Eighty-five years ago, millions of residents of Ukraine were starved to death as a result of the Soviet-era policies under Joseph Stalin’s totalitarian regime.
The man-made famine of 1932-1933, also known as Holodomor, was a catastrophe that occurred not at a time of war, but at a time of peace, resulting in at least 5 million deaths in Ukraine.
I’d been thinking a lot about this chapter of Ukrainian history during the lead-up to the recent passage of Holodomor Remembrance Day on Nov. 24. Holodomor is part of my home country’s history that I grew to fully understand only through my work at USC Shoah Foundation, which interviewed hundreds of Ukrainians who spoke of it in their testimonies, and which, in 2009, embarked on a program that brought the history into hundreds of Ukrainian classrooms.
Prior to that, I learned about it in bits and pieces. First as a child, from my grandparents’ occasional references to the Great Famine―the time when they had to starve while living in Europe’s breadbasket in the early 1930s. Then, in school, I learned about the Soviet collectivization policies and the kulaks, wealthy peasants who hid grain from the procurement brigades.
Collectivization―the Soviet education system taught us in the 1970-1980s―was a progressive approach, whereas the kulaks were “enemies of the people,” the obstacle to the country’s progress on the way to the “bright future of communism.” Those resisting to join collective farms and the forced confiscation of privately owned land, grain, and livestock, were evicted from their homes and deported to remote places in northern and eastern regions of the USSR.
Nobody, at that time, taught us about the scale of the tragedy and the number of human lives lost to the Great Famine―that information was conveniently silenced. The Soviet archives were sealed. The mass media portrayed the famine as a natural disaster that was inevitable. Those who spoke up were labeled “anti-Soviet elements” and politically repressed. It was only 50 years after the tragedy, during Perestroika― the restructuring of the Soviet political and economic system in mid-1980s―when the truth about the totalitarian regime we lived in, and the atrocities committed by it, including the Great Famine, slowly started surfacing in mass media.
Fast forward to 1999―the year when I began my work at Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, in Los Angeles, CA. Working with life histories of survivors and witnesses to the Holocaust, first in the production team, and then as a cataloger and indexer, grew into my professional calling. Through this work, I discovered that, while recording life histories of survivors and witnesses to the Holocaust in the 1990s, the Shoah Foundation collected 774 testimonies discussing the 1932-1933 Great Famine during the period that preceded the Shoah catastrophe on the Ukrainian territory. Today, through the archival collections of the Foundation and its partners, the Visual History Archive provides access to 787 testimonies discussing the 1932-1933 Ukrainian Famine.
These stories opened my eyes to the missing pieces of the tragic puzzle. From the eyewitness accounts I learned about the government policies that led to the famine and the human suffering that ensued. Day after day I listened to the testimonies discussing the looting of peasant homes by local party activists striving to fulfill unrealistic grain procurement quotas set forth by the government; the victims’ attempts to survive by eating tree leaves, grass and other unimaginable things; arrests; deportations; blacklisted villages; deaths of children and loved ones; mass grave burials; and border patrols banning the starving masses from leaving the republic and from traveling to cities to beg for food. I learned about the political decrees and other historic documents, now de-classified, that targeted Ukraine at that time, including personal correspondence of Stalin and other Soviet political chiefs and resolutions of the Soviet government.
This content became a driving force of an important educational project. During 2009-2010, the USC Shoah Foundation produced a groundbreaking multimedia resource based on the VHA content, for Ukrainian teachers―Ukrainian Famine of 1932-1933. Human Dimension of the Tragedy―and conducted a national teacher-training seminar on its use, in Kyiv. The world’s leading historians―Timothy D. Snyder, Samuel Totten, and Stanislav Kulchitsky―reviewed the teacher’s guide before it was published, providing their historic expertise. The Kyiv seminar participants went on to train fellow educators in their home regions. As a result, 680 teachers from 19 regions of Ukraine received training on the use of the Holodomor eyewitness accounts in the classroom. At the time, I served on the Institute’s education team, and coordinating the work on the teacher’s guide was one of my main tasks. Through the USC Shoah Foundation’s work in Ukraine, teachers and students were not only introduced to the human dimension of their local history, but also learned in great detail about the totalitarian policies that resulted in the humanitarian catastrophe.
Today, there is no consensus on Holodomor in the world. Ukraine, Australia, Canada, Columbia, Estonia, Ecuador, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, and Poland have recognized it as a genocide of the Ukrainian people carried out by the Soviet Union. Ukraine marks the fourth Saturday in November of every year as Holodomor Remembrance Day.
The national Holodomor Victims Memorial opened in Kyiv in 2008. The United States has recognized the man-made famine, designed and implemented by the Soviet regime, as a deliberate act of terror and mass murder against the Ukrainian people. The Holodomor Memorial to Victims of the Ukrainian Famine-Genocide of 1932-1933 opened in Washington D.C. in 2015. The Russian Federation government continues denying the genocide aspect of the Great Famine in Ukraine.
"This famine was a common tragedy for the Russians, Ukrainians and Kazakh and other Soviet peoples, as well as the largest humanitarian disaster in the country," the Russian embassy in Tel Aviv stated this February. "So, representation of these events as a deliberate policy aimed to destroy the Ukrainian nation runs counter to historical facts and is a cynical usage of the memory of the millions of victims on political grounds.”
According to the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention, genocide means acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. Article II of the Genocide Convention outlines two main elements of the crime of genocide: a mental element, or its intentionality, and a physical element, which includes deliberate infliction on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part. The argument made by the people who question the genocide aspect of Holodomor, in that regard, is two-fold. First, the famine occurred not only on the territory of Ukraine, but also in the Volga region of Russia and Kazakhstan. Second, the people who died of starvation in Ukraine, were not only ethnic Ukrainians, but also representatives of other ethnic groups. However, the UN definition does not require that the group targeted for destruction be only an ethnic group. Genocide can also be committed against only a part of the group, as long as that part is identifiable (including within a geographically limited area) and “substantial.”
Without taking sides, I can speak to this as a human being. Having lived through Holodomor, my Ukrainian grandparents taught me the greatest respect for food. Even now, I have to finish all the food I have on my plate. I just cannot throw it away. It is part of who I am. It is part of my family history. We all are products of history. If we make no effort to remember and to learn from history, we let part of all of us vanish in the past. Today, as an archivist of the Visual History Archive, I do my best to ensure that history is preserved and made available to us and to future generations. The history of people living during the Holocaust and other genocides―those who survived, and the lives lost. The history of people living during Holodomor―those who lived to tell their story, and those who didn’t. We are here to keep history alive.