The Great Famine-Genocide in Soviet Ukraine (Holodomor)

UKRAINE, A LAND IN BLOOD--Totalitarianism, Famine and Genocide

By James MACE, Coluumnist
The Day, Kyiv, Ukraine
November 24, 1998


I cannot say that there has been any prejudice toward me as a scholar, researcher, or instructor. The intellectual atmosphere among social scientists and political scientists has in general been characterized by tolerance and a common path in search of understanding.

There have been so many serious projects not carried out. And now it seems that the deaf do not hear, the blind not see, and stubbornly deny the facts of repression in Ukraine during the communist period. However, such denials are mostly grounded not on facts but are the products of manipulation by certain political forces, by the consciousness and attitudes of people.

During the last eight years everything possible has been done of which whole generations of researchers could only dream: researchers arrived at and began to unravel such global questions as who we are, what happened to us, why did it happen precisely to us, and where do we go from here.

I remember when in January 1990 I was asked to lecture in the Institute of History before colleagues how the hall was gripped by a frightening atmosphere. It was clear that the everyday working language was Russian, and many of my Ukrainian colleagues had more problems with Ukrainian than I did.

I criticized the latest scheme of the history of the Ukrainian SSR published a couple of months earlier in Komunist Ukrainy, the Central Committee organ, and talked about issues that were either distorted or left out - about the fate of national communism in the 1920s and thirties, the Great Manmade Famine, repressions, and about Party policies toward Ukrainians.

At that time I did not intend to tell them, who were, after all, witnesses no less than I, anything they did not know, for it was they who had access to the primary sources but were forbidden to deal with such topics.

I simply analyzed the project worked out by fellows of the institute, which paid much attention to the liquidation of illiteracy but none to the repressed national revival of the 1920s or national communism, that the plan mentioned the Cossacks and Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky along with historian Dmytro Yavornytsky, but it did mention such figures as Mykola Skrypnyk, Mykhailo Volobuyev, Oleksandr Shumsky, or Mykola Khvyliovyi.

My Ukrainian colleagues listened, bowed their heads, and said not a word for or against what I had to say.

That institute was so under control and frightened even to the very end of the USSR, and the official reaction was only that it had been a "very critical presentation." However, I had mentioned one Soviet monograph on the Machine Tractor Stations published in 1961, which in one chapter had provided a wealth of material about the grain seizures that had in fact caused the Holodomor, as they call the Famine of 1933. I mentioned the author's name, I. I. Slynko.

After my talk an old shaven-headed gentleman came up to me and said, "I'm Ivan Slynko." He was happy that somebody remembered his work, about which everyone else seemed to have forgotten. Of course, he could not write about the Famine of 1932-1933, because officially there had been none. There was only the "socialist reconstruction and technological transformation of agriculture." But he had written everything he could.

In historical terms little time has passed. Ukrainian scholarship was at first highly uncertain of itself and only later began to assume confidence and find its voice. My bookshelves are already overburdened from the books and reprints that have appeared. There is a whole flood daily of Ukrainian scholarly materials. Students now have perhaps less than perfect but more or less truthful textbooks.

They can freely discuss various formerly banned, topics of philosophy, historiosophy, religion, linguistics, and political science. This is a major achievement, and I am proud to have taken part in it as a former "bourgeois falsifier", "bearer of inhuman psychology", and "patented lover of Ukraine", as I was once characterized in Soviet publications, although my own research basically relied on those same publications.

Now I look at my students at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. They are young, talented, educated, and self-assertive. Will they be able to find a place in this sea of ignorance, total idiocy, drug addiction, hypocrisy, and licentiousness? Or will they be strangled by economic problems and those of everyday life? Or will they be broken by corruption? Will our young Ukraine need their expertise, education, dreams, and efforts? Without doubt, Ukrainian scholarship has done and is doing a great deal.

But the impression remains that the indubitable conclusions and material presented by such serious scholars as Yuri Shapoval, Stanislav Kulchytsky, May Panchuk, Ivan Bilas, Ihor Vynnychenko, Vasyl Marochko, et. al. interest only those who already know such things.

The Institutes of History, Literature, Philosophy, the Congress of the Ukrainian Intelligentsia, the Ukraine Society, Union of Writers, Memorial, Association of Independent Researchers of the Famine Genocide, and suchlike, all conduct their various demonstrations, conferences, press conferences, and presentations, but the practically same people always take part.

Few young people take interest, few new controversial ideas are put forward, and little intellectual cross fertilization takes place among serious politicians, cultural figures, and scholars. What does fails to seep down to the people at large. I also often hear, immediately after I say how I teach without any particular special right, how I am conducting some policy or another, serving one interest or another, or in general am asked what I am doing here or why I do not take the next plane to my beautiful and affluent America that wants to conquer the world.

I often want to ask such "well-wishers" what happened to the hundreds of thousands of displaced Ukrainians who went to America and still live there. Nobody disputes their right to live and work there, to fall in love, and have families.

In Kyiv my greatest impression is that when someone hears me speak Ukrainian their eyes open wide and they say, "How well you speak Russian!" or "What's the word for August (serpen)?" and still write "September" on my ticket. One hears such pearls as "Talk in a human language" or "How long have you been in Kyiv and still not learned culture," that is, speak Russian. In the bazaar my wife asks in Ukrainian for something and hears, "How I hate that swinish language." The Saturday before last, I went to the train station to pick up an express letter and waited a good hour before hearing on the intercom, "Speak Russian," and at last it was found.

My Russian, while considerably worse than my Ukrainian, is not all that bad even for lack of use at home (my wife is from Western Ukraine where they do speak Ukrainian), but one suspects that starting off in what is, after all, the official language in this state, was the real reason I had to wait so long. I have to admit that recently I was in the Ukrainian neighborhood of Toronto and felt more in Ukraine than I often do on the streets of Kyiv.

All this is the difficult and heavy legacy of the past: being ashamed of one's language and culture or always bowing and scraping before someone more powerful or richer, be it Russians or the representatives of some fund from America, Canada, or Europe. Other peoples also have their complicated histories, but one must admit that in the twentieth century Ukraine went through real hell, which can be called genocide.

But other peoples try to understand what really happened to them. In, say, the USA there has been real injustice committed against Blacks, and it is hard to come to terms with its legacy. The process is still incomplete, but today any impolite word or incorrect behavior brings forth an immediate response from the community and the law comes into play immediately.

One of the most shameful pages in American history relates to the Cherokees, one of the most advanced tribes of the east coast, who in 1835 were forced to walk from their ancestral lands in South Carolina and Georgia to what is now Oklahoma. They call it the Trail of Tears, along which thousands perished of hunger, cold, and disease. Some of my ancestors also walked that road. Today in Oklahoma Indians still have many problems, but nobody raises a hand against them, and their tragedy is the subject of scholarly research and a major sore spot for politicians.

In Ukraine as well many talk of the difficult legacy of genocide, but real steps to defend the Ukrainian language and culture are few. There are few Ukrainian-language newspaper, journals, and publishers are de facto paralyzed. In universities teachers and students often speak different languages; these are different intellectual worlds and views of the world, which more and more go their separate ways in time and space.

The sixty-fifth anniversary of Ukraine's Holodomor is a controversial date. As early as 1927 Serhiy Yefremov wrote in his diaries about hundreds of thousands of hungry in Kyiv, about the terrible lines for bread, about over 200,000 Kyivans who had been denied the right to buy bread at all, and about peasant unrest provoked by state grain seizures.

But in 1932 hunger assumed the character of total destruction of Ukraine as a state and Ukrainians as a nation. Thus, it is only right to now recall the millions upon millions of innocent victims. They died with a single thought: will the outside world know and say something? And will there be anyone to pray for our souls?

In truth, US President Franklin Roosevelt, with full knowledge of the Holodomor (I myself published the documents and can attest to their volume), recognized the Soviet government in November 1933 literally on the heels of the Famine. But now there are candles lit in churches, and the outside world is saying something. In this context US President Bill Clinton's proclamation to the Ukrainian people about these long bygone events is particularly important.

In justice, one has to admit that an American presidential statement does not mean much: a day in memory of the victims of the Ukrainian Famine or Holocaust or broccoli growers is usually ignored by one and all. And President Clinton's proclamation in memoriam of Holodomor victims is not the first such, but it is perhaps the best occasion to talk about what happened.

I am by origin a typical American. My father was a railroad switchman. Neither he nor my mother finished high school. But I went to university and wanted to stay there. I studied Russian history. I studied Russian history and went to graduate school. I was interested in Russian history and culture.

When it came time for me to write a doctoral dissertation at the University of Michigan, my advisor, Prof. Roman Szporluk, began to loan me Ukrainian books. I bought a dictionary and began to read. I recall that my first book by Panas Fedenko, The Ukrainian Movement in the Twentieth Century, took me a whole month to read. Slowly, my reading picked up speed.

I chose for my dissertation the theme of national communism during the Ukrainization policy of the 1920s. The Vietnam War was still going on, and the theme of national communism was pretty trendy. Of course, there was officially no such thing in the USSR. Later my colleagues here told me that the topic had been a forbidden one in Ukrainian history and even dictionaries. My road to Ukraine was thus closed, and I sat in the library reading microfilm.

I do not know if in Ukraine somebody except spies know of that specific pre-computer apparatus, but in American libraries it is common. I read the journals of the period, one more or less complete newspaper, Visti VUTsVK, the direct ancestor of Holos Ukrainy, and began to understand what happened in Ukraine. I made acquaintance with long-dead figures then absolutely unknown here: Georg Lapchynsky, Vasyl Shakhrai, Oleksandr Shumsky, and Mykola Khvyliovyi.

I began to understand why precisely Ukraine was targeted for the worst Stalinist repression: because it had more people than all the other non-Russian Soviet republics put together and because it had tremendous experience in fighting for its national liberation.

For Ukraine the lessons of the Central Rada and Hetman state had not been lost without a trace. Up to 1933 Soviet Ukraine had a developed state organism which, albeit within the police-state framework of the Soviet Union, fostered significant development of the Ukrainian culture and spread the Ukrainian language both among the proletariat and in the state administration.

In order to transform the "complex entity," as Mykhailo Volobuyev had called the USSR, into the Stalinist empire, Ukraine had to be broken. Public enemy number one for Stalin and his cohorts was not the Ukrainian peasant or Ukrainian intellectual; it was Ukraine itself. That is why in 1932-1933 Stalin made an undeclared war here, using all the military, police, political, and economic forces he had available.

I defended and published my dissertation to an uneven reaction. I was blamed for defending fascists and Nazi collaborators. I was told that the famine had been caused by objective factors and that the terror had been a result of mass hysteria, not some policy. The road Ukrainians trod from deadly critical reviews of my work in the Western press to the President's proclamation was not easy.

Truth about the Famine was hard to bring to the attention of the world community. The Ukrainian Diaspora did everything possible and impossible to break the wall of silence on this issue and make it an abject of scholarly research. Professor Omeljan Pritsak of Harvard came to me in 1981 and said there was a project to study the Famine. I was familiar with all the then accessible sources of the period and able to research the theme.

When I arrived at Harvard I was told that I would do the research but the book would be written by Robert Conquest.

1983 was the fiftieth anniversary of the Holodomor, and the Ukrainian community took action. Public meetings and demonstrations were held. One organization, Americans for Human Rights in Ukraine headed by the late Ihor Olshaniwsky, came up with the idea of creating a government commission to study the Famine.

Petitions were sent to Congress, and supporters there were found. Finally Congress passed a bill to create the Ukraine Famine Commission. I became Executive Director because it was felt that the view of a non-Ukrainian was needed. Since the average Sovietologist knew that Ukraine was more or less like Texas in Russia, if one of them had been put in charge nothing would have come of it.

Those who had experienced the Famine were dying off. Its history had to be preserved. I had a small staff: one collected eyewitness accounts, and I read the written sources and wrote most of the commission's Report to Congress.

After the first two years we obtained an additional two in order to prepare for publication our three volume Oral History Project containing the life histories of 200 survivors. We understood that as a government document there would be two or three copies in every state. If nobody wanted to hear us today, somebody someday would find the books we left behind. I never dreamed of visiting Ukraine, but thanks to the political changes in late 1989 I unexpectedly received an invitation through the Soviet Embassy to Ukraine.

In January 1990 I first set foot on Ukrainian soil. Perhaps I still spoke Ukrainian rather poorly, but people understood me. Maybe thanks to my commission more and more people began to study the famine, and the Union of Writers set up a committee to organize an international symposium. In the Institute of History Stanislav Kulchytsky had begun to write about the Famine.

Preparation for the symposium was like a civil war between the Institute of History and Central Committee, on the one hand, and the Writers' Union and Institute of Literature on the other, for the latter were breeding ground for the Popular Movement (Rukh) of Ukraine.

I recall a radio journalist asking me then, "Some people think Ukraine should be independent, and others think it should stay in the Soviet Union? What do you think?"

What could I answer? Of course, that the peoples of Ukraine, not I would decide the issue. But it was clear that the USSR would soon fall.

On the morning of January 27 Ivan Drach called me to say there had been an announcement in the press that the Central Committee had passed a decision saying that the Famine had happened and that the documents would be published.

The late Volodymyr Maniak, who was compiling a people's book of memory, said that a meeting to set up a monument near Uman had been banned, but maybe the local authorities would act differently if an American was present. No hesitation.

We traveled by rented bus to Uman: survivor Dmytro Kalennyk, sculptor Yuly Sinkevych, kobzar-writer Mykola Lytvyn, Volodya Maniak, and others. In the village of Ryzhavka we were met by the two local policemen and ten sent as reinforcements from Uman. Obviously, there would be no monument. Kalennyk led us to the mass graves from 1933, marked by a simple iron cross next to the official cemetery.

There lay thousands of victims from one village. The black soil was covered by bumps, and under the bumps were people, a land awash in blood. We all said a few words. I cried. From far-off America I tried to express my sympathy, but finding the words was difficult. The peasants stayed away except for two gray-haired women in black scarves who looked on from a distance.

Then came a public meeting in the Uman soccer stadium, where both the old Soviet Ukrainian and the still-banned yellow and blue national flags waved. People were afraid that the police would seize the national flags, but everything went on peacefully. Then we went to the cemetery, where there was a large common grave from 1937-38. Two memorial services were being conducted, one by a Russian Orthodox priest and the other by a Ukrainian Autocephalous one, whom most onlookers mistook for Catholic.

There was a heated discussion with the mayor of Uman, and it became clear that if we set up a monument, it would soon vanish without a trace. In fact, on my last day in Kyiv I spoke at a meeting at the October Palace of Culture, the former NKVD headquarters, where we put up a small bronze plaque in memory of those killed in the basement of that building. Some months later on my next trip to Kyiv, I was told that it had been stolen. The times were like that...

And what about our times? Are they any better? Certainly, much has been done, researched, and published about the Holodomor, Stalinism, and the nightmare called Communism. But few buy Ukrainian books and almost no one buys them on the history of Soviet Ukraine. Those who do not want to believe it simply refuse to. There is no fact or document that can convince them.

One neighbor lady once told me, "So, you're a historian? Well, we had one history; now we have another history. Who knows what really happened?" And she had a point. There really was one history then, and there will inevitable be another tomorrow.

I would hope that more fortunate historians than I in the twenty-first century write about the happy history of an independent and affluent Ukraine, about its economic progress, and about how things continue to get better or its people.

But the overwhelming majority of my students see absolutely no prospects that they will ever be able to change things for the better.

Is that not also a harvest of despair?

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James MACE was born in 1952 in Muskogee, Oklahoma, USA, and has a Ph.D. in history. In 1981-86 he worked at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and in 1986-1990 as Executive Director of the US Commission on the Ukraine Famine. Afterwards he was at Columbia and Illinois Universities.


Since 1993 he has lived in Ukraine. He worked in the Academy of Science's Institute of Ethnic and Political Studies and since 1995 has been professor of political science at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy National University. He is author of approximately 160 works on twentieth-century Ukraine. He is also consultant and a columnist for The Day in English.