March 20, 1983

Profile: James Mace, junior collaborator of Robert Conquest


CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – For Dr. James Mace, who is doing research for Dr. Robert Conquest’s upcoming book on the Great Famine in Ukraine in 1932-33, the project has become, in his own words, the culmination of “a historian’s dream.”

Now in his third year as a post-doctoral fellow at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, the 31-year-old scholar has been immersed in poring over Ukrainian-language accounts of the famine, as well as Soviet and other sources for pertinent material to document what he calls “a focal point of the Ukrainian national experience.” In addition, he has found time to tour Ukrainian communities to lecture on the famine, and put the finishing touches on his own book on national communism in Ukraine, which is due to be published by Harvard in a few months.

But how did a young, non-Ukrainian native of Oklahoma become involved with Ukrainian history and, subsequently, the famine project? According to Dr. Mace, his interest was spawned while he was a long-haired undergraduate at Oklahoma University in the early 1970s. Like many of his compatriots, he was an opponent of America’s involvement in Vietnam, and he wanted to learn more about national liberation and anti-imperialist struggles in modern history. This, in turn, led him to study political science, and he quickly gravitated to Soviet and East European studies, learning Russian along the way.

It was in graduate school at the University of Michigan that the Ukrainian connection began to gel. There, he studied with Prof. Roman Szporluk, a Ukrainian author and historian, who spurred his interests in Ukrainian studies. He learned Ukrainian. His doctoral thesis was on national communism in Soviet Ukraine in the 1920s. Although he had heard of the famine while an undergraduate, it was while doing research for his dissertation that Dr. Mace became more familiar with the causes and the aim of the famine, seeing it more clearly as Stalin’s attempt to destroy the Ukrainian nation by imposed starvation within the framework of dekulakization.

In Dr. Mace’s view, the famine marked the end of a “limited autonomy” in Ukraine, personified in the 1920s by Mykola Skrypnyk, a leader of the Communist Party in Ukraine until his disgrace and subsequent suicide in 1933.

“In the 1920s, Soviet Ukraine was very much like Poland in the early Gomulka years; it was a national Communist regime which was stuck in a balancing act,” Dr. Mace said. “On the one hand, you had to keep Moscow happy. On the other hand, you had to at least placate the national aspirations of the local Ukrainian inhabitants, who were four-fifths of the country’s population.”

By the early 1930s, however, this experiment with Ukrainianization was suddenly abandoned with the suppression of the Ukrainian elites, beginning with the purges of Skrypnyk’s associates and the destruction of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church and such academic institutions as the Ukrainian Academy of Arts and Sciences. That done, Stalin decided to break once and for all the national consciousness of the peasantry. The result was the Great Famine, which was to kill 5 to 7 million Ukrainians.

Dr. Mace’s direct involvement in the Conquest book jointly sponsored by HURI and the Ukrainian National Association, began shortly after he arrived at the HURI in July 1981. Prof. Omeljan Pritsak, director of the HURI, suggested that he help research the book before embarking on his own work as a post-doctoral fellow. Seizing the opportunity to help publicize what he calls “the crime of the century that nobody’s ever heard of” and the chance to work with a scholar of Prof. Conquest’s reputation, Dr. Mace agreed to work on the project.

Naturally aware that “an outsider will never be able to completely comprehend what the famine was really like,” Dr. Mace is confident that his research will help to objectively depict the scope of the tragedy, and unequivocally show that it was, in fact, a premeditated attempt at genocide.

The main part of his job thus far has been to make available to Prof. Conquest, who does not speak or read Ukrainian, all relevant Ukrainian-language material. The bulk comes from eyewitness accounts, some published and some sent to the HURI in manuscript form.

Typical of the latter category, though better written than most, is an eyewitness account sent from a man in California who writes under the name of Dolat. Explains Dr. Mace: “This was a man who was in his early teens during the famine. In his village, everybody was starving. His family happened to have a cow, so they survived through the winter and spring almost exclusively on dairy products. But after the snow, they would go around to relatives’ houses. One of his in-laws had gone crazy with starvation and had become a cannibal. His aunt had hung herself and the body had decayed so that he saw the body on the floor decapitated; the neck had just rotted through.”

Of the numerous published accounts, most of which Dr. Mace said have been largely “ignored by the non-Ukrainian public,” he cited “The black Deeds of the Kremlin: A White Book,” as a particularly valuable source of information. Yet, he added that quite often published eyewitness accounts are understandably overstated and dramatic, a fact that has caused many scholars to shy away from them as unobjective.

“You want to put three exclamation points at the end of every sentence,” Dr. Mace said in explaining the emotional tenor of many published eyewitness accounts. “You want to have titles that drip blood because you saw people dripping blood.”

Soviet sources have also been of “great worth,” he said, particularly press accounts that carried the names of villages that were blacklisted, and noted the seizure of grain, denunciations of local officials who hadn’t made their grain quotas and acts of “kulak sabotage.” Many inadvertantly painted a clear picture of the methodical confiscation of grain couched in grain procurement statistics, output figures and population and demographic tables.

Less helpful, but nevertheless revealing, were official Soviet histories of collectivization. Noted by Dr. Mace: “When you deal with Soviet historiography you’ve stepped into a whole different mental universe because it’s all a tale of this great revolutionary experience of building socialism.” Yet, despite it tendentiousness, elements of truth do emerge.

Dr. Mace cited one official account, published in the 1960s, which contained useful crop figures, and a study on the technical reconstruction of agriculture which had a segment on grain procurement campaigns in the 1930s, policies which created the famine.

Among helpful Western accounts, Dr. Mace singled out Malcolm Muggeridge’s recollections of the famine published in the book “Winter in Moscow,” and his memoirs, “Chronicles of Wasted Time.” He also mentioned the new stories by William Henry Chamberlin of the Christian Science Monitor and the accounts of William Horsly Hunt, a British psychologist who was studying with Pavlov at the time of the famine and managed to meet unofficially with several Soviet functionaries. He later recalled that many of them told him that between 10 and 14 million peasants perished during the Great Famine.

Finally, Dr. Mace said that the Ukrainian press at the time, most notably Svoboda and Dilo, published in Polish-ruled western Ukraine, had daily accounts, as did newspapers in Sweden and Germany. The Germans were concerned about the plight of the USSR’s Volga Germans, who, Dr. Mace said, were also targets of famine along with the Cossack nations.

Dr. Mace said that his “biggest frustration” in preparing the research was his lack of a thorough knowledge of Ukrainian and its idioms. “I wish I had better fluency of spoken Ukrainian so I could talk to mono-lingual survivors,” he said. A language barrier also prevented him from familiarizing himself with articles in Italian and Spanish newspapers of the period, though he added that Prof. Conquest speaks French and has managed to investigate French press reports.

As to the book itself, Dr. Mace said that it is one-third complete, and should be published at the earliest by the end of the year but more likely in early 1984. A publisher has yet to be named, and the final draft should fall between 300 and 400 pages, although it may be longer. The working title is “The Collectivization Terror Famine,” but that may yet be changed in the final version, he added.

When asked why he felt the project was important, Dr. Mace said that understanding the famine is an indispensable step in understanding the Soviet Union and how it was created.

“It is also important because it happened,” he said. “There is an intrinsic importance to the past. This is particularly important because it not only cost millions of lives, but it marked the destruction of a European nation more numerous than the Poles, and its temporary destruction as a political factor and even as a social entity.”

In Dr. Mace’s estimation, the famine occurred when Ukraine, long a nation of peasants and priests, was emerging as a modern nation. In his view, Ukraine in the 1920s was “a sociologically complete society,” with its elites, a solid industrial working class and, with the advent of Ukrainianization, Ukrainian-language schools, newspapers and other social institutions. The famine was Stalin’s way of “dealing a body blow” to all this, to “strike a nation,” he said.

For this reason, Dr. Mace said, the famine “plays a role in Ukrainian history analogous to the Holocaust in Jewish history,” adding that it remains “the national tragedy of Ukraine.”

He attributed the lack of public knowledge about the famine in the West to several factors, including timing, the reluctance of some press correspondents, notably from The New York Times, to jeopardize good relations with Kremlin leaders, America’s concern with the Depression and resulting social unrest, the rise of fascism in Europe and the intellectual Left’s romance with Marxism.

In addition, he pointed out that, unlike the Holocaust, which was verifiable the moment Allied troops liberated the death camps and saw the horrors with their own eyes, there is little hard documentation easily available to the public to prove the famine actually happened – and virtually under the noses of the international community. The sheer magnitude of the crime in a sense precluded its believability he said.

Dr. Mace admitted that his newfound celebrity status in the Ukrainian community was somewhat “overwhelming,” but he quickly added that the Ukrainian community has been “very positive and supportive.” His immediate plans for the future include the publication of his book, “Communism and the Dilemmas of National Liberation: National Communism in Soviet Ukraine 1918-1933,” which he likened to “having a baby after being pregnant for five years.”

He also indicated that he would like to write his own book on the famine from the perspective of his own area of expertise.

“There’s never going to be just one book on the famine,” he said, adding that he would like to go on studying Eastern Europe, preferably Ukrainian history.

Someday he hopes to teach at a respected university and have “a few good books to my credit” that will be useful to future scholars in Soviet and Ukrainian studies. Judging by his indefatigable energies, his ambition and his love of his subject, Dr. Mace will surely attain most, if not all, of his goals. For now, however, he is satisfied with the challenging task of documenting the unknown “crime of the century.”

The Ukrainian Weekly, March 20, 1983, No. 12, Vol. LI