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Another attack

Why don’t they understand Ukraine’s Holodomor as an act of genocide?
04 February, 00:00

Continued from previous issue

There is yet another reason against comparing the Holodomor with the Holocaust. Making any comparison is linked to identification. By comparing the Holodomor with the Holocaust, we tend to identify it with the broader notion of an ethnic purge. But then we must explain whose national interest this purge served. There are people who sincerely — or with a certain purpose in mind — identify a given people with its political regime and then proceed to accuse Russians of an act of genocide against Ukrainians. This ungrounded accusation is especially outrageous to Russians who do not distinguish between themselves and Ukrainians.

When asked about the Holodomor, Kazakh Prime Minister Kairat Sarybai replied: “This famine was a tragedy for all the peoples of the USSR. Among its victims were Ukrainians, Kazakhs, Russians, Germans, and others who then lived in the grain-producing areas. And so these events can’t be qualified as an act of genocide.” The interviewing journalists added his commentary: “Viktor Yushchenko has for several years been trying to implement his idea — which is not supported by everyone in his country — of getting such major world bodies as the UN and the EU to recognize the Famine of 1933 as an act of genocide against Ukrainians as a nation (which would imply that there is another nation responsible for this genocide, and which directly hints at Russians).” (Segodnya, Feb. 4, 2009.)

This journalist made his inference on a subconscious level. There is, however, a scholarly explanation of this grain of thought. Therefore, it seems worth dwelling on the collision that emerged on a central government level between ethnic origin and Soviet nationality, and which remains in our consciousness or unconsciousness as a relict of our totalitarian past.


After coming to power in the USSR, Yurii Andropov declared that no one knew the country s/he was living in. I remember hearing this statement from a man who knew everything about everything (first as chief of the KGB and then as General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union), and that it made a very strong impression on both politicians and intellectuals. Yet now I can say that we failed to fully appreciate the deep meaning of Andropov’s brief statement.

The thing is that the communist system and Soviet governance had the actual and the propaganda dimension. The latter dimension had a special effect on the second generation of Soviet leaders (e.g., Nikita Khrushchev) and especially on the third one (Mikhail Gorbachev). This is understandable, considering the USSR’s Iron Curtain and the hazards of critical assessment of realities. Gorbachev the reformer inadvertently destroyed the party-Soviet tandem, thus bringing closer the inevitable collapse of the long-decaying political system, the fall of the Soviet empire. This is only one example of what the actual situation was all about, considering Andropov’s statement.

Few can fully comprehend the specifics of the Soviet political system. Such is my assumption, considering that we still hear about the titular nation, a concept peculiar to this multiethnic empire.

After the Bolsheviks seized political power, Vladimir Lenin ordered a new country built first as so many independent Soviet states and then as the commonwealth of Union republics, each having extensive constitutional rights, including the right to secede — in other words, withdraw from the Soviet Union. This helped the Bolsheviks take over political power in most countries that emerged after the fall of the Russian empire, including Ukraine (which the Reds got under control at the third attempt). Meanwhile, the ruling party was built as a centralized structure where the lower units were completely subordinated to the higher ones. This turned the Soviet Union into a unitary state.

Russians made up the USSR’s only state-building nation. The Soviet party and government center in Moscow wanted no party branch in Russia, so they got all local party committees under control. True, the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom) of the RSFSR was formed, but it had jurisdiction over enterprises and agencies of minor importance. As before the revolution, Russians made up an imperial nation, albeit with limited rights.

The titular nations were made up of people of non-Russian origin who constituted the majority in a given region. They were granted the right to form their Union or autonomous authorities vested with full powers (unlike those of the Russian Federation). Where ethnic minorities made up the majority of the population, they were entitled to form national/ethnic districts. All the Soviet republics took orders from the Moscow Center.

The principle of the USSR structure, while remaining imperial, was markedly different from that of the Russian empire. There was a striking difference between the constitutional powers vested in the republics (in terms of Soviets) and the centralized dictatorial chain of party command. If any imperial subjects (satellite countries in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as Soviet republics with a national status) weakened or fell out of Moscow’s gravitation field, the Soviet empire would face inevitable collapse. The threat of this collapse, in the event of crisis, was the price the Bolsheviks paid to crush the national liberation movements of the downtrodden peoples and put together an empire that had fallen apart. The party leaders were sure, however, that no crisis was forthcoming.

The participants in the conference in Ireland were divided on the kind of nation Ukrainians were while being persecuted by Moscow: was it an ethnic or a civic nation? I believe that the specifics of the Soviet system make any such discussion nonsensical.

The Soviet government was the brainchild of Lenin’s political genius. It was a symbiosis of the Bolshevik party dictatorship — portrayed by propagandists as a dictatorship of the proletariat — and the rule of Soviet authorities positioned throughout the masses. It was thanks to the Soviets that the Bolshevik party acquired the ruling status. In both its components — Soviet executive committees and party committees — the Soviet government was actually present, even if differing in nature: administrative in the Soviets and dictatorial in the party committees. All the existing organizational structures had a vertical chain of command and abided by “democratic centralism” — in other words, unquestioningly carrying out orders sent from “upstairs.”

The intertwined party and Soviet vertical chains of command wielded colossal power at every rung of the bureaucratic ladder, yet all such powers were vested on a power-of-attorney basis. The absolute dictatorial power was at the top of the Bolshevik-built pyramid, in the hands of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks).

The secret police were the tangible manifestation of the communist party’s dictatorship. Formally, they were part of the Soviet bodies of authority. In actuality, they merged with the party authorities and took orders from their own superiors and above that from the Politburo.

Not coincidentally, the Soviet government was described as that of workers and peasants, considering that these two groups elected the Soviet bodies of authority and made them up. Propagandists in every way emphasized the people’s character of the Soviet system. However, these bodies of authority were only one segment of the political regime.

A civil society — in other words, a body of horizontally structured communities that are not dependent on the state — could not have evolved in the USSR. Consequently, the notion of civic nations was out of the question. The state actively interfered into any social strata, even the family. Countless vertically structured communities formed the state-society, a unique phenomenon in the history of civilization. (More on this in my article “Civil Society in a Soviet Straight Jacket”, The Day, Nos. 28-30, 2008.)

While mass terror was underway, the party leadership felt free to act in whichever way they pleased. After terror was no longer possible, the Union Center started to reckon with the interests of the national republics and the entire population. Under Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev, the colossal resources of this state-society for the first time started being used in the interests of the people under Kremlin control. This is why many people who lived and grew up under the Soviets still favor that system.

What inferences should be made and applied to the problem at hand in view of the above theses? They seem to be self-evident.

The population of the Soviet Union was inventoried on the basis of social origin and ethnicity. The latter was recorded in all CVs and questionnaires in the column “nationality.” These two key characteristics of the Soviet citizen were indicated in passports, which were issued to residents of cities and newly populated areas starting from 1933. The passport’s propiska (registration of the place of residence) column allowed the government to control movements of the population.

Party leaders turned a multinational country into an ethnocratic state with various ethnic communities, among them Russians (as the state-building nation), Ukrainians, Belarusians, other second-order titular nations (in the Union republics), third-order titular nations such as Kazakhs, Moldovans, Tatars, etc. (in autonomous republics), fourth-order ethnic minorities entitled to form national districts and raions, and fifth-order minorities that did not have administrative and territorial units of their own.

For the Soviet leadership, there were three aspects to the status of Ukrainians. First, they made up a titular nation with centuries-old national liberation traditions. Second, they were an ethnic minority denied the possibility of forming national administrative-territorial districts outside the Ukrainian SSR, although Ukrainians would constitute a majority in such districts. Third, they were an ethnic minority that did have the majority of any other district in any other [Soviet] republic.

There were enough Ukrainians in Russia. The USSR census of 1926 pointed to almost eight million Ukrainians living outside Ukraine, including 2,733,000 in the neighboring Russian Federation. The Soviet Ukrainian government approached the Soviet party leadership with the suggestion of annexing to Ukraine next door territories inhabited mostly by Ukrainians, but the response was negative.

In 1929, at a meeting with the general secretary of the CC VKP(b), Andrii Khvylia, head of a delegation of Ukrainian writers, asked Stalin why. He replied frankly: “We have studied the matter twice at the Central Committee and decided to turn it down. We must be especially cautious because such changes would provoke a great deal of resistance on the part of some Russians.” It appears, however, that the people at the top of the party hierarchical ladder had reasons of their own. Why should the Kremlin help add to the economic and manpower potential of the largest national republic? Stalin acted to the contrary and transferring the Taganrog and Shakhty districts from Ukraine to the RSFSR.

To make up for the glaring injustice in delimiting the Ukrainian-Russian border, Stalin supported the Soviet Ukrainian government’s persistent initiatives to permit Ukrainization on territories adjacent to Ukraine and in the Ukrainian enclaves in Kazakhstan and the Far East.

After all, the Kremlin had been officially conducting a korenizatsia (indigenization) policy since 1923, so Ukrainization was part of it. The party solemnly proclaimed the right of every individual to study in his or her mother tongue, use it in official institutions, and when mastering the achievements of world culture. This policy brought tangible dividends, because it asserted the Soviet rule in non-Russian ethnic environments. The Kremlin, however, was aware of the danger posed by this policy — it fostered national revival, paving the way for liberation struggle.

In the North Caucasus the ethnic Ukrainians wholeheartedly welcomed the Ukrainization policy. They believed it to be a preparatory stage in the process of reunification with the Ukrainian SSR, when they would be transferred from the fifth to the second position in the Soviet Table of Ranks — i.e., from an ethnic minority to a titular nation. But then came the CC VKP(b) decrees of Dec. 14 and 15, 1932, stopping Ukrainization outside the Ukrainian SSR. The first decree stressed that the “rash non-Bolshevik Ukrainization of almost half the districts of the North Caucasus, unwarranted by the cultural needs of the populace, with the local authorities having no control whatsoever over the Ukrainization of schools and publications, has offered the enemies of Soviet power a legal way to organize resistance to measures being taken and tasks solved by Soviet power.” Although Ukrainization continued in the Ukrainian SSR, the Kremlin made sure it was along the Bolshevik rather than Petlurite lines.


Over the past couple of years a number of documents have been published to explain how the Holodomor was organized. There were five architects: the Georgian Joseph Stalin, the Russian Viacheslav Molotov, the Jewish Lazar Kaganovich, the Russian Pavel Postyshev, and V. Balitsky (ethnic origin unknown), OGPU “special representative” in the Ukrainian SSR. Until 1927, the Cheka functionary stated in official documents that he was of Russian parentage, but in the next decade, when operating in Ukraine, he claimed to be Ukrainian. After he was arrested in 1937, he insisted he was Russian. Naturally, the ethnic origin of each of the five casts no shadow on the people among which he was born or the country formed by this people.

Against whom did the five aim their weapons? Formally speaking, against the ethnic Ukrainians, considering the ethnic character of the notion titular nation. One must, however, take into account the ethnocratic nature of the Soviet Union, so every citizen of the Ukrainian SSR was both an ethnic Ukrainian and a member of a state-building nation. Stalin and his special representative Postyshev continued to carry out the Bolshevik kind of Ukrainization in the Ukrainian SSR.

Continued in the next issue

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