June 17, 1984

The famine: Stalin imposes a “final solution”



Demise of Ukrainization

While the published sections of the January decree referred only to the failure of the Ukrainian procurement campaign to meet its quota, Postyshev later indicated that the decree also dealt with nationality policy. Other Soviet officials never contradicted him on this. In any case, a campaign against an initially unidentified Ukrainian national deviation was begun, and it was conducted in a manner reminiscent of the campaign against a “right deviation” that had preceded attacks on Nikolay Bukharin in 1929. On February 28, 1933, a major government reshuffle was announced, transferring Skrypnyk from his post as commissar of education to that of deputy premier and head of the Ukrainian State Planning Commission. On March 4, Pravda carried a self-critical letter from the leadership in Soviet Byelorussia, confessing to “errors in the nationality question.” A few days later Visti VUTsVK, the daily newspaper of the Soviet Ukrainian government, published a lead editorial informing its readers that the Byelorussians’ letter was relevant to Ukraine as well. In late April a special conference on nationality policy was held under the sponsorship of the Ukrainian Central Committee and served as a forum for denouncing national deviations in educational and linguistic policy. Clearly, a final assault against Skrypnyk was being prepared. This came at the Ukrainian Central Committee’s June plenum. Skrypnyk’s speech was never published, but according to accounts that leaked out, he denied that hitherto loyal communists were guilty of national deviation and of intentionally sabotaging the grain procurement campaign. He asserted that opposition was the inevitable consequence of the policies imposed by Moscow, the restrictions on Ukraine’s autonomy, and the famine, for which he laid the blame squarely at Moscow’s door.

Postyshev’s speech, on the other hand, was published under the telling headline: “We Are Mobilizing the Masses for the Immediate Delivery of Grain to the State.” He defended the compulsory procurements policy and made it clear that it was Skrypnyk who had been the target of his campaign against “national deviations.” He portrayed Skrypnyk as a leader of nationalist heretics, the protector of “nationalistic wreckers” responsible for the inadequate fulfillment of grain procurements. Interestingly, the only specific charge against Skrypnyk in Postyshev’s stream of abuse was Skrypnyk’s advocacy of orthographic changes tending to make Ukrainian spelling more distinct from Russian, something that “served only the annexationist designs of the Polish landlords.”

A few days later Skrypnyk’s erstwhile colleagues joined in a rather unsavory competition in denunciations. Andriy Khvylya, the post-Skrypnyk deputy commissar of education, declared:

“The fundamental cause of errors in the procurement of grain during the past year consists in the fact that many of Ukraine’s party organizations did not exercise the requisite Bolshevik vigilance and uncompromising attitude toward hostile elements, which is rooted in the very fact that they sabotaged us at every turn of our activity…And our commissariat of education not only failed to expose wrecking, but, on the contrary, sheltered wrecking elements. Worse, the commissar himself…Comrade Skrypnyk, made it possible for these elements to conceal their activities in linguistics…”

Panas Liubchenko, then a secretary of the Ukrainian Central Committee and destined to become head of the Ukrainian Council of People’s Commissars within the year, linked Skrypnyk with the cultural “wrecking” exposed at the 1930 trial of members of the Union for the Liberation of Ukraine and held him responsible for “kulak Ukrainian nationalist deviations” in linguistics, literature, literary scholarship, and historical writing.

Skrypnyk, who committed suicide on July 6, 1933, was no longer alive when Nikolay Popov, a secretary of the Ukrainian Central Committee since March 1933, linked the struggle to extract grain to the struggle against Skrypnyk, both apparently being equally necessary to transform Ukraine into a model Soviet republic:

“The task of raising our agriculture cannot be accomplished unless we correct errors which have been permitted in the national question, unless we purge our party, our state, cultural, agricultural, collective-farm and other institutions of bourgeois nationalists, without mobilizing the entire party mass to fight nationalism, without strengthening our efforts to bring the masses up in the spirit of internationalism…Bolshevik nationality policy, most intimately connected with all our party’s tasks…will be a mighty weapon for the consolidation of Soviet Ukraine as an indivisible part of the Soviet Union…We face here and now the task of making Soviet Ukraine into a model Soviet republic.”

By then Postyshev had already set about making Soviet Ukraine a model Soviet republic. In March 1933, the Ukrainian deputy secretary of agriculture and 22 others were shot for alleged attempts to sabotage agriculture. Other alleged conspiracies were connected with the old revolutionary Ukrainian parties, the Poles, and the underground Ukrainian Military Organization in Western Ukraine. Virtually all prominent communist dissenters from the past were arrested at this time in what become known as the “Postyshev terror.” Arrests of writers became a wholesale process; and of the 259 Ukrainian writers whose works were published in Soviet Ukraine in 1930, only 36 had their works still printed after 1938.

Visible reminders of Ukraine’s distinctiveness began to disappear. For example, Vasyl Ellan-Blakytny had been revered as a sort of founding saint of Ukrainian proletarian literature. His statue stood at a principal intersection in Kharkiv – until one day a truck ran into it. The statue was not replaced. As time passed, not only statues but also artistic and architectural monuments to the Ukrainian past either fell prey to trucks or were removed to make way for new projects, many of which never materialized.

In the remaining months of 1933 many of the organizations and individuals that had been central to Ukraine’s intellectual life in the 1920s simply disappeared. Linguists, fiction writers, historians, poets – virtually everyone who has anything to do with creating a distinctly Ukrainian cultural scene in the 1920s – disappeared. Ukrainization became a dead letter. Concessions to Ukrainian national identity came to an end.


A changed ideology in the national sphere made itself felt in late 1934 with the publication of a decree denouncing the hitherto dominant Marxist historical school in Russia, the followers of M.N. Pokrovskiy, who had narrated Russian history as the history of an oppressive empire, a prison of peoples. Instead, a new history of the USSR portrayed the extension of the Russian empire as a progressive process. Tsars were rehabilitated as state-builders. This interpretation was intended to be the basis for a new national ideology. Soviet patriotism, which held that national differences within the Soviet Union were secondary to the shared history and loyalty that united all Soviet citizens. A German scholar, in describing the new self-definition of the USSR, called it “a kind of Reichsidee for a new Soviet imperialism.” Others have likened it to the pre-revolutionary slogan of “Russia one and indivisible.”

Ideology mirrored politics. By the time the 1936 Soviet Constitution was adopted, the Soviet Union had become a state in which the administrative competence of its constituent republics had been sharply reduced and that of the Union greatly enlarged. The ideology of Soviet patriotism dominated by Russian culture and centralism was in no small part a legacy of the Ukrainian famine. While the suppression of national self-assertion and the introduction of centralization were principal features of overall Soviet policy in the 1930s, the Ukrainians, as the largest and most self-assertive non-Russian nation, seemed to be singled out for special treatment. Only they had to suffer the loss of several million villagers to starvation in an artificially contrived famine. Placed in this context, the famine of 1933 makes sense as one of a series of policies designed to neutralize Ukrainians as a political factor, indeed, as a social organism in the Soviet Union. These policies entailed the destruction of the spiritual and cultural elites of Ukraine and the subordination of the Ukrainian structures to central ones; the destruction of the officially sanctioned Ukrainian Communist political leadership as a distinct force in Soviet politics (almost all of those who turned on Skrypnyk perished as well in the 1937-38 purges); the abandonment of Ukrainization and the gradual abolition of Ukrainians entering Russified urban and industrial environments; and a body blow against the main constituency of Ukrainian nationalism – the peasantry. In sum, one cannot understand the famine without understanding the turnabout in Soviet nationalities policy – from seeking to foster to seeking to absorb national cultures. By the same token, one cannot understand how this policy was imposed without reference to the famine. The famine must therefore be understood within the context of an attempt to impose a final solution on the “Ukrainian problem” as it had hitherto existed.

Nevertheless, the Soviet state never solved its “Ukrainian problem,” which still haunts Soviet leaders. Stalin himself helped to undermine his policy by annexing Ukrainian territories from Poland, Romania, and Czechoslovakia during World War II. Western Ukraine never went through such devastation as the famine and related repressions of the 1930s, and it was inevitable that the traditional cross-fertilization of ideas between Western and Eastern Ukraine would flourish when the two parts became united. In the 1960s a dissident movement arose that included Ukrainians from all Ukrainian territories and combined demands for national and human rights, while even the Soviet Ukrainian government under Petro Shelest edged a little further away from Moscow for a brief moment. Shelest was removed and the dissidents were arrested. Yet, after the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, a Helsinki Monitoring Croup, similar to and connected with counterparts in other parts of the Soviet Union, was formed in Kiev. Attempts to abolish the Ukrainian national churches have succeeded only in changing the official affiliation – not the spiritual essence – of Ukrainian Christianity.

Only a few years ago there were Western scholars who argued that the USSR would assimilate the Ukrainians in a relatively brief period of time. No one makes such predictions today. It is difficult to see how the problem of the Soviet Union’s non-Russian nations, having defied the most brutal attempts at solution, can ever be solved to the government’s satisfaction.

Dr. Mace is a post-doctoral fellow at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and an expert on the Great Famine.

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