On Holodomor Denial

In the second issue of Holodomor Studies, librarian Jurij Dobczansky, in an article reproduced with permission in UKL445 (7 June 2010), writes that the Library of Congress has introduced, last Fall, the new categories of Holodomor denial literature (“for works that diminish the scale and significance of the Ukrainian Famine of 1932‑1933 or assert that it did not occur”) and Holodomor denial (“for works that discuss the diminution of the scale and significance of the Ukrainian Famine of 1932‑1933 or the assertion that it did not occur”).

It seems to me that the category of “Holodomor denial” conflates two distinct strands in the charged debate over the Holodomor—that of “Famine-as-Mass-Murder” denial and that of “Famine-as-Genocide” denial.

The classic case of  Holodomor denial was the official Soviet policy, until 1987, of denying that a famine occurred in Ukraine (or elsewhere) in 1932-1933. Anyone using the word “famine” was denounced as a stooge of hostile foreign interests bent on defaming the Soviet Union. The ideological rationale was simple: collectivization was meant to demonstrate the superiority of the Soviet economic system and an admission that it killed millions of people would delegitimize the Soviet project. In 1937, Stalin had the organizers of the Soviet census shot for having produced an accurate population count that showed that millions of people were missing in Ukraine.

The Soviet denial of the famine is on the same plane as the so-called Holocaust “revisionist” literature that denies that gas chambers existed and is beyond the pale of academic debate. (In Germany and France, Holocaust denial is also illegal, but this is another issue altogether). This does not mean, however, that this brand of denial literature should not be researched as an artefact of political and social discourse. Arguing that the Ukrainian Famine, or the Holocaust, or other incontrovertibly documented cases of mass violence against civilians, did not happen is morally contemptible and scientifically fraudulent. Yet seeking to understand why and how agents of state power, or socially meaningful social actors and organizations, engage in denial 101 is central to the scholarly enterprise.

In a recent debate (UKL441, 16 February 2010, items 9-13), John Paul Himka, of the University of Alberta, was pilloried for having included Doug Tottle’s 1987 infamous screed Fraud, Famine and Fascism: The Ukrainian Genocide Myth from Hitler to Harvard on the syllabus of the course “The Great Famine of 1932–33 in Soviet Ukraine in History and Memory”, which he taught in Winter 2009. Tottle was a member of the Communist Party of Canada, but we know from archival research done by Ukrainian historian Liudmyla Hrynevych (2007 conference paper at the University of Toronto) that his book had been “reviewed” by three institutes of the Ukrainian SSR before publication. In essentially presenting the official state position of the time, however indefensible, on the famine (Conquest, Mace), Tottle is worth studying as an item of the politics of memory (denial and omission being key dimensions of any politics of memory), the same way that the Soviet postwar policy of omission towards the Holocaust on Soviet-occupied territory has been the subject of a growing body of historical literature. As a contribution to our understanding of what happened in 1932-33, the Tottle book, it goes without saying, like other famine-denial ones, is worthless.

The outright denial about the existence of the famine appears to be over. In Dobczansky’s review of Holodomor denial literature, recent authors – from Russia and Ukraine – have kept the hysterical polemical tone of lore (Ukrainian nationalists being fascists and Nazis, having invented the Holodomor to hide their crimes etc.), but they no longer deny that a famine took place. This is in line with the official Russian position, actually going back to 1987, that famines, in the plural form, resulted from Stalinist excesses. (The recent Famine Resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe [PACE], supported by the Russian Federation delegation, says that “mass starvation” was “caused by cruel and deliberate actions and policies of the Soviet regime.”)

This literature, however, is generally weak on agency. Its authors tend to emphasize that these were tragic times, that collectivization was unpredictable, that the Soviet Union was isolated, and so forth. The general drift being that, the PACE resolution notwithstanding, the extent to which the decisions and actions that led to the famine were deliberate and, crucially, avoidable, is left ambiguous. This is also in line with the current Russian ambivalence towards the 1930s, an ambivalence that generally privileges the achievements of Stalinism (making the Soviet Union a great power) over its human costs, such as the Famine.

This, to me, justifies placing this literature alongside the old Soviet denial discourse as types of “Famine-as-Mass-Murder” denial. Mass violence perpetrated against civilians, including the mass violence of modern famines, results from the purposive (“deliberate”) actions of political (state or non-state) actors. This is actually the meaning of the Ukrainian coinage Holodomor: to “kill” (moryty) by “hunger”. A famine is when people “die” by hunger. A Holodomor is when the deaths by hunger are caused by political agency. People are killed. The famine in Ukraine, and the famines in the RSFSR and Kazakhstan, resulted from political decisions (in insurance parlance, they were not “Acts of God”). As a matter of fact, the comparative study of famines tells us that all modern famines, since the 1850s, are Holodomory to different degrees.

The dividing line is agency. On one side are those who deny the Holodomor, the politically-induced (“man-made”) famine, either outright (no famine) or through ambivalence, obfuscation, omission, or, to paraphrase Dobczansky, by diminishing the scale and significance of the political factor in the causality chain. On the other are those who question, based on historiographical findings and/or theoretical debates, whether the Holodomor constituted a genocide. This literature includes those who deny outright that the concept of genocide applies and those whose position is more agnostic, or ambivalent. The work of the Russian historian Viktor Kondrashin certainly belongs to the former. Kondrashin has been making wild and, to my knowledge, unsubstantiated claims on the demographics of the Famine lately (that more people died of hunger in the RSFSR – Kazakhstan excluded – than in Ukraine in 1932-33, a claim uncritically reproduced in article 7 of the PACE resolution, contradicting the earlier claim, in Article 5, that Ukraine “suffered the most”), but he is a serious historian that actually has an article in the same latest issue of Holodomor Studies. (The Editor, Roman Serbyn, must be commended for his commitment to open debate).

Denying, or questioning, whether the Holodomor is genocide does not necessarily mean denying or questioning whether the Holodomor is mass murder. “Deliberate” mass killing actually captures three different processes. Political actors can deliberately choose to target an entire population on a given area for eradication (by means of extermination or deportation, a.k.a. ethnic cleansing). Or they can deliberately choose to exert violence to terrorize an entire population (by killing many). Or they can deliberately choose not to be bothered with the lethal consequences of their policies, consequences that any reasonable mind can anticipate. The various meanings of  deliberate actions and their historical, political, legal and ethical implications, is what we need to seriously debate. The starting point, as Oleksandr Melnyk and Tim Snyder put it recently, is that these people did not need to die. The Holodomor was tragic not because leaders faced an impossible choice. It was tragic because millions of civilians were victimized by a cruel regime.


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