The Great Famine-Genocide in Soviet Ukraine (Holodomor)


COMMENTARY by Dr. Bohdan Vitvitsky
The Ukrainian Weekly, The Ukrainian National Association
Parsippany, New Jersey, Sunday, April 6, 2003


Dr. Vitvitsky's remarks below are a slightly revised version of remarks first appearing in Ukraine List 196 that were prompted by Mikhail Molchanov' s comments, directed to Peter Rutland and appearing in Ukraine List 193, about the Famine and related issues, and by one remark by Peter Rutland, directed to Molchanov in Ukraine List 194, in which he refers to "Ukrainian nationalists." The Molchanov-Rutland exchange arose in connection with Prof. Rutland's review of Dr. Molchanov's book "Political Culture and National Identity in Russian-Ukrainian Relations." In his response to the review, Molchanov made some of the following types of statements: "Regarding genocidal myth, I have yet to see the proof of the claim that the Famine 1933 was driven specifically by the party's desire to eliminate ethnic Ukrainians. That is what I characterize as myth, not the fact that millions died as a result of collectivization policies." "People were dying in ethnic Russian heartland as well, en masse. Ukrainian nationalist myth does not mention these 'details.' I sees Ukrainian suffering at the Russian hands, not Russian suffering from the hands of Russian (and Ukrainian) compatriots. The nationalist myth also glosses over the fact that 'genocidal' policies were executed by the local cadres, i.e., primarily by the Ukrainian party activists, on Moscow's command, of course."


Regarding the Famine and the question of evidence of it being a genocidal act, let me ask you to contemplate the following: A man is missing. He is missing because he lies bleeding of wounds in the home of a man known to be a sociopathic hit man for the mob, and someone who has more than a dozen murders to his credit. A woman in the yard next door hears what seems to sound like cries and moans for help; she knocks on the hit man's door. He tells her she misinterpreted his cat's cries and sends her away. The body is buried in the back yard, and for years the hit man disclaims any knowledge as to the fate of the missing man. Then, finally, the body is discovered and the police also find out that the hit man had a bitter and longstanding animosity towards the missing man.

The hit man's "dream team" lawyers will argue that there's no direct evidence of any homicide. No one saw the stabbing. The knife was never found. There is no evidence that the hit man ever told anyone he was going to kill the missing man. Then they will argue that even if the missing man was killed on the premises, it could have been by someone else. Then, even if the hit man had plunged the knife into the missing man, it was accidental-he was waiving it around in a state of agitation and accidentally caused the stabbing. And lastly, even if it was not accidental, it was in self-defense because the missing man was threatening the hit man in the latter's own home!

Want to know what would happen? On the above facts, the hit man would be charged and tried. At trial the prosecution would put together the jigsaw puzzle of circumstantial evidence as outlined above regarding who the hit man was, his animosity towards the missing man, where the missing man was found, the neighboring woman's offer of help, etc. Then the judge would give the jury the standard instructions about how they are instructed to use their common sense and to apply their life experiences in interpreting the evidence, and he would instruct them that circumstantial evidence is just as valid as direct evidence. The judge would also instruct the jury that to convict, they must find guilt NOT beyond all possible doubt, but beyond all REASONABLE doubt. In all likelihood, the jury would convict, except, of course, if one of the jurors were someone like Mr. Molchanov.

Were Stalin and the Soviet Communists mass murderers? Did the Russians have a longstanding pathological hatred and fear of any manifestation of national normalcy by Ukrainians? Did they not in 1708 massacre some 15,000 women, children and any and all other living beings at Baturyn merely because Mazepa's headquarters had been at Baturyn? Did they not in the 19th century send Shevchenko beyond the Urals for his highly threatening act of writing patriotic Ukrainian verse? Did they not in that century proclaim that the Ukrainian language had never existed, did not then exist and never would exist? And, did they not ban the use of the Ukrainian in publications and other contexts?

Of course by the time the Bolsheviks were taking over power, the level of Russian affection for Ukrainians was surging! That's why during the period 1917-19, Volodymyr Zatonskiy reported that hatred of anything Ukrainian on the part of the Russian Communists and Russian proletariat in Ukraine was so great that he was almost shot by Bolshevik soldiers merely because he had had a Ukrainian language publication in his pocket, even though the publication was a Communist one. One could go on and on, but I trust that is unnecessary.

Was the Famine part of a genocidal campaign against Ukrainians? To answer that question, you need to look at a number of different types of factors and issues. They include: first, what are the facts relating to what happened? E.g., did people die? Did they die of famine? How many? Was food taken from them? Were they prevented from leaving their villages to search for food by a system of internal passports that had been imposed at about the same time as the Famine? Did the Soviets sell grain at the same time people were dying of Famine? Were offers of assistance made by those outside the Soviet Union and rejected? Did the Soviets lie about the Famine? Etc.

Second, what was the vertical context in which the Famine occurred? That is, what was the previous historical context of relations and attitudes between the Russians, and to some extent the Jews, on the one hand and the Ukrainians on the other hand during the decades and centuries preceding the event? And what happened during the decades after the event? In the criminal law, the analogous concepts are "prior" and "subsequent bad acts."

Third, what was the horizontal context of the Famine? That is, what were the political and economic climates, and what were the "nationalities" policies and practices in the Soviet Union during the years immediately preceding and succeeding the event? And fourth, what are the appropriate conceptual categorizations applicable to the event at issue?

Regarding the facts: millions of Ukrainian peasants died over many months in 1932-33 because their foodstuffs were forcibly taken from them by the Communists. They were prevented from searching for food elsewhere by an internal passport system imposed at about the same time. Offers of help from outside the Soviet Union were rejected and the occurrence of the Famine was denied. The cities, which were principally Russian and Jewish, did not suffer famine. The countryside, which was predominantly Ukrainian, did.

Molchanov seems to think that because others than Ukrainians died during the Famine, it wasn't a genocidal act, and that, purportedly, "[p]eople were dying in [the] Russian heartland as well." Really? Where? But more importantly, that's like saying that since not only Jews were the objects of Nazi German racist and murderous actions and policies-- given that Gypsies, Slavs, German Communists, political opponents and the mentally retarded were incarcerated and/or killed--the war against the Jews wasn't really based on anti-Semitism.

Also, some, perhaps not Molchanov explicitly, seem to think that to show that the Famine was part of a genocidal campaign, one would have to show that the Famine was planned in advance and thus staged. That's like saying that since there's no evidence that the Nazis started WW II in order to be able to go after the Jews, the fact that the war allowed them, e.g., to force Jews into various centralized locations such as ghettos and then the camps, or that it allowed the Germans to send Einsatzgroupen into the Soviet Union might simply demonstrate perceived or misperceived dangers on the part of the Germans.

Further, note that, as a matter of fact, there is no evidence that the Nazis had planned or intended at all times to kill the Jews of Europe. The Nazis certainly made it plain that they wanted to eliminate the Jews from Europe, but there was a time when, e.g., they were looking into the possibility of mass resettlement of Jews out of Europe to, e.g., Madagascar. There's also no evidence that Hitler himself ever explicitly directed his people to exterminate the Jews, much less that he ever visited, knew or spoke about the camps. Someone could, hypothetically, argue that since there is no direct evidence in terms of an order or a even suggestion by Hitler regarding what should be done with or to the Jews, and although he certainly wasn't fond of them (as expressed in Mein Kampf), he didn't really intend that all the Jews of Europe be killed and that, perhaps, the camps were a huge and tragic misunderstanding by his underlings caused by the exigencies of war.

On the odd chance that any of this regarding Hitler's personal intent were true, would it make any difference at all as regards our understanding of what the Nazis did to the Jews. That is, would we think that the Nazis's actions against the Jew during the Holocaust were not a genocidal action? Of course not. Why not? Because the convergence of the fact of the millions of victims with the context in which those who killed them did so provides overwhelming circumstantial evidence of genocidal action. As it does with regards to the Famine, even if there is no known direct order from Stalin, and even if there really were unplanned grain shortages. It is na´ve to think of genocidal actions as though they were like political assassinations or mob hits. The Wansee Conference aside, given how late in the day it was, genocidal actions do not involve people sitting around a table discussing in advance the political and tactical pros and cons, follow ed by design of a plan and finally by the execution of the plan. Genocidal actions occur when opportunity meets predisposition and attitudes. So again, did the Nazis plan WW II in order to have cover to eliminate the Jews? Did the Soviets plan a grain shortage in order to strike at the Ukrainians? Does it matter? No. Each seized the opportunities presented by war or grain shortages to further their respective political/ideological goals and to act on certain deep-seated animosities and fears. Again, where in criminal matters knowledge and intent are the issues, they are determined in the overwhelming majority of cases on the basis of circumstantial, not direct, evidence.

If the Famine was part of a genocidal campaign, what was the object of the campaign? The physical elimination of all persons of Ukrainian ancestry? No. The object was the prevention/elimination of Ukrainian nationhood. The object was the simultaneous beheading and castration of the Ukrainian nation so as to turn its remnants into a kind of identity-less lumpen that could then be molded to serve the empire's needs and interests, and so that it would not have any idea that it might have an identity or needs and interests different from those of the empire. Think I'm kidding? Go to Ukraine and tell me why, alone among all other nations in the area, Ukraine' s "leadership" has no concept of Ukrainian national interests. And tell me why, again alone among all of the nations in the area, Ukraine's "leadership" exhibits little inclination to advance or protect the indigenous language and cultural heritage. Or why, in contrast to what our Russian or Polish friends know about their respective histories, Ukrainians know little of their history, and much of what they know is grotesquely distorted?

What is the evidence of the genocidal campaign, in addition, of course, to the millions of bodies? That's where the vertical and horizontal contexts come into play. Regarding the vertical: I've already mentioned some of the historical context above. Further examples can fill a book: the Russo-Sovs destroyed any and all vestiges of genuinely Ukrainian civil society and Ukrainian leadership, whether Communist or not. They destroyed Ukraine's culture makers as well as her repositories of historical memory. Stalin gathered together, purportedly for a convention, and then murdered all of the blind Ukrainian kobzari who had assembled.

And what happened after the Famine? The continuation of the same policies, except perhaps somewhat expanded in reach. Ukrainian political leaders of even Galician Ukrainian organizations were assassinated, and then even when such were living in Western Europe (Konovalets, Rotterdam, 1938). When the Soviets took control of Galicia in the 1940's, they killed or sent to Siberia anyone suspected of being a nationally conscious Ukrainian, no matter how non-political he/she may have been. My father's former colleagues at the L'viv Conservatory, even a 70-year old composer who had never had a political though in his head, were all sent to Siberia. Even after Stalin died, nothing changed as regards policies. Petro Shelest, Ukraine's First Party Secretary from 1963, was deposed by Moscow in 1972 because the foolish Shelest had the gall to think it was possible to defend Ukrainian interests vis-a-vis Moscow and try to be something resembling a "national Communist." As late as 1979, popular Ukrainian folk singers who dared to write and sing songs that were patriotic even in a veiled way were simply murdered (Volodymyr Ivasiuk). The same thing happened to patriotic Ukrainian poets as late as 1986 (Vasyl Stus).

A sampling of the policies and practices that pre-dated and post-dated the Famine include: mass population transfers of Russians into Ukraine and Ukrainians out of Ukraine. And, the Orwellian manipulations of history--so as to extol the Russians and denigrate the Ukrainians and make Ukrainians wholly ignorant of their own history, culture and language, to the point of changing the Ukrainian alphabet so that it would be the same as the Russian.

Let me add a personal note. My cousin's wife's father was a popular principal and teacher of Ukrainian literature and history in a village high school in central Ukraine. He also started a literary club at the school. In October of 1929 he was arrested. In February of 1930 he was executed in Kharkiv. The students in his Ukrainian literary club were all sent to Siberia. Incidentally, the large majority of the "investigators," "prosecutors" and "judges" were Jewish. But more importantly, I've never heard of any teacher of Russian literature being killed merely for doing his job too well.

Molchanov makes the point that "'genocidal' policies were executed by the local cadres, i.e., by the Ukrainian party activists, [albeit] on Moscow's command." First, it is my understanding that up through WW II, most of the genocidal policies against the Ukrainians were executed by Russians, Jews and others. But the existence of Ukrainian cooperators proves what? There were Judenrate (Jewish councils) in the Jewish ghettos that cooperated/collaborated with the Nazis, and there were Jewish kapos in the concentration camps. That somehow makes the German Nazis less culpable?

What about the horizontal context? Given that at about the same time the Famine was taking place, the Soviets had just destroyed or were in the process of destroying anyone or anything with Ukrainian content or who sought to defend Ukrainian political, cultural or linguistic interests or rights, the answer is pretty obvious. The Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church was destroyed. The political, scientific and cultural elites were all destroyed. Galician Ukrainian patriots who had come east to help built a Soviet Ukraine, including my aunt, were destroyed. And, in the 1930's, Stalin ordered that toady of every regime in Moscow, the Russian Orthodox Church, to resume the anathematizing of Ivan Mazepa during church services (which anathematizing had ceased in 1918). Yet another recitation of the mantra that Ukrainians didn't exist, don't exist (except as sharivari wearing, vodka drinking and hopak-dancing caricatures to be trotted out, a la the Theresienstadt orchestra during the Nazis, to amuse the keepers and impress occasional foreigners) and wouldn't exist.

Fourth, as to the applicable conceptual scheme: genocide is defined as the partial or total destruction of a nation. That the Famine was part, albeit the most physically devastating part, of the long genocidal campaign against the Ukrainians is, on all of the available evidence, a no brainer.

Molchanov also speaks about what he refers to as one or another opinion constituting Ukrainian "nationalist myth." Regarding the allegation of "myth," and as a general proposition, that is a rather comical comment in light of the Russians' centuries-long proclivity not merely for one big lie, but several. But specifically as regards Molchanov, if he thinks some specific view or claim advanced by someone to be mistaken, he is certainly entitled so to state and to buttress argument with fact or argument. But it would befit Molchanov, a Russian or Russofile, out of a sense of decency to avoid such nonsense for the same reasons that Germans do so with regards to the Jews.

Both Peter Rutland and Molchanov refer to "Ukrainian nationalist" this or that. What does that imposed moniker mean? I don't think that Rutland or Molchanov are referring to the views of members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists in the 1930's or 40's. So what are they referring to? (As an aside, pray tell, why is it that someone who seeks to defend the rights of Ukrainians to the same national prerogatives that the Russians, Poles, French or Americans assume is their birthright is a "Ukrainian nationalist"? Is it because some people assume that the national rights of Ukrainians are inferior to those of all others?) Let's just stick to facts, reasonable inferences and arguments, and let's leave impliedly deprecating monikers at the side of the road.

Lastly, Molchanov suggests a kind of moral equivalence between Russians and Ukrainians, and that, purportedly, the Russians suffered "from the hands of Russian (and Ukrainian) compatriots" too. Ah, one of the big lies surfaces yet again. Did Kyiv impose communism upon Moscow, or was it the reverse? Did Trotsky's Red Army invade and conquer Moscow from and for Kyiv, or was it the reverse? Was it the Ukrainians who destroyed the Russian Orthodox Church in the 1930's, or was it the reverse? Was it the Russian Orthodox Church that was destroyed by the Ukrainian Catholic Church in 1947, or was it the reverse? Was it nationally conscious Russian historians, poets, singers and high school teachers that were killed by Ukrainians, or was it the reverse? Have some decency man.

The Ukrainian Weekly, Roma Hadzewycz, Editor-in-chief, Ukrainian National Association, Parsippany, New Jersey, Sunday, April 6, 2003, Page 8.
The Ukrainian Weekly Archive and Famine Gallery,
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Editor Dr. Vitvitsky is an attorney, writer, lecturer and teacher who holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and is a long-time contributor to The Ukrainian Weekly. He writes on political, historical and legal subjects.

Under Vitvitsky's leadership, as then president of the Professionals and Businesspersons Association of New York and New Jersey, the Association initiated, developed and funded the first Famine Oral History Project in the early 1980's and engaged Dr. James Mace to carry out the project. Dr. Mace later incorporated the 50 oral histories generated by the first project into the subsequently created U.S. Congressional Famine Oral History Program.