Why the deadly famine occurred, or comprehending the Ukrainian Holodomor
Historiography plays the key role in comprehending the Holodomor. If the former manages to answer the Holodomor-related crucial questions on the basis of undoubtedly authentic sources, politicians will choose another field for the debates that will help them remain in the public spotlight. But scholars are only at the beginning of the road that will lead them to the absolute truth in this subject.
I have already lost count of my articles on the Holodomor in The Day. This article has some repetitions about the Holodomor’s mechanism, which is indispensable. But I offer here for consideration and criticism some conclusions that result from a deeper look into the nature of this tragedy. As before, I am convinced that it should be called genocide. I hope, though, that if these conclusions draw support form historiographers, they will ease public tension caused by this interpretation.
1. THE UKRAINE HOLODOMOR AS GENOCIDE
Researchers at the Institute of the History of Ukraine have made a sizable contribution to the historiography of this problem. In 2006, when the Verkhovna Rada was discussing the Holodomor law, every MP was given a volume of historical evidence prepared by academics, from which it followed that the famine organized by the Stalinist leadership in the Ukrainian SSR and Kuban had all the signs of genocide. The parliament garnered enough votes to pass the law, the first article of which provided legal coverage for this scholarly conclusion.
Heated debates on the assessment of the Holodomor began at the first international conference “The 1932-33 Manmade Famine in Ukraine: Causes and Effects” organized by the Institute of the History of Ukraine on September 9-10, 1993. The conference’s proceedings, published by the institute, have long been a library rarity, but the arguments of various sides are being repeated in other publications that come out in many countries. The Ukrainian Holodomor has long been a problem that draws the attention of international historiography.
The most clearly outlined face-off is between the Ukrainian and Russian historians and, hence, politicians. The one who set the trend was the first president of Ukraine, who took part in the above-mentioned scholarly conference. “I fully agree,” Leonid Kravchuk said, characterizing the Holodomor, “that it was a preplanned action, an act of genocide against our people. But I would not put a full stop here – those who acted against their own people were doing so on a directive from another center.”
This sacramental word combination, “another center,” only added fuel to the ever-smoldering fire of Ukrainian-Russian disputes. The president of a young state must have been outraged at the arrogance of the Russian functionaries who are even now full of imperial haughtiness. It did not occur to him that in 1993 the words “another center” could be interpreted any way you like: the Kremlin, Moscow, Russia. At the same time he did not take into account that in 1933 there was only one political center for all the Soviet republics, which, by force of objective historical circumstances, had narrowed to just one figure – Joseph Stalin.
It is also true that the institutions of power and their functionaries could have, depending on the place of location, been doing some “ad-libbing” while implementing Stain’s will. To fully exclude this possibility during the punitive campaign that resulted in the Holodomor, Stalin used the services of people from his inner circle. Chairman of the USSR Council of People’s Commissars Viacheslav Molotov and VKP(b) CC Secretary Lazar Kaganovich were sent to Ukraine and Kuban on temporary duty, while Pavel Postyshev was appointed full-time Second Secretary of the KP(b)U Central Committee and continued to hold the office of a VKP(b) CC Secretary.
After that scholarly conference, the emotionally acute issue of the Holodomor as genocide entered Ukrainian sociopolitical life and Ukrainian-Russian interstate relations as a catalyst of discord and hatred. In 2010, when the Party of Regions won a majority in parliament, MP Vasyl Kyseliov hastened to move an amendment to the Law on the Holodomor, which would delete the juridical interpretation of this tragedy as genocide. The Day published ten a series of articles on this matter, following which the Regionnaire’s initiative bogged down in the parliamentary quagmire.
Yet there still are MPs inclined to kowtow to the Russian leadership irrespective of the essence of the laws being passed. Suffice it to recall Mykhailo Chechetov who called the routine clock-resetting “a stab in the back” of the Russian president, when the latter decided to refrain from introducing winter time.
The interference of MPs into historical science is more dangerous than legislative innovations in the field of astronomy. It is easier to imagine yourself an expert in history than in the exact sciences. Kyseliov’s amendment may well be resuscitated. So experts in this field of national history should try to convince society that recognizing the Holodomor as genocide will assign the blame to just a clearly-defined circle of concrete persons who acted on the 1930s political stage – and nobody else. To prove this, one must take a new look at the nature of Soviet power and the policies it pursued at the time.
2. THE OBJECT OF TERROR: UKRAINIANS OR PEASANTS?
Relying on the evidence of the people who had lived through the Holodomor and emigrated to North America after the war, Robert Conquest claimed in his classic work on the 1932-33 Great Famine that the state had spearheaded its terror at ethnic Ukrainians. Holodomor eyewitnesses could feel heart and soul that they were to be exterminated. When people saw grain being seized, they might as well think that the state intended to keep cities well-fed or to earn hard currency for purchasing the machinery. But when, after confiscating grain, the authorities began to seize all kinds of food, imposing at the same time the physical and informational blockade on the thus plundered locality, it became doubtless that the state was creating conditions under which peasants just could not survive. This is why the emigrants coined the term “Ukrainian Holocaust.” The Holocaust of Jews (Shoah) is a “well-hyped” term that is equated with genocide. Therefore, the word combination “Ukrainian Holocaust” unobtrusively prompted one to equate the Holodomor with genocide, without taking pains to find some weightier arguments.
However, Western academics could not understand why the Ukrainians, whom they usually could not distinguish from the Russians, were chosen as victims. On the other hand, former Soviet Ukrainians could complain about, say, Russification. But they knew that in the Soviet Union they had not been hunted down the way the Jews were in Nazi Germany only because of their ethnic origin. The concept of the Ukrainian Holocaust has played a mean joke on all those who aspired for international recognition of the Holodomor as genocide.
Polemicizing with Conquest, the British expert in the economic history of the USSR, Alec Nove, said in 1989 that Stalin had aimed his blow at the peasants, among whom there were many Ukrainians, rather than against the Ukrainians, among whom there were a lot of peasants. But Nove’s aphoristic dilemma is equally fruitless in both parts. The Soviet government did not wage an extermination war against peasants only because they did agricultural work. It remains to be admitted that killing millions of people with famine can only be explained in the light of the concrete circumstances of place and time.
3. POLITICIZATION OF ETHNICITY: WHAT IS THIS?
It was no coincidence that Stalin’s victims were sure that they were terrorized for ethnic reasons. In the everyday life of Soviet society, the principle of the politicization of ethnicity played an extremely important role. This principle shaped the three basic elements of the nationalities policy: the concept of titular nation, the indigenization campaign in non-Russian republics, and the entry of an individual’s ethnicity into all kinds of questionnaires (also in internal passports from December 1932) not at one’s own wish but on the basis of documentarily proved ethnic origin. Historiography always considers these elements piecemeal, although only an integrated approach can bring out the importance of politicizing ethnicity.
The concept of titular nation was put into academic circulation in late 19th century by the nationalist-minded French novelist Maurice Barres and was later enshrined in Constitutional Law. The term was applied to the ethnic group that determined the name of a state. There also are synonymous definitions, such as the state-forming nation that features in the name of a state and the dominant nation in a multiethnic state.
But the meaning of this notion drastically changed in the Soviet Union. In an attempt to position themselves as proponents of the most radical solution of the nationalities question, Bolshevik leaders declared that all the peoples that made up the majority of the population in a certain administrative-territorial unit were titular nations. This resulted in a hierarchy of ethnic groups according to the politico-administrative partition. On top of the pyramid were the Russians who were pronounced titular nation of the entire USSR. The union republics, autonomous republics, national territories, and national districts formed the titular nations of the second, third, fourth, and fifth order, respectively. Representatives of the titular nations that lived outside their administrative-territorial units or people of the nationalities that had no such units in the USSR were considered national minorities.
The most privileged status belonged to the titular nations of the union republics because, under the Constitution, they enjoyed wide-ranging political rights, including secession from the Union. However, the Soviet Union combined the principle of the politicization of ethnicity with that of “democratic centralism,” when the lower strata of any organizational structures were fully and always subordinated to the higher ones. So the position of titular nations cannot be assessed in separation from their real power, which was not described in the Constitution.
The government used to transmit its impulses from the very top down to every individual by means of vertical “drive belts”: a millions-strong “outer party,” the communist-controlled leagues of young people and children, trade unions, and a host of civic organizations. The horizontal people-to-people ties, which form a civil society free of state control, were almost entirely eliminated. The ones that had remained (family, religious communities) were permeated with a million-strong army of KGB-controlled whistleblowers. The Soviet authorities quite aptly said that they represented “workers and peasants.” An atomized society, with “drive belts all around,” was in fact a continuation of the state.
The cumulative effect of the combination of the principles of “democratic centralism” and politicization of ethnicity turned the Soviet Union from a federation of equal republics into an empire-type country with the highest centralization of power in the history of humankind. The oligarchic political regime depended neither on the communist party, which it brought under complete control, nor on the society which could do nothing but obediently elect candidates from the “bloc of communists and non-party people” to the Soviet bodies of power. Nor did it depend in the Stalinist era on the nomenklatura which it constantly shook up with rotations or repressions to prevent it from striking roots in society and trying to gain at least a fraction of independence from the higher echelons of power.
The large number of titular nations did not undermine the privileged position of the Russians who never considered themselves an ethnic minority in any region of the USSR. Still, one should not overestimate privileges of the Russians in an atomized – both in social and ethnic terms – society. The oligarchic center reflected, first of all, the Russian national interests. Suffice it to recall the unsuccessful attempts of Soviet Ukraine’s government to enlarge the republic’s territory at the expense of the neighboring areas densely populated by the Ukrainians. On the other hand, the Russian Federation was not allowed to build a party and government center in Moscow, similar to those in the union republics.
The presence of several titular nations in every union republic hindered the natural process of the formation of a civil nation. Even now, two decades after Ukraine gained independence, a lot of the Russians consider themselves, by sheer inertia, a first-order titular nation rather than an ethnic minority in a country, where ethnicities are not differentiated.
The inherent Soviet concept of titular nation demanded carrying out an indigenization (“korenizatsia,” a derivative of koren, “root”) campaign which was supposed to allow a nation to develop within the limits of its own administrative-territorial unit. The slogan of indigenization (Ukrainization in Ukraine) was proclaimed by the 12th Congress of RKP(b) immediately after the formation of the USSR. First of all, indigenization meant that Soviet power was to take roots and be reinforced with functionaries of a given ethnicity. This also meant developing the ethnic mass media because the government was to apply not only coercive (including terrorist) but also propagandistic methods. Indigenization also foresaw replacing Russian with the local languages as medium of instruction in schools. In addition to terror and propaganda, the state also relied on upbringing as a crucial component of governmental impact on society. Finally, indigenization envisioned the development of culture, without which no ethic community can exist.
Admittedly, the indigenization campaign promoted the cultural development of titular nations, even though the state was, above all, striving to strengthen its power in society. This project succeeded. Soviet power, which had been established in Ukraine three times in 1917-19, lost an occupational nature because it managed to find a common language with local political forces well before the official course towards Ukrainization was announced.
Indigenization had certain limits, which was most convincingly proved by the practice of Ukrainization. The VKP(b) CC resolution “On Grain Procurement in Ukraine, North Caucasus, and the Western Region” of December 14, 1932, which put an end to Ukrainization in Kuban, introduced two new terms into political circulation: Bolshevik and Petluraite Ukrainizations. While the Bolshevik Ukrainization reinforced the regime, the Petluraite one was its undesirable side effect which promoted national renaissance – in other words it ran counter to the regime’s intention to reduce the nation to an ethnos.
The attempts of the Ukrainian leadership to append to the Ukrainian SSR the adjacent areas of the Central Black Earth Region and the North Caucasus Territory, mostly populated, as the 1926 all-Union census showed, by the Ukrainians, caused resentment and suspicion among the party bosses. They reacted in the same way to the successful Ukrainization of almost half the North Caucasus Territory districts and the aspiration of the Kuban Ukrainians to win the rights of a titular nation by being reunited with the Ukrainian SSR. The Kremlin was especially afraid that separatist tendencies would increase in Ukraine, a republic that bordered on Europe and had a strong tradition of liberation struggle as well as powerful economic and human resources. Under the Constitution, Ukraine enjoyed extensive political rights which were illusory as long as the party leadership’s dictatorship remained strong. But these rights could have been realized in case of a crisis of power in the center.
Soviet power emphasized its internationalism but always differentiated between people on ethnic grounds. This trend was especially evident if applied to someone belonging to a titular nation. Harassed for “bourgeois nationalism” in Ukraine, the Ukrainians often found rescue in the Russian Federation, where they were no longer representatives of the titular nation, i.e., they were losing their political status.
Only the Ukrainians as representatives of a titular nation were dangerous for the authorities. Although the state was trying to turn the country’s populace into an atomized mass by way of eliminating horizontal links, Soviet Ukrainians identified themselves as a political nation. The social explosion in the first six months of 1930 was spontaneous, but it still proclaimed the slogans of the Ukrainian Revolution. A new social explosion was imminent in 1931-32. It posed an incomparably graver threat to the government because the country was on the threshold of a famine that assumed the most acute nature in the Ukrainian SSR. A mass-scale famine was supposed to forestall the explosion.
Building a multiethnic state on the principles of “democratic centralism” and ethnocracy required that the ethnicity of citizens be considered as a state-forming element. The Soviet-style titular nations were not to go off the limits of ethnic communities. They were to content themselves with cultural ethnic autonomy which was constitutionally gift-wrapped as statehood in order to neutralize the national liberation movement. Those who protested were in for repressions.
Tellingly, whenever the central government resorted to repressions in Ukraine, it hid itself behind the veil of ostensible Ukrainophilia. Pavel Postyshev, Stalin’s “viceroy” in the Ukrainian SSR, wore an embroidered shirt, which did not preclude him from exterminating the national intelligentsia. When the local apparatchiks saw the repressions as the end to the Ukrainization campaign, he immediately stopped the attempts to restrict the rights of the titular nation. Another demonstration of hypocritical Ukrainophilia was transfer of the republican bodies of government in 1934 from Kharkiv to Kyiv, the national capital of the Ukrainian people.
Could the national intelligentsia regard the use of grain procurement as repressions that might eliminate the negative, from the government’s viewpoint, consequence of Ukrainization? They could do so even before the Holodomor, when everything became clear. Mykhailo Hrushevsky’s pupils duly explained the fact that grain procurement targets in Ukraine were higher than in other grain-growing regions. On September 10, 1932, secret police operatives reported that the pupils intended to inform their teacher, who was in Moscow, about the famine in Ukraine. They believed that what caused the famine was “the governmental policy aimed at finally breaking the Ukrainian nation as a united national force capable of offering a stiff resistance.” (from the book Declassified Memory. The 1932-1933 Holodomor in Ukraine in GPU-NKVD Documents. – Kyiv, 2007. – p. 291).
The young US Ukraine researcher James Mace arrived to the same conclusion independently from Hrushevsky’s pupils. Six years before the Nove dilemma, he came up with an answer that has been confirmed lately in many documentary publications and monographs: the Stalinist terror in Ukraine was aimed not at people of a certain ethnicity or trade but at the citizens of the Ukrainian state which had emerged after the collapse of the Russian Empire and saw its own demise, only to be revived in the shape of a Soviet state. The formula on the extermination of Ukrainians as representatives of a nation state rather than an ethnic group (“to destroy them as political factor and as a social organism”) was in Mace’s report to the scholarly conference on the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine held in Montreal in 1983.
Stripping the society of political and economic freedom, the bunch of Politburo members assumed a heavy burden of having to maintain societal viability. Soviet society was paternalistic by definition, which suited millions, if not tens of millions, of people. Twenty years on after the demise of that society, these millions are still looking, as before, on the state as a breadwinner and allow it to do whatever it pleases with them.
“The commune state,” which blended with an enslaved society, was multiethnic. How did the Russians – the first-category titular nation in it – feel? They were the same bulwark of the regime as were nomenklatura functionaries or poor peasants in the countryside. But they were all in a subjugated condition and did not differ at all from other ethno-social communities.
All the aforesaid outline the reality of the Soviet Union. But even after Soviet power had stripped its citizens of private property and enmeshed them with cobweb-type vertical links, they still remained human beings capable of showing their willpower or waiting for a suitable time to do so. In particular, most of the Ukrainians identified themselves with a community that shares certain traditions, values, and interests. In the situation that emerged, they used to rally into a nation without any organizational structures – just by way of their memory and awareness. This made them dangerous for the authorities personalized by Stalin. For this reason, they could be subjected to repressions to a higher extent than representatives of other titular nations. Even the most horrible repressions were possible due to the maximum concentration of political and economic power in the hands of a bunch of oligarchs who had turned by then into the weak-willed entourage of a sole dictator.
Stanislav Kulchytsky is Doctor of Sciences (History)