The Great Famine, or in Ukrainian, Holodomor of 1932-33 is such a horrendous event and turning point in the history of the Ukrainian people that it has no parallel in world history. I do not intend to compare the genocide of the Ukrainian people with similar catastrophes elsewhere. No comparison or competition of the horrors of such a tragedy is possible, as a matter of principle. The historical uniqueness of the Holodomor rests in the fact that the current Ukrainian government expresses official doubts of the Holodomor’s scope, and does not recognize it as genocide. Rather than occupying a place of profound historical and sociological research, which could help frame the Holodomor in proper legal terms, the Great Famine, instead, continues to be the subject of political posturing and is even used as a bargaining chip in international negotiations.
One of the main tasks of any totalitarian system is the total control over its citizenry’s access to information, that is why Soviet historiography did not recognize the existence of the Holodomor of 1932-33. Needless to say, no alternative sources of information were available other than those of the government. Furthermore, those people who survived the Great Famine were afraid even to recall the Hell which visited agriculturally rich Ukraine in the first half of the 20th century, much less discuss it.
At the same time, I can illustrate with my personal example that all Ukrainians were aware of the Holodomor. It could hardly have been otherwise. My grandmother Natalya told me about the Holodomor from the time I was 10. She recalled facts of such horror from my family, neighbors, and relatives’ lives during these famine years that I will probably never dare to speak about them publicly. My grandmother Natalya was born in Poltava oblast, Reshetylivsky region, Lykhvari village.
What happened in Ukraine in 1932-33? Stalin and other Soviet leaders engineered and imposed the Great Famine on Ukraine, its aim being the total extermination the Ukrainian peasantry. From a rational point of view it is difficult to understand why the totalitarian system needed to kill people whom it could force to be the system’s slaves. In order to get some understanding of what happened in 1932-33, the history of the Russian empire and Ukraine’s relations with it should be taken into consideration, specifically the fact that Ukraine was a Russian colony for more than 300 years.
Russia has always attempted to claim as its own, not only Ukrainian territory and resources, but also Ukraine’s history and even its name. The historical Medieval Kyiv Rus underwent a startling and rather strange transformation concocted according to the political requirements of the imperial Russian state, and resurrected as modern Russia. Along the same lines, the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv was proclaimed “mother of Russian cities”, to leverage more legitimacy for Russia’s rule of it. In such a political climate, native Ukrainian nationalism posed a danger to the imperial ideology by rejecting Russian occupation and arguing for the creation of an independent Ukrainian state. As Ukrainians were mostly a peasant people, Stalin directed his main attack at the Ukrainian countryside.
The Ukrainian nation developed within an incomplete social structure. Most of those who called themselves Ukrainians were peasants, but there was also a very small group of Ukrainian intellectuals – the so called “intelligentsia”. It was not a modern, but rather a traditional, patriarchal nation, and for centuries it lacked a state of its own. As such, it was not possible to influence this rural population with state propaganda and mass media, as peasants did not read newspapers, not to mention listen to radio or watch television.
For centuries Ukrainian peasants followed a traditional way of life. To effectively rule these people, the Soviet propaganda machine had to destroy their society, depriving the Ukrainian peasantry of its political will, individuals of their private property, and of the notion of private property and territory, a natural ambition of every European. In other words, the Holodomor aimed to turn Ukrainians into slaves of the new / old communist / Russian empire.
Stalin fueled the blistering industrialization of the USSR by stripping the countryside of its resources. Additionally, the Ukrainian countryside in particular was a potential base for nationalist and anti-soviet movements. Therefore, beginning from August 1932 Stalin’s state passed a number of laws increasing the size of the grain quotas that peasants were required to surrender to the authorities. Any peasant who failed to meet the grain quotas was considered guilty of treason and subjected to forcible requisitions to compensate for the shortfall. Later, as the extravagantly high quotas increasingly fell short, Ukrainian peasants were punished for any attempt to keep even the tiniest quantity of grain for themselves, grain which they had grown by their own labor to feed themselves and families. In November 1932, communist officials simply started rooting out any food they could find. The result was an unprecedented famine, with many cases of cannibalism, in the very center of Europe, in the midst of the 20th century.
It is difficult to calculate the precise death toll of the Holodomor years because of the Soviet policy of concealing the victims of its repressions. In 1984, on the initiative of the World Congress of Free Ukrainians, the International Commission of Inquiry into the 1932–1933 Famine in Ukraine was established. The following year a similar commission was created by the U.S. Congress. Among the best known Holodomor researchers are James Mace and Robert Conquest. James Mace was the director of the U.S. Congressional Commission on the Ukrainian Famine; Robert Conquest is the author of the well-known book The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (1987). Both researches agree that Holodomor meets the definition of genocide, as does the author of the term “genocide” itself, Rafaі Lemkin.
In 2006, after the Orange Revolution, a special law was passed by the Ukrainian Parliament recognizing the Holodomor as a genocide of the Ukrainian nation. The Security Service of Ukraine launched a special investigation into the crimes against Ukrainians. In 2010 the Court of Appeals of the City of Kyiv confirmed the investigation findings and accused the Soviet leaders Stalin, Molotov, Kaganovych, Postyshev, Kosior, Chubar, Khatayevych of criminal acts. The Court confirmed that the number of those who died during Holodomor was 3 941 000 persons. Preliminary number of Ukrainians unborn because of Holodomor numbers up to 6 122 000 persons. The investigations on the number who perished continues, and evidence suggests even larger numbers of victims.
The Holodomor was a political maneuver orchestrated by Stalin. It coincided with the linguicide of the Ukrainian nation, total collectivization and russification. Several dozen countries from around the world, Australia among them, have recognized the Holodomor as genocide of the Ukrainian nation. Nevertheless, the question still has not been completely relegated to history. The Russian Federation, with its tsarist and Soviet imperial inheritance, finds it possible to influence and threaten the leaders of some states to change their countries’ opinions regarding the Holodomor.
Consequently, the present Ukrainian leadership tries to speak about the Holodomor as a tragedy common to all those who lived on the territory of the Soviet Union. People were starving everywhere, they say. Contrary to these claims, research findings confirm that massive massacres took place only on the territories where Ukrainians were the dominant ethnic group. Illusions that Russia can provide Ukraine with cheap natural gas, and that it is better not to irritate Russia with “unpleasant memories” of the communist regime’s crimes, likely explain why it is possible for the current Ukrainian government to make such unacceptable compromises regarding the nation’s historical memory.
In spite of the above-mentioned special law, multiple research projects, and international recognition, the Holodomor of 1932-1933 is now officially approached as genocide in Ukraine. That is why since its rebirth in 1991, Kyiv Mohyla Academy conducts its own research, educational, publishing and public projects regarding Holodomor. James Mace was a NaUKMA Professor until his death in 2004. The James Mace Museum and Archives were established at our University. Kyiv Mohyla Academy sponsors translations and publications of internationally recognized research works on the Holodomor; some Ukrainian monographs have been translated into English.
I would like to mention a book by Andrea Graziosi entitled, “Letters from Kharkiv. Famine in Ukraine and at the Northern Caucasus in the reports of Italian diplomats, 1932-33” (2008), translated from Italian into Ukrainian. According to the Italian diplomat’s opinion, the aim of the Holodomor was the physical extermination of the Ukrainian people and their replacement in the newly desolate lands with an influx of Russian population. The publication of the book “Holodomor of 1932-1933 in Ukraine: Documents and Materials” has been translated from Ukrainian into English and was published by the Kyiv Mohyla Publishing House in 2008.
Two recent publications are: the 8th volume of the series “The Ukrainian Holocaust of 1932-1933. Evidence from survivors” (2012), based on evidence collected through a multi-year oral history project – testimony of witnesses collected by NaUKMA students and faculty and edited by Prof. Yuriy Mytsyk; and the Ukrainian translation and publication of the book by Norman M. Naimark, “Stalin’s Genocides” (Princeton University Press; Princeton & Oxford, 2010), published by Kyiv Mohyla Academy in 2011, just a few months after the publication of the American edition. The Ukrainian edition was broadly promoted in Ukraine by Kyiv Mohyla Academy, and by the author himself at numerous meetings, open lectures and press-conferences in Kyiv. Partly due to such publications and lectures public discussion of the Holodomor was brought to a new stage.
The historical memory of a people is an essential cornerstone for the construction of their future. This self-evident truth is as yet unrealized in modern Ukraine, and until it is accepted, we will never emerge from the endless post-soviet so-called “transitional period” of our national history. The current sociopolitical and economic travails of contemporary Ukraine are inseparable from its historical experience. The national discourse of truth and liberty we have been struggling for in Ukraine requires an adequate level of self-understanding and self-confidence. Certainly, the issues surrounding the 1932-33 Holodomor cannot occupy the entire historical discourse of the nation. But without these lessons learned in an open and free environment, the shadows of the past will prevent Ukrainians from sculpting their history and their future with their own hands.