History, Identity and Holodomor Denial: Russia’s continued assault on Ukraine

Holodomor Memorial in Washington D.C. as final touches are made in preparation for its official opening on November 7. (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)

Holodomor Memorial in Washington D.C. as final touches are made in preparation for its official opening on November 7. (State Dept./D.A. Peterson) 

2015/11/07 • Analysis & Opinion, History, News, Op-ed, Ukraine

On Saturday November 7, a long-awaited memorial to a little-known modern genocide will be dedicated in Washington D.C.  It will be accompanied by an exhibit at Union Station aimed at raising awareness among Americans of what Ukrainians call the Holodomor, literally “death by hunger,” an engineered famine which took the lives of anywhere from 4 to 10 million Ukrainians in 1932-33 during the Soviet regime of Josef Stalin.

Holodomor Memorial, Washington, D.C., erected August 4, 2015

Holodomor Memorial, Washington, D.C., erected August 4, 2015

Congress allocated the small plot of land for construction of a memorial with Kyiv authorities in 2006, under then President Viktor Yushchenko, the infamously poisoned politician brought to power during Ukraine’s popular Orange Revolution.  The memorial was ultimately funded with private donations.  Ukrainian-American architect Larysa Kurylas designed the Holodomor “Field of Wheat” monument, a stark bronze sculpture of wheat stalks receding into the distance, symbolizing the rich agricultural lands and traditions of Ukraine so cruelly turned against the population to starve them into submission.

Holodomor Exhibit at Union Station (source: Roma Lisovich)

Holodomor Memorial Exhibit at Union Station (source: @24tvua, Roma Lisovich)

Until recently, most Americans probably couldn’t identify anything significant about Ukraine’s history or even find it on a map.  Many are still surprised to learn, for example, that Ukraine with a population of over 46 million is one of the most populated and the largest country by geographic area in Europe.  The very fact that Ukraine is wholly inside Europe even comes as a surprise for many Americans.  The reason for this lack of knowledge is the result of Ukraine’s centuries-old interconnectedness with its imperial Russian neighbor, under the Russian Empire of the Tsars and then under the totalitarian communists of the Soviet Union.  As a result, most of what we have managed to learn about Ukraine has been written through the lens of Russian and Soviet historiography.  Importantly, for most of this history, Ukraine has been a colony of more powerful states.  During the 20th Century, its colonization by both Stalin’s Soviet Union and Hitler’s Nazi Germany led to Ukraine being ground zero for arguably the two most horrific events of that century, the Holodomor in the 1930s and the Holocaust of the 1940s.

Much has been written and rightly continues to be written about the Holocaust.  New facts and more accounts seem to come to light every day, unearthed in attics and basements, helping us better understand the nature and scope of the catastrophic events that led to so much misery in Europe and the near annihilation of Jews on the continent.  Much less is known about the Holodomor, although the death count is enormous, nearly 30,000 Ukrainians dying daily at the height of the famine, and the engineering incontrovertible.  This contrast is a stark reminder of the continuing need to uncover and reveal the history of Eastern Europe, kept hidden for so long under Soviet authorities.

Holodomor Memorial Exhibit at Union Station (source: @24tvua, Roma Lisovich)

Holodomor Memorial Exhibit at Union Station (source: @24tvua, Roma Lisovich)

Now that Ukraine has jumped onto our screens and into our awareness of global affairs, this is an important opportunity to learn, and in some cases, unlearn what we’ve come to know as history.  In this ongoing process of enlightenment, the National Holodomor Memorial and the accompanying exhibit in D.C. is a meaningful beginning.  We also have a growing body of work from modern European historians such as Timothy Snyder whose work specifically focuses on the back-to-back tragedies of Ukraine under Stalin and Hitler, both deeply rooted in the desire to colonize Ukraine’s richly fertile territory.  Thanks to such scholarship, we are beginning to come to terms with the many misconceptions, deliberate and otherwise, as we work together to fill the many gaping holes in our knowledge of Ukrainian history, a history largely written by Russians often hostile to Ukrainians.

In light of this history, it seems that the sorts of concealments and distortions we’ve seen so prominently in today’s Russian invasion rhetoric that vilifies and demeans both Ukraine and Ukrainians has been going on for a long, long time.  In fact, Putin’s famously professed views of Ukraine not being a real nation, or that Ukrainians are merely lesser Russians, reveals a paternalistic attitude that many Russians have held about the Ukrainian minority for centuries.

Holodomor Memorial Exhibit at Union Station (source: @24tvua, Roma Lisovich)

Holodomor Memorial Exhibit at Union Station (source: @24tvua, Roma Lisovich)

This attitude played a critical role in what we know – and don’t know – about the Holodomor, one of the most horrific events in Ukraine’s history.  During the Soviet era, talk of it was strictly forbidden, covered up in the language of modernization, as a seemingly laudable goal by Stalin to collectivize agriculture in the

fertile territories of the Soviet Union. Later, in the waning days of the Soviet Union, document archives were opened, and the world began to learn of the systematic and premeditated inhumanity of Stalin’s brutal plan to suppress the Ukrainian nation and people, by making them work impossibly harder than ever, then depriving them of their entire harvest, their livestock, and finally criminalizing even the mere possession of food. I heard stories from my mother passed on by her father, who witnessed traumatized villagers being shot on the spot for having a sack of potatoes. No questions asked. This is how millions were slowly, quietly and ruthlessly starved to death.

Russia’s open era of glasnost is long gone, sadly. Instead, we see under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, a resurgent militaristic, imperial Kremlin that has no problem highlighting the good side of Stalin (as Federal Council Speaker Valentina Matviyenko did in a recent interview) or violently destroying Ukrainian territory or even killing Ukrainians.  Stalin is again popular, and once again we’re even back to the systematic denials of the Holodomor’s significance, cause, and any responsibility for the millions of Ukrainian deaths.  These denials have taken on a distinctly nasty character since relations between Ukraine and Russia have taken a sharp nose-dive after Russia invaded Ukraine last year.  In fact, as part of Russia’s propaganda war on Ukraine, state-run media have been attempting to use Holodomor denial to boost their campaign against Ukraine and the West more generally.  It’s a kind of double gut punch, claiming Ukrainians’ defining suffering doesn’t really exist, even a “hoax,” invented and perpetrated by neo-Nazis, who conveniently are also running the coup government in Kyiv.  Such pronouncements just pour the proverbial salt into a deeply painful wound, one ingrained in every Ukrainian’s collective memory.

Others have analyzed the illogical and shameful attempts by Russia’s Kremlin-controlled media to deny Ukraine’s Holodomor.  Cathy Young in The Daily Beast has a particularly good exposition of the issues.  And there are many other articles at Radio Liberty and podcasts that have commendably taken the deniers to task.

Tomorrow’s official unveiling of the National Holodomor Memorial in the U.S. is a time to remember the millions of Ukrainian lives lost to hunger and lost to history.  Perhaps had we known more of the truth of this dark period in Russia’s and Ukraine’s history, we would have been in a better position to understand the mindset of Putin’s Russia today.  This mindset differs little from that of Stalin or from the Russia of the Tsars for that matter, all rooted in colonial, paternalistic and hostile views of Ukraine and Ukrainians.

There is little doubt that Russia under Putin is trying to assert and maintain control of Ukraine.  In fact, Putin’s Kremlin is doing the same thing Stalin’s Kremlin did to Ukraine, and for the same reasons; namely, Russia seeks to suppress a people who have expressed their will to be free, to have their own voice, their own government, and their own identity.  In a recent talk, legendary journalist Marvin Kalb essentially argues that this is Ukraine’s cross to bear, cursed by its geography to remain within Russia’s orbit.

The story doesn’t end but begins there.  It’s important to understand that for Putin, as in Stalin’s day and for centuries, Ukraine has been fundamental not only to Russia’s ambitions but its very identity.  After all, what kind of Empire, or even Great Nation, would Russia be without Ukraine, where much of its history, heart and soul are located? Russians believe their civilization was founded in Kyiv (Kyivan Rus, they call it).  Quintessentially Russian greats like Chekhov, Babel, Gogol, Prokofiev, Bulgakov, Nekrasov, Akhmatova, even Solzhenitsyn (mother) are from Ukraine.  You can see Russia struggling with these issues of identity when one of its most famous artists Ilya Repin had the renown painting of the Zaporozhye Cossacks writing a letter to the Turkish Sultan hidden as subversive at Tretyakovskaya Gallery.  These identity issues – the blessing and curse of empires – are what Russia’s rulers have heretofore been unable to face, and as a result, they have continually resorted to assertions of dominance in aggressive and brutal ways.  Russians, after Putin’s reign, will eventually come to terms with their identity crisis, hopefully less defensively and less aggressively, once they recognize they don’t have to define themselves by their perceived enemies, and begin to appreciate their own uniquely rich human capital.

In the meantime, Ukraine is moving forward. It has rejected its Soviet past. And Ukraine’s assertion of an independent identity from Russia since the Euromaidan protests and revolution is probably the harshest rejection of Russia in its history, even more than during Stalin’s era.  Euromaidan was successful in ousting a Russia-friendly president, and the new Ukrainian government has succeeded in refocusing the world’s attention to an unrepentant aggressive Russia.  Although Ukraine may be struggling in many ways, Ukraine’s identity as distinct from Russia is not one of them.  Today’s distinctly Ukrainian Ukraine will struggle but will not be turning back to Russia anytime soon.  Putin’s shameless seizure of Crimea followed by a destructive and tragic war in the Donbas has only solidified Ukraine’s determination to fulfill its European dream of dignity and self-determination. And though perhaps not loudly but certainly consistently, the international community fully supports Ukraine in this effort. The National Holodomor Memorial is an important reminder of just that.

To learn more about the Holodomor, see James Oliver’s work at Euromaidan Press here and here. Below is a selected bibliography of some other Holodomor history sources and websites.

BOOKS & ARTICLES:

    1. Cairns, Andrew.  The Soviet Famine 1932-33: An Eyewitness Account of Conditions in the Spring and Summer of 1932.  Edmonton: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta, 1989.
    2. Commission on the Ukrainian Famine.  Investigation of the Ukrainian famine, 1932-1933: Oral History Project of the Commission on the Ukraine Famine. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1990.
    3. Conquest, Robert.  The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine.  USA: Oxford University Press, 1987.
    4. Davies, R.W.  The Socialist Offensive: The Collectivization of Soviet Agriculture, 1929-1930.  London:  Macmillan, 1980.
    5. Davies, Robert William and S.G. Wheatcroft.  The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture, 1931-1933. USA:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
    6. Dimarov, Anatoliy.  A Hunger Most Cruel: The Human Face of the 1932-1933 Terror-Famine in Soviet Ukraine.  Winnipeg: Language Lantern Publications, 2002.
    7. Dolot, Myron.  Who Killed Them and Why?  In Remembrance of Those Killed in the Famine of 1932-1933 in Ukraine.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.
    8. Dolot, Myron.  Execution by Hunger: The Hidden Holocaust.  New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1987.
    9. Halii, Mykola.  Organized Famine in Ukraine, 1932-1933.  Chicago: Ukrainian Research and Information Institute, 1963.
    10. Hryshko, Wasyl.  The Ukrainian Holocaust of 1933.  Toronto: Bahriany Foundation, 1983.
    11. Kostiuk, Hryhory.  Stalinist Rule in Ukraine: A Study of the Decade of Mass Terror, 1929-1939.  Munich: Institut zur Erforschung der UdSSSR, 1960.
    12. Krawchenko, Bohdan.  Social Change and National Consciousness in Twentieth-Century Ukraine. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985.
    13. Marcus, David.  “Famine Crimes in International Law,” American Journal of International Law 97, no. 2 (2003): 245-281.
    14. Motyl, Alexander,  “Deleting the Holodomor: Ukraine Unmakes Itself,” World Affairs Journal, Sept.-Oct. 2010. http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/article/deleting-holodomor-ukraine-unmakes-itself .
    15. Motyl Alexander, “Remembering the Ukrainian Famine-Genocide,” World Affairs Journal, Blogpost from December 13, 2013. http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/blog/alexander-j-motyl/remembering-ukrainian-famine-genocide .
    16. Oleksiw, Stephen.  The Agony of a Nation: The Great Man-Made Famine in Ukraine, 1932-1933. London: National Committee to Commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Artificial Famine in Ukraine 1932-1933, 1983.
    17. Procyk, Oksana, Leonid Heretz and James Earnest Mace.  Famine in the Soviet Ukraine, 1932-1933: A Memorial Exhibition, Widener Library, Harvard University.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986.
    18. Serbyn, Roman. Famine in Ukraine, 1932-1933. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1986.
    19. Serbyn, Roman. “The Holodomor: Reflections on the Ukrainian Genocide,” 16th Annual J.B. Rudnyckyj Distinguished Lecture Friday, November 7, 2008. Available at http://www.umanitoba.ca/libraries/units/archives/media/Lecture_XVI-Serbyn.pdf .
    20. Snyder, Timothy D. Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.  New York: Basic Books, 2010.

WEBSITES:

    1. http://www.holodomorct.org/
    2. http://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/genocide/stalin.htm
    3. http://judicial-inc-archive.blogspot.com/2010/08/bolshevik-famine-seven-million-dead.html
    4. http://www.ukrainiangenocide.com/
    5. http://www.ukrainiangenocide.org/
    6. http://www.unitedhumanrights.org/genocide/ukraine_famine.htm
    7. http://www.faminegenocide.com/
    8. http://www.infoukes.com/history/famine/
    9. http://www.faminegenocide.com/resources/facts/

FILMS:

 

 

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  • Philippe de Lara

    Excellent article. I just wish to add to the bibliography some important historians of Holodomor missing (maybe because they did not publish much in English?) First of all Stanislav Kultchysyky (Kiev), Andrea Graziosi (Naples), so to speak the European Robert Conquest, and Ettore Cinnella (Pisa) who published this year Il Genocidio dimenticato (The Forgotten Genocide). Googlize them, it is very rewarding!

  • TransEuropeXpress

    Thank you for a very informative article. But Ukraine with its 46 million people is hardly the most populous country in Europe. More like a draw with Spain in 6th place. Having said that; Ukraine’s people is a welcomed addition to the European Union in a near future.

  • Murf

    I am proud that America is helping Ukraine through this difficult period.

    • Richard Hoover

      Canada big time 320 operations to the burnt and wounded citizens and ATO SOLDIERS..HEROES OF UKRAINE…MEDICAL TEAM HONOURED BY PRESIDENT POROSHRNKO..CANADDAS FOURTH MISSION SINCE MAIDAN AND EAST WAR..PROUD IM A CANADIAN…….MEDICAL EQUIPMENT AMBULANCE DONATED AND WAYNE GRETSKY AND CANADAS CORPORATE SPONDORS FUNDED THESE CRUCIALLY NEEDED MISSIONS. INCLUDING MY HOLODOMOR FILM INVESTOR . FOR THE FILM I WROTE AND WE PRODUCED TOGETHER SHOT IN UKRAINE TITLED BITTER HARVEST .COMING SOON!

      http://www.bitterharvestfilm.com

      GLAD IM HALF UKRAINIAN!

      SLAVA UKRAINI!! HEROYAM SLAVA! Forever!

      • Murf

        Canada has a magnificent job of standing up for Ukraine in this crisis.
        I would also like to point out the 30k cold weather uniforms you donated the army last year. That I am sure that helped the grunts in the trenches where it really mattered.
        Great job our northern friends!

        • Richard Hoover

          USA …BROTHER!!! ALSO THERE FOR UKRAINE…WEAPONS..NEXT IF PUTIN PUSHES FURTHER..KIEV..WHERE I RAISE MY LAD! BUT UKRAINE IS BALLS PLUS…ARM THEM LEGALLY WITH ADVANCE WEAPONS..K.O .FOR RUSSIA IM SURE!…PUTIN DOESNT RECOGNIZE LEGAL..SO MAYBE WE ALL SHOULDNT TOO? Enough dancing with the devil! Put on the steel toes! Dance the jiggy jiggy on his head!

          AND NAIL HIS GAME AS HE DID TO UKRAINE S CRIMEA AND EAST DONBASS! TASTE HIS OWN MEDICINE?

    • Ukrainian girl

      It is,of course, awfully nice of the USA, but by comparison,(and considering that,unlike the USA,Canada isn’t duty bound to be aiding Ukraine), Canada has done much more in helping Ukraine and that- without the usual bragging of the USA. Sorry for the bitter truth.

      • Murf

        In shear volume I would disagree. So far we have ponied up 3 billion in loans and this year we have allocated 650 million in direct military aid.
        But Canada’s contribution has very disproportional to is size not to mention having zero obligation politically or economically.
        More then money though was Canada’s contribution of 30k winter jackets at the beginning of the Winter campaign. Soldiers freezing their a$$ off don’t care about any of the other BS going on with politics.
        Canada has generally minded it’s own business in world affairs. Which makes your heroic support for Ukraine even more impressive.

  • Richard Hoover

    Please see new epic film I wrote and produced with Canada backing. our website for BITTER HARVEST FILM ..PREMIERING THIS YEAR 2016 ..FIRST FILM EVER IN ENGLISH PERFORMED BY OSCAR NOMINEE CAST ..LONDON CANADA KIEV ..sot on location in KIEV region and centre locations.As well post production by Casino Royale ..Skyfall ..Superman..Lethal Weapon editor at London’s iconic Pinewood Studio and using the famous Bond underwater filming tank for our river scenes .

    Thank you Richard Bachynsky Hoover. Screenwriter .story creator Executive Producer Ukraine.from Canada residing in KIEV Ukraine.(KYIV)

    Click below

    http://www.bitterharvestfilm.com

    • Ukrainian girl

      Thank you,dear Canadians ! You’ve helped my country so much without ever bragging about it. May God bless Canada with peace and prosperity !

  • Terry Washington

    I read Robert Conquest’s “The Harvest Of Sorrow” but having a film based on the Holodomor is infinitely better- a remember that a picture is worth a thousand words!
    The only question I have about “Bitter Harvest” is whether the reprehensible behaviour of New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty will be drawn attention to- as it should along with his other “useful idiots” such as Paul Robeson, Lillian Hellman.
    I didn;t know that Solzhenitsyn’s mother was Ukrainian; he usually identified himself as a Russian!