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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

“James Mace’s concept of a post-genocidal society sets the agenda for the future”— Professor Andrea GRAZIOSI

8 November, 2005 - 00:00

Analyzing and determining the causes of the greatest historical catastrophe of Ukraine in the 20th century-the Holodomor of 1932-1933-is the pursuit not only of Ukrainian researchers (suffice it to recall the high-profile studies of Professors Stanislav Kulchytsky and Yuriy Shapoval and the ground-breaking collections of documents prepared by the Academy of Science’s Institute of Ukrainian History) but also some foreign specialists, one of whom should be singled out. For more than a decade Andrea Graziosi, a professor at the University of Naples, has been studying the causes, course, and consequences of the “terror by famine.” The Day posed a few questions to Professor Graziosi, who knows who to present the facts of this tragedy and give them a philosophical interpretation while preserving the acuity of his ethical assessment.

Today, owing to the dedicated efforts of historians throughout the world, the catastrophic background of the Holodomor has been more or less established, i.e., we know how it took place. But the question is why Stalin needed that terror by starvation? What are your thoughts on this?

You are right to say that today there is wide consensus among scholars about the background of the Holodomor and the other Soviet famines (Kazakhstan, Northern Caucasus, Lower and Middle Volga) of 1931-33. Almost all historians now agree that they were the consequences of the devastating human, but also productive, impact of dekulakization, a de facto nation-wide, state-led pogrom against the peasant elite; forced collectivization that drove the peasants to destroy a large part of their inventories; the collective farms’ inefficiency and misery; denomadization in Central Asia; the repeated, and extreme, waves of requisitions originating in crisis-ridden industrialization, out-of-control urbanization, and a growing foreign debt that could be repaid only by exporting raw materials; the resistance of peasants, who would not accept the re-imposition of what they called a “second serfdom”, and who worked less and less because of both their rejection of the new system and famine-related debilitation; the poor weather conditions of 1932. Famine, which started to hit here and there already in 1931 (the Kazakhs were already dying en masse) and expanded into solid pockets by the spring of 1932, thus appears to be the undesired and unplanned outcome of ideology-inspired policies aimed at eliminating mercantile and private production.

The problem at the forefront of today’s investigations is therefore a different one, namely: why and how Stalin and his cronies decided in the late summer-early fall of 1932 to transform a famine that was already in the making, and that would at any rate have killed perhaps a few hundred thousand people all over the USSR, into a devastating blow at specific republics and regions of the country. In other words, the question is when and why Stalin decided to use hunger as a weapon against his enemies to solve the crisis into which his policies had plunged the regime.

When the question is thus reformulated, two factors appear to have played a crucial role in this decision: Stalin decided to use terror by starvation 1) to break the peasants resisting the introduction of what they called the “second serfdom”, and 2) to reduce to subservience the republics where, owing to the national-communism of previous years, threatening local leaderships and intelligentsias were emerging. Of course, the peasants whose surrender Stalin was interested in were those of the most important grain-producing areas, such as Ukraine and Northern Caucasus. And we know from his letters that the republic he considered to pose the greatest danger was Ukraine. Thus, when he decided to use hunger as a weapon, Ukraine and the Kuban became the focus of his murderous policies, which acquired a genocidal quality there. The story of the Kazakh nomads, who in relative terms suffered even more, is different, and must be investigated in its own terms.

Will the international community finally recognize the Holodomor as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people? When do you think this will happen?

To answer your question, I think we need to frame it chronologically. First of all, let us remember how bad the situation was when Robert Conquest and Jim Mace started their work in the early 1980s. The government of a major European country, the USSR, to which millions of observers and intellectuals looked with interest, had killed with famine in peacetime, between the end of 1932 and the summer of 1933, approximately seven-eight times as many people as were to perish in the Great Terror of 1937-38. Yet until 1986, when Harvest of Sorrow was published, historians almost ignored this extraordinary event. This despite the ample documentation available — diplomatic dispatches, travel accounts, memoirs of witnesses and victims — to those who were willing to look for it. In the best case, historians, such as Naum Jasny and Alec Nove, did speak of a “man-made famine” but did not research it and basically ignored its national (i.e., Ukrainian and Kazakh) aspect. In the worst case, the famine was the occasion for depressing polemics in which its very existence was questioned or minimized. In the USSR, where even after 1956 historians could only speak of “food difficulties,” the very use of the word holod was forbidden.

This is why Conquest and Mace’s work has been of crucial importance: it forced a reluctant profession to deal with a fundamental question, and it did so by stressing the connection between famine and the national question. It can thus be maintained that the historiography on the famines and the Holodomor starts with this book, even though other authors, like Maksudov or Medvedev, were by then seriously investigating these events. This is even truer in view of the polemics the book raised. Thanks to their level, much superior to the previous one, the debate grew into a positive phenomenon that may be viewed as part of the process through which historians started to become aware of these events’ extraordinary human and intellectual dimensions.

T hen came the 1991 archival and historiographical revolution. It allowed the accumulation of new knowledge and caused a leap in the quality of polemics that, but for a few exceptions, grew into serious controversies. Today, a genuine scholarly spirit and firm moral commitment, born of awareness of the immensity of the tragedy they deal with, animate the great majority of historians working on the Soviet famines and the Holodomor. We can thus contemplate with a sense of satisfaction these past few years, during which Conquest’s conclusions have been integrated and in part surpassed by a mass of new research, and find in them some reason for optimism for future developments.

Such developments concern precisely the genocidal nature the famine took, albeit for different reasons and in different ways, in Ukraine, the Northern Caucausus, and Kazakhstan, this being the biggest issue scholars are now dealing with. Personally, I am convinced that we can indeed speak of genocide, and I believe that the new evidence we have found in the past few years unmistakably points in that direction. But there is no consensus on it today in the scholarly community. However, especially in view of the great progress made in the past twenty years, I also believe that sooner or later the scholarly community will reach an agreement on this question, too.

One of the reasons for the present situation is, in my view, the following. For professional historians and more generally for the international public opinion at large, the process of integrating the 1931-33 famines in the “image” of twentieth-century European history has been, and still is, especially painful. This is so because such integration has to take place after that historical judgment has been passed and “collective memory” has set in, without the Soviet famines entering that vision, this being the consequence of the successful Soviet attempt at concealment. We are perhaps contemplating here the reason why polemics are continuing, albeit in minor forms. World-historical events like the Holodomor, capable of changing our understanding of and outlook on entire periods are generally immediately internalized at the moment of their happening. When this does not happen, as in our case, they have to be brought in afterwards at the price of a complete restructuring of commonly held beliefs. Their digestion thus becomes very difficult precisely because of their importance. Polemics are just one of the outward manifestations of this process.

There are, however, other reasons for the lack of a consensus on the genocidal nature of the Holodomor: for instance, the work of Ukrainian, Western, and Russian historians investigating these terrible tragedies is still being conducted in relative isolation. These three intellectual communities do not communicate as fully as they should, and this slows down the formation of a new picture of what happened in 1931-33. The wall separating the work of specialists in Soviet history from that of their colleagues studying the twentieth-century in Europe is even higher and stronger, and this wall too has to be torn down in order to make room for the development of a general consensus on what happened and for its integration in the “collective memory” of our continent’s past.

There are, of course, very powerful political interests at work as well. Unfortunately, Russia declared herself to be the legitimate successor state of the USSR, perhaps without fully considering the consequences of such a gesture. Given present international laws, the recognition of the Holodomor as genocide would thus have a direct impact on Russia’s position. Let me add that I believe that this would be unjust, and that Ukraine should do her best to accommodate Russian preoccupations and fears. The Holodomor was not the work of Russia, and Russians too suffered at the hands of Stalin and the Soviet regime. Of course, Ukrainian peasants and Kazakh nomads suffered disproportionably in 1930-33, but the Russian village too paid a very high price. In other words, Stalin’s communist Moscow is not “eternal” Moscow, and this I think should always be stated very clearly. In other words, I believe that recognition of the genocidal quality of Stalin’s policies can and must be based on a brotherhood of victims.

Yet, even when all these obstacles to the recognition of the Holodomor as genocide are taken into account, I remain firmly convinced that sooner or later such recognition will indeed take place. This I say not only on the basis of the huge progress we have made in the past twenty years, but also on that of moral and intellectual considerations: without full awareness of the Great Famine it is simply impossible to understand the European twentieth century. This is for me an intellectually and morally obvious fact, endowed with extraordinary strength, which will one day prevail, even though much time will probably have to pass before European historians, and thus European public opinion, will fully grasp the famine and its significance.

Do you think there is a historical causal connection between the Holodomor in Ukraine (1932-33) and the world process asserting the totalitarian regimes of the 1930s (in Italy, Germany, and the Soviet Union)?

The fact that World War One caused the appearance in Europe of states and regimes of a new kind, for which a new name is needed, is beyond question. Over the years several terms were proposed to identify such new state formations, until “totalitarianism” was agreed upon. Even though only fascist Italy, by far the least aggressive specimen of the new species, officially defined itself that way, we shall thus continue to speak of “totalitarian states,” and rightly so, since the use of such a general category allows us to point to common origins and make needed comparisons.

Yet, having said this, I personally believe that the differences between the regimes you mention are more important and striking than their similarities. Of course, from a very general point of view, in all three cases we are before the assertion of the superiority of the state (we should perhaps say of political power, since the state was penetrated and animated by the party and the vozhd) over the individuals. And it’s clear that such an assertion, and the violence that animated it, as well as the sects that conquered power, had its roots in WWI and in the crisis it initiated. But, I repeat, the differences are much more striking. Fascism, in spite of the very considerable damage it caused to Italy, was a comparatively much milder phenomenon. Nazism turned its terrible aggressiveness toward non-Germans (or those it defined as such, as Germans of the Jewish faith) and perpetrated its most terrible crimes once it conquered foreign lands. Stalin and the communists used violence against their own peoples. In fact, as Lenin said soon after victory, they felt themselves to be “a small group of conquerors in an occupied land,” a land to which they brought devastation in peacetime.

These differences were of course the result of several factors: Italy had won the war and its traditional ruling elite (the king, the church) was never annihilated; Germany reacted to defeat, national humiliation, and economic crisis by embracing a mad, charismatic leader with simplistic, and terrible racial beliefs; in the Russian empire a new multinational state was born also thanks to the immaturity of Russian national consciousness, which paved the way for the victory of a small group with an extreme statist ideology, with dangerous utopian overtones formally free of nationalistic content (and thus acceptable to individuals of many nationalities), and a firm belief in violence as a tool for the implementation of that utopia. Needless to say, the different personalities of the vozhdi were also crucial.

What is your view of Prof. James Mace’s concept of “postgenocidal society”?

I think it is a necessary and useful concept. In 1932-33 Ukraine both the body and the head of the national society were badly damaged, slowing down and distorting nation building. Clearly, the consequences of that tragedy are still with you, all the more so as the Soviet regime and the lie by which it ruled prevented families and individuals from coming to terms with both personal and national grief. I would thus say that not only is Ukraine a post- genocidal society but a post-genocidal society of a very peculiar nature, since for more than fifty years it could not openly address such a terrible trauma.

There are, therefore, a number of questions in need of an answer. For instance, how was collective psychology affected by the often dreadful deaths of so many sons, wives, husbands, relatives, and friends? The depression that struck rural families forced to cope with so much grief can be easily imagined, but how long did it last, what forms did it take, what consequences did it have on individual and collective behaviors and beliefs? For example, what impact did the famine and death have on religious practices and feelings, which — let us remember — were “free” to develop as a consequence of the persecutions suffered by churches and clerics of every denomination? How did the peasants react, considering that they were forced to endure such depression in conditions that we now know can be appropriately called, as they themselves immediately did, a second serfdom, needless to say much different from the first, and yet essentially similar to it? And what were the characteristics of the new national elite that emerged from the catastrophe, an elite that in 1953 regained at least partial control over the republic? Finally, what was the impact of the famine on Ukrainian society and the communities that composed it?

Clearly, such questions can be dealt with only by keeping in mind that that society and those communities were soon to experience new, great shocks: the terror of 1937-38, war, German occupation and the Holocaust, Soviet re-conquest, and the 1946-47 famine, with its surprising affinities with that of 1932-33. The scars and traces left by the Holodomor are thus mixed with those left by these other tragedies. Yet, even if we need to look at the consequences of repeated shocks, the signs of the famine are unmistakable. Without taking it into account, for instance, it is impossible to account for the much weaker, if compared to what happened in 1914-22, presence of the Ukrainian national movement in the great crisis of 1941-45 (Galicia, which in 1933 was not part of the USSR, is- not surprisingly-the rather extraordinary exception).

I thus believe that if it’s true that over the past two decades we historians have reached a consensus on the causes of the famine and today are debating whether Stalin’s decisions of late 1932 transformed this famine in Ukraine into genocide, tomorrow’s research will have to deal with the consequences of those terrible events. In this perspective, Mace’s concept of Ukraine as a post- genocidal society sets the agenda for the future.


Andrea Graziosi is Professor of Contemporary History at the Universitа di Napoli Federico II since 1999 and Dean of the faculty (Corso di Laurea) in Administrative and Political Sciences since 2004. He was born in Rome in 1954. His research interests embrace Ukrainian, Russian and Soviet History; Eastern European History; European history, XIX-XX century. Professor Graziosi’s major works are The Great Soviet Peasant War: Bolsheviks and Peasants, 1917-1933, A New, Peculiar State: Explorations in Soviet History, 1917-1937, and a research Italian Archival Documents on the Ukrainian Famine.