A candle of remembrance: Holodomor awareness month
By Dr Sonia Mycak
November has been designated Holodomor Remembrance Month in Ukraine and each year commemorations are also held within Ukrainian communities around the world. Australia’s Ukrainian community also marks the ‘death by hunger’ of millions of men, women and children as an act of genocide perpetrated by the Soviet regime against the Ukrainian people.
In 1998 the President of Ukraine established the Holodomor Victims Day. It is observed every year on the fourth Saturday of November. The public is asked to light a candle in memory of the victims. On this day, as soon as the sun sets, Ukrainians light a candle and place it in their window in memory of all those killed by the artificial famine.
This November a petition has been circulating online to have the word ‘Holodomor’ included in major English language dictionaries. The petition is an initiative of Canada’s National Awareness Tour, a project of the Canada-Ukraine Foundation, supported by the Canadian government.
The term ‘Holodomor’ means ‘death by starvation’. It is based on two Ukrainian words: ‘holod’ meaning hunger or starvation; and the verb ‘moryty’ which means to induce suffering, to kill, to exterminate. The Holodomor refers to the artificially-created famine in Soviet Ukraine and the Ukrainian-populated Kuban region during the years 1932-1933.
The famine did not occur as a result of crop failure or natural causes such as drought. It was engineered through deliberate resolutions and laws of the Stalin regime: firstly, the confiscation of grain and all food in rural districts; and secondly, blockades and closed borders which did not allow the starving to leave their villages in search of food. Watchtowers were erected in the fields and manned by guards armed with shotguns. Those found to be hiding food inside their homes were executed. Peasants from Soviet Ukraine and the Kuban region who attempted to cross borders or checkpoints patrolled by armed troops were arrested and deported back to their place of residence or shot on sight. The Kuban region, which had previously been Ukrainian territory, was by then a part of Soviet Russia but it remained populated predominantly by ethnic Ukrainians.
The process had begun with Stalinist policies of imposing exorbitant and unattainable grain quotas. All grain was seized, down to the last seed. The so-called ‘Law of five ears of wheat’ made retaining even a handful of grain punishable by death, and those found doing so were to be shot unless there were extenuating circumstances, in which case they were to be imprisoned for not less than ten years. By imposing ‘fines-in-lieu’ on individual farmers and whole villages that had not been able to meet the inflated procurement quotas, Soviet authorities began taking livestock, other crops and all foodstuffs, in addition to grain.
As a further punitive measure, a complete ban on retail trade in villages resulted in the immediate closure of stores and made it illegal for peasants to purchase any food or necessities (such as kerosene or matches) which would have helped them survive. The borders of Soviet Ukraine and the Kuban were closed and guarded by militia, to prevent starving peasants search for food in neighbouring regions of the USSR. The sale of tickets for transport by train or boat was banned. Peasants were prevented from entering urban districts and were expelled if they did so.
At the same time, the Stalin regime embarked on large-scale political repressions against Ukrainians. There were mass arrests of the spiritual and secular intelligentsia and “a wide-ranging attack on all Ukrainian cultural and intellectual centres and leaders …. Every conceivable cultural, academic and scientific organization was now purged.” (Robert Conquest).
Reputable historians agree as to the motive which lay behind the Holodomor. Norman Davies has written: “The Terror-Famine of 1932-33 was a dual-purpose by-product of collectivization, designed to suppress Ukrainian nationalism and the most important concentration of prosperous peasants at one throw.” James Mace maintained the famine was “designed as part of a campaign to destroy them [Ukrainians] as a political factor and as a social organism”. To quote Conquest again, “So the Ukraine now lay crushed: … its intellectuals shot or dying in labour camps, its peasants – the mass of the nation – slaughtered or subdued.”
The number of lives lost due to the Holodomor was first estimated to be 7 million, however, more recent research has raised this figure to 10 million. Records from the time do not necessarily reflect the full extent of the carnage. Those who attempted to accurately record the death toll were arrested and executed. The cause of death of starving people was often falsely recorded in official records as due to other medical conditions. Often the dead were not recorded at all, and death certificates ceased being issued.
As a result of the Holodomor, 20-25% of the population of Soviet Ukraine was exterminated. The child mortality rate was very high. In September 1933, in many regions up to two-thirds of Ukrainian pupils were recorded as missing from schools. (Alekseyenko et al). Such a demographic catastrophe would cripple Ukraine’s development as a nation for generations to come. James Mace, a leading expert on Soviet history, has said that the Holodomor “…maimed Ukraine to such an extent that it created a discontinuity in the normal development of the Ukrainian people….”.
The Soviet regime engaged in decades of denial and disinformation. No word about the famine was allowed to appear in the press or elsewhere; those who referred to it were subject to arrest for anti-Soviet propaganda with the punishment of five or more years in labour camps. At the time, the authorities denied that there was any famine at all. Eventually, when it could no longer be contradicted that Ukrainians were perishing from hunger, Soviet propaganda claimed the cause to be crop failures as a consequence of drought or farmer mismanagement. Denying the ethnic factor, authorities then falsely claimed that there was a famine across the USSR. In actual fact, grain was available in store in the famine area but was not released to the peasants, and the Soviet Union continued to export grain and agricultural produce throughout the duration of the Holodomor whilst tens of thousands of Ukrainian men, women and children died daily.
The Holodomor is now recognised as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people, committed by the Soviet Communist regime. Stalin’s totalitarian regime deliberately created conditions for Ukrainians that could not sustain life. These conditions fully comply with the characteristics of genocide as defined by the United Nations. The Holodomor conforms to the definition of the crime according to the UN Convention on Genocide of 1948. It is understood that the Communist regime targeted Soviet Ukraine and Ukrainians as an ethnic group in Soviet Russia (in the Kuban region of the Northern Caucasus). James Mace wrote: “I remain convinced that for Stalin to have complete centralized power in his hands, he found it necessary to physically destroy the second-largest Soviet republic, meaning the annihilation of the Ukrainian peasantry, the Ukrainian intelligentsia, Ukrainian language, and history as understood by the people; to do away with Ukraine and things Ukrainian as such. The calculation was very simple, very primitive: no people, therefore, no separate country, and thus no problem. Such a policy is Genocide in the classic sense of the word." In 2006 the Parliament of Ukraine passed a law declaring the Holodomor to be a genocide. Today 16 countries around the world, including Australia (as of 2008), formally recognise the Holodomor as an act of genocide of the Ukrainian people. In 2008 the European Parliament formally recognised the Holodomor as a crime against humanity.
In Soviet Ukraine, Holodomor was a traumatic memory which was suppressed: Soviet authorities denied it, survivors were afraid to acknowledge it. Meanwhile in Australia and elsewhere in the diaspora, Holodomor was a traumatic memory which was expressed; this expression was counter-hegemonic and functioned as a critical and subversive engagement with Ukraine’s past. In today’s (post-Soviet and sovereign) Ukraine, acknowledging Holodomor is part of a process of ‘de-communisation’ which acts as a counter-narrative to previous official discourse, which at first denied that any famine had occurred and then laid blame upon the victims (bad farming methods) or natural causes (such as drought). Today in Ukraine we see an institutionalisation of knowledge and memory of Holodomor through establishments such as the Holodomor Victims Memorial and the National Museum of the Holodomor-Genocide in Kyiv, as a necessary stage in the reclamation of history.
Another such act of institutionalisation would be the inclusion of the word ‘Holodomor’ in the world’s major dictionaries. As Peter Borisow argued more than a decade ago: “We should use ‘Holodomor’ as the stand-alone English word to name the unique genocide that was inflicted upon Ukrainians in 1932-1933 … In time, it will gain wide usage and acceptance in the English language, especially if we use it consistently and repeatedly and push for its inclusion in dictionaries and for its use in media and publications.” He further explained: “Although relatively new, ‘Holodomor’ is rapidly gaining usage and acceptance. This genuinely Ukrainian word joins the technical and emotional parts of the Ukrainian genocide. It is an accurate picture of what our genocide was like. ‘Holod’ means ‘hunger, starvation’. ‘Mor’ is more complex. Alone, it means ‘pestilence’, ‘plague’. The verb ‘mordovaty’ means ‘to excruciate’, ‘to torment or torture’… Holodomor thus carries with it the concept of premeditated, unrelenting, wide ranging and excruciating massive acts of torture and starvation. It was a plague of torture and starvation. This is how our families died. Not in a famine, but in a ‘Holodomor’.”
This article forms part of the Jean Monnet project Remembering across Continents: European Politics of Memory from the Australian Perspective, delivered with the support of the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union.
Alekseyenko, Anna and Taras Byk, Markiyan Datsyshyn, Volodymyr Hrytsutenko, Lubomyr Mysiv, Oleksandr Voroshylo. Holodomor: Ukrainian Genocide in the early 1930s. (Kyiv: The Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, nd).
Borisow, Peter. “1933. Genocide. Ten Million. Holodomor” in Canadian-American Slavic Studies, 37, No 3 (Fall 2003), special issue on “Holodomor: The Ukrainian Genocide 1932-1933” pp 1-6.
Conquest, Robert. The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine. (London: Hutchinson, 1986).
Davies, Norman. Europe: A History (1996).
Mace, James E. “The Man-Made Famine of 1933 in Soviet Ukraine” in Famine in Ukraine 1932-1933 edited by Roman Serbyn and Bohdan Krawchenko (Edmonton: Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta, 1986), pp 1-14.
Mace, James E. “I was chosen by your dead…Legacy of the Famine: Ukraine as a postgenocidal society” in Ukraine Incognita TOP 25 edited by Larysa Ivshyna (Kyiv: Newspaper Den/The Day, 2014), pp 311-317.
Verstiuk, Vladyslav and Volodymyr Tylishchak, Ihor Yukhnovsky. The Holodomor of 1932-1933: An act of Genocide against the Ukrainian People (Kyiv: The Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, Olena Teliha Publishing House, 2008).