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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

Holodomor of 1932-33 as genocide: gaps in evidential basis

13 February, 2007 - 00:00

Such world-scale catastrophes as the Ukrainian Holodomor of 1932-33 will never be perceived by society as a theoretical academic issue, a problem of purely scholarly importance. The tragedy of the terror by famine is above all our persistent and enduring pain. But because this terrible catastrophe has been used, whether we like it or not, as an exceptionally devastating weapon in the contemporary political contest, it has been the moral duty of our historians to study the causes and as yet unknown consequences of the Apocalypse, constantly search for new evidence and proof of its genocidal character, and investigate its impact on the consciousness of various generations, in particular contemporary youth. This is what Dr. Stanislav KULCHYTSKY, one of the leading authorities in Ukraine on the history of Soviet totalitarian society in the 1920s-1930s and a regular contributor to The Day, discusses in his latest article.

The history of Ukraine in the 20th century demands from a researcher both professionalism of the highest caliber and courage. Some historical problems continue to be burning issues. Researchers who are unwilling to bring their conclusions in line with today’s political situation are looking for trouble.

It is not only a matter of the present being a link to or direct continuation of the past. The crux of the problem is the persistently dubious quality of the past. Unlike capitalist countries, which developed according to the objective laws of history, the Soviet Union in the first 20 years of its existence grew as a projection of its leaders’ visions and then slowly degraded, leaving its myths lodged in the heads of the people of those generations that were raised by Leninist and Stalinist ideologists. A researcher studying the Soviet era has a hard time disentangling its intricacies. Equally difficult are attempts to prove to people with a Soviet-bred mentality that your conclusions are true.

One of the red-hot issues that persist to this day is the Holodomor of 1932-33. Although nearly three-quarters of a century separate us from that event, it remains a political weapon and therefore continues to be open to differing interpretations.


The Holodomor overwhelmed society three times: first in 1932-33, when millions of people in the Soviet Ukrainian Republic and Kuban region died in an artificially engineered famine. The mass media of that time were bubbling over with news about the grand launches of new facilities constructed to fulfill the first Five-Year Plan-but not a word on the absolutely unprecedented famine.

The second time this happened was in 1988-91, when the slow degradation of Soviet rule was replaced by abrupt and rapid decay. First, the policy of glasnost and then the complete abolition of censorship opened people’s eyes to the smallest details of the apocalyptic picture of the Holodomor.

This happened a third time in 2002-06. The 70th anniversary of the Holodomor made us stop and think about how to qualify this tragedy. After a period of confrontation unprecedented in its sharpness, the Verkhovna Rada recognized the Holodomor as genocide. The law marked the end of another round in the political struggle over this issue but did not put it to rest.

It should be admitted that the problem of the Holodomor was a politicized issue from the outset. Our compatriots in North America had grounds to believe that this issue is the sensitive spot in the ideological constructs of the Soviet propagandists. Consequently, they did all they could to help James Mace’s commission start working. Just think about it: the parliament of a superpower across the ocean set up a commission to investigate an unprecedented crime that was first committed and then hushed up for over half a century by its rival superpower. The situation has changed, but from a political standpoint tensions have not abated: now the US and Russia are competing for influence on Ukraine. In this struggle the Holodomor has again been recognized as something that can be employed as a weapon.

For a long time the Ukrainian people did not have their own independent state and so were left without properly articulated national interests. But now we have both our own state and our own interests. As far as the Holodomor is concerned, our concern is to objectively assess this national tragedy and pay honor to those who died a violent death. The Verkhovna Rada fulfilled these duties when it passed a law on the Holodomor. No group of citizens should perceive this law as their victory or failure. It is true that the law confirms that the Holodomor was genocide-a conclusion reached by Mace’s commission. As compared with the situation before 1991, it may be suggested that the US gained some ground, whereas Russia lost some.

But we are under no obligation to listen to people from abroad who are incapable or unwilling to let go of the American-Russian struggle for world domination, a struggle that for a long time has been the preoccupation only of historians. For those people the Holodomor is just an abstract episode in another country’s history. But for us it implies the deaths of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. The Holodomor made three deep gouges in the genealogical pyramid of Ukraine’s population: the children who died in the famine did not bear children and these did not bring forth the next generation. So let us approach the law on the Holodomor from the position of our family, civic, and national interests. We cannot allow our national memory to be killed.


The Holodomor was caused by the activity of a group of criminals, who had sufficient power and experience to mask not only their intentions but also the mechanisms for implementing them. Therefore, the definition of the Holodomor as genocide was based primarily on recording the consequences, i.e., the facts pertaining to the millions of victims who died in the last quarter of 1932 and the first six months of 1933. However, sufficient documentary data have been accumulated to develop an evidential basis for qualifying the actions of Stalin and his closest aides in the legal terms used in the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide adopted on Dec. 9, 1948. Let me briefly summarize 20 years’ worth of work by a large number of scholars from different countries.

First, it is necessary to distinguish between the different origins of the Ukrainian-Kuban and Kazakh Holodomors and of the famine that reigned in the Soviet Union in 1932-33. The famine swept over the bigger part of the USSR except for large cities, newly developed areas, and those rural areas where marketable grain was grown in insufficient quantities. Although undesirable in the eyes of the government, this was a logical consequence of its reckless, trial-and-error policy aimed at the “accelerated construction of the economic foundation of socialism.” The Ukrainian-Kuban Holodomor was the result of a calculated and well- organized terror by famine that the Kremlin used to forestall a social explosion. In a deeply critical situation such an explosion threatened to oust Stalin’s team from the Kremlin. As admitted by Stalin himself and proved by documentary evidence, Ukraine would then leave the Soviet Union.

The Holodomor in Ukraine was one of the episodes in the forced construction of a socioeconomic system that was the same as a totalitarian political regime. This does not mean that it had a socioeconomic nature. This only means that the socioeconomic foundation of the Bolshevik regime was being constructed in a multiethnic country with strongly pronounced traditions of national liberation struggle. The Soviet famine of 1932- 33 had a socioeconomic nature because it was caused by the government’s irresponsible acceleration of the industrialization rate, destruction of the most prosperous farms, and total expropriation of the grain harvested by collective farms and individual farmers.

One must acknowledge that to the average citizen the famine in the USSR and the Ukrainian-Kuban Holodomor remain inseparable. This shows scholars’ inability to make their conclusions accessible to the public at large.

There is one more reason preventing society from correctly positioning the Ukrainian Holodomor in the context of events. The socioeconomic transformations of that time are “sanctified” by the powerful outburst of people’s revolutionary activity that caused the Russian empire to disintegrate. This is where the first generation of Leninist and Stalinist propagandists made their work felt. In actual fact, the communist experiment had nothing in common with the people’s revolution. The revolution ended with the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly in January 1918, whereas the experiment began in the spring of 1918, when Lenin’s party changed its name to ‘communist.’ This is when two documents were published, showing the direction of the socioeconomic transformations: the programmatic article “Current Tasks of the Soviet Government” by Vladimir Lenin and the popular pamphlet “The Communist (Bolshevik) Program” by Nikolai Bukharin.

The communist experiment was imposed by force and therefore constituted nothing more than an almost continuous series of crimes against society. Two decades of terror and propaganda by the party leaders created a social order that, on the whole, was consistent with their idea of communism. The finishing touches to the creation of this order were the demagogical Constitution of 1936 and the massive purges of “enemies of the people” in 1937-38.

The Holodomor in Ukraine was the result of a certain concurrence of events at the intersection of the agricultural and national policies being pursued by the Kremlin. The agricultural policy was aimed at stripping farmers of private ownership of means of production. The collectivization of agriculture made farmers directly dependent on the state. The objective of the Kremlin’s nationalities policy was to transform the union of countries, which the Soviet Union was before the Holodomor of 1932-33 and mass terror of 1937-38, into a centralized state with some linguistic and cultural relaxations for the “titular nations” in the Soviet republics.

Ukraine, a national republic bordering on Europe, had the greatest human and economic potential and manifested especially stubborn resistance to the forced collectivization of agriculture. In the spring of 1930 a peasants’ war was already getting off the ground, especially in Ukraine. This forced Stalin into a several-month suspension of all-out collectivization. At the same time, he made concessions to peasants by rejecting the idea of communes. Peasants kept plots of land around their houses. This land, in Stalin’s opinion, was supposed to provide them with enough food, so they worked in collective farms virtually without payment.

In 1930-32 the state expropriated all the grain harvested in grain-producing regions. Every time when, as a result of the draconian grain-procurement campaigns, a famine would break out, Stalin returned part of the expropriated grain to collective farmers to give them enough to eat and sow. Three years of such campaigns coupled with the “urging on” of capital construction in industry caused the above-mentioned economic crisis. In the situation that developed in 1932-33 Stalin abandoned the idea of forcefully accelerating the industrialization rate and switched to the tax principle in grain procurement: he acknowledged the collective farms’ and farmers’ property right to the part of the harvest in excess of the fixed in-kind tax amount. Farmers had the right to sell their part of the harvest on the free market at a price suggested by supply and demand. The system of collective farms was gaining certain autonomy within the Soviet planned economy and because of this the Soviet Union preserved the vestiges of commodity-money relations. The Soviet economy acquired the shape it preserved until 1991.

In my articles in The Day I have emphasized the difference between the Ukrainian-Kuban Holodomor and the famine in other regions of the USSR: the Holodomor was caused by the total confiscation of food from peasant households, whereas the famine was brought about only by the grain—procurement campaigns. Documentary evidence confirms that in the last quarter of 1932 the Kremlin began imposing in-kind fines on those peasants in whose households a search did not yield any grain. Tens and soon hundreds of villages were put on a blacklist that gave the procurers grounds for confiscating all available food.

Finally, on Jan. 1, 1933, via the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine, Stalin addressed the peasants of Ukraine. Fully aware of the fact that there was no more grain left in villages (as the searches confirmed) he demanded that peasants provide the missing grain to fulfill the grain-procurement plans. Stalin’s telegram in fact sent a conditional signal to the secret police to start confiscating food supplies that the peasants had stored until the next harvest. In January the campaign spread almost to the whole territory of Ukraine (with the exception of border regions). From early February its direction was reversed: peasants who were still able to work received food from collective farms, which were getting ready for the spring sowing campaign.

It is no longer necessary to search for evidence in secret archives. The documents have already been published. One only needs to look at them from a certain angle in order to piece the puzzle together.

I expressed this thought in one of my articles, and I believe I need to restate it here. In a communist pamphlet distributed in the Verkhovna Rada during the hearing on the Holodomor it was misrepresented as follows, “Professor Kulchytsky’s article... instead of being geared to finding out the truth is aimed at achieving political expediency. He writes, ‘There are arguments confirming the case of genocide in the form of terror by famine-one only needs to read these documents from the necessary angle.’”

I have included this misrepresentation to make my thought about the completeness of the evidential basis absolutely clear. We often look at a document out of context and because of this fail to see it. I don’t know why on Jan. 26, 1990, at a meeting of the CC CPU, First Secretary Volodymyr Ivashko went against the current and gave the green light to publish the book The Famine of 1932-33 in Ukraine: Through the Eyes of Historians and in the Language of Documents. Two explanations are possible. At the time he said that he was born during the famine, and his parents had told him how hard it was to save him. Or, perhaps, the Ukrainian party leaders had already decided to embark on an independent course and, using information on the famine, to position themselves at a comfortable distance from Moscow. Judging from Ivashko’s further actions, the first scenario is more plausible.

I was at that meeting, anxiously wondering whether they would exclude from the collection of documents the government and party resolutions with clauses on in-kind fines. They didn’t — because they did not understand that these clauses and their implementation determined the terrible difference between the famine in Ukraine and in Russia. The Central Committee’s resolution sanctioning the publication of documents attributed the Ukrainian famine only to excessive grain confiscations.

I was aware of the significant role that in-kind fines played in causing the famine. But for years I failed to pay attention to one other document in this collection: document #133 dated Jan. 1, 1933, signed by Joseph Stalin. The authors gave it a long title: “Telegram of the Central Committee of the CPSU(B) to the Central Committee of the CP(B)U with the Announcement of the CPSU(B)’s Resolution of Jan. 1, 1933 on the Voluntary Delivery to the State of Previously Concealed Grain by Collective Farms, and Collective and Individual Farmers and on Adopting Strict Measures against Those Who Continue to Conceal Grain from Inventorying.” I comprehended the horrible meaning of Stalin’s telegram only in recent years.

Western historians understand the Young Turks’ motives for destroying the Armenians or the Nazis’ for annihilating the Jews. But not everybody is able to comprehend the motives of a government that was killing its own citizens. However, terror by famine is just one kind of mass persecution that came to an end only with the death of Stalin. Stalin was not the first to resort to this measure. The Soviet government employed terror by famine in 1921 while procuring grain in Ukrainian villages that were already starving. The famine was further aggravated by grain-procurement campaigns in southern Ukraine as a way of fighting peasant insurgent groups.

The calculation that after Stalin’s New Year’s telegram the famine would blanket all of Ukraine proved correct. Stripped of grain and later of all food, peasants did not have the physical strength to stand up to the state as they had in the first half of 1930. Now they gratefully received food provisions from the state or died meekly in their villages, isolated from the outer world.

To round off the topic, I need to underline the difference between the famine of 1932-33 in Ukraine and the Ukrainian Holodomor of 1932-33. Within two years the Ukrainian republic experienced the famine of 1932- 33, which was identical to the famine raging in other commodity farming regions, and the Holodomor, to which only the famine in the Kuban region bears a resemblance.

The Holodomor was essentially different from the famine, as the tenfold victim count clearly indicates. To my knowledge, even scholars studying the events in Ukrainian agricultural regions in 1932-33 do not draw the necessary distinction between the famine and the Holodomor. The Ukrainian historical journal Ukrainskyi istorychnyi Zhurnal (no. 6, 2006) published my article “The Famine of 1932 in the Shadow of the Holodomor of 1933.” I will briefly summarize its conclusions because the evidential basis for genocide needs to be based on the difference between the all-Union famine, including the one in Ukraine, and the purely Ukrainian Holodomor.

In the first half of 1932, up to 150,000 peasants died in Ukraine during a famine caused by the confiscation of the 1931 harvest. However, killing people through excessive grain procurements does not fall under the definition of genocide in the UN convention. Moreover, since April 1932 the Kremlin began to exhibit “touching” concern for the mortality rate among Ukrainian peasants. Corn and wheat that had been prepared for export were shipped from ports back to villages, and the government purchased small consignments of grain from neighboring countries.

To be continued