Too numerous to be deported
The elimination of a people
THE GREAT FAMINE OF 1932-1933 IN UKRAINE:
A PRESENTATION AT PENN STATE UNIVERSITY
by Mykola Riabchouk
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 the 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, uncovered 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 the 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 [the] "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 a 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 1,00-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" (Zbigniew 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 be 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.