The Great Famine-Genocide in Soviet Ukraine (Holodomor)

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HISTORY'S UNDERCURRENTS: THE FAMINE, Stalin, Kulaks, Rev. Kovalenko, Lev Kopelev, Walter Duranty, New York Times and more
  

PERSPECTIVES:
By Andrew Fedynsky
The Ukrainian Weekly
Ukrainian National Association
Parsippany, New Jersey
August 2, 1998

 

The man-made Famine of 1932-1933 in Ukraine may be receding into the ever more distant past, but 65 years after, its legacy remains. It's one of those cataclysms that launched massive undercurrents with profound historical impact. Tragically, it's also an event of cosmic magnitude that barely registered on world consciousness when it occurred and is scarcely remembered today.

Here's what happened: In April 1929, Joseph Stalin ordered the first Five-Year Plan, in which he decreed that Soviet agriculture be collectivized by the end of 1933. For individual farmers that meant turning their land and livestock over to the state and becoming workers on giant collective farms.

Not surprisingly, there was widespread resistance, particularly in Ukraine.

The official press - in the Soviet Union there was no other kind - began denouncing reluctant landowners as "class enemies," "rich kulaks exploiting the masses." That set the stage for Stalin's decree at the end of December 1929 to "liquidate the kulaks as a class." In Ukraine, primarily a peasant society, that was just about everybody. The Russian heartland, with its age-old tradition of the "mir" or commune, had few independent farmers and therefore few "kulaks," as Stalin defined them.

As voluntary collectivization stalled, Stalin turned up the heat with arrests, evictions and confiscations until finally in 1932 he unleashed an army of Communist Party activists who laid siege to thousands of Ukrainian villages, raiding homes, taking every grain of wheat, every scrap of food they could find.

Like many Ukrainian Americans, I've always seemed to have known about the Famine. I'm Catholic, but from time to time I would go to Holy Trinity Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Cleveland, where I heard some memorable sermons delivered by the Rev. Kovalenko about what he had lived through as a boy in Poltava during the Famine. My hair would stand on end. I remember the passion and pain in the Rev. Kovalenko's face, his sermon ending with a warning about the consequences of Godless atheism.

I no longer recall the words themselves, so instead let me quote Lev Kopelev's anguished confession: "In the terrible spring of 1933, I saw people dying from hunger, I saw women and children with distended bellies, turning blue, still breathing but with vacant lifeless eyes. And corpses - corpses in ragged sheepskin coats and cheap felt boots; corpses in peasant huts, in the melting snow of the old Vologda, under the bridges of Kharkiv.

..." Kopelev was one of those, to quote his own words, who went "scouring the countryside, searching for hidden grain, testing the earth with an iron rod for loose spots that might lead to buried grain. With the others, I emptied out the old folks' storage chests, stopping my ears to the children's crying and the women's wails."

Fred Beal, an American Communist whose idealism brought him to work at the Kharkiv Tractor Plant in 1933, was a witness, not a participant. "I watched on the sidelines," he wrote, "ashamed of being a party to the system that was murdering these innocent people ... I had never dreamed that Communists could stoop so low as to round up hungry people, load them upon trucks or trains, and ship them to some wasteland in order that they might die there.

Yet it was a regular practice. I was witnessing myself how human beings were being tossed into the high trucks like sacks of wheat. Right there and then I was determined to make a complete break with the Stalin gang and return to the capitalist world."

No one knows for sure how many people were murdered during that horrible year. As Nikita Khrushchev put it, "No one was keeping count." Robert Conquest, the great historian of the Famine, estimates 7 million victims.

Astonishingly, the press, particularly in Britain and the United States, failed to report the story. No one was more remiss than Walter Duranty, The New York Times correspondent to the Soviet Union. In November 1932, when many people including those from the Ukrainian American community were spreading the alarm about the devastation in Ukraine, he assured his readers that "there is no famine or actual starvation, nor is there likely to be."

In August 1933, after millions had already died, he wrote that "any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda."

The closest Duranty came to acknowledging Stalin's genocidal policy was in a dispatch from March 30, 1933, when he wrote, "There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation, but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition." As far as Duranty was concerned that was okay because, "To put it brutally - you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs." Walter Duranty won the Pulitzer Prize for his series of dispatches from Russia, "especially the working out of the Five-Year Plan."

Did Duranty know better? He sure did. In "The Harvest of Sorrow," Dr. Conquest cites a September 30, 1933, dispatch from the British chargé d'affaires to Moscow: "Mr. Duranty thinks it quite possible that as many as 10 million people may have died directly or indirectly from lack of food in the Soviet Union during the past year." Others reported a similar disconnect between what Duranty knew and what he reported.

So why did he do it? His book from 1937, "I Write As I Please," offers a clue: "Am I wrong in believing that Stalin is the greatest living statesman?" Mass murderers can't be statesmen, so Duranty decided there could be no Famine.

As far as I know, the Pulitzer Prize Committee has never moved to revoke Duranty's prize and The New York Times has never publicly repudiated it or offered to return it.

The Western press is not the only institution that denied the existence of the Famine. So did the Soviet Union - obviously. For more than half a century, any mention of the Famine was punished with a long prison sentence.

Today in Ukraine, people know about the Famine, but it is largely a repressed memory. This affects the national psyche, permitting Communists to run for office without shame or remorse. Unfortunately, their influence on Ukraine's economy is enormous, since the Communist Party constitutes the core of a parliamentary coalition that blocks legislation to dismantle the state-run farms, the Famine's malignant legacy.

These bloated, bureaucratic structures provide the apparatchiks who run them with political patronage and allow them to divert agricultural resources to their own purposes. As a result, Ukraine gets little benefit from her greatest potential asset: agriculture.

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are ready to help Ukraine, with the United States poised to provide political backing, but reforms must be approved first, including the privatization of land.

Vice-President Al Gore delivered that message in Kyiv on July 22, and he was right to do so. There's no point in subsidizing the collective farm system or other wasteful, inefficient Ukrainian institutions.

As for the majority of Ukrainians, they undoubtedly favor land reform, but this is a country where Communists have a 75-year head start on political organization. What the CPU lacks is the vision for a positive program; they only have the means to block change. This cannot be sustained forever.

Today, seven years after declaring independence, Ukraine's problem is spiritual as much as it is political and economic. The country has to confront its past and come to terms with it, the Famine above all. That process has hardly begun.

For such a huge historical event, such an enormous crime as the Famine, surprisingly little scholarly and literary work has been done. Dr. Conquest, obviously, stands out. So does Jim Mace, who directed the U.S. Commission on the Ukraine Famine, as well as Slavko Nowytski who produced the film "Harvest of Despair" and, of course, The Ukrainian Weekly. There's a scattering of other books and materials, but little of recent vintage or mass circulation.

The New York Times could help enormously by acknowledging and fixing Walter Duranty's mendacious work from 65 years ago. Nothing would help more, though, than having Verkhovna Rada approve the privatization of land.

I can't think of a better monument to the victims of the Famine or a more fitting way of telling their descendants - the nation - we're sorry.


Andrew Fedynsky is director of the Ukrainian Museum-Archives in Cleveland, Ohio. Check out their website:  http://www.umacleveland.org/


The Ukrainian Weekly, August 2, 1998, No. 31, Vol. LXVI, Roma Hadzewycz, Editor-in-chief, P. O. Box 280, Parsippany, New Jersey. Published by the Ukrainian National Association.
http://www.ukrweekly.com/Archive/1998/319815.shtml
Check out the above website for their extensive collection of material on the Great Famine and subscribe to The Ukrainian Weekly.


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