Grassroots Protests, Kiev, Ukraine 2014 – In the Shadow of Genocide

Gennadi Poberezny, Associate at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute

Gennadi Poberezny, Associate at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute

Michael Harpen, Managing Editor, and Laura Umetsu, Editor in Chief

In light of the ongoing brutal protests in Kiev, Ukraine, the Civilian Global News presents Gennadi Poberezny, Associate at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, who discusses the Holodomor – a genocidal famine in Ukraine, as well as its effects on Ukrainian political issues today.

Could you please tell us what is the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute (HURI) and what do you do there?

HURI is an umbrella institute supporting research into Ukrainian history, literature, and language. Its activities include publishing, supporting visiting scholars and seminars, serving as a focal point for the Ukrainian community in the Greater Boston area, and researching into topics such as the Holodomor. You can find more information on the Institute at http://gis.huri.harvard.edu/.

What do you do at HURI?

I focus on studying the Holodomor: the Great Ukrainian famine in the 1930s, created by the policies of the Soviet government. Almost four million people died in an act of genocide that has only been getting recognition in the last couple of decades. I am specifically working on an interactive map of the Holodomor, and for the first time ever, it is now possible to see the spatial distribution of casualties of the  Great Famile and other phenomena pertaining to the Holodomor. The description of the maps and the analysis of the preliminary findings of the mapping project that is in the works for three years can be found at http://www.huri.harvard.edu/mapa.html.

How did the Holodomor occur? 

Prior to the Holodomor, Ukraine was the breadbasket of Eastern Europe.  Russia viewed Ukraine as an entity to be assimilated within the Soviet empire: “the Ukraine” (a country) as the Soviets would call it, rather than, “Ukraine” (a nation) as it is now known.  Moscow dictated that Ukrainian grain should supply urban industrial centers in Russia and Ukraine or be sold for hard currency to the West.

To achieve these objectives, the Soviets instituted a policy of forcefully aggregating privately held farms into state-run or state-owned “collective” farms.  This policy of collectivization was extremely unpopular with the farmers, in part because the Soviets were essentially removing agrarian reforms implemented just a decade prior encouraging private ownership and individual profits.  Many collectivized farmers lost their incentive to work, while others preferred killing their own livestock rather than be subject to state seizure.  Other farmers who resisted joining collectives were deemed “State Saboteurs.”

Compounding this problem was the fact that the grain quotas, set by Moscow, were unrealistically high.  The Soviet authorities then designated certain active communist locals to enforce the quotas.  If a farmer could not meet his quota, these Soviet designated brigades of locals would simply seize whatever food or property the starving farmer had left to fulfill the quota, plus a bonus for themselves.  The farmer would then likely be blacklisted as a “counterrevolutionary.”  This snowballed into large-scale starvation across the whole of Ukraine.

How would you qualify this as genocide?  There ought to be a genuine intent by the Soviet authorities to murder the Ukrainian people.

You are certainly referring to the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide definition of genocide.  Stalin had a large role in how the UN definition of genocide was born.  During the drafting process, all early drafts advanced by Raphael Lemkin, the author of the concept of genocide, had a much more inclusive definition regarding political, cultural, economic, and social groups.  However, a much narrower definition of genocide was accepted after Stalin refused to include these groups into the “official” definition.  Stalin did this so that many of his genocidal actions, such as the Holodomor and the destruction of Ukrainian political elite, the kulaks (the wealthier farmers), and the intelligentsia, would not technically be considered genocide by the United Nations. In this regard, ironically, Joseph Stalin is as much a co-author of the notion as Lemkin himself.

As for the Holodomor, the initial starving and dying of the Ukrainian people was not planned by Moscow.  However, once the USSR realized that the people were dying because of their policies, they realized hunger could be used as a tool to break Ukrainian national aspirations and thus more strenuously enforced the policies.  Both the Ukrainian bureaucrats and the people were against the grain policies, and Moscow saw the famine as a way to break them.

Moscow could break them in brutal ways.  During the famine, villages and collective farms, which did not meet their grain quotas, could be blacklisted – that meant no food assistance would be allowed, all goods were seized, and nobody would be allowed to leave them.  Such actions would lead to the systematic death of entire villages and people.  Furthermore, Soviet political police sealed the border of Ukraine with internal areas so that the starving masses couldn’t seek refuge elsewhere.

By the end, some four million Ukrainians perished from state-instituted famine.  Such mass death had a profound effect on the development of Ukrainian identity, awareness, culture, and growth: generations of Ukrainian people from peasants to intelligentsia were wiped out; and the familiar societal bonds, which kept kin and kith together, along with distinctly Ukrainian customs and traditions had been decimated.  Furthermore, many among the Ukrainian educated elite who could have played a pivotal role in guiding and forming Ukrainian nation had been eliminated under Stalin.

The reality is that the Holodomor was an act of genocide.  And it wasn’t just the actual dying of millions during the famine; it was also about destroying the way of life of the people.  The most obvious way to destroy a people’s way of life is by eliminating the people in such numbers and targeting particular groups which changes their way of life and identity.  The Holodomor facilitated this to a great extent and in combination with the contemporaneous destruction of the Ukrainian intellectual and professional classes as well as distinct Ukrainian civic organizations and state institutions constituted the greatest genocide committed by the Soviets.

Why haven’t we heard much about the Holodomor before, and how does it affect modern politics?

In the USSR, the mere public mentioning of the Great Famine was forbidden and it was always denied internationally; and according to the Soviet authorities, and as the famous Russian saying goes, “it was a long time ago and it never happened anyway”, and even if it did, it was due to poor harvest, draught or other forces majeure circumstances, all the while the Soviets were trying to alleviate suffering.  Thus, despite numerous living witnesses to the Holodomor itself, the transmission of its awareness, its evidence, and its memory from one generation to the next was broken and thus resulted in inefficient, incomplete, and a not fully comprehensive understanding of the causes, the nature, and the consequences of this famine.

Once the USSR fell, much more research could be done on Ukraine’s history.  Victor Yushchenko during his time in office as president of Ukraine in 2005-2010 really elevated an acknowledgement of the deliberate nature of the Holodomor to a requisite of the Ukrainian national consciousness.  Recognizing the Holodomor has become something of a litmus test to the national identity with two out of three Ukrainians believing that it was genocide.  Whom they blame, whether it is Stalin, Moscow, the Russian people, the Ukrainian elite, or others is still controversial and unclear, and fallout from the blame still causes regional tensions.

The issue of the Holodomor has become extremely politicized, particularly in the ex-Soviet countries.  Yushchenko tried measures to avoid blaming Moscow directly for the event.  Nonetheless, an appellate court in Kiev recognized the genocidal nature of the Holodomor, blamed the Soviet system with Stalin as the chief instigator, and called on Russia to acknowledge the artificiality of the famine.  For Russia, this was an unwelcome conclusion that was at odds with its longstanding view of itself as a benevolent brother to Ukraine who had also suffered under Stalin’s regime.

Russia has taken great measures to strong-arm neighboring countries into not recognizing the Holodomor as genocide.  Russia has a vested interest, both morally and legally, not to be charged with the crimes of the Soviet regime, and has been partially successful in minimizing the impact of the Holodomor on its reputation through the UN Security Council and the OSCE.

Currently, there are 24 countries which officially recognize the Holodomor as genocide[1], and they tend to be countries who are willing to stand up to Russia or who have large Ukraine émigré populations.

Can you tell us how did the events of the Holodomor affect the development of the Ukrainian nation as well as the current protests?

The Ukrainian people have suffered so much as a result of the Russian revolution and the ensuing civil war, the Holodomor, World War II, and the Soviet occupation, and the Holodomor was a particularly heinous crime that the Soviets committed as part of their long-term policy of destroying the Ukrainian people’s identity.

After the Holodomor, the suppression continued in more subtle ways.  For example, if you wanted to get an advanced degree, you couldn’t get it in the Ukrainian language.   Such an action would be considered suspicious; your loyalty would be put into question.  If you were working as an engineer or an officer, you would be required to speak only Russian on duty; if you insisted to speak Ukrainian as a functional official, you would be deemed “saboteur,” and likely fired.

All of this has resulted in a Ukrainian nation that still feels the effects of Russia’s domination.  A significant minority is ethnically Russian, even though the immigrants who have moved there are identifying themselves more with Ukraine than Russia as time passes.  Furthermore, in some ways the Ukrainian governance model still feels the effects of the Soviet governance model – it remains a highly centralized state with all major decisions made by a powerful authority in Kiev, much like how all major decisions were made by Moscow in the Soviet era.  People are only now getting used to the idea of grass-roots style activism, as we have seen with the Orange Revolution and the recent EuroMaidan protests.

As for the current protests in Kiev, I wouldn’t say there are strong direct links to the Holodomor, although I can mention a personal anecdote.  I was in Ukraine for a conference on the 80th anniversary of the Holodomor, which by coincidence ended on the same day the Ukrainian government announced it wouldn’t sign an association agreement with the EU.  Many of the people who were involved in organizing the conference and leading the public commemoration activities were the same ones involved in leading the street protests.  The Holodomor anniversary engages the same kinds of people who have European aspirations and who tend to be more suspicious of Russian intentions towards Ukraine.

Do you think that the future of Ukraine will be oriented towards Russia, Europe, or a third path?

It’s hard to know what will happen in the short term, particularly with regards to the protests.  There is no legal mechanism to resolve things directly via the protests; such changes must be made long term through the political process pushed forward by grass-root activism.  In addition, unlike the Orange Revolution, there is no identifiable leader who can guide the protests, so it is up to the emerging civil society to carry the struggle for a better future for Ukraine, albeit peacefully as much and as long as possible.

Ukraine has had a harder transition than other countries in East-Central Europe because it had more difficult challenges – it’s a post-totalitarian and a post-colonial society, which had survived genocide and has had only a short time as a self-ruled independent and sovereign nation.  Ultimately, however, I believe that Ukraine’s future will be bright: more prosperous, open, pluralistic, liberal, and democratic.  We have seen this through a trend in elections favoring these European ideals.

Russia may be able to give short term benefits such as loan guarantees and discounts on gas prices, but Russia doesn’t provide an attractive model, a better way of life, a safer environment, or rule of law; Europe does.  The Ukrainian people know this, as shown from the multitudes of people, young and old who are protesting in Maidan – Ukraine’s Independence Square, and making their own destiny.


[1] * Countries that officially recognized the Holodomor as genocide: Australia, Andorra, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Czechia, Ecuador, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Slovakia, Spain, Ukraine, USA, Vatican

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