The Great Famine-Genocide in Soviet Ukraine (Holodomor)


By Dr. Roman Serbyn, Professor of Russian and East European History
University of Quebec, Montreal, Canada
The Link student newspaper, Concordia University Montreal, Quebec, Canada
December 5, 1988


Within the last two years, the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33 has become an important topic of discussion in the Soviet Union. Soviet newspapers and journals, both in Ukraine and in Russia, are replete with memoirs of famine survivors and discussions by historians, writers and intellectuals in general. High ranking party officials no longer deny the historicity of the tragedy, and even Shcherbytsky, the reactionary boss of Ukraine, recently felt obliged to admit that the famine did occur.

The famine was discussed at the 19th Party conference, held in Moscow last June. On that occasion, Borys Oliynyk, secretary of the Ukrainian Writers' Union (UWU), called for the publication of a "White Book" on the crimes of the Stalin era. Oliynyk further demanded that the people finally be told of the "true reasons for the starvation of millions of Ukrainians." In Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, the party committee of the local branch of the UWU decided to bring out a commemorative book on the famine and appealed to historians, social scientists and famine survivors to assist it with documentary material.

While the Soviet Union has not as yet produced any monograph or extensive collection of documents on the famine, a wealth of material has been published in the periodical press. The frankness of some of the recent Soviet literature on the famine may come as a surprise.

First, it provides graphic descriptions by eye-witnesses of the horrors of the famine. S. Latyshev was a twenty year old student when he visited villages in the Kharkiv region in April 1933;

"No domestic animals were left in the villages, and even dogs, cats and other animals disappeared. Even sparrows were scarcely seen in the streets, everything had been eaten, whether living or dead. Leather footwear, sawdust, straw and chaff were consumed. When the snow thawed in the fields the people caught gophers, moles, mice and other rodents - all were eaten.

"That spring, there was not a household where someone had not died from famine. Whole families died out; there was no one to dig communal graves. Peasants mobilized by the village Soviet dug the earth with difficulty and many died there themselves. Decomposing corpses lay in houses for weeks. The stench spread far beyond the villages. By the beginning of June, not more than one quarter of the population remained in the villages, but they were incapable of any work." ("Argumenty i Fatky," (Moscow) 1988, No.32)

Driven by hunger to beastly behaviour, some people resorted to cannibalism. Children were the prime victims, but adults also perished; "In some people famine devoured all that was human in their soul and bred in its place beastly instincts... In our village, one man became insane from hunger; he butchered, cooked and then ate, first his mother and then his wife." ("Molod' Cherkaashchyny," (Cherkasy, Ukraine) 1988, No.30)

Second, the sources show the circumstances which brought on the famine. The witnesses are unanimous; the famine was not the result of any natural calamity. I.M. Khmil'kovskii writes:

"In 1932 I was 19 years old... I visited the fields of the Kiev and Kirovohrad regions and can testify the in 1932 there was no serious drought in Ukraine." ("Ogonek" (Moscow) 199, No.12)

The famine was the result of confiscation of foodstuffs, first from the collective farm, and then from each of its members. House searches entrusted to specially recruited "activists" were carried out with great cruelty and complete disregard for the survival of plundered families:

"It was late fall of 1932. They came, as usually, unexpected: two men from the collective and an "activist" from the city. They poked iron-tipped rods into the ground in the yard and the garden looking for buried grain. Finding nothing, since there was nothing left, they entered the house as the family sat down to a dinner of potatoes - the only food left. Cursing, they took all the potatoes from the house, even the cooked ones from the table, and carried them to the cart outside. Then they started looking for hidden food in the house. They found none. As they were about to leave, the "activist" noticed that the three-year-old daughter, clinging to her mother's skirts, clutched in her hand a potato from dinner. The "activist" grabbed this last piece of food from the child's hand, threw it to the ground and crushed it with his boot" ("Literaturna Ukraina" (Kiev) 1988, No.45)

Third, survivors, eye-witnesses, and some writers do not hesitate to refer to the tragedy as "man-made famine", "artificial famine", "extermination by starvation" or even" genocide". Thus, V. Pakharenko, commenting on the fact that the famine also touched some regions of Russia and Kazakhstan points out that, "the uniqueness of our [Ukrainian] tragedy lies only in this, that the social-class genocide coincided in Ukraine with the cultural-national [genocide]" (Ibid.)

It would be ludicrous for anyone in the Soviet Union today to pretend that the famine never existed. But this was not the case in the past. Until Gorbachev's glasnost became more firmly entrenched, the subject remained taboo as the Soviet regime tried to keep this most atrocious of Stalin's crimes a secret, both at home and abroad. Soviet citizens who dared speak of the famine were repressed while critical foreigners were denounced as anti-Soviet Fascists. As a result, in place of the famine, Soviet histography was left with just another "blank spot".

In the West, the Ukrainian famine was well known at the time of its occurrence, both to the Moscow based Western press and the Western governments. The documents of the British Foreign Office recently opened to the public reveal that the British and the Canadian govemments were very well informed about the tragedy, but preferred to ignore it. Malcolm Muggeridge and other honest reporters published accurate accounts in papers willing to print them.

But Western apologists of Stalinism disputed authentic reporting on the Ukrainian famine. The most notorious among them was Walter Duranty of the "New York Times" who in private conversations allowed that as many as 10,000,000 people may have died from the famine, but in public called the famine a fabrication. Militant famine denial was continued into the Brezhnev and early post-Brezhnev era. In 1983, Podakin, secretary of the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa, called the famine a myth, and this charge was repeated the following year in a pamphlet emanating from the Manitoba Students Movement (Marxist-Leninist).

In the most recent years the old tradition of genocide denial was picked up and updated by Jeff Coplon of the "Village Voice" and the "jack of all trades", Douglas Tottle. It is to these luminaries, whose "penetrating" studies remind us of Holocaust deniers (A.R. Butz. "The Hoax of the Twentieth Century," and others) that Donne Flanagan of the Canadian University Press chose for inspiration.

In his article, "The Ukraine Famine: Fact or Fiction" (The Link, Nov.22) Donne Flanagan confuses three interrelated but distinct issues with regard to the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33: a) the historicity of the event, b) its classification as genocide, and c) the use of photographic documentation. Let us examine the three issues. The historicity of the famine is so obvious today that no one in his right mind would challenge it. Even Coplon and Tottle admit that the famine did take place. The article's title "The Ukraine Famine: Fact or Fiction" can thus only be the result of stupidity or inattention.

Can the famine legitimately be qualified as genocide? Michael R. Marrus, professor of at the University of Toronto, and the author of The Holocaust in History, in his foreword to "The Foreign Office and the Famine: British Documents on Ukraine and the Great Famine of 1932-33," comes to the conclusion that the evidence presented by the British documents suggests that there was a genocidal attack upon Ukrainians.

Leo Kruper, professor emeritus at the UCLA, author of "Genocide," a pioneer work on the subject, writes in his latest work, "The Prevention of Genocide," about the "many millions who died in the Soviet man-made famine of 1932-33." Kuper accepts the argument that "this artificially induced famine was in fact an act of genocide, designed... to undermine the social basis of a Ukrainian national resistance." (p 150)

We can see from the above discussion that the Ukrainian famine is now accepted as genocide by a growing number of Soviet citizens (including members of the Communist Party) and serious scholars in the West. People who only a few years ago refused to publicly recognize the famine as genocide, because of the fear of repression (Soviet Union) or due to lingering doubts left by lack of readily available documentation (west) are now more open to the genocide theory. As new evidence becomes available with further publication of Soviet sources, the opposition to the famine-genocide concept diminishes.

The reader will have noted that up to this point no mention was made of the famine photographs. We do not need the photographs to prove the historicity of the famine; nor does the interpretation of the genocidal nature of the man-made calamity depend on them. The photographs constitute just one element in the documentary stock, and as such they are best used in conjunction with other documents. It is basically dishonest to suggest, as do Coplon, Tottle and Flanagan, that the whole issue of famine-genocide hinges on the photographs.

One last point needs to be clarified about the photographs of the famine of 1921-23, and the tragedy they portray. Tottle's basic argument comes down to the following claim: the film maker's use of photographs depicting a natural famine of 1921-22 in Russia was to prove the existence of an alleged man-made famine of 1932-33 in Ukraine. Were this claim true, Tottle would have a case, but he is wrong on several counts.

First, there was a famine in Ukraine which lasted from 1921 to 1923 (and not 1922), and most of the photographs in the film were from this famine in Ukraine and not from the concomitant Russian disaster.

Second, the Ukrainian famine of 1921-23 was also man-made. In spite of the drought in its southern provinces, Ukraine had enough grain to feed its entire population, but on the condition that this food be kept in the country and not exported. Soviet authorities removed from Ukraine several times the amount of foodstuffs necessary to feed the 1.5 to 2 million people who died in the country from starvation. The first year of the famine, Ukraine grain was sent to Russia to feed the Russian cities and the famished population along the Volga; the second year Ukrainian grain was sold in Western Europe. Aid offered by foreign countries was accepted immediately for the Volga but it was let into Ukraine only eight months later.

Since both famines in Ukraine were manmade, it was quite legitimate to use the photographs from the famine of the 1920s as well as those from the 1930s. The weakness of the film lies not in using these photographs but in not sufficiently explaining and stressing the first famine. This, however, has no bearing on the authenticity of tile famine-genocide of the 1930s. To suggest the opposite, as Coplon, Tottle and Flanagan do, is to display a complete lack of intellectual integrity.

For an article written by a bureau chief of the Canadian University Press, "Famine: Fact of Fiction" is a disappointment. What at first sight appears to be an objective piece of investigative journalism turns out to be nothing more than a slick bit of propaganda for genocide-denial. Discussing a historical event, Flanagan falls back on the opinions of professors of mathematics, statistics, and cinematography; there isn't one historian in the lot! Rehashing dated discussions, he ignores the latest literature on the subject, the documents which have been published in Canada, the United States and the Soviet Union. What educational purpose can such journalism serve?

By Dr. Roman Serbyn, Professor of Russian and East European History University of Quebec, Montreal, Canada
The Link student newspaper, Concordia University Montreal, Quebec, Canada
December 5, 1988,