Genocide Remembered

Sergei Maksudov,
Moscow News,
May 17, 2007

The Ukrainian parliament has officially recognized the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine, which resulted in the death of 10 million people who starved to death, as an act of genocide. This decision has raised objections.

I first heard about the famine in early childhood. My grandmother told stories about how, in the summer of 1933, she went to a village in the Rostov region together with her granddaughter and son-in-law, Andrei Kuksin. He was a university associate professor sent to the area to participate in a grain procurement campaign. When my grandmother proceeded to start a stove in the courtyard to make lunch, children from all over the village gathered around her – skeletal, with their ribs sticking out and swollen bellies. They stood silent, as though transfixed, looking at a miracle – potato cakes frying in the pan. She was unable to feed all of the hungry children, and the feeling of horror and helplessness stayed with her forever. She passed it to me.

My grandmother also told me that she feared for the life of my sister, as incredible rumors of cannibalism were circulating in the village. Andrei Kuksin wrote a letter to the Rostov Region Party Committee, protesting the grain requisitioning campaign in a famine stricken village. He was arrested, convicted of “distorting the party line,” banished to a remote camp, and executed by firing squad in 1937.

For that and many other reasons, the assessment of human losses caused by Joseph Stalin’s reprisals became my main mission in life: for 25 years I have been studying the history of collectivization and famine in Ukraine. I have read hundreds of books and articles, studied thousands of documents in international archives; and I am familiar with the majority of experts working in the field.

The results of my research have been published in Canada, the US, France, Russia and Ukraine.

Was It an Act of Genocide?

Though the 1932-33 famine was denied by the Soviet authorities at the time, as well as by some Western scholars, today it is accepted as a hard, indisputable fact. Likewise, no one has any doubts that it was caused by the policy of the USSR government, primarily collectivization. The state took the land and cattle away from the peasants, thus killing incentive to work and causing production to fall sharply. At the same time, the authorities received an exclusive right to control and dispose of the entire agricultural output.

In that horrible new world, the government had no obligations whatsoever to the people living in the countryside. With a good harvest and average performance, peasants could get a fair share of the produce. But with a poor harvest or bad performance they were punished severely – e.g., complete confiscation of foodstuffs, deportation to other, less hospitable parts of the country, arrest, and imprisonment. The 1931-33 period was marked by the collision between those monstrous rules and the refusal by the peasants to obey them. Famine was the culmination of that struggle. Seeing that resistance would inevitably lead to death, the peasants capitulated.

There were three catastrophic factors in the 1932-33 famine and its after-effects in the subsequent period: declining production, grain requisitioning, and reprisals against the peasantry as a class. In the struggle against the countryside, the party and state apparatus issued dozens of laws and regulations designed not only to “secure” the harvest but also to punish the peasant and cause maximum damage.

In 1930 and 1931, grain procurement targets were 27 percent and 33 percent of the gross harvest, respectively. To compare, in 1926 through 1928, a mere 14 percent of “surplus harvest” was requisitioned. But most importantly, requisitioning had ceased to be a simple tax and become a primary obligation and “sacred duty.” In 1932, even though the crop harvest was lower than in the previous year, the procurement target was set at 50 percent of the gross harvest with the deadline for delivery cut by six months. In reality, the actual targets sought in Ukraine were 70 percent to 90 percent.

Furthermore, people living in areas that failed to meet grain procurement targets were prohibited from selling grain or bread products on the market. Coupled with the simultaneous introduction of a bread rationing system, the law doomed one-third of rural residents and millions of urban residents, who traditionally bought foodstuffs on the private market, to imminent starvation. Collective farms that did not meet their procurement targets even had their fodder and seed stocks requisitioned. It was forbidden to slaughter cattle – a foresighted move preventing hungry people from eating their own cow, goat or sheep, while almost no pigs had been left in Ukraine by that time.

Another law prohibited speculation and profiteering, which applied to any sale/purchase of foodstuffs (even two or three loaves of bread). In addition, severe restrictions were imposed on the provision of free food to field workers (between 700 and 1,200 grams of bread a day). Stalin described the practice as a “waste” and “criminal scam” designed to steal public funds. Spending controls were tightened further, and households were prohibited from eating cattle fodder. Rural councils and boroughs found to be in violation of the regulations were blacklisted, which effectively meant closure of their public institutions, schools, healthcare facilities, stores, shops, etc.

Under a law on the protection of state and collective farm property adopted on August 7, 1932, a person caught stealing a handful of grain or a few frozen potatoes faced the death penalty.

All of those preposterous laws and regulations were aggravated by the violence and arbitrariness of local authorities, which included threats, beatings and searches. As a final resort, an entire village guilty of such practices would be ordered to move to the upper North. Thus, several villages in the North Caucasus with around 25,000 people in all were deported to Siberia.

These outrageous laws could evidently be described as genocide of the peasantry, since the authorities issuing them knew that their enforcement would result in massive deaths. It is also incorrect to argue that the victims were only people from one particular ethnic group or one particular republic of the Soviet Union.

In Ukraine, the laws affected in equal measure all rural residents – ethnic Ukrainians, Russians, Jews and Bulgarians alike. At the same time, Ukraine’s Donetsk Province was in the top supply category, which also included Moscow and Leningrad. In 1933, 1,263 metric tons of grain were shipped there by rail, i.e., around 300 kg per person, as were 62,000 metric tons of fish and 73,000 metric tons of meat – huge amounts by contemporary standards. It is noteworthy that 1933 deliveries were higher than in 1932 or 1934 – presumably, the government was attempting to compensate for a decline in local production in Donbass.

Seven other Ukrainian provinces, with a total population 15 times larger than the Donetsk Province, only received a total of 20,000 metric tons of meat and 130,000 tons of fish. Famine badly affected the Rostov Region, the Stavropol and Krasnodar Territories, the Middle and Lower Volga regions, and Kazakhstan; bread sales on the private market in those regions were not allowed. At the same time, on January 23, 1933, the ban on bread sales was lifted in the Kiev and Vinnitsa Provinces, which had met their grain procurement targets.

Therefore, neither Ukraine nor Ukrainians can be singled out as being specially targeted for extermination by starvation. They were suffering – to a greater or lesser degree – in the same way as many other rural and urban residents in the Soviet Union.

Who Is To Blame?

Identifying the culprits in this monstrous crime against humanity is a separate issue. Who was to blame? The Soviet government? The Ukrainian party leadership? There is no doubt that both were guilty, but in addition to those who were issuing orders, there were also those who were carrying them out. Who were they?

Were Mikoyan and Molotov perhaps searching the rural courtyards with long metal rods for stashes of grain or potatoes? Maybe Kaganovich was gently asking children in the morning what they had had for breakfast. And if they had had a breakfast, a requisitioning team would break into their house. Collective farm chairmen and rural council secretaries – who were torturing collective farmers one after another to find out where they had hidden the last scraps of foodstuffs – had not been sent all the way from Moscow. They were locals. And the head of one rural council, who locked up a group of barefoot children for picking up ears of corn on an empty field in a barn and kept them there until some of the “perpetrators” died of starvation or horror, was not named Joseph Stalin but Zozulya Samoilo.

I have read hundreds of such heart-wrenching, harrowing stories in memoirs collected at the Ukrainian institutes of the US and Canada, as well as in testimony to a special US Congressional commission on Holodomor in Ukraine.

In my studies, I never viewed the tragedy in its purely ethnic dimension. But as I studied documents and witness accounts, I drew up a list of victims (a little more than 200,000) and a list of perpetrators (around 150). I do not consider this sample to be representative, but it is random and in this sense of considerable interest.

The correlation of ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, and Jews makes it impossible to portray one ethnic group entirely as a victim and another group as the perpetrator. Everyone bears a proportional measure of responsibility for what happened. It is absurd to maintain that rural activists were carrying out orders from Moscow. The countryside is not a military camp. No one forced them to join the All-Union Lenin Communist Youth League (Komsomol) or the party, or to participate in robbing their neighbors. The activists were volunteers and therefore bore personal responsibility for their deeds. It was a dirty and ruthless business, but still, I would not go so far as to accuse millions of fathers and grandfathers of Ukrainian citizens of crimes against humanity. This is unreasonable and ignoble.

However, during that horrible era there were not only victims and executioners but also heroes who preserved their human qualities. An act of heroism in those days was, for example, to sell a train ticket to a person who did not have the necessary certificate from his rural council, or to share a piece of bread with a hungry person, or to turn a blind eye to theft from a kolkhoz (collective farm) field. Such acts could have cost those people their lives, but they still took the risk and remained human. It was also an act of heroism to tell the world about what had happened. One of the first to do that was Russian writer Vasily Grossman, an ethnic Jew born in Ukraine, in his novel Everything Flows (Vsyo techet).

The first estimates of Ukrainian population losses from 1926 through to 1939 were made by Yury Avksentyevich Korchak-Chepurkovúsky, a renowned Ukrainian demographer who worked in Moscow after his release from a labor camp. Needless to say, he could not have spoken about the losses in so many words in the Russian press, but by comparing the 1926 and 1939 censuses, he showed that Ukraine had lost around 4 million people.

During the perestroika era, when Soviet experts started studying the tragedy in depth, Prof. Stanislav Kulchitsky and I wrote an article to explain the differences in our approaches and our results. Prof. Kulchitsky, based on archival materials of birth, death and migration statistics, put the losses at 3 million to 3.5 million. My approach was different: assuming that statistics during the collectivization period were incomplete, I calculated the losses on the basis of the 1926, 1937 and 1939 censuses, coming up with a figure of 4 million to 4.5 million. From every indication, the truth lies somewhere in between. Virtually all estimates that I am aware of fit into this interval – from 3 million to 4.5 million.

Robert Conquest, in his book The Harvest of Sorrow (1986), cites much higher figures, including 5 million famine victims in Ukraine. But these figures were not based on any serious research. Conquest later admitted that he had overstated the losses in The Great Terror by three to five times (as a matter of fact, by 10 times). That was hardly surprising since Conquest based his estimates not on Ukrainian demographic studies (Ptukha, Khomenko, Korchak-Chepurkovsky, among others) but on Stalin’s upbeat assertions about the country’s population growth.

The true figures are huge enough – almost half of that number reflects those who died during the collectivization era in the Soviet Union. But it should be remembered that the entire decade in question, 1927 through 1936, was marked by especially high mortality rates. These include people executed as part of the campaign to dispossess rich peasants (kulaks), victims who died in exile in Siberia, and those who died in the campaign against the “nationalist” Ukrainian intelligentsia. Then there were those countless numbers who died early because of the worsening conditions of life, poor diet, etc. During the 1932-33 Great Hunger, 2 million to 2.5 million died, although the immediate cause of death in many cases was not starvation but chronic diseases that had been aggravated under those deplorable conditions.

What’s the Difference – 2.4 million or 10 million?

The difference is enormous. The tragic events of those years call for a thorough, bona fide approach, which is the only way of showing respect for the victims. We are duty-bound not only to light candles in church to the memory of the victims, but remember and pay tribute to each person who died, compile a complete martyrology, collect all documents, all evidence from that tragic period. The Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem could serve as a model here. It lists around 3.5 million names and contains millions of documents telling the story of the Holocaust.

Why has the same not been done in Ukraine? Why was the law on aid for famine victims not adopted 15 years ago? Why was an organization not set up to collect all relevant evidence, draw up the lists of those who died and perpetuate their memory? Only a few collections of government decrees and several memoirs were published, including the People’s Memorial Book, but precious as it may be, this represents a tear drop in the ocean.

Today, only a few witnesses are still alive. But it is quite possible to collect evidence from the children and grandchildren of famine victims, and to use contemporary registers kept at rural councils, state registration offices, etc. Tens of thousands of such books and other valuable documents are rotting in Ukrainian archives. It is only by carefully collecting and analyzing each article that we can create the real, faithful picture of those events. Both researchers and average people in Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, and other countries should get involved in this effort.

It is important to mention here a five-volume collection of documents and materials from Russian archives, the Russian Academy of Sciences, university archives in the US, Canada, Australia, the UK and the Republic of Korea, edited by Viktor Danilov and entitled The Tragedy of the Soviet Countryside. Collectivization and Dispossession of Kulaks; a study of famine in the Volga region, by Viktor Kondrashin, studies by the Russian State Humanitarian University and the Memorial Foundation, and a number of other works.

But there is a pressing need to continue this work, ensuring its effective coordination, with the aim of creating a single data bank and a complete list of all famine victims. A quarter of a century ago, a monument to famine victims was unveiled in Edmonton, Canada. Thus far it is the only monument to victims of the 1933 famine. But the day will come, I said at the time, when similar monuments will be built in Ukraine. They will stand on Kiev’s main street, Kreshchatik (to which thousands of people were flocking in search of a piece of bread – only to collapse on the pavement, dead), Kharkov (where dozens of bodies were removed from the central railway terminal every day), and Poltava (where an underground factory making cutlets from human flesh was discovered). Monuments will be unveiled in Kuban villages, in Kazakhstan and Siberia, in the tundra and the taiga.

A monument will also be erected in central Moscow.

Sculptors will be competing with each other in an effort to do the impossible – to get across the pain, anguish, despair and sorrow. Monuments to an inhuman life and an inhuman death. We will remember their names forever.

The process of restoring collective historical memory has already begun. In Kiev, one monument has already been built, and another one will appear soon. But most importantly, the real history of collectivization has ceased to be a mystery anymore. Dispossession, deportations, and famine – all of these horrible events are now open to research. And when we realize what a heinous crime our predecessors perpetrated by torturing their relatives, neighbors and fellow villagers and when we really remember all their names, the words “famine” and “Holodomor” will acquire the same tragic, universal ring as the word “Holocaust” has today.