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Was the Holodomor Genocide?

Here’s what got me thinking about this issue—again.

A friend and colleague at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies and I are currently compiling a collection of documents on the Ukrainian famine of 1932–1933, tentatively called The Holodomor Reader. We’re including survivor testimony, journalistic accounts, documents, legal assessments, scholarship, and literature in what we hope will be a must-have collection aimed at general readers, students, and scholars. With a little luck, the book may be published later in the year.

We take the view that the Holodomor, in which some 3 to 6 million Ukrainian peasants were starved to death during a massive crackdown on the Ukrainian cultural, religious, and political elites, was genocide. The view happens to reflect the views of the founder of the term, Rafael Lemkin:

perhaps the classic example of Soviet genocide, its longest and broadest experiment in Russification [is] the destruction of the Ukrainian nation. … 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.

We noted in the first draft of our introduction that “although there are scholars and policy makers who dispute that interpretation, it is our belief that expert opinion has now shifted—and continues to shift—toward viewing the Holodomor as genocide.” One of the reviewers took issue with the claim, suggesting that the shift is hardly as evident as we made it out to be.

And that’s what got me thinking: Is there a shift and is it quite as inexorable as we suggested it might be? I think the answer to both questions is yes, and here’s why.

Consider where in the popular consciousness the famine was back in the 1950s. Nowhere. Survivors, refugees, and émigrés wrote about it extensively, but primarily in Ukrainian, and their audience consisted largely of themselves. Although Western journalists had written a great deal about the famine in the 1930s, their focus had shifted to other issues after World War II, while Western scholars ignored the famine almost completely. A Soviet history atlas compiled by the respected historian Martin Gilbert in 1972, for instance, illustrates the “main area of the forced collectivization of over 5 million peasant holdings 1929–1938” and notes that “thousands of peasants were killed when they resisted (some by armed force).”


Read Alexander Motyl’s journal article, “Deleting the Holodomor: Ukraine Unmakes Itself”


The famine’s status as a non-event at best or an émigré fantasy at worst has changed by 180 degrees. No one, anywhere, today disputes that millions of Ukrainians were starved to death in 1932–1933. No one disputes that the famine was avoidable, and almost no one disputes that it was a crime. Even Viktor Yanukovych calls it an “Armageddon.” And a significant, and growing, number of serious non-Ukrainian scholars, journalists, and other opinion makers consider the Holodomor to have been genocide. The shift is remarkable and it is here to stay.

But will the view of the Holodomor as genocide gain the upper hand? I’m betting that the answer is yes because expert opinion is formed on the basis of both evidence and the Zeitgeist. As our Reader demonstrates, the empirical evidence for viewing the Holodomor as an intentional mass killing is overwhelming. If you’re neutral, you’ll be persuaded. If you’re a die-hard skeptic or have a political agenda, on the other hand, no amount of evidence will do the trick.

But to focus only on evidence is to misunderstand how expertise works. Although scholars deny it, they are swayed as much, if not more, by real-world events as by dry evidence. No one today would deny the importance of women, even though the evidence—women—was always there. It took a women’s movement to convince academics to see the obvious. It was only after policy makers and business people began glorifying globalization some two decades ago that academics took notice. And, of course, until the recent pro-democracy Arab revolts, few academics would have written about democracy in the Middle East and North Africa with a straight face.

In sum, experts, like all people, are swayed by life—by the Zeitgeist. And the Holodomor-as-genocide thesis is just such an example of a Zeitgeist-in-the-making. The Holodomor’s currently undisputed status as a mass killing will set the norm for future scholars without political agendas. As the die-hards exit, their place will be taken by scholars who view the famine from the perspective of today’s norm—and not yesterday’s. As the number of experts who view the Holodomor as genocide grows, a tipping point will be reached and scholars, like all rational beings, will accept the genocide interpretation simply because it’s the Zeitgeist.

I’m betting that experts with political agendas will also decline in number. There are those who support Vladimir Putin’s Russia, a system that draws on neo-imperialism and neo-Stalinism for its legitimacy. If and when that system collapses—and I belong to those optimists who believe that will inevitably happen—Russian democrats will govern and set the terms of the debate on the Holodomor. Some will still bristle at accepting the genocide thesis; many will not. Some experts also support Yanukovych’s version of Ukraine. That system draws on a denial of Ukrainian history for its legitimacy. The house that Yanukovych built is even more decrepit than Putin’s, and once it kicks the bucket the door to accepting the genocide thesis will be open wide. That leaves closet socialist scholars, who may be incorrigible. After all, if they still believe in socialism after the collapse of Communism 20 years ago, they may be better off in the closet.

Of course, one could argue that the case for or against the Holodomor as genocide is ultimately irrelevant. All people of good will now recognize the Holodomor as one of the greatest crimes of the twentieth century. Calling it genocide or calling it something else won’t change that fact.

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