I never paid attention to Ukraine until the Russian invasion this past February. I ended up quitting a pro-Palestinian Jewish online discussion group because there were too many Putin apologists. And I got into furious arguments on Facebook with acolytes of Christopher Hedges.
It happens that these days I live in Regina, a two-minute walk from the Saskatchewan Legislature and a 10-minute walk from a monument to the Ukrainian famine of 1932–33, known as the Holodomor. I’d barely heard of the Holodomor – I mispronounced and usually misspelled it. I started making regular pilgrimages to the monument; I’d sit on a park bench and wonder why the world had paid so little attention to the famine. It was rule number 1 in our Jewish family that nothing could be compared to the Holocaust, but it became obvious that comparisons between the Holocaust and the Holodomor were inescapable.
A few months ago, a good friend recommended that I read Timothy Snyder’s 2010 book Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin.¹ It’s enough to ruin your summer. Bloodlands won many international awards and earned praise from a lot of famous and impressive people. So let me say that for the time being, and for this article, I will take what Snyder writes as accurate.
Here are some things I learned. The Russians murdered about six million Ukrainians between 1930 and 1939. Over the same period, the Germans murdered 20,000 Jews. The murder of Jews did not begin in earnest until 1941.
Some 3.5 million Ukrainians were killed during the Holodomor (with more murdered during the Great Terror of 1937–38, and millions more exiled, injured and imprisoned).
The Holocaust killed some six million Jews. Initially, the Nazis sought to get rid of Germany’s relatively small number of Jews by making their lives miserable. When Germany occupied eastern Europe, where millions of Jews lived, it was impossible to get them to leave and no one would take them, so the Nazis killed them.
One could argue that initially the Russians killed Ukrainians by mistake. According to Marxist theory, socialist revolution requires an advanced working class, such as that found in Germany or the U.K. The Russian Communists were convinced that they could build the prerequisites of socialism in backward Russia through rapid industrialization. To finance industrialization, they would need to produce more food for workers in the cities, and also for international markets. Marxists also believed that collective agriculture would be more efficient than individual peasants working their own land.
But yields declined. The Communists confiscated what produce there was, resulting in mass starvation. That left fewer peasants to work the land, further reducing yields. Stalin suspected that the peasants were intentionally sabotaging socialism, that they were hiding grain and not really dying – at least, that was the official story. According to Snyder, “It was not food shortages but food distribution that killed millions in Soviet Ukraine, and it was Stalin who decided who was entitled to what.”
We’re pretty familiar with the horrors of the Nazi death camps. Here is Snyder describing mass starvation at the hands of the Russians:
(Women) prostituted themselves with local party leaders for flour … Some parents loved their children by protecting them, locking them in cottages to keep them safe from the roving bands of cannibals … The desperate peasants holding up infants to train windows were not necessarily begging for food: often they were trying to give their children away …
Countless parents killed and ate their children and then died of starvation later anyway. One mother cooked her son for herself and her daughter … The good people died first. Those who refused to steal or to prostitute themselves died. Those who gave food to others died. Those who refused to eat corpses died. Those who refused to kill their fellow man died. Parents who resisted cannibalism died before their children did … Boys and girls lay about on sheets and blankets, eating their own excrement, waiting for death.
The Communists set up watchtowers in the fields to stop peasants from keeping any of the harvest. Party activists took what they could and ate their fill: “They humiliated the peasants wherever they went. They would urinate in barrels of pickles … Women caught stealing on one collective farm were stripped, beaten, and carried naked through the village.”
Not surprisingly, Hitler made use of the famine in election campaigns. It was proof of the dangers of Marxism. Look, he said, millions of people are starving in a country that could be a breadbasket for the world.
In 1934, Soviet policy was changed to allow peasants to cultivate a small plot for their own use. Requisition and export targets were relaxed. Starvation in the Soviet Union came to an end. Russians came to take over Ukrainian houses and villages, as “the demographic balance in Soviet Ukraine shifted in favor of Russians” – which might explain why so many Ukrainians are of Russian descent and/or speak Russian.
It should be noted that there was no war at the time of the famine, and its victims were not combatants. Ukrainian peasants were killed because they were inconvenient to Marxist theory. Because their deaths made Stalin look bad, he punished them by killing more of them.
The Holocaust gets far more attention than the Holodomor. That’s not surprising, but the discrepancy is astounding. Here’s an example from my current home province. Of Saskatchewan’s 1.2 million people, 14.5 per cent are of Ukrainian ancestry and 0.5 per cent are Jewish (there could be some overlap, of course). A search of the Saskatchewan public library system turned up 2,388 books about the Holocaust and a grand total of 28 about the Holodomor. The University of Regina library offers 144,377 listings under “Holocaust” and 449 under “Holodomor.”
Why has the Holodomor received so little attention? Unlike Germany, which quickly accepted responsibility, apologized and paid reparations for the Holocaust, the Soviet Union at first denied the famine entirely and then denied responsibility: “The Soviet census of 1937 found eight million fewer people than projected … Stalin suppressed its findings and had the responsible demographers executed.”
The Russians, and Vladimir Putin, deny that the Holodomor constituted genocide. Did it? I’ll let the courts decide. I’d say the Russians set out to kill millions of peasants, most of whom were Ukrainian. Perhaps it was “classicide.”
The point is, Russia should apologize – immediately after withdrawing from every bit of Ukrainian territory, including Crimea.
Memorials are, of course, controversial. If we have memorials to the Holodomor and the Holocaust, should we also have memorials to the Armenian and Tutsi genocides, South African Apartheid and the Nakba? The Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg covers each of these, except for the last; there’s no mention of Palestine.
I’m very fond of the Holodomor memorial overlooking Wascana Lake in Regina, Bitter Memory of Childhood by Petro Drozdowsky (see photo), which is a copy of the one outside the Holodomor Museum in Kyiv. The statue is very clear and compact; it resists the temptation to be grandiose conceptually or physically, and is quietly unnerving.
I have to ask myself: why am I so intrigued, even obsessed, by the Holodomor? Perhaps I am eager for us to understand that there are things that can be compared to the Holocaust.
The current war on Ukraine is another reason. Do the Russians not understand that Ukrainians will not easily agree to be a Russian colony?
Maybe it has something to do with “victimhood.” It’s not that I’m eager to add the Ukrainians to the long list of self-proclaimed victims, though victims they undoubtedly were. They were victims of the left, and for a period of time, they fervently wished to be liberated by Hitler’s Germans. Putin and his apologists here continue to use that against desperate Ukrainians. But can we not understand that we would likely have done the same?
“Unfortunately,” Snyder tells us, “claiming victim status does not itself bring sound ethical choices. Stalin and Hitler both claimed throughout their political careers to be victims. They persuaded millions of other people that they, too, were victims: of an international capitalist or Jewish conspiracy.”
It’s tempting to believe that Nazis or Soviet Communists or your favourite genocidaires are inhuman. That, Snyder warns, takes us “a step toward, not away from, the Nazi position”:
To find other people incomprehensible is to abandon the search for understanding … To dismiss the Nazis or the Soviets as beyond human concern or historical understanding is to fall into their moral trap. The safer route is to realize that their motives for mass killing, however revolting to us, made sense to them.
I would put it this way. We’re a single species. If you go back far enough, to the right times and places, we were all perpetrators of genocide, and we were all its victims.
¹New York: Basic Books. 2010.