Ukrainian News | 28Dec2009 | Jars Balan

Gullible leftists play into the hands of Putin’s neo-Soviet apologists
A reply to Myrna Kostash and her “tragic” take on the Holodomor

By Jars Balan
Kule Ukrainian Canadian Studies Centre,
Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies,
University of Alberta

In the December 2009 issue of the Literary Review of Canada, well-known Canadian author Myrna Kostash provides an account of an undergraduate course that she audited at the University of Alberta which examined the Great Famine of 1932-33 in Soviet Ukraine. In her article titled “Genocide or ‘A Vast Tragedy’?” Kostash relates how at the end of the course, the instructor, Professor John-Paul Himka, invited his students to participate in a poll as to whether they thought the famine was an act of genocide. The piece concludes with Kostash’s report on how the participants decided the question, a result she no doubt realized would be highly contentious with most of her fellow Ukrainian Canadian community members. “So a vote was held among the nine of us: who believes the famine was not a genocide? Five, including me. Who believes it was? No one. Who abstains? Four, including Himka?”

How Kostash arrived at her decision is explained in her description of the ground that was covered in the course, highlighting some of the issues that the students grappled with and mentioning a number of sources that Professor Himka used to frame the discussion. But does the argument that the famine was not genocidal bear up against the findings of the latest scholarly research on the subject? And in relating details of the discussions that took place in the class, does Kostash not raise questions about how the sources were selected and presented?

Recently, the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies sponsored several lectures by a distinguished Italian academic, Professor Andrea Graziosi of the University of Naples. He is widely recognized as a leading authority both on the Ukrainian famine and on the history of the Stalinist era. Professor Graziosi has worked extensively on documents from long-sealed Russian archives of the period, is not a nationalist of any kind and does not have a Ukrainian background that it could be argued might cloud his judgement. He has also thoroughly researched Joseph Stalin’s understanding of the nationalities question and determined on the basis of compelling evidence that the Soviet dictator was neither a Ukrainophobe nor a narrow Russian chauvinist. (However, the same does not necessarily apply to some of Stalin’s key lieutenants and many of the apparatchiks who implemented the Kremlin’s murderous policies in Ukraine.) Be that as it may, Professor Graziosi has concluded that on the basis of the already substantial and constantly expanding body of evidence available to scholars, the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33 was a genocide. Furthermore, according to Professor Graziosi, there is a growing consensus among serious scholars in the field about the genocidal character of the famine, even if some historians, like himself, are uncomfortable about applying what is essentially a legally defined term in the analysis of historical events.

In relating how she formed her contrary opinion, Kostash makes a number of statements that suggest she has muddled notions about how awareness and understanding of the Holodomor has changed over time. Take, for instance, the following remarks: “the Great Famine of 1932-33 in Soviet Ukraine ... [was] virtually ignored by western historians until 1986”; “That a catastrophe befell Soviet Ukraine ... has long been acknowledged internationally”; and “Compared to the reports of the Armenian and Jewish genocides, there was a decades-long delay in accounts of famine in the USSR reaching the west, and when they were received, they were often disbelieved.” Given that scholarly and public attitudes toward the Holodomor are still evolving in both Ukraine and internationally, it is a shame that Kostash didn’t devote her article to a discussion of how positions and perceptions have developed from flat denials and deliberate obfuscations to belated if often grudging admissions that mass starvations occurred in Ukraine as a direct result of Stalinist policy. Indeed, her own take on the Holodomor is derived from that formulated during glasnost in the Gorbachev era, an interpretation that has since been adopted by most contemporary mainstream Russian scholars along with a shrinking number of Ukrainians who are still heavily influenced by the political culture of the late Soviet Union. It would have been appropriate for her to have frankly acknowledged this and useful to let LRC readers know that for a host of political and legal reasons — Russia is the successor state to the USSR, and therefore could be sued by survivors or their descendants -- it is unlikely that today’s Kremlin or most Russians will admit to the Holodomor being a genocide, now or in the foreseeable future.

Kostash goes on to make the dubious assertion that the Ukrainian famine has become “politicized,” a problem she attributes to “Ukrainian nationalists” (a term of opprobrium) and their sympathizers, while characterizing as “serious scholars” those who do not accept that the Holodomor was a genocide. Her contention is patently ridiculous besides being consistent with the position taken by the Russian government in its international campaign to thwart Ukraine’s efforts to have the Holodomor recognized as a genocide. This is, of course, the same government that routinely “tolerates” the murders of journalists and human rights activists while threatening with arrest any scholars inside or outside of Russia who dispute the Kremlin’s official Soviet version of World War II history.

It should be unnecessary to point out that politics were responsible for the man-made famine in Ukraine, for the attendant massive purge of the Ukrainian Communist Party, and for the wide-ranging pogroms that concomitantly decimated the ranks of the cultural figures and intellectuals who championed the Ukrainian national renaissance of the 1920s. It was a political decision of the Kremlin to order the complete liquidation of an independent Orthodox Church in Ukraine, but to only cripple and bring to heel the Russian Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union. Politics were also behind decades of Soviet denials and disinformation about the famine, just as it was naive and cynical politics that influenced Communist sympathizers in the West to join in a chorus to cover up the truth about the Holodomor. And it was political calculations that likewise led to the concessions made about the Holodomor shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, not to mention the stubborn refusal to allow that Ukrainians were singled out for special punishment and aggressive Russification for resisting the dictates of Moscow.

Finally, politics still play a major role in the Kremlin’s current insistence that the Russian people were equal victims of the famine and Stalinist tyranny (they weren’t), at the same that official Moscow rehabilitates Stalin as an “effective manager” and a “great wartime leader.” In short, the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33 has always been a politically charged event and it remains a potent and politically loaded issue, especially for Russians and as they try to come to terms with Russia’s often bloody imperial legacy.

One of the books used on the course was a classic piece of Soviet propaganda by the late trade union activist, Douglas Tottle, titled Fraud, Famine and Fascism: The Ukrainian Genocide Myth from Hitler to Harvard, published by the Communist Party’s Progress Books in 1987. In it, Tottle exposes some of the questionable evidence brought forward over the years when details about the famine were being suppressed, distorted with lies, and deflected with red herrings. The book itself, like all skilful works of propaganda, is a mixture of fact, conjecture and misinformation. Its’ obvious goal was to risibly portray the claim that the famine was a genocide as a fabrication by “Ukrainian nationalists” who wanted to divert attention from their own alleged complicity in Nazi war crimes during the Second World War. Nowhere does Kostash ask how a Quebec-born Winnipeg trade unionist ended up producing a tract that among other things sought to challenge and dismiss someone like Robert Conquest, the highly-respected author of more than twenty books including The Great Terror, Russia after Khrushchev, Inside Stalin’s Secret Police, Stalin and the Kirov Murder and other major works devoted to Soviet history and literature. One wonders how Tottle, in the only book he ever wrote, was able to identify and cite carefully selected and obscure Ukrainian-language sources without extensive help from KGB “experts” whose job it was to discredit the “Ukrainian nationalists” in the West that were such unrelenting critics of the Soviet Union. The lurid cover of the book alone, featuring a tube of ink with a swastika on it, should have been enough warning that its ultimate intent was to refine and update the denial of the Holodomor while smearing the Ukrainians in the West who were responsible for drawing world attention to it. That even the pro-Soviet Association of United Ukrainian Canadians refused to go along with a request from the Communist Party to publish the book under an AUUC imprint (as the late Peter Krawchuk revealed in his memoirs), should have been an indication of its tainted contents and reason enough to give it short shrift on the course.

It is unfortunate but perhaps not fortuitous that Kostash’s article appeared hard on the heels of the annual Ukrainian commemorations of the Holodomor. It is similarly regrettable that she published her musings in a prestigious Canadian periodical read by intellectuals and opinion-makers — many of whom will now probably regard the Ukrainian famine as having been caused by a “tragic” combination of Soviet bungling and brutality, rather than as the attack on the Ukrainian nation that it was. Then again, maybe her intent was both personal and political. Was she trying to distance herself from Ukraine’s efforts to construct an independent narrative of Ukrainian history that rejects, on solid grounds, decades of disavowals concerning the famine -- that it was caused by drought, “sabotage” by rich peasants, or regrettable “mistakes” made in implementing forced collectivization -- including the latest fall-back argument that the Holodomor was not consciously used by Stalin to gut the Ukrainian nation and leave it an empty shell? Or was she merely seeking to demonstrate her ostensible journalistic objectivity by dismissing as over-wrought and suspect “Ukrainian nationalist” propaganda all of the evidence that the famine had a genocidal bent. At the very least, as a responsible journalist, Kostash should have taken the time to ask some of the many Ukrainian scholars in her circle of friends why they regard the famine to have been deliberately employed by Moscow to kill two birds with one stone: namely, to break the especially fierce resistance of the Ukrainian peasantry to collectivization and at the same time to cut the legs out from under the national movement in Soviet Ukraine.

In the early 1930s the Soviet Union was on the verge of bankruptcy and experiencing a deepening domestic crisis as Stalin resorted to evermore repressive methods to maintain his hold on power while forging ahead in industrializing and radically transforming Soviet society with a reckless disregard for the human cost. He obviously viewed developments in Ukraine, the second largest republic after Russia, as a serious threat to the continuation of the revolutionary Bolshevik experiment in the former Russian Empire in its Soviet reincarnation. Stalin didn’t need to be a Russian nationalist to decide that it was necessary to strike a calculated blow against what he perceived, justifiably or not, to be the dangerous rise of separatist and anti-Soviet sentiment among Ukrainians. The unique punitive measures applied in Ukraine and in territories heavily inhabited by Ukrainians, such as the Kuban region, all point to the chilling conclusion that he knew exactly what he was doing when he used famine as another weapon in the arsenal that he unleashed in a multi-pronged and genocidal campaign. To argue otherwise is to ignore overwhelming facts about the known history of the USSR, and to play into the hands of the neo-Soviet apologists who are flourishing in Putin’s Russia and have obviously found allies among gullible leftists in the West.