July 20, 2018

Congress and the Holodomor


This year marks the 85th anniversary of the Holodomor, Stalin’s genocidal Famine that claimed the lives of millions of Ukrainian men, women and children. This atrocity stands out as one of the starkest examples in history of man’s inhumanity to man.

Earlier this year, Senate Ukraine Caucus Co-chair Rob Portman (R-Ohio) introduced a resolution (S. Res. 435) solemnly commemorating the 1932-1933 Holodomor. A similar House of Representatives resolution (H. Res. 931) has been introduced by House Ukraine Caucus Co-chair Sander Levin (D-Mich.). 

Both resolutions have garnered more than 20 co-sponsors to date, and both deserve the strong support of the Ukrainian American community. 

The U.S. Congress has had a remarkable track record over the decades in recognizing the Holodomor. American legislators, spurred by an active Ukrainian American community, were paying attention even though it was not only being ignored, but outright denied by the Soviets and their minions in the West. 

Initial Congressional efforts harken back to a resolution introduced by Rep. Hamilton Fish (R-N.Y.) in 1934 that condemned the Soviet government for its acts of destruction against the Ukrainian people. 

Following the 50th anniversary of the Holodomor in 1983, the Ukrainian American community made a concerted effort to bring this tragedy to the attention of U.S. policymakers, Congress and the public. This culminated in October 1983 in Washington, when some 18,000 Ukrainian Americans participated in solemn observances, including a mass rally, demonstration in front of the Soviet Embassy and memorial concert.

In 1983, a resolution commemorating the Ukraine Famine of 1932-1933 passed the House and Senate. More importantly, in what was an extraordinary achievement, especially at the time, Congress established the U.S. Commission on the Ukraine Famine to “conduct a study on the Ukraine Famine of 1932-1933 in order to expand the world’s knowledge of the Famine and provide the American public with a better understanding of the Soviet system by revealing the Soviet role” in it. While the effort was supported by many Ukrainian Americans and others, including several American Jewish organizations, the driving force behind it was Ihor Olshaniwsky and the organization he and his wife led, Americans for Human Rights in Ukraine, assisted by The Ukrainian Weekly. The commission, led by James Mace, was formed in December 1985 and provided its report to Congress in 1998. Among the commission’s most important conclusions was that “Joseph Stalin and those around him committed genocide against Ukrainians in 1932-1933.” 

Congressional action did not end with the Ukraine Famine Commission. In 1990, for instance, Congress passed an act, signed by President George H.W. Bush, that designated the first week of November of that year as “National Week” to commemorate the victims of the Famine, that also noted “…the policies of Russification to suppress Ukrainian identity.”

Resolutions commemorating the Holodomor also passed the Congress during the anniversary years of 1993 and 1998. In 2003, on the 70th anniversary, my Helsinki Commission colleague Ron McNamara and I decided to take these resolutions a step further and explicitly use the word “genocide,” as none to then had done so. We drafted a Senate resolution that was introduced by our then-Chairman, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) in July 2003, titled “Expressing the sense of the Senate regarding the genocidal Ukraine Famine of 1932-1933” and specifically stated that “the man-made Ukraine Famine of 1932-1933 was an act of genocide as defined by the United Nations Genocide Convention.”

With the active support of several Ukrainian American organizations and strong editorial backing from The Ukrainian Weekly, the resolution garnered an unusually large number of co-sponsors – one-third of the Senate. Yet, despite the strong support by the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC), Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), and even the co-sponsorship of a narrow majority of SFRC members, the resolution was never taken up by the committee. As a result, it was never voted on by the entire Senate – all because of one word: genocide. A resolution also introduced in the House that anniversary year – but without the word genocide – passed that chamber with ease. At one point in the more than yearlong Senate effort, a key SFRC staffer called me up suggesting that if we merely remove the “G” word, noting the House resolution, it would pass the Senate quickly. I politely but firmly declined, saying that Congress had already passed many resolutions about the Famine, but that it was high time to call things by their real name. 

So, what was the problem? The major reason was adamant opposition by the Bush administration. (I recall friends at the State Department quietly assuring me that the problem was not State, but the White House, specifically, the National Security Council). Many in the Ukrainian American community understandably thought that the reason that the resolution was stalled was because of Russian opposition. Indeed, the Russian government categorically opposed the resolution because of its characterization of the Holodomor as a genocide. But Russia in this instance was not the main problem. 

So, what was? For decades, Congressional resolutions initiated by the influential Armenian American community calling the Turkish mass-murder of some 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 a genocide had failed to pass. Such resolutions were opposed by every U.S. administration in order to not antagonize NATO ally Turkey, which vigorously denies that a genocide took place. The Armenian community was watching our resolution closely, hoping that it would set a precedent that would make it easier for Congress to recognize their genocide. The Turkish government would have been vehemently opposed and upset, and the timing was especially bad given the U.S.-led war in neighboring Iraq. Alas, this was one of those times when a seemingly external factor affected the disposition of a resolution – not a unique occurrence. Despite the Senate resolution’s failure, because of all of the activity and controversy surrounding this resolution, it received more attention than most of the other resolutions on the Holodomor that had passed the House or Senate in earlier years.

But good news was to follow a few years later. Through the efforts of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America and U.S. Holodomor Committee, on October 13, 2006, President George W. Bush, whose administration had earlier opposed our 2003 resolution which explicitly called the Famine a genocide, signed into law Public Law 109-340, authorizing the construction of a memorial in the District of Columbia “to honor the victims of the Ukrainian famine-genocide.” Although arguably somewhat indirect, most experts consider the specific reference to the Famine-Genocide in the law as constituting U.S. recognition of the Holodomor as a genocide. 

The monument, located not far from the Capitol, was officially dedicated in November 2015. If in Washington, make a point to stop by and bow your head in memory of all of those who lost their lives in this genocide.