Hill Times | 17Nov2008 | Lubomyr Luciuk
Opinion [reproduced in 21Nov2008 issue of e-Poshta]

Holodomor was arguably a crime against humanity without parallel in European history

Those who survived knew that the famine of 1932-1933 in Soviet Ukraine was a deliberate, politically engineered catastrophe whose victims numbered in the many millions yet few dared even whisper about this devastation of their nation to others in the generations following. It was not until the late 1980s as the Soviet empire stumbled into the dustbin of history and an independent, internationally-recognized Ukraine re-emerged in Europe that restored freedom allowed for the truth to be set free. Until then those who had endured the horror now known as the Holodomor remained trapped in the very place where it could not be spoken of. Meanwhile, those in the Ukrainian diaspora who had grasped the terror-famine's mainsprings and weight found their admonitions largely ignored, completely unaware that intelligence reports about conditions in the U.S.S.R., compiled by several governments, often corroborated their understanding of the causes, course, and consequences of this man-made famine. Yet knowing what they did those very same Western governments sent no relief and lodged no formal protests with Moscow, even as millions starved. A British Foreign Office mandarin confided why: the truth of the matter is, of course, that we have a certain amount of information about famine conditions and that there is no obligation on us not to make it public [but we] do not want to make it public because the Soviet Government would resent it and our relations with them would be prejudiced.

Brave, and few, were the survivors who, just after the Second World War, tried to remind the West of this atrocity, expecting their witnessing to find fertile soil during the Cold War. They were mistaken. Ukraine's genocidal Great Famine was not accepted as a reality and remained mostly unknown as a subject of historical inquiry until quite recently. Indeed those attempting to till its memory were subjected to a barrage of defamation, denounced as embittered emigres -- either Nazi collaborators or apologists for such miscreants. Echoes of those prejudices persist. Where testimony could be given about the famine it was usually rejected or ridiculed.

A noticeable resurrection in the debate over the causes and impact of the famine was precipitated in 1984 by the film, Harvest of Despair, followed in 1986 by the release of Robert Conquest's book, Harvest of Sorrow, by the 1988 Report to Congress of the US Commission on the Ukraine Famine and, in 1990, by the Final Report of the International Commission of Inquiry into the 1932-1933 Famine in Ukraine. Even so, for almost a decade after Ukraine's independence was secured in 1991, no more than token initiatives were made to commemorate the Great Famine.

Succeeding Ukrainian governments likewise demonstrated no interest in bringing the perpetrators and enablers of Communist war crimes and crimes against humanity to justice, a negligence sometimes excused by reference to the post-genocidal nature of post-Soviet Ukrainian society. This indifference persisted until November 2004 when, as the world watched, democracy prevailed during Ukraine's Orange Revolution. But what also became apparent then is just how fragile the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity are. So while Ukraine played no official role in the 2003 campaign to have Walter Duranty's Pulitzer Prize revoked because of his mendacious reporting on the famine, an effort that unexpectedly harvested extensive and overwhelmingly positive coverage internationally by 2006 Ukraine's Verkhovna Rada had, at President Viktor Yushchenko's urging, promulgated a law defining the Holodomor as an act of genocide. Kyiv then undertook diplomatic efforts to build international recognition for this position. One modest success was achieved earlier this year when Canada formally recognized the famine's genocidal nature.

Yet as more archival evidence about the Holodomor and its authors began emerging from long-sealed repositories voices of protest were heard from the Russian Federation. While its advocates no longer deny that a famine occurred they claim it had no particularly Ukrainian focus. That is akin to insisting that because millions of non-Jews perished during the Holocaust the Shoah's Jewish dimension is exaggerated. Contemporary Ukrainian efforts aimed at enshrining the Holodomor as a foundational experience in Ukrainian history while gleaning international sympathy for Ukraine as a victim nation reflect Kyiv's gradual awakening to a critical geopolitical certainty: Ukraine may be in Europe but its place there, perhaps even its right to exist, are far from secure.

Just how many perished during the Great Famine may never be calculated precisely but that millions were scythed down as Ukrainian resistance to Soviet rule was consummated is no longer in doubt. Even if the victim total was only 2.6 million [?], and it was likely higher, the intensity of mortality in Soviet Ukraine over a duration of less than a year confers upon the Holodomor the unenviable status of being a crime against humanity arguably without parallel in European history. That is not well understood but someday it will be, everywhere.

Lubomyr Luciuk is a professor of political geography at the Royal Military College of Canada and editor of Holodomor: Reflections on the Great Famine of 1932-1933 in Soviet Ukraine (Kashtan Press, 2008).