Did Stalin’s communist regime commit genocide against the Ukrainian people?
By Professor Roman Serbyn, Université du Québec à Montréal
Montréal, Québec, Canada

"Holodomor Studies" Journal, Vol. 1, Issue 2, Winter 2009
Charles Schlacks, Publisher, Idyllwild, CA

Did Stalin’s communist regime commit genocide against the Ukrainian people? The answer is “yes,” if the UN Convention on Genocide informs our understanding of what constitutes genocide, and if our analysis of the events is based on relevant documents.

The “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide” provides the most authoritative definition of genocide, which has been integrated into national and international laws. The document acknowledges that genocides occurred in all periods of history, and in times of war and peace. Article II defines genocide as “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious groups, as such.”

The focus is on groups, two types of which are applicable to Ukrainians: “national,” which lays emphasis on civic bonds, and “ethnic,” which stresses cultural ties. The 30 million inhabitants of the Ukrainian SSR (over 80 percent ethnic Ukrainians) constituted a “national group,” and the 8 million ethnic Ukrainians in the RSFSR (mostly in the Kuban and along the Ukrainian border) formed an “ethnic group.” A comprehensive discussion of the Ukrainian genocide must include both groups because together they constituted an identifiable minority on which Stalin’s regime imposed its genocidal policies.

Genocide does not imply total destruction or only physical extermination. Article II lists three lethal actions: killing, causing bodily harm, and imposing conditions of life leading to physical destruction. Two measures are non-fatal: preventing births and transferring children. Ukrainians were victims of all these atrocities, and the deportation of divided Ukrainian families to Russia falls under the last heading. There are no quantitative criteria for genocide, but it is assumed that the victims form a significant part of the target group. The extinction of the Ukrainian population did not suit Stalin: Ukrainians comprised over 20 percent of the Soviet workforce and inhabited a strategic region. A partial extermination would suffice. Since there is consensus that several million Ukrainians perished, quibbling over the number of victims becomes irrelevant and only diverts attention from fundamental issues.

The Convention requires the establishment of the intent of the crime, not the motives behind it. Some scholars see reference to motives in the expression “as such.” This position is held by those who insist that genocide victims are attacked because they are members of a hated group, and that hatred is the driving force behind the attacks. Deniers of the Ukrainian genocide have argued that there was no genocide because there was no hatred against the Ukrainians on the part of Stalin and the Soviet authorities. This interpretation shifts the focus of genocide from the group to its members; it replaces intent with motive as the critical element; and it exaggerates the role of hatred while ignoring other motives. Stalin had more pragmatic reasons than hatred for destroying the Ukrainians as a group.

Genocide is a term that has been applied to various catastrophes, but each case has had to be judged on its own merit, as the classification of one tragedy is not contingent on that of another. The claim that there was no Ukrainian genocide because the famine was the same throughout the Soviet Union is thus untenable, as it is illogical to argue that if the Holodomor was genocide of the Ukrainian peasants, then it was equally genocide of the Russian peasants. The second argument ignores the fact that the majority of famine victims in the RSFSR were not ethnic Russians but Kazakhs, Ukrainians, Germans, and so on. Furthermore, there was no ethnic factor in the starvation of the Russian peasants. Finally, starving the peasants was only one component of the Ukrainian genocide.

The earliest cogent articulation of the Ukrainian genocide belongs to the father of the Genocide Convention himself. In September 1953 Professor Raphael Lemkin read a paper entitled “Soviet Genocide in Ukraine” at a public commemoration in New York. Lemkin expanded his discourse beyond the peasants and the famine and spoke of the genocide as a four-pronged destruction of the Ukrainian nation. The first blow struck the intelligentsia, “the national brain,” so as to paralyze the body. In tandem came the destruction of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, the “soul” of Ukraine. The third prong was “aimed at the farmers who are the repository of the tradition, folklore and music, the national language and literature, the national spirit, of Ukraine.” As a result, “5,000,000 Ukrainians starved to death.”
Significantly, Lemkin rejected the interpretation of “this highpoint of Soviet cruelty as an economic policy connected with the collectivization.” The fourth step was the “fragmentation of the Ukrainian people” through forced migration. The Polish-Jewish scholar, who was well versed in the national question, and cognizant of the exigencies of the Convention, insisted on identifying the victim group as “Ukrainians,” and not just “peasants” or “Ukrainian peasants.” Comparing the Jewish and Ukrainian genocides, Lemkin concluded that the latter were too populous, and thus too indispensable to the Soviet economy, to be completely annihilated. The sole oversight in Lemkin’s perceptive analysis was the Ukrainian population of the RSFSR, victim of the same genocide.

Lemkin never published his speech, and the book that he was planning, “The History of Genocide,” which would have contained a section on Ukraine, was never written. Thus, his observations on the Ukrainian genocide remained virtually unknown in academic and political circles. The Ukrainian diaspora concentrated on the “Great Famine,” denounced as propaganda by the Soviets and their supporters. The demise of the Soviet empire brought recognition of the historicity of the famine, and the controversy shifted to questions of demographic losses and territorial boundaries of the catastrophe. Incongruously, the debate continues to focus on the “peasant famine,” even though “genocide” rapidly became the main bone of contention, and that issue cannot be resolved by concentrating only on that one segment of the victim group.

The aim of Stalin’s “revolution from above” was to turn free farmers into state serfs, strengthen party control over them, and place the fruits of their labor at the disposal of the state. Capital from grain exports would help industrialize the empire, arm the cogs of the Soviet war machine, and allow Stalin to spread socialism abroad. Kolkhozes would provide the grain for export. Stalin knew that collectivization would be resisted especially in Ukraine and the Kuban, where grain seizures by Moscow would have national overtones. He understood the danger of alienating the peasantry, the main army of national movements. He knew that in a hostile atmosphere productivity declines while sabotage and wastage grow. With grain supplies falling and state quotas rising, procurement would turn into requisition. The countryside would be rapidly swept clean of foodstuffs, and starvation would set in. That is exactly what happened.

In November 1932 Stalin boasted that the kolkhozes gave twice as much marketable grain as the private sector had done before collectivization. True enough, “marketable” grain did increase (fourfold in Ukraine), but the increase came from the farmer’s table, not his surplus. Yearly grain exports jumped to over 5,000,000 tons in 1930-1931 and 1931-1932, and around 1,500,000 in the next two years. During the peak famine year, 1933, the USSR had 1,500,000 tons of grain in state reserves. A million tons being sufficient to feed five million mouths during a whole year, the Soviet authorities had sufficient means to feed an additional fifteen million mouths, more than enough to prevent starvation during the worst years. Collective farms became the means by which the totalitarian regime gave itself control over food production and distribution, and the weapon of food in its war on the farmers.

The Ukrainian genocide culminated in the famine of 1932-1933, but the process began much earlier. In the winter of 1929-1930 the GPU rounded up hundreds of members of an invented “Union for the Liberation of Ukraine (SVU),” put forty-five of the accused on trial and sentenced most of them to various terms in the Gulag. The SVU was accused of counterrevolutionary activity, of conspiracy to separate Ukraine from the USSR, and of organizing the peasantry for the same purposes. No Russian equivalent to the SVU was ever fabricated by the GPU in the RSFSR. In 1930 the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church was liquidated, not because it was a religious institution (the Russian Orthodox Church was never outlawed) but because it was independent of Moscow. The Ukrainian national intelligentsia was put on notice and cowed. Repression then spread to pro-Soviet and communist cadres that were becoming disenchanted with the regime’s ruinous policies in Ukraine. In January 1933 Stalin sent the hardliners Postyshev, Balitsky, and Khataevich to take effective control of the republic, complete the purge, and tighten Moscow’s grip. By the summer of 1933, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians were removed from their posts in the Ukrainian SSR and the Kuban region, and repressed. Leaders like Skrypnyk committed suicide.

The destruction of the rural elites was launched in 1929 in the guise of a socialist revolution aimed at “eliminating the kulak as a class,” and to foster collective ownership of agriculture. Dekulakization was carried out in two waves of expulsions, executions, and deportations, and was accomplished within a year, although the regime continued to wage war against fictitious “kulaks” throughout the famine years. The national dimension of the campaign was prominent. The epithet “kulak-Petliurite,” found in OGPU reports and party statements, reflects a certain reality and points to the regime’s fear of any Ukrainian farmer, rich or poor, who opposed its repressive measures. The apprehension of an alliance between the disaffected middle and lower cadres and the oppressed masses with a “kulak-Petliurite” mentality was one of the main motives for the genocidal starvation imposed by the regime in 1932-1933.
Wholesale collectivization, launched at the end of 1929, provoked fierce resistance, and Ukraine became one of its main centers. Of the 13,756 mass “disturbances” recorded for the USSR in 1930, 4,098 took place in Ukraine, with well over a million participants. Slogans with nationalist messages like “Free Ukraine from Moscow rule” appeared. Often put down with military force, the troubles continued until the fall of 1932. By then collectivization had practically ended and the farmers, weakened by malnutrition, were all but subdued. Their goals were reduced from fighting collectivization to struggling for survival – for food, which had completely disappeared from the Ukrainian countryside. Stalin was well informed about the degenerating situation in Ukraine by the Communist Party, the GPU, and the special emissaries he periodically sent there.

Ukraine first succumbed to the famine during the winter and spring of 1931-32. The Ukrainian party boss Kosior mentioned it in a letter to Stalin in April 1932, but it was Chubar, the head of state, and Petrovsky, the head of government, who on 12 June sent Stalin detailed descriptions of widespread starvation, requesting aid and the lowering of quotas for grain delivery. Petrovsky warned that unless help was given, the starving farmers would cut unripened wheat and jeopardize the harvest. Stalin responded with draconian laws on public property. Promulgated on 7August 1932, the “5 ears of corn law” prescribed the death penalty for pilfering kolkhoz goods. Enforced throughout the famine period, the decree was a glib expression of Stalin’s intent to exterminate the enfeebled farmers and weaken the rest into submission. Limited aid was given to healthier farmers who could still work.

The Stalin-Kaganovich correspondence shows that the draconian laws were triggered by Ukrainian events and were aimed at Ukraine. On 11 August, just four days after the infamous decree, Stalin wrote that the situation in Ukraine was critical and cautioned that unless immediate measures were taken, “we may lose Ukraine.” The Ukrainian Party leadership was weak and ineffective, and the 500,000-strong organization was full of “rotten elements,” “conscious and unconscious” Petliurites. Then Stalin made a startling prediction: “As soon as things get worse, these elements will waste no time opening a front inside (and outside) the party, against the party.”
Commentators have failed to connect this passage with the beginning of the letter, where Stalin affirms that the decree on property is good and will soon have an effect. Stalin knew that the said “effect” would be a dearth of foodstuffs and a famine, and things would definitely “get worse” for the farmers. The danger was that when that happened, the “rotten elements” and “Petliurites” would turn against the party and form an alliance with the farmers. The letter shows that the famine was neither a surprise for Stalin, nor an unwelcome occurrence: he set the policy, which he knew would bring about starvation, and he deliberately intensified repression so as to shape the famine into a powerful weapon.

The worst aspect of the Ukrainian crisis, Stalin claimed, was that the Ukrainian leadership did not see the dangers. Moscow had to take the situation in hand and transform Ukraine into a “real fortress of the USSR.” Stalin set the party and the GPU apparatus in motion to accomplish this task. His two troubleshooters, Molotov and Kaganovich, aptly called “commanders of the Great Famine,” were sent on missions to Ukraine and the North Caucasus, where they supervised purges of party and state cadres, forced local authorities to vote for Moscow’s exorbitant quotas of grain deliveries and then terrorized them into carrying out the plan. Starvation spread across the countryside. There is no need to describe here the well-known horrors that were visited upon the farming population of Ukraine and the North Caucasus during the Great Famine. Suffice it to mention those two repressive measures, aimed specifically at the Ukrainian population, which demonstrate the regime’s intent to destroy the Ukrainian group by means of physical annihilation and cultural transformation.
On 14 December 1932, Stalin and Molotov signed a secret party and state resolution blaming the hitherto government-approved Ukrainization program for the current difficulties in grain deliveries. Bourgeois nationalists and Petliurites had been allowed to join party and state institutions and to set up their organizations. They acquired administrative positions in collective farms and sabotaged sowing and harvesting campaigns. In the North Caucasus “unbridled Ukrainization” was allegedly forcing the Ukrainian language on a population that did not want it. As a remedy, the Ukrainian authorities were ordered to expel Petliurite and other bourgeois-nationalist elements from party and soviet organizations and meticulously select and train new Ukrainian Bolshevik cadres. In the North Caucasus the policy of Ukrainization was completely abolished and replaced with Russification. The Ukrainian language was banned from all administrative, cooperative and school activity. Newspapers and magazines were switched from Ukrainian to Russian. The next day, 15 December, the language provisions were extended to all other previously Ukrainized regions of the RSFSR.

By the end of 1932 Ukraine and the Kuban had become a killing field for the starving collective and independent farmers. To escape the coming doom, many farmers tried to flee to Belarus or the RSFSR, where food was more readily available. Stalin decided to stop this mass flight and on 22 January 1933, he sent around a secret directive forbidding farmers to leave Ukraine and the North Caucasus for other regions of the USSR. Orders were given to the railways and water transportation agencies to stop selling tickets to farmers from these regions, and to the OGPU and local administrations on both sides of the administrative borders to arrest all peasants migrating from these regions and, after punishing the most dangerous, to send the others back to their places of residence. A quarter of a million farmers were thus intercepted. These measures was clearly aimed at the Ukrainian group.

The atrocities committed in the early 1930s by Stalin’s communist regime against the Ukrainian population of Soviet Union fit the UN definition of genocide. Stalin’s intent to destroy the Ukrainian SSR as a national group, in the sense of an ethnically based socio-economic and political entity, is well documented in Stalin’s correspondence and other documents. The criminal acts consisted of the decimation of the urban elites and the deliberate starvation of the peasantry. Executions, deportations and induced famine were also inflicted on the Ukrainian ethnic minority in the Kuban and other regions of the RSFSR. The abolition of Ukrainization and the persistent condemnation of bourgeois-nationalist and Petliurite elements show that the destructive measures were conceived in terms of ethno-national transformations.

Ukrainians refer to their genocide as “the Holodomor,” coined from the words “holod” (hunger, famine) and “moryty” (to waste, destroy or kill). When capitalized, the term acquires the sense of “Ukrainian genocide.”
Roman Serbyn is a well-known historian and scholar. He is professor emeritus of Russian and East European history at the University of Quebec at Montreal, and an expert on Ukraine. Publications: Roman Serbyn and Bohdan Krawchenko, "Famine in Ukraine 1932-1933," 1986, ISBN 0920862438 and Roman Serbyn, "Holod 1921-1923 I Ukrainska Presa V Kanadi" (translation: The Famine of 1921-1923 and the Ukrainian Press in Canada), 1992, ISBN 0969630107, serbyn.roman@videotron.ca.