November 27, 2015

COMMENTARY: Re-counting Holodomor losses


The recent unveiling of the Holodomor Memorial in Washington was an important event in the history of the Ukrainian nation as a whole, as well as the Ukrainian diaspora. Naturally it renewed much discussion of this tragedy of the Ukrainian people which took place more than 80 years ago. Some of the discussion centered on issues of somewhat disproportionate significance. The Russians once again spread distractions, insisting that this was not a genocide and made attempts to minimize the size of the tragedy.

The number of Ukrainian victims of the Famine of 1932-1933 in the USSR is certainly more than 4 million and probably less than 10 million. Irrespective of the number one accepts, however, the Holodomor was an act of genocide against the Ukrainian nation and one of history’s biggest crimes against humanity.

The issue of whether this historical event was, in fact, a genocide of the Ukrainian people, however, has been resolutely determined – this in spite of persistent Russian propaganda and some international reluctance to recognize the genocidal nature of the Holodomor by appeasing governments. Among them, unfortunately and shamefully is the current administration of President Barack Obama, who refers to the Holodomor in all annual White House proclamations since he took office to as a great tragedy, a crime against humanity, etc. – but not genocide. Instead of honoring the victims, these proclamations not only offend the Ukrainian living but disrespect the findings of the U.S. Commission on the Ukraine Famine released in 1988, as well as the U.S. Congress in session and the president of the United States in office in 2006.

The law which enabled the construction of the aforementioned Holodomor memorial was introduced by Democratic Congressman Sander Levin from Michigan, received bipartisan support and was signed by President George W. Bush. That law refers to the Holodomor as genocide. Almost 20 countries, America’s allies, have recognized the Holodomor as genocide. Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term “genocide,” which spawned the United Nations Convention on Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), determined that the Holodomor was a genocide of the Ukrainian people, and even a cursory reading of the U.N. convention’s definition of the term lays to rest any ambiguity that what happened to Ukrainians in 1932-1933 in the USSR was an attempted genocide.

An incongruous issue, yet one often raised, is that of the number of victims. That issue is both problematic and probably not very significant in assessing the Holodomor, and it continues to be a subject of distraction, in particular by Russian propagandists with less than honorable motives, i.e. to minimize the damage as Russia purports to be the successor state of the USSR. It also remains a subject for debate by some, in particular, Ukrainian academics with honorable motives for the sake of historical correctness. The matter is problematic because of the passage of time, as well as poorly kept and intentionally distorted records. It is irrelevant because, whether 4 million or 10 million died, the Holodomor remains one of history’s biggest tragedies, genocides and crimes against humanity.

Noted British historian Robert Conquest in “The Harvest of Sorrow” – certainly the seminal study on the Famine of 1932-1933 prepared prior to the demise of the USSR and the opening of Soviet archives – estimated the total number of victims from the Famine at 7 million, with 6 million Ukrainians. Additionally, he estimated 4 million deaths within the USSR in 1930-1937 as a result of de-kulakization. Ukrainians were considered the main opponents to de-kulakization. Some 80 percent of that 4 million were Ukrainians, which would mean that in 1930-1937 more than 9 million Ukrainians lost their lives from famine and de-kulakization. The distinction between death from famine and death from de-kulakization is difficult to define.

In its report to the U.S. Congress adopted and submitted in 1988, the Commission on the Ukraine Famine set the number of Ukrainian victims as widely ranged but with a high end of over 8 million. James Mace, the commission’s executive director, had written earlier of a 7.5 million number: “Actually, the figure might well be higher. The figure of 10 million total victims of the famine seems to have circulated with the Soviet elite… The extraordinary frequency with which the 10 million figure appears obliges us to take seriously the possibility that it did in fact originate in Soviet official circles, even if we cannot claim to know with certainty.”

The International Commission of Inquiry into the 1932-1933 Famine in Ukraine convened by the World Congress of Free Ukrainians in its 1990 report concluded that the number of victims in Ukraine was at least 4.5 million with approximately 3 million outside Ukraine – thus, at least 7.5 million. The Summary of the International Commission of Inquiry into the 1932-1933 Famine in Ukraine referred to two censuses in the USSR, one in 1926 and the other in 1939.

All of these determinations were made prior to the demise of the USSR and access to Soviet archives in Moscow. Access revealed yet another census, one that had been taken in 1937. That census evidenced such an egregious loss of life attendant to the Famine, that Stalin had the results suppressed and the officials responsible promptly arrested and executed.

In any event, the 1926 census, about which there was no dispute, revealed that in 1926 the total population of the USSR was 147 million, with 31 million Ukrainians and 116 million non-Ukrainians. The 1939 census, which was sanctioned officially as accurate, showed the total population of the USSR at 170.5 million, with 28 million Ukrainians and 142.5 million non-Ukrainians. This indicated that the Ukrainian population actually declined by some 3 million during that period, while the population of non-Ukrainians grew by 26.5 million or at 23 percent, which if applied to Ukrainians would have meant that in 1939 there should have been 38 million Ukrainians. Thus, it appeared that the Ukrainian population lost 10 million with an adjustment for unborn children.

The 1937 census (conducted in January 1937) is important. It corroborates the aforesaid results and makes the decline of the Ukrainian population even more stark. Perhaps even more importantly, it reflects the Famine losses more directly since it is closer in time to the Holodomor and unlike the 1939 census does not reflect the additional losses suffered during the purges, which commenced in 1937. According to that census, the number of Ukrainians within the USSR in 1937 was 26.4 million – almost 5 million less than in 1926. That, in and of itself, is staggering. When combined with what was the normal growth rate of non-Ukrainians in the USSR from 1926 to 1937 at 17 percent, Ukrainians should have numbered 36.5 million in 1937. The conclusion is that between 1926 and 1937, the Ukrainian population within the entire USSR declined by 10.1 million. This was the direct and indirect result of the Famine and the policy termed by Dr. Conquest as de-kulakization. Naturally, in assessing the number of actual victims, an allowance should be made once again for children never born to the victims.

One of the first Ukrainian professionals who was given access to Soviet records in Moscow was Stanislaw Kulchytsky, a historian from the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences in Kyiv. Dr. Kulchytsky travelled to Moscow in the second half of the 1980s and after completing his research he wrote: “Consequently, the population of Ukraine for 1933-1938 ought to have increased due to natural progression by 3,034,000 people. On January 1, 1933, the republic had 31,901,000 inhabitants (on the basis of the count at that time), and on January 17, 1939 – 30,946,000 (according to the census). The population ought to have increased to 34,935,000, but in realty it decreased to 30,946,000.What happened to 3,939,000? Some number may have migrated beyond the republic’s boundaries, but the majority were victims of Famine and repression.”

Dr. Kulchytsky repeated the same findings after the Soviet demise and his travels to the West, conferring with others such as M. Maksudov and Stephen Wheatcroft. Prof. Wheatcroft, in fact, had access to Soviet archives prior to Dr. Kulchytsky so that his analysis prior to the Soviet demise reflects information in Soviet archives, although being given access by the Soviets that early raises questions about his objectivity. Dr. Kulchytsky did not address the matter of Ukrainian victims outside Ukraine, although he did address the precipitous decline of Ukrainians according to the 1937 census. He attributed this decrease to “millions of Ukrainians and Belarusians, who permanently resided beyond the boundaries of their republics, [and] during the census of 1937 registered as Russians.”

Several glaring and substantiated statistics contradict Dr. Kulchytsky’s last conclusion. According to the 1937 census the number of Belarusians increased by 2.9 percent over 1926, while Ukrainians declined by 15.3 percent. Furthermore, in comparing the numbers of the 1937 and 1939 censuses, Ukrainians increased during the two-year period relatively substantially, and this was at the time after the purges when Ukrainians would have had even more reason not to register as Ukrainians.

One of the most prominent non-Ukrainian historians who writes often on Ukrainian topics and is often cited on the subject of the Holodomor is Yale University’s Timothy Snyder. However, the Great Famine of 1932-1933 is not his field of expertise. He devotes a total of 37 pages in his more than 400-page book “Bloodlands” to all Soviet famines, including the Holodomor of 1932-1933. His conclusions regarding numbers are not based on independent research in Soviet archives, but rather the result of analyzing the findings of other researchers.

His conclusions are as follows:

“The Soviet census of 1937 found 8 million fewer people than projected: most of theses were famine victims in Soviet Ukraine, Soviet Kazakhstan and Soviet Russia, and the children that they did not have. Stalin suppressed its findings and had the responsible demographers executed. In 1933 Soviet officials in private conversations most often provided the estimate of 5.5 million dead from hunger. This seems roughly correct, if perhaps somewhat low, for the Soviet Union in the early 1930s, including Soviet Ukraine, Soviet Kazakhstan and Soviet Russia.

“One demographic retrojection suggests a figure of about 2.5 million famine deaths for Soviet Ukraine. This is too close to the recorded figure of excess deaths, which is about 2.4 million. The latter figure must be substantially low, since many deaths were not recorded. Another demographic calculation, carried out on behalf of the authorities of independent Ukraine, provides the figure of 3.9 million dead. The truth is probably in between these numbers, where most of the estimates of respectable scholars can be found. It seems reasonable to propose a figure of approximately 3.3 million deaths by starvation and hunger-related disease in Soviet Ukraine in 1932-1933. Of these people, some 3 million would have been Ukrainians, and the rest Russians, Poles, Germans, Jews and others. Among the million or so dead in the Soviet Russian republic were probably at least 200,000 Ukrainians, since the famine struck heavily in regions where Ukrainians lived. Perhaps as many as a hundred thousand more Ukrainians were among the 1.3 million people who died in the earlier famine in Kazakhstan. All in all, no fewer than 3.3 million Soviet citizens died in Soviet Ukraine of starvation and hunger-related diseases; and about the same number of Ukrainians (by nationality) died in the Soviet Union as a whole.”

The sources for Prof. Snyder’s analysis as listed in his footnotes are: Schlogel, Vallin, government study summarized in the Ukrainian newspaper Dzerkalo Tyzhnia, Kulchytsky, Ellman, Maksudov and Graziosi. There are no references to Soviet archives or documents except the aforementioned 1937 census.

A recent joint collaboration of three demographers of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in Kyiv, Omelian Rudnytskyi, Nataliia Levchuk and Pavlo Shevchuk, and Ukrainian American demographer Oleh Wolowyna took on the demographic issue of the “massive famine in Ukraine 1932-1933” and concluded:

“We estimate the toll of the Great Famine at 4.5 million, with 3.9 million in direct and 0.6 million in indirect losses. Using the indicator losses per 100 population instead of per 1,000 population, this translates into a total loss (direct plus indirect losses) equivalent to 15.3 percent of the overall population of Soviet Ukraine in 1933… Most of the direct losses occurred in 1933 – about 91 percent in rural areas and 67 percent in urban areas. Actually, the majority of excess deaths in 1933 occurred within a six-month period, between March and August, with 77.5 per cent in urban areas and 90.0 per cent in rural areas.”

This conclusion is displayed and itemized in a table of direct (excess deaths) and indirect (lost birth) 1932-1934 Famine losses in Soviet Ukraine by urban-rural areas. The combined urban-rural direct numbers for Soviet Ukraine are listed as follows: 250,000 for 1932; 3,529,200 for 1933; and 163,300 for 1934 – totaling 3,942,500. The reason why the 1932 number is rounded off to a rather imprecise estimate of 250,000 is because, by the authors’ admission, birth and death records for 1932 were not available. Indirect numbers for Soviet Ukraine were given as 586,000. The conclusion did not estimate the number of Ukrainians within that number or the number of Ukrainians outside Ukraine such as those in the Kuban region, which was heavily Ukrainian concentrated and from which, similar to the Ukrainian SSR, migration was proscribed by the Soviet decree of January 22, 1933.

Frankly, the Soviets in general did not have good recordkeeping and, in particular, during Stalin’s regime the tendency was to cover up. Soviet archivists have attested to this. Vsevolod Tsaplin, a Russian historian and the director of the Central State Archive in Moscow, wrote that in the years of central planning and maintaining records, “clearly very intentionally there were two sets of accounting for natural population growth: one for the press, and another for government use… For me it is very clear that the most important intention in concealing elements and summations of the natural movement of populations and the census of 1939 was to cover up the extent of massive liquidation of the population in the 1930s. Millions who perished disappeared from statistics. They simply never existed.”

Prof. Volodymyr Serhijchuk of Kyiv’s Taras Shevchenko National University, a historian and certainly one of the most prominent post-Soviet researchers working in the Soviet archives has addressed the numbers quandary as well. Recently, apprised of the reliance on Kulchytsky and the Rudnytskyi-Wolowyna numerical conclusions, Prof. Serhijchuk has raised a number of questions as to the value of utilizing Soviet birth and death records in reaching demographic conclusions: the deaths of children below one year were not registered at all; deaths after March 1933 were not registered; many children were simply left at the doors of orphanages, were not taken in and their deaths were not registered; children lured by cannibals and killed were not registered; those who died on roads or in forests and were ravaged by dogs and wild animals or whose bodies simply decomposed were never counted or buried; many deaths went unreported by surviving family members hoping to continue receiving the food quotas of those family members who had died; many deaths were unreported and the victims simply buried in graves or wells and then covered over with earth or simply garbage; many died within their homes and were simply buried next to the homes or simply died within their homes, decomposed indoors and were never registered.

Furthermore, Prof. Serhijchuk raises the issue of other Ukrainian deaths that went unregistered: those who were sentenced for crimes against the “five stalks” prohibition who died in prisons both within and outside of Ukraine and whose bodies were never turned over to surviving family members for burial and those state ”criminals” who were taken to construct canals in northern Russia or at other hard-labor locations. His position is that, if they were registered, they were registered as Russians.

In conclusion, any attempt to account with certitude for the number of victims of the Holodomor is flawed. The most reasonable approaches appear to be that of Dr. Conquest prior to the opening of Soviet archives and that of Prof. Serhijchuk, who is probably the most accomplished in the post-Soviet period, having spent much time and effort both in Soviet archives with flawed Soviet documents, as well as having studied the accounts of other professionals.

The conclusion should be that the number of Ukrainian victims of the Famine of 1932-1933 in the USSR is certainly more than 4 million and probably less than 10 million. Irrespective of the number one accepts, however, the Great Famine of 1932-1933 – the Holodomor – was an act of genocide against the Ukrainian nation and one of history’s biggest crimes against humanity.