January 22, 1995

The Great Famine of 1932-l933 in Ukraine: a presentation at Penn State University


(The Ukrainian Weekly, January 22, 1995, No. 4, Vol. LXIII)

The Great Famine of 1932-l933 in Ukraine was the topic of a special presentation at Penn State University on October 26. Following a screening of the documentary “Harvest of Despair,” a panel of specialists discussed the man-made famine and its effects, which continue to this day. The evening was sponsored by the departments of political science, Slavic and East European languages, and history, as well as the Center for Russian and East European Studies.

Below, The Ukrainian Weekly reprints Prof. Michael Naydan’s introduction to the presentation, as well as comments by three Kyyivans: Mykola Riabchuk, political and cultural writer; Natalka Bilotserkivets, poet and essayist; and Volodymyr Dibrova, writer.

A lasting imprint

by Michael Naydan

Two events more than any others have left a lasting imprint on Ukrainian national consciousness in the 20th century – the Chornobyl disaster of 1986 and the Stalin-orchestrated killer famine of 1933. It is rather ironic that both of these disasters to this day have been nearly invisible to the world. In the more recent event, the invisible radiation causes lingering, yet unseen, death and disease. In the latter, systematic Soviet disinformation and a cover-up of massive proportions have kept the truth obscured for over half a century.

New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty contributed to the cover-up by denying it in his articles publicly, while admitting its scope privately in discussions with British Embassy officials. There has been some talk of posthumously revoking Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize for journalism for his participation in the cover-up. Just one journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge, courageously published the truth in times when leftist elements in Britain and the United States wanted the great Bolshevik utopian experiment to succeed at any cost. It is nearly criminal that the cover-up lasted until recent times. Even eminent Sovietologist Robert Conquest’s book on the famine, “The Harvest of Sorrow,” was met with disdain by left-leaning pro-Soviet historians in the United States.

The truth is that the famine, a genocide of some 8 million Ukrainians, has only one horrific point of comparison in modern history – the murder of 6 million Jews in the holocaust. Unlike the Holocaust where numerous grim still pictures and films taken by the Allied forces serve to document the horrors inflicted by the Nazis, few visual artifacts remain to document the Ukrainian famine. Another difficulty lies in the fact that no single locution in English articulates what Stalin inflicted in 1933 on the people of the Ukrainian countryside. The appellation “artificial famine” has no intrinsic power in the way that the word “Holocaust” in a single word embodies the Nazi terror.

“Harvest of Despair” was the first film to document the famine through photographs and eyewitness accounts. Its makers also battled against a campaign of suppression before it saw the light of day. It was rejected time and again by television stations in America as “emigre nationalist propaganda” until William F. Buckley included a showing of it as part of his “Firing Line” program.

Following Ukrainian independence in 1991, the killer famine can no longer be denied, since formerly secret archives have been opened and massive graves of victims have been unearthed. The film’s pictures and those interviewed in the documentary give a face and a voice to one of the most horrible atrocities in human history. The showing of the film will be followed by a discussion by a panel of experts including: editor Mykola Riabchuk, prose writer Volodymyr Dibrova, and poet and essayist Natalka Bilotserkivets, all from Kyyiv, Ukraine; and Penn State historian Prof. George Enteen. The discussion will be moderated by political science Prof. Michael Bernhard.

The elimination of a people

by Mykola Riabchuk

This horrific event, whatever we call it – the Ukrainian holocaust, man-made famine or famine-terror – has two different though equally important aspects that should be examined in order to understand properly what happened in 1932-1933 in Ukraine. What is the main message of the famine, to us, born in much luckier times?

First, the political aspect seems to be quite apparent. As Prof. Naydan aptly expressed it, the Communist regime did its best to eliminate Ukrainians as a nation, not only from political maps, but also from history – from people’s memory, from human consciousness. It did its best to turn Ukrainians into a “hidden nation,” as Adrian Karatnytcky properly named his book a few years ago.

How could it happen that about 10 million people were starved to death in Europe, in the 20th century almost unnoticed, “unregistered,” as Robert Conquest says, in Western public consciousness?

There were two large-scale holocausts in 20th century Europe, one of them implemented by the Nazis against the Jews, and another one by the Bolsheviks against the Ukrainians. One of them is well-known, broadly covered and recognized, while another one is almost unknown, not covered and, until recently, unrecognized. Really, who cares about some kind of “Ukrainians;” and who the hell are those people anyway? Even now many “post-Sovietologists” strive to discuss not the hidden “holocaust” but “class struggle;” not the genocide committed by the Bolshevik Russian regime against the Ukrainians but about the “terror” of Soviets against their own(?!) people – like that of China of the 1960s or Kampuchea (Cambodia) of the 1970s.

Of course, neither Nazis nor Bolsheviks regarded genocide as their main aim; it was only one means, among many others, to realize their utopian social projects. In both cases totalitarian regimes strove to find a ‘final solution’ of national questions in their empires – the “Jewish question in the Third Reich and “Ukrainian question” in the “Third Rome.” The Prussian and Russian approaches, even though different in form, were quite similar in their essence. Khrushchev had witnessed Stalin’s complaint: “Ukrainians, unfortunately, are too numerous to be deported to Siberia.” So they were killed in their own villages.

The reasons for Nazi hatred of Jews are rather well-documented – one of the best explanations can be found in Hannah Arendt’s book “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” The reasons for Bolshevik hatred of Ukrainians are not as clear: “class struggle” is only a bleak euphemism for a much more profound and essential process in Soviet Russia (or the so called “Soviet Union”) – re-establishment and expansion of the old Russian empire.

Ukrainians have been considered the main obstacle to this process: firstly, because they were the most numerous minority in the Russian (and Soviet-Russian) empire. Secondly, they possessed the most important (in economic and geopolitical terms) territory; and thirdly, they were regarded as the main, if not the only, rival and competitor to Russians for the legacy of Kyyivan Rus’. The last point is the crucial one; I dare say it is a key to an understanding of the entire problem, which otherwise appears too irrational and implausible.

Ukrainians, by their very existence as a separate nation, challenge the most fundamental myth of Russian self-consciousness, self-awareness – the myth about a 1,000-year-old state, a 1,000-year-old culture, the “sacral” millennial reich. Russian imperial identity is badly damaged because of the very existence of some “indigenous” Ukrainians on the territory of post-Kyyivan-Rus’, in its geographical and historical space. Who on earth are they, and where are they from?

For centuries Russians had claimed that Ukrainians were only a branch of the Great Russian tree, merely a south-western ethnic group with its provincial “Little-Russian” dialect.

But as soon as the modern Ukrainian nation emerged (in the 1920s, this process came close to fruition, the various obstacles notwithstanding), the Russian empire in its Bolshevik hypostasis intervened radically. It was not a matter of Ukrainian nationalism only, nor even of “separatism.” It was and still is a matter of the very existence of the Russian empire with its mythological cornerstone. The “Kyyivan Rus’ legacy” could not be shared or given up. If this concept finally is laid to rest, the Russian claim to a temporally expansive empire will lose all validity.

In fact, Russians have only two alternatives: to create a modern nation-state or to recreate an old-style empire. In the first variant: they can change their identity, abandon imperial ambitions and stereotypes, and leave Ukrainians as they are and where they are. This is a painful but promising way, supported by a handful of Russian and Western liberals, one of which recently has been articulated as follows: “An independent Ukraine, by ending the Russian empire, creates the real possibility that Russia, as a nation and as a state, will become both democratic and European” (Zbignlew Brzezinski).

The second way is probably easier or, at least, more traditional historically and, hence, more plausible. But to follow this path, Russians have to eliminate Ukrainians – both from history and from geography. It had not been easy before, it would not be easy now. Since Ukrainians have ceased to be a “hidden nation,” the only way to eliminate them now would he to kill them. This is like a gothic tale about an illegitimate son who strives to kill his legitimate brother in order to inherit his father’s property and, most importantly, his father’s title.

The Ukrainian holocaust of 1932-1933 is horrific, but, in fact, only partial proof of the fighting that still is being conducted today. As long as Russians tend to build their identity on the basis of historical myths and rebuild the empire on the basis of an “illegitimate legacy,” Ukrainians can never be secure. There is no room for a Russian empire and a Ukrainian nation on the same map.

The second aspect and second lesson of the Ukrainian holocaust of 1932-1933 could be called “human” or “humanitarian.” Paradoxically enough, those events gave us not only the evidence of brutality, hatred and bestial conduct, of inhuman and anti-human behavior, including cannibalism; those events also gave us exciting examples of human sympathy, solidarity and sacrifice. We have all too little factual material about the famine because of the Soviet cover-up of the Ukrainian holocaust, but we need to learn more about simple peasants who secretly helped their fellows – the “kulaks” – despite the strongest prohibitions by the authorities; or about soldiers, some Komsomol members and Communists who were not as eager to confiscate grain as their bosses demanded, or about city-dwellers who, their own poverty notwithstanding, tried to rescue exhausted Ukrainian peasants, especially children, who were able to reach the cities despite police blockades.

There were different people, of different nationalities – Russians, Jews, Russified Ukrainians – but all of them should be honored since they, risking their own lives, saved Ukrainians from the Bolshevik terror. All of them should be recognized by Ukrainians as “the Righteous” (just as the Jews recognize “Righteous Gentiles”) – it would be the most appropriate Ukrainian government action to commemorate their courage.

One more aspect could be mentioned here, even though it is rather metaphysical and hardly verifiable. The more I think about the tragedy, the more I feel that it has some “hidden” meaning. To some extent it might be considered God’s trial of the Ukrainians – like that of the Biblical Jonah. But to us mere mortals, it looks more like God’s revenge or, rather, a “payback” by history to Ukrainian peasants who lost their chance in 1917-1920, who, for the most part, betrayed the Ukrainian revolution and the Ukrainian government – with a naive belief that all those bloody events in the cities were in no way relevant to their rural life.

I do not know any family in eastern Ukraine that was not touched by the famine. My mother, who lived in the Kharkiv region, lost all her brothers and sisters in 1933; my mother-in-law, from the Kyyiv region, also lost her entire family. But I know also that before our parents died in 1933, our grandparents en masse deserted from the Ukrainian National Army in 1918-1919, leaving the Ukrainian National Republic defenseless against the Bolshevik invasion. Fifteen years later the Bolsheviks repaid them and their children for everything. We pay this price and our children will probably pay it as well. I do not believe in revenge, but I believe in historical lessons. I certainly do not know what price we would pay if we lost our opportunity today for freedom, but undoubtedly we would pay a high price as all losers are condemned to do.

A cruel lesson

by Natalia Bilotserkivets

I belong to one of the many families that suffered loss in 1933. My mother was a 10-year-old girl then. Of a family of six (four children), only two remained – my mother and her 6-year-old brother. The others perished in a span of three months.

In our family we always remembered this, as we remembered the death by starvation of friends, relatives, neighbors. Meanwhile, in school, in the courses on “The History of the Soviet Union” (no courses of Ukrainian history were offered until recently), the unprecedented famine that cut down 7 million to 10 million of Ukraine’s peasantry was referred to in tangled euphemisms, such as “there were errors and distortions in the process of the collectivization of agriculture.” For the most part, it was not mentioned at all.

Quite recently, when Ukrainians in the diaspora expressed a desire to commemorate the victims of the famine, Alexander Yakovlev, the “ideologue of Perestroika,” then serving as the USSR’s ambassador to Canada, said the Famine of 1933 was nothing more than an exaggeration of “bourgeois nationalists.”

People of my generation were registered in communist organizations from the age of 7, then taught to believe the state and the Communist Party (which were practically one and the same). As a result, it seemed that two truths had come into being: the official truth and the unofficial, “underground” truth of our fathers and forefathers. We tried to reconcile them, and the results of this spiritual collaboration are now being felt in our putatively independent country – in the treatment of the famine, as well as in the way we deal with various historical, religious or moral problems.

The tragedy of the Ukrainian people, which can be placed among the greatest suffered by humanity, has its particular, “national” aspect.

The motif of fratricide has already crept into our discussions. The ideals mouthed by the Stalinist regime – of brotherhood among peoples, classes, etc. – were subverted by their peculiar application. There was always an “elder” brother who reserved the right to instruct the lesser. The Russian people held sway over the others, the proletariat dictated to the foolish peasantry.

All of this brings the Biblical story of Cain and Abel to mind. Cain was the elder brother, after all.

But the Ukrainian tragedy of 1933 is not merely a question of fratricide because a “brotherly” nation or class destroyed another (the ruling Communist stratum waged war against “the kulaks as a class”). This was a genuine fratricide in that many Ukrainian peasants played a significant role in it.

Many of the “activists” who went from house to house in the villages, tearing potatoes out of the hands of children or the elderly, were the sons of a common father – the Ukrainian people. Let history sort out which were legitimate, and which the bastards.

As we peer at the tragedy of the famine of 1933 and study its nuances, it looms as a horrific and cruel lesson – but also as a terrible event of mythical proportions – not only for Ukrainians, but for humanity.

(translated by Andrij Wynnyckyj)

An undiscussed trauma

by Volodymyr Dibrova

The genocidal famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in 1932-1933 is still affecting my country. It is an event of the present perfect rather than past simple tense.

Unlike other tragedies of this magnitude – the 1915 massacre of Armenians by Ottoman Turks, the Holocaust, the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge [in Cambodia] – it was followed by a successful cover-up. Any mention of the famine, let alone its honest investigation or literary description, were ruthlessly persecuted. But repressions or cynical propaganda campaigns alone could not explain why the Soviets had managed to keep it a secret for almost six decades. Their victims were also reluctant to speak about what they had been through, because there was nothing to boast about or to be proud of.

Despite the deep psychological trauma that a rape can inflict upon you, you could still gather enough courage to expose and accuse your rapist. But when the rape becomes an everyday occurrence, it almost universally leaves the victim crushed, demoralized, overwhelmed with apathy, self-pity and self-disgust.

And because this is precisely what happened to Ukraine, we up to this day cannot put it behind us. The famine and its consequences have never been talked about and dealt with openly and sincerely, and they both directly and covertly motivate our present behavior.

Generally, the survivors had to cope with this tragedy in the only way that was possible under those circumstances – i.e. by trying to live on without turning back. Let me illustrate this in the example of my wife’s family. Her grandfather was from the Mykolayiv region of southern Ukraine. In the 1930s, he was arrested and spent 10 years in a Gulag labor camp in Siberia. He was so happy to survive and come back that he never talked about what happened to him. His son, my wife’s father, was grateful to the “Soviet power” that it allowed him, “the son of the people’s enemy,” to enter university, join the Communist Party and eventually make a career and become director of a research institute in Kyyiv. For his son, the events of 1932-1933 are as distant as the Boston Tea Party is for most Americans.

He may not care a damn about the famine, but he, or for that matter the whole generation he belongs to, is not at all free from the genocide that nearly wiped Ukrainians away.

I remember in 1989, when I was first allowed to venture out into the treacherous Western world, I could not help pinching whatever I could lay my hands on – a teabag, a napkin, a pack of sugar or instant coffee in the students’ canteen, a pen, a pencil or an empty envelope from an office storeroom. Just in case. Because good tea or coffee is hard to find in Kyyiv. Because they won’t let you go abroad again. Because I’d be a fool to miss such a chance.

Now if you look at our government and Parliament you can easily notice the same attitude towards new opportunities prevailing among Communist dinosaurs and former dissidents alike. As a rule, all of them come from the same peasant stock, children or grandchildren of 1932, who had to flee their picturesque countryside or face extinction. Their lifetime goal was to run away from the sight of tragedy and to secure a decent future for their kin. At any cost. Even if it required jettisoning their national heritage (a sure sign of hillbillyism) and language (which had become directly associated with rustic poverty or “nationalism)”. Now that their time has come, they try to get as many cushy jobs as possible, their newly acquired appetite for foreign currencies is insatiable. Meanwhile their country is plunging into economic, political and moral squalor.

But could it have been otherwise? Our national trauma has never been properly discussed and time alone cannot heal it. A Ukrainian 40-year-old woman who was present at the showing of the “Harvest of Despair” and the discussion that followed came up and criticized me for being “too personal” and for “showing dirty laundry in public.” This convinced me once again that we are only in the initial stages of recovery. What we need is an honest exposure of our wounds to the sun. Otherwise they will rot. And in any case we should not he afraid of ourselves.

But this is probably a task for the next generation.