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4 October, 2013

Contextualizing the Holodomor

Scholars agree that the debate over whether the Holodomor was genocide has been resolved – it was and we should treat it as such – this fact has now become an academic given

The Holodomor was genocide. This was the conclusion on the first annual scholarly conference of the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium. The conference was attended by some of the most well-known researchers, not only in Holodomor studies, but in general Ukrainian studies: David Marples, Norman Naimark and Roman Serbyn are only three scholars that can be mentioned. All of them agree that the debate over whether the Holodomor was genocide has been resolved – it was and we should treat it as such – this fact has now become an academic given. However, there are still plenty of other debates and unknowns about our understanding of the Holodomor and its effects. One of the more interesting debates occurred between Francoise Thom from Sorbonne University in Paris and Mark von Hagen from Arizona State University in the USA: the issue of collaboration and blame. Who is included in the role as villain in the story of the Holodomor – surely Stalin for it is without doubt that he knew about the famine but did not care – but what about the others in the elite Soviet party or the party representatives in the villages? Who is to be blamed for this atrocity on the Ukrainian people? Overall, even with this debate – one conclusive fact remains: Stalin knew.

READ ALSO: Killing A People

This issue over Stalin’s role was brought up among other scholars. Many expressed their opinion - mainly through Andrea Graziosi from the University of Naples - that the findings from new archival sources shatter the myth that the Holodomor was Stalin’s necessity for an industrialized Ukraine that would act as a buffer zone in his paranoid delusion of an upcoming war with Poland. Historians now know that the Holodomor occurred only a few months before the formal signing of a peace pact between the Soviet Union and the Second Polish Republic and more importantly, several questions were brought up as to the rational discussion about this ‘war myth’; namely: who exactly was this war scare from? Certainly not Poland that was crippled by the Great Depression not only economically but also politically and militarily. Andrea Graziosi expressed himself exquisitely when he stated that to modernize - and industrialize - does not mean to collectivize. Stalin destroyed a whole people not for the industrialization of the Soviet Ukraine but rather to destroy the very soul of the Ukrainian people. We must stop insisting that Stalin saved Ukraine from war – there was no war to be saved from, there was only Stalin himself and his party. Industrialization should not be equated to the starvation of millions of innocent people.

Serhii Plokhii from Harvard University stated that the Holodomor should be seen as Stalin’s attempt to create a borderland of communist utopia: “it would be the fortress of socialism”. This subtle idea that the Holodomor was an intrinsic act of Soviet colonialism (or even Stalinist colonialism) was punctuated by various historians - and debated by others. There are still questions that need to be addressed more categorically however: was Mark von Hagen and Liudmyla Hrynevych correct in their assessments that colonialism was an intrinsic part of Stalin’s communism or was the Holodomor a show of power as Serhii Plokhii says, in order for Stalin to gain even more control of the party leadership and cast out the old elites with ones that grew up in his communist utopia?

READ ALSO: The Holodomor As Genocide

One of the more interesting talks of the conference came from Olga Andriewsky from Trent University in Canada. She discussed how the Holodomor has impacted the understanding of Ukrainian history but also showed the attendees the impact that politics has on the study of the Holodomor. For her, the greatest triumph of Viktor Yushchenko’s presidency was the proclamation that the Holodomor was genocide. This not only allowed the spread of Holodomor education but also the legacy of the Holodomor to become part of Ukraine’s national memory. Olga’s proclamation that the Holodomor was ‘uniquely ruinous’ was evidenced by her examination of the blacklisted villages and what that exactly meant: all stores were closed, bank accounts frozen, party members purged, cattle and other farm animals taken away, grain seized and travel restricted. This blacklisting was also more widespread than previously thought and was more persistent towards villages that resisted (either in the past or present) to Soviet indoctrination. She also presented a copy of the 22 January 1933 decree, Preventing the Mass Exodus of Peasants who are Starving, which basically allowed the arrest of anyone trying to flee the famine but also closed off the borders. The decree was signed personally by Stalin himself – a man known to read everything before he signed his name.

Stanislav Kulchytsky from the Institute of History of Ukraine remarked that the Soviets “did not just take away the potatoes and the meat, but they took away everything”. This can be linked not only the physical starvation of a whole people but also the destruction of their cultural and social understandings. This was another important topic throughout the conference – the effects of genocide on a whole people and their history. Questions were raised on the genetic effects of malnourishment, the Ukrainian population’s inability to reproduce itself naturally and the destruction of Ukraine’s cultural ethos - its peasantry.

READ ALSO: Christian Vanneste: “When the Door Is Open, the Spirit of Freedom Always Enters”

The conference ended with a special presentation by Roman Serbyn from the University of Quebec in Montreal on the evolution of understanding the Holodomor from a simple famine to genocide. Roman Serbyn was also awarded for his lifetime contribution for his active service in promoting the Holodomor as genocide by Frank Sysyn and personally thanked for his service in the Ukrainian-Canadian Diaspora by the president of the Ukrainian-Canadian Congress, Paul Grod. It brought together the expert minds of Ukrainian history and showed that the future generation of Ukrainian academics - both from Ukraine and outside of it - were willing to explore Ukraine’s tragic yet interesting history. While it is true what Roman Serbyn has opinionated: the Holodomor is one of the saddest episodes of Ukraine’s history however, it has also shown that the Ukrainian spirit and will to survive has and can endure.


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