The Great Famine-Genocide in Soviet Ukraine (Holodomor)


COMMENTARY: By David Marples, Professor of History
Department of History and Classics, University of Alberta
Published by Edmonton Journal, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Thursday, December 4, 2003

It is worthwhile to recall that the Famine remained a state secret in the USSR until it was acknowledged in a speech by the then Ukrainian party leader, Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, in December 1987. The Ukrainian scholar Stanislav Kulchytsky has revealed that the reason for the sudden revelation was that the United States Commission on the Ukraine Famine, directed by Dr. James E. Mace, was about to release findings predicated on dozens of oral interviews among Famine victims in the United States.

On 12 February 2003, the Ukrainian Parliament held the first ever official hearings in Ukraine on the Famine, officially known as the Holodomor (death by hunger). A declaration was issued on 15 May, which declared the events to be "a genocide of the Ukrainian nation," with a death toll somewhere between 7 and 10 million people, or about a quarter of the population of the Soviet Ukrainian republic.

Given the scale of the catastrophe, it is remarkable (if not disturbing) that only 226 deputies (out of 450) voted in favor of this declaration, the barest of majorities. They were spearheaded by Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine (103 deputies) and the Socialist Party (20 deputies) under Oleksandr Moroz.

Several parliamentary factions did not vote: the Communists (59 deputies), Labor Ukraine (42 deputies), People's Choice (14 deputies), and European Choice (22 deputies). Two relatively large factions were split on the issue (Regions of Ukraine (65 deputies) and the United Social Democrats headed by former president Leonid Kravchuk (36 deputies), as well as the small People's Democratic Party. The liberal Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (19 deputies) was absent from the vote.

Ukraine's next task was to put forward a joint declaration at the United Nations in New York in November, co-signed by 30 nations, including Russia, Canada, and the United States, plus the European Union, and introduced by Valery Kuchynsky, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the United Nations. Earlier Russia, perceived by some sources as the direct offshoot of the Soviet Union, had refused to take responsibility for imposing the Famine. Accordingly, the document introduced by Ukraine was general enough to incorporate "the memory of millions of Russians, Kazakhs, and representatives of other nationalities who died of starvation" and omitted the word "genocide." A casual reader could thus have interpreted the document as a condemnation of Stalinism in general.

Typical of the mixed response in Ukraine to the commemoration was a response to articles by Dr. Mace, the former US Famine Commission director is now a professor of political science at the Kyiv Mohyla National University, published in the The Day newspaper, in which Mace has stated several times why he considers the 1932-33 Famine to be an act of genocide committed by the Stalinist regime.

Writing in the journal Komunist (19 November), Professor Ivan Hrushchenko declared that following the 1991 "counter-revolutionary coup d'etat, Mace (described as a "cowboy professor") had come to Ukraine and gathered together a group of "corrupt academicians" to launch an anti-Communist campaign about a "genocide" in Ukraine. The Famine, stated Hrushchenko, was caused by bad weather and defects in the process of collectivizing peasant farms and occurred in various areas of the USSR, not just in Ukraine. Mace was denounced as "a false friend of Ukraine" and advised to "go home!"

The bitterness of tone, following the mixed reception of the parliament to the Famine discussion last spring, illustrates a political divide in Ukraine that appears to have widened over the years of independence. Though the Communists predictably adopted a quasi-Stalinist position on the matter of the Famine-Genocide, other Leftist factions seem at best ambivalent. Some view the Holodomor as the domain of "nationalists," long derided as the enemy during the Soviet era. Areas with large Russian populations (Luhansk, Donetsk, and Crimea) may see the issue as divisive. In an article co-authored with Serhiy Makhun, Mace claims that the "inaction by the state" on the issue is evidence that its knowledge of Ukraine remains on the level of a "Soviet fourth grade textbook."

And although President Leonid Kuchma has supported the initiatives on commemoration, several deputies in the opposition Our Ukraine faction maintain that his backing has been at best lukewarm and in part a means to save a flagging career. Notably he failed to appear to give a scheduled speech to the half-empty parliament prior to the mid-May vote.

On the positive side, awareness of the scale of the tragedy has been disseminated in Ukraine by a plethora of books, conference proceedings, and newspaper articles. However, these writings have not yet overcome the straitjacket of Soviet ideology that remains deeply ingrained in some areas of Ukraine, even at the highest levels of government.

The commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the man-made Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33 has ended in Ukraine and around the world. The events mark a new peak in international recognition of the tragic events of this period, one of the worst crimes of the bloody 20th century. It is fitting therefore to assess the impact of the commemoration on Ukraine, its politics and society.