Skeletons in the closet in the light of perestroika
By Stanislav Kulchitsky, Professor of History
THE DAY, Culture Page
Kyiv, Ukraine, December 4, 2001
PHOTO FROM THE BOOK BY OKSANA PROCYK, FAMINE IN THE SOVIET UKRAINE 1932-1933, HARVARD, CAMBRIDGE, 1986
PICTURES LIKE THIS WERE A COMMON OCCURRENCE ON THE STREETS OF UKRAINIAN CITIES AND VILLAGES IN 1932-1933. PASSERSBY DID NOT EVEN PAY ATTENTION TO THOSE WHO DIED OF HUNGER
Recently, engaging in polemics with Professor Ivan Khmil on the pages of The
Day, I remembered an English saying about skeletons in the closet, which the
Soviet past is so rich in. The newspaper’s limited space kept me from
dwelling on this subject then. Ukraine observed the Day of Remembrance for
the Victims of Famines and Political Repressions on November 24. Let others
speak on the events in question, leaving me to tell you how Gorbachev’s
perestroika opened the most horrible closet of the Stalin epoch with its
millions of victims of the terror famine. Prof. Khmil’s fellow Party members
had a design of their own when they wanted to have his material published on
the eve of parliamentary elections. I also have a design, hoping, though,
that it will produce quite an opposite result.
The 1933 famine has always been common knowledge. But for those born in and
after the thirties this knowledge was rather uncertain and vague. Parents
never told their children about the famine, trying to keep them safe. Any
public discussions of this subject could end with a prison term. The taboo
persisted even later, when the GULAG had already vanished.
Perhaps the youth of today will find the previous passage rather dim. Let me
tell you what happened in the summer of 1966. The then chairman of the
Ukrainian Society for Friendship and Cultural Relations with Foreign
Countries Yury Smolych requested me and a colleague of mine to write a
series of newspaper articles on Ukraine’s economic development dedicated to
the fiftieth anniversary of Soviet power. The newspaper, News from Ukraine,
was distributed exclusively among the Western diaspora and regularly perused
by Petro Shelest (then First Secretary of the Communist Party of Ukraine—
Our articles came out one by one in chronological succession. When it
came to the period of collectivization, the first secretary ordered through
his aides that the article include a passage about the famine. The article’s
manuscript circulated around various offices for as long as a year
thereafter, for nobody was bold enough either to take responsibility for
publishing an article mentioning the famine or to authorize the publication
without the passage the top boss had requested. They were even afraid to ask
Shelest for written, rather than oral, permission to mention the famine.
Only when the anniversary was imminent did the newspaper resume publication
of the series, but without the explosive passage. If a certain historian had
begun to study the newspaper’s content, he would have been utterly perplexed
to find a year-long break in the publication of a twelve-article series.
The Ukrainian diaspora strove to put the truth about Stalin’s crime across
to the world community. However, as it is now clear from declassified
archive materials, the governments of Western countries were well aware,
even without the diaspora’s help, of what was going on in the USSR in 1933.
But they always pursued their own interests in their dealings with the
Soviet leadership. In particular, Western democracies welcomed Stalin’s
rapprochement policies after Adolf Hitler came to power. The US recognized
the Soviet Union in the autumn of 1933.
On the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the manmade famine, the Western
public at last showed interest in this problem. Edmonton already had the
Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, while Harvard University (US) had
opened the Ukrainian Research Institution headed by Omeljan Prytsak. In 1983
the University of Quebec (Montreal) hosted a workshop on the Ukrainian
famine. Among those who presented the most meaningful reports were Harvard’s
young alumni majoring in the history of Soviet Ukraine, such as Bohdan
Kravchenko, James Mace, and Roman Serbyn. The fifty year old famine became
talked about after a half century of silence. Journalists began to turn to
Soviet UN representatives for explanations, only to see them dodge their
queries. Some of them would fervently deny “the falsifications of Ukrainian
bourgeois nationalists.” What was done cannot be undone: among them was also
Mr. Khmil who headed the Ukrainian SSR delegation at the sessions of the UN
Human Rights Commission in 1983-1984.
The Ukrainian diplomats, at last, sought the advice of Kyiv on how to react.
The Politburo of the Ukrainian Communist Party Central Committee (KPU CC)
instructed the CC secretary for ideology and the Ukrainian KGB chief to
study the issue. The latter two drew up a memorandum for Volodymyr
Shcherbytsky (the then KPU CC first secretary — Ed.), the essence of which
was summed up in the title itself, On Propaganda and Counterpropaganda
Measures to Suppress the Anti-Soviet Campaign Unleashed by Reactionary
Centers of the Ukrainian Emigration in Connection with Food Difficulties
that Took Place in the Early Thirties.”
In 1984 a young American historian Leonid Heretz began gathering eyewitness
reports of the people who lived through the famine. The Toronto-based
Ukrainian Famine Research Committee produced the documentary film Harvest of
Despair. The US Congress decided to set up a commission “to study the causes
of the Soviet government-induced Ukrainian famine in 1932-1933.” There had
never been a parliamentary commission like this in the world before.
KPU CC functionaries concluded it was time to retaliate. In the fall of 1986
they established a commission of scholars, assigning it a task to debunk the
“falsifications” and prove that there had been no famine in Ukraine. I also
happened to be part of that commission. We were shown a copy of the film
Harvest of Despair and allowed access to the KPU Central Committee archives.
Now I understand that those who set up the commission had a blurry idea of
the famine. Otherwise they would have held out to the end, as they did in
the case of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact or the Katyn affair.
I had never dealt with the history of collectivization before. The research
on this subject from the angle of famine turned over all my previous
knowledge. The analyzed facts revealed the picture of a true famine, not
just starvation. Meanwhile, the CC understood that it had assigned the
scholars an unrealistic task and soon forgot about us. Mikhail Gorbachev’s
glasnost had already begun to swing open closets containing the skeletons.
I sent a memo, on my own initiative, to the Central Committee about the
assigned task, suggesting that the fact of famine be admitted. In the memo,
I cited facts in such a way that the subject would not seem too inflammable
to the decision- makers. I was allowed to publish the memo as a scholarly
article, but not before First Secretary Volodymyr Shcherbytsky made a speech
in honor of the seventieth anniversary of Soviet power in Ukraine. It was
planned that this speech would include a fleeting remark about the famine.
Only such a top official could be the first to broach the subject. By then
Gorbachev’s perestroika little resembled the bureaucratic campaign it had
been at the beginning. Fear of the government was waning. On July 16, 1987,
the newspaper Literaturna Ukrayina published an article which mentioned the
famine matter-of-factly on two occasions, as if it were a universally-known
fact. This was really so, and the Ukrainian Central Committee pretended that
nothing had happened.
Moscow also began to talk about the famine. On October 11, 1987, agrarian
historian Viktor M. Danilov wrote in the newspaper Sovietskaya Rossiya that
a famine had claimed a huge number of human lives in the winter and spring
of 1933. Moscow-based demographer Mark Toltz gave the first-ever account of
the 1937 census in the repression-stricken USSR in the article “How Many of
Us Were There?” in the December issue of Ogoniok magazine. The census was
canceled and its organizers were repressed on a charge of undercounting the
population. The article cited the 1933 famine as the cause of such alleged
In November 1987 Mikhail Gorbachev made a speech on the seventieth
anniversary of the October Revolution. Not a word was said about the famine.
Shcherbytsky could not follow suit, for it is in Ukraine that the famine
raged. The US Congress commission’s research group with James Mace at the
head (actually, staff director — Mace) began to acquaint the world public
with the first results of their work.
On December 25, 1987, for the first time in 55 years, a Soviet Communist
Party (CPSU) Politburo member broke the Stalinist taboo on the word famine.
It apparently did not matter that Shcherbytsky spoke about a famine caused
by a drought and a poor crop. Historians gained an opportunity to openly
study and publish documents on the year 1933. In March 1988 Ukrayinsky
istorychny zhurnal (Ukrainian Historical Journal) published my article.
Still earlier, in mid-January, it was published in an abridged version by
Visti z Ukrayiny and News from Ukraine, newspapers intended for the
Ukrainian diaspora. And in May of that year the Ministry of Foreign Affairs
of the Ukrainian SSR gave our institute the US famine commission’s findings
received from the Soviet embassy in the US (Out of scholarly courtesy, I
sent it — Mace). The documents abounded in quotations from and analysis of
my article in the News from Ukraine. The general conclusion was as follows,
“The scale of the famine has been minimized, the Communist Party is depicted
as doing its utmost to improve the situation, while the actions of the
Communist Party and the Soviet state that exacerbated the famine have been
This was the right conclusion, for the article was in fact a memorandum to
the Central Committee. By that time, I had already had plenty of archival
materials and made a deal with the Znannia (Knowledge) association on the
publication of a brochure. The brochure 1933: the Tragedy of Famine came out
in May 1989 with a press run of 62,000 copies. Although, as the heading
said, the brochure belonged to a propaganda series called The Theory and
Practice of CPSU History, the designer drew a white cobweb against the cover
’s black background, in the center of which he wrote the title in white and
red letters. In essence, the brochure’s subject was in line with CPSU
practice. While the brochure was being printed, I handed over its text, with
permission of the Znannia editors, to the newspaper Literaturna Ukrayina.
The latter was very popular at that time among the Ukrainian intelligentsia
both in and outside this country. The text, published in the newspaper in
four installments in January and February 1989, was the result of
eighteen-month work in the archives. By that time, I had already shed many
stereotypes of official history. The cited facts caused a shock. The number
of famine researchers began to grow. A group of Institute of Party History
scholars headed by Ruslan Pyrih found sensational documents in the party
archives. They could only be published with a KPU CC Politburo permission. I
attended that tempestuous Politburo session. There were even such words as
“stab in the back.” Yet, new First Secretary Ivashko, who had already
replaced Shcherbytsky as CC first secretary, decided to clear the
publication because he was aware that “the genie had already popped out of
The collection of articles The 1932- 1933 Famine in Ukraine: In the Eyes of
Historians and Language of Documents came out in the fall of 1990,
immediately becoming a bibliographic rarity in the then heated atmosphere.
In 1991 the Radiansky Pysmennyk publishing house printed a book of the
reminiscences of people who lived through the famine, edited by Volodymyr
Maniak and Lidiya Kovalenko. The Academy of Sciences Institute of History
prepared a fundamental collection of documents Collectivization and Famine
in Ukraine (1929-1933). This was published twice, in 1992 and 1993, by the
Naukova Dumka publishers.
It became possible to expose Stalin- era crimes, including the most terrible
of them, the 1933 manmade famine, owing to the revolutionary situation that
developed in the USSR quite unexpectedly for the inspirers of the
bureaucratic perestroika. At the same time, the truth about the famine
promoted the movement for national liberation. All these processes were
crowned by the establishment of today’s independent Ukraine.
THE DAY, Kyiv, Ukraine
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