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Remembering the Ukrainian Famine-Genocide

Although the ongoing Euro Revolution in Ukraine is rightly the focus of much of the world’s attention, we would do well to remember that on November 23rd Ukraine commemorated the 80th anniversary of the famine-genocide that took the lives of 3 to 4 million Ukrainian peasants in 1932–1933. As the United States contemplates whether or not it should threaten the Yanukovych regime with sanctions, we may want to remember that three Americans played key roles in reporting, denying, and remembering the events now known as the Holodomor.

Joseph Stalin’s decision in 1928 to seize privately held agricultural land and transform it into collective farms caused massive hardship for all Soviet peasants. When authorities expropriated peasant grain stocks and farm animals, hunger broke out in much of the USSR. In Ukraine, where close to a million peasants actively rebelled against collectivization, such expropriations were especially severe, leading to widespread starvation that the state both refused to alleviate and purposely aggravated until millions had died and a massive crackdown on Ukrainian political, cultural, and religious elites had been completed. At the height of the Holodomor, 25,000 Ukrainians starved per day; cannibalism was rampant.

Harry Lang, a writer and labor editor of the New York–based, Yiddish-language Jewish Daily Forward, reported the following for the New York Evening Journal

A high official of the Ukrainian Soviet, with whom we established contact, confidentially advised me to take a trip to the villages. Only there, he said, would I see the full handiwork of the famine. And he added: “Six million people have perished from hunger in our country in 1932–33.” In the office of a Soviet functionary I saw a poster on the wall which struck my attention. It showed the picture of a mother in distress, with a swollen child at her feet, and over the picture was the inscription: “EATING OF DEAD CHILDREN IS BARBARISM.” I wondered. What was the purpose of such a poster? The Soviet official explained to me: “It is one of our methods of educating the people. We distributed such posters in hundreds of villages, especially in the Ukraine. We had to.” “Is the situation that bad?” I asked in astonishment. “Are people really in such a condition as to eat their children’s corpses?” The official was silent. It was a painful, disturbing silence. “Not all our people are enlightened,” he remarked a little later. Again I shuddered. But I went down to the Ukraine and saw with my own eyes the destruction wrought there, the wreckage of a great country.

Unfortunately, Lang’s honest reporting did not influence American public opinion as much as the mendacious stories written by Walter Duranty, Moscow bureau chief of the New York Times and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1932.

Here’s what Duranty wrote in March 1933, at the height of the famine: “There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition, especially in the Ukraine, North Caucasus, and Lower Volga.” Later that year, Duranty wrote that any talk of famine is “a sheer absurdity.”

Duranty knew he was lying. Privately, he told the British Embassy: “The Ukraine has been bled white. The population was exhausted and if the peasants were ‘double-crossed’ by the Government again no one could say what would happen.” It was “quite possible that as many as 10 million people may have died directly or indirectly from lack of food in the Soviet Union during the past year.”

Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish scholar who coined the term “genocide” and played a large role in the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, set the record straight in 1953. Lemkin, who lost scores of relatives in the Holocaust, immigrated to the United States in 1941 and taught at my university, Rutgers-Newark.

Ukraine is highly susceptible to racial murder by select parts and so the Communist tactics there have not followed the pattern taken by the German attacks against the Jews. The nation is too populous to be exterminated completely with any efficiency. However, its leadership, religious, intellectual, political, its select and determining parts, are quite small and therefore easily eliminated, and so it is upon these groups particularly that the full force of the Soviet axe has fallen, with its familiar tools of mass murder, deportation and forced labor, exile and starvation.... Between 1932 and 1933, 5,000,000 Ukrainians starved to death.... This is not simply a case of mass murder. It is a case of genocide, of destruction, not of individuals only, but of a culture and a nation.

Unsurprisingly, Ukrainians refer to the famine of 1932–1933 as the “Holodomor”—or killing by famine. (An excellent documentary about the Holodomor is the Canadian film director Yurij Luhovy’s award-winning Genocide Revealed.)

Bizarrely, some historians insist that remembering the Holodomor somehow diminishes the Holocaust. That’s a bit like saying that remembering World War I diminishes World War II or that remembering slavery in Haiti diminishes slavery in America. Remembering or commemorating tragedies is not a zero-sum game; the human capacity for empathy is, after all, boundless. If I comprehend the horror of the Holodomor, I am better equipped to comprehend the horror of the Holocaust. And if I comprehend the horror of the Holocaust, I can better comprehend the horror of the Rwandan genocide. There are, alas, more than enough tragedies with which we can learn to empathize.

No less bizarrely, others suggest that Ukrainians concocted the word Holodomor so as to compete terminologically with the term Holocaust. That, too, is nonsense. The Ukrainian word for famine happens to be holod, which means the choice for a term is between Holod and Holodomor, the latter combining holod with part of the word moryty (“to kill”). By chance, both terms share their first four letters with Holocaust, yet neither of them have the same number of syllables.

Equally absurd are claims that Ukrainians have inflated estimates—to 6 or 10 million—so as to “beat” the Holocaust. As the above three citations illustrate, Lang reported 6 million dead, Duranty 10 million, and Lemkin 5 million. Where else were people to get numbers before more reliable demographic data became available recently and the 3 to 4 million figure became the most accurate current estimate (which isn’t to say that it won’t be revised upward or downward if and when still more detailed micro-data become available)?

Fortunately, despite Duranty’s efforts to deny the Holodomor, honest men such as Lang and Lemkin saved it from the oblivion into which Stalin and his henchmen hoped it would disappear. Just as fortunately, despite some scholars’ attempts to place the Holodomor in competition with the Holocaust, reasonable people can agree that such one-upmanship is obscene and that neither tragedy should ever be repeated.

Ukraine has a particular stake in remembering the Holodomor and the Holocaust, precisely because both genocides devastated its people. Since the Yanukovych regime is congenitally indifferent to human tragedy, the task of honoring the victims of both genocides will be up to a democratic post-Yanukovych government.

Now that the Lenin statue has been toppled in Kyiv, why not replace it with a simple statue honoring a great man who stood for everything the Bolshevik tyrant rejected—Raphael Lemkin?

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