Key countries around the world are officially reclassifying one of the 20th century’s greatest tragedies – the Ukranian Great Famine of 1933 – as an act of genocide. Their historical re-assessment means that Stalin’s communist regime may increasingly and controversially be portrayed as a communist equivalent of Hitler’s Third Reich in terms of genocide and mass murder.
The key decision was made last month when the Canadian Parliament passed legislation to establish a Ukrainian Famine and Genocide Memorial Day. The legislation recognises the Ukrainian famine of 1932/33 ‘as an act of genocide’.
Until now, official recognition had been limited to Latin America and Eastern Europe. Over the past three years, Lithuania, Georgia, Poland, Peru, Paraguay, Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico and Latvia have recognised Stalin’s actions in the Ukraine as genocide. Before that, recognition was limited to just two countries: Estonia (1993) and Hungary (2003). Ukraine itself officially designated the famine as genocide only in 2006 after Ukrainian nationalists had come to the power, replacing the previous more pro-Russian administration.
The numbers of Ukrainians who died in the Great Famine (known as the Holodomor – literally the ‘Murder by Hunger’) is estimated to be between four and seven million. Most perished through mass starvation and associated epidemics.
Collectivisation in 1929 and 1931 (in which individual farmers were forced to join large state-run farms) and, to a lesser extent, a drought in 1931, had massively reduced agricultural production. Forced confiscation of crops then created famine conditions. Stalin used the crops to raise hard currency (to buy US industrial and military equipment) by selling the grain to Central European countries. The Soviet regime then worsened the situation by cordoning off Ukraine so that starving refugees could not escape. Food aid was limited and selectively distributed – mainly to major towns where the populations were predominantly Russian rather than Ukrainian.
The Holodomor was preceded by a period in which thousands of Ukrainian intellectuals, folk musicians, and over a million wealthier peasants had been either shot or deported to Siberia and Central Asia. Although Stalin oppressed and murdered vast numbers of people across the Soviet Union, the Ukraine was singled out for particularly harsh treatment. Stalinists referred to 1933 as the ‘year of the defeat of Ukrainian Nationalist counter-revolution’. Stalin had seen the Ukrainian peasantry as an impediment to his collectivisation and industrialisation plans. His economic programme envisaged a smaller peasantry, mechanised agriculture and an enlarged industrialised urban population. The Holodomor helped him to realise those objectives.
Modern Russia, as the major successor state to the Soviet Union, does not recognise the Holodomor as an act of the genocide. In Ukraine, since 2006, a Holodomor memorial day is celebrated on the fourth Saturday of November.