Comprehending the Holodomor
The position of soviet historians

By Stanislav Kulchytsky, Ph.D. (History)

The Day Weekly Digest in English, #35 Kyiv, Ukraine,
Tuesday, 8 November, 2005

With the Stalinist taboo broken, Soviet historians began to explore the famine of 1933 with increasing intensity. It would be a mistake to say that the agony of the totalitarian regime and the empire that it had created began with the opening of this particular “Pandora’s box.”

Nonetheless, the subject of the famine resonated throughout Ukrainian society, evolving into a discussion of the Holodomor as an act of genocide.

Cut off from the Ukrainian Diaspora behind the Iron Curtain, Soviet historians were largely unaffected by the results of the Diaspora’s investigation of the Holodomor. The Iron Curtain was located not only on the borders of the USSR but inside our minds.

What I would least like to discuss in this chapter is the quantitative accomplishments of Soviet historians on the subject of the Ukrainian famine. The line of discussion is determined by the wording of the question: Why did Stalin exterminate the Ukrainians?

I will therefore not discuss the facts they exposed but only how those facts affected the researchers’ worldview. In particular, they developed an ability to reject Soviet stereotypes, which enabled them to elicit the true cause-and-effect relationships in the problem of the Holodomor.

The chosen line of discussion requires me to explore my own worldview and life experience especially closely. In this sensitive matter it is hard to find other material for the necessary generalizations.

I spent 11 years working at the Institute of Economics of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR, where I studied the history of the nation’s economy, moving from one time period to the next. I then transferred to the Institute of History to prepare a doctoral thesis within the framework of the so-called interwar period: from 1921 to 1941.

When I received my doctorate and was appointed to chair the Department of Interwar History, my scholarly specialty and position required me to study the 1933 famine once it became a widely discussed topic.

Other people in the department were studying the history of the peasants before and after collectivization, while I specialized in the problems of industrialization and the history of the working class. Like everybody else, I knew about the famine.

Moreover, I had access to demographic data that was locked away in special repositories and knew that the Ukrainian countryside had lost millions of people, and that this loss could not be attributed to urbanization. But I could not understand the causes of the famine.

Even in my worst nightmare I could not imagine that the Soviet government was capable of exterminating not only enemies of the people (at the time I never questioned the legitimacy of this notion), but also children and pregnant women.

After several years of studying the famine, I chose a newspaper with the highest circulation in my republic to publish a sharply-worded article “Do we need the Soviet government?” I am grateful to the chief editor of Silski visti [Village News] for publishing the article in unexpurgated form on June 7, 1991.

He did, however, change the title to: “What government do we need?” Unfortunately, piety toward the Soviet government is still widespread among many people of my generation.

Before the worldview transformation caused by my study of the Holodomor, I was a Soviet scholar like everyone else. That is, I looked at history from the class point of view, viewed capitalism and socialism as socioeconomic formations, considered uncollectivized peasants to be representatives of the petty bourgeoisie, believed that collective ownership of production facilities was a viable option and that collective farms were the peasants’ collective property.

I considered it a normal thing that there were special repositories in libraries and archives, i.e., I accepted the division of information into classified and public. But for this very reason I could not understand why the 1933 famine was a forbidden topic.

Since there was no one in Ukraine who didn’t know about it, why did this information have to be classified? An older colleague, who also chaired a department at the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR, confided in me that in his village everybody knew who had eaten whom. They spent the rest of their lives with this knowledge.

When some important individuals on the staff of the CPU’s Central Committee, whom I knew well, got word of a US congressional commission on the Ukrainian famine, they went into a state of continuing stress.

The Feb. 11, 1983, report by the Central Committee’s secretary in charge of ideology and the Ukrainian KGB chief contained a recommendation addressed to our specialists abroad: Do not enter into polemics on the famine. It was clear that this polemic would be a losing proposition under any circumstances. At the time, however, they could no longer bury their heads in the sand.

In the fall of 1986 the CC CPU formed a so-called “anti-commission.” I found myself among its members. We scholars were expected to produce studies that would “expose the falsifications of Ukrainian bourgeois nationalists.”

I had worked in special repositories before, but received clearance to access “special files” of CPU committees only once I began working as a member of the commission.

Soviet archives had one special characteristic: a researcher could have access to 99.9 percent of all files, yet all crucial information relating to the history of this totalitarian state was contained in the 0.01 percent of inaccessible files.

After six months of working in the archives, I learned about the agricultural situation in the early 1930s. After this, some causes, which I had taken for granted since my school years, changed places with consequences. The new cause-and-effect relationships often coincided with what I got to read in the so-called “anti-Soviet” literature.

While I was working in the archives, the commission’s work was proving fruitless. Perhaps those upstairs realized that the scholars had been given an unrealistic assignment. I sent an analytical report under my own name to the Central Committee with a proposal that the famine be officially recognized.

Now I understand that I was demanding something impossible from the Central Committee. Indeed, why did Stalin’s taboo on recognizing the famine last for so long? After the 20th Congress of the CPSU, Stalin’s successors readily condemned the political terror of 1937- 1938 because its primary victim was the ruling party.

Unlike individual terror carried out by state security agencies, terror by famine in 1932-1933 was carried out by party committees, the Komsomol, trade unions, and komnezam committees of poor peasants.

How could they possibly admit that Stalin had succeeded in using the system of government, which everybody called “people’s rule,” to exterminate the people, i.e., to commit genocide?

In exposing famine, the rhetoric about Stalinist vices would not hide the organic flaws of the Soviet government behind the great chieftain’s broad back.

I remember writing that report at a time when I still had not given up many stereotypes of the official concept of history. Now I understand that this helped me formulate my arguments in such a way that my report would not appear too explosive to those in a position to make the political decision to recognize the famine.

I think this report was only about recognizing the fact that famine had really occurred. While I, an expert on the history of the interwar period, still could not interpret this mysterious famine as genocide in 1987, our chiefs in the party committees were even farther from such an interpretation.

Granted, we knew that books had been published in the West, in which the victims of the 1933 famine said that the government had intended to destroy them. But such stories were always rejected in the USSR as anti- Soviet propaganda.

While rereading the text about the ability or inability of our government officials of the time to recognize the fact of the famine, I caught myself in a contradiction: while I state that I was demanding the impossible of the members of the Central Committee, I am insisting that they could not identify the famine with genocide.

I teach a course on historical methodology to M.A. students and always draw their attention to the phenomenon of presentism: people tend to invest the past with characteristics of contemporaneity, which it does not have, and overlook those characteristics of that past, which are not present in their life. For the past to shine with its true colors, we have to approach it with expert knowledge.

I think, however, that even people who are not expert historians but have enough life experience can recall exactly what they thought about the 1933 famine a decade and a half ago, and how their views have changed now that thousands of horrifying documents have been published.

Those who were in power in the late 1980s had access to such documents even in those days. I dare say, however, that they could not evaluate them properly because they were not Stalin’s contemporaries and did not contribute to his crimes. Like me, they were products of the Soviet school.

Later in this article I will show with concrete examples that it took both time and great mental effort for people of my generation to grasp the famine as an act of genocide.

Representatives of the generation that had survived the famine did not realize, but only felt, that somebody had intended to destroy them. However, there is a difference between understanding and feeling.

A judge listens to eyewitness testimony about a crime (in our case, the crime of genocide), but issues his ruling only after establishing the entire sequence of events that constitute the corpus delicti of the crime.

In appealing to the international community for recognition of the Ukrainian Holodomor as an act of genocide, we must stop playing on emotions, which we have been doing until now, and must instead supply corroborated evidence of the crime.

Thus, I am certain that none of the CPU leaders realized the true essence of the events of 1933, but they all knew that something horrible and monstrous had happened. On the other hand, they felt that the Stalinist taboo on the word famine could no longer continue.

For several months my report wandered from office to office at the Central Committee. Finally, they allowed me to submit it as a scholarly article to Ukrayinsky istorychny Zhurnal, but only once a political decision to recognize the famine as a historical fact was publicized.

That event was scheduled for Dec. 25, 1987, when Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, the first secretary of the CC CPU was slated to deliver his report on the 70th anniversary of the Ukrainian SSR.

In the meantime, the liberalization of the political regime, which started with Gorbachev’s announcement of his policy of perestroika, was becoming more and more pronounced. The conspiracy of silence surrounding the famine began to disintegrate by itself.

On July 16, 1987, the newspaper Literaturna Ukraina carried two articles that mentioned the famine matter-of-factly as a well-known fact. Discussions of the famine began in Moscow.

On Oct. 11, 1987, the famous scholar Viktor Danilov of the Institute of Soviet History at the Academy of Sciences of the USSR, who had already experienced much unpleasantness within the party organs for his “distorted” portrayal of Soviet agrarian history, published a statement in the newspaper Sovetskaia Rossiia, stating that famine had claimed a huge number of lives in the winter and spring of 1933.

In his short article entitled “How many of us were there then?” published in the December issue of the magazine Ogonek, Moscow-based demographer Mark Tolts blew the lid off the suppressed union-wide census of 1937, revealing that its organizers had been repressed for the malicious under- estimation of the population. Tolts pointed to the 1933 famine as the cause of this “underestimation.”

On Nov. 2, 1987, CPSU Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev delivered a report in the Kremlin, pegged to the 70th anniversary of the October Revolution. Aleksandr Yakovlev recalled that the conservatives and liberals on Gorbachev’s team prepared several versions of the same report. A conservative version of this assessment of the country’s historical path got the upper hand, and Gorbachev did not mention the famine.

Volodymyr Shcherbytsky could not follow his Moscow patron’s example because what had raged in Ukraine was not merely famine but manmade famine, or the Holodomor. Moreover, the US congressional commission was about to announce the preliminary results of its investigation.

For this reason Shcherbytsky’s anniversary report contained six or seven lines about the famine, which was allegedly caused by drought. For the first time in 55 years a CPSU Politburo member broke the Stalinist taboo on the word “famine.” This created an opportunity for historians to study and publish documents on the Holodomor.

My article, “Concerning the Evaluation of the Situation in Agriculture of the Ukrainian SSR in 1931-1933,” was published in the March 1988 issue of the Ukrainskyi istorychnyi Zhurnal. Its abridged version had already been published in January 1988 in two Soviet newspapers for Ukrainian emigrants: the Ukrainian-language Visti z Ukrainy and the English-language News from Ukraine.

In May 1988 the Foreign Ministry of the Ukrainian SSR received the materials of the US congressional commission via the Soviet Embassy in the US and passed them on to the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR.

The English-language version of my article was almost entirely quoted and analyzed. James Mace concluded, “The scale of the famine is minimized, the Communist Party is depicted as doing its utmost to improve the situation, while the actions of the Communist Party and the Soviet state, which exacerbated the famine, have been ignored.”

This is an objective conclusion, for I had deliberately excluded materials that had already been discovered in party archives from this article, which in fact was my report to the CC CPU.

I could not afford to make things difficult for Shcherbytsky to render a decision that was coming to a head under the conditions of increasing glasnost and which was necessary in the face of the investigation being pursued by the US Congress.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian writers were bringing the subject of the famine to the forefront of civic and political life. On Feb. 18, 1988, Literaturna Ukraina published Oleksa Musiyenko’s report to a meeting of the Kyiv branch of the Writers’ Union of Ukraine.

Welcoming the new CPSU leadership’s policy of de-Stalinization, Musiyenko accused Stalin of orchestrating a brutal grain procurement campaign in the republic, which resulted in the Holodomor of 1933. The word “Holodomor” used in this report was coined by the writer.

In early July 1988 the writer Borys Oliynyk addressed the 19th CPSU conference in Moscow. Focusing on the Stalinist terror of 1937, he surprised those present with his conclusion: “Because repressions in our republic started long before 1937, we must also determine the causes of the 1933 famine, which killed millions of Ukrainians; we must list the names of those who are to blame for this tragedy.”

In a November 1988 interview with the Moscow weekly Sobesednik [Interlocutor], the writer Yuriy Shcherbak, the founder of the Green movement in Ukraine, devoted much attention to the problem of the famine. He was convinced that the 1933 famine was the same kind of method for terrorizing peasants who opposed collective farm slavery as dekulakization.

At the same time, he was the first to speculate that Stalin’s policy of repressions in Ukraine was also aimed at forestalling the danger of a large-scale national liberation movement. The peasantry, he said, was always the bearer of national traditions, which is why the 1933 famine was a blow aimed against the peasants.

In the summer of 1993 James Mace published his analytical article “How Ukraine Was Permitted to Remember” in the American journal The Ukrainian Quarterly. In describing the process of how the Holodomor was understood, I have followed this article to some extent and in separate instances, while making independent evaluations. I cannot agree with one of his statements.

In July 1988 the Writers’ Union of Ukraine instructed Volodymyr Maniak to prepare a memorial book comprised of testimonies of Holodomor survivors. Mace wrote that Maniak was not allowed to address the famine eyewitnesses in the press; this mission was entrusted to me. In December 1988 I appealed to the readers of Silski visti and published a questionnaire.

In fact, neither Maniak nor I were instructed to prepare a memorial book. This problem did not concern the republican leadership. The initiative was Maniak’s. After enlisting the support of the Writers’ Union, he came to the Institute of History at the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR with a proposal to join forces.

At the time we were actively searching for documents relating to the famine, which had been amassed in the archives of Soviet government agencies. We collected so many sensational materials that we processed them in parallel form: memoirs and documents. We could not immediately publish the manuscripts we had prepared.

Radiansky Pysmennyk published the colossal book of recollections, Famine 1933. The People’s Memorial Book compiled by Maniak and his wife Lidia Kovalenko, only in 1991. In 1992 and 1993 Naukova Dumka published a collection of documents from the Central State Archive of the Highest Organs of Government and Administration of Ukraine, compiled by Hanna Mykhailychenko and Yevhenia Shatalina.

In the meantime, the substance and even the words from my article that appeared in Ukrayinsky istorychny Zhurnal became the target of harsh criticism in the press immediately after its publication in March 1988. Only one year after its publication society was viewing the fundamental questions concerning Soviet reality in a completely different way.

In 1988 I wrote a brochure for the society Znannia [Knowledge] of the Ukrainian SSR. While the brochure was being prepared for publication, I obtained permission from the society to publish it in Literaturna Ukraina. At the time this newspaper was most popular among radical intellectual circles and in the Diaspora.

The text, published in four issues of the newspaper between January and February 1989, was the product of 18 months of archival work. Complete with photographic evidence, the story of Viacheslav Molotov’s extraordinary grain procurement commission shocked the public.

In June 1989 Znannia published 62,000 copies of my brochure entitled 1933: The Tragedy of the Famine. Not surprisingly, it was published as part of series entitled Theory and Practice of the CPSU. The art editor designed an original cover depicting a cobweb with the brochure’s title centered in red and white lettering.

As I reread it now, I can see that it is an accurate portrayal of the socioeconomic consequences of forced collectivization of agriculture, the major one being famine in many areas of the USSR.

However, at the time I still did not understand the specifics of the Ukrainian famine. In particular, the brochure listed all the clauses of the Nov. 18 decree of the CC CP(b)U and the Nov. 20 decree of the Council of People’s Commissars of the Ukrainian SSR, both of which were approved as dictated by Molotov.

These decrees were the spark plug of the Holodomor. The brochure also cited the most disturbing clause, calling for the imposition of penalties in kind (meat, potatoes, and other foodstuffs). However, at the time I still had no facts about the consequences that stemmed from that clause.

For this reason the Ukrainian famine was considered the result of a mistaken economic policy, not a deliberate campaign to seize food under the guise of grain procurements: “Openness in the struggle against the famine would mean recognizing the economic catastrophe that crowned Stalin’s experiment of speeding up the pace of industrialization.

Stalin thus chose a different path, the path of cowardly and criminal concealment of the situation in the countryside.” It follows from these words that I did not see signs of genocide in the concealment of information about the famine.

A detailed analysis of my own brochure was necessary to provide background to the story about the major accomplishment of the Soviet period, which was being quickly consigned to the past. I am speaking about the book The Famine of 1932-1933 in Ukraine: Through the Eyes of Historians and the Language of Documents.

The book was published in September 1990 by Politvydav Ukrainy as an imprint of the Institute of Party History at the CC CPU. It contained articles, including one of mine, but I will discuss the documents from the archival funds of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist (b) Party and the CP(b)U.

The documentary section was compiled by Ruslan Pyrih, head of the team of compilers that included A. Kentiy, I. Komarova, V. Lozytsky, and A. Solovyova. The official pressrun was 25,000, but the real number of published copies was ten times smaller. When it became clear that the book would be published, somebody decided to turn it into a bibliographic rarity.

I saw the documents discovered in the party archives of Moscow and Kyiv by Pyrih’s team one year before their publication. Some of them are reason enough to accuse Stalin of committing the crime of genocide, and I will cite them in subsequent articles.

However, my immediate task is to elicit how the Holodomor was understood. I will only say that at the time nobody saw the true substance of these few documents, and thank God for that. If they had, they might have removed these documents from the manuscript. It is no wonder that their contents were underestimated. In my 1989 brochure I too could not assess the significance of those fines in kind.

A battle over this manuscript broke out at the highest political level in the republic – in the Politburo of the CC CPU. The Politburo meeting in January 1990, to which I was invited as an expert, took a long time to discuss the expediency of publishing this book.

I got the impression that those present heaved a sigh of relief when Volodymyr Ivashko, the first secretary of the CC assumed responsibility and proposed publishing the documents.

Why did the Politburo decide to publish such explosive documents? There are at least two reasons.

First, in 1988-1989 the originally bureaucratic perestroika was already evolving into a popular movement. Constitutional reform had divested the ruling party of its power over society. In order to remain on top of the revolutionary wave, party leaders had to distance themselves from Stalin’s heritage.

Second, the US congressional commission had already completed its work and published a conclusive report that contained many impressive details. The Politburo members were familiar with the specific results of the work carried out by Mace’s commission. I am so sure of this because I have this particular volume, 524 pages, published in Washington in 1988, in my own library.

The book’s cover bears the red stamp of the CC CPU’s general department, identifying the date of receipt as Sept. 5, 1988. I obtained the book during the transfer of Central Committee documents to the state archive after the party was banned (as material foreign to the compiler of the funds).

The above-mentioned Politburo meeting of Jan. 26, 1990, approved a resolution “On the 1932-1933 Famine in Ukraine and the Publication of Archival Materials Relating to It.”

The Politburo identified the immediate cause of the famine as the grain procurement policy that was fatal to the peasants. Yet this statement did not correspond to the truth, much like Shcherbytsky’s statement about the drought.

Mace came to Ukraine for the first time in January 1990. He brought me a computer printout of the famine survivors’ testimonies recorded by the US congressional commission. The three volumes of testimonies on 1,734 pages were published in Washington only in December 1990.

In the first two weeks of that month the journal Pid praporom Leninizmu [Under the Banner of Leninism] published my article “How It Happened (Reading the Documents of the US Congressional Commission on the 1932-1933 Ukraine Famine”).

My own experience of analyzing archival documents and the testimonies recorded by the American researchers enabled me to reach the following conclusion: “Alongside grain procurements and under their guise, a repressive expropriation of all food stocks, i.e., terror by famine was organized.”

Now the conclusion about genocide was no longer based solely on the emotional testimony of Holodomor eyewitnesses but on an analysis of archival documents.

March 1991 saw the publication of my conclusive book, Tsina velykoho perelomu [The Price of the Great Turning Point]. The final conclusion was formulated in no uncertain terms: “Famine and genocide in the countryside were preprogrammed” (p. 302).

In the years that followed I wondered why this book was not known to many researchers of the Holodomor. But eventually I realized that the announced pressrun of 4,000 copies could have been reduced tenfold, as it happened with the collection of documents from the party archives. Even though the publishing house was renamed Ukraina, it was the same old Politvydav Ukrainy.

Reviewing the book a decade and a half later, I have reconsidered its merits and shortcomings. Its merit lay in the detailed analysis of the Kremlin’s socioeconomic policy that resulted in an economic crisis capable of disrupting the political equilibrium.

This explained why Stalin unleashed terror by famine against Ukraine in one particular period – a time when the economic crisis was at its peak. The monograph’s shortcoming was the lack of an analysis of the Kremlin’s nationality policy. Without such an analysis the conclusion of genocide was suspended in midair.

In those distant years Mace and I often engaged in sharp polemics. However, these polemics were disinterested, i.e., they concerned problems, not specific persons. I criticized him for his inadequate attention to the Kremlin’s socioeconomic policy, and he criticized me for my inattention to its nationality policy.

Time has shown that establishing that the Holodomor was an act of genocide requires an equal amount of attention to both the socioeconomic and nationality policies.

However, Mace had an advantage in this polemic. He did not have to change his worldview the way I had to change mine, one that was inculcated in me by my school, university, and my entire life in Soviet society, and to do so posthaste in the face of irrefutable facts.

He saw in me an official historian, which in fact I was. However, in the above-mentioned article, “How Ukraine Was Permitted to Remember,” Mace concluded the chapter on the evolution of my worldview with these words: “He approached the development of the topic [of the famine – Author] as a Soviet historian whose works were as political as they were scholarly. When the possibilities for studying archives expanded, he stopped being a Soviet historian and became simply a historian.”

The world we live in now is no worse and no better than the communism of the Brezhnev period. It is simply different. We should not be happy or sad that it has passed.

We must only understand that the communist system exhausted its life cycle and that its continued existence would necessarily have involved government pressure on society, which was germane to the first two decades of Soviet rule, i.e., the Holodomor could also be repeated.

At this point I cannot help saying a good word about Yakovlev, who died last month. He proposed the best possible way for a quick and managed disintegration of the communist order.

Soviet communism disintegrated as an empire and as a system a long time ago. Now it is imperative for us to overcome the worldview inherited from it.

Unfortunately, a decade and a half after the demise of communism this problem persists. It can be resolved with the help of knowledge about Ukraine’s true history in the Soviet period, including knowledge of the real causes of the Holodomor.

I can say this based on my own life experience. -30-

LINK: [Part three of six]

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