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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

Was the 1933 Holodomor an act of genocide?

10 October, 2006 - 00:00

(Conclusion. For Parts One and Two, see The Day, nos. 29 and 30.)

My series of articles entitled “Why did Stalin exterminate the Ukrainians?” (Den, no. 207, 2005) includes a subsection on discussions with Russian scholars, which corresponds thematically with the present question. Indeed, these debates boil down to the assertion (on our part) or negation (on their part) of the genocidal character of the Famine of 1932-1933. Without repeating what I stated last year, I will dwell on the stand of political figures who are deforming objective knowledge about the Holodomor.

I will start by characterizing the position of Ukrainian politicians. On the question of Russia’s responsibility for the Holodomor it was contradictory, but it was always aimed at defending personal powers. For politicians power probably comes first under all circumstances.

In the subsection on the governing party’s attitude to the Holodomor I mentioned Leonid Kravchuk’s speech at an international conference that took place in September 1993. The president of Ukraine recognized the Holodomor as an act of genocide perpetrated on instructions from Moscow. Ivan Drach spoke next. In his speech he declared that the Russian Federation was asserting itself as the legal successor to the White and Red empires, in conjunction with which legal and ethical reasons emerge for Ukraine to present a bill to Russia on account of the Holodomor. “The time will come,” said the writer, “when 8 or 12 million eyewitnesses — two or three times the number of those killed in the war of 1941-1945 — will rise from their graves in every Ukrainian village and demand the abolition of the statute of limitations on their deaths, which is only proper under international law.”

I will not comment on the number of victims. Drach derived the right to submit a bill from the unquestioned fact that Russia truly wanted to be the legal successor of the USSR. However, this fact, as everyone understands, belongs to the category of objective evaluations of the Russian political elite. Another fact is objective: the USSR was a totalitarian state whose peoples were not responsible for the Kremlin’s actions. Drach’s emotional and selfless (from the political point of view) speech corresponded to the interests of Kravchuk and the party nomenklatura that he headed, which wanted to move to a safe distance from Russia.

The Kremlin reacted rather indulgently to the Ukrainian political leaders’ emphasis on their political independence. Its reaction was elicited by the specific features of its course of collecting the lands that had fallen away. This course was formulated immediately after the collapse of the USSR. It consisted in the creation in the post-Soviet countries of an elite social stratum connected to the Kremlin with its economic interests at the expense of Russia’s raw material resources. This stratum was supposed to replace the Communist Party-Soviet nomenklatura that was linked to the center only by political interests. The political interest disappeared after Mikhail Gorbachev’s constitutional reform that “lopped off” the dictatorial functions of the ruling party.

The replacement of the Kremlin- supporting social stratum was taking place almost imperceptibly because private ownership of the means of production, whose rights had been restored, was concentrated mainly in the hands of the former Communist Party-Soviet nomenklatura. The Kremlin’s influence on this process relied primarily on the penetration of Russian capital into the economy of the former Union republics and second of all, on maintaining their dependence on Russia-in the case of Ukraine, through energy supplies. Thanks to the difference in domestic Russian and world oil and gas prices, a small but influential group of oligarchic businessmen emerged in Russia and Ukraine.

Business and politics are close connected in Ukraine. Now the Ukrainian elite has stopped spurning Russia, once again in order not to forfeit its power. On Feb. 23, 2003, an informal meeting of four presidents — Vladimir Putin, Leonid Kuchma, Nursultan Nazarbaev, and Aleksandr Lukashenko — took place in Moscow. The presidents signed a statement with the long heading “On the New Stage of Economic Integration and the Beginning of Talks on Forming a Single Economic Space and Creation of a Single Regulatory Intergovernmental Commission on Trade and Tariffs.” Thus, the new concept of a “Single Economic Space” (SES) was introduced into daily life.

The concept and draft of the SES agreement had been developed already in August 2003. A number of Ukrainian ministries showed a markedly critical attitude, but at the Yalta meeting in September 2003 the Agreement on the Creation of the SES was signed. On April 20, 2004, Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada passed the Law on the Ratification of the Agreement on the Formation of the SES by a roll-call vote. There is no doubt that the results of the voting — and before that, the positions of President Leonid Kuchma and Prime Minister Volodymyr Yanukovych of Ukraine — were the consequence of heavy pressure from the Russian Federation. On the eve of the presidential elections the candidates needed support from the Kremlin, but for this support they had to make certain commitments in return.

Readers may think that the previous paragraphs are a digression from the present topic. In reality, they form the background against which subsequent debates on the character of the Ukrainian Holodomor unfolded.

In 1991 the Communist Party-Soviet nomenklatura connected independent Ukraine with the Ukrainian National Republic, which was crushed by the Kremlin. This allowed historians to freely assess documentary sources and more effectively rid themselves of sham communist stereotypes. However, this also created difficulties for Ukrainian and Russian historians in reaching an understanding of certain acute problems, one of which is the Holodomor of 1932-1933.

Ukrainian and Russian historiographies are drifting increasingly farther apart in assessing the recent past. In Ukraine, a thorough revision of the Soviet concept of “socialist construction” is underway. In Russia, however, this revision is superficial and selective. Developed in the 1938 edition of the Short Course on the History of the AUCP(b), the concept of socialist construction is still prevalent in our neighbor’s country. In his introduction to the Russian edition of Le Livre noir du communisme: Crimes, terreur, repression, the famous joint study by mostly French scholars, Aleksandr Yakovlev wrote bitterly in September 1999: “Our students and schoolchildren continue to study using the same (content- wise) textbooks as before.”

Lest this statement by the chief architect of Gorbachev’s perestroika seem grossly exaggerated, it would be useful to bolster it with the conclusions of an historiographic analysis carried by Voprosy istorii (Questions of History), the leading historical journal of the Russian Academy of Sciences. In 2006 the journal published I. Chemodanov’s article under the paradoxical heading, “Was There an Alternative in the USSR to Forced Collectivization?” The author states that there are two approaches to this question, including this one: the implementation of mass collectivization was on the whole justified. Further on he writes: “When the question arises of the price that the peasantry paid, the advocates of all-out collectivization only spread their hands: you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, and every victory has to be paid for.”

That’s not all. Summing up a survey of literature, Chemodanov arrives at the following conclusion: in the mid-1920s there was a possibility of relatively dynamic industrial development through a linkage with NEP-based agriculture, but by the end of this decade there was no longer such a possibility: the development of market relations in agriculture turned out to be incompatible with the reinforcement of the planned principles of industry. Hence his final conclusion: “There was only one way out of that situation: mass forced collectivization.”

In thrall to Soviet stereotypes, this author did not even bother to consider that the reinforcement of the planned foundations of industry was the result of the voluntaristic decision of Stalin’s team to resume the course of communist construction that was begun in 1918. I think that we will continue to encounter difficulties in finding a common language with many Russian scholars with regard to the Famine-Genocide of 1932-1933, if they continue to suggest that we spread our hands helplessly and forget about the millions of victims: “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” The position of the journal Voprosy istorii would have been more understandable some 20 years ago, when the collective farm system still existed, albeit in its last death throes. But what is there to say now?

8. Why did terror by famine become possible?

In the Kremlin’s arsenal there was a large assortment of forcible means that were used for communist construction. These included individual repressions that now and then acquired a mass character: the “dekulakization” of the wealthiest stratum of peasant owners, as well as poor peasants who opposed collectivization; terror by famine under the guise of grain deliveries; deportation of large masses of the population according to social or national markers; “purging” dissenters from the governing party, and so on. Using mass terror as a method of state governance, the Kremlin leaders did not reckon with human losses even in cases when they fell under a category known in international law as the concept of genocide. Herein lies the secret of the Soviet genocide, which is unfathomable to Western observers because it in no way resembles the Jewish or Armenian genocides.

We can have objections to the content of the concept of genocide that was formulated and adopted by the United Nations together with representatives of the Stalinist regime. However, the famine of 1932-1933 in the Soviet Union, which was suppressed until 1987, falls — on the territories of the Ukrainian SSR and the Kuban district of the Northern Caucasus Territory — under the not quite complete definition that already exists in international law.

Attempts to locate in the most secret archives the frank testimonies of individuals who were directly involved in the organization of the famine-genocide are naive. They are not even necessary. A frank admission of guilt could be the “queen of evidence” only in jurisprudence headed by Stalin and Vyshynsky.

Terror by famine was a likely possibility in the state that was building a socioeconomic system that could not have emerged in a natural way. This artificial system did not correspond to the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population and therefore could only be built by the method of force. Where force is used, there is terror.

Applied at the turn of 1932-1933, terror by famine was not the first such occurrence in Ukraine. The famine of 1921 impeded Nestor Makhno’s peasant detachments in their continuing struggle against the Bolsheviks. The approaching famine became the straightjacket for the peasants, who had been rebelling against all regimes since 1917. After the Kremlin established this regular pattern, the Soviet government began to struggle against “kulak banditry” in the southern famine-stricken gubernias of Ukraine with the aid of forced grain deliveries.

In order to understand the situation in Ukraine in the fall and winter of 1932, as well as the way in which the Kremlin rulers reacted to it, it is above all necessary to compare it to the situation that existed in the winter and spring of 1930.

In March 1930, the growing anti-collective farm movement, especially in Ukraine’s borderland districts, worried Stalin so much that he rejected the communization of farms (just like Lenin did in 1919, also in connection with mass uprisings in Ukraine). In the commune state the Kremlin left a “small island” of private ownership in the form of the peasants’ “personal” ownership of a plot of land attached to a house. The collectivization of agriculture in the artel (cooperative) form was proclaimed as a completely voluntary matter. The previous course aimed at the forced “collectivization” of peasant property began being identified with local authorities’ “leftist distortions.”

In early 1932 the situation in Ukraine looked incomparably worse. As a result of grain deliveries from the 1931 harvest, carried out by forcible means, the Ukrainian peasants were left without grain. During the first half of the year some 140,000-150,000 peasants starved to death. They were dying because all their grain, their main source of food, had been confiscated from them. People whose personal plots could not feed them after their grain was confiscated were dying. The following year, i.e., in the first half of 1933, the peasants were dying the same way in the Volga area and all the districts of the Northern Caucasus Territory, except the Kuban. In the first half of 1933 there was a complete different situation in the Kuban region and the Ukrainian SSR — the Holodomor.

Here is some food for thought. In the first half of 1932 the Soviet government was not destroying the Ukrainians by famine because they were Ukrainians and not starving peasants to death because they were peasants. The government purchased grain abroad, something it had never done before, to provide seed and bread grain assistance to dozens of rural districts in Ukraine. Of course, they were not rescuing peasants’ lives so much as the 1932 harvest.

However, the harvest forecast was not realized. Grain deliveries failed, and the government’s ability to supply tens of millions of people with centralized ration card supplies dropped sharply. Owing to the situation that had developed, Stalin dispatched special grain delivery commissions to the main grain-producing regions.

Famine broke out as a result of forced grain confiscations and the cancellation of ration cards for many categories of the population, and with it, a political crisis. The crisis could not be concealed behind pompous newspaper reports on the start of operations of the Dnipro Hydroelectric Station and other new construction projects of the first Five- Year Plan. All the textbooks state that the Soviet totalitarian state deprived the population not only of political freedom but also private ownership of the means of production, along with freedom of enterprise. However, they do not emphasize the direct consequence of the absence of political and economic freedom: the obligation of the state to feed the population on a daily basis.

Instead of taking measures to ease the situation of the starving population of the Ukrainian SSR and the Kuban (as was the case in the first half of 1932), the Kremlin carried out the confiscation of non-grain food reserves, i.e., terror by famine.

Soviet repressions were always of a cautionary character. Stalin did not wait for an unfavorable situation to evolve and then react to it later. Preventive strikes were used to destroy or isolate those who could take advantage of the crisis in order to put an end to the “dictatorship of the proletariat” concentrated in the hands of the Kremlin oligarchs. What kind of threat did the Kremlin see in the Ukrainian SSR and the Kuban, in other words Ukraine?

We are accustomed to analyzing events of the interwar period from the standpoint of perceptions that were formed later, in the postwar period. Besides being an ordinary aberration of historical vision defined by the concept of presentism (i.e., the influence of the epoch in which a researcher is living on his analysis of preceding epochs), this habit is also explained by the stability of a political regime. The regime that Lenin formed in the space of several months after the coup of October 1917 did not actually change until Gorbachev’s constitutional reform. However, corrections should be made in two circumstances relating to the problem under study. The first one concerns Stalin’s political weight and the second, the functioning of the Soviet Union as a multinational state of the imperialistic type.

Stalin acquired one-person power after a long (1922-1928) and difficult struggle within the Politburo of the CC AUCP (b). Starting in 1929, he exerted a decisive influence on the passage of the most important state decisions, although he was not yet an omnipotent dictator, the way he is remembered today. In 1929- 1932 the destiny of the political group led by Stalin was hanging by a thread. At any moment the political and economic crisis caused by the excessively high rates of industrialization could have become so exacerbated that it could have touched off the threat that Stalin’s group would be ousted from power. The leader had a lot to lose, and we know that he did not stop short of committing a crime on the most massive scale, which helped reinforce his power. Stalin’s transformation from a formal into a true dictator was the result of the Holodomor and the Great Terror. This circumstance should be taken into account when analyzing the general secretary’s actions in the critical situation of 1932-193.

The second circumstance that influenced the Kremlin’s decision to use a weapon against Ukraine like terror by famine under the guise of grain procurements is linked to the Soviet Union’s dual nature. On the one hand, it was a unitary state with a centralized administration. On the other hand, it was a federation of Union states, each of which had the right to secede from the federation as laid down both in its own constitution and the Union one. This federation of Union states was transformed into a unitary state by the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” which boiled down to the Kremlin’s dictatorship. The crisis in the leadership of the state party was destroying the force field holding the Union republics within the framework of the federation.

We are used to the kind of Soviet Union that it became after the Holodomor and the Great Terror. This was a unitary country in which any mention of the right to secede was regarded as treason to the Motherland and punishable by death or the maximum prison term (a precedent set by Levko Lukianenko). In this case “we” means all of us Soviet people, starting from the highest-ranking leaders. When the force field of the Communist Party dictatorship vanished after Gorbachev’s constitutional reform and each Union republic got the opportunity to leave the empire built with “steel and blood,” almost all the leaders kept a low profile in their respective capitals, contenting themselves with issuing declarations about state sovereignty. All these republican leaders reminded one of baby birds that had been born in a cage and were scared to fly out now that the door was open. The situation exploded only after a putsch was organized by some high-ranking leaders of the Union state, who had found themselves jobless after the signing of the new Union agreement.

What was the Soviet Union like prior to the Holodomor and the Great Terror? It must be acknowledged that it was a false federation in which the Kremlin placed its own people at the head of all the republics. These people were accustomed to submitting to iron party discipline. But they did not forget either the needs of their own republics, which for them were countries united around the Kremlin, or their constitutional rights. Even Lazar Kaganovich referred to Ukraine as a “country” in his letters to Stalin.

The leaders of that branch of the unitarily-built AUCP (b) known as the Communist Party (Bolshevik) of Ukraine behaved particularly “insolently.” They managed to get the bureau of the CC of the CP(b)U renamed as a political bureau and the first secretary of the CC as general secretary (this lasted until 1934). They constantly demanded that the Kremlin annex the raions bordering on the Russian Federation, which were inhabited predominantly by Ukrainians, to the Ukrainian SSR. They were especially insistent about the Kuban and in the meantime launched vigorous activity to Ukrainize the Kuban organs of power, educational institutions, and the mass media. They transformed the official policy of indigenization, which the Kremlin began to implement after the formation of the Soviet Union in order to enroot the organs of Soviet power in the national republics, into a policy of de-Russification and began seriously regarding Russians in the Ukrainian SSR as a national minority.

What can be added to everything stated above-perhaps the fact that even without the Kuban the Ukrainian SSR was the most powerful national republic? Its economic and human resource potential equaled that of the other Union republics put together, except the RSFSR. One could probably add that 15 to 20 years before the Holodomor the Ukrainian people had their own national statehood and that the Kremlin succeeded in replacing it by the Soviet one only after three “liberation campaigns” against Ukraine. Another significant thing was that the Ukrainian SSR bordered on European countries, and there was an eight-million-strong Ukrainian enclave in Poland that was awaiting the overthrow of the Bolshevik regime and reunification with Greater Ukraine.

Stalin truly had grounds for striking a preemptive strike against the citizens of the Ukrainian SSR and the Kuban in the critical situation of 1932-1933.

9. Conclusions

In May 2006 The Day published my article “Society and the State on the Scales of History,” which deals with the events of the last two decades. Among other things it analyzed the “Russian question” in Ukraine. In particular, I raised the idea that the successful development of Ukraine as a state that would be different from Russia is ensured by abiding by two conditions: first, tolerance and self-restraint with regard to “inner” Russia — Russian-speaking Ukrainians and Russians; second, maintaining friendly relations with the Russian people while achieving complete independence from the Russian Federation, both political and economic.

Such a conclusion did not appeal to everyone. One of my colleagues, who used to be a high-ranking official, reminded me of the Soviet propaganda thesis before Germany invaded the USSR: if Hitler tries to attack the world’s first workers’ and peasants’ state, the German proletarians mobilized into the army would turn their weapons against him. These calculations were built on sand, he said; likewise, Ukraine cannot expect support from the Russian people, which would go against the line of the Russian Federation’s leadership.

I still think that we shouldn’t be afraid of the Russian people. The argument of the German proletarians is not convincing, if only because the USSR was not the world’s first workers’ and peasants’ state. In addition — and this is the main thing — the situation in the world has radically changed over the past 50 to 100 years. Unlike statesmen and politicians, many of whom out of inertia continue to think in categories of control over territories, nations want to live without borders. They have the right to freely elect their leaders and expect effective governance from them, which will ensure positive dynamics of well-being, friendship with neighboring countries, admission to the global economic and humanitarian space, and care for the preservation of national identity. It is not nations that elicit fears but elites that manipulate people’s consciousness. However, their possibilities are limited.

A revision of Soviet historical concepts is taking place in Ukraine and Russia at different rates. Thus, knots of conflicts have formed, which are negatively influencing Ukrainian-Russian relations. Among them is the problem of the OUN-UPA or the assessment of the famine of 1932-1933. In studying such problems, we must try to arrive at only one thing: historical truth. Historical myths may seem useful, but they are only a way to manipulate consciousness; you cannot build your own history on them.

Since Ukraine during its existence within the USSR suffered horrific repressions, including the Holodomor, some representatives of our community want to “present a bill” to the state-forming nation in the multinational Union state, in other words, to the people of Russia, all the more so as the Russian Federation is in no hurry to renounce its Soviet heritage.

When such appeals are voiced, they disunite not only neighboring peoples, but also the population of Ukraine. Allegations devoid of historical authenticity turn into Russophobia, which is equally unpleasant to almost all strata of Ukrainian citizenry. Although the study of the famine of 1932-1933 in the Russian Federation is not encouraged, works by Western researchers make it clear that other regions put together suffered no fewer human losses from the famine than Ukraine (true, if you include the Kuban as part of the Russian Federation, of which it was then a part and where it will remain forever).

When our public political figures accuse the Kremlin of destroying ethnic Ukrainians, they often encounter a distrustful and skeptical reaction. Identifying the Holodomor with the Holocaust is beneath criticism, although in the final result it was ethnic Ukrainians who were being destroyed in 1932-1933. Stalin was annihilating not ethnic Ukrainians as such but citizens of Ukraine, in other words representatives of Ukrainian national statehood, which was dangerous to him even in its Sovietized form.

We cannot leave the truth about the Holodomor inaccessible to the understanding of the international community and citizens of Ukraine itself. We are duty-bound to show why those Kremlin monsters passed a decision on a people-killing action on part of the territory of their own country, which was completely well-informed, calculated in advance and painstakingly supported by organizational and political measures.

The truth about the Holodomor must be free of emotional exaggerations, if only with regard to the number of victims, otherwise it will be received not as truth but as propaganda.

The truth about the Holodomor is part of the people’s historical memory. The restoration of historical memory is directly connected with the liberation of the people’s consciousness from Soviet stereotypes. Unfortunately, among the many institutes that have emerged in Ukraine after 1991 with the aim of asserting its independence, to this day there is no institute called upon to engage in the correction, healing, and restoration of national memory. As a result of the complete absence of informative work, a large part of Ukrainian society cannot render an objective judgment on the balance sheet of gains and failures of the first two decades of the Soviet period, i.e., the era of communist construction. The consciousness of these people is still dominated by the distorted assessments laid down in the Short Course on the History of the AUCP(b). The famine-genocide of 1932-1933 clearly does not fit in with these evaluations, as we have already seen.

The tragedy of the Ukrainian nation is attracting increasingly greater attention among foreign researchers, especially in Italy, Germany, and Poland. On Nov. 24, 2005, the Lithuanian parliament passed a resolution commemorating the victims of political repressions and the famine-genocide of 1932-1933 in Ukraine. On Dec. 20, 2005, a similar resolution was adopted by the Georgian parliament, and on March 16, 2006, by the Polish Senate.

I would like to conclude this article with the closing statement of the resolution of the Polish Senate:

“The Senate of the Republic of Poland pays homage to all those who were tortured to death during the Great Famine in Ukraine, as well as to that small number of heroes who often armed with weapons fought against the threat of destruction of their people, against communist tyranny, hypocrisy, and falsehood. We are in solidarity with the actions of the Ukrainian people, as well as the president, parliament, government, self-ruling organs, and veterans’ unions, which honor this tragedy that, like a warning against totalitarian ideology, can never be forgotten.”

By Stanislav KULCHYTSKY, deputy director, Institute of History, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine