November 24 is Ukraine’s National Holodomor Memorial Day, dedicated to the victims of the man-made famine of 1932-1933, which is believed to have taken the lives of 4-7 million Ukrainians. The Ukrainian government, and a number of other countries – including the United States and some of its individual states – consider the famine an act of genocide. Other official bodies, including the European Parliament, have officially recognized the famine as a crime against humanity, but not genocide. Because the famine was caused by actions of the Soviet government in Moscow, it has been a major source of contention between Russia and Ukraine, particularly over the claim that the famine could be considered genocide against Ukrainians.
On November 25, the official Twitter account of the Russian Embassy in Canada (a country with a large Ukrainian diaspora) tweeted an infographic claiming that the Soviet famine of the 1930s was a “common tragedy for Ukrainians, Russians, Kazakhs, other Soviet people.” It denounced the use of the term Holodomor, claiming that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin did not target Ukrainians due to their nationality. While the infographic contains some truth, its message is misleading for a number of reasons.
The first problem is the use of the term “common tragedy,” which could be inferred to mean that the famine was not deliberate. While there is no scholarly consensus on whether the famine constituted an act of genocide against Ukrainians, there is a consensus that the famine was due to Soviet collectivization policies, which were designed to support rapid industrialization at all costs. Excessive procurement quotas left many Ukrainian peasants without adequate seed grain for the next season’s planting. Draconian laws were passed to keep peasants from withholding even minuscule amounts of food, and internal passports were instituted to prevent peasants from leaving Ukraine and other areas in search of food. The Russian Embassy’s tweet makes it easier to imagine that the famine was not a direct result of Moscow’s policy.
In 1948, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide,” whose definition and criteria are often used to measure whether certain atrocities could be considered genocide. It states:
“…genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
Based on these criteria, scholars argue that the Holodomor, especially when combined with the mass deportation of Ukrainian peasants and the execution of Ukrainian intelligentsia around the same time, was an act of genocide. However, the Russian counter-argument is that Ukrainians were not the only group affected by such policies, which would suggest that the destructive policy did not target Ukrainians on the basis of ethnicity. There is also the argument of intent – i.e., that the Soviet regime was primarily concerned with securing the submission of the peasantry rather than the physical destruction of Ukrainians or any other ethnic group.
Another thing to consider is that the definition given in the Convention is often debated by scholars over whether its criteria are too narrow or too broad. This definition has been subject to scrutiny and debate ever since it was conceived. More importantly, Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish lawyer who initiated the Convention process and coined the term genocide, saw the famine in Ukraine as an act of genocide. In a 1953 speech entitled “Soviet Genocide in Ukraine,” Lemkin said:
“What I want to speak about is perhaps the classic example of Soviet genocide, its longest and broadest experiment in Russification — the destruction of the Ukrainian nation.”
In addition, calling the famine in Ukraine a genocide against Ukrainians does not exclude the suffering of other Soviet peoples, such as the Kazakhs, who suffered the highest proportion of deaths due to the famine.
Yet Russia does little to memorialize what the Russian Embassy Twitter account called a “common tragedy” also affecting Russians. Russian journalist Georgy Bovt pointed out in a 2008 Moscow Times op-ed that Russia had never conducted any real investigation into the famines, while Russian state media continued to rehabilitate Stalin and his regime, a process which continues to this day.
The Russian Foreign Ministry rightly considers the 1930s famine one that Russians also suffered, yet, Russia doesn’t have a day of remembrance for these victims. But while October 30 is the “Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repressions” in Russia, it commemorates those executed or sent to the gulags during the 1930s purges, which began after the famine, not victims of the famine itself.
The Russian Embassy’s tweet also accused Ukraine of promoting a “blame Moscow/Russia narrative.” However, the use of the term Holodomor dates back to the 1930’s, i.e. the time of the famine, long before the conflict between Ukraine and Russia began in 2014. Also while it is true that Ukrainian government officials also took part in the actions which led to the famine, they were not in a position to change the policies of the central government in Moscow, and those officials in Ukraine who pleaded for leniency in order to avoid a famine were overruled or ignored.
Additionally, the embassy’s claim that the famine was a common tragedy for all Soviet peoples ignores the fact that territories like Ukraine found themselves in the Soviet Union because they were conquered by military force. Had Ukraine retained its independence, it is almost inconceivable to believe that a famine on such a scale could have occurred, or that a Ukrainian government would have pursued such a policy against the peasantry that made up the backbone of its population.
The claim that the Holodomor is only used as a prop to demonize Russia is simply untrue. For example, on December 7, Ukraine’s mission to the United Nations tweeted a declaration on the 85th anniversary of the Holodomor. It mentioned neither Russia nor Moscow, blaming only the “Stalinist regime.”
The declaration also recognized the deaths of “persons of other nationalities living in Ukraine at the time,” and paid tribute “to the memory of millions of persons of other nationalities who died of starvation and political repression in other parts of the Soviet Union.” This would include Russians.
Thus, the Russian Embassy’s tweet, while containing indisputable facts, was also misleading. And the big question remains: if Russia considers the 1930s famine to have been a common tragedy for all Soviet peoples, including Russians, why does the Russian government only bring this up in response to the Ukrainian Holodomor, instead of creating a day of remembrance for those Russians and other nationalities who starved to death in 1932-1933?