Aftermath of a Soviet Famine
Ukraine's Pursuit of Genocide Designation Upsets
Russians Who Say Others Died, Too
By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 27, 2008; A14
MOSCOW -- Relations between Russia and
Ukraine, bedeviled by disputes over natural gas supplies and NATO
expansion, have lately been roiled by one of the great tragedies of
Soviet history: the famine of 1932-33, which left millions dead from
starvation and related diseases.
Ukraine is seeking international recognition of the famine, which
Ukrainians call Holodomor -- or death by hunger -- as an act of
When Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin
forced peasants off their homesteads and into collective farms, special
military units requisitioned grain and other food before sealing off
parts of the countryside. Without food and unable to escape, millions
Ukraine, according to Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko,
became "a vast death camp."
"There is now a wealth of historical material detailing the specific
features of Stalin's forced collectivization and terror famine policies
against Ukraine," Yushchenko wrote in the Wall Street Journal
late last year. "Other parts of the Soviet Union suffered terribly as
well. But in the minds of the Soviet leadership there was a dual
purpose in persecuting and starving the Ukrainian peasantry. It was
part of a campaign to crush Ukraine's national identity and its desire
There are no exact figures on how many died. Modern historians place
the number between 2.5 million and 3.5 million. Yushchenko and others
have said at least 10 million were killed.
But Russian politicians, historians and writers say Yushchenko and his
allies are attempting to turn a Soviet crime that also killed Russians,
Kazakhs and others into a uniquely Ukrainian trauma. They argue that
the famine was the awful but collateral consequence of ruthless
agricultural policies and the drive to industrialize, not a case of
deliberate mass murder.
"There is no historical proof that the famine was organized along
ethnic lines," the lower house of the Russian parliament said in a
resolution passed this month. "Its victims were millions of citizens of
the Soviet Union, representing different peoples and nationalities
living largely in agricultural areas of the country."
Moreover, some Russians say, the push for the designation of genocide
has more to do with demonizing modern-day Russia in the West than any
desire for historical justice. Since Yushchenko came to power in early
2005, the two countries have repeatedly clashed over a host of issues,
particularly his desire to integrate Ukraine into Western institutions
and away from Russia's orbit.
The Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in a front-page commentary
in the newspaper Izvestia this month, wrote that the "provocative cry
about 'genocide' " took shape "inside spiteful, anti-Russian,
"Still, defamation is easy to insinuate into Westerners' minds," he
wrote. "They have never understood our history: You can sell them any
old fairy tale, even one as mindless as this."
That broadside came a few days after President Bush,
on a visit to Ukraine, laid a wreath at a memorial to the victims of
the famine. The United States and several other Western countries have
recognized the famine as genocide.
But historians remain divided over whether the famine meets the United Nations
definition of genocide, which defines it, in part, as the "intent to
destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious
"Registry office statistics for 1933 show death rates in urban
localities no higher than average in contrast to the exorbitant death
toll in the countryside, not only in Ukraine but all over the Soviet
Union," Andrei Marchukov, a researcher at the Institute of Russian
History, wrote in an article published by the Russian news agency RIA
Novosti. "People were doomed not on the grounds of ethnicity but merely
because they lived in rural areas."
The issue has also divided Ukrainians, with Russian-speakers, who live
mainly in the eastern part of the country, dismissing the genocide
charge as grandstanding by Yushchenko. The president has also proposed
a law that would criminalize denial of Holodomor.
The pro-Russian party led by former prime minister Viktor Yanukovych
boycotted a parliamentary vote on a 2006 law recognizing the famine as
an act of genocide. His party has suggested using the word "tragedy" to
describe the famine.
"It happened on the territory of many countries," Yanukovych said.
"Maybe in Ukraine it had a greater effect, as Ukraine is a more
Some Ukrainian historians, such as Stanislav Kulchitsky, an authority
on the famine who works at the Institute of History in Kiev, counter
that while the famine enveloped many regions of the Soviet Union, the
"smashing blow," as he said Stalin called it, fell on Ukraine and
Kuban, a region heavily populated with Ukrainians.
"The mechanism was different in Ukraine," Kulchitsky said in a
telephone interview. He cited the sealing off of the Ukrainian
countryside in particular, saying there were no such efforts elsewhere.
Kulchitsky said the famine should be understood as part of a larger
effort to wipe out Ukrainian culture and nationalism that began in the
"It was not industrialization or modernization," he said. "It was
cold-blooded killing by hunger."