shelest (then First Secretary of the Communist Party of Ukraine— Ed.). Our articles came out one by one in chronological succession. When it came to the period of collectivization, the first secretary ordered through his aides that the article include a passage about the famine. The article’s manuscript circulated around various offices for as long as a year thereafter, for nobody was bold enough either to take responsibility for publishing an article mentioning the famine or to authorize the publication without the passage the top boss had requested. They were even afraid to ask Shelest for written, rather than oral, permission to mention the famine. Only when the anniversary was imminent did the newspaper resume publication of the series, but without the explosive passage. If a certain historian had begun to study the newspaper’s content, he would have been utterly perplexed to find a year-long break in the publication of a twelve-article series.
The Ukrainian diaspora strove to put the truth about Stalin’s crime across to the world community. However, as it is now clear from declassified archive materials, the governments of Western countries were well aware, even without the diaspora’s help, of what was going on in the USSR in 1933. But they always pursued their own interests in their dealings with the Soviet leadership. In particular, Western democracies welcomed Stalin’s rapprochement policies after Adolf Hitler came to power. The US recognized the Soviet Union in the autumn of 1933.
On the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the manmade famine, the Western public at last showed interest in this problem. Edmonton already had the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, while Harvard University (US) had opened the Ukrainian Research Institution headed by Omeljan Prytsak. In 1983 the University of Quebec (Montreal) hosted a workshop on the Ukrainian famine. Among those who presented the most meaningful reports were Harvard’s young alumni majoring in the history of Soviet Ukraine, such as Bohdan Kravchenko, James Mace, and Roman Serbyn. The fifty year old famine became talked about after a half century of silence. Journalists began to turn to Soviet UN representatives for explanations, only to see them dodge their queries. Some of them would fervently deny “the falsifications of Ukrainian bourgeois nationalists.” What was done cannot be undone: among them was also Mr. Khmil who headed the Ukrainian SSR delegation at the sessions of the UN Human Rights Commission in 1983-1984.
The Ukrainian diplomats, at last, sought the advice of Kyiv on how to react. The Politburo of the Ukrainian Communist Party Central Committee (KPU CC) instructed the CC secretary for ideology and the Ukrainian KGB chief to study the issue. The latter two drew up a memorandum for Volodymyr Shcherbytsky (the then KPU CC first secretary — Ed.), the essence of which was summed up in the title itself, On Propaganda and Counterpropaganda Measures to Suppress the Anti-Soviet Campaign Unleashed by Reactionary Centers of the Ukrainian Emigration in Connection with Food Difficulties that Took Place in the Early Thirties.”
In 1984 a young American historian Leonid Heretz began gathering eyewitness reports of the people who lived through the famine. The Toronto-based Ukrainian Famine Research Committee produced the documentary film Harvest of Despair. The US Congress decided to set up a commission “to study the causes of the Soviet government-induced Ukrainian famine in 1932-1933.” There had never been a parliamentary commission like this in the world before.
KPU CC functionaries concluded it was time to retaliate. In the fall of 1986 they established a commission of scholars, assigning it a task to debunk the “falsifications” and prove that there had been no famine in Ukraine. I also happened to be part of that commission. We were shown a copy of the film Harvest of Despair and allowed access to the KPU Central Committee archives. Now I understand that those who set up the commission had a blurry idea of the famine. Otherwise they would have held out to the end, as they did in the case of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact or the Katyn affair.
I had never dealt with the history of collectivization before. The research on this subject from the angle of famine turned over all my previous knowledge. The analyzed facts revealed the picture of a true famine, not just starvation. Meanwhile, the CC understood that it had assigned the scholars an unrealistic task and soon forgot about us. Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost had already begun to swing open closets containing the skeletons.
I sent a memo, on my own initiative, to the Central Committee about the assigned task, suggesting that the fact of famine be admitted. In the memo, I cited facts in such a way that the subject would not seem too inflammable to the decision- makers. I was allowed to publish the memo as a scholarly article, but not before First Secretary Volodymyr Shcherbytsky made a speech in honor of the seventieth anniversary of Soviet power in Ukraine. It was planned that this speech would include a fleeting remark about the famine. Only such a top official could be the first to broach the subject. By then Gorbachev’s perestroika little resembled the bureaucratic campaign it had been at the beginning. Fear of the government was waning. On July 16, 1987, the newspaper Literaturna Ukrayina published an article which mentioned the famine matter-of-factly on two occasions, as if it were a universally-known fact. This was really so, and the Ukrainian Central Committee pretended that nothing had happened.
Moscow also began to talk about the famine. On October 11, 1987, agrarian historian Viktor M. Danilov wrote in the newspaper Sovietskaya Rossiya that a famine had claimed a huge number of human lives in the winter and spring of 1933. Moscow-based demographer Mark Toltz gave the first-ever account of the 1937 census in the repression-stricken USSR in the article “How Many of Us Were There?” in the December issue of Ogoniok magazine. The census was canceled and its organizers were repressed on a charge of undercounting the population. The article cited the 1933 famine as the cause of such alleged undercounting.
In November 1987 Mikhail Gorbachev made a speech on the seventieth anniversary of the October Revolution. Not a word was said about the famine. Shcherbytsky could not follow suit, for it is in Ukraine that the famine raged. The US Congress commission’s research group with James Mace at the head (actually, staff director — Mace) began to acquaint the world public with the first results of their work.
On December 25, 1987, for the first time in 55 years, a Soviet Communist Party (CPSU) Politburo member broke the Stalinist taboo on the word famine. It apparently did not matter that Shcherbytsky spoke about a famine caused by a drought and a poor crop. Historians gained an opportunity to openly study and publish documents on the year 1933. In March 1988 Ukrayinsky istorychny zhurnal (Ukrainian Historical Journal) published my article. Still earlier, in mid-January, it was published in an abridged version by Visti z Ukrayiny and News from Ukraine, newspapers intended for the Ukrainian diaspora. And in May of that year the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Ukrainian SSR gave our institute the US famine commission’s findings received from the Soviet embassy in the US (Out of scholarly courtesy, I sent it — Mace). The documents abounded in quotations from and analysis of my article in the News from Ukraine. The general conclusion was as follows, “The scale of the famine has been minimized, the Communist Party is depicted as doing its utmost to improve the situation, while the actions of the Communist Party and the Soviet state that exacerbated the famine have been ignored.”
This was the right conclusion, for the article was in fact a memorandum to the Central Committee. By that time, I had already had plenty of archival materials and made a deal with the Znannia (Knowledge) association on the publication of a brochure. The brochure 1933: the Tragedy of Famine came out in May 1989 with a press run of 62,000 copies. Although, as the heading said, the brochure belonged to a propaganda series called The Theory and Practice of CPSU History, the designer drew a white cobweb against the cover’s black background, in the center of which he wrote the title in white and red letters. In essence, the brochure’s subject was in line with CPSU practice. While the brochure was being printed, I handed over its text, with permission of the Znannia editors, to the newspaper Literaturna Ukrayina. The latter was very popular at that time among the Ukrainian intelligentsia both in and outside this country. The text, published in the newspaper in four installments in January and February 1989, was the result of eighteen-month work in the archives. By that time, I had already shed many stereotypes of official history. The cited facts caused a shock. The number of famine researchers began to grow. A group of Institute of Party History scholars headed by Ruslan Pyrih found sensational documents in the party archives. They could only be published with a KPU CC Politburo permission. I attended that tempestuous Politburo session. There were even such words as “stab in the back.” Yet, new First Secretary Ivashko, who had already replaced Shcherbytsky as CC first secretary, decided to clear the publication because he was aware that “the genie had already popped out of the bottle.”
The collection of articles The 1932- 1933 Famine in Ukraine: In the Eyes of Historians and Language of Documents came out in the fall of 1990, immediately becoming a bibliographic rarity in the then heated atmosphere. In 1991 the Radiansky Pysmennyk publishing house printed a book of the reminiscences of people who lived through the famine, edited by Volodymyr Maniak and Lidiya Kovalenko. The Academy of Sciences Institute of History prepared a fundamental collection of documents Collectivization and Famine in Ukraine (1929-1933). This was published twice, in 1992 and 1993, by the Naukova Dumka publishers.
It became possible to expose Stalin- era crimes, including the most terrible of them, the 1933 manmade famine, owing to the revolutionary situation that developed in the USSR quite unexpectedly for the inspirers of the bureaucratic perestroika. At the same time, the truth about the famine promoted the movement for national liberation. All these processes were crowned by the establishment of today’s independent Ukraine.