The Great Famine-Genocide in Soviet Ukraine (Holodomor)


Prof. James Mace, Consultant to The Day
The Day, Kyiv, Ukraine
Tuesday, November 12, 2002


There are some things that cannot be addressed except in the first person singular, even in history. I spent over ten years researching the Ukrainian Famine of 1933 and perhaps as long running away from it. Every decade or half-decade it seems, first the emigration and then Ukraine itself begins a "celebration" (what a horrible word; why don't we go out next week and celebrate the Armenian Massacres?) of its national tragedy. At any rate, historians marked November 7, the date of what was once known as the Great October Socialist Revolution, with a conference at the Shevchenko Kyiv State National University on the three manmade famines in Ukraine, those of the twenties, thirties, and forties.

It was almost a lifetime ago in 1981 that I was asked by the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute to take up the topic of the famine of 1933. I was finishing a doctoral dissertation on national communism in Soviet Ukraine during the immediately preceding period, and I knew the Soviet Ukrainian press of the period. There is a great misconception that in a totalitarian state the press prints only lies. It also has to define what is permissible, what is not, to tell people what they are expected to do and threaten them with the consequences if they fail to do so. The Stalinist Ukrainian press of the period did this in great abundance, and I eagerly accepted the assignment. Later the US Congress in its wisdom created a Commission on the Ukraine Famine, and I was named staff director. I did what I was able as honestly as I could, and - as I had to tell the distinguished conference at Kyiv University - the silence was deafening.

The first attack I weathered was in 1985 from Steven Wheatcroft, now Professor at the Australian National University, in the journal Problems of Communism. My sums, he argued, were off. They might well have been, I am not a statistician, and that is not the point. The best historian of the Holocaust, Raul Hilberg, maintains that Hitler killed not six million Jews but only 5.1 million. Does that mean that what Hitler did was 20% less bad than we thought? The point is not the figures. The point is that a culture that enlivened European civilization no longer exists. The Yiddish Theater in Lviv no longer exists. Something that made humanity rich is gone, and humanity as a whole is impoverished by its loss. Something similar but not equivalent (there are still Ukrainians, albeit trying to figure out who they are and what they want) happened here. And it is here that historical denial begins.

My sin - and the sin of so many others in this benighted land - is to connect the destruction of the Ukrainian peasantry with that of the Ukrainian nation, with what they were creating even in the less than free atmosphere of the 1920s, when Ukrainians had their rozstriliane vidrodzhennia, literally the rebirth that was stood up against the wall and shot. I have met intellectuals in Ukraine who could acquaint themselves with that chapter of their literary heritage only in the 1990s because much of their history, including the history of their literature was banned. For accenting this Prof. Wheatcroft and others accused me of debasing the profession of Soviet studies. Let history be my judge, for the history of Ukraine will be made in Ukraine as part of the making of Ukraine itself. Perhaps that is the main reason why I chose to live here.

History is a far more subjective thing than most historians would have it. We can define our history only after we define who we are. There was a process here that was violently interrupted in 1933, and that interruption has something to do with the manmade famine. It is interesting how those who deny its national character pass over in silence the trepidation of Stalin and Kaganovich's statements that the problems in the Kuban were was all because of people sent in from Ukraine, obviously from Mykola Skrypnyk's Commissariat of Education, the centerpiece of the Ukrainization at the time and the first object of destruction by Stalin's satraps.

Still, there is an antiseptic quality to documents and even the most brutal newspaper editorials. It is another to deal with those who suffered through something beyond the bounds of one's own experience. Twenty years ago there were plenty who wanted to tell the world what they had experienced. Now we hear, especially by one Prof. Mark Tauger of the University of West Virginia, that witnesses are not trustworthy, even if they number in the thousands. In his view, the harvest was bad, and the Soviet state made a heroic effort to feed the cities, but the food simply ran out (ignoring, it seems, what of it was sold abroad).

I was sad to tell colleagues here that what I had done then and what they do now simply fall on deaf ears in the Western world of Soviet studies. It is as though those who study the Armenian Massacres were trying to make their case through Turkic studies or those on the Holocaust through Germanic ones.

In the United States, at least, studies of the former Soviet Union are dominated by those who not so very long ago were out to discredit the idea of totalitarianism as Cold War ideology (a concept, be it totalitarianism or any other, is either useful or not in explaining things but it cannot by its nature be true or false) and now seem attached to the great friendship of Soviet peoples: everybody suffered together, and only reactionaries would assign separate histories to the separate peoples once united in the USSR.

Perhaps we should also think the same way about the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Or perhaps we should take each people separately as a unique component making up the variegated thing we know as humanity, even if they lived in the former Soviet Union. Was what they managed to retain of their identity only reactionary or should they, like the great progressives Marx and Engels would have had it, reconcile themselves to their own destruction as they once wished for the Czechs?

November 12 2002, The Day, Kyiv, Ukraine
For personal and academic use only