Special Report

The Politics of Genocide

Will Moscow ever recognize the Stalin-led forced famine in Ukraine 75 years ago as an act of genocide?

By 11.13.07

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TORONTO -- This week, Ukraine's President, Viktor Yushchenko, will travel to Israel -- a nation for whom the term "genocide" has become an indelible part of its collective memory -- where he is expected to ask Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to endorse a UN resolution put forth by Ukraine recognizing the Soviet-era forced famine of 1932-33 in Ukraine as an act of genocide. For Prime Minister Olmert and members of the Knesset, it will not be an easy decision to make, since Jewish leaders have long maintained that the Holocaust was unique and should not be equated with other genocides.

Complicating the matter is the new political reality in the Middle East. Israelis have hesitated to endorse the Ukrainian position, for fear of straining Israel's delicate relations with Russia.

Olmert is hoping to convince Russia to use its geopolitical influence in the Caspian basin to stave off a military confrontation with Tehran over its nuclear program. Yet so far, as Moscow undertakes a series of cozy deals with Iran and Syria, Vladimir Putin has done little to appease Israeli concerns.

Will Prime Minister Olmert hold off on backing Ukraine's UN resolution in an attempt to woo the Kremlin? Only time will tell. One thing is clear, the Russians do not want to see improved relations between Israel and Ukraine. Historically, Moscow has benefited from the painful rifts of the past, and the Kremlin is not happy to see Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko proposing a more dynamic Ukraine-Israel relationship.

Recently, Ukraine's President announced the return of 1,000 Torah scrolls previously confiscated from Ukraine's Jewish communities during the communist regime. Historic synagogues in Ukraine have been returned to Jewish communities and President Yushchenko has ordered Ukraine's Security Service to establish a special department to combat hate crimes. Yushchenko has also proposed legislation to criminalize the denial of the Holocaust.

So why is the Kremlin irritated over Ukraine's pursuit of the genocide issue? Because the current government in Moscow is still unwilling to deal with the ugly side of its Stalinist past.

THIS YEAR THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY will begin commemorating the 75th anniversary of the 1932-33 state-sponsored famine in Ukraine, masterminded by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. The premeditated policy of forced grain seizures targeted Ukraine's anti-Soviet rural population and resulted in mass murder by starvation. The artificially induced famine, known as the Holodomor, claimed the lives of millions of victims. The genocide was the precursor to the bloody Red Terror that later swept the entire USSR.

Having resisted Stalin's forced collectivization, Ukraine's independent-minded rural population faced sweeping food confiscations enforced by the notorious OGPU-NKVD secret police. Starving Ukrainian peasants initially tried surviving on hay, weeds, and leaves, even stripping trees of their bark. As conditions worsened, some, on the verge of insanity, resorted to cannibalism, feeding on the remains of the recently deceased.

But few in the West were aware of the genocide. While Ukrainians starved to death, Moscow dumped millions of tons of cheap grain on Western markets. When Western journalists like the Welsh reporter Gareth Jones, stationed in the USSR in the 1930s, secretly traveled to Ukraine, uncovering information about the decimation of entire rural towns and villages, pro-Soviet apologists like Walter Duranty of the New York Times published fabricated stories of well-fed peasants in an attempt to suppress the truth.

Those in Ukraine's Communist Party who dared to speak out, were meticulously purged by Stalin. Ukraine's aspirations for independence were to be squashed at all costs. Mass executions of Ukraine's intellectual elite followed. The result was a campaign of ethnic cleansing on a vast scale. By 1933, as a result of Stalin's State Decree, all territories previously populated by Ukrainians, now de-populated by the forced famine, were systematically settled by ethnic Russians.

In 2006, after decades of denials and cover-ups, the Parliament of Ukraine shed its Soviet legacy and passed legislation recognizing the 1932-33 Ukrainian Forced Famine as an act of genocide. In recent years, an ever-growing number of countries, including the USA, Australia, Italy, Poland, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, to name just a few, have officially acknowledged this heinous crime to be genocide. This year, Canada's Parliament is expected to adopt a similar resolution in the House of Commons, mirroring a unanimous motion passed in the Senate in 2003.

Ironically, as the international community prepares to vote on a UN General Assembly resolution introduced by Ukraine that would condemn Stalin's actions in Ukraine as nothing less than genocide, Russia -- the self-appointed successor state of the Soviet Union -- has vowed to oppose the passage of such a resolution.

THE KREMLIN HAS YET TO COME to terms with its genocidal past. In a recent article published by Russia's Novosti news service, the Russian author, Andrei Marchukov, referred to the Famine-Genocide in Ukraine as "propaganda" and called recent efforts to uncover previously censored information on the tragedy "sensation whipped up over bygones." Bygones indeed!

It is estimated that at least 7 million perished as a result of Stalin's induced famine in Ukraine. According to research presented at a 2001 Population Conference in Brazil, historian Mark Tolts, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, stated that, up until recently, it had been difficult for historians to reach an exact figure on the number of victims, since Stalin personally falsified the Soviet Union's demographic data after the 1932-33 famine. In fact, according to Tolts, three successive heads of the Soviet Central Statistical Administration were executed by Stalin, while others were arrested, in a deliberate attempt to cover-up the shocking human losses.

Recently, Ukraine declassified over 100 documents pertaining to the 1932-33 Ukrainian Famine and repressions of the 1930s from its Security Service Archives. The documents are eye-opening because they show that international humanitarian aid was systematically denied to Ukraine's starving population. But countless more Soviet-era documents remain locked in Russian archives, inaccessible to Western historians.

The Kremlin's image is in need of a major makeover. Allegations of state-complicity in the assassinations of Alexander Litvinenko in Great Britain and investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya in Moscow have done little to enhance Russia's international image as a democratic, peace-loving nation. More recently, the Kremlin has failed to crack down on home-grown racist youth gangs, responsible for a series of cross-border attacks on Jews and visible minorities in Russia and Ukraine.

Last week, Russian politician Grigory Yavlinsky called on the Russian government to undertake "a de-Stalinization program" to remember the millions of victims of Soviet repression. Russia's Memorial Human Rights Society issued a statement asking the Russian government "to acknowledge past crimes and offer apologies to the victims," including the former Soviet Union's repressed ethnic groups.

It's time for Russia to make peace with its past, by showing a willingness to make peace with its neighbors. Acknowledging Stalin's genocidal complicity in the 1932-33 state-sponsored Famine in Ukraine would be an important first step.

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About the Author

Lisa Shymko is a Canadian political scientist and director of the Canada-Ukraine Parliamentary Center in Kyiv (Kiev), Ukraine.