vrijdag, november 23, 2018

Monument to victims of Holodomor with museum on the background (Kyiv)Laura Reijders is communication coordinator for Initiatives of Change (IofC) Netherlands. Recently she visited the Ukrainian capital Kiev for a course in nonviolent communication (NVC). This was organized by Lena Kashkarova (Ukraine), a Ukrainian with a Russian family background. Lena works with Foundations for Freedom, the IofC-based NGO in Ukraine. This is an organisation that promotes ethical foundations for democracy and works on healing the wounds of history. Laura came across one such historic wound, when she was walking through the city.

During my visit in Kyiv, I was grateful to have some time to explore the city. On a morning I decided to walk to the Orthodox Lavra monastery. On my way I passed a beautiful tower in a small park which caught my attention, so I decided to go there first. Little did I know that this beautiful tower with a museum underneath, is the place for remembering all the people who died and suffered during the man-made famine in Ukraine called Holodomor.

Killing by starvation

Holodomor is a Ukrainian word that means killing or death by starvation. My thoughts at first were that this starvation was caused by a natural disaster like drought, but they were actually an outcome of policies for agriculture collectivization and grain quota of the communist regime. As peasants in Ukraine could not deliver the high grain procurements, Stalin became suspicious thinking that the peasants were sabotaging him. Chaos followed in Ukraine and other major-grain producing areas of the Soviet Union. The exact number of deaths is hard to determine due to a lack of records, but to give some insights here are two estimations: approximately 1.5 million people died in Kazakhstan and 4.5 million people in Ukraine.

Industrializing at any cost

In 1928 Stalin launched his first five-year plan. He ordered for a rapid industrialization to be able to compete with Western powers. It lead to mass urbanization which meant that consumption was to increase rapidly as well and so another part of the five-year plan was to boost agriculture. Another motive to boost agriculture was financing the industrialization itself by exporting grain.

The industrialization organized land and labor into large-scale collective farms. An important element of this collectivization, ‘according to Stalin, was the “elimination of kulaks as a class” in order to “replace their output by the output of collective farms and state farms” (page 30).’ Furthermore, it was argued that this would also free poor peasants from serving under kulaks, the farmland owners in many regions of Soviet Union including Ukraine. ‘According to agricultural surveys carried out in Ukraine in 1929, 71,500 households were classified as kulak. In the course of dekulakization campaign, which started in January 1930 and continued until 1932, 200 000 kulak households (approximately 1 million people) were liquidated, according to Istoriia selianstva Ukrains'koi RSR (vol II, page 150).

Like the kulaks, the remaining peasants resisted strongly against the forced collectivization. This resulted in a lower crop harvest and weather conditions were not optimal either. Together with the fact that grain quotas were way above what farms could produce, this led to an outcome that people were left without any food for themselves causing a mass starvation in a lot of parts of the Soviet Union including Ukraine. The Soviet regime was aware of the famine ‘but put Soviet interest other than feeding the starving first thus consciously abetting it' (page 629).

Famine not covered due to censorship

When walking through the museum I wondered: ‘Why haven’t I heard anything of this horrific historical famine in my life before, not even a tiny bit in history class?’ As it turns out, censorship was strictly enforced in the Soviet Union for all communication. This meant that printed media such as newspapers, journals and magazines were under strict control of the Communist Party and the state. Foreign journalists were prevented from any access beyond official spokesmen and only on rare occasion could travel to and in the Soviet Union. Consequently, the media gave a very rosy picture of Soviet life as almost all journalists were in sympathy with the regime in early Soviet times.

One of these foreign correspondents, who have become a heated topic of debate for being too uncritical, is Walter Duranty from The New York Times. He is controversial for denying the famine in 1932-33, especially since he received a Pulitzer Prize for a series of reports about the Soviet Union in 1932. His denial was part of the official narrative of the Soviet regime which classified any story about the famine as criminal ant-Soviet propaganda until the Perestroika (1980s-1990s). Duranty published the denial as a response to the article of Gareth Jones, a Welsh journalist, who was able to slip into Ukraine and witness the famine himself in March 1933. Jones’ article was published in many newspapers stating: ‘I walked along through villages and twelve collective farms. Everywhere was the cry, “There is no bread. We are dying”.’ Unfortunately, Jones’ story was no match for the strong and strict control of the narrative from the Soviet regime.

Commemorating Holodomor in November

After decades of silence, Ukraine’s first post-Soviet regime president called the first national commemoration ceremony of Holodomor in 1993. Another important step came 70 years after the famine when in 2003 at the United Nations, 25 countries, including Russia, Ukraine, and United States signed a joint statement with the following preamble: ‘The joint statement at the United Nations in 2003 has defined the famine as the result of actions and policies of the totalitarian regime that caused the deaths of millions of Ukrainians, Russians, Kazakhs and other nationalities in the USSR.’ In 2008 the European Parliament adopted a resolution that recognized the Holodomor as a crime against humanity.

With the recognitions from the UN and European Parliament, it feels to me like the first steps of a very difficult process have been taken to openly acknowledge the immense human suffering that was silenced for decades. And so, the long journey of healing and mourning can begin. Since 2006 the Holodomor Memorial Day in Ukraine falls on the fourth Saturday of November. This year it will be on Saturday the 24th of November and I will join to commemorate all who suffered and died by lighting a candle and shining a light on them.

Disclaimer: Through this article I hope to give a first insight into Holodomor, the forgotten man-made famine in Ukraine. As many scholars, historians and journalist devote their lives to unravel the truth, this is not an attempt to give a complete and comprehensive overview of the history of the famine in 1932-33.


Laura Reijnders