Saturday, 6 May 2017

Was the Ukrainian famine genocide and is this an important question?


I just finished Grzegorz Rossoliński-Liebe’s exhaustive and slightly exhausting book 'Stepan Bandera: The Life and Afterlife of a Ukrainian Nationalist'.

Mr. Rossoliński-Liebe says the numbers who died in the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine are between 2.5 and 3.9 million, not the 8, 10 or 15 million that I have seen mentioned.

He says that the use of the Ukrainian term “Holodomor” to denote the deaths dates from 1978. The term was coined by American-Ukrainians in response to the TV film 'Holocaust' which popularised that term for the murder of the Jews.

That millions died is not disputed, though how many millions did is. What is also disputed is whether the famine was intended by Stalin, was deliberate mass murder. Even nowadays Marxist Leninists (there are still plenty of them around) and fellow travellers get angry at this suggestion. Daniel Lazar, for example.

Simon Sebag Montefiore in his 'Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar' suggests the numbers are between 4 and 10 million and he produces plenty of evidence to show that many Bolsheviks knew exactly what was happening. Lenin had said that 'the peasant must do a bit of starving'. He also said Bolshevism was 'a social system based on blood letting'.

Bolsheviks travelled travelled through Ukraine in trains with the blinds down so as not to see the terrible suffering, according to Mr. Sebag Montefiore.

Stalin's daughter lifted the blind and was horrified by starving people with bloated stomachs. She told her mother who was equally horrified. Stalin told her the girl was hallucinating. This discovery presumably was part of the reason Stalin's wife committed suicide shortly afterwards.

Timothy Snyder in 'Bloodlands' is sure Stalin, at least after his wife's death, was deliberately trying to kill millions of peasants.

There are some people who seem to think that the deaths would be even worse if the Communists wanted to eliminate Ukrainians, rather than kulaks or peasants. 

The assertion that the famine was a deliberate attempt to kill Ukrainians because they were Ukrainians seems unlikely prima facie, as large numbers died in famines at the same time in the Northern Caucasus and Upper Volga.

People who think the Ukrainian famine is genocide often do so because they think trying to eliminate millions because of their nationality or race is worse than deliberately causing their deaths because they were peasants and therefore counter revolutionary. 

Dr. Snyder I think a good historian and 'Bloodlands' a very useful juxtaposition of the Ukrainian famine with the massacres in the war. But all American historians are ideological. Sometimes the ideology is Marxism but often, as in his case, the ideology is anti-racism. 

It's cretinous, of course, to compare mass murders but it's intensely political.

So socialists and liberals squabble over rival genocides. Leftists compare slavery with the murder of the Jews. Snyder and others compare the Ukrainian famine, which is a much fitter comparison. 

(By the way, Dr Snyder is at present comparing Donald Trump to Hitler in a more asinine way than any other historian I know, which is truly saying a huge amount. Dr. Snyder said recently that he imminently expects a coup by Mr. Trump. I kid you not.)

Figures for mass killings are often exaggerated, but unfortunately this is not always the case.

I hope we shall one day learn that the numbers killed in the war in Syria are exaggerated. They are said to be between 151,888 (very precise) and 470,000.

When I was in Hama in 2006 I was told by my guide that 60,000 died there in the uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982. I see the number usually reported is 30,000. Sharmine Narwani in the Guardian in 2013 estimated it at 2,000.

Bill Clinton in 1999 said that in fighting in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo around 250,000 had died. Now people say 130,000.


  1. A young historian of the USSR in the 1930s, Samantha Lomb told me: "There is plenty of decent scholarship on the 1932-33 famine. Most decent scholars dismiss the idea of Ukrainian genocide given the high death rates in the upper Volga and Northern Caucuses region at the same time. Ukraine tends to get the most attention because it was the bread basket of the USSR, has made sources widely available and at the time of the famine saw a number of foreign observers. Check out people like Fitzpatrick or Viola to deal with social history, or people like Mark Tauger to deal with more in depth agricultural and climatic factors. Bloodlands crosses into the pop history genre and is not one of my favorites. He seems to create controversy to sell books, which does seemed to have worked. Snyder's earlier work on national identities was better.

    "Most of the Ukrainian genocide narrative actually come Canada, particularly the University of Toronto and University of Alberta's Ukrainian studies centers. And I also don't think the USSR killed people with famine because they were peasants. I think it was simply a massive failure of policies on many levels. Over inflated crop yields, resulted in to high grain requisition quotas, the lack of proper agricultural methods and pest control, climatic problems, storage and distribution problems etc."

  2. The goal of collectivization was to increase food production for a rapidly industrializing state, and provide a structure for both mechanization and centralized control of agriculture.

    There was massive opposition in significant rural areas, and food production dropped instead -- and the repression left deep wounds in the countryside.

    So the offensive had an effect opposite of its goals.

    But the claim that the Soviet government's GOAL was to produce a famine, and its purpose was (for some irrational reason) to kill millions of people -- well, that claim is left-over Cold War propaganda that runs contrary to actual evidence.

    "Timothy Snyder in 'Bloodlands' is sure Stalin... was deliberately trying to kill millions of peasants."

    The question is what evidence suggests any intention to kill millions of peasants. And there is none.

    The intention was the opposite: To stabilize and increase food production as a basis for their wildly ambitious industrialization program.

    No government in history INTENDS to disrupt food production to the point of famine -- for the obvious reason that few problems so directly undermine government power as famine.

    To understand the widespread famine of the early thirties -- it is necessary to look at structural problems: The Soviet government was wedded to a program of radical and rapid industrialization, but the whole rested on one of the most backward agricultural (and transport) systems in Europe.

    They dreamed of resolving this contradiction by modernizing agriculture in sudden leaps -- organizing communal farms around tractor stations -- to bring new methods virtually overnight.

    But their plan was stymied by a profound political misjudgment: Their base among farmers was weak. Anti-collectivization forces mobilized resistance. Destruction of food stocks and withholding of food was a key form of that resistance.

    Claims of intentional killing of peasants and Ukrainians make no sense, and have no evidence.