On the Ukrainian Genocide, Lemkin, and Himkian Dialectics


Roman Serbyn

 In “Myths of National Consolidation, the Holodomor, and the Holocaust: A Response to Roman Serbyn,” (https://ukraineanalysis.wordpress.com/2011/09/) John-Paul Himka counters my critique (<https://ukraineanalysis.wordpress.com/2011/08/) of the paper he delivered at the University of Alberta on 28 March 2011 (https://ukraineanalysis.wordpress.com/2011/08/). In his rejoinder, Himka touches on national myths, the place of Holocaust and Holodomor in Ukrainian history, the notion of genocide, and other related issues. All these questions beg further discussion, but to do them justice it would require a longer exposition than this article allows. I shall concentrate my attention on the Ukrainian genocide and comment on Himka’s evasive methodology in debating that subject

Himka and Snyder

 An initial difficulty in discussing the Ukrainian genocide with Himka is his unwillingness to adopt a clear and firm position on the concept of genocide. He states that he is reluctant to use the term, yet he employs it with regard to the Holocaust, the Armenian massacres, and even, “loosely [sic] in relation to the Ukrainian famine.” He finds the 1948 UN definition of genocide inadequate and Raphael Lemkin’s conceptualization of the crime problematic. However, he does not suggest a definition of his own or explain his reasons for rejecting the notion. Instead, ignoring his own admonition to me that “arguments, not authorities, are required to settle disputes,” he invokes the authority of Timothy Snyder, and without discussing the latter’s ideas, claims that his own views on the genocide are “virtually identical” with those of the author of Bloodlands.[i] I think that they are not, and that a comparison of the way the two authors use genocide-related terms shows this.

Snyder chooses his words carefully and deliberately: he systematically employs Holocaust but avoids Holodomor and genocide. He defines Holocaust as “the German policy to eliminate the Jews of Europe by murdering them” (p. 412). I consider this to be the same as saying “Nazi genocide against the Jews.” Simultaneously, Snyder refrains from using the term Holodomor. His stated reason for doing so is “not because the term is less precise than Holocaust but simply because it is unfamiliar to almost all readers of English” (p. 412). This affirmation is debatable: Holodomor has been around for quite a few years, neologisms take time to become established, and people do use new words when they deem them appropriate. What is more important for our discussion, however, is Snyder’s acceptance of Holodomor as a sufficiently precise designation of Stalin’s deliberate starvation of Soviet Ukraine. I take this to mean that Snyder recognizes the famine as an act of genocide against the Ukrainians. I think this interpretation is borne out by his treatment of the subject in Bloodlands, and is explicitly recognized by the author at the end of the book. On p. 412 he summarizes the 1948 UN definition of the crime of genocide, and on the following page he writes: “In each of the cases discussed in this book, the question ‘Was it genocide?’ can be answered: yes, it was.”

Snyder begins his description of the Ukrainian tragedy with a somewhat misleading statement that the mass starvation of 1933 was “the result of Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan” (p. 24). In my opinion, it would be more accurate to attribute the cause of the famine to “Stalin’s Revolution from Above,” for repression and enforced starvation in Ukraine were not part of the economic plan (or a result of its shortcomings), but of Stalin’s project for a revolutionary transformation of the Soviet state and society. As Snyder acknowledges, there was enough food in the USSR to feed the population, but wheat and agricultural produce were confiscated from the peasants, stockpiled and partly exported abroad, while offers of foreign aid to the starving people were rejected. “It was not food shortages,” Snyder rightly concludes, “but food distribution that killed millions in Soviet Ukraine, and it was Stalin who decided who was entitled to what.” Stalin’s action was conscious and deliberate: “Stalin chose to kill millions of people in Soviet Ukraine” (p. 42). To choose to kill is to intend to kill, and intent constitutes the principal element in the definition of the crimes of murder and genocide.

Snyder also draws attention to the ethno-national aspect in Stalin’s imposed starvation: “the evidence of clearly premeditated mass murder on the scale of millions is most evident in Soviet Ukraine. […] Seven crucial policies were applied only, or mainly, in Soviet Ukraine in late 1932 or early 1933” (p. 42). The examples Snyder cites are sufficient to show that Stalin’s destructive policy was aimed at a national group—one of the four targets recognized by the UN Convention on Genocide. It is in this context that Snyder informs his readers that “Rafał Lemkin, the international lawyer who later invented the term genocide, would call the Ukrainian case ‘the classic example of Soviet genocide’” (p. 53).[ii] Himka, on the other hand, maintains that the famine was the result of “the reckless collectivization drive, which almost destroyed Soviet agriculture as a whole” and calls the claim that “Stalin unleashed the famine deliberately in order to kill Ukrainians in mass” a “mythicized version” of the events (See Himka’s “Interventions”).

It seems to me that Snyder’s understanding of the Holocaust and the Holodomor corresponds to what is usually classified as genocide. Why then does he avoid that term in his book? Himka’s answer is that Snyder does it “on principle,” but Snyder only says that he prefersmass killing to genocide,” and then lists a number of reasons for his preference (p. 413). In my opinion Snyder’s most serious argument, and one that does suggest a principled objection to the UN Convention, is the document’s recognition of only four groups of victims of genocide: national, ethnic, religious, and racial. Lemkin’s initial conceptualization of that crime included political, economic and other groups.[iii] It is in this respect that Snyder may be justified in saying that the term genocide has limitations as a guide to historical and moral interpretation (p. 413).

I do not think that any of the reservations Snyder presents in his book constitute a compelling reason for not using “genocide.” I believe that Snyder avoids the term because he wishes to stay out of what he calls the “inevitable and intractable controversies” that the term generated in the past. His persistent use of Holocaust, now commonly reserved for the genocide against the Jews, allows him to abstain from the disputes over the uniqueness of the Jewish experience and its comparison with other mass atrocities, which the generic genocide invites. Snyder’s desire to eschew controversy is probably also behind his decision not to use Holodomor when describing Stalin’s deliberate starving of the Ukrainian peasants. There is still a heated debate about the genocidal character of the Ukrainian famine, and Snyder wants to keep clear of that discussion as well. Finally, by avoiding the term genocide he is not obliged to qualify the other cases of mass killings he describes in Bloodlands.

Himka’s reluctance to use the term genocide may be, as he claims, identical to Snyder’s, but I do not think that the reasons behind it are the same. The interpretations of the famine by the two historians are different, as are their views on the Ukrainian genocide and on Lemkin’s conceptualization of that crime.

Himka on Lemkin

 In “Erroneous Methods,” I discussed in some detail Lemkin’s innovative approach to the conceptualization of the Ukrainian genocide. Here I shall only mention the salient points of Lemkin’s argument. Lemkin examined the Ukrainian catastrophe within the framework of the 1948 UN Convention and defined the genocide in Soviet Ukraine as a four-pronged attack on the ethnic Ukrainian nation, of which the deliberate starvation of the farming population was the most lethal part. The others were the crippling of the Ukrainian nation by the decimation of its intellectual elites, the destruction of its church life, and the forced ethnic mixing of Ukraine’s population. Himka remarks that, “Lemkin’s outline of the Ukrainian genocide is nothing striking,” since he already knew about Stalin’s repression of Ukrainian cultural activists when he was twelve years old. It is true that Lemkin did not introduce any new factual data, but that was not his intention. His contribution was the insightful way he identified the main forms of the Soviet regime’s attack on the Ukrainian nation and the way he integrated them to show that while the famine was the main mechanism of destruction and the most lethal in terms of lost human lives, it was the combination of all the factors that made the crime genocide. It is this sophisticated conceptualization of the Ukrainian genocide that is borne out by the Western and Soviet documents now available in the public domain for all to scrutinize.

Himka begins his discussion of Lemkin with the comment that in respect to the understanding of the Ukrainian genocide, “Lemkin’s work … has nothing to offer but antiquarian interest.” Snyder, it will be remembered, was able to find Lemkin’s paper on “Soviet Genocide in Ukraine” sufficiently important to quote from it in Bloodlands and to include it in his book’s bibliography. Himka’s dismissal of Lemkin is not based on a scholarly analysis of Lemkin’s ideas, but on his admitted limited knowledge of the circumstances and conditions in which the document was produced. At the same time, he accuses me of using Lemkin’s authority to justify my interpretation of the Ukrainian genocide. Had I limited myself to invoking Lemkin’s name, Himka would have a point. However, unlike Himka, who, without demonstrating it, claims that of his views are identical with Snyder’s, I show why Lemkin’s analysis of the Ukrainian genocide is the most appropriate approach that we have for the study of this crime.

Himka alleges serious deficiencies in Lemkin’s qualifications for discussing the Ukrainian tragedy: (1) his insufficient familiarity with the subject and reliance on dubious sources, (2) his susceptibility to the influence of Cold War politics, and (3) his selling out to Ukrainian nationalists. Himka states: “The invention of the concept of genocide did not automatically give Lemkin the historical knowledge necessary to determine whether any particular case fit his definition or not.” Himka’s critique is off the mark because Lemkin treated the Ukrainian genocide in line with the UN Convention on Genocide and not according to his wider definition. Lemkin’s definition of genocide was wider; it included social and economic groups. Had he wished to use his parameters it would have been sufficient for him (and quite appropriate for the 1953 New York commemoration of the Great Famine, where he presented his ideas), to concentrate exclusively on the starvation of the Ukrainian peasants. Instead, Lemkin explained in his paper the four-pronged attack by the Stalin regime against the Ukrainian nation, thus adopting an approach in harmony with the UN identification of the targeted groups.

Himka questions Lemkin’s sources, because the legal expert presumably “relied on information he obtained directly from emigré nationalists.” Born a Russian subject in 1900, Lemkin lived in Poland after the Great War and continued his acquaintance with Russian affairs while studying and translating Soviet criminal laws into Polish. In the 1930s he could read newspaper reports on the atrocities taking place on the other side of the Polish-Soviet border. After fleeing to the United States he heard accounts of the famine not just from Ukrainian “nationalists” but also from the numerous famine survivors and other refugees from the USSR. In addition, there was an informed American literature on the subject. The Yiddish-language American daily Forward carried a series of revealing articles on the Ukrainian situation by Harry Lang, who, in September 1933, visited Ukraine with his Kyiv-born wife, Lucy Robins Lang. Lucy later recounted their trip in Tomorrow is Beautiful (New York, 1948).[iv] William Reswick, another American correspondent of Jewish background (born in Ukraine), wrote an informative chapter on the famine in his memoirs I Dreamt Revolution (Chicago, 1952).[v] These Americans visited the USSR as friends of the regime and enjoyed uncustomary freedom of movement. Disenchanted by what they saw, they truthfully recorded their experiences and observations.

Himka claims that Lemkin began “thinking of Ukraine as an object of genocide” only “later in the Cold war, in the mid-1950s,” when he was already “marginalized.” By then his “definitions of genocide expanded dramatically,” and he even dubbed the suppression of the Hungarian revolution in 1956 genocide. This prompts Himka to conclude that Lemkin’s usage of genocide was growing meaningless, and he reproaches me with admiring Lemkin’s work, which appeared “in this context.” Himka’s error is that he does not distinguish between text and context, between Lemkin’s conceptualization of the Ukrainian genocide and the circumstances in which this was accomplished.

I am also astonished by Himka’s bringing into the discussion of Lemkin’s ideas, the scholar’s economic difficulties at the end of his life. Himka says that at the time of writing on Ukrainian genocide Lemkin was impoverished and “dependent on the Baltic and Ukrainian communities for material support.” If these circumstances are intended to explain that Lemkin was a piper who played the tune he was paid for, and that this was the only reason for his calling the Ukrainian catastrophe genocide and for formulating a conceptualization of it, then what Himka is suggesting is that Lemkin “sold out” to Ukrainians. This is an offensive insinuation against the integrity of a man who devoted his life to the creation of laws against mass killing. It is especially troubling as it comes from someone who himself has expressed great indignation at the allegation of his being “in the pay of the Jews.”

While rejecting, without discussion, Lemkin’s ideas on the Ukrainian genocide, and maligning their author with irrelevant arguments about his economic circumstances, Himka also disparages the Ukrainian genocide itself: “I think there are immensely more interesting and important questions about the famine of 1932-33 to research than whether or not it can be considered a genocide.” What Himka fails to see, first of all, is that the Ukrainian genocide consisted of more than just the famine. Second, for a scholar who insists on comparative studies, he surprisingly ignores the long and bitter debates around the Jewish, Armenian, and other genocides. Finally, he disregards the numerous institutes, university courses and conferences engaged in the study of genocide; their phenomenal expansion in recent years is proof enough that the question of genocide remains an important issue and commands great interest not only in the political arena but also in the halls of academia. Since, as the UN Convention on Genocide admits, “at all periods of history genocide has inflicted great losses on humanity,” the subject of genocide must, by its very nature, concern historians.

Politics of Memories

The “immensely more interesting question” on which Himka invites us to focus our attention is not any specific aspect of the famine itself, but the memory of the famine. Furthermore, it is not memory in general that interests him, but only “memory politics,” and not all politics of memory, i.e., not those that destroy the memory of the tragedy. Himka is not interested in exploring how the Soviet regime expunged the memory of the Ukrainian famine from the consciousness of the survivors and their descendants, nor does he want to see how lies about the event were spread outside Ukraine. What he specifically wants to investigate is how memory is used in “the Ukrainian campaign for the recognition of the famine as genocide.” This approach to the Ukrainian famine is reminiscent of the old ideological discourse, still popular in some academic circles, which treated the study of the historical event as a political tool, allegedly exploited by the Ukrainian “nationalists” for questionable ends. Such was the underlying idea of Douglas Tottle’s Fraud, Famine and Fascism, a publication Himka discussed as serious historical literature in his seminar on the Ukrainian famine.[vi] Such was also the approach applied in last year’s scurrilous “Open Letter” composed by a group of “international scholars,” of which Himka was one of the principal authors.[vii]

One form of “memory politics” that is high on Himka’s list of concerns is empathy. Unfortunately, his ideas on the rights and obligations with respect to the giving and receiving of empathy seem to be muddled. In “Erroneous Methods” I maintain that the Ukrainian community has the right to call on the world to empathize with the victims of the famine, and that “[t]his right is unconditional, and it belongs to the victim group of every genocide or mass atrocity.” Himka misquotes me as claiming that “‘This right [to empathize (Himka’s brackets – R.S.)] … belongs to the victim group of every genocide or mass atrocity’,” and then insists that, “the obligation to empathize is not restricted to the ‘victim group’.” It would thus seem that I claim that only victim groups have the right to empathize with others. It would make little sense for me to make such an affirmation and I doubt that Himka really meant what he wrote. Of course, everybody has the right to bestow empathy. What I stressed was the genocide victims’ right to receive it.

Himka’s approach is to emphasize the obligation to empathize, and he takes me to task on that score. He writes: “Roman’s stark formulation seems to free Ukrainians from the necessity to empathize with victims of the Holocaust and Jews from the necessity to empathize with victims of the Holodomor.” I neither absolve nor compel people to empathize for I regard empathy as a virtue—a moral choice that cannot be legislated or regulated into existence. The world community and, more specifically, its representative political and legal organs, have an obligation to give official recognition to past genocides (and to strive to prevent future ones), but the necessity to empathize with the victims of these crimes comes from the individual citizens’ moral makeup and cannot be commanded. I also think that empathy should not be treated as a commodity, to be offered by one victim group to another, in exchange for the latter’s recognition of the genocide committed against the former.

Himka finds the category “victim group” confusing; I have no trouble with it. I use the word in the context of the UN Convention on Genocide, which treats genocide as a crime against groups. By “victim group” I mean a group of people that is specifically targeted for destruction, in whole or in part (none of the major modern genocides completely destroyed their victims). In the case of the Ukrainian genocide, as Lemkin pointed out, genocide of the Ukrainian group included the decimation of the intelligentsia (“elites”), whose loss is at least partially responsible for the present situation in Ukraine. The effect of genocidal action on victim groups is not limited to the number of lives lost; there is also long-term impact on the survivors and their descendants.

Victimology, closely related to empathy is the other of Himka’s concerns. Once again, what interests Himka is not the psychological effect of the Ukrainian genocide on the post-genocidal psyche of Ukrainians, but only what he calls “competing victimology” or, more precisely, how Ukrainians compete with Jews (and not the other way round) for the number of victims and for public sympathy. In “Interventions” Himka claims that “this kind of competing victimology is used to justify the violence of radical Ukrainian nationalists during World War II.” It is this competing victimology that Himka considers to be the foundation of the Ukrainian genocide campaign, against which he promotes his own denunciatory counter-campaign.

Let us consider the merits of his arguments. The opening of the Soviet archives is insufficient to allow us to determine with accuracy the number of victims of the Ukrainian genocide. Since 1933, estimates have ranged from three million to ten million, and the only consensus we have today is that several million persons perished. The magnitude of the tragedy was so horrendous that the figure of six million brought out by Harry and Lucy Lang from their trip to Ukraine in 1933 seems plausible even today.[viii] Ukrainians assert their genocide, as do other victim groups. They strive for public attention and sympathy for the famine victims and campaign to have the Ukrainian genocide recognized. This is not done in competition with the Jewish, Armenian, or any other genocide. Ukrainians do not claim special status for the Holodomor, as is done by the proponents of the uniqueness of the Holocaust. Himka is wrong to maintain that today the martyrology of the Holodomor is used to justify the terrible violence that occurred in Ukraine during the Second World War.

Himka claims that I downplay the role of competing victimology in the Ukrainian community and illustrates his argument with two examples. He writes that on 20 July 1985 Yuri Shymko spoke “in the provincial parliament of Ottawa [sic],” where he expressed solidarity with the Jewish community in remembering the “six million victims of the Holocaust,” and with the Ukrainian community in paying respect to “the seven million victims of the Soviet genocide.” Himka’s point is that Ukrainians have engaged in one-upmanship in a victimology contest. What he leaves out, however, is what is most germane to the discussion: the fact that this was the period when the Soviets, together with anti-Ukrainian elements in Canada, either denied that there was a 1932-33 famine in Soviet Ukraine, or passed it off as a natural tragedy with a low mortality rate. At the same time, both the Soviet and the Canadian detractors were trying to discredit the Ukrainian diaspora with disinformation and doctored documents. Shymko’s political speech requires full contextualization, which Himka does not provide.

Himka’s other example, the support of some Ukrainians for the questionable enterprise by Bobby Leigh-Marta Tomkiw, also needs to be put in its context and given a more objective explanation. The project did not originate from the Ukrainian community but came from two people who saw an opportunity to make some money on the credulity of Ukrainians, eager to spread information about the Holodomor. The trailers that appeared on the Internet, with material plagiarized from the Nowytski-Luhovy film “Harvest of Despair” and a propagandistic story line, should have warned people that the project was a sham. Unfortunately, well-meaning people were misled and gave the duo financial and other support. To cite this incident now as an example of Ukrainian competitive victimology is unbecoming.

Horrendous mass atrocities create feelings of victimization in the survivors, their descendants and other members of the targeted groups, who naturally vie for attention and strive for general recognition of what occurred. This is a common characteristic in the preservation of collective national memories of the Armenian, Ukrainian, Jewish, and other genocides. Collective memory of tragic events competes with recollections of happier moments, on the one hand, and even with genocide denial, on the other. There can also be rivalry between victim groups, and Himka is right to insist that a single standard must be applied in evaluating the suffering of the victims of all genocides, including the Ukrainian and Jewish ones. I could not agree more, but the same principle requires that equal standards be applied in evaluating the victimologies linked to the Holodomor and to the Holocaust. What we need is a comparative approach in the study of competing victimologies.

Competing Victimologies and the CMHR

 A remarkable case for the study of competing victimologies is the controversy over the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR), now being built in Winnipeg. The CMHR was the brainchild of the late Israel Asper, a Winnipeg-based Canadian media magnate of Jewish background and the founder of the Holocaust and Human Rights Study Program, later renamed as the Human Rights and Holocaust Studies Program. Tired of taking students to Washington to see the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Asper decided to build a similar institution in Winnipeg. The result was a project, which maintained the centrality of the Jewish genocide in the conceptualization of the museum and the organization of displays, but only retained “Human Rights” in the name of the institution. Of the proposed twelve galleries into which the museum is to be divided, only the Holocaust is to have a permanent, stand-alone gallery, while fifty or so other genocides and mass atrocities are to share an adjoining gallery for rotating temporary displays. The museum floor plan specifies that the Holocaust zone “will acknowledge the seminal importance the Holocaust played in the creation of transnational human rights laws and principles,” and that “visitors will be immersed in evocative images and soundscapes that communicate the gravity of the atrocity.” From the Holocaust exhibit, “visitors will enter a zone [that] has been divided into two main sections,” one featuring “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights” and the other housing “The Mass Atrocities exhibit.”[ix]

The elevation of the victimology of one group and the subordination to it of the victimologies of all the other groups provoked protests from Canadians who considered the arrangement misdirected and unfair. They felt slighted, all the more so, since the museum is mostly financed with public funds, and is supposed to be centred on human rights, which, in fact, have been relegated to a lower status. The Ukrainian Canadian Congress asked for a permanent Holodomor display with space equal to the Holocaust. Other Canadian ethnic communities and individual citizens also expressed their criticisms and demands. Gail Asper, the driving force behind the CMHR project since her father’s death, together with the museum’s administration, has adamantly continued to defend a privileged position of the Holocaust display.

To justify the central position of the Holocaust in the CMHR, the museum’s administration has claimed that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights grew directly out of international revulsion against the Holocaust. In a recent Maclean’s interview Gail Asper argued that the Holocaust was “the catalyst for the world coming together to say ‘never again,’ precipitating the anti-genocide conventions and the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”[x] This is the position taken by some of the institution’s public supporters. Dr. Catherine Chatterley, director of the Canadian Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism, recently stated that, “Hitler’s systematic murder of Europe’s Jews was the catalyst for the development of international human rights law and activism.”[xi] I think that Himka would agree that this type of advocacy for a pivotal position of the Holocaust in the CMHR is but a sophisticated expression of competing victimology.

David Matas, an international human rights lawyer based in Winnipeg, defended the centrality of the Holocaust in the CMHR with a most extreme formulation of the victimology argument: “Never before or since has a group of people attempted to conquer the world so they could kill all and every member of another group. The Holocaust was a crime in which virtually every country in the globe was complicit, either by participating in the killings or by denying refuge to those attempting to escape or by granting safe haven to Nazi mass murderers. The Holocaust was not just a crime against humanity. It was a crime of humanity.”[xii] Whatever the merits of the argument, it would be difficult to find a more global claim to victimhood.

As to the thesis that the Holocaust was responsible for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), it is subject to serious reservations. Professor Samuel Moyn of Columbia University commented: “High profile observers—Michael Ignatieff, for example—see human rights as an old ideal that finally come into its own as a response to the Holocaust, which might be the most universally repeated myth about their origins. […] Contrary to conventional assumption, there was no widespread Holocaust conscience in the postwar era, so human rights could not have been a response to it.”[xiii] Professor Emeritus Michael Marrus of the University of Toronto made a similar comment about the tenuous Holocaust-UDHR nexus: “The museum points to the declaration [UDHR – R.S.] as evidence that the Holocaust was somehow the moving force behind the modern human rights movement. Unfortunately, there is very little evidence for this contention. […] I think the prominence given to the Holocaust, however well meaning, is historically incorrect.”[xiv]

Himka’s reaction to the competing Jewish and Ukrainian victimologies has not been at all in the spirit of his self-professed standard – quaecumque vera (whatsoever things are true). Instead of objectively examining both sides of the confrontation, he has lent his professional knowledge and authority to a coarse attack on the Ukrainian Canadian Congress and the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association. Together with a former PhD student in history at the University of Alberta, Per A. Rudling, and a half-dozen collaborators, he drafted an “Open Letter of International Scholars” that began with a mendacious claim: “The Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Ukrainian Canadian Congress have been campaigning against the plans of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg to mount a permanent Holocaust gallery.”[xv] This is not true, and at the end of that paragraph the authors admit as much when they state that the UCC wants the Holodomor to have “no less coverage … than the Holocaust.” For its part, the UCCLA has been steadfast in demanding that the twelve CMHR galleries be “thematic, comparative and inclusive.” Neither organization asked for the suppression of the Holocaust gallery. What they have demanded is equal treatment for the Holodomor.

In their open letter the authors were not attentive to giving correct and complete information about the museum. In urging scholars to sign the open letter, Catherine Chatterley did not hesitate to “stretch” the truth when she claimed that it is the Canadian government that “is building a Museum of Human Rights” where “it is proposed to found a gallery on the Holocaust, and on the effect that the post Holocaust settlement had on the international idea and practice of Human Rights.”[xvi] Unless one is well acquainted with the details of the controversy surrounding the CMHR, the message that one gets is that the Canadian government is building a museum dedicated to human rights with a prominent place for the Holocaust, while two Ukrainian organizations are trying to sabotage it.

The open letter attracted over a hundred signatures, for the most part outside Canada. Himka explained that international support was necessary because, “in Canada, everybody’s a prisoner of their ethnic minority.”[xvii] I suspect that the authors appealed to “international scholars” because it was easier to get support from individuals who had little, if any, information about the real issues involved and who would unwittingly react favourably to the (mis)representation of the dispute in the letter itself and in Chatterley’s explanation. I also suspect that some of the foreign academics signed the letter on trust and did so without carefully reading and contemplating the whole document, for it is difficult to imagine that any scholar would knowingly support the advocacy that one of the parties to the dispute about the CMHR be enjoined to “stay out of the debate.” Free and open exchange of ideas is the essence of academic life and indispensable to the proper functioning of a democratic society. The letter’s imperious tone, factual errors, and the propagandistic style were probably the reasons why many scholars, familiar with the history of the museum’s project and the contents of the document declined to sign it. The remarkable aspect of the letter’s campaign is not the number who signed it, but the scholars who refused to support it.

Subliminal Suggesting

 I find one paragraph in Himka’s paper particularly disturbing. It concerns intolerance and extrusion. Himka writes: “There are moments in Roman’s text which suggest that my taking a different stance may mean that I stop being a Ukrainian.” Himka does not identify these “moments.” I reread my text twice but was not able to find any passage that would fit that accusation. Himka adds that others have called him “not only a ‘Ukrainophobe’ but a Russian Jew.” Then he tells the story of how Peter Borisow, whom he identifies as “a vocal Holodomor activist,” proposed that Professor Alexander Motyl be expelled from Ukrainian organizations and the Ukrainian community unless he changed what he was saying about the Ukrainian famine. What has all this to do with me? Nothing, except that Himka may wish to suggest that the accusations are somehow relevant to my way of thinking and acting, and that his affirmation that myths of national consolidation are extrusive and intolerant towards intellectual pluralism equally applies to me because I promote the recognition of the Holodomor as genocide and do not reject all myths of national consolidation.

In the same paragraph, Himka mentions a “sculpture of a jackal called ‘John-Paul svoloch’ a photograph of which” has been circulating with a denunciation of Himka’s “incessant howling, in promiscuous pursuit of self-promotion.” To this attack on him, Himka attaches the following comment: “(cf. Roman’[s] characterization of me as one who ‘heads for the limelight of the public intellectual’).” I take exception to Himka’s claim that what I wrote, based on his own description of his roles as an academic and a public intellectual, is comparable to the vile inscription. My quotation refers to Himka’s own findings in his “Interventions”: (1) he has a wider readership as a public intellectual than as an established academic; (2) the first method is sloppier, it oversimplifies, and contains errors. I see nothing wrong in a public intellectual seeking the limelight to assure a greater exposure for his ideas. I have no problem with Himka’s limelight, just with some of his spotlighted ideas.

As to Himka’s Ukrainianness, I have never questioned it, for it is of no consequence for my evaluation of his ideas. His ideas must be examined and appraised on their own merits. Where a problem can arise is when his controversial arguments on Ukrainian issues are accepted only on the strength of his Ukrainianness, and not based on a rigorous verification of the arguments presented.


[i] Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (New York: Basic Books, 2010). Snyder discusses his objections to the term in the chapter on “Numbers and Terms.”

[ii] The quotation is taken from Lemkin’s paper “Soviet Genocide in Ukraine,” which he delivered at a public commemoration of the “Great Famine” in New York City in 1953.

[iii] Raphael Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation – Analysis of Government – Proposals for Redress, (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1944).

[iv] Some thirty of Lang’s articles were published in Forward in late 1933 and early 1934, and in mid-April 1935 six articles appeared in The New York Journal. An electronic version of Tomorrow is Beautiful is available at <http://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.b4315306&gt;.

[vi] Myrna Kostash, “Genocide or ‘A Vast Tragedy’?” <reviewcanada.ca/essays/2009/12/01/genocide-or-a-vast-tragedy/>. Douglas Tottle, Fraud, Famine and Fascism. The Ukrainian Genocide Myth from Hitler to Harvard (Toronto, Progress Books, 1987). (http://www.archive.org/stream/FraudFamineAndFascsim/tottlefraud_djvu.txt)

[vii] “Open Letter: International Scholars Issue Open Letter on the UCCLA, UCC, and the CMHR,” Tuesday, April 12, 2011. This document was posted on the Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism Web site, but was later removed, together with mine and other comments. It can be found at: http://www.telusplanet.net/public/mozuz/holodomor/himka20110411UKL452.html

[viii] New York Evening Journal. 16 April, 1935. Lang credits “a high official of the Ukrainian Soviet” in Kharkiv for the figure.

[ix] The floor plan was made public by The Winnipeg Free Press on 27 November 2010. See <www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/fyi/floor-by-floor–a-visitors-guide-to-the-cmhr-110900634.html>.

[x] “In conversation: Gail Asper,” Maclean’s, 23 March 2011 <www2.macleans.ca/2011/03/23/on-overcoming-indifference-why-it-isn%E2%80%99t-a-museum-of-genocide-and-winnipeg%E2%80%99s-windfall>

[xi] “The War against the Holocaust,” The Winnipeg Free Press, 2 April 2011. <www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/westview/the-war-against-the-holocaust-119110699.html>

[xii] David Matas, “Human rights born of Holocaust’s horror” Winnipeg Free Press, 7 April 2012. “www.winnipegfreepress.com/opinion/fyi/human-rights-born-of-holocausts-horror-146513635.html?device=mobile

[xiii] Samuel Moyn. The Last Utopia: Human Rights in History. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010, 6, 7).

[xiv] Charles Lewis, “Rights Museum Needs a Rethink, Academic Says,” National Post, 5 April 2011.

[xv] A draft of the open letter with some history of its origin was posted on <engageonline.wordpress.com/2011/04/08>

[xvii] “Discord, Accusations Taint Human Rights Museum Debate,” The Globe and Mail. 16 April 2011.

About DAVID R. MARPLES

Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta

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