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Holodomor 1932-33


Okradena Zemlya

Remembering the Holodomor horror
Catherine Lawson
The Ottawa Citizen
Saturday, May 24, 2008
With each passing year, the evidence grows. Previously suppressed census data, photographs of soldiers guarding grain stores, accounts of local uprisings -- all add more depth and detail to the horrendous story of the Holodomor, the name Ukrainians have given to the famine that killed seven to 10 million in 1932-33.

"There is a wealth of documentation coming out," says historian Roman Serbyn of this dark chapter in the history of the Soviet Union. "Historians have trouble keeping up," adds the retired professor, who continues to research the Holodomor.

Information has been emerging since the demise of the Soviet Union, he says. A significant trove came to light last year when another cache of Soviet secret police (KGB) files was released.

This trickle of documentation is one of the reasons the term Holodomor is unfamiliar to most. And why, 75 years later, Ukrainians still seek recognition for what they call a genocide, perpetrated by Soviet leader Josef Stalin.

As part of the campaign to increase Holodomor awareness, the International Remembrance Flame is expected to arrive in Ottawa on Monday, the last of 16 stops in Canada. The flame's journey through Canada is organized by the Ukrainian Canadian Congress and the Embassy of Ukraine. Stefan Horlatsch, an 87-year-old


Holodomor survivor, is accompanying the torch on its Canadian journey. As a child he watched as Soviet authorities seized his family's land, livestock and grain. He lost 11 family members to starvation.

The Remembrance Flame then travels to the United States as part of a world tour that includes 33 countries.

The most important fact to remember about the Holodomor is that the famine was not caused by drought or pestilence. "It was part of Stalin's plan to transform the U.S.S.R. into a mighty power and what he needed for that was industrialization," says Mr. Serbyn, who was co-editor of the 2007 book, Famine in Ukraine: Genocide by Other Means.

Stalin's intention was to pay for industrialization by the export of grain. "Ukraine was the granary of Russia," says Mr. Serbyn.

In 1929, the drive to collectivize agriculture began. This process was viewed as essential to the development of a Communist state. Mr. Serbyn sees it differently. Collectivization, he observes dryly, "is a more efficient way of confiscating food for export."

At first, resistance was fierce. "Literally millions of people were involved in strikes and local uprisings," says Mr. Serbyn. "Soviet administrators were chased from the villages."

The bulk of the resistance came from a class of landowners known as kulaks. Because of their opposition Stalin set out to destroy them. Their land was seized and they were not allowed to join the collectives. Many were shot or deported to northern Russia. This process, known as dekulakization, deprived villages of their leadership. With resistance quashed, quotas were established and the peasants had to deliver the grain themselves.

The 1931 harvest was 18.3 million tons of grain, five million of which were exported. By the following year, the quotas were so high the farmers were not able to fulfil them. Orders were given to hand over the seed.

At the height of the famine, it is estimated that 25,000 Ukrainian villagers a day were dying. At the same time, it is now known that there were 1.8 million tons of grain in state reserves. "We have photographs of guards guarding the locations," says Mr. Serbyn.

"All the government had to do was to stop exporting and release the grain," he says. "Instead they denied people were starving."

With most of the deaths in isolated villages, there is no way of knowing how many died, but the long-suppressed census figures of 1937 reveal that the number of Ukrainians within the Soviet Union was 26.4 million, almost five million less than in 1926.

Collectivization and dekulakization were not limited to Ukraine and people starved in other parts of the Soviet Union. Why then, do the Ukrainian people insist on calling the famine a genocide?

Mr. Serbyn says there were actions aimed specifically at Ukrainians that support the definition of genocide, which, according to the United Nations, is an intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

In 1929, a number of Ukrainian intellectuals were arrested and blamed for organizing the peasantry. There were show trials, said Mr. Serbyn, "staged in a theatre, very symbolical."

About 45 academics and political leaders were executed, exiled, or imprisoned.

In 1931, the Ukrainian language was outlawed.

On Jan. 22, 1932, with famine raging, the borders of Ukraine were closed to prevent the starving from going in search of food.

The eight million Ukrainians living outside Ukraine were also targeted. The Kuban, an area in the Northern Caucasus populated by the descendants of Ukrainian cossacks, was also cordoned off. Entire cossack settlements were deported to northern Russia.

Holodomor combines the Ukrainian words holod (famine) and moryty (to exhaust) to mean destroy by famine. The similarities to the word Holocaust are not coincidental, says Mr. Serbyn.

Just as Holocaust has come to mean the genocide of six million Jews by the Nazis during the Second World War, so Holodomor has come to mean the genocide of the Ukrainian people.

Allied troops discovered the Nazi death camps. The images haunt us still.

In Ukraine in 1932-33, any photographs were taken clandestinely. The Soviet government denied the famine, refused foreign aid and ordered members of the foreign press to remain in Moscow.

As late as the 1980s a book was published calling the famine a fraud.

"It was denied and fell out of the collective memory, not only in the West, but even in Ukraine," says Mr. Serbyn. "People who lived through it didn't want to talk about it. It was dangerous to talk about it."

Soviet historians focused on Ukraine's suffering during the Second World War. "Even today, some of the older people hang on to those beliefs, and to them Hitler, and not Stalin, was the great enemy of the Ukrainian people."

In 2006, the Ukrainian parliament declared the Holodomor to be a genocide. At least 14 other jurisdictions have passed similar resolutions, including Australia, Hungary, Mexico, Poland, and, most recently, Latvia. Canada may soon follow. A private member's bill, which would recognize the Holodomor as an act of genocide and declare a Holodomor memorial day, has been given second reading.

Recognition from Canada is important, says Ihor Ostash, Ukraine's ambassador to Canada, because there are 1.2 million Canadians of Ukrainian descent. Recognition will also lend weight to Ukraine's campaign to have the Holodomor declared a genocide by the United Nations.

Says Mr. Serbyn, "This is a tragedy to be recognized by the world. This is justice that has to be done."

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