The Great Famine-Genocide in Soviet Ukraine (Holodomor)

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UKRAINE FAMINE MONUMENT UNVEILED IN DAUPHIN, MANITOBA
  

"The Great Ukrainian Famine-Genocide"
Speech by Dr. Oleh. W. Gerus
Centre For Ukrainian Canadian Studies
University of Manitoba, August 4, 2001
Dauphin, Manitoba, Canada

Unveiling of a monument to the victims of the Ukrainian Famine-Genocide, 1932-1933, at Memorial Park, Selo Ukraina in Dauaphin, Manitoba on August 4, 2001



Ukraine is no stranger to hunger and calamities. In its recorded history of some 1200 years, Ukraine experienced periods of severe hunger and starvation, caused by natural disasters and foreign invasions. What differentiates the Great Famine of 1932-33, from other famines is its nature and its scope.

The mass starvation was not caused by crop failure. Irrefutable evidence states that Ukraine's greatest tragedy was politically motivated, it was deliberate and its impact, both physical and psychological, was so profound, so devastating and so widespread that even today, Ukraine has not fully recovered from that genocide.

History and fate have not been kind to Ukraine and her people. Rich in food resources but lacking natural protective frontiers, Ukraine has been a constant target of its neighbours who plundered the land and brutalized her population. In the 20th century alone, Ukraine was a battlefield of the two world wars in which millions perished. More importantly, Ukraine was the center-piece of the bloody and failed experiment in social engineering called communism, which consumed tens of millions of victims. The famine was an integral part of that unprecedented terror.

Demographic studies indicate that today Ukraine should have a population between 80 and 85 million, rather than the current 50 million. It boggles the mind to realize that Ukraine's population loss in the 20th century equals the present population of Canada.

There is no question that the Great Famine was a key part of a planned repression of the Ukrainian nation. Why then was the Soviet regime, headed by the notorious dictator Joseph Stalin, so determined to crush the Ukrainian people, citizens of the Soviet Union? What did they do to deserve such brutal treatment, verging on extermination?

The answer lies in the nature of the totalitarian system that was being imposed on Ukraine after her loss of a short-lived independence. Ukrainians were repressed not for WHAT they did but for WHO they were. In the 1920s, when the communist system was still weak in Soviet Ukraine, the Ukrainian people, after centuries of oppression, were in the process of forming a modern, highly cultured and western-oriented nation. Historically, the essence of Ukrainian national identity - its heart and soul - was the village, with its farmers, peasants and Cossack traditions of rebelliousness against tyranny. The city, by contrast, was alien and Russified. Unlike the Russian peasant who lived in a communal environment, the Ukrainian peasant - selianyn - was a firm believer in private property, individual responsibility and free enterprise.

Those progressive characteristics enabled the Ukrainian pioneers to settle and develop Western Canada as one of its founding nations. But in Soviet Ukraine they were categorically incompatible with the communist ideology.

Tragically for the people of the Soviet Union, communism proved to be a misguided, violent system based on class hatred. Because communism fundamentally contradicts human nature, it had no chance of real success, despite decades of brutal enforcement. It was doomed to failure as illustrated by the inevitable collapse of the bankrupt Soviet Union in 1991. The imposition of communism on Ukraine and other unfortunate countries did not liberate the oppressed classes. Rather, ladies and gentlemen, it constitutes a crime against humanity.

But when Stalin came to power in 1929, he was determined to impose his version of a totalitarian Soviet state. Such a state was eventually achieved, but at a horrific cost of 30 to 40 million lives. The key to total central control lay, first, in destroying the economic power of peasants as independent food producers and, second, in creating a uniform and compliant society, based on Marxist-Leninist ideology and the Russian language and culture.

Ukraine, with its strong sense of nationalism and independent peasantry, automatically became the main obstacle to Stalinism. Hence, a systematic attack was designed to emasculate Ukraine as a nation. Moscow targeted its foundations: the intelligentsia, the Ukrainian Orthodox church and the village.

By liquidating the church, by imprisoning and murdering the Ukrainian intelligentsia and the clergy, the regime deprived the people of their traditional moral and community leadership.

Then the village faced the deportation of its best farmers, confiscation of private property and forced collectivization. Ironically, collectivized agriculture proved to be the most inefficient and wasteful food production system yet invented. But Stalin was primarily interested in political control, not in the welfare of the people.

To crush the resistance and to destroy the will of the Ukrainian peasantry once and for all, the Soviet regime deliberately chose FOOD as its weapon, a weapon that proved to be far more destructive than a nuclear bomb. The Ukrainian peasantry-that historic embodiment of the Ukrainian nation-would be starved into submission. Special units of armed fanatical communists were sent from Russia to requisition all grain, the mainstay of Ukrainian diet.

At the same time, Soviet propaganda dehumanized and demonized Ukrainian peasants into the dreaded class enemies and bourgeois nationalists for whom there could be no pity or mercy.

As the villages began to starve in the bitter winter of 1932-33, huge shipments of Ukrainian grain were being dumped on European markets. The man-made suffering endured by the desperate population is difficult to imagine.

One of the enforcers of the famine, who later regretted his participation, Victor Kravchenko, left the following gut-wrenching image of a stricken village.

"What I saw that morning was inexpressibly horrible. On the battlefield men die quickly, they fight back, they are sustained by fellowship and a sense of duty. Here I saw people dying in solitude by slow degrees, dying hideously, without the excuse of sacrifice for a cause. They had been trapped and left to starve by a political decision made in a far-off capital around conference and banquet tables... Everywhere we found men, women and children lying prone, their faces and bellies bloated, their eyes utterly expressionless."

As the news about this greatest tragedy ever to befall Ukraine leaked out, Ukrainians abroad, including in Winnipeg, reacted with demonstrations and offers of humanitarian aid. But Moscow rejected any proposals of external aid and denied the famine, calling it a slanderous fabrication by the enemies of the Soviet Union. In fact, Moscow would not acknowledge the famine until 1987.

The unprecedented scale of this planned genocide was so enormous that the world, struggling with the Great Depression and inundated with deliberate misinformation, found it difficult to believe. And so, the famine remained hidden. Contemporary Ukraine should be grateful to the efforts of Ukrainians abroad, especially here in Canada, for keeping the memory of the famine alive and public.

Through starvation, the regime did succeed in breaking the backbone of the Ukrainian peasantry. In 1934 food requisitions ended and so did the famine. But political terror, with its purges and slave labour camps continued until Stalin's death in 1953.

What have been the historical consequences of the Great Famine-Genocide?

  1. By ravaging the country side, the famine not only destroyed millions of innocent human beings - estimates range from 4 to 10 million - but also retarded by generations the natural evolution of Ukrainian nationhood. The traditional Ukrainian values of hope, individualism and hard work disappeared. Fear, apathy and alcoholism became the hallmarks of the collective farm. Cities of Ukraine remained bastions of Russification. In general, the traumatized survivors found themselves voiceless cogs in the huge bureaucratic machine that the Soviet Union had become.

    I think therein lies the fundamental dilemmas of independent Ukraine: the problematic nature of Ukraine's national identity and the crises plaguing her slow and erratic transformation into modernity.


  2. I also see a direct connection between the Great Famine and the Holocaust. Hitler was certainly encouraged to launch his planned extermination of the Jewish population by the general indifference to Stalin's engineered mass starvation of Ukrainians. If the Soviet government could get away with such a hideous crime, why not Nazi Germany?


  3. Finally, the catastrophe of the Famine-Genocide must remain part of our collective memory as Ukrainians. Our people have suffered a great deal, perhaps more than others. The historic suffering of Ukrainian people was publicly acknowledged and emphasized during the recent Papal visit to Ukraine. We in Canada and the people of Ukraine must not only recognize the tragic past but come to terms with it. However, Ukraine must not become a captive of that past and keep feeling sorry for herself. She must look to the future and chose an appropriate path. But, as she does so, she must realize that democracy, with all its imperfections, is still the best defense against tyranny and the best protection for human rights. As we know, democracy and freedom are inseparable. By ravaging the country side, the famine not only destroyed millions of innocent human beings - estimates range from 4 to 10 million - but also retarded by generations the natural evolution of Ukrainian nationhood. The traditional Ukrainian values of hope, individualism and hard work disappeared. Fear, apathy and alcoholism became the hallmarks of the collective farm. Cities of Ukraine remained bastions of Russification. In general, the traumatized survivors found themselves voiceless cogs in the huge bureaucratic machine that the Soviet Union had become.


Centre for Ukrainian Canadian Studies
St. Andrew's College, University of Manitoba
Winnipeg, Manitoba
R3T 2N2
Canada

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