Against the ‘nationalist’ interpretation. Russia’s response to the commemoration of the Ukrainian Holodomor

By Ilya Khineiko

For a long time, Russian political elites have been skeptical and increasingly irritated by the attempts of the Ukrainian government to raise international awareness of the 1932-1993 Great Famine in Ukraine, the Holodomor. The simmering tensions came to the fore this month when Ukraine commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Holodomor. While Europe and North America expressed their sympathy and sent official condolences, Russia has engaged in what can be called an anti-Holodomor campaign at the highest political level.

In October, the Ukrainian Foreign ministry accused Russia of using “pressure and blackmail” to prevent Ukraine from putting the issue of Holodomor for consideration by the UN General Assembly as an act of genocide against Ukraine. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev turned down Ukraine’s invitation to attend the commemorative events in Kyiv on November 22. Moreover, he weighed in on the historical discourse of the Ukrainian Famine in a letter sent to President Viktor Yushchenko a week earlier, outlining Russian objections to the Ukrainian interpretation of Holodomor. Furthermore, on November 17 and 21 two “alternative” historical conferences on Holodomor were held in Moscow and Kharkiv respectively. The Russian delegation included the noted Moscow expert, Sergey Markov, and the well known ‘anti-revisionist’ Russian historian Aleksandr Dyukov. The Ukrainian side was represented by the who’s who of the pro-Russian political camp, such as Nikolay Azarov from the Party of Regions, the controversial mayor of Kharkiv Mikhail Dobkin, and the former head of the presidential administration under Leonid Kuchma, Dmytro Tabachnik. According to the Ukrainian internet portal RUPOR, the conference was sponsored by the Russian government commission for the affairs of compatriots abroad, which in turn is believed to be connected to the Russian foreign intelligence agency.

This is a brief recap of events, and we shall now examine the substantive content of this campaign. The Russian position laid out in the aforementioned letter by President Medvedev can be summed up as follows.
– The Famine of 1932-33 did take place.
– It was caused by a combination of drought and the disastrous consequences of the policy of forcible collectivization, which was carried out throughout the Soviet Union.
– The Famine was not directed against any particular nationality
– The current Ukrainian interpretation of Holodomor is being used for political purposes and is aimed to drive a wedge between Russian and Ukrainian peoples.

A similar position was articulated during the conference in Kharkiv. Writing on his personal blog, a political scientist from Belarus, Yuri Shevtsov, who took part in the conference noted that the only two points of contention raised by the participants that differed from the official Ukrainian interpretation of the famine were the issue of recognition of Holodomor as genocide of the Ukrainian people as well as a need for a more nuanced assessment of the policy of collectivization. Interestingly, Yuri Shevtsov is the author of a book about the ideology of Holodomor. Gleb Pavlovsky, a self-aggrandizing pro-Kremlin spin-doctor, wrote a foreword to the book and, by the author’s own admission ordered and sponsored its writing and subsequent release . According to Yuri Shevtsov, current attempts by the Ukrainian government to promote the genocidal interpretation of the Famine must be viewed in a broader Eastern European context of the reassessment of the Second World War. The governments of Ukraine, the Baltic States and several other Eastern European countries have sought to rehabilitate their own Nazi collaborators by arguing a (false) moral equivalence between Nazism and Communism. (Interestingly enough, Mr. Shevtsov’s list of such collaborators includes not only the SS units from the Baltic countries but also the UPA and the Polish Home Army). He also sees the ‘ideology of Holodomor’ in socio-economic terms linking it to radical (neo-liberal) market reforms carried out in Eastern Europe after the collapse of communism with its unabashed individualism and aversion to “any form of social solidarity” that in turn can be traced to the peasant rejection of modernity. Finally, he warns that the conflict between the ‘crypto-Nazi’ East European regimes and Russia over the interpretation of the WWII and Soviet communism threatens the project of European integration because “without Russia European unity can never be stable”.

It is hardly surprising, given the circumstances of its appearance, that Yuri Shevtsov’s polemical invective avoids altogether any discussion of how the denunciation of the concept of Holodomor fits with the current trends in the post-Soviet historiography of the Soviet period, particularly the role of Stalin. In an attempt to provide a more ‘objective’ assessment of the Soviet period, unlike the excesses of the perestroika and the Yeltsin era, the Putin regime seeks to promote a wholly new vision of Stalin as an effective manager who sought to transform the USSR into an industrial society. Such a concept is presented at the web site of the Russian ministry of Education. Predictably, its authors deny the organized character of the famine and reject its characterization as deliberately directed against any ethnic or social group.

It is not hard to see that such ‘pragmatic’ rehabilitation of Stalinism, from which the rejection of the Ukrainian interpretation of Famine logically follows, serves as an implicit legitimization of the contemporary political regime in Russia. Indeed, it becomes possible to justify the creeping authoritarianism of Vladimir Putin by pointing out its effectiveness and arguing that, just like it was in Stalin’s case, under present historical circumstances there could be no alternative to the current political course. Ukraine, with its fledging but functioning democracy presents not only a subversive example of a different approach to the common Soviet past but also the way to deal with the challenges of the present. Perhaps that helps to understand the reasons why the Russian President has decided to jump into a historical debate with his Ukrainian counterpart and why the Russian state is willing to invest considerable resources to debunking the dangerous ‘myth of the Holodomor’.



Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta

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