The echoes of the Famine in today's separatism in South-Eastern Ukraine
I think that those few intellectuals in Ukraine and the West, who are well-versed in the subject of the Famine and its consequences for the modern post-genocide society in Ukraine, have little doubt that Stalin’s extermination of Ukrainians in 1933 laid good foundations for Putin’s hybrid war in the Donbas today. One bloody dictator inherited the cause of imperial destruction of Ukraine from another. Everyone knows what is going on in Eastern Ukraine today. Only few truly understand what happened in Ukraine in the winter and spring of 1933.
WHY STARVATION IS THE WORST KIND OF DEATH
“Because it is the slowest,” some will answer. They are right, but only partly. With no food but water available, a human being dies away in a month, the last week being in terrible physical suffering. There is another, worse aspect to starvation: it transforms a person into an animal, and a more monstrous one than the most merciless predators. This creature can eat its own kind, as well as its children.
I often cited Hryhoriy Bevz, a survivor of the Famine in a Ukrainian village: “Physiological changes of a starving person’s body are accompanied by changes to his or her psyche. Intense and long-term starvation deadens or completely kills normal human senses and feelings. A starving person does not regard good and evil, truth and lies, justice and injustice, in the same way as a person who is not hungry. Natural values that are common to mankind appear secondary, unworthy. The prevailing desire is to eat. Feelings of patriotism, faith, friendship and love die, or cease to exist at all.”
These feelings never recovered in many survivors of the 1933 Famine. Not only did these post-genocide peasants not bring a single flower to the mass graves in which their children, parents, husbands and wives were buried – they simply walked over their remains.
I learned this from eye-witnesses of the Famine who live in many villages in the Luhansk part of Slobozhanshchyna, a historical region severely beaten by the genocide. To this day, there are no signs on the mass graves where the victims were buried.
The Bolsheviks made sure that all Ukrainian peasants and Cossacks in the USSR were reduced to this animal state in 1933. Survivors often recalled how in that time, highly-placed Communist Party and Soviet officials drove into villages and asked their parents how long they had been without food, how many fellow-peasants were dying from hunger each day and how many had already died.
Peasants constituted about 75% of the population of the Ukrainian SSR at that time. The surviving victims of the Holodomor brought up their children and grandchildren in the resulting moral environment. Their descendants now make up most of the Ukrainian population.
This is hardly my attempt to degrade my own people or my sick fantasies. According to James Mace, a top researcher of post-genocide society in Ukraine, mass extermination of the Ukrainian people wiped out its age-old ethical traits, such as hospitality, kindness, courtesy and responsiveness became a thing of the past, while indifference and heartlessness prevailed. There was hardly any room left for patriotism.
WHY MANY UKRAINIAN STILL REGARD RUSSIANS AS “BROTHERS”
Those same elderly survivors of the Famine in Luhansk Oblast assured me that prior to 1933, they never heard from their parents or grandparents of a single case of a mixed marriage between young people from Ukrainian and Russian villages, located just several kilometres away from one another.
At that time, Ukrainians viewed Russians as representative of a different, obscurely-hostile civilisation where the language of the entire rural population were dominated by swearing, the stink of home-made vodka was a constant presence, and vegetable gardens were overgrown with waist-high weeds.
It was only after 1933 that the ground was well-prepared for the imperial-Bolshevik myth of the two countries’ age-old brotherly friendship to be imposed. This became possible after the red terror of Famine turned the mentality of Ukrainian peasants upside down. Another factor was assimilation with the Russians along the near border as a chance to survive. There was no distinct borderline between Ukraine and Russia in 1933. Ukrainians, dying from the artificial famine, saw that nothing of this kind was happening on the Russian side. The residents of all border regions of Luhansk Oblast, without exception, attested to this. Completely denationalized, the starving Ukrainian peasants saw no way to prevent yet another similar genocide other than to assimilate with the Russians. They were obviously not aware of the actual underlying reasons for the genocide arranged by the Bolsheviks. So, forging the closest ties possible to the Russians, or even pretending to be Russian, was seen as a tool of salvation. Hence the Russified Ukrainian surnames, such as -ov added to the originally Ukrainian surnames Matvienko (Matvienkov in Russian), Chepurnyi (Chepurnov in Russian), - in in Zozulin (originally, Zozulia, a cuckoo in Ukrainian), or -ev in Shamrayev.
Post-genocide mixed marriages brought up their children and grandchildren in the Russian-Soviet style spirit. Their descendants grew into a generation that detested and feared any manifestation of Ukrainian patriotism and “bourgeois nationalism”, seeing in them a direct threat of another famine hell similar to what their parents had gone through. These descendants of denationalised post-genocide Ukrainian peasants from Slobozhanshchyna and the Cossack steppe now constitute a narrow majority in all large cities of the Donbas. It is then no wonder that many of them indicated that they were Russians in the latest census.
THE ROOTS OF THE DONBAS AND “NOVOROSSIYA”
The negative view of Ukrainian nationalism is similarly typical for most residents in the Donbas, and “Novorossiya” – South-Eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin ideologists primitively explain this as a result of predominating Russian-speaking or ethnically Russian population there.
In fact, all Ukrainian censuses demonstrate that this is not true. The language is not an issue as proven by many Russian-speaking patriots from South-Eastern Ukraine fighting in the Donbas today.
Imperial ideologists blatantly lie, when they claim that the Donbas mentality today is supposedly evidence of the fact that “Novorossiya” is a historical “essentially Russian province”. This is post-genocide thinking.
Suffice it to recall the powerful peasant army of Nestor Makhno, whose fighters had the identity of Ukrainian peasants, to be convinced that prior to the Famine, the south-eastern part of Ukraine in no way differed from the rest of the country. Makhno’s army was largely formed in Katerynoslavshchyna (Katerynoslav is the old name for Dnipropetrovsk), a historical region covering part of Luhansk Oblast.
So, what was it that made the mentality in South-Eastern Ukraine so different from the rest of the country? The Kremlin documents from 1932–1933 do not mention any specific measures to organize an artificial famine in this particular region.
Historian Vadym Skurativskyi explains this phenomenon of deep denationalization. According to his observations, peasants in South-Eastern Ukraine suffered significantly more from the Famine than did the rest of Ukrainians, simply because they lived in the steppe region. When, towards the end of 1932, the Bolsheviks collected everything edible from absolutely all the people living in villages, those who lived in the forest or partially wooded steppe regions had a slightly better chance to survive than those living in the steppe regions. After all, the fauna of the steppe is significantly poorer than that in a forest.
These views are confirmed by the research of the famous American historian, Robert Conquest. In his popular-documentary book Harvest of Despair, he published his statistical data on the mortality of Ukrainian peasants in 1933 as a whole and by region. According to these figures, the Famine took one in four lives of Ukrainian peasants in northern oblasts, one in three in central oblasts, and roughly every other life in south-eastern oblasts.
Vadym Skurativsky sadly concluded that “The deliberately directed and meticulously executed genocide of 1932–1933 made it impossible to consolidate Ukraine as a strong and powerful country on the European continent. This is precisely what the cunning action of Ukrainophobes was counting on.”
James Mace essentially confirms this. The study of political reasons for the Famine can and should play an important role when Western historians, politicians and statements are looking into not just Ukraine’s past, but into what is happening here today and could happen tomorrow.
The most denationalized region after the Famine was the Donbas. Plus, the concentration of ethnic Russians is the second highest there today, following Crimea. It would have taken a very balanced and wise state policy to return the national consciousness lost in the Holodomor to the people in the Donbas today, and to approximate its Russian ethnic minority to pro-European mentality.
Instead, all Ukrainian leaders flirted with local pro-Russian political elites, switching to the Russian language during their infrequent and all too fleeting visits to Luhansk and Donetsk.
They probably never read the warning James Mace left for them in the early years of this century: claims to Ukraine are deeply rooted in Russian political culture, and there is every likelihood that sooner or later, Russia will decide to implement them in deeds, not just in words. This is what is happening today – so far, only in Crimea and the Donbas.
Imperial Russia made full use of this political shortsightedness of the Ukrainian political elite. Immediately after Vladimir Putin came to power in the Kremlin, a powerful ideological cleansing of the Donbas was launched. Ukrainian language mass media, schools, classes and university departments, which were already few and far between, began to close down.
At the same time, the Kremlin, not sparing any costs, strongly propagated the values of the “Russian World”, its own mass media, culture and television in this region. Apparently, in contrast to Kyiv, Moscow realized both the consequences of the Famine, and the benefits it could gain from it.
The results of such different approaches by Kyiv and Moscow to the post-genocide society in the Donbas turned out to be dire for Ukrainian statehood. Ukrainians, who were aware of their nationality in Luhansk in the last 10 years, represented a meagre minority – about a thousand people.
Last winter, they were the ones to come out onto the local Maidan, which was dispersed for the last time on March 9 by almost 2,000 titushkas hired from throughout the oblast by agents of the Russian special services. This was the first day of the pro-LNR (Luhansk People’s Republic) movement.
Now, let’s imagine that the 1933 Famine had not happened. At least 270,000 Ukrainians aware of their identity would now be living in Luhansk, as opposed to a thousand (descendants of the post-genocide generation who lived in the city prior to Russia’s current hybrid war).
At least several thousand of them would have come out to mark the 200th birthday of Taras Shevchenko on March 9. Before the Famine, every peasant home in both Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts had a Kobzar, Shevchenko’s most famous book of verses in Ukrainian. If it had not been for the Famine then, the 2,000 paid thugs would surely fail to spoil the celebration today. There would be no LNRs and DNRs. Without the Famine, Vladimir Putin would now have to think hard before calling South-Eastern Ukraine “Russian land”.