The Great Famine-Genocide in Soviet Ukraine (Holodomor)

"In the 1930s Soviet Ukraine became the victim of one of the worst genocides in history......Commemorating the Famine-Genocide represents a monumental condemnation of the Soviet legacy that Ukrainian leaders glorify every year on Victory Day."

By Roman Serbyn, PhD, Professor, Department of History,
University of Quebec, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
ROMYR Report, Political Analysis Quarterly, FALL, 2002, No. 14
Romyr & Associates, Kyiv, Ukraine; Toronto, Ontario; New York, NY

To some degree, all countries draw on their history for ideological and political aims. Post-colonial and newly independent countries are no exception. Each is faced with the task of building a vital state and forming a robust, national identity. Thus, it is no surprise that the current Ukrainian leadership chooses to focus attention on those historical events that fundamentally influenced the fate of the Ukrainian people and became deeply engraved in its collective memory. While the leaders designate these occasions for official commemorations, the particular selection of events is curiously eclectic. Such a perplexing slate of memorials leads to questions on how these occasions contribute to efforts to consolidate the vision of an independent and democratic Ukrainian nation and society.

"Famine is Ravaging In Ukraine' T. Shevchenko"
Poster by Heorhiy Shevtsov, 1993
(Click on images to enlarge them)

This year [2002], Chernihiv celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Chernihiv gubernia, the creation of which signified the intensifying integration of Ukrainian lands with the Russian Empire, the loss of the last vestiges of Cossack autonomy, and the expansion of serfdom. Next year, Ukraine marks the 85th anniversary of the birth of Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, notorious for his unyielding struggle against all manifestations of Ukrainian independence and his attempts to Russify the language, the culture, indeed, the soul of the Ukrainian people. Any beneficial influence on the patriotic edification of young Ukrainians is unlikely to spring from glorification of past tsarist and Soviet control. The only comfort to be gained from these dubious jubilees is the fact that they are low-key events unlikely to mold notions of heritage among contemporary Ukrainians.

However, three high-profile commemorations planned for the near future will have substantial significance for the spiritual development of Ukraine. This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Famine-Genocide of 1932-1933. In 2004, Ukraine plans to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Cossack Council of Pereiaslav (1654). The following year is the 60th anniversary of the victory over Germany. Ukraine celebrates Victory Day every year, and its 60th anniversary will be a culmination of all previous commemorations. Therefore, we will leave a review of this annual holiday for last.

First, we examine the Famine-Genocide and the Pereiaslav Council. The decrees of Leonid Kuchma, the president of Ukraine, serve as our point of departure from which we examine the ideology behind the Ukrainian government plans to mark the events.


NOTE: Both decrees may be found on the president's Web site:


Analysis of these two documents reveals the president signed the decree "On the Commemoration of the 350th Anniversary of the Pereiaslav Cossack Council of 1654" on 13 March 2002. One week later, on 20 March 2002, he signed the decree "On the Measures Connected with the 70th Anniversary of the Death by Starvation in Ukraine." Thus, almost two years were allotted for the preparations of the anniversary of the Pereiaslav Council (January 1654), whereas barely six months were allocated to plan for the autumn anniversary of the Famine-Genocide.

Compounding the timeframe discrepancy, the decree regarding commemoration of the Pereiaslav Council designated an existing organizational committee to drive the planning process. Twenty-two men representing political and academic spheres and headed by the former chief of the Presidential Administration and current Speaker of Parliament, Volodymyr Lytvyn form this prestigious committee. Meanwhile, the organizational committee for the anniversary of the Famine-Genocide, which was supposed to be headed by the prime minister, was yet to be selected at the time the decree was issued. The Cabinet of Ministers was supposed to ratify its schedule within two months.

Famine Seal

In reality, consultation with the Committee on State Building revealed that appropriate materials for planning the anniversary had been submitted to the cabinet only in late October of this year. Thus, ratification cannot be expected sooner than early November leaving barely a month before the start of the anniversary. The apathy towards the Famine-Genocide project versus the hearty approach to the Pereiaslav event will likely be reflected in the quality, content, and production of the ceremonies.

In the decrees we find not only striking differences but also fundamental discrepancies in the treatment of these historical events. Whereas both decrees encourage scholarly conferences, round tables, and thematic campaigns in the mass media, competition "among pupils . for the top history student" will inexplicably be organized only around the topic of the Pereiaslav Council. The "publication of monographs, scholarly-popular and artistic literature on historical themes" is limited to material connected with Pereiaslav. Similarly, the decree makes no mention of asking experts to research and record the wealth of historical testimony that could be provided by the aging eyewitnesses to the Famine-Genocide. That task is left to elementary and high school pupils. (No mention was made of university students.)

The Cossack council celebration will provide the impetus for a "restoration of exhibits" in the "National Museum of History of Ukraine and the Pereiaslav National Historical-Ethnographic Preserve."

In contrast, the students' collection of documents and depositions related to the Famine-Genocide will be designated only "for supplementing the funds of regional museums." The decree makes no mention of presenting the Famine-Genocide in the main museums of Ukraine, nor does it broach the establishment of a state museum dedicated to the subject.

The presidential decrees pose a number of fundamental problems. In the 1930s Soviet Ukraine became the victim of one of the worst genocides in history. To this day, neither the president nor the Verkhovna Rada has recognized this as mass murder that was planned and executed by Soviet authorities who created an artificial famine as genocide against the Ukrainian people. The Ukrainian government has still not identified the criminals responsible for this crime against humanity.

A fitting tribute to the victims of this crime would be:

    1) An official condemnation by the Ukrainian leadership of this heinous act and the criminals who were responsible for it;
    2) A joint, solemn recognition by all branches of the Ukrainian leadership-the president, government, and Verkhovna Rada-"of the genocide against the Ukrainian people," one that applies appropriate and accepted terms. (NOTE: by avoiding the word "genocide" and by using the phrase "in Ukraine," the decree displays disrespect towards the victims of the genocide.

In the first place, only Slavs understand the Ukrainian word Holodomor [death by starvation], which, for some reason, is not capitalized in the document, and even Slavs do not necessarily equate this word with genocide. Secondly, by saying "in Ukraine" rather than "the Ukrainian people" the focus of the injustice incorrectly lands on the place where the evil was perpetrated rather than on the victims of the genocide, the Ukrainian people.)

In failing to pay appropriate homage to the memory of the famine's victims, museums and state institutions discredit themselves and do a disservice to the public. A careful reading of the decrees may explain why scholarly scrutiny of the subject is glaringly absent. There is a stark contrast between conflicting legacies.

Commemorating the Famine-Genocide represents a monumental condemnation of the Soviet legacy that Ukrainian leaders glorify every year on Victory Day. The imprint of the USSR, the "Soviet fatherland," is clearly stamped on the most terrible pages of Ukrainian history: the Famine-Genocide, the destruction of Ukrainian statehood, and the annihilation of the Ukrainian nationality.

Another version of Soviet heritage presents that regime as the savior of the Ukrainian nation from Hitler's Germany and the source of the present Ukrainian state. Given this dichotomy, it is more emotionally wrenching for the present Ukrainian leadership, nurtured in the Soviet spirit and traditions, to organize the 70th anniversary of the Famine-Genocide than the 60th anniversary of the victory over the Germans. Thus, the 350th anniversary of the Pereiaslav Council, more ideologically in tune with Soviet tradition, is closer to the heart of the Presidential Administration.

The decree on the commemoration of the Pereiaslav Council makes clear that the leadership is intent on treating this anniversary in a joyful rather than funereal manner. If establishing the historical truth about this controversial event mattered to the president, it would be unnecessary to organize civic jubilees since there is no doubt today that the enslavement of Ukraine by the Muscovite tsardom began in Pereiaslav. Only imperialists could turn the tragic memory of this council into a noble vision of the "re-unification" of two "fraternal peoples." Behind the seemingly neutral wording, the decree masks the peculiar spectacle of today's Ukrainian leaders celebrating events that led to its people being enslaved for three hundred years.

The Ukrainian leadership is preparing for the commemoration of "Victory Day" well in advance and with great enthusiasm. As early as August 14, 2002, President Kuchma signed a decree entitled "On the Historical-Commemorative Series The Books of Remembrance of Ukraine," calling for the publication of a second, expanded Bezsmertia [Immortality] compilation and other commemorative books about the "Sixtieth anniversary of Victory in the Great Patriotic War." Six weeks later, Prime Minister Anatolii Kinakh informed veterans that "Ukraine is commencing large-scale celebrations of this great holiday" within the framework of the CIS.

The Ukrainian leadership's ardent attitude towards the Soviet empire's colonialism is astonishing. The fact of the matter is that, in the course of fifty years, the Soviet regime transformed the distorted history of the German-Soviet conflict into a powerful ideological myth of the "Great Patriotic War." The paradox of Ukrainian devotion to the traditions of "Victory Day" is that the myth, the main component of which became this celebration, was aimed at consolidating a multi-national empire around the ruling Communist Party. In its essence, such fabled devotion ran counter to Ukrainian aspirations for independence.

This myth reached its zenith of popularity in Brezhnev's time. A museum of the "Great Patriotic War" was built in Kyiv, and numerous monuments, memorial markers, etc., appeared throughout Ukraine. These measures fueled the notion of an eternally united Soviet people, a concept that was forged on the battlefields of World War II where a strong and forceful alliance was required drive out an external enemy and liberate a common fatherland. New generations grew up influenced by this fiction, their knowledge of the war limited by what they were taught in school, shown in museums, and imbued with during state holidays. Historical truth awaited the collapse of the Communist Party, the exercise of freedom of expression, and the opening of historical archives.

Now we know that there was no nationwide rush on the part of the Ukrainian population to the defense of the Communist regime - not in western Ukraine, which had suffered during the two-year Soviet occupation between 1939 and 1941, nor in eastern Ukraine, which had been starved to death during the great Famine. Nazi brutality gave rise to popular resistance in Ukraine, but with no enthusiasm for the return of the Stalinist regime.

In contrast to prevailing folklore, the Red Army did not liberate the Ukrainian people. "To liberate," means to grant freedom, but a totalitarian system cannot bring freedom to anyone; it is capable only of replacing one type of slavery with another. Finally, Hitler's defeat did not make victors out of the Soviet people. They were, according to Josef Stalin, simple "cogs in a great machine." Only Stalin and his henchmen ended up reaping the fruits of victory.

The pernicious nature of the falsehoods surrounding the "Great Patriotic War" lays not only its distorted historical foundation (particularly in connection with Ukraine). The very ideology on which this lie is constructed is contrary to Ukrainian statehood and Ukrainian identity. It still divides Ukrainian society into so-called "victors" (veterans of the Soviet Army and Red partisans) and "vanquished" (veterans of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), and everyone who fought against the Stalinist regime).

The champions of this myth have internalized ideological barriers within Ukraine, much to the astonishment of a civilized world that long ago reconciled former military rivalries. Finally, this myth provides a basis for opponents of Ukrainian statehood, loyalists who long for the return of the Soviet Union, or, perhaps, hope to see Ukraine folded into a greater Eastern Slavic, but essentially Russian, state.

The 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War will be commemorated throughout the entire world. Ukraine was one of the main arenas of this conflict and suffered immeasurably as two of history's most vile regimes collided on its. Today, Ukrainian leaders bear a moral responsibility to produce a worthy commemoration of this sad history. At long last, Ukraine needs to expose the whole truth about wartime events on its territory; the facts about all the crimes committed against Ukrainians and the criminals who perpetrated those appalling acts.

Ukrainian participation in the Second World War should be re-considered from new perspectives recalling that the state was tormented and throttled by two totalitarian empires. For that reason, modern Ukraine should encourage all the veterans of the war to be regarded respectfully, no matter to which side of the conflict fate may have cast them. No longer should veterans be divided into "victors" and "vanquished."

Rather, they should be invited to sit at one table, as brothers in arms. Only then will the divisive overtones of "Victory Day" be replaced with the conciliatory language of a "Day of Remembrance." To make this possible, the Ukrainian leadership will have to repudiate the vestiges of Soviet ideology, particularly the anti-Ukrainian jingoism of the "Great Patriotic War."

The first edition of Bezsmertia mentioned above, dedicated to the 55th anniversary of the "Victory," cites an inspiring declaration by Leonid Kuchma: those who once occupied one set of trenches and today have landed on different sides of the border will never be on different sides of the barricades. It would be an honorable act on the part of the President of Ukraine if, on the eve of the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, he would dismantle the ideological barricades in his own country.

Before harmonizing Ukrainian history textbooks with Russian ones, as the Ukrainian government recently proposed, the state must first revise officially financed publications by including facts that have been proved by history scholars. Thus, the second edition of Bezsmertia should emphasize a cleansing purge of falsehoods over supplemental verbiage. The editors of the first compilation were well aware that in describing the UPA as "hirelings of fascist Germany" allegedly fighting only against the Soviet Union they were spreading tired lies, insulting champions of Ukrainian independence, and reinforcing internal divisions within the country.

The further development of a full-fledged Ukrainian society and the building of a democratic state will depend in great measure on a rethinking of the vast historical scope and the rich spiritual legacy with which history has endowed the Ukrainian people. The country's intelligentsia and leadership must play a vital role in this regard by unearthing the truth and offering evidence to support it and working to disseminate it.

Anniversaries of important historical dates are fitting occasions for reflection on a nation's past. In marking such events, a free, independent, and modern Ukraine should be intent on building a genuine respect for its true history rather than perpetuating imposed fiction. [Fall, 2002}

ROMYR REPORT, Political Analysis Quarterly, Fall, 2002, Kyiv, Ukraine ay&bid=18&mid=180&