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Holodomor reverberates today. Like Stalin before him, Putin is out to eliminate Ukrainians as a nation

Nov 23, 2022 | Editorials, Featured

Left: 1933: Passers by walk past corpses of Holodomor victims in Kharkiv (Photo by Austrian Otto Wienerberger who managed to smuggle them out of the USSR); Right: Bucha, 2022: Bodies lie in a street in Bucha after Russian retreat Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images

Marco Levytsky, Editorial Writer.

This coming Saturday, people around the world will commemorate the genocidal famine now known as the Holodomor (literally “death inflicted by starvation”) that took place in Ukraine nine decades ago. In 1932 and 1933. millions of Ukrainians were murdered in this man-made famine engineered by the Soviet government of Joseph Stalin. The primary victims were farmers and rural villagers, who made up roughly 80 percent of Ukraine’s population in the 1930s.

It started with the August 1932 decree of “Five Stalks of Grain,” which stated that anyone, even a child, caught taking any produce from a collective field, could be shot or imprisoned for stealing “socialist property.” At the beginning of 1933, about 54,645 people were tried and sentenced; of those, 2,000 were executed.

As famine escalated, growing numbers of farmers left their villages in search of food outside of Ukraine. Directives sent by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and his closest collaborator, Vyacheslav Molotov in January of 1933 prevented them from leaving, effectively sealing the borders of Ukraine.

To further ensure that Ukrainian farmers did not leave their villages to seek food in the cities, the Soviet government started a system of internal passports, which were denied to farmers so they could not travel or obtain a train ticket without official permission. These same restrictions applied to the Kuban region of Russia, which borders Ukraine, and in which Ukrainians made up the largest portion of the population – 67 percent.

At the height of the Holodomor in June of 1933, Ukrainians were dying at a rate of 28,000 people per day. While Ukrainians were starving to death, the Soviet state extracted 4.27 million tons of grain from Ukraine in 1932, enough to feed at least 12 million people for an entire year. Soviet records show that in January of 1933, there were enough grain reserves in the USSR to feed well over 10 million people. The government could have organized famine relief and could have accepted help from outside of the USSR. Moscow rejected foreign aid and denounced those who offered it, instead exporting Ukraine’s grain and other foodstuffs abroad for cash.

While it is impossible to determine the precise number of victims of the Ukrainian genocide, most estimates by scholars range from roughly 3.5 million to 7 million (with some estimates going higher). Historians agree that, as with other genocides, the precise number will never be known. But it is even more difficult to do so in the case of the Holodomor because the 1937 Soviet census showed such a decline in the population of Ukraine that Stalin ordered it to be declared invalid and the statisticians who complied it arrested. Two years later a new census was published with falsified figures.

Regardless of the exact number of victims, it is quite evident that the Holodomor was an act of genocide aimed at wiping out Ukrainians as a nation. This fact was confirmed by Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew and legal expert, who first coined the term “genocide”. He was later instrumental in the UN General Assembly’s formal adoption of this term and was the first legal scholar to apply the UN definition to what happened in Ukraine. In 1953, five years after the declaration of the UN Convention on Genocide, and on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of the Ukrainian Famine, Lemkin addressed a 3,000-strong audience at the Manhattan Center in New York with an allocution entitled “Soviet Genocide in Ukraine.” He described the Famine as a four-pronged attack by the Communist regime against the Ukrainian nation with the intent to destroy: (1) the intelligentsia (“the national brain”); (2) the national churches (“the soul of Ukraine”); (3) the independent peasants (“the repository of the tradition, folklore and music, the national language and literature, the national spirit of Ukraine”); and (4) the cohesion of the

Ukrainian people by forced in- and out-migration with the aim of changing the republic’s ethnic composition by reducing the number of ethnic Ukrainians and increasing the number of non-Ukrainians.

While it happened 90 years ago the repercussions of the Holodomor reverberate even today. This has become especially true with Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine this year. There are two very striking facts that make it so.

First, Stalin’s successor, Vladimir Putin claims that he must defend ethnic Russians and Russian speakers who are being persecuted in Ukraine. That charge is false but it does raise the question of how so many ethnic Russians and Russian speakers ended up in Eastern Ukraine? The answer is because of the Holodomor. After Stalin killed millions of Ukrainians, he resettled the empty villages with ethnic Russians. Meanwhile, Ukrainian survivors were so traumatized by Stalin’s efforts to destroy them as a nation that they sought protection from future persecution by wholesale assimilation – russifying their names, abandoning Ukrainian in favour of Russian as their language of public discourse, and self-identifying as ethnic Russians on their identity cards and in later censuses. Over time, fear drove them to accomplish what Stalin had failed to achieve by force: their Russian-speaking children and descendants eventually became part of what Putin now refers to as “Russkiy Mir” or the Russian world. Incidentally, Crimea became Russian through much the same process. The depopulation of the peninsula’s indigenous Tatars began in tsarist days and culminated in the forced 1944 deportation of the Crimean Tatars by Stalin. This, as well, has been justifiably classified as a genocide.

Second, the genocide of both Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars is being carried out by Moscow today. Russian forces commit war crimes without stop. They continuously bomb civilians and civilian infrastructure, they torture prisoners and civilians; they deport Ukrainians to Russia or try to indoctrinate them at “filtration” camps or even draft them into military service and dispatch them to the front either to kill their own people or be killed by them.

Putin today is trying to finish the job Stalin started 90 years ago – namely, the eradication of Ukrainians as a people. Russian imperialists always coveted the rich land that is Ukraine. They just didn’t want the people that came with it.

Therefore, as we commemorate the Holodomor this year, bear in mind that the genocide it entailed is not just a chapter of history. It is a crime against humanity that is being continuously perpetrated before our very eyes today. That’s why Russian imperialism has to be destroyed once and for all.

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