Ukraine: Was the Soviet-era famine genocide?

Elderly Ukrainians don

Elderly Ukrainians don’t like to talk about the Great Famine, said Daisy Sinclair in During the 1932–33 Holodomor, or hunger-murder, some 10 million Ukrainians—including one-third of the nation’s children—starved to death. The memories are nightmarish: “eating birds and earthworms; watching as family members died in their arms; and in the worst instances, consuming the flesh of the dead.” Ukraine was at that time a Soviet socialist republic, and the Soviets hushed up the story. Discussion of the Holodomor was a crime against the state. Now, on the 75th anniversary of the tragedy, an independent Ukraine is openly honoring the victims and encouraging survivors to speak out.

The Holodomor was not merely a tragedy, said Viktor Yushchenko, president of Ukraine, in The Wall Street Journal. It was genocide. Ukraine, widely known as the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, had a normal harvest in 1932, and there was plenty of food. But Stalin wanted to punish Ukraine’s peasants for their refusal to give up their land and work on collective farms, so he sent troops to every farm and town and confiscated not just the harvest but also the contents of all the grocery stores. “Eventually, the whole territory of Ukraine was surrounded by armed forces, turning the entire country into a vast death camp.” At the same time, Soviet authorities waged a “terror campaign” against Ukrainian intellectuals, purging academics, writers, and musicians in an attempt to eradicate Ukraine’s cultural heritage. Ukrainians today don’t blame Russia or any other country for Stalin’s crimes. We just want the world to follow Ukraine and the U.S. in recognizing the Holodomor for what it truly was: the deliberate murder of millions of people.

No one denies that millions of Ukrainians suffered and died, said Sergey Skliarov in Russia’s Nezavisimaya Gazeta. But to assert that the famine was concocted on purpose to kill Ukrainians is simply not true. The Soviets confiscated the grain harvest “because they had to use it to repay foreign loans,” mostly from Germany. The confiscation hit Ukraine hardest only because that region was the main grain producer. Don’t forget, hundreds of thousands of Russians and Kazakhs also starved to death. “Their deaths are just as worthy of remembrance.” Yet they won’t be honored, because the Ukrainian insistence on treating the famine as genocide makes the Russian government loath to discuss the tragedy at all. Russia fears, understandably, that the genocide label could be used to extort reparations from the Russian government.

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It doesn’t really matter what we call it, as long as we acknowledge that the famine was man-made, said Mitch Potter in Canada’s Toronto Star. Stalin’s evil must not be whitewashed now, as it was at the time. New York Times reporter Walter Duranty actually won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Ukraine in the 1930s—reporting that praised Stalin’s collectivization and did not even mention the mass starvation of the peasantry. We can tell the tales now that were covered up then. “I am 92,” said survivor Ivan Brovko, “and so long as I live I will continue talking about it. Because the Holodomor is not where it should be in the world’s memory.”

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