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Holodomor 2018: the public and the scholars

The debate on the extent and nature of the Soviet famine in pre-war Ukraine, continues to engage researchers from both Ukraine and the West.

December 10, 2018 - David Marples - Articles and Commentary

Kharkiv Holodomor memorial complex Photo: U.S. Embassy Kyiv Ukraine (cc)

On November 20, I went to Kyiv to attend the international forum “Ukraine Remembers, the World Acknowledges,” organised by the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance (November 22-24). The event included scholars, officials, the Ukrainian Diaspora (mostly from Canada), and a large number of students and schoolchildren. It took place to coincide with the official 85th anniversary commemoration of the Holodomor, the Ukrainian Famine of 1933.

The Holodomor has been in the Western public eye since 1983, and has undergone many interpretations and metamorphoses. Denied by the Soviet government until late 1987, it has become, through the work of three Ukrainian presidencies (those of Kravchuk, Kuchma, and especially Yushchenko) the defining event of Ukrainian national statehood, recognised by Ukraine and 21 other countries as an act of Genocide by the Stalin regime of the Soviet Union against Ukraine, either a nation or as an ethnic group.

In Kyiv there are two memorial sites, the monument of Mykhailivska Square and the National Museum “Memorial of Remembrance to the Victims of the Holodomor in Ukraine” opened by Viktor Yushchenko in 2008. Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko visited both on November 24, with a minute of silence held at 4pm on that day, and Ukraine residents encouraged to “light a candle” in their windows, a custom inaugurated by the late US scholar James E. Mace (1952-2004). There are at least six other memorials in Canada, and in several other countries.

Poroshenko linked the commemoration to contemporary events when he stated “The army protects our land, while memory protects our past and opens the way to the future. We remember. We’re strong. We’ll never allow the horrors of the Holodomor and other crimes of communist totalitarianism to be repeated.”

Why it remains a contentious issue today

Despite the enormity of the event, there is no consensus on key issues, which is reflected in the relatively low recognition by world states: the figure of 22 represents about one-eighth of world states and an infinitesimal percentage of the world’s population, given that countries like India, China, and India are not among the signatories. Nor for that matter are large European countries such as Germany, France, and the United Kingdom.

The first debated issue is perhaps the definition of Genocide, though Ukraine’s adherence to the 1948 definition by Rafael Lemkin, as adopted by the UN, renders that debate somewhat obsolete given its broadness and applicability to many crimes committed in the 20th century. Speakers at the conference referred to Genocide as “the crime of all the crimes,” and a senior Ukrainian scholar, Stanislav Kulchytsky, who presented a report, was cited by Volodymyr Vasylenko of the Kyiv Mohyla Academy as making a distinction between residents rather than citizens of Ukraine to comply with the UN definition. In short, the authorities targeted peasants as Ukrainians, not citizens.

Yevhen Zakharov, a member of the International Memorial Society, considered that Vasylenko’s interpretation was inaccurate because it makes a distinction between Ukrainians and other minorities, which are considered victims of “annihilation” rather than Genocide. In his view, the Holodomor dates from November 1932 to September 1933, as the earlier period was less traumatic, and respective of ethnic background, all groups should be considered victims. He would also add to the general picture the campaign against kulaks and the churches, and deportations of village populations.

The most contentious issue, however, which virtually all speakers agreed should not be limiting the commemorations, is the number of victims. As the conference demonstrated, there is a significant difference in the total used by much of the Diaspora and that generally accepted by most scholars. While none dispute the horror of the mass starvation, the community tends to ignore or condemn the conclusions of scholars, demographers in particular.

For example, the General Secretary of the World Congress of Ukrainians (whose annual meeting was being held the following week in Kyiv), Stefan Romaniw, after saying that the 85th anniversary was not the time to argue about numbers, then proceeded to do exactly that. He noted that the WCU has used “7 million or more” since 2008 and that “we do not accept the 3.9 million number.” He was particularly incensed at Australian scholar Stephen Wheatcroft, co-author of perhaps the most influential book to date on the famine. Ivan Vasiunyk, Co-Chair of the Public Committee to commemorate the victims of the Holodomor-Genocide of 1932-1933 in Ukraine,” also spoke of the “dubious 3.9 million figure.”

One of the scholars who came up with the total of 3.9 million victims in Ukraine, Oleh Wolowyna of the University of North Carolina, came under fire from Myroslava Antonovych of the Law School of Kyiv Mohyla Academy. She maintained that information obtained from archives in Moscow, which Wolowyna and others cited, was unreliable. Bohdan Futey, a retired US attorney and judge who was born in Ukraine, followed suit.

Recent scholarly findings

Without doubt their views will be disseminated much more widely than Dr. Wolowyna’s in North America and Ukraine, but without the same scholarly grounding. Wolowyna and his co-authors pointed out in their 2015 article in Canadian Studies in Population that the largest proportional population losses were in Kazakhstan, followed by Ukraine, and Russia (including the Kuban with a Ukrainian majority). These figures are complicated further by the fact that Kazakhstan at that time was an autonomous unit of the Russian Federation. They dismiss the figure of 10 million as based on anecdotal sources.

One of these authors, Natalia Levchuk (Institute for Demography and Social Studies at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine), a Visiting Fellow of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University, which has conducted some of the most ground-breaking research on the Holodomor, particularly through digital surveys, commented at the Forum in Kyiv that the 3.9 million figure comprised direct losses between 1932 and 1934, encompassing 13 per cent of the Ukrainian population, and 16 per cent of rural population. The greatest losses were not in the traditional grain growing regions, but in the northern Kyiv and Kharkiv oblasts, where losses in rural regions approached one quarter of the population. Odesa and Vinnytsia were the second most affected, and Donetsk and Chernihiv less so. Anne Applebaum in Red Famine (p281) reaches the same conclusions and uses the same years.

Numbers and nationhood

Unfortunately, there is no clear consensus among Ukrainian academicians on Holodomor losses. On the same topic of numbers, in the question period of the morning session of November 23, Volodymyr Serhiichuk, a professor at the Taras Shevchenko University in Kyiv, got into a shouting match with Moderator Volodymyr Viatrovych (Director of UINM), whom he accused of inconsistencies when citing the death tolls. Viatrovych denied that he had been inconsistent. But the pattern was the same: for some, no denials of the higher figures can be acceptable because they appear to undermine the significance of the mass starvation. The comparison with the Holocaust was made frequently, though many speakers noted that the two events do not lend themselves well to analogy.

The community view is largely embraced by the Ukrainian political leadership (and as noted some of the Ukrainian scholar community). Viacheslav Kyrylenko, Vice Prime Minister of Ukraine, declared that Ukraine was defending “the whole world” from Russian aggression and Russia’s goal was to destroy Ukrainian national identity. Peasants wished “to be their own landlords” so Moscow made the decision “to destroy the Ukrainian nation through hunger and famine.” OUN and UPA had stemmed this campaign, and after their repression, the Ukrainian dissident movement of the 1960s and 70s continued the struggle. As the USSR began to decline, the mantle fell on the Ukrainian independence movement, and after independence it was taken up by the “Revolution of National Dignity.”

Bohdan Nahaylo, former Director of the Ukrainian Service of Radio Liberty, outlined the lengthy history of discovery of the Holodomor since the 1980s through the testimonies of eyewitnesses Malcolm Muggeridge, Gareth Jones, and Rhea Clyman, as well as the later writings of Robert Conquest and James Mace, the US Commission on the Ukraine Famine, the opening of archives, and the more recent influential publications of Timothy Snyder and the aforementioned Applebaum. He concluded that [we need] “closer collaboration with Diaspora” and “we have to work together.”

That conclusion is logical in that the Diaspora, especially in North America, played a major role in bringing the Famine to world attention. For example, the head of the US Commission, Mace, subsequently moved to Ukraine, claiming at one point that the scholarly community in the United States refused to respect his conclusions and he was unable to obtain an academic position in his home country. According to the newspaper for which he worked in Ukraine, Den’ (The Day) “he paid for [his] courage with his career.” Mace died prematurely in 2004, but prior to his death initiated the “Light the Candle” campaign for the victims of the Holodomor.

Future paths

In retrospect, the conference left me with a somewhat different conclusion, namely that the Diaspora should pay more attention to the work of scholars, especially those who have worked in the SB archives in Kyiv, as well as those in Moscow—which thus far have turned out to be just as reliable as those elsewhere—combining this information with what is already irrefutable. If there is never to be a consensus on this Ukrainian tragedy then it is fated to remain on the periphery of international remembrance and recognition. Likewise, Ukraine as a nation, which is in its modern form founded on this tragedy, will not get the attention it deserves.

Viatrovych, who has been a controversial figure on several issues and leads Ukraine’s Decommunisation program, in my view made the correct conclusion, albeit from a very political standpoint: “I have repeatedly said that discussions on numbers are too heated. The world wants a single voice but sees constant disputes. It is up to academics to discuss the issues and identify precise numbers.” In a world of hybrid warfare and fake news, that should be a clear first step toward wider world recognition of the Holodomor.

David R. Marples is a Distinguished University Professor of Russian and East European History and currently Chairman of the Department of History and Classics, University of Alberta. He is the author of sixteen single-authored books, including Our Glorious Past: Lukashenka’s Belarus and the Great Patriotic War (2014) and Heroes and Villains: Creating National History in Contemporary Ukraine (2008). He has published over 100 articles in peer-reviewed journals. He has also edited three books on nuclear power and security in the former Soviet Union, contemporary Belarus, and most recently Ukraine’s Euromaidan: Analyses of a Civil Revolution (Stuttgart: ibidem Verlag, 2015, co-edited with Frederick Mills).

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