November 24 is the commemorative date for the famine in Ukraine, which devastated its agricultural regions in 1932-33. For some time now it has been known as the Holodomor (death by hunger) and referred to as a Genocide based on the definition of that concept accepted by the UN in 1948, partly in deference to the USSR, which did not wish to see Stalin’s political victims included under this heading.
Little else about it is clear-cut; the Ukrainian community in Canada tends to simplify the famine as the systematic persecution of ethnic Ukrainians and has raised the death toll to 7-10 million, or about a third of the total population—and more notably closer to half the rural inhabitants (http://www.uccab.ca/holodomor/.) The 10 million total was used in an exhibit on the Holodomor organized on the University of Alberta campus last year by the Ukrainian Students’ Association and compared explicitly on posters with the Jewish Holocaust in a lamentable contest of victimization.
The causes of the famine are attributed to collectivization of agriculture, largely completed in Ukraine by the middle of the decade, as well as to Stalin’s fear that Ukraine would try to break free of Moscow’s control. It is linked also to the purges of the Ukrainian political and cultural elite that continued from around 1930 until late in the decade, bringing an abrupt end to what was termed indigenization and the forte that the republic could be “national in culture, socialist in content” that dated to the mid-1920s. The token initiator of the period of cultural development, Lazar Kaganovich, the party leader in Ukraine, was paradoxically also one of the architects of the repressions.
The commemoration in community circles in Canada is advertised as the 79th anniversary. But that date, surprisingly, ignores the mass hunger that took place in 1932. In fact almost every aspect of the Holodomor was in place by late 1932: the draconian grain quotas, the blacklisting of “recalcitrant” villages, the Molotov Extraordinary Commission that added vegetables and other food products as fines “in kind” if the grain quota could not be met, thus ensuring that the peasants would starve to death the following winter and spring. It seems more accurate therefore to designate 2012 as the 80th anniversary of the mass famine.
Russian historians have long disputed the exceptional nature of these interpretations, arguing that mass hunger affected a number of territories of the USSR, including Kazakhstan (then part of the Russian Republic), where about a third of the nomadic population died in 1930-31, as well as the Volga Region and the North Caucasus (which also had a large population of ethnic Ukrainians). The main impact on Russian lands other than Kazakhstan occurred in 1932 and is well researched. No serious scholars dispute the fact that starvation occurred widely in the USSR in that year, particularly in Ukraine and the North Caucasus, during Stalin’s “war on the peasantry.”
A number of issues, however, are more specifically related to Ukraine. One is its local governmental restructuring in 1932 with the formation of oblasts, one that continued throughout the year and caused administrative chaos, according to OGPU reports. The local and central operatives of the secret police, who took on some of the functions of the district governments temporarily, were to play a key role in the tragedy that followed. A second was Stalin’s fear of the machinations of Poland, which was believed to have agents inside the Ukrainian SSR seeking to subvert the republic. A third was the fear of Ukrainian nationalism, ironically tied to Western Ukrainian political parties that were bitterly at odds with the government of Poland, but also to the former government of the 1918 Ukrainian People’s Republic.
Unfortunately, the task of historians has been made very complicated by the politicization of the event. A large quantity of archival documents (though by no means all) was released during the presidency of Viktor Yushchenko (2005-10), using the Security Service (SB) as its main agency, a campaign that was frenetic and launched to persuade the world that the Famine should be denounced as an act of Genocide. In other words, the release of documents had a specific purpose. Moreover, the elevation of the Holodomor to the defining event of Ukraine’s recent past not only undermined historical links with Russia, but also ensured that the eastern neighbor would be—implicitly at least—regarded as the perpetrator of one of the crimes of the 20th century.
That is not to say that the more extreme interpretations of the Famine are necessarily wrong; rather that when political motives predominate, the accumulation of evidence is always selective. But there are some difficult questions to resolve when taking this route. First of all, the grain quotas for Ukraine, which were impossible to meet under conditions prevailing in 1932-33, were twice lowered initially. Second, the Soviet government never singled out any ethnic group in Ukraine (admittedly it did put an immediate stop to Ukrainian-language usage in the North Caucasus in 1933): the majority Ukrainians suffered the most, but the hunger affected all residents: Jews, Germans, Bulgarians, and Russians, all of which is clear from primary documents. And third, if the famine were entirely punitive in nature, intended to curb the nascent nationalism, then why did the situation change so suddenly in 1934? What had changed? In that same year the capital of Ukraine was moved from Kharkiv to Kyiv: recognition of the return to influence of Ukraine’s largest city.
In the Ukrainskyi istorychnyi zhurnal (July-August 2007), Stanislav Kulchytskyi, Deputy Director of the Institute of Ukrainian History at the National Academy of Sciences, wrote the following: “Moreover, it is this thesis (that Stalin destroyed Ukrainians because they were Ukrainians) that one should consider unscientific. Stalinist repressions meant that Stalin used his absolute power over the party, state and society in order to destroy those who were dangerous for him personally. The half million strong party of Ukraine, Ukrainian peasants and peasants of different other nationalities who had the misfortune of living in Ukraine, the non-party Ukrainian intelligentsia, and those who performed the purges became victims of the Stalinist repressions.”
Kulchytskyi had also written one year earlier that: “various political forces in contemporary Ukraine and the rest of the world use the Ukrainian Holodomor as an ideological weapon to fight each other” and that assessment of the tragedy has been accompanied, unsurprisingly, by emotional reactions (http://www.day.kiev.ua/173170/). It is such reactions that have helped push the Holodomor to a non-debatable and sacrosanct narrative, and often from the mouths of political leaders—Canada’s Stephen Harper is one example—who are frankly clueless when it comes to historical analysis and much more concerned about winning closely contested constituencies in which the ethnic vote is more important than methodical and necessarily cautious research. Likewise in Ukraine this week, it was shocking but still hardly surprising to see, paying their respects to the Holodomor dead: Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov, President Viktor Yanukovych, and former president Leonid Kuchma, alongside Yushchenko. Yanukovych, who began his tenure by removing the Holodomor section from the presidential website, also perceives the political gains to be derived from recognizing the tragedy.
Eighty years on, what can one say accurately about the Famine of 1932-33? First of all it took place because of a combination of bureaucratic chaos followed by extreme truculence. In 1932, the failures of collectivization that included the earlier mass destruction of livestock by peasants reluctant to join collective farms caused hunger across the main agricultural regions of the USSR. The Soviet leaders exacerbated the situation by imposing unrealistic grain quotas, using a combination of local zealots, the OGPU, and handpicked urban enforcers to ensure that the latter be met. That the central authorities were incensed with the Ukrainian response to meeting quotas is evident from the minutes of the 3rd all-Ukrainian Party Conference in July 1932, when Stalin’s emissaries Kaganovich and Molotov harangued republican leaders for perceived failures in the countryside.
In Ukraine all measures introduced to extract more grain failed, including the more draconian rules introduced by the Molotov Commission in November 1932. Stalin and his colleagues, fueled by persuasive, but inaccurate, memoranda from OGPU officials in Ukraine, believed that the republic might be lost. These officials used the fear of nationalism—including an alleged national “uprising” planned for the spring of 1933—in part to explain their failure to ensure that grain quotas were met. Only then could one say that Ukraine was singled out. The goal was not simply to gather food: it was to punish a backward and rebellious region, and to ensure that the growing national sentiment, which Stalin and Kaganovich had themselves fostered, be destroyed. Since there was no “smoking gun” it is impossible to know exactly what was on the mind of the Soviet leader. But the most likely aim was to revamp the leadership of the republic and ensure its future loyalty. In short, Ukraine was to be targeted as a wayward republic, reduced to the direst straits, and then brought back into the Soviet fold.
It is difficult to see such a policy as other than political. Whether it was introduced as a form of ethnic cleansing is far more debatable. The hapless party leader Stanislav Kosior was brushed aside by Stalin’s plenipotentiary Pavel Postyshev (1887-1939), who carried out the chief purges in Ukraine before being moved to Kuibyshev region, where he performed exactly the same function—reportedly he jailed 110 district party leaders soon after his arrival– before falling a victim himself. Ukrainian officials were purged at every level or else, like the Communist and leader of Ukrainization Mykola Skrypnyk, they committed suicide. The 1933 famine was accompanied by a series of trials of local officials, i.e. purges that preceded the Great Terror of 1937. And the death toll rose alarmingly because the fields had not been sown and the residents were not permitted to take the stored grain designated for the grain quota. Likely somewhere between 3 and 5 million residents of Ukraine died in the famine of 1932-33—the precise total will never be known. But there is nothing in the targeting of these officials to suggest that the key issue was their ethnic background—on a smaller scale such actions took place across the USSR. In Belarus they were equally devastating to the cultural elite.
That these people were victims of a mass atrocity is clear. The situation was out of control, as the Moscow government alternated between initial moderation and extreme repression. As the situation worsened, the steps became progressively harsh; and ultimately, the Ukrainian SSR was seen as dangerously unreliable and punished accordingly. None of this, however, should divert historians from the plight of the Kazakhs or of the population of the Volga, which may not have been analogous, but which was linked to the same program of collectivization and political consolidation. Nor should the Holodomor be simplified into an event that was planned in advance with the goal of mass extermination of the USSR’s second largest ethnic group. Before 1987, it was concealed and denied by the Soviet government; the danger today is not concealment but exploitation, exaggeration, and simplification of its motives, purpose, and consequences, none of which does service to its victims.