The famine, of course, was the Stalin regime’s attempt to deal with chronic ‘problems’ that bedeviled the relatively new Soviet state. The first of these was the peasantry’s unwillingness to voluntarily give up their land and join collective farms, like the Communists wanted them to. The second was the threat that the Ukrainian national movement, with its pretensions to independence, posed to a USSR that couldn’t afford to lose the agriculturally rich Ukraine – the lynchpin of successive Russian empires. But if Stalin’s treatment of Ukraine was a response to obstacles that stood in the way of the Kremlin’s control of the empire, the atrocity has roots that go back into revolutionary theory. Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks simply didn’t know what to do about the Russian empire’s massive number of peasants, a majority of the population. Peasants didn’t fit right into Marxist theory, which saw the urban proletariat as the engine of history, and considered the religious, conservative peasantry, stubbornly attached to their land, to be an obstacle to socialist ‘progress’, if not outright enemies. A decade’s worth of Kremlin attempts to exert control over the countryside it nominally ruled ended in stalemate, with the peasants refusing to collectivise and give up their individualistic ways. And so, after Stalin consolidated his power in the late 1920s, Moscow began to turn up the pressure on the counterrevolutionary rural population. In 1929, the Moscow regime declared war against the Ukrainian peasantry under the slogan ‘dekulakisation’, with armed Communist activists violently seizing peasants’ land.
A‘kulak’ (a slang word that literally means ‘fist’ in Russian) was supposedly an ‘affluent’ peasant who exploited his fellow community members, who in the twisted world of Soviet propaganda wanted Stalin’s goons to come and ‘liberate’ them from the wicked ‘class enemy’. Of course, ‘kulaks’ weren’t exploiters, but simply hardworking family farmers; anybody the Kremlin’s rural representatives didn’t like became a ‘kulak’. The policy was an excuse to whip up hysteria against a social group that wasn’t buying what the Stalinist regime was offering – the ‘urbanisation’ of the countryside based on the creation of gigantic communal industrial farms. Millions of kulak ‘class enemies’ were expelled from their land to try to find work in the cities, exiled to Siberia or simply shot in the back of the head and thrown into mass graves. Historical accounts testify to the lynch-mob cruelty with which so-called kulaks, whose ‘riches’ usually consisted of no more than a cow or two, were treated by the NKVD’s thugs. And yet, even the psychotic war against the kulaks didn’t break the anti- Communist will of the peasantry. They responded to Communist demands for grain and livestock quotas, and for their property in general, by killing their animals en masse before the Communists could requisition them and by hiding grain. The result of this war between the regime and its peasants was that the Ukrainian countryside (and, indeed, the countrysides of other Soviet Republics) became a disaster site. The result of the 1929-30 attempt at forced collectivization was a draw, in which both sides stood surrounded by the smoking ruins of the USSR’s severely damaged agricultural sector.
Spooked by resultant economic and grain crises that threatened the empire’s ability to feed itself, and determined to exert his control over the hostile and strategically crucial countryside once and for all, Stalin regrouped. Now things got even more vicious, and there began a ‘Second Revolution’ that would finally break the back of a peasant class that clung to counterrevolutionary evils like private plots of land and a rural market economy. True communism would finally exist in the countryside and, crucially, the Communists would now control the empire’s food. Moreover, in Ukraine the war against the peasantry dovetailed with the destruction of Ukraine’s dangerous sense of independence from the Russian ‘big brother’. Thus, in the autumn of 1932, the Stalinist braintrust set out to create a terror-famine that would kill two birds with one stone: not only a stubborn and politically backwards peasantry, but a Ukrainian peasantry that was an important repository of Ukrainian national feeling. Communist activists now fanned out through the Ukrainian countryside to demand deliberate high grain quotas from farmers already struggling with the aftermath of poor harvests. Villages were surrounded by armed guards, who would requisition all the settlement’s food and shoot those accused of hoarding as well as anyone who tried to leave the now-starving community. Armed guard towers were erected in fields in order to ‘protect socialist property’, with soldiers machine-gunning starving peasants who dragged themselves amidst the picked-over crops in the hopes of finding sustenance.
The first-person testimonies that survive from what historian Robert Conquest called the ‘vast Belsen’ of the Ukrainian countryside are suitably shocking. Conquest’s classic book about the famine, ‘Harvest of Sorrow’, reports of pregnant women beaten to death for plucking spring wheat, of children ‘choking, coughing with screams’, of Communist brigadiers carrying the dying to the graveyard as well as the dead, to save themselves the extra trip. People ate manure, dead dogs, dead humans, and finally nothing. In the village Mala Berezhanka, near Kyiv, a local authority shot seven people (two of them children) for being caught picking grain. But to single out a couple incidents is to belittle what happened, because such crimes were committed millions of times across much of a large country, until up to 10 million people had been murdered. The news of what was happening in Ukraine was largely kept from the masses in the USSR’s cities; foreign observers and journalists in the countryside, meanwhile, many of them Soviet- sympathising leftists who wanted to be fooled, were treated to Potemkin-style displays of the countryside’s robust health. Concurrently with the famine in Ukraine, and in the years that followed, Stalin’s regime mass murdered the urban Ukrainian intelligentsia in an attempt to eliminate once and for all the subversive idea of Ukrainian sovereignty. The upshot of the famine and the anti-Ukrainian repression in the short-term was that the regime won. Private, small-scale farming was wiped out, and large-scale industrial farming took its place. It was, however, a dubious victory for the regime, as Soviet industrial farming was disastrously inefficient. By the late 1930s, Soviet agriculture was worse off than it had been before the 1917 revolution, and the empire’s agricultural sector never recovered. Meanwhile, as history would prove, the regime didn’t quite manage to destroy the Ukrainian national identity.
Which brings us to the present moment, 75 years later after the famine became acute, and when the Ukrainian government is working to get the United Nations to acknowledge the Holodomor as a genocide, just like the Holocaust. Although a number of countries, including Canada, Australia, Poland, Hungary and the U.S., have recognised the Holodomor as a genocide, the issue remains tricky on the UN level. That’s because Russia is against a resolution, for one thing. But it’s also because the UN’s 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (CPPCG) defines genocide as a number of acts ‘committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group’. Stalin’s famine, however, was not waged against a racial or religious group. ‘Ethnical’ arguably enters into it, and ‘national’ comes closest, but neither are a perfect fit. Russians died in the Holodomor, the zone of which extended north of the Ukrainian border, and there were Ukrainian members of the Soviet hierarchy and of the NKVD. Indeed, the Famine could arguably be considered less as a unique attempt to eliminate the Ukrainian nation than as another atrocity in the history of a regime that used mass murder as a normal political weapon.
The Kazakhs, Balts, Hungarians, Poles, Buryats, Chechens, Tatars, and various other groups unlucky enough to have come into contact with the Soviet empire can all credibly raise the issue of having been subjected by the Kremlin to mass murder and atrocities. So
Stalin’s ‘Second Revolution’ would break the back of a peasant class that clung to counterrevolutionary evils like private plots of land
for that matter can the Russians. On the other hand, the CPPCG was itself a political document. Because it required the Soviet UNI0N’s support, it excluded from its definition of genocide the killing of members of social classes or political, cultural, or ideological groups. It also excluded ‘cultural’ killings – such as the mass murder of a national intelligentsia. In other words, the resolution was rigged to favour Moscow, and is somewhat arbitrarily defined. It would only be a small stretch to say that it was defined expressly so that Moscow couldn’t be accused of anti-Ukrainian genocide. It’s too early to tell whether Ukraine’s genocide resolution will make it through the UN. But a bright sign is that the movement to recognize the Holodomor has been gathering energy for decades, and keeps rolling along. Conquest’s landmark 1984 book was released into a world for which Ukraine and its history were largely a blank spot, and in which many left-leaning Western intellectuals defended the Soviet UNI0N’s honour against charges of crimes against humanity. All that’s changed. Ukraine is on the upswing, and the Famine is now a widely-known historical fact. Whether Ukraine’s political gesture makes it through the UN on this try or not, the truth has won out in the end.