The Great Famine-Genocide in Soviet Ukraine (Holodomor)

"If we do not now correct the situation in Ukraine, we could lose Ukraine....Set yourself the task of turning Ukraine in the shortest possible time into a fortress of the USSR, into the most inalienable republic. Don't worry about money for this purpose." [Stalin writing in September of 1932]

Prof. James Mace, Consultant to The Day
The Day Weekly Digest, Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, June 10, 2003


As I sat at the press conference at Kyiv Memorial between Yuri Shapoval and Volodymyr Serhiychuk, two scholars who have done so much to document the "Holodomor," what we in the West called the Great Manmade Famine of 1932-33, my mind slipped back over a decade and a half to myself sitting at a computer in my Washington office, drafting the basic parts of the US Commission on the Ukraine Famine's "Report to Congress," including its findings.

I explained that I had not been a member of that commission, only its staff director, the person who gathered the information and wrote the report for the commission to adopt. Still it was often called the Mace Commission, and in a sense it was.

Kyiv Memorial is the only place in Ukraine with a set of tapes containing the original recordings of the interviews, from which the three-volume "Oral History Project of the Commission on the Ukraine Famine" were transcribed.

It is thus the only place one can go to hear those actual voices recorded in the 1980s, the words of witnesses for the most part now dead. It also has a copy of the documents from the US National Archives that we used to determine what information the American government had about the famine and when.

Thus I was surrounded by not only an exhibit on Ukraine's tragic twentieth-century experience but also by memorabilia of the defining moment of my own life. And I could not help thinking back to myself at the keyboard, drafting those findings for the fifteen members of the commission to adopt. What had we learned?

We had held hearings to listen to eyewitnesses, old ĪmigrĪs who could tell them what had been done to them by others but not why it had been done. For that we had to look into the minds of the perpetrators, primarily through the official press of the time.

We had to look at Ukrainian history within the broader context of what the late ĪmigrĪ scholar Hryhory Kostiuk called the decade of mass terror from 1929 to 1939, the crushing of the intelligentsia and such self-assertion as Ukrainians in the Soviet Union had retained up to that time, culminating with the wholesale slaughter of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (bolshevik) of Ukraine during the Great Terror of 1937-1938.

The "Holodomor" was simply the bloodiest episode in the process of Ukraine itself being crushed. The newspapers allowed us to trace step by step the measures by which the food was taken from those who had produced it, the simultaneous reign of terror unleashed on those who were in charge of taking that food, and the repression of those most associated with the policy of Ukrainization that was killed along with the peasantry in the Postyshev terror of 1933.

I had no choice but to call this an act of genocide, the deliberate partial destruction, irreversible crippling of a nation as such. The members of the Commission read the information that had been compiled and adopted the findings I had drafted. There were - and still are - many who disagree.

Even as I sat at that computer, the wall of silence here was beginning to be breached. On December 25, 1987, in a long speech to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the proclamation of the first Ukrainian Soviet state by the rump First Congress of Soviets of Ukraine, CPU First Secretary Volodymyr Shcherbytsky went beyond the usual formula that there had been "food difficulties" in 1932-33 to add the phrase "and even famine in some areas."

Stanislav Kulchytsky, whom I later learned had composed the memorandum to Shcherbytsky persuading him to take such a step, was ready with an article on the famine in "Ukrayinsky istorychny zhurnal" (Ukrainian Historical Journal), newspaper articles, and even radio programs that were not terribly forthcoming but said what it was possible to say at the time. Then the writers began to speak out, and on February 18, 1988, for the first time in print here the word "Holodomor" appeared in a statement by Oleksiy Musiyenko.

It happened to be my thirty-sixth birthday, and I thought it a wonderful present at the time. Soon the Writers Union anointed the late Volodymyr Maniak to compile a book of memory. Kulchytsky wrote the questions in an article in "Silski visti" (village news) with Maniak's address. The results of the 6000 letters he received to compile a book, which Maniak compiled with his late wife, Lidiya Kovalenko, edited by the lady who would later become my wife.

The ferment continued, and on January 26, 1990, with the Soviet Union in its death throes, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine adopted a resolution, On the Famine of 1932-1933 in Ukraine and the Publication of Archival Materials Connected With It. They had invited me to Kyiv to be on hand to say what a good thing this was, and I got my first taste of the land that would become my second Fatherland. The result by the end of that year was a remarkable book, "Holod 1932-1933 rokiv na Ukrayini: Ochyma istorykiv, movoiu dokumentiv."

The book itself had a press run of only one-tenth of what it was supposed to be and immediately became a bibliographical rarity, and the articles by historians, except for that by Mai Panchuk, which he could and should revise as an introduction to an expanded second edition of these documents, were not terribly interesting, but the book had its effect.

Leonid Kravchuk once said that reading it played a major role in his transformation from a soldier of the Party into the president of independent Ukraine, indeed of the transformation of the Ukrainian SSR into the state, of which Leonid Makarovych became first president. As a monument of the history of the moment when it was published it stands alone, and it could well serve as the basis of a collection of what Ukrainian historians have unearthed since that time.

Now Ukrainian historians have had well over a decade to go through the archives. Led by Kulchytsky and Shapoval, the best researcher in hitherto secret archives that Ukraine can claim as a national treasure, Volodymyr Serhiychuk, Vasyl Marochko, and so many others too numerous to name on the pages of one newspaper, Ukraine has through its dedicated historians dug through those archives for over a decade, each unearthing and publishing documents to make evermore precise our knowledge of the specifics of what was done to their people.

I was relieved to pass on this burden but glad at heart that there were so many to take the baton. After all, I did not start this process. I would say that if any monuments to historians are to be built (and historians prefer books to stone), it should be to Dmytro Solovei, who published the first really serious study of the famine in 1953 in Winnipeg and reprinted forty years later in Drohobych as "Holhota Ukrayini" (Golgotha of Ukraine) for any of a number of others, of whom all did what they could when I was either yet unborn or still in the cradle.

History as a discipline is a process of finding out more about what it is important to learn, and the main thing is not to forget the steps that were taken before. Others took their steps before me, I made my few steps, and now others here are taking further steps. I felt pride that they would continue what I did not start and cannot finish, but in which I also had a hand.

Now I sat at the presentation of a collection of documents by Volodymyr Serhiychuk, a collection of conference articles on the three famines of the Soviet period, and a posthumous collection by the late Volodymyr-Yury Daniliv, who had been one of the organizers of the moot court put together by the World Congress of Free Ukrainians to look at the famine from a juridical standpoint, which found that maybe the "Holodomor" was genocide and maybe not.

That is another tale best left for the memoirs I always want to write so that my son in America will know that his father was not as bad as some say nor as good as some would like to think. Yury Shapoval was perhaps the first to go though the recently released archives of Lazar Kaganovich, publish a wealth of documents to refine our image of this whole horrible episode, and add, as is his wont, a reference to a document published in a newspaper ("Nezavisimaya gazeta," November 30, 2000) I might otherwise not have seen, a document that tells us what I could only infer.

It is in "Komandyry velykoho holodu: Poyizdky V. Molotova i L. Kahanovycha v Ukrayinu ta na Pivnichny Kavkaz. 1932-1933 rr." (Commanders of the Great Famine: The Sojourns of Molotov and Kaganovich to Ukraine and the North Caucasus in 1932-1933), edited by Valery Vasylyev and Yury Shapoval (Kyiv, Geneza, 2001), a personal letter from Stalin to his trusted lieutenant Lazar Kaganovich, September 11, 1932 (Ukrainian text, pp. 160-161; Russian text, pp. 174-175):

"...The main thing is now Ukraine. Matters in Ukraine are now extremely bad. Bad from the standpoint of the Party line. They say that there are two oblasts of Ukraine (Kyiv and Dnipropetrovsk, it seems) where almost 50 raikomy {district Party committees} have come out against the plan of grain procurements, considering them unrealistic. In other raikomy, they confirm, the matter is no better. What does this look like? This is no party, but a parliament, a caricature of a parliament. Instead of directing the districts, Kosior is always waffling between the directives of the CC VKP(b) and the demands of the district Party committees and has waffled to the end. Lenin was right, when he said that a person who lacks the courage at the needed moment to go against the current cannot be a real Bolshevik leader. Bad from the standpoint of the Soviet {state}line. Chubar is no leader. Bad from the standpoint of the GPU. Redens lacks the energy to direct the struggle with the counterrevolution in such a big and unique republic as Ukraine.

"If we do not now correct the situation in Ukraine, we could lose Ukraine.

"Consider that Pilsudski is not daydreaming, and his agents in Ukraine are much stronger than Redens or Kosior imagine. Also consider that within the Ukrainian Communist Party (500,000 members, ha, ha) there are not a few (yes, not a few!) rotten elements that are conscious or unconscious Petliura adherents and in the final analysis agents of Pilsudski. If the situation gets any worse, these elements won't hesitate to open a front within (and outside) the Party, against the Party. Worst of all, the Ukrainian leadership doesn't see these dangers... Set yourself the task of turning Ukraine in the shortest possible time into a fortress of the USSR, into the most inalienable republic. Don't worry about money for this purpose."

That is what the great dictator had in mind only a little time before ordering the seizure of the last potato from those he was starving to death.

We have yet another contribution to the healing process of Ukraine as a nation and a state, a major contribution. Serhiychuk, Shapoval, Marochko, Kulchytsky, and many others have all done their bit. Each is yet another step on the road by which Ukraine makes progress from where it is to where it wants and deserves to be.