The battle over the legacy of the Ukranian famine threatens to divide the country, writes Michael Foley
So often that which politicians hope will unite their countries does exactly the opposite. The legacy of the famines which devasted Ukraine in the 1930s might do just that. Ukraine’s President Viktor Yushchenko is to campaign internationally for the famine, or the Holodomor, as it is called in Ukrainian, that killed possibly as many as 10 million people in 1932-3 to be recognised by the United Nations as genocide. Mr Yushkenko is hoping to complete his task by November, 2008, to mark 75th anniversary of the Holodomor.
In November last year a law was tabled in the Ukrainian parliament in November making it illegal to deny the Holodomor.
The famine of 1932 and 1933 was a man-made one. Unlike, for instance, the Irish Famine of the 1840s, no crops failed. The Holodomor was the result of Stalin’s farm collectivisation programme. When in 1932 the grain harvest did not meet imposed targets, Communist party activists travelled to Ukraine’s villages and confiscated all the grain and bread, and all other foodstuffs, ensuring starvation. Watchtowers were erected in order to make sure no peasants tried to take a few ears of corn.
The confiscations continued into 1933, with devastating results. It is uncertain how many died, and most Ukrainians knew little of the famine due to the extreme secrecy of the Soviet period, but with records now open and historical investigations taking place, it is believed as many as 10 million people may have perished.
The wish for the genocide designation has generated controversy. Russia is raging, and recently extreme Russian nationalists broke up a famine exhibition at a Ukrainian cultural centre in Moscow. President Yushchenko’s enthusiasm for the project is viewed as part of his wish to place Ukraine closer to the EU and distance the country from Russia. Within Ukraine itself two major political groupings, the Communist Party and former primer minister Victor Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions have opposed the proposals for the genocide designation. Both admit the famine took place, but refer to it as a tragedy, and say that Ukraine was not unique in its suffering under Stalin’s regime. President Yushchenko has been accused of politicising the famine.
Russia, and Ukrainians who favour closer relations with Russia, point out that the famine and the starvation affected other parts of the Soviet Union, and that for the Ukrainians to insist it was genocide is to besmirch the memory of others who died.
However, it does now appear that the policy in Ukraine went much further than in other areas. The border was closed, and those Ukranians who attempted to flee the starvations were shot.
Speaking to a group of journalism students at Kiev University recently it was clear where they stood. All agreed the famine was genocide against the Ukrainian people. If it did not affect the people of cities such as Kiev, said one, it was because Stalin knew the heart of Ukrainian culture lay in the villages that he set out to destroy. It was an attempt to destroy not just the people, but the soul and culture of Ukraine, said another.
The student might not be quite correct to see the famine as an attack on rural Ukraine only. Some historians point to the purge of the Communist party within Ukraine, roughly at the same time as being part of the same policy to destroy any vestige of independent Ukraine.
The Kyiv Post newspaper said in a recent editorial: “The campaign within the closed borders of Ukraine was ruthless in its efficiency and organisation and targeted the rural population that was primarily Ukrainian.’ In an article in the same newspaper it was suggested that Russia was afraid that as the successor of the USSR claims could be made against it: ‘These concerns have grounds only if Russia truly views herself not just as a successor, but a continuator of Soviet power.”
One Kiev journalist was somewhat sceptical of the genocide argument and suggested the reason for the brutality of collectivisation within Ukraine was because of its fertility and land-owning customs. This meant it had a greater number of Kulaks or rich peasants than in other areas of the USSR. It was an economic accident rather than genocide which accounted for the brutality within Ukraine. Others use the same argument to point to the difference between Ukraine and the rest of the Soviet Union as one reason for the genocide, so the same argument is being used by both sides.
Western historians are increasingly of the view that it was genocide, rather than a by-product of a disastrous policy. Anna Reid in her work, Borderland: A journey through the History of Ukraine says:
“The most convincing explanation for the famine is that it was a deliberate, genocidal attack on rural Ukraine. The groups the Bolsheviks most hated and feared, and had the most difficulty subduing during he civil war, were the peasants and the non Russian nationalities. The Ukrainian countryside—home to the Soviet Union’s largest and most turbulent ethnic minority and its richest and most self-reliant peasantry—embodied these twin demons in one.”
However, there is little doubt that if people knew little or nothing of the famine only a few years ago, the accounts being published today of what is was like to live through that period are harrowing and traumatic. Stories of whole villages being wiped out, or accounts of cannibalism, of people eating the bark from the trees or grass, have clearly affected the population, and young people are asking questions about the Soviet past.
Victor Yushshenko is not the first president to call for the Holodomor to be designated as genocide. However this latest call, coupled with the president’s pro-western policies, and his wish to join NATO and the EU have all combined to produce a cocktail that has made the Holodomor divisive. The new awareness of the famine was meant to show that Ukrainians suffered equally under Stalin because they were Ukrainians. It mattered not if you were a Russian speaker from the east or a Ukrainian speaker from the west, you suffered simply because you were Ukrainians. Ukrainians suffered specifically because they were Ukrainians, and not simply because of a misguided and tragic general policy of collectivisation.
The Ukrainian parliament has twice voted to condemn the famine as genocide. On both occasions the vote was passed with only a slim majority, a fact that somewhat undermines the call for an international recognition of genocide.
Fifteen countries have recognised the famine as genocide: They include the US, the Vatican City, Italy, Belgium as well as near neighbours, and former communist countries, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, Georgia and Azerbaijan.
Michael Foley is director of the MA in International Journalism at the Dublin Institute of Technology and was a consultant on a BBC-led project at the Institute of Journalism at Kiev University