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How the West interprets the Ukrainian Holodomor

Robert Davies and Stephen Wheatcroft vs. Robert Conquest
25 November, 17:22
Photo by Ruslan KANIUKA, The Day

The number of publications on the Ukrainian Holodomor is more than 20,000. It is one of the most researched subjects in the world historiography. Have the researchers convinced the public that the Holodomor was genocide?

The findings the US Congress Commission on the Ukraine Famine made in 1988 say that it was genocide. However, the US government does not officially confirm this due to the position of the Russian Federation which rejects this qualification of the famine. In November 2006 the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine declared the Holodomor as an act of genocide. Yet the UN General Assembly does not recognize this.

Sooner or later, research findings will have a due impact on political and legal appraisals. It turns out, however, that world-level researchers of Soviet history offer different explanations of what caused the Holodomor. What drew a wide response is a face-off between Robert Conquest, on the one hand, and Robert Davies and Stephen Wheatcroft, on the other.

Robert Conquest is well known for his top-quality works that analyze the Great Terror of 1937-38 and the Great Famine of 1932-33. He passed away on August 3 this year, and the newspaper Den allotted a page to print comments on this event. His opponents are less known in Ukraine. They represent the Birmingham school of Sovietologists in Britain. Its founder, Edward Carr, published a 10-volume History of Soviet Russia which analyzes the 1917-33 events. Carr’s pupil Robert Davies, a coauthor of the two last volumes of this largest-ever study, then published a four-volume Industrialisation of Soviet Russia. Stephen Wheatcroft, a pupil of Davies, has lived in Australia since 1985 and has always worked in unison with his teacher. Among his publications is The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia Volume 5. The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture 1931-1933. The book was published in English in 2004 and republished in Moscow in 2011.

How was Conquest forming his position on the 1932-33 Soviet famine? The Ukrainian Diaspora wanted humankind to know the tragedy of its people. An academic who wrote The Great Terror, one of the 20th century’s most talked-about books, could also put the famine issues across to the world public. Word has it that Conquest was offered a fee he could not refuse. James Mace was of a different opinion which he formed after being in touch with him for a long time: the subject intrigued Conquest.

Indeed, can you imagine this situation? USSR leaders, from Khrushchev to Gorbachev, denied the 1932-33 famine. In their era, mentioning the famine was not considered counterrevolutionary propaganda, as it had been before. But it was no longer necessary to resort to terror, for there was self-censorship in Soviet society at the time. Dozens of millions of people knew about the famine, but they kept silent. When Harvard University began to collect reminiscences of the immigrants who had suffered from the famine, a third of them testified anonymously even though they were on the other side of the globe. What kind of terror could shut their mouths? This is what intrigued Conquest. When he got absorbed in the subject, he coined a term for this kind of terror: terror-famine.


Like all Western Sovietologists, Conquest knew nothing about Ukraine. Ukrainian translators of The Great Terror had to make this note on the first page of the foreword: “Like the vast majority of Western authors, Conquest calls all Soviet people Russians, irrespective of their ethnicity, and the USSR – Russia.” Incidentally, Davies and Wheatcroft were no exception, as you can see in the abovementioned title of their five-volume book on the history of Soviet industrialization.

Conquest immediately faced the problem of the Ukrainian language and historical sources about the Ukraine famine. The Diaspora sent James Mace, a young Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute associate, to help him. He was then the only Ukraine researcher of American origin, with Red Indian roots to boot.

In the preface to The Harvest of Sorrow (1986), Conquest wrote: “I have to acknowledge above all the major cooperation and contribution of Dr. James Mace, also of Harvard, in both massive research and detailed discussion.” Although this sounds quite sincere, Mace confessed to me that the factual basis of this book belonged to him only, with Conquest only writing the text. The factual basis of The Harvest of Sorrow consisted of the reminiscences of those who had survived and of the reports of diplomats and secret agents in 1933, which were classified as “secret” and kept in departmental archives of Britain, Italy, and Germany. Mace did not seek the glory that awaited this book. He contented himself with the personal glory of a staff director of the US Commission on the Ukraine Famine which forced Volodymyr Shcherbytsky to admit the fact of famine in December 1987. That was a bitter glory. Following the sabotage on the part of Russia researchers, he failed to acquire tenure at US universities. He departed this life in Ukraine.

Russia-oriented Sovietologists have challenged Conquest’s conclusion about genocide of the Ukrainian people. Wheatcroft was one of the critics. He is the first foreign researcher to have received access to demographic statistics in Moscow archives. The assessment of the number of victims in The Harvest of Sorrow was not based on demographic statistics and, naturally, was inaccurate.

When Davies and Wheatcroft finished The Years of Hunger, they gave it to Conquest to read. The publishers placed his comment on the English-language edition’s jacket: “A truly remarkable contribution to research into this important field.”

Davies and Wheatcroft disputed The Harvest of Sorrow’s conclusion that the Ukraine famine “was deliberately inflicted for its own sake.” They say that this led Conquest to the “sweeping conclusion”: “…the Communist ideology provided the motivation for an unprecedented massacre of men, women and children” (page 441 of the English-language edition). “But the story that has emerged in this book is of a Soviet leadership which was struggling with a famine crisis which had been caused partly by their wrongheaded policies, but was unexpected and undesirable,” they say further, adding: “In 2003, Dr. Conquest wrote to us explaining that he does not hold the view that ‘Stalin purposely inflicted the 1933 famine. No. What I argue is that with resulting famine imminent, he could have prevented it but put ‘Soviet interest’ other than feeding the starving first     – thus consciously abetting it.’” This claim does not seem to fit in with the conclusion in The Harvest of Sorrow that the famine was inflicted deliberately. But Conquest could not possibly challenge 57 decisions of the topmost Soviet leadership on seed, food, and fodder loans to the starving regions. Wheatcroft found these decisions in Moscow archives and cited them in the book. Ukraine and North Caucasus were issued 616,000 tons as seed loan (48 percent of the loan for all the starving areas), 103,000 tons as fodder loan (98 percent of the total), and 265,000 tons as food loan (83 percent of the total).

As the debate on what caused the Holodomor continues, I must also say the following. In response to the strenuous efforts of Ukraine’s governmental circles to persuade the world community that the Holodomor should be classified as genocide, the Russian Federal Archival Agency spared no expenses to publish in 2009 a collection of the colored photocopies of 188 documents. The collection very accurately reproduces the colors and texture of typewritten pages, ink- and pencil-made margin notes, and even holes on the sheets of the archival files unbound for copying.

(To be continued)

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