By David Marples
Highly politicized Holodomor doesn’t hide the fact that ethnic Ukrainian dimension was present
This month marks the 75th anniversary of the Ukrainian famine, known as the Holodomor, or death by hunger. [In Ukraine, the official annual commemoration is the fourth Saturday in November]. Many governments, including those of Canada and the United States, have recognized the famine as an act of genocide by Stalin’s regime against Ukrainians.
Ukrainian president Victor Yushchenko has issued a bill that would make it a criminal offense to deny that the famine was genocide. After 75 years, we know much about this tragedy, but the academic community has yet to reach a consensus on the issue. A majority of Western scholars — at least judging from published articles and books — denies that Stalin’s intention was to kill Ukrainians, per se, and maintains that he targeted the Soviet peasantry as a whole. Thus they deny an ethnic dimension.
For example, in his acclaimed 2007 book on life under Stalin, The Whisperers, British historian Orlando Figes writes that the Soviet regime “was undoubtedly to blame for the famine. But its policies did not amount to a campaign of ‘terror-famine,’ let alone of genocide … ” Harvard University’s Terry Martin and the University of Amsterdam’s Michael Ellman have expressed the same opinion.
We may never know how many died of starvation in 1932-33. Yushchenko and others speak of 10 million, or about a third of the population of Ukraine. However, more reliable estimates in Ukraine and elsewhere suggest that the death toll was three to five million, still a truly staggering figure.
It is problematic for scholars when issues become heavily politicized before definitive conclusions have been reached. The Soviet regime denied the existence of the famine for 54 years. Communists in Ukraine reject the notion that Moscow turned on Ukrainians, as do Russia and several western countries.
However, Yushchenko has made the Holodomor the central event in the history of modern Ukraine. It is a divisive one because of the association of the U.S.S.R. with modern Russia. Implicitly, it is alleged that Russia is responsible for the deaths of millions of Ukrainians. Russian president Dmitry Medvedev demurs, and the late Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn argued that famine occurred also in Russia as well as among ethnic Russians, Jews and Germans resident in Ukraine.
However, archival evidence suggests that the ethnic dimension of the famine was always present. Soviet Ukraine in the 1920s had been allowed to develop its own culture and institutions under a policy known as “indigenization.” By the early 1930s, the Soviet authorities were very concerned by the results. Led by the commissar of education and former colleague of Lenin, Mykola Skrypnyk, the republic was distancing itself from Russia.
National “deviationism” in Ukraine was linked by Stalin with the danger of new intervention from Poland, regarded as a hostile neighbor since the war of 1919-20. He wrote in a letter to his colleague Lazar Kaganovich, party leader of Ukraine in the 1920s, that he feared that “we might lose Ukraine” and that Polish leader Josef Pilsudski would exploit dissatisfaction in the republic.
Added to these volatile elements, the Soviet regime began rapidly to collectivize farms starting in 1929. Ukraine was among the first republics to be collectivized. In Kazakhstan, a third of the peasantry (about one million people) died by 1931. Stalin’s goal was “to liquidate the kulaks (rich peasants) as a class.” Many so designated destroyed their livestock rather than give it up to the new collective farms. The countryside became a war zone in which millions were dispossessed, with many deported to Siberia or the Far North.
After collectivization, state grain quotas were imposed on the farms. Grain was taken before the farmers could feed themselves and their families, and quotas were raised sharply in Ukraine, despite a poor harvest in 1931 in particular. Stalin, who used the grain to feed the growing urban population as well as the Red Army, appointed Extraordinary Grain Commissions in several regions. Vyacheslav Molotov led the one in Ukraine. When the grain ran out, Molotov demanded that the commissions take all food from the villages, which were stripped bare as though a plague of locusts had descended on them.
Peasants could not travel to towns or cross borders to obtain food after 1932, as they were not assigned passports like the rest of the population. In January 1933, Ukraine’s border with North Caucasus was closed. Ukraine’s leadership in Kharkiv, the capital at the time, was distraught. Most Ukrainian Communists blamed “kulaks” and nationalists for the starvation in villages. Stalin then sent his own plenipotentiary, Pavel Postyshev, to Kharkiv to purge the dithering leaders. Later all these figures either died during the purges or, like Skrypnyk, took their own lives.
The mass deaths of peasants were concealed from the public with the collusion of some western journalists and diplomats. Many prominent figures – including George Bernard Shaw, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb – reported that this ravaged land was in fact a Communist utopia. Walter Duranty of The New York Times lied systematically to Americans about the situation in the Soviet countryside.
The link between the Ukrainian famine and external events is clear. In January 1933, Hitler had come to power in Germany, adding another dire threat to Stalin’s regime. Ukrainian nationalists, Poles, Hitler and Stalin’s chief enemy, Leon Trotsky, all feature in Stalin’s correspondence and party documents as threats to Soviet security.
Whether or not this catastrophe was premeditated – and we may never find a “smoking gun’’ – Stalin, Molotov and other Soviet leaders deliberately starved their own people and then concealed this atrocity from the outside world.
(Kyiv Post, 26 November 2008)