The Great Famine-Genocide in Soviet Ukraine (Holodomor)

Seventy years after the 1932-33 famine, Ukraine's government campaigns for the famine to be recognized as an act of genocide--but still refuses to declare an annual day of mourning

By Yuriy Shafarenko, From Transition on Line
Prague, Czech Republic, Nov. 25-Dec. 1, 2003


KIEV, Ukraine--The 70th anniversary of one of the worst events in 20th-century history, the famines of 1932-33, passed unnoticed by many Ukrainians.

Although estimates of the number of deaths in Soviet Ukraine run from 7 to 10 million, Ukraine has no annual day of mourning and, on the 70th anniversary, 22 November, only a few events were organized. The government put on several concerts, but the main event--an outdoor candle-lighting ceremony--was arranged by the leading opposition party, Our Ukraine.

Only 2,000 Ukrainians attended. The ceremony received scant coverage on the evening television news, and very little publicity beforehand.

Almost immediately, the leader the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, Lyubomyr Huzar, wrote a letter to Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, criticizing the government for not paying sufficient respect to the millions of victims of the famine.

He also condemned the government for not attending the candle-lighting ceremony in larger numbers. Yanukovych, Parliamentary Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn, and the mayor of Kiev, Oleksandr Omelchenko, were the only senior officials at the service. President Leonid Kuchma sent a wreath, but was unable to attend because he was in hospital, recovering from surgery.

Cardinal Huzar believed that representatives from each region, each party, and major state organizations should have been present.

"Everyday problems were more important for the authorities that the commemoration," Huzar wrote.


The low-key, low-profile nature of the commemoration contrasts with efforts by the Ukrainian government to persuade the international community to consider the famine an act of genocide against Ukrainians.

In February, Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, held special hearings about the famine. These resulted, on 15 May, in a statement to the nation that that the famine was genocide, and "a terrorist action of the political system of Stalinism."

Although many details are debated, the famine began in 1932 after Stalin raised the quota that Ukraine was required to give to the central authorities by 44 percent. Since the farms had been collectivized, and Soviet law said that the collective farms could not dole out grain to its farmers before the government's quota was filled, millions of peasants began to starve. The OGPU (a predecessor of the KGB), the police, and the army were ordered to hunt down anyone hoarding grain--eventually confiscating even seed grain from the peasants. Any peasant caught taking grain from a collective farm could be arrested or executed. A system of internal passports was instituted, so that the starving peasants could not leave their villages to search for food in other parts of Ukraine.

In September, Kuchma called on the United Nations to acknowledge the holodomor, as the famine is known in Ukraine, as genocide. On 11 November, roughly 30 delegations at the UN signed a resolution calling the famine "a national tragedy for the Ukrainian people" that "took 7 to 10 millions of innocent lives."

However, they did not call it a genocide. Ukraine's special envoy to the UN, Natalya Zarudna, says there are ongoing consultations in the UN about how to designate the famine.

A decision "should not be made on the emotional level, because it demands the thorough work of the historians, lawyers, diplomats, and archive specialists in order for the UN to grant the holodomor the status of genocide," stated Zarudna.

The first country to call the famine of 1932-33 "genocide" was the United States, in 1988.

Roman Krutsyk, a former member of parliament and now head of the Kiev-based Memorial Society, believes that the government's campaign is only the result of pressure from the Ukrainian diaspora and Ukrainian nationalist groups.

He sees this year's lackluster commemorations evidence of government's reluctance to recognize what was the most devastating period in Ukraine's bloody 20th-century history. The authorities "cared much more about the 'Year of Russia' in Ukraine than about the commemoration of the holodomor," he stated.

Krutsyk, whose organization tries to document Soviet crimes, is himself convinced that the famine was genocide, saying, "The famine in Ukraine in 1932-33 is one of the biggest tragedies in world history." But, he continues, "unfortunately, there are too many obstacles in the way for the famine to given the status of genocide."


Another view is that the famine was a violation of human rights, and not specifically targeted at Ukrainians. This was the view adopted by Russian President Vladimir Putin when he spoke at the UN about the famine. It was, he said, a "national tragedy" for Ukraine. He also mentioned "millions of people in the Volga region, in North Caucasus and other regions of Russia who died" during the collectivization of the 1930s.

While Putin accepts that that the famine was man-made, Russia's ambassador to Ukraine, Viktor Chernomyrdin, told journalists that Russia would not apologize for the holodomor. Some Ukrainians have been pushing for an apology, on the grounds that Russia is the officially recognized successor of the Soviet Union.

Ukraine's Communists have refused to accept that the famine, which killed up to a quarter of the Ukrainian population, was not a natural disaster. The party walked out of the Verkhovna Rada in May when parliament was discussing whether the Stalinist policy amounted to genocide.

An opinion poll compiled in November suggested that most Ukrainians believe the famine was deliberate. The poll, which was organized by the UNIAN news agency, found that 4.8 percent of Kievans believe that the holodomor was designed to force peasants join collective farms, while 6.1 percent said it was intended to eradicate wealthy peasants. In total, 27.5 percent said the famine was an attempt to annihilate the Ukrainian nation. Another 45.5 percent said the Soviet leadership had deliberately created the famine, but ascribed different motivations to Stalin and other Soviet leaders.

Campaigners suffered another setback on 21 November, when the committee that awards the Pulitzer prize for journalism refused to revoke a prize awarded in 1932 to Walter Duranty, a New York Times journalist who has been accused of deliberately ignoring the famine. An admirer of Stalin, Duranty said reports about the famines were lies--although he reportedly told a British diplomat that he believed the famine may have cost 10 million lives.


The task of uncovering the full truth about the period of collectivization in Ukraine began after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Even after Ukraine gained independence, many documents from the period continued to be treated as official secrets. Experts are still finding new material, mostly in the regions. According to Krutsyk, these newly uncovered documents indicate that the final death-toll of the famine may be more than 10 million.

Survivors of the holodomor also tend to be reluctant to talk, perhaps because of the horror of those years. By the time the famine ended, up to a quarter of the Ukrainian population had died. Reports of cannibalism are common.

However, the effects live on in many families. Opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, who gave the keynote speech at the candle-lighting ceremony, recalled that because of the famine, his mother "still keeps several bags of dry bread at home. I can't persuade her not to."

Yushchenko's paternal grandfather, Ivan, died in the famine, along with 600 others in their village.

Special church services were held across the country, and NGOs organized events in various parts of the country. In five cities (Kiev, Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Lviv), the Union of Ukrainian Humanists of Ukraine gave people the chance to try a special bread, made from a recipe by a survivor of the famine. The flour was of the worst quality, mixed in with a few herbs.

However, some Ukrainians argue that the tragedy requires more formal, state recognition. They are calling for a Day of Mourning.

They appear to be some way ahead of public opinion. Only 16.6 percent of those polled by UNIAN felt a national day of mourning should be established. A full 25 percent argued that the 70th anniversary should not be commemorated at all.

Ukraine has more than the famine of 1932-33 to mourn. Between 1921 and 1923, between 1.5 and 2 million starved to death. In 1946-47, famine killed another 2 million.