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2008 Writing Competition

The Ukrainian Famine of 1932-1933 as Genocide

Marta Cybulsky

 

The Ukrainian Famine and the Definition of Genocide

          Every year Ukrainians pay tribute to the 10 million innocent people who suffered and died from the artificial famine in Soviet Ukraine. The famine from 1932-1933 was not the result of a drought, flood, or crop failure; rather, it was caused by Joseph Stalin’s intention to eliminate the Ukrainian nation, and was entirely man-made. This past November marked the 75 th anniversary of The Great Famine of 1932-1933. The Famine is equally referred to as Holodomor, literally meaning “death by hunger,” and is considered one of the largest national catastrophes in the history of the modern Ukrainian nation.

          Following the Russian Revolution (1917) and the Russian Civil War (1917-1921), the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics emerged from the Russian Empire. It was composed of sixteen Soviet republics, which existed from 1922 to 1991, and which included Ukraine. In 1924, Joseph Stalin became dictator. Stalin strengthened communism within the USSR, promoted Russian culture (Russification), while prohibiting expression of other cultures, and instituted Russian Orthodox as the sole religion. The State assumed control over all enterprises, proceeded with industrialization, and began establishing collective farms. Stalin wanted to transform the Soviet Union from a backward rural society to a modern self-sufficient society, and he would use any possible measures to do so1.

          In Soviet Ukraine, before Stalin came into power, farms were owned by Kulaks. “Kulak,” a Bolchevik term, refers to a category of rich peasants, who owned large, independent farms, and used hired labour to work them2. In order to transform the USSR, Stalin needed Western technology, and the only way to get it was by exporting grain. Stalin proceeded by implementing collectivization policies: all farming implements, livestock, and land would now belong to the State; farmers were to work as labourers and were paid like workers in a factory. Collectivization coincided directly with dekulakization. Stalin intended to eliminate Kulaks, because they were considered potential leaders in revolts against the government3. In protest, farmers killed their livestock, burned their crops, and fled to the cities. Stalin shipped one million men, women and children to the remotest areas of the Soviet Union, where they were used as slave labours4.

          Stalin began deliberately raising grain quotas to quantities that peasants could not possibly meet. By 1931, the Soviet army was going door to door taking all the food they found in houses. In the villages, a passport system was introduced, which prevented peasants from crossing their towns’ borders. At this time, Ukrainian parties were demanding that Stalin reduce grain quotas. Stalin condemned any opposition and any nationalism. This policy led to starvation5.

          Throughout these dreadful years, there was never any official mention of a famine. The government denied all suspicions and accusations, and thus the rest of the world believed everything was fine. In 1933, at the height of the famine, 25 000 people were dying daily, while grain stood and rotted away. At this time, Stalin invited former French Prime Minister, Édouard Herriot, for a private five-day-tour of Kiev, as well as play writer George Bernard Shaw. Idealized scenes of work and of happy peasant life were displayed to any visitor, and there was therefore no reason to assume that anything was wrong. Journalists, such as Walter Duranty, wrote dishonest articles for the New York Times, denying that any starvation was occurring. Finally, after having broken the Ukrainian farmers, Stalin decided to give out grain during the 1933 harvest, and thus ended the famine6.

          One may wonder why The Famine is being addressed 75 years later, and not sooner. Access to information was not permitted during the Soviet regime, and archives became accessible to scholars for study only after the fall of the USSR. Today, Ukrainians are working to gain international recognition of The Great Famine, and to officially proclaim it genocide. On December 9 th, 1948, an official definition of genocide was established by the United Nations, at the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The Convention, composed of nineteen articles, came into force on January 12 th, 1951, and today, 130 countries have ratified it7. Article 2, the one of interest for this paper, defines genocide. In order for the United Nations to recognize The Famine of 1932-1933 in Soviet Ukraine as genocide, it must fall under the definition established by the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The definition reads as follows: “Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, 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.8

          The goal of this paper is to prove that The Ukrainian Famine of 1932-1933 was genocide directed against Ukrainians, and meets the criteria set by the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

 

Stalin’s Directive and Target

          The famine had two main motives. First, Stalin wanted to industrialize the Soviet Union. To do so, he needed to amplify trade with the Western market. As a result, he increased grain exports, by implementing collectivization policies, which coincided with his dekulakization policies. Second, Stalin wanted to destroy the Ukrainian peasants because they posed a threat to his regime9.

          Stalin’s target population has now been identified as Ukrainian peasants, but must be classified into one of the four groups listed in the United Nations’ Convention: national, ethnical, racial or religious. The definition, which remains the only legal one, is limited to four categories, and fails to include victims that form a social or political group. In order to satisfy the definition, it cannot be argued that the famine’s targeted group was solely Ukrainian peasants, since they fall under a social group. Of the four groups listed, it is evident that Ukrainians were not victims of the famine because of their religious or racial traits. This leaves the national and ethnical categories. In order to conclude that the victims of the famine fall into the national category, it must be proven that Stalin did indeed target Ukrainians.

          At the time of the famine, 80% of Ukraine’s rural population were peasants, and they constituted the backbone of the Ukrainian nation10. In the 1920s, Russification had taken over the urban population of Soviet Ukraine, but Ukrainian peasants remained free from it. Following Lenin’s succession, Ukrainian political activists began gathering support in Soviet Ukraine by recruiting native cadres and promoting the Ukrainian language. Literacy began to spread, which created a new market for Ukrainian publication. Furthermore, the influx of Ukrainian peasants into the industrial centres contributed to the Ukrainianization of the urban population. The Ukrainian revival began to assume a political character. The Soviets began to sense that the Ukrainian Republic was demanding autonomy. The leadership of this movement was made up of Ukrainian intellectuals. Most of them originated from the peasantry, and the countryside was their firmest base11. The Ukrainian peasants were thus the backbone of the intelligentsia-led national revival. The idea of Ukrainian independence was haunting Moscow. It was necessary to put an end to it, by destroying all the leaders of its base.

          On January 22 nd, 1933, a resolution was passed by the Central Committee of the Communist Party (CCCP) and the Council for People’s Commissars (CPC) of the USSR. The resolution prohibited the massive exodus of starving peasants in Ukraine and in North Caucasus, a largely Ukrainian populated region, located in Kuban, in Eastern Russia today. The document was sent from the Communist Party and the Soviet Government via telegram to Kharkiv, the capital of Soviet Ukraine, as well as to the administrative centers of Russia and Belarus. The document explained Stalin’s secret directive on closing borders around Ukraine and North Caucasus. The CCCP and the CPC received information that there were massive migrations of peasants in Ukraine and North Caucasus towards Belarus and the Russian regions of Volga, Moscow, and certain Western Oblasts (provinces). The CCCP and the CPC were certain that the peasant departure was organized by enemies of the Soviet Regime, anti-socialist revolutionaries, in order to prevent the collectivization of farms and Soviet power in general12. The resolution is proof that the targeted population of the famine was exclusively Ukrainians.

1. The CCCP and the CPC ordered the Party and the OGPU (Secret Police) in Northern Caucasus to prevent the massive departure of Ukrainian peasants from North Caucasus, and to prevent entry of peasants from Ukraine to North Caucasus.

2. The CCCP and the CPC ordered the OGPU in Belarus, Volga, Moscow, and certain Western Oblasts to stop all Ukrainian peasants from Ukraine and from North Caucasus from entering these regions. They were to hold the anti-revolutionaries, and to send the rest of the peasants back to their home towns13.

          On the 70 th anniversary of the Bolchevik overthrow of the provisional government, a group of French historians published a book of communist crimes. Nicolas Werth, a well known expert on Soviet history, was one of the two authors of the section about the Soviet Union. In the chapter titled “The Great Famine,” Werth wrote about the passport law that Stalin implemented on December 27 th, 1932. The law stated that peasants were not entitled to passports, thus preventing them from moving freely and leaving their villages. As a result, peasants were tied down to their starving villages14.

          Stalin’s decree was specifically directed against two groups of peasants: those living in the Ukrainian SSR, and those living in the heavily Ukrainian populated North Caucasus. As mentioned previously, Stalin complained of a massive flight of peasants living in Ukraine to Russia and to Belarus. Stalin ordered members of the state party in Ukraine to prevent peasants from crossing the border between Ukraine and the rest of the USSR. All peasants within the borders of the Ukrainian SSR were part of the Ukrainian nation. There is no doubt that Ukrainian peasants presented much more of a threat to Stalin and his regime than the Russian peasants.

          In 1925, Stalin lectured comrades in Yugoslavia on the national question. He told them that peasants were “the basis, the quintessence of the national question.” He further explained that “the peasantry constitutes the main army of the national movement, that there is no powerful national movement without the peasantry army.” “The national problem is in essence a peasant problem,” he added. This confirms that Stalin intended to eliminate Ukrainian peasants, because of their nationality and the threat that their nationalism posed. In December of 1932, Moscow ordered state authorities in Ukraine to “pay serious attention to the proper conduct of Ukrainianization, eliminate its application in a mechanical way, and to remove bourgeois nationalist elements.” State authorities were also ordered to “train Bolchevik cadres in Ukraine to secure systemic party leadership and control over the process of Ukrainianization.” In addition, several serious scholars, such as Nicholas Werth, affirmed that Stalin suffered from ‘Ukrainophobia’. Furthermore, the first Western scholar to draw attention to Stalin’s border decree of 1933, Terry Martin, published information stating that the general opposition in Ukraine to grain procurement was connected directly with Ukrainian nationalism15. It is clear that Ukrainian peasants were no longer being targeted just as peasants, but as Ukrainians.

 

Satisfying the Definition: Ukrainian Peasants as a National Group

          The Famine of 1932-1993 was limited to the Ukrainian SSR and to the adjacent territories to the East, which were inhabited in great part by Ukrainians. There was no famine in the heartland of Russia. No serious scholar today would blame natural events as a cause of the famine. There was no drought, and the harvest, although greatly reduced as a result of Stalin’s dekulakization and collectivization policies, was adequate for the sustenance of the whole peasant population. While the Ukrainian peasants starved, grain was kept locked up in overflowing silos, where it rotted away, or was dumped into Western markets. The famine was part of a wider campaign, targeted against the Ukrainian nation, which was launched to destroy Ukrainian national elites, and end Ukrainianization16.

          The requirements of the United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide have thus been satisfied. Stalin intended to destroy Ukrainians. Ukrainians fall under a national group, one of the four categories listed in the Convention. In the words of the Convention, the Famine of 1932-1933 in Soviet Ukraine was “committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part.” Stalin’s intention was not to destroy the entire Ukrainian nation, but a sufficiently large portion to eliminate the Ukrainian peasants and intelligentsia, and cripple Ukrainian nationalism.

 

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Footnotes:

  1. Harvest of Despair. Prod. Yurij Luhovy, Slavko Nowitsky, Ukrainian Famine Research Committee, St Vladimir’s Institute, Toronto. Videocassette.

  2. Iajiw, Wsevolod W. Famine-Genocide in Ukraine. Toronto: Ukrainian Canadian Research and Documentation Center, 2003.

  3. Harvest of Despair. Prod. Yurij Luhovy, Slavko Nowitsky, Ukrainian Famine Research Committee, St Vladimir’s Institute, Toronto. Videocassette.

  4. Harvest of Despair. Prod. Yurij Luhovy, Slavko Nowitsky, Ukrainian Famine Research Committee, St Vladimir’s Institute, Toronto. Videocassette.

  5. Harvest of Despair. Prod. Yurij Luhovy, Slavko Nowitsky, Ukrainian Famine Research Committee, St Vladimir’s Institute, Toronto. Videocassette.

  6. Harvest of Despair. Prod. Yurij Luhovy, Slavko Nowitsky, Ukrainian Famine Research Committee, St Vladimir’s Institute, Toronto. Videocassette.

  7. Ratification of Genocide: Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, March 15 th, 2008, http://untreaty.un.org/sample/EnglishInternetBible/partI/chapterIV/treaty1.asp

  8. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, March 12 th, 2008, http://www.un.org/depts/dpa/prev_genocide/convention.htm

  9. Iajiw, Wsevolod W. Famine-Genocide in Ukraine. Toronto: Ukrainian Canadian Research and Documentation Center, 2003.

  10. Iajiw, Wsevolod W. Famine-Genocide in Ukraine. Toronto: Ukrainian Canadian Research and Documentation Center, 2003.

  11. Ukrainian Canadian Congress. Execution by Starvation: The Famine-Genocide in Soviet Ukraine 1932-1933. Montreal: Ukrainian Canadian Congress, 1998.

  12. Président du Conseil des Ministres de l’URSS: V.M. Molotov et Secrétaire du Comité Central du Parti Communiste : J. Stalin. Décret du Parti Communiste et du Gouvernement Soviétique prohibant le départ des paysans affamés d’Ukraine et de la région de Kuban.

  13. Président du Conseil des Ministres de l’URSS: V.M. Molotov et Secrétaire du Comité Central du Parti Communiste : J. Stalin. Décret du Parti Communiste et du Gouvernement Soviétique prohibant le départ des paysans affamés d’Ukraine et de la région de Kuban.

  14. Serbyn, Roman. “The Ukrainian Famine of 1932-1933 as Genocide in the Light of the UN Convention of 1948.” The Ukrainian Quarterly, Volume LXII. Summer 2006.

  15. Serbyn, Roman. “The Ukrainian Famine of 1932-1933 as Genocide in the Light of the UN Convention of 1948.” The Ukrainian Quarterly, Volume LXII. Summer 2006.

  16. Ukrainian Canadian Congress. Execution by Starvation: The Famine-Genocide in Soviet Ukraine 1932-1933. Montreal: Ukrainian Canadian Congress, 1998.

 

Bibliography 

  1. Iajiw, Wsevolod W. Famine-Genocide in Ukraine. Toronto: Ukrainian Canadian Research and Documentation Center, 2003.
  2. Serbyn, Roman. “The Ukrainian Famine of 1932-1933 as Genocide in the Light of the UN Convention of 1948.” The Ukrainian Quarterly, Volume LXII. Summer 2006.
  3. Harvest of Despair . Prod. Yurij Luhovy, Slavko Nowitsky, Ukrainian Famine Research Committee, St Vladimir’s Institute, Toronto. Videocassette.
  4. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Office of the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, March 12 th, 2008, http://www.un.org/depts/dpa/prev_genocide/convention.htm
  5. Ratification of Genocide: Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, March 15 th, 2008, http://untreaty.un.org/sample/EnglishInternetBible/partI/chapterIV/treaty1.asp
  6. Ukrainian Canadian Congress. Execution by Starvation: The Famine-Genocide in Soviet Ukraine 1932-1933 . Montreal: Ukrainian Canadian Congress, 1998.
  7. Président du Conseil des Ministres de l’URSS: V.M. Molotov et Secrétaire du Comité Central du Parti Communiste : J. Stalin. Décret du Parti Communiste et du Gouvernement Soviétique prohibant le départ des paysans affamés d’Ukraine et de la région de Kuban.

 

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