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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?

26 September, 2006 - 00:00

On Nov. 10, 2003, the 58th UN General Assembly Session officially adopted the Joint Statement on the Holodomor-the Great Famine of 1932-1933 in Ukraine. Due to the Russian Federation’s inflexible stand, the level of the document was lowered from a UN resolution to a joint statement, and the term “genocide” was excluded from the title.

In view of Russia’s position, the US House of Representatives and the Senate also left out this key term from their statements on the 70th anniversary of the Holodomor in Ukraine. However, in a joint bill passed in February 2005, both houses of the US Congress allowed the Ukrainian community to erect a memorial in the District of Columbia “in order to honor the victims of the famine-genocide.” In this document the US Congress emphasizes that in 1998 it set up a commission to investigate the 1932-1933 famine in Ukraine and after analyzing its report, acknowledged that Stalin and his circle had employed genocide as a weapon against Ukraine.

The Nov. 4, 2005, Ukase of the President of Ukraine “On Commemorating the Victims and Those Who Suffered from the Holodomors in Ukraine,” established an organizing committee headed by the prime minister of Ukraine, whose task is to implement a number of measures commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Holodomor of 1932-1933. As President Yushchenko declared, the committee’s main task is to “implement additional measures pertaining to the international community’s recognition of the Holodomor of 1932-1933 in Ukraine as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people.”

Why is qualifying the Holodomor of 1933 as an act of genocide so important? What kind of hidden obstacles are we finding on the way to recognizing this tragedy as a genocide? Why do so many people both in our country and abroad refuse to believe that the Soviet government in Stalin’s time was capable of destroying people? Do historians have facts at their disposal that can prove that the 1933 Holodomor was an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people?

In October and November of 2005, The Day carried a series of six of my articles entitled “Why did Stalin exterminate the Ukrainians?” Without repeating myself, I am seeking an answer to these questions in a new series of articles.


The Holodomor of 1932-1933 left unhealed wounds on the body of the Ukrainian nation. If one imagines the total number of the population as a diagram based on birth years, the result would be an age-based pyramid, with children born in the first years at the bottom and long-lived people at the top. Dents in this pyramid are caused by unnatural population losses. The dent made by the Holodomor is the deepest and in an increasingly smoother appearance is repeated in every succeeding generation. Today no grandsons and great-grandsons of those whose lives were cut short in the early 1930s are being born.

The current generation of Ukrainian citizens remembers its grandfathers and great-grandfathers who perished during the famine. But for many the cause of those deaths by starvation in 1932-1933 has not been determined. Some people try to learn why. Others have no memories - and there are a lot of people like this.

The 70th anniversary of the Holodomor has become an event of world significance. On Nov. 10, 2003, the UN General Assembly issued a joint statement by 36 countries expressing sympathy with the Ukrainian people. On Oct. 22, the U.S. House of Representatives adopted House Resolution 356 “Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives regarding the man-made famine that occurred in Ukraine in 1932-1933” in which the nature of the tragedy was clearly defined: “...this man-made famine was designed and implemented by the Soviet regime as a deliberate act of terror and mass murder against the Ukrainian people...” Yet neither the joint statement of 36 countries nor the US Congress resolution contained the key point: recognition of the 1932-1933 famine as an act of genocide.

Genocide is a category of international law. The UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, signed on Dec. 9, 1948, reads that the international community undertakes to bring to justice persons committing genocide “whether they are constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials or private individuals.” Former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic was prosecuted on the basis of this convention. We do not have to bring to justice those who were responsible for the genocidal famine because they are all dead. The important thing is to know why. Our society and the rest of the world must know what really happened in those years.

With this in mind, the president of Ukraine signed an edict on Nov. 4, 2005, establishing the Organizing Committee for the Preparation and Implementation of Measures in Conjunction with the 75th Anniversary of the Holodomor. The committee must organize its activities so that the UN will recognize the Holodomor as an act of genocide in 2008.

Do we stand a chance of getting the international community to do this? The task of this article is to assess the actual situation. We have about two years to convince the international (and Ukrainian) community.

1. The crux of the matter

Whether a crime against humanity is an act of genocide is decided only by the international community — i.e., parliaments in other countries. The final verdict is returned by the United Nations. Qualifying a crime as an act of genocide is a serious matter, and the international community approaches it with a sense of special responsibility.

The recognition of the 1932-1933 famine in Ukraine as an act of genocide cannot entail any concrete actions on the part of the UN Security Council. An entire lifetime separates us from that tragedy, but this circumstance is of little help in the successful resolution of this problem. History is firmly connected to politics and is thus often politicized. Nor is the famine issue an exception. It has to be depoliticized, made absolutely clear, and convincingly substantiated.

In the first place, it must be explained to the international community why the nation against whom that weapon of genocidal famine was employed has not demonstrated any clear-cut and unanimous desire to regard this crime as an act aimed at terminating its existence in an organizational, i.e., state, form. It must also be explained why several convocations of parliament formed by that nation during the course of free elections failed to examine the question of the famine-genocide. Is it because the dent from this genocide touched not only the physical body of the Ukrainian people but also its historical awareness?

We are a postgenocidal society, said the late Prof. James Mace, former staff director of the U.S. Commission on the Ukraine Famine (1932-1933). A postgenocidal society is not cognizant of the violence that was carried out against it. Complicating this issue is the fact that the victim of this violence is a generation that no longer exists.

Ukrainian scholars and those engaged in regional historical studies have succeeded in conveying to their people the outward image of the Holodomor. This has been done in breathtaking detail. However, they may not have been as convincing in revealing the logic of events that were unfolding in the countryside from the beginning of the all-out collectivization of agriculture.

Collectivization itself probably ought to be viewed on a broader scale, as an element in the creation of the Bolshevik socioeconomic system that ran counter to the interests of the overwhelming majority of the population; in other words, it was inherently artificial and could emerge only within the force field of a terrorist dictatorship.

The final task is crucial in determining the genocidal nature of famines in Ukraine and the Kuban region. It is necessary to prove why the Kremlin found the regions most densely populated by Ukrainians especially dangerous, so that it employed famine as the most severe form of terror against them.

Without a doubt, the famine of 1932-1933 swept over most Soviet regions. Researchers also agree that the degree of famine in two Ukrainian regions was the highest (with the exception of Kazakhstan, but more on this later). In order to recognize the famines there as an act of genocide, it is necessary to explain how they differed from the others.

This article does not claim to solve the problem of the famine-genocide. It simply raises questions relating to the recognition of the 1932-1933 famine in Ukraine as an act of genocide. It should be noted that foreign researchers have accomplished more to this end than we have.

One of the main problems is to heal the Ukrainian people’s historical awareness. The need has been realized on the governmental level. A Ukrainian Institute of National Memory is in the process of being organized and is meant to coordinate the efforts of numerous organizations in reviving historical memory.

2. Rethinking the history of the Soviet period

Two de-Stalinization campaigns took place in the Soviet Union. The one launched by Khrushchev became known as the struggle against the cult of personality; the one by Gorbachev, as democratization. Both campaigns had a concrete objective: to rehabilitate the victims of Stalin’s arbitrary rule, primarily communist functionaries and Soviet public figures. Along the way, society gradually began to see the general picture of terror with the aid of which the Bolsheviks constructed an order during 1918-1938, which became known as the Soviet system.

A colossal number of documents on the mass repressions, which began circulating among the general public, convinced many in the Soviet Union that there were no blank spots left in their history. That was an illusion. The Short Course on the History of the AUCP(b), which in 1938 summed up the gains of the communist revolution, was withdrawn from circulation after Stalin’s death, but the postulates remained in the minds of those who studied and taught history.

In the countries that emerged in place of the USSR, a revision of Soviet history continued, but at different rates and even along different vectors. Russian historians, for example, have mostly emphasized positive aspects, like the transformation of a backward country into a superpower. Ukrainian historians have basically divided into two camps. Some see nothing positive in the past; others see almost nothing negative. Official policy in the field of history (which was particularly manifested in the content of textbooks recommended by state agencies) has been strongly influenced by the anticommunist North American Diaspora. The anticommunism of the Diaspora and the former Soviet Communist Party nomenklatura that did not lose power in independent Ukraine sprang from different causes, which I will examine further on. At this point it should be noted that anticommunism only impeded the comprehension of the history of communist construction.

Comparatively few researchers, who try to approach the past without using communist or anticommunist criteria, are working quite successfully on revising the conceptual principles of the history of the Soviet order. Their studies are facilitated by the absence of pressure from authorities and the presence of open archives.

The year 1933 cannot be described as a blank spot because everybody knew about the famine. In the late 1980s, when information about the crimes of Stalinism began pouring out, it was received by society in a variety of ways. In the minds of many people a positive attitude to Soviet power, ingrained since childhood, could not coalesce with claims that this government had carried out terror by starvation, i.e., conscious actions specially designed to physically destroy the population by starving it to death.

It is considerably easier to present historical facts in a consecutive order than to trace the effects of some or other events on a person’s consciousness. A historian has few sources at his disposal with which to study individual and collective consciousness. The history of Soviet Ukraine has been studied well in terms of events, including the Holodomor, but we know little about how people’s awareness changed during that revolutionary epoch, how adequately people responded to terror and propaganda, which were used to herd them toward a “bright future.”

Along with terror and propaganda, the Soviet government intensively used another factor of influence on the population, namely, the education of the rising generation. Recently, on the pages of The Day I wrote a commentary on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the 20th Congress of the CPSU, but I did not emphasize an idea that is very important in the context of the present article: that congress served to reconcile people who were products of Soviet schools with the government. At the time, in the first postwar decades, almost all Soviet citizens were graduates of Soviet schools (except in the territories that were annexed to the USSR in 1939). It was now possible to attribute to Stalin the crimes committed by the Bolshevik regime, which had used terror and propaganda to build the Soviet socioeconomic system in the years preceding World War Two.

We (I mean my generation) can assess the effectiveness of communist upbringing by analyzing our own awareness in this period. When I was still a university student (1954-1959) I obtained access, as a professional archivist, to uncensored information: Ukrainian newspapers of the occupation period, the first articles on the 1932-1933 famine that were appearing in the journals of the Ukrainian Diaspora, etc. But that information was rejected by my consciousness and had no effect on my ingrained world views.

Terror can impose a way of life but not a world view. A world view is the result of upbringing and propaganda, which must necessarily rely on an understandable and a positive symbol of faith. Who can argue that the communist doctrine in its propagandistic form was not attractive? You should read the works of a very sincere poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky, to realize its strength.

After graduating from Odesa University, I made my way to the Institute of Economy of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR, where I became fascinated with Soviet economic history of the 1920s and 1930s. In those days I was also following the scholarly literature in my field that was being published in the West, and I tried on a regular basis to read the journal Problems of Communism, which was quite prestigious among Sovietologists.

My indirect acquaintance with “Ukrainian bourgeois nationalists” did not lead to a split in my consciousness. Our world was different from the West in its most profound dimensions, i.e. it was a different civilization. The Iron Curtain was like the glass walls of an aquarium separating two different environments. In its own way our world was logical and had values that were understandable to everyone. It was false through and through, but few could detect this precisely because of the totality of that falsity. For me in particular, both the causes of the 1932-1933 famine and the reasons behind the Soviet government’s refusal to acknowledge the fact of the famine remained unfathomable. The literature of the Diaspora stated that Stalin had starved the Ukrainian people to death, but it was simply impossible to believe such a thing.

It is embarrassing to keep referring to myself, but I lack other empirical material for analyzing the revolution in world perception that has taken place in our country. My own such revolution was accelerated by my research on the famine of 1932-1933, and it passed through two stages. The first one lasted seven or eight years during which I accumulated archival material and formed a factual picture of the Holodomor. I was compelled to believe the “Ukrainian bourgeois nationalists,” who recounted how Stalin had killed the Ukrainian people by starving them to death.

During the second stage, my department conducted a systematic nine-year study of the nature of Soviet totalitarianism. The famine of 1932-1933 became part of the general context of events that took place in 1918-1938 in a Bolshevik-controlled country. It has become possible to answer the question why Stalin tried to destroy the Ukrainian people by starving them to death. This is precisely what we need to define the Holodomor as a famine-genocide in accordance with the criteria set forth in the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, of Dec. 9, 1948.

3. The probability of genocide in communist construction

History knows cases of genocide that occurred in wartime and in different ethnic sociums. In my encounters with some overseas researchers of the Ukrainian Holodomor, I could see that they were unable to accept the possibility of genocide in peacetime and within one’s own country. I repeat: in order for them to believe in the facts, the nature of the Holodomor must be analyzed against a broader background, without separating this phenomenon from the entire process of communist construction of 1918-1938.

Marxism had a number of principal distinctions from the teachings that were known in the Soviet Union as MarxismLeninism. Perhaps the most important one was that Marx regarded a communist society as a natural product of objective natural-historical development. You will not find the term “communist construction” in any of his works. In contrast, Lenin believed that it was not worth waiting for communism to mature. He saw communist construction as the main duty of the proletarian party (his and only his) after it came to power and after the founding of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” (once again, the dictatorship of his very own party). In his opinion, communism could be built within a very short period of time.

Maintaining the stereotypes that were instilled in us during Soviet times, we are still seeking the roots of the Leninist-Stalinist communist revolution in the revolution that began in Russia in March 1917 (new style). In reality, the revolution in Russia had only two distinct currents-bourgeois-democratic and Soviet, which were represented in various proportions in every region of the multinational empire. The Bolsheviks joined the Soviet current without in any way merging with it and seized power on the shoulders of the soviets, after which they left only the outer shell of these soviets. None of the revolutionary personalities of 1917, except the leaders of the Bolshevik Party, wanted to do what was done in Russia and Bolshevik-enslaved Ukraine between World War One and World War Two. At any rate, in 1917 the Bolshevik leaders kept their communist doctrine to themselves, and for the purpose of seizing power they exploited completely different political slogans of the revolutionary soviets.

After the failure of the first communist assault in 1921, the Bolsheviks put communism on the back burner and played up distribution relations in communism rather than production relations. Simultaneously, from the angle of propaganda distribution relations were given the following highly effective formulation: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” The building of the Soviet order, starting in 1918, was proclaimed as socialist, not communist. This terminological contradiction was resolved very simply: socialism was proclaimed the first phase of communism.

Even today we call the communist revolution of 1918-1938 the building of socialism. However, the notion “socialism” should be left to its original Western European discoverers, who recognized the objective necessity of capitalist enterprise and private ownership. The essence of socialist policies in the West was that the capitalists pledged to share their profits with the strata of the socium that needed help. This policy appealed to the population, which could elect organs of rule. That is why social democratic parties began coming to power in Europe (the Bolsheviks too emerged from the ranks of the social democrats).

In time, countries called capitalist in the Soviet Union changed, but we could not spot their new look from behind the Iron Curtain, all the more so as they never called themselves socialist. This popular term was privatized first by Lenin and later by Hitler. As a matter of fact, Stalin took a dim view of Hitler’s privatization, so when the National-Socialist German Workers Party became the governing one, he ordered the Nazis to be called fascists. Even though there is an essential difference between German Nazism and Italian fascism, we still adhere to Stalin’s directive announced at the 17 th Congress of the AUCP(b).

Western European socialism relied on capitalist entrepreneurship and helped maintain class peace in society, which is the basis of a democratic order. It was a dynamic and highly effective socioeconomic system, so long as it took into account the polarized interests of workers and employers. In contrast, Soviet communist socialism destroyed the free market and private enterprise, replacing them by the planned distribution of finished products. The destruction of the free market as a natural regulator of the economic process a priori deprived production of effective management. The nationalized economy came alive under the influence of bureaucratic commands that arrived from outside and could not assure its effectiveness.

Marx and Engels peremptorily declared in their Communist Manifesto: “...the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property” (Works, 2nd ed., vol. 4, p. 422).Western European Marxists discarded this postulate as premature and, instead of revolutionary violence, adopted a policy of reform as a method of struggle for a better future. Thanks to this, they were able to transform their countries. In contrast, the Bolsheviks adopted early Marxism and declared the destruction of private ownership of the means of production. What came of this?

Private property is an historical category, i.e., it has a beginning and an end. But in our days, just like in Marx’s time, it is too soon to discuss its demise. We will have to wait another couple of hundred years, perhaps longer. The slogan of the abolition (not demise) of private property is an altogether different matter. Its realization does not destroy property itself; it merely changes its owner. Communist construction in the USSR resulted in the concentration of all ownership of the means of production in the hands of a small group of oligarchs, the Politburo of the CC CPSU.

Even during the first onslaught of 1918-1920, these oligarchs realized that tens of millions of peasants would not surrender their lands and other means of production. And so a new communist onslaught, which began in 1929, relied primarily on terrorist means of influencing the peasantry. Hair-raising tragedies, like the Holodomor and the Great Terror became possible precisely because the coercive component was paramount in communist construction.

In the hands of the Communist Party/Soviet oligarchs the fusion of political dictatorship and economic dictatorship turned society into an atomized, helpless, inert mass. You can do anything you want with an enslaved population: organize an artificial famine to ward off spontaneous unrest, and carry out mass repressions, even with the help of the purged victims’ intimidated relatives.

Many people refuse to believe that the Soviet power could use terror by starvation in order to systematically destroy people. They seek other causes behind the famine of 1932-1933, like drought, excessive grain delivery quotas, or the drop in harvests because of the crisis that took place in agriculture after villages were totally collectivized.

I will say straightaway that all these factors were present (except drought). They did cause famines both in grain-producing regions (because of excessive grain delivery quotas) and grain-consuming ones (because of inadequate government food supplies). But it is necessary to distinguish between the famine that raged almost everywhere in the Soviet Union, and the Holodomor in Ukraine and the Kuban region. Unfortunately, the tenfold difference in the death toll does not suffice to convince many of our contemporaries.

(To be continued)

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