Holocaust and Holodomor
Johan Dietsch, Making Sense of Suffering: Holocaust and Holodomor in Ukrainian Historical Culture. Lund: Media Tryck, Lund University, 2006. vii + 280 pp. No ISBN number.
S.V. Kul'chyts'kyi. Holod 1932-1933 rr. v Ukraini iak henotsyd/Golod 1932-1933 gg. v Ukraine kak genotsid [The Famine of 1932-33 in Ukraine as a Genocide]. Kyiv: Instytut istorii Ukrainy NANU. 2005. ISBN 966-02-3846-0.
These two books deal with genocide and historical culture in Ukraine.1 Johan Dietsch set out to examine how the Holocaust was being integrated into Ukrainian history textbooks. This was a typical enough project for a young Swedish scholar, given that Sweden has been so active in promoting a European understanding of the Holocaust in the formerly communist parts of Europe. In 1998 Swedish Prime Minister Göran Persson founded the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research, which first undertook a liaison to the Czech Republic and now maintains formal and informal liaisons with other postcommunist countries, including Ukraine. In his book Dietsch himself mentions that the Forum for Living History in Sweden arranged the exhibition “Raoul Wallenberg – One Man Can Make a Difference” in Lviv and that the Swedish Embassy worked with Ivan Franko National University in the same city to conduct a seminar on Holocaust education (197 n. 504). Moreover, Dietsch is part of the team working with Klas-Göran Karlsson at Lund University on a large research project entitled “The Holocaust in European Historical Culture,” a very fruitful, interesting enterprise.2 In working on the reception of the Holocaust in Ukrainian historical culture, Dietsch saw that he also needed to take into account the historical memory of the famine that ravaged Soviet Ukraine in 1932-33. The latter is what is meant by the word “Holodomor” in the title. Dietsch tells us that the word literally means “plague of hunger” (205). It was coined by the Ukrainian writer3 Ivan Drach, but first appeared in print in early 1988 in an article by another writer, Oleksa Musiienko (Kul’chyts’kyi, 142). The word soon passed into English, if not into dictionary English, then at least into the lexicon of the English-language publications of the Ukrainian diaspora.
Stanyslav Vladyslavovych Kul’chyts’kyi, doctor of historical sciences and deputy director of the Institute of History of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, is a character in Dietsch’s book, and also one in his own. In the fall of 1986 he was appointed to a secret Soviet Ukrainian party commission to research the famine with the aim of refuting a report on the famine about to be released by a US congressional commission headed by the late James Mace. Kul’chyts’kyi wrote up the results of his research in an article in Ukrains’kyi istorychnyi zhurnal in March 1988. It acknowledged that there were serious problems with food in 1932-33, but minimized the death toll and almost exonerated the party from blame. Later, as the party leadership and then the leadership of independent Ukraine accepted the basic facts about the famine, he wrote a number of studies documenting the catastrophe more thoroughly. He has also been entrusted with other sticky historical issues by the political leadership, notably with the appraisal of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) during World War II. This, like the Holodomor, is a divisive, politically fraught issue in Ukraine today. Dietsch captures Kul’chyts’kyi’s approach to history very well, quoting phrases from the very text by Kul’chyts’kyi that is under review: “...It is the ‘legal experts and government officials [who] must come to the legal and political conclusion’ that the 1932-1933 famine was an act of genocide, while historians must provide ‘scholarly evidence’” (199). Kul’chyts’kyi can be an excellent historian – he knows the archives, he works hard, he can conceptualize and order his arguments well, but he is a historian who often articulates and buttresses with scholarship the rather vaguely formulated visions and aspirations of the powers that be. In the book under review, which is not a piece of primary research but a conceptualization, his point is to explain why the famine of 1932-33 should be considered a genocide and to define who should be considered the perpetrators, and who the victims.
The book by Kul’chyts’kyi is actually only an extended essay. The first half of it is the text in Ukrainian, the second, the same text in Russian. My references will be to the text in Russian. The print run was extraordinarily low: 200 copies. However, most of this text was serialized in the Kyiv newspaper Den’ in Ukrainian, Russian, and English and was also circulated electronically in English by E. Morgan Williams’ Action Ukraine Report.4
Dietsch’s survey of the place of the Holocaust in Ukrainian history textbooks is divided into two sections: on the Holocaust in textbooks on Ukrainian history (147-76) and in textbooks on world history (177-97). The textbooks are for the tenth grade. (There is no single mandatory set of textbooks in Ukraine. Different approved textbooks are used in schools.) The curriculum set by the Ukrainian Ministry of Education in 1996 mandated that tenth-grade students be taught about the German “occupying regime and the establishment of the anti-Nazi movement in Ukraine” in Ukrainian history classes (164) and about the “Jewish Holocaust in Europe” in world history classes (182). Dietsch’s conclusion about the Ukrainian history textbooks he examined is: “The books approved by the Ministry of Education, and thereby sanctioned by the state, all fail to mention the Holocaust. In fact, it is all but completely absent. Even though it is not denied that many Jews lost their lives to the Nazi occupiers, no separate Jewish tragedy is acknowledged....Even though Jews are not absent or anonymous in present-day Ukrainian accounts, they are overshadowed by Ukrainian struggles and suffering. There is no Holocaust mentioned” (167, 169). There is even a textbook from 2001 that discusses executions at Babi Yar (Babyn Yar in Ukrainian) with “no allusions to Jewish victims...whatsoever” (157). Also completely absent from any account mentioning the murder of Jews is any hint of local collaboration (166-67).
Ukrainian students are, however, taught about the Holocaust in their world history textbooks in the same grade.5 The first textbooks released after the 1996 curriculum was announced did not yet include an account of the Holocaust, but from the year 2000 on textbooks did include a section on it (187). With one notable exception (194), however, the textbooks tended to treat the Holocaust as something that happened outside Ukraine (188, 233). “Extermination camps in Poland, antisemitism in Germany and the rise of the German dictator who capitalised on it is essentially presented as ‘the Holocaust’” (192).
Dietsch offers an interesting analysis of why the Holocaust is poorly integrated into the Ukrainian historical narrative as demonstrated by these textbooks (168-76). He argues that this is a deliberate erasure of a piece of history within a country that otherwise puts great faith in history and historical arguments, an erasure motivated by an effort to legitimize a particular version of the past and of the present. He advances three reasons why Ukrainian historical culture would keep the Holocaust at a distance.
One reason is structural. Ukrainian history has been a nation-centered, not state-centered history. If the Ukrainian people is the subject of a historical narrative, then a story peculiar to another people is just a digression, something that does not fit. I would add that to a greater or lesser degree what Dietsch says applies also to most other East European historical cultures. Our modern historical discipline is a product of the nineteenth century, a time when most of the East European states that exist today were absent from the map; it was also the age of nationalism. The present historiographical traditions of Eastern Europe originated with a focus on the nation, not on a territory or the state. It has always been a problem to incorporate within national narratives the story of others, except when they are the “others” that are important as opponents and as nations against which the history-writing nation defines itself. Hence, the difficulty of incorporating the Holocaust into history is not a peculiarly Ukrainian problem, but one that has affected other nations in the region.
The second reason Dietsch advances for the absence of the Holocaust in Ukrainian historical culture is that inclusion of the Holocaust “would also seriously undermine the whole tragic conceptualisation of the Ukrainian past. Jewish victims would compete with Ukrainian ones” (170). The centerpiece of the Ukrainian victimization narrative, of course, is the Holodomor.
The third reason is that “issues of collaboration and war crimes would surface and dispute the heroic status of the Ukrainian national movement” (170). At the very least, including the Holocaust would “seriously complicate” the history of Ukrainian nationalism (176). Dietsch does not explicitly say why this would be so, but he means that some Ukrainian nationalists actively collaborated in Nazi crimes against the Jews.6
Dietsch also discusses the connection between allegations of such collaboration and the commemoration of the famine in the Ukrainian diaspora abroad.7 His approach is balanced, and he offers some original insights. He points out that a new note entered Ukrainian-diaspora writing on the Holocaust in 1983 – explicit comparisons with the Jewish Holocaust (124). Partly this was environmental, i.e., the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Ukrainian famine coincided with the upsurge of interest in the Holocaust in North America in the wake of the 1978 television miniseries The Holocaust (128, 125). Moreover, the Holocaust had already become the most notorious symbol of genocidal evil so that “comparison and conflation with it” served as “an effective short-hand message conveyable to wider audiences” (134).8 We have subsequently seen the same short-hand used in the presentation of events in Bosnia in the 1990s and in Darfur in the 2000s.
But this very interest in the Holocaust, which facilitated the mobilization of North Americans of Ukrainian heritage to make the Ukrainian genocide known to the public and facilitated the general public’s ability to understand what these Ukrainian-Americans and Ukrainian-Canadians were talking about, also contributed to the interest in identifying and punishing war criminals in America. As Dietsch puts it: “On the one hand, the increased attention paid to the Holocaust meant that their tragedy could gain from comparisons and short-hand transfer effects. On the other hand, the same interest in the Holocaust was a powerful factor behind the war criminal investigations” (144). Indeed, the intensification of the commemoration of the famine by the Ukrainian community in North America and the focus of scholarly attention on it within Ukrainian studies centers in the United States and Canada coincided with the trial of John Demjanjuk in the United States9 and with the appointment of the Deschênes Commission to investigate alleged war criminals in Canada.10 This was the context in which the Ukrainian famine was instrumentalized with relation to war-crime allegations. Some thought that making the public aware that Ukrainians were also victims on a large scale “could blunt the force of the efforts made to portray Ukrainians as ruthless oppressors of Jews” during the Holocaust; moreover, presenting the Soviet Union as an anti-Ukrainian, criminal regime could discredit the evidence that the Soviets were supplying to the prosecutors in war-crimes hearings (136). Some Ukrainian-diaspora writers11 went further and identified Jews as complicit in the famine, notably Stalin’s close associate in the early 1930s, Lazar Kaganovich, as well as Jews who served in the NKVD (135-36).
By and large, Dietsch writes, the link between the Holocaust and the famine was made in the diaspora and exported to Ukraine as the Soviet system was breaking down. “It seems as though the term ‘Ukrainian holocaust’ is used only in encounters with the diaspora who spawned and used it in the first place” (224) And indeed, Kul’chyts’kyi’s book only mentions the murder of the Jews in passing, in connection with the original formulation of the definition of genocide. On the other hand, I have to add, there are public figures in Ukraine today who blame the famine on the Jews – in particular professors at the Interregional Academy of Human Resources (better known by its Ukrainian acronym MAUP) and the former dissident and prominent politician Lev Lukianenko.12 Dietsch does note that Viktor Yushchenko, as prime minister of Ukraine, linked the Holocaust and the “mass artificial famines in Ukraine” in his official speech at the Stockholm International Forum on the Holocaust in 2000 (1). Since Dietsch’s book has come out there have been new developments in Yushchenko’s coupling these historical events. In March 2007 Yushchenko, now president of Ukraine, called upon parliament to pass a law prohibiting the denial of either the Holocaust or the Holodomor. And in April Israel declined his request to visit and speak at the Day of Catastrophe in Jerusalem; according to the Ukrainian press agency UNIAN, Israel feared that in his speech he would draw a parallel between the Holocaust and the famine, which could complicate Israel’s relations with Russia.13
Kul’chyts’kyi’s book, as I noted earlier, aims to define the famine of 1932-33 as genocide and to specify who perpetrated it and against whom. He says explicitly that designating the famine “a crime against humanity” is not enough; anything less than the designation “genocide” “cannot satisfy us” (208). He regards it as the duty of Ukrainian historians, jurists, and government officials to achieve recognition from the international community that the famine fits the definition of the UN convention on genocide. “This is our moral obligation before the memory of millions of our countrymen who have fallen as a result of the terror by hunger” (107). I personally find this moral imperative difficult to understand. I do not readily see the connection between a duty to keep sacred the memory of the innocent dead and a duty to establish a certain classification of the crime to which they fell victim. This may well be just one of my blind spots. I think I understand, however, what Kul’chyts’kyi is getting at – the issue of recognition in the Hegelian sense. When one’s dead are treated as less important than others’ dead, this signifies a failure to be acknowledged a fellow human being. And in the present cultural climate, the label “genocide” signifies that by no means are this crime and these victims to be ignored. Dietsch understands the efforts of Ukrainians in North America to publicize the famine much in the same way as I understand Kul’chyts’kyi’s (and Yushchenko’s and others’) aspiration for its recognition as a genocide, as a “counter-reaction to to what is perceived as denial, trivialisation or banalisation” of “crimes of the Soviet regime against humanity in general, and the Ukrainian nation in particular” (143).
Dietsch, however, understands the genocide struggle also as a political project in addition to a moral project, a project to strengthen the Ukrainian national identity. “As genocides affect a national, ethnical or racial group, recognition of the genocidal character of the Holodomor would, in reverse logic, strengthen the Ukrainian ethnicity by international affirmation” (222).14 Kul’chyts’kyi also views it as a political project, but he emphasizes rather its usefulness in helping Ukrainians break with the old Soviet mentality. “We remember how valuable the theme of the famine of 1932-33 was for the public at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s. It helped people to free themselves of stereotypes and rethink the history of the Soviet period. This theme became a sharp weapon in the hands of those who fought for the independence of the republic” (113). He describes in some detail how his own political awakening came about in the process of confronting the truth about the famine during perestroika (136-40). He feels it remains a valuable tool for helping Ukrainians reject the Soviet past (163).
A topic that Dietsch completely ignored in his book is the regional differentiation of attitudes on whether or not the famine constituted a genocide. I can only presume that he bracketed this issue in order to simplify his analysis. The great difference between the Center-West and East-South of Ukraine is that the former conceives of the famine as a crime and the latter conceives of it as a tragedy. This emerged clearly in late November 2006, when the Ukrainian parliament passed a law, by a narrow margin, declaring that the famine was an act of genocide. The major proponent of this view was President Yushchenko, whose base is in the Center-West. The opposition to the bill came from Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions; this party, representing primarily the East-South, “said the event should be referred to simply as a ‘tragedy.’”15 Oleksandr Kramarenko visited Ukrainian villages in the deep East (Luhansk oblast) as a representative of the Association of Holodomor Researchers. He registered his great disappointment that people there felt differently about the famine than he did: “It was hard to find a person willing to talk about the famine, as most old men and women treated those who were asking questions with suspicion and distrust. Those who agreed to answer our questions talked about the Holodomor as a disaster and wept. None of them demanded justice for the murderers of their parents, grandparents, brothers, and sisters.”16
Shortly before the passage of the law on the famine, the Kiev International Institute of Sociology released the results of an opinion poll about the Holodomor.17 In response to a question whether the authorities or natural circumstances were responsible for the famine, 82.0 percent of the respondents who had heard of the famine in the West of the country thought the authorities were responsible; in the East only 51.4 percent thought so. Of those who thought the authorities were responsible, 84.2 percent in the West thought the famine was organized deliberately, but only 51.4 percent [sic] in the East agreed. Of those who believed it was deliberate, 40.8 percent in the West thought the famine was aimed exclusively against Ukrainians by nationality, but only 16.4 percent in the South thought so (and 22.7 percent in the East). The odd thing is that the region designated as the West in the survey,18 although the most insistent on the genocide interpretation, was also a region that by and large missed the famine, because it did not become part of the Soviet Union until World War II.
I am inclined to the view that Ukraine is divided regionally over the issue of identity, that there are really two different identities competing in Ukraine, an exclusivist one dominant in the West and growing stronger in the capital, especially among the youth, and a post-Soviet Ukrainian identity shared by many in the East and South, an identity that is neither anti-Russian nor embedded in a sense of victimization.19 To me, this division over identity explains why some Ukrainians ardently insist on genocide while others think about the famine in a totally different way.
Kul’chyts’kyi also sees the regional division, but offers a completely different explanation of it. In his view, the difference is that pre-1939 Soviet Ukraine, which would include the East and South, was repressed in the period 1918-38, while the West of the country was repressed 1939-52 (149-50). Thus the memory of the repression was fresher in Western Ukraine; an older, but still active generation there remembers what Stalinism was like. On the other hand: “The inhabitants of the eastern oblasts are products of the Soviet school. They were loyal to the authorities (in contrast to their parents), and the Stalinist repressions did not affect them” (149).
Kul’chyts’kyi’s is an interesting point of view, but neither his perspective nor mine is anything more than speculation. There has been no serious study of the memory of the famine among the affected population, even though it is a very interesting case. What happens to historical memory when it cannot be aired publicly for fifty years? Why do the survivors and their progeny think of tragedy rather than criminality? These, like many of the intellectually more interesting questions that arise with reference to the famine, have never been investigated in a scholarly fashion.
The information on the basis of which Kul’chyts’kyi reaches his verdict on genocide is the same as that which one can find in Terry Martin’s excellent account of “the national interpretation of the 1933 famine.”20 Yet Martin does not consider the famine a genocide.21 Both see the famine as the result of grain requisitions that were set too high. Both also recognize that Stalin saw the crisis in agriculture to be the result of kulak resistance abetted by Petliurite traitors who had infiltrated the party. I think the difference in their evaluation of whether it was a genocide or not stems from some different assumptions about the accuracy of Stalin’s diagnosis. Martin presents Stalin as indeed worried about Ukrainian nationalism, but also as looking for a scapegoat for the disasters resulting from total collectivization. Kul’chyts’kyi shares Stalin’s analysis more wholeheartedly. Ukraine became “the epicenter of repressions” because it was aspiring to independence from Russia. Stalin had written in 1925 that “without a peasant army there is no and cannot be a powerful national movement” (200). The famine-terror directed against the Ukrainian SSR and the Kuban region was meant to liquidate the potential threat to the Kremlin from the most powerful of the republics. It was accompanied by the mass arrests of Ukrainian intelligentsia in 1932-28, including almost all who participated in the Ukrainian revolution of 1917-20 (200-01). “By the terrors of 1933 and 1937 the Kremlin oligarchs postponed the threat of the collapse of the Soviet Union into the distant future” (206).
I feel that Kul’chyts’kyi exaggerates the strength of separatist feelings in Ukraine. The failure of Petliura’s army in 1918-19 and the weakness of Ukrainian nationalism in half the population today seem to me to speak against his view. Also, I think he underestimates Stalin’s political paranoia. Stalin feared that the Piłsudski-Petliura alliance of 1919-20 had returned to threaten the Soviet Union, that agents of Piłsudski worked with Petliurists who had infiltrated the Ukrainian communist party under the cover of Ukrainization. Kul’chyts’kyi quotes Stalin’s letter to Kaganovich of 11 August 1932: “Keep in mind that Piłsudski isn’t daydreaming, and his agentura in Ukraine is much stronger” than the Ukrainian GPU thinks (194). Although Kul’chyts’kyi quotes the letter, he makes no reference to Stalin’s well documented Polish obsession and its role in the famine and in the terror against the Ukrainian intelligentsia. This is not a theme that fits easily into a narrative about how the Soviet leadership unleashed a famine in order to crush the otherwise irrepressible Ukrainian national movement.
Genocide is a crime, and a crime has perpetrators and victims. Kul’chyts’kyi makes it very clear that he does not share the view that Moscow or Russia or the Russians were the perpetrators. Such a view, he knows, only divides rather than unites Ukrainians as “we felt...in full measure during the presidential elections of 2004” (115). He also does not want the issue of genocide to be a bone of contention between today’s Ukraine and Russia (157). He holds the Soviet leadership, which he refuses to identify with Russia or the Russian people, responsible for the famine (114-15, 204). Near the end of the book he suggests that more than just the persons in the leadership were at fault, but the whole communist system was to blame. Stalin committed his crimes not because he liked doing wicked things, but in order to realize the goals of communist doctrine (204).
Kul’chyts’kyi is even a little less precise about who he considers to be the victims. He argues that although the famine affected other regions of the USSR, it was disproportionately intense in the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and in the Ukrainian-inhabited areas of Russia, particularly the Kuban region (196-97). But he differentiates himself from the overly simplified view that the genocide was aimed at destroying Ukrainians, partly because “we will never convince anyone that we are correct to declare it a genocide in such a simplified, excessively emotional formulation” (154). Later he insists that “people died in Ukraine according to where they were living, not according to nationality. The countryside suffered from the famine, and by social category it was the peasantry” who suffered (196). The correct formulation is: “the Holodomor broke out among the Ukrainians – Ukrainian peasants in Ukraine and in Russia” (197). Near the end of the book, he puts it yet differently: “The Ukrainian people have to be understood not only as an ethnos, but also as a political nation, and Ukraine [has to be understood] not only as a territory, but as a country. If one takes this approach to the events of 1932-33, then we have to recognize as a genocide the famine-terror directed against Ukrainians in the Ukrainian SSR and in the Kuban under the guise of grain requisitions” (208).
Both of the books under review take us into territory where history is very much alive and deeply intermeshed with contemporary politics. This is a fascinating place to explore.
Yet reading these books, I kept thinking of the history of the events themselves. The thought that kept returning to me was how different are the literatures that exist for the Holocaust and the Holodomor. At a recent conference on the Holocaust someone estimated that there are now tens of thousands of titles devoted to the murder of the Jews in Europe. I imagine that books on the Ukrainian famine number in the hundreds or at the most in the low thousands. The literature on the Holocaust deals with a multitude of themes, including representation, memory, perpetrators, their motivations, bystanders, rescue, gender, and economics. The literature on the Holodomor has a much narrower range and has been dominated by descriptions of the starvation, estimating the demographic losses, identifying the political origins, and, of course, debating whether or not it constitutes a genocide.22 A lot of interesting scholarly work needs to be done, and perhaps when more of it gets underway the political debates too will grow in sophistication.
Dept. of History and Classics
University of Alberta
Edmonton AB T6G 2H4 Canada