This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Great Famine in Ukraine, during which up to 10-million Ukrainians perished. The United States and others have recognized that it amounted to genocide. The Russian Duma, however, maintains the famine was only an unfortunate result of Soviet collectivization.
What actually happened in Ukraine in 1932-33? And did it really amount to genocide?
According to the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, genocide is an act "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group" and involves such methods as "killing members of the group [or] deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction."
Ukrainian historian Stanislav Kulchytsky argues that the way Joseph Stalin dealt with the Ukrainian countryside qualified as genocide. In the fall of 1932, on orders from Moscow, government troops came to villages requisitioning grain to meet Stalin's quotas. They took away grain at gunpoint, even when peasants did not have enough for themselves. Those peasants who had no grain were deprived of other food stocks. Those who resisted were shot. A Jan. 22, 1933 directive from Stalin and his protege Vyacheslav Molotov sealed off Ukrainian borders to prevent famished peasants from escaping.
These events eventually led 39 UN member countries to sign a Nov. 7, 2003 statement that read: "The Great Famine of 1932-33 in Ukraine (Holodomor) took from 7-million to 10 million innocent lives and became a national tragedy for the Ukrainian people." These numbers clearly show that a deadly tragedy took place in 1932-33. To prove genocide, however, the U. N. definition also requires proof of intent to target a national or ethnic group for destruction.
That proof can be found in, among other sources, the post-war writings of Winston Churchill.
When he visited Stalin in August, 1942, Churchill asked: "Have the stresses of the war been as bad to you personally as carrying through the policy of the collective farms?"
"Oh, no," Stalin replied, "the collective farm policy was a terrible struggle
... 10 millions," he said, holding up his hands. "It was fearful. Four years it lasted." The Soviet leader went on to say that apart from a minority that were exiled, the vast majority perished.
Since 80% of the population in Ukraine was peasantry, Stalin knew that his policy of collectivization would wipe out the Ukrainian villages and farmers that had not already succumbed to starvation, and effectively destroy the political aspirations of the Ukrainian nation.
According to Ukrainian historian Yuri Shapoval, Stalin articulated his intent for Ukraine in a Sept. 11, 1932 letter to politburo member Lazar Kaganovich, in which he says, "at this point the question of Ukraine is the most important. The situation in Ukraine is very bad. If we don't take steps now to improve the situation, we may lose Ukraine. The objective should be to transform Ukraine, in the shortest period of time, into a real fortress of the U. S. S. R."
By 1933, the Bolsheviks had turned things around. Pavel Postyshev, who was given dictatorial powers to implement Stalin's policies, declared at a meeting of the Central Committee in Ukraine, "Under the direct leadership and directions of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and personally of comrade Stalin, we smashed the Ukrainian nationalist counter-revolution."
The Soviet leaders were masters of deception about all this. As hunger stalked Ukraine, they sold over 1.5 million tons of grain abroad at reduced prices while denying the famine. They enlisted help from journalists such as New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty, a Pulitzer prize-winner who, knowing otherwise, wrote that there was no starvation in Ukraine, thus maintaining his privileged access to the Kremlin. The Soviets employed obfuscation and sanitized language to cover up the fact that they tried to destroy the Ukrainian nation.
According to survivors, the biggest fear of those who perished was that the world would never know how and why they died and would not care. Stalin and others did a good job of covering up the evidence -- and 75 years later, the Russian Duma is still doing the same.
But the facts cannot be erased. It is increasingly clear that those who perished in Ukraine did so as victims of genocide.
Andriy J. Semotiuk is an attorney practising international law and specializing in immigration. He is a member of the law firm of Manning & Marder in Los Angeles.