March 20, 1983

Lest we forget


The 12 pages of this special issue of The Weekly are devoted exclusively to the Great Famine in Ukraine, unquestionably the least-known man-made holocaust of modern times. An unbelievable 7 million Ukrainians – men, women and children – starved to death in a little over a year. Many of those who managed to survive did so by subsisting on bark, insects, small animals, pets, carrion. There are many documented cases of mothers eating their children. But what makes the famine truly monstrous, what gives it its sinister criminal dimension, is that it was not caused by drought, pestilence or crop failure, but by decree.

In an effort to break the will of an independent-minded and nationally conscious Ukrainian peasantry, secure collectivization and ensure industrialization, the Soviet regime under Stalin ordered the expropriation of all foodstuffs in the hands of the rural population. All harvested grain was confiscated by 25,000 non-Ukrainians sent in to oversee the operation. The grain was shipped to other areas in the Soviet Union or sold on the international market to finance the government’s rapid industrialization policies. Peasants were ordered to turn everything over to the state. Failure to do so was punishable by death. Without food, without grain, without seeds, the peasants began to starve. The famine, then, was politically motivated genocide.

So why, 50 years later, is the famine so little known? How has this horrible atrocity, the murder of 7 million people, escaped the attention of mankind, its conscience and its justice?

When Allied troops liberated the Nazi death camps at Treblinka and Auschwitz, their senses verified that an unspeakable crime had been committed against humanity. The sight of living corpses, the stench of death, the moans of the tormented, the ovens and barbed wire all provided instant confirmation. The enormity of the barbarism, the fact that it was premeditated mocked all moral and ethical standards, and made retribution not only desirable, but necessary. Testimonies of survivors were recorded, photographs taken, memorials planned. Documentation would forever fix the horror in the minds of men, remind them of the virulence of evil in a nominally civilized world and, it was hoped, preclude a recurrence. Because Nazi Germany was vanquished, it was possible, as was done at Nuremberg, to bring to trial at least some of those responsible for the Holocaust.

In contrast, the Ukrainian tragedy is unknown and unavenged. At the time, the Soviet Union was not a vanquished enemy, but an ally. Ironically, the United States formally recognized the Soviet Union in 1933, the same year that millions were dying of starvation. Because it was a closed society, most Western journalists and government officials were carefully kept away from the countryside and could not see the scale of the tragedy. Comparatively few photographs were printed in the West, and eyewitness accounts were rare. Those journalists who did report on the famine were largely ignored, or labelled reactionary by the many influential intellectuals enamored with the idea of a Marxist revolution. There were those who argued: since we have to live with the Soviets, why rock the boat?

Unfortunately, this line of thinking, despite events in Afghanistan and Poland, has continued to this day. Although the soviet Union is no longer an ally, it is a nuclear power to be reckoned with. Peaceful co-existence may be an outdated term, but the idea persists.

So why, many may argue, given this reality, dredge up a 50-year-old tragedy and risk further exacerbating U.S.-Soviet relations? Because, like the Nazi Holocaust, the murder of millions is a blot on our collective conscience. It must be recognized, understood, absorbed – regardless of political considerations. A failure to do so would suggest the chilling notion that had the nazi won the war, the death of 6 million Jews would be little more than a footnote in history. As we read the next few pages about the famine, We should ponder long and hard the real consequences of silence.