Ukraine: In the Midst of War, Debate Swirls Around Soviet-Era Famine


Even as the conflict with Russian-backed separatists smolders, Kiev has ratcheted up a no less ferocious public relations war. Hoping to bolster its case against Moscow, Ukraine as well as the country’s foreign Diaspora have zeroed in on the so-called Holodomor or Stalinist-induced famine of 1932-33. In an effort to force Ukrainian peasants to join collective farms, Stalin commandeered their grain and other foodstuffs. The result was disastrous as millions of Ukrainians starved and perished. In some regions, the death rate reached one-third of the population with entire villages laid waste.

Within the currently hyper-charged political milieu, the Holodomor has become a source of great controversy. On the one hand, Ukrainians argue that the famine constitutes genocide since the Holodomor targeted ethnic Ukrainians and was a direct result of Stalin’s forced collectivization and massive grain exports. According to historians, the famine reflected Stalin’s drive to stamp out Ukrainian nationalism which had earlier come to the fore during the country’s civil war. Experts believe that Stalin could have spared Ukraine if had he re-directed grain exports to feed the peasants. On the other hand, the Kremlin claims the famine was not organized along strictly ethnic lines. In this version, the Holodomor wasn’t deliberate genocide but rather the simple result of a poor crop season and Soviet inability to harvest grain.

Politicizing the Past

Eager to prosecute the public relations war, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has compared the Holodomor with the current day conflict with Russian-backed separatists. Not surprisingly, Kiev observes the Holodomor every year on November 22, the official day of commemoration. Olga Bielkova, a member of the Ukrainian parliament, has also made historical comparisons between Soviet famine and Putin’s undeclared war. Writing in the Huffington Post, she remarks “a justification offered by Stalin at the time was the need for rapid industrialization at all cost, but what really bothered him about Ukraine was our unbending desire for self-determination.”

Memorial to the Holodomor in Kiev.

Memorial to the Holodomor in Kiev.

The Kremlin, she adds, “is still denying [the] Holodomor. Many Russians influenced by the propaganda pedaled by the state-run TV stations genuinely believe that Ukraine is not an independent state, that [the] breakup of the Soviet Union is a mistake and Putin is the one to correct it, that Ukrainian is not a language but rather a dialect of Russian and that dreams of Ukrainians therefore deserve no attention.”

Not surprisingly, pro-Russian rebels have struck back with their own version of historical events. Within the Donetsk People’s Republic in the east, teachers have been forced to trash their old history textbooks and to teach Ukrainian history in accordance with new guidelines stipulating that the Holodomor wasn’t genocide but rather a “tragedy” which afflicted the entire Soviet Union.

Role of Ukrainian Diaspora

Within such a politically charged environment, the Ukrainian Diaspora has played a key role. Currently, there are more than 20 million Ukrainians living abroad. One large expat community resides in the U.S. and numbers nearly 1 million. In the New York metropolitan area alone, Ukrainians number almost 200,000 people. Canada meanwhile has a very sizable Ukrainian Diaspora community numbering 1.2 million people. Many Ukrainian-Canadians had parents or grandparents who left Ukraine following the Holodomor.

During the recent conflict with Russian-backed separatists, the Ukrainian Diaspora has provided humanitarian relief and even hosted displaced refugees in its own homes. In Chicago, the 2014 Miss Ukrainian Diaspora beauty pageant even offered a certificate for purchasing body armor for Ukrainian soldiers as a grand prize [in the same city, a local Ukrainian museum offers an exhibit about the Holodomor].

Canadian Diaspora and the Holodomor

According to the Globe and Mail, the Ukrainian lobby in Canada is politically powerful and has pressured Ottawa to aid President Poroshenko in Kiev. In contrast to the Ukrainian expat community in the U.S., which focuses on donating clothes and toys for the families of soldiers, the Canadian-Ukrainians provide a greater share of military supplies. Canadian volunteers have bought parts for sniper rifles and tripwire detonators, for example, and have even shipped home-grown surveillance drones to the front.

Not surprisingly perhaps, Canada became the first country to recognize the Holodomor genocide back in 2008. In Winnipeg, one of Canada’s largest centers of the Ukrainian Diaspora, local expats observe “National Holodomor Awareness Week.” Moreover, Ottawa has allotted funds toward an educational project designed to encourage historical awareness about the famine. At the University of Ottawa meanwhile, the Holodomor has assumed current day political significance. Recently, students organized a screening of a film dealing with Stalinist famine. Addressing the audience, one organizer remarked, “Genocide against Ukraine continues today as we speak.”

Holodomor and “Victimization Narratives”

While no one would deny the sheer brutality and suffering inflicted through the Holodomor, some have questioned Ukraine’s incessant victimization mentality. According to John-Paul Himka, a historian at the University of Alberta, Ukrainians have proved to be expertly adept at fostering so-called “victimization narratives.” To be sure, Himka writes, Stalinist-induced famine of the 1930s or other episodes of Ukrainian victimization are perfectly legitimate topics of historical research.

On the other hand, Himka adds, “I object to instrumentalizing this memory with the aim of generating political and moral capital, particularly when it is linked to an exclusion from historical research and reflection of events in which Ukrainians figured as perpetrators not victims, and when ‘our own’ evil is kept invisible and the memory of the others’ dead is not held sacred.”

Himka notes that Ukrainians of the Diaspora latch on to the 1932-33 famine in Soviet Ukraine but “there persists a deafening silence about, as well as reluctance to confront, even well-documented war crimes, such as the mass murder of Poles in Volhynia [during World War II] by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) and the cooperation of the Ukrainian auxiliary police in the execution of the Jews.”

Holodomor vs. Holocaust

To the outside observer, such debates may seem outlandish or even arcane. Yet in the present political context, history has become a flashpoint. Indeed, the Kremlin constantly harks on Ukraine’s World War II record, some of which isn’t particularly flattering. The rise of far right Ukrainian nationalism, which employs Nazi symbolism and insignia, plays into such narratives and hasn’t made Kiev’s public relations efforts any easier.

Himka notes that the Holodomor has taken on practically mythological proportions. “In the diaspora,” he writes, “one frequently encounters a double standard in discussing war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by Ukrainians as opposed to those perpetrated against Ukrainians. Memoirs and eyewitness accounts, for example, are considered untrustworthy evidence for the former, but trustworthy for the latter; that is, Jewish or Polish first-hand accounts of Ukrainian war crimes are dismissed as biased, while an important Ukrainian victimization narrative, the famine of 1932-33, has relied primarily on just such eyewitness accounts.”

Uncovering yet more evidence of double standards, Himka adds “The argument is made that no order has ever been discovered instructing the UPA to kill Polish civilians in Volhynia. On the other hand, that the famine of 1932-33 was the result of deliberate policy is never questioned, even though this too remains without its ‘smoking gun’ (as of course does the Jewish Holocaust). The crimes of Polish police in Nazi service are taken to provide some measure of explanation or justification for the attack on Polish villages in Volhynia, but never do Ukrainian diaspora authors suggest that Ukrainians should be held collectively responsible for the crimes of the Ukrainian police in German service.”

Ukrainian Defensiveness

Taking its historical victimization to soaring new heights, the Ukrainian Diaspora has even opposed the creation of a Canadian museum devoted exclusively to the memory of the Holocaust. No funding should be allotted, organizers argued, unless the museum also agreed to showcase Stalinist oppression of Ukraine and the famine of 1932-33. Meanwhile, some academics have sought to draw a moral equivalence between Jewish-born Communists participating in the Soviet collectivization of agriculture — which subsequently led to the Holodomor — and Ukrainian participation in the Holocaust.

Such contorted debates about victimization were recently placed on vivid display when the Simon Wiesenthal Center criticized Ukrainian legislation which would criminalize the denial of both the Holocaust and the Holodomor. Under the proposed law, guilty offenders would be subject to fines or even imprisonment. One Nazi hunter at the Wiesenthal Center remarked that the legislation would cheapen the memory of Germany’s victims. To compare the Holodomor and the Holocaust, he declared, constituted “a gross distortion of the history of the Holocaust typical of the efforts to equate other tragedies which are not the same as the Holocaust with the crimes of the Nazis.”

Just who has a monopoly on suffering and victimization? Judging from recent developments, Ukraine will spare no effort to press its own historical claims. If Kiev’s war with the Kremlin heats up further, it would not be a surprise if Ukraine and its Diaspora continued to engage in testy debates which are now assuming larger than life importance.


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