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Holodomor — Famine of 1932-1933 in Ukraine — genocide of the Ukrainians
The history of Ukraine is full of tragic events but the terrible man-made famine of 1932-1933 stands out as particularly devastating. For many years, the Soviet authorities tried to conceal the facts about that famine — they even went as far as to deny the very fact of famine taking place. After Ukraine's independence the ban on publications about the Great Famine and research into it was lifted and the full scale of the disaster was revealed. Now is the time when the next step should be taken — the Famine of 1932–1933 whose death toll was in millions must be internationally recognized as genocide against the Ukrainian people perpetrated by the soviet authorities of Stalin's dictatorship.
Professor Viktor Korol, Ph.D. in history, who devoted much of his time to the research of the Great Famine, was interviewed by Mariya VLAD.
Viktor Korol is a professor at the Kyiv Taras Shevchenko National University and a full member of the International Slavonic Academy of Sciences. He was born in 1944; graduated from the Department of History of Kyiv Shevchenko University in 1971; he earned his MD in 1977 and his doctorate in 1990. Professor Korol has authored more than 500 books and scholarly papers, among them textbooks and works on the history of WWII.
Do we know enough about the Holodomor (Great Famine) of 1932–1933 in Ukraine and its causes?
We know a lot but there is still a lot more to discover. The World Congresses of Ukrainians held in Kyiv in 2003 and quite recently in August in 2006 insisted that the Holodomor be recognized internationally as genocide against the Ukrainian people. The more we learn about that tragic event, the clearer it becomes that millions of people died as a result of the purposeful genocide policies of the soviet power and not because of the “unfavourable” weather conditions and bad crops. We must know the whole truth about the Holodomor.
As far as the causes of it are concerned there were several of them. In the late 1920s, the Soviet government launched what they called “wide-scale collectivization programme” in which small private farms were to be united in kolhospy — “collective farms.” At first, co-operatives were set up in which, in compliance with the order of the then Soviet minister of agriculture (ministers at that time were called “people’s commissars”) Ya. Yakovlev (whose real name was Epstein) the livestock, horses and poultry in the peasants’ private possession were to be made “collective property.” Farmers were horrified at the thought of having to turn their livestock to those co-operatives and preferred to slaughter the cattle, and within a short period of time more than fifteen million heads of cattle were slaughtered. When the peasants were forced to join the kolhospy, they worked at the “collective fields and farms” from morning till night but earning very little. Their small vegetable gardens helped them to survive, but still many had to migrate to towns hoping for a better life there.
Could you explain, please, who the kurkuls were and whether the way they were treated by the soviet authorities also contributed to the horrors of the Holodomor?
Of course it did. The soviets called the peasants who were better off than others “kurkuls” and as such they were branded as “bourgeois peasants” and were to be treated accordingly (in the late 1920s there were officially only four percent of such peasants). Anything “bourgeois” was to be punished in some way the harshness of which varied from exile to death. Hundreds of thousands of the Ukrainian kurkuls were rounded up and sent to Siberia and to the areas in the north of the Soviet Union where they were put into concentration camps or left to die or survive under most unfavourable conditions. Often enough, poor peasants who were considered to be “unreliable elements hostile to the soviet power” were pronounced kurkuls, arrested and deported. These harsh measures caused the peasants to retaliate. In 1930 alone, more than 2,200 peasant uprisings flared up in Ukraine with more than 800,000 people taking part in them. The uprisings were brutally suppressed. Particularly harsh on the peasants were V. Balytsky and S. Redens, heads of the NKVD secret service and other “punitive” organs in Ukraine in the first half of the 1930s. They received their orders from Moscow. The party bosses in Ukraine (S. Kosior, H. Petrovsky, L. Kaganovych, M. Khatayevych) provided material and ideological support for punitive actions and for further collectivisation. The punitive forces were given the right to decide for themselves who was to be deported and who was to be executed. There were three categories of kurkuls and whether one belonged to the kurkuls of the second and third category — those whose “guilt” was less than of those in the first category — was determined at the local level by the village councils and communist activists (the measure of “guilt” depended on the participation in uprisings, reluctance to give up property, verbal disagreement, and the like). Often enough, the determining factor was the personal animosity or settling of old scores. There was even a plan as to how many peasants were to be dealt with as kurkuls, and their number eventually reached about fifteen percent of all the peasant households.
There were several stages in the “de-kurkuling,” that is, getting rid of the kurkuls. The de-kurkuling campaign was launched in the late 1920s, and by the end of 1931 352,000 peasant households were de-kurkuled and over 850,000 peasants were deported. It is still hard to estimate how many people were executed. According to the latest research, 1 million 85 thousand kurkuls had been “dealt with” by 1935, most of them were deported to the northern areas of the eastern Soviet Union.
What about the children of the kurkuls?
Their plight was the most terrible. Many mothers preferred to leave their infants behind rather than risk taking them along, hoping that somebody would take care of them. It was a futile hope. Many infants were placed at the porches of the buildings of local councils but the soviet authorities forbade the locals to pick them up and the infants soon died of the exposure. The communist party bosses called these infants “brats of hostile elements” and people were afraid to save these children. Later, they were buried in common graves. Even the Nazis during their occupation of Ukraine did not perpetrate such crimes! As you can easily guess the plight of children who were taken by their deported parents along to the places of deportation was not too much better.
Did the collectivisation affect the crops too?
Of course it did! The plans of how much grain was to be harvested were quite unrealistic but the authorities demanded that the peasants continue to supply as much grain and other products as the grain-delivery quotas required. By early 1932, a great number peasants were left with no means of survival. But the pressure on them did not slacken and the quotas were not reduced. Stalin had a special decree adopted (On the Protection of State Property of State-Run Concern, Collective Farms and Co-Operatives and on Strengthening of Socialist Property) in August 1932. From then on, anybody who was caught picking ears of grain or stray potatoes on the kolhospy fields could be arrested and sentenced either to death or to ten years in a concentration camp. Even children were not immune.
In order to procure as much grain from Ukraine as was planned, Stalin sent a committee, headed by one of his henchmen V. Molotov, to Ukraine. The committee requisitioned from Ukraine all the grain that had been stored and in early 1933 in many areas there was no grain left. In addition to grain, bread, potatoes, pickles, beans, onions, beets, peas and other products were taken from the peasants if any of these and other similar products and groceries were found in the peasants’ homes. Those areas which, to Molotov’s mind, did not give enough, were cordoned off by troops and nobody could either leave them or enter. And no food was supplied. Even the seeds for the next-year sowing were confiscated. Such a policy resulted in starvation which soon developed into a large-scale famine. The conditions in these cordoned-off areas were worse than in ghettos set up by the Nazis for the Jews. There was no way of getting any food from outside, no chance of escaping. Those troops who policed the cordoned-off areas must have had no heart. They saw the horrible death people were dying there and yet did nothing to help the dying. And what can be said about all those who ordered it and who perfectly knew what was happening in hundreds of Ukrainian villages? … Some people did manage to get through the cordons and get to towns where the situation was not as bad, but when they were apprehended the food they tried to carry back to their children and relatives was confiscated; if they were discovered hiding in train cars they were thrown out of the moving trains. Didn’t those KGB guards who did it have their own children? Didn’t they have anything human in them? It does not seem they did. They treated the dying peasants as subhuman. And later, many of the KGB officers and men were considered to be respected citizens of the Soviet Union, and given big pensions… There were thousands of decaying bodies in the vicinity of railroad stations and along the tracks. The communist party bosses travelling in trains could not help seeing them. One or two of them reportedly described the horrors of the famine in Ukraine to Stalin and asked whether it would be possible to do something to help them, but Stalin flatly refused to do anything. The dying were left to die. No help was provided. S. Kosior, L. Kaganovych, P. Postyshev and others of the same ilk did what they were ordered to do.
One shudders to think that up to quite recent times there were monuments to some of those executioners in many of the Ukrainian cities, and streets were named after them.
Not all of those monuments were removed, and not all the streets were renamed. People still do not know the truth. Postyshev was one of the high-ranking communist party officials whom Stalin sent to Ukraine to monitor food requisitions and confiscations, and shortly before this emissary’s departure, Stalin, in a joking mood and in the presence of some of his closest associates (Molotov, Kalinin, Kahanovych and Yahoda, security service chief), addressed Postyshev as “our glavgol — glavnokomanduyushchiy golodom, that is commander in chief of famine, adding that Kosior showed some weakness in that matter, and that such “slugs and snails” as Chubar and Petrovsky should not be paid any attention to. In this way Stalin encouraged Postyshev to finish with the rebellious Ukraine in a swift and sure way — through strangling it with famine.
Is it known how many people actually died then?
We have no exact figures because all the relevant reports and data were later destroyed in a soviet cover-up campaign. Secret reports to Postyshev were ciphered and the statistical data of the dead were available for some months of late 1932 and early 1933, but then all the relevant documents were destroyed. But S. Kosior, P. Postyshev, M. Khatayevych and V. Balytsky in the top echelons of the communist party in Ukraine knew everything. The results of the general census taken in January 1937 were rigged and many of the officials who were responsible for conducting the census were later arrested and executed. But nevertheless it became known that the census had shown the fall in the population in the Soviet Union in comparison with what was expected by fifteen million people.
How many people are estimated to have actually died in the famine?
Between three and seven million people. Some historians claim the number of victims could have been as high as ten million people. But we should add to the direct victims of the famine those who died later of the diseases caused by malnutrition and general exhaustion. Their number is practically impossible to assess. Also, add to the victims of the Holodomor those who were executed and shot for collecting ears and stray potatoes in the fields… About one third of those who died in the Great Famine were children. Morgues in towns to which many of the starving peasants and their children flogged were full of the dead from starvation but the cause of death was invariably given as “dystrophy.”
You could not conceal a disaster of this magnitude from the rest of the Soviet Union, could you?
Don’t forget that we are talking of the period when the totalitarian regime was at its harshest and when the control over the media and information was the strictest. Soviet propaganda either suppressed facts or twisted them around to such an extent that no truth could leak through to the parts of the Soviet Union distanced from Ukraine. And fear ruled supreme — even if you knew something you’d put yourself into mortal danger if you dared to reveal it to anybody else. Unfortunately, the world community was misinformed too — or it did not care enough to learn the truth. Some foreign journalists in their reports deliberately omitted any mention of the horrors of the famine in Ukraine. Access to information was restricted and the soviet authorities made sure that the world knew only what the soviets wanted it to know. Soviet sympathisers in the west contributed to spreading myths about the Soviet Union and the terrible stories about the famine were called “lies” concocted by the enemies of the Soviet Union. Even now, so many years later, it is difficult to make the full truth widely accepted.
There is so much evidence accumulated that makes it clear that the famine was not a result of harvest failures or local mismanagement. The question arises — why was it done to Ukraine?
The idea of peasants taking most of their own decisions was anathema to Stalin. Stalin wanted to subjugate Ukraine at any cost. Kurkuls — the most industrious peasants — were the hardest hit. As far as evidence is concerned, we have not only memories and letters describing what was happening — we have hard facts too. Say, the grain harvest of 1932 was not at all a bad one but all of it was taken away from the peasants and much of it was exported. The full force of the famine struck in the spring and summer of 1933 when people were forced to eat grass, leaves and the bark of trees — and the communist authorities did not bother to provide any help! How else can one describe it other than genocide? …The Ministry of Education of Ukraine has introduced into the secondary-education programmes so many hours of study of the Holocaust in WWII. With all due respect, I think it would be worthwhile to devote as many hours in Ukrainian schools to the Great Famine, in which millions of absolutely innocent people died and a crippling blow was dealt to the Ukrainian agriculture and to the nation in general. The horror of what happened is beyond description — but the Ukrainians should know what their nation went through.
Are there enough publications about that tragedy in Ukraine?
Definitely not. Molotov and Kaganovych, the key figures in the perpetrating that horror, peacefully died in their beds at a very advanced age and their memories were published in a great number of copies. They did not admit any guilt! Their books continue to be read. Every nation should know its true history, no matter how tragic it may be. It’s a guarantee against such tragedies happening again. It’s highly immoral that the executioners are better known than their victims… I wish the memories of such people as Pavlo Sychenko were published in a big number of copies. He was one of those few who survived the famine. His parents managed to escape from their village and come to Kyiv. In one episode he describes how at night, “when we were queuing up for bread near a bakery, there were dozens of dead bodies lying around. I saw dead bodies at the railroad station too and in the streets and squares.” One of the workers who also stood in the line asked Pavlo’s father what it was really like in the country side. “ ‘People are dying of starvation. Literally dying,’ said my father. The worker, horrified, whispered, ‘What will become of us here in the city if there’s no food in the countryside?’ ”
Yes, indeed, what will become of the cities if the countryside is not producing food? I think the politicians of today’s Ukraine should be aware of the fact that life in the countryside in Ukraine is very hard, that many villages are half empty — not because of starvation, God forbid, but because people find there’s no future for them staying in the countryside.
History teaches us many lessons. But the problem is — do we care enough to analyze those lessons in order not to repeat the terrible mistakes that were once made?
Photos by Yuriy Buslenko
and from Holod 33. Narodna knyha-memorial
(“Famine 1933. People’s Memorial Book”)
The grim job of unloading the corpses
These children will not ask for bread any more.
Monuments to the victims of Holodomor,
The cross at the communal grave