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
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
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.
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