Why the Holodomor is genocide under UN convention: On Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine

Memorial to Holodomor victims in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo: Wikimedia Commons 


Article by: James Oliver
Does the man-made Great Famine of 1932–33 in Kremlin-ruled Ukraine fit the criteria of genocide? James Oliver argues that it definitely does in his review of the new book Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine by Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Applebaum. The book’s merit, he notes, is the return to the original notion of “genocide” as a policy aimed at the destruction of social ties, particularly solidarity, within the group, rather than just physical elimination of its members. This is exactly what the Stalinist regime was doing to Ukrainians in the 1930s, Oliver observes.

Between 1932–33, Stalin sought to wipe out the very concept of an independent Ukraine by targeting its peasantry and its leadership. In many senses, Lenin and Stalin carried on the traditions of the Tsarist empire in seeking to deny the Ukrainians their own identity, history, language, and culture.

But Stalin’s application of this tradition proved to be far more lethal than anything the Tsars ever conceived. At least 4 million (possibly up to 7 million) Ukrainians perished in a deliberate genocide where starvation, terror, and deportation were the main weapons of choice for Stalin’s regime. For decades, the realities of the Holodomor were and still are covered up by the Kremlin in a deliberately orchestrated fog of disinformation concocted by Stalin himself. It has been echoed not just in Walter Duranty’s nefarious New York Times dispatches but also in the numerous pro-Soviet lackeys who repeatedly attacked and vilified anyone in the Ukrainian diaspora who spoke of the Holodomor and the brave few journalists such as Gareth Jones, Malcolm Muggeridge, and Rhea Clyman who reported on the Soviet genocide against the Ukrainians at the time.

applebaum-red-famineAnne Applebaum’s new book Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine is both a vindication of what Jones, Muggeridge, and Clyman saw and those survivors who have recorded their testimonies speak of and also a repudiation of Stalin’s apologists. She places the Holodomor into the context of Ukrainian history. It is essential reading though not for the light-hearted as her chapters on the peak of the famine are as grim as they are illuminating.

There is one issue though: multiple book reviews (most notably, Sheila Fitzpatrick’s review in the Guardian) have left a degree of confusion as to what Anne Applebaum’s position on the Holodomor being genocide is and by what criterion she uses. In light of this, it is worth briefly stating her arguments for you to decide.

Applebaum’s book makes very clear that the famine was not the work of bad weather nor crop failure nor even the collectivization drive though she argues its chaotic implementation helped create conditions preparatory to famine. But the main causes of the famine she argues are all artificial, such as the forced confiscation of all food from the homes of Ukrainian peasants, the blacklists, and the roadblocks.

As Professor Roman Serbyn has pointed out numerous times, although the famine is arguably the most notable aspect of 1932–33, it is not the whole story of the genocide against the Ukrainian nation. It was entwined with the destruction of Ukrainian academics, religious figures, writers, artists—those that could be associated with being a part of a Ukrainian cultural elite.

“Stalin,” Applebaum writes in her conclusions, “did not seek to kill all Ukrainians… but Stalin did seek to physically eliminate the most active and engaged Ukrainians, in both the countryside and the cities. He understood the consequences of both the famine and the simultaneous wave of mass arrests in Ukraine as they were happening. So did the people closest to him, including the leading Ukrainian communists.”

The Holodomor took place before the word “Genocide” was formally coined. We associate the word’s invention with the Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who was inspired to create the term (out of the Greek term “Genos” meaning race or nation and from the Latin term “cide” meaning killing) based on the history of his native Lviv and what happened in World War II along with what the Armenians endured in World War I.

“Generally speaking,” Lemkin wrote in his work Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, “genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.


The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.


Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group.”

Lemkin applied this understanding of genocide to the Sovietization process in Ukraine and the Ukrainian famine. If you haven’t read his 1953 essay “Soviet Genocide in the Ukraine,” I urge you to stop here and do so. Lemkin is mentioned by Applebaum, who writes that had the concept remained but an idea in the minds of thinkers like him, “there would be no argument today; according to Lemkin’s definition, the Holodomor was a genocide—as it is by most intuitive understandings of the word. But the concept of Genocide became part of international law in a different context.”

The Soviet Union had a hand in the shaping of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Applebaum writes that UN documents entail that genocide means the “physical elimination of an entire ethnic group” in a manner akin to the Holocaust and that under this strict understanding the Holodomor does not qualify as genocide because “the famine was not an attempt to eliminate every single Ukrainian.”

Raphael Lemkin prepares for a talk on UN radio, probably between 1947 and 1951. UN photo

It is true that the USSR lobbied to remove the concept of destroying political groups as genocide from the final UN documents because under such terms the Soviet attempts to annihilate so-called “Kulaks” would qualify as genocide, and that the post-war USSR attempted to portray that only Nazism and such similar ideologies could carry out genocide (and the whitewashing of Soviet atrocities and genocides still persists).

But this is where one can disagree with Applebaum. Article 2 of the final UN document, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, reads as follows:

“In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part [emphasis added], a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:


(a) Killing members of the group;


(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;


(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;


(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;


(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Statistical data show the tremendous rise of mortality rate in Soviet Ukraine in 1933. Source: Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute

Even if you accept that the UN definition is limited in its scope, you can still argue that what Stalin did to the Ukrainian people still meets its requirements—especially if you include what Lemkin talked about.


Dear readers! Since you’ ve made it to this point, we have a favor to ask. Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine is ongoing, but major news agencies have gone away, which is why it's extra important to provide news about Ukraine in English. We are a small independent journalist team on a shoestring budget, have no political or state affiliation, and depend on our readers to keep going (using the chanсe - a big thank you to our generous supporters, we couldn't make it without you.)  If you like what you see, please help keep us online with a donation

Tags: , , , , , ,


  1. Avatar veth says:

    One of the Russian soldiers who were captured in Syria by ISIS terrorists fought previously in the Donbas in the ranks of the LPR (Luhansk People’s Republic), and another is connected to the so-called “Domodedovo” military brotherhood, as reported by Russian blogger Anatoly Nesmiyan (El Murid) in his LiveJournal.

    As evidence, he released a photo which may shed light on Roman Zabolotny’s connection to the LPR, and Gregory Tsurkanov’s connection to the Domodedovo military brotherhood.

    Nesmiyan believes that the soldiers are already dead.

    “The captured Russians Tsurkanov and Zabolotny have, according to the militants’ reports, already been executed in Mayadi …. Tsurkanov is a member of the Domodedov division of the Military Brotherhood, Zabolotny is a Cossack from the Rostov province, who fought in the Donbas for the LPR,” the blogger writes.

    According to him, it is most likely that all Russians are brought to Mayadin and executed there.

    1. Avatar Screwdriver says:

      Maydan is a bad place to go indeed…you either get killed or Holodomored to death 🙁

      1. Avatar zorbatheturk says:

        Farkov, Putin assturd.

        1. Avatar Screwdriver says:

          Kharkiv ? Hto naharkiv ?

          1. Avatar zorbatheturk says:

            Fuggovsky, Putin pooeater.

  2. Avatar Screwdriver says:

    Looks like Stalin did not do well in geography . He thought Ukrainian borders are much bigger, and bordering Volga river, Ural river and Kazakhstan. So many Russians, Jews, Kazakhs, Tatars, etc..etc.. were starved to death because of that geographical mistake. 🙁

    1. Avatar zorbatheturk says:

      Bogovsky, kremtard. Go join your beloved Stalin in hell. Pol Putin will be down there shortly as well. Hope you like drinking hot vodka.

    2. Avatar Ihor Dawydiak says:

      More nonsense from a member of the St. Petersburg troll factory. Aside from Ukraine, Stalin liquidated through starvation and murder a multitude of people that resided in such areas as Kuban and Northern Kazakhstan for reasons that went beyond eliminating the so called “kulaks”. These regions were also inhabited by large concentrations of ethnic Ukrainians. As for the Crimean Tatars, they inhabited the Crimean peninsula which was at the time of Holodomor/Genocide, a part of the RSFSR and was not subjected to the same degree of famine as was experienced in Ukraine and other selected targets in the USSR. However, following the reoccupation of Crimea by Soviet military forces in 1944, Stalin proceeded to either kill or deport every Crimean Tatar that resided in Crimea by forcefully sending them to Siberia or the Central Asian Republics (aka Turkestan). Therefore, these deportations and the Holodomor/Genocide had everything to do with geography and it was through the use of geography that Stalin pinpointed his targets for destruction.

      1. Avatar Screwdriver says:

        What was the percentage of Ukrainian population in Ural/ NW Kazakhstan area at that time ?

        1. Avatar Ihor Dawydiak says:

          For obvious reasons, there was no formal census taken during the time of the Holodomor/Genocide (1932-1933) in Ukraine, Kazakhstan or the Soviet Union in general. However there was a census taken throughout the Russian Empire/Soviet Union including individual republics and their ethnic populations in 1897, 1917, 1926, 1939 and so on. As for the ethnic Ukrainian population in Kazakhstan according to the 1926 census (the vast majority resided in Northern Kazakhstan with provincial breakdowns also included), there were just over 861,000 ethnic Ukrainian residents. However, this number varied in the 1930’s due to several factors. Some of these factors included; 1) Natural fluctuations between births and deaths, 2) Unnatural fluctuations caused by starvation and subsequent diseases, 3) New Ukrainian arrivals that had been deported from Ukraine, 4) The outright murder or deportation of ethnic Ukrainians from Kazakhstan to other remote places in the USSR such as Siberia, The Far East and isolated prison camps. Now for exact numbers, especially during the very turbulent 1930’s, these figures are currently being researched by specialists although they have provided some interim statistics. And on one final note. It would be virtually impossible to verify the exact number of people who perished during this horrible era of mass murders and dislocations since many innocents, regardless of their ethnicity, disappeared without a trace except for one well established fact. In all probability, it would never have happened without Stalin and his grovelling henchmen.

          1. Avatar Screwdriver says:

            I 100% agree with your very last sentence, but where did you get that number – 861,000 ???

          2. Avatar Ihor Dawydiak says:

            Professional and reliable Researchers/Historians obtained this number as well as many other statistics directly from the internationally available data from the 1926 census. It could also be added that historical maps were made by Russian/Soviet authorities detailing the settlement of all ethnic groups within the Russian Empire/Soviet Union in conjunction with the census data provided. One especially colorful reproduction in more recent times was issued by the the National Geographic Magazine in 1976.

          3. Avatar Screwdriver says:

            So there were more then a million Russians there as well, as well as few million Kazakhs, – they were not affected ?

          4. Avatar Ihor Dawydiak says:

            Some were and some were not depending on their specific locations and especially if they were labelled as “kulaks” or “undesirables”. As for the “undesirables”, it should be noted that although ethnic Ukrainians received the worst treatment by far, there was no ethnic group that was immune from Stalin’s terror, including ethnic Russians. This was especially true in some pockets where for example there was a mixed ethnic Russian and Ukrainian population where everyone was persecuted, tortured, murdered and deported equally. In that regard, Stalin used this same approach during the Holodomor/Genocide in Ukraine and the Kuban Region. Wherever other ethnic groups and especially Russians (the Donbas Region in particular) were mixed with Ukrainians, all faced the ravages of Stalin’s crimes. It must also be understood that in the thirties (as well as to this very day) there were several different ethnic groups that resided in Northern Kazakhstan and that most of them lived in bloc communities containing for the most part, the same ethnicity. As such, most of the ethnic groups in descending order according to total populations were comprised of Russians, Ukrainians, Germans, some Belarusians and some Kazakhs as well as others (Note: Most ethnic Kazakhs resided in Central and Southern Kazakhstan). So what does all of this mean in terms of Stalin’s atrocities committed in the 1930’s? While ethnic Ukrainians, their intelligentsia, the so called “kulaks” and clerics were a prime target for destruction, they were not alone. Every ethnic group including Russians as well as religious groups, the Communist Party and the Soviet Army suffered grievous harm from Stalin’s paranoid reign of terror. In fact, it should be emphasized that this massive calamity that swept the Soviet Union was in many ways just as brutal if not even more brutal than the Holocaust where some 6 million Jews perished at the hands of Adolph Hitler’s vile regime (along with his “associates” including but unofficially, Joseph Stalin) and that it involved far larger numbers of people who were murdered and otherwise affected.

          5. Avatar Ihor Dawydiak says:

            P.S. One additional note in regards to Stalin’s persecution of ethnic Ukrainians. While he despised Ukrainian nationalists and patriots, Nikita Khrushchev also despised Stalin’s treatment of Ukrainians in general. In his capacity as the leader of the CPSU, Khrushchev made a direct reference to Stalin’s crimes against the Ukrainian nation when he stated in his famous “secret speech” at the 20th Congress of the CPSU in 1956 that “He (Stalin) wanted to deport them all (the Ukrainian people) but there were too many of them and there was no place to put them”. Enough said.

          6. Avatar Screwdriver says:

            OK. I just wanted to make sure you acknowledge that other then Ukrainians few other million people were killed who were not Ukrainians .

          7. Avatar Ihor Dawydiak says:

            I have always acknowledged the fact that a wide variety of both ethnic and religious groups were selectively murdered or persecuted in the most inhumane ways by Stalin’s regime in particular. However, it must also be pointed out that there can be no credible denial that: 1) The Holodomor/Genocide of 1932-1933 was perpetrated primarily against the people of Ukraine and other areas such as the Kuban Region and Northern Kazakhstan where there were large populations of ethnic Ukrainians. 2) Other than WWII, this mass extermination of innocents, primarily in Ukraine during Stalin’s reign, was the largest man made disaster in the history of the Soviet Union. 3) During this mass murder, mostly through starvation, other ethnic groups such as Russians also perished as Stalin considered them as collateral damage. In other words, the vile deed had to be done quickly and Stalin who had cordoned off Ukraine from the outside world (or so he thought) including Russia itself, considered the task of separating ethnic Ukrainians from Russians and others as too onerous and time consuming. 4) In Ukraine and for the most part, Stalin was primarily concerned with the obliteration of the Ukrainian intelligentsia, any manifestations of Ukrainian nationalism, patriotism or national spirit and clerics who might be linked with these manifestations. Now, having stated these facts which have been confirmed by reliable international historians and statisticians, we come to the matter of Putin, his adoration of Stalin and his adamant denial that the Holodomor/Genocide ever existed. In fact, at one point in time (not realizing that he was talking into a live microphone), Putin stated to President George Bush Sr., “You know George, Ukraine is not really a country”. Was this comment bizarre, arrogant, stupid, the typical air headed view of a Stalinist minded Russian chauvinist or perhaps a combination of all of the aforementioned descriptions? Even so, Putin the Pederast does have his supporters including some kremtrolls (Note: Many kremtrolls are lured by free rotten Russian cabbage), but what does that say about his supposedly “educated” supporters? Are they sheep or are they stupid. Hmmm, not much of a pick.

          8. Avatar Screwdriver says:

            “both ethnic and religious groups were selectively murdered or persecuted in the most inhumane ways by Stalin’s regime”
            Absolutely correct. But Ukrainians were not among those targeted ethnic groups.
            In this particular case the target was “kulaks” , class target, not an ethnic target.
            And this is confirmed by many Western scholars, as you probably aware.

          9. Avatar Ihor Dawydiak says:

            Nonsense. Trying to muddy the waters by stating half truths (a typical ploy used by the Soviets and “Putinists”) does not fool anyone. Yes, “kulaks” were an intended target but so were ethnic Ukrainians (and especially the Ukrainian intelligentsia as well as certain clerics) and other specified ethnic minorities. These are the points that are agreed upon by almost all western scholars as well as most of the international community apart from Chinese Communists.

          10. Avatar Screwdriver says:

            “does not fool anyone” and “by almost all western scholars ”
            – is a contradiction my friend 🙂 I expected better from you.

          11. Avatar Ihor Dawydiak says:

            Wrong. You are taking two different sentences that are not directly related and in doing so you have tried to embellish a meaning that is out of context. Anyone with any common sense would understand this difference.

  3. Avatar zorbatheturk says:

    RuSSians have never apologized for their genocides, or for any of the crimes of the Soviet Union. That is why they are scum.