You know how a wound sometimes still hurts even though you thought it had healed long ago? The scar may be barely visible, but it tingles, burns, and smarts at the oddest moments. I have a scar like that on my soul, and ten years later it still aches.
None of my relatives died in the Great Famine in Ukraine during 1932/33. The millions who starved in that genocide by famine lived in central and eastern Ukraine, under Soviet rule; my parents and their families were in western Ukraine, under Polish rule. Yet when the 50th anniversary of that nightmare was marked in 1983, I mourned as if the dead were my own.
It would have been painful enough just remembering such an event, and honouring the millions of innocent dead who starved while there was plenty of food around -- unavailable just to them. What made the 50th commemoration of the Great Famine such an ugly experience was the deafening silence and disbelief of the majority of the Canadian media and the reaction of a certain segment of society. The various editors, columnists, and producers did not believe -- or did not want to believe -- that the famine actually happened, that it was deliberately orchestrated to forcibly starve the Ukrainian population so adamant in remaining Ukrainian and non- Communist, and so resistant to Stalin's collectivization. Not only did they not believe, they stonewalled and tried to ignore the event itself and its anniversary. For the media, Ukrainian issues were not "politically correct" in 1983. Simultaneously, the pro-Soviet segment in Canada did all it could not only to deny that the famine happened and was man-made, but to vilify and defame the Ukrainian survivors and their community for even daring to bring it up. Often, this was the group the media believed. The campaign, bolstered by the Soviet embassy, was so malicious that a decade later remembering those events still hits a raw nerve.
While other tragedies of human history and of our own inhumanity to each other in this century were covered often by the print and electronic media, the Famine did not count. Because of Soviet disinformation, with a few exceptions it had been ignored for those fifty years. The fear of that Soviet system was so pervasive and so paralyzing, that some survivors of the Famine -- even those with no family at all left in Ukraine -- still refused to have their experiences recorded fifty years later in Canada. On this gruesome anniversary, the Ukrainian community in most Canadian cities fought an uphill battle in getting the newspapers and television stations, especially the CBC, to inform the public about this almost unknown genocide. "Too academic," "too historical," not newsworthy enough," "we can't mark every anniversary that comes along" and "that issue has been well-covered in the past" were the replies of a Winnipeg Free Press city editor to inquiries why events related to the anniversary were not reported. Only one letter to the editor was printed at the time, even though many had been sent in. It took a whole month of inquiries at first, then downright badgering by angry individuals before the Winnipeg Free Press printed three articles about the Famine [April 9, 1983]. Ironically, after all that, one of the articles carried the headline "Famine in Stalin's Russia [sic]." A separate box carried the statement:
Few events of such enormity have attracted so little public clamor or more press apathy that the government-programmed famine which led to the extermination in 1932-33 of 8 million people in Ukraine. The Free Press was a party to this apathy -- in the years immediately after the famine and in efforts this year to publicize its 50th anniversary. Editors took for granted it was a matter best left to history books and academics, ignoring much significant new research on the subject. Readers have noted the shortcomings. These pages acknowledge it.
Communists, Marxist-Leninists, and Soviet sympathizers whipped themselves into a frenzy of denial of the Famine and vicious attacks on Ukrainians who spoke about it. Their line: it never happened, no one ever died, well, maybe a few thousand, no, a few million did die, but that was because of the drought, no, because of the social conditions, it was the fault of the kulaks, well, they had to die to save the new ideal system, they were enemies of the state anyway, well maybe some did die, they deserved it, it was a hoax perpetrated by fascists. It was especially painful to read and listen to protests from Ukrainian Communists. When members of the community presented a brief to the Winnipeg School Division #1 School Board to have information about the Famine included in the division's curriculum along with that about other genocides, one school board member protested. Mary Kardash (Labour Election Committee), questioned the authenticity of the presentation, and moved that this be discussed at a later meeting to get the "true facts" [sic] and "other points of view" about the Famine. The Ukrainian Communist presentation to the school board argued that "history should be taught in an objective manner" and, therefore, the Famine should not be taught as a deliberate act of the Soviet Union [try teaching the Holocaust without mentioning the Third Reich, or effect without cause]. But those presenting the five briefs opposing "the unsubstantiated charge of genocide" could not keep their stories straight: the arguments went from no famine at all (just a hoax), to the admission that between 3,500,000 to 5 million perished. William Ross, former head of the Communist Party in Winnipeg, wrote that they "...did not deny that a famine occurred... What they rejected was the unsubstantiated charge that it was a `definite act of genocide deliberately created to annihilate the Ukrainian people.' " Similar battles took place in other cities. In Edmonton there was a prolonged battle over a monument to the victims of the famine.
Objectivity, credibility, and fairness were a primary concern to those on the receiving end of Famine information. And the idea that the Famine happened and its story must be told was not a welcome one. The Manitoba Department of Education finally included the Famine in a world issues course, part of a grade 12 social studies curriculum. But the course "would not favour either side of the issue. The curriculum would be designed to teach that a famine did occur in Ukraine in 1932-33 and that millions of people perished. The reason the famine occurred will be open to discussion." [emphasis o.t.] Would the reasons for the Holocaust be "open to discussion"?! An editorial in the Winnipeg Free Press [December 19, 1993] cautioned that the curriculum program should strive for objectivity and scholarship and not be designed to serve the interests of any political group.
"Campaigners and agitators who seek modern redress for past wrongs or who seek to unite straying members of an ethnic group by the remembrance of past horrors are entitled to do that, but that is not the business of history and should not be asked of the history teacher... [The course should be used to illustrate] what sources of historical information consist of and how they can be evaluated for usefulness and trustworthiness."
Would such an attitude be expressed if the course were one on the Holocaust? Now such comments seem bitterly tragicomic, but at the time they meant that these emotional Ukrainians are just trying to get back at the Russians, this whole famine story is a lot of bull, needs to be taken with a mountain of salt, and we're better off believing the Soviets anyway. Neither the educational nor the journalistic sector remembered its professional ethics, and did not bother to verify for itself the mounds of scholarly, documentary material -- much of it from non- Ukrainian sources, since these were perceived to be more credible -- presented by the community. Survivors' testimony was considered tainted, based on emotion, unreliable. What is survivors' testimony supposed to be, if not primary material? Not when it came from Ukrainians.
At McGill University's McLennon Library, the photo and book exhibit "The 1933 Man-Made Famine in Ukraine -- The Forgotten Holocaust" was in danger of being closed down because the library administration considered the exhibit "too political" [would a Holocaust exhibit be so labeled?]. The exhibit was held in conjunction with a Famine symposium held at the University of Quebec at Montreal (March 25-26, 1983). Because "it was impossible to repudiate the academically-oriented content of the exhibit" and most of the books were from the library's own collection, it continued for the contracted run (March 13-27).
Letters to the editor in Winnipeg papers were equally cruel, and at times pathetically comical in their logic. J. Goray reacted to a positive review of Robert Conquest's Harvest of Sorrow by Tom Oleson in the Winnipeg Free Press:
... It is obvious that Mr. Oleson's lack of factual information...led him to rely on the discredited Robert Conquest.... [Walter Duranty and others] maintained the famine was grossly exaggerated, while others such as William Randolph Hearst, Malcolm Muggeridge, Robert Conquest, Victor Krawchenko and other falsificators of history adopted a hostile, anti-Soviet policy of slander and vilification. In any case, millions of people from all over the world visited the Soviet Union including the Ukraine during the time of the `famine' and it would have been impossible to conceal such an apocalyptic event as the death by starvation of seven million people had there been such a catastrophe.
However, Alexander Basilevsky, another apologist, did acknowledge that the Famine occurred, because of "a sad combination of amateurishly bad planning on the part of the Soviet government, sabotage by many wealthy peasants and a serious drought (which also affected the Canadian and American prairies)." [This writer's inquiries into the precipitation figures for the 1930s in Ukraine showed that 1932-33 had the highest rainfall for the decade.]
The producers of CBC Television news in Winnipeg had a strange way of showing the "true facts." Because they could not bring themselves to accept that this genocide had occurred, it was deemed necessary to present "both sides." We saw the spectacle of supposedly-qualified academics discussing whether survivors really lived through what they had lived through. I could only imagine a panel discussion on CBC between Holocaust survivors and revisionists on whether the Holocaust actually happened, and both side being treated with equal respect by the moderators and the producers. The producers never even thought that some of the differences between the two genocides were that Hitler and his system were defeated, there was no cover-up or denial of what happened [that could be taken seriously], and the Nazis no longer existed to instill terror into the survivors, while Stalin's empire and terror continued, the frigid fear gripping survivors and their relatives across the ocean. Holocaust survivors were able to meet, reminisce and testify about their experience. Famine survivors looked over their shoulders, whispered if they dared, some went mad, and all still were not believed.
To my horror, an appalling comparison surfaced: this famine "hoax" was perpetrated to diminish the number of those exterminated in the Holocaust of World War II. Did anyone really believe that any people wanted to compete over how many more millions died in one genocide over another? A Canadian poet of Ukrainian background wrote:
When in the breadbasket
starved to death
the world was silent
as it was
when your people
in the horrors of Dachau
as Nazi soldiers
drank "to life"
in brassy cabarets
When the King of Aryans
unfurled his Master Plan
were targeted for extinction
and so our parents fled
the haunting sirens
the hideous war
leaving their loved ones
your died in Treblinka
mine lived a hell
in the Siberian snows
wage a paper war
the battle lines are drawn
armed with statistics
was it the famine
that had more dead:
whose trauma was greater?
Why all this now
when Sabbath candles glow
and bread is plenty?
© Chrystyna Hnatiw 1988
[Chrystya Hnatiw in Land of Silent Sundays (Toronto: Williams-Wallace, 1988). Reprinted by permission of the author]
But the Ukrainian community was not competing for statistics. It was struggling just to get the genocide accepted as a fact of history. God knows, we had our own millions who perished at the hands of both Hitler and Stalin during World War II. Were it not for glastnost and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Ukrainian survivors and their community would still be hitting a brick wall trying to have the Famine acknowledged. In 1990 the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine issued a statement admitting that the Famine was man-made by Stalin's Soviet government. But Lazar Kaganovich, the orchestrator of the Famine, continued to live the life of a privileged Party pensioner in Moscow -- with no regrets -- until his death in 1991. The Ukrainian Canadian Communist community was really at a loss when its own publication, the Ukrainian Canadian, published the Party's statement on the Famine [April 1990]. Some members could not handle the admission -- and especially a poignant painting about the famine on the cover of that issue -- and called for the dismissal of the editors. "Reading about all the attrocities ... during the Stalin era is painful enough; do we have to stare at that horrible image on the front cover?..." "Offensive"... "We need to apologize to no one..." "Concentrate on Canadian issues..."
On the 60th commemoration of this genocide by famine, there is only deafening silence from those experts, academics, and authors who were so hysterical and defamatory in their attacks and denials. After this, how suspect is their other academic work? There are enough scholarly works available to the public documenting the Famine; readers can judge for themselves Robert Conquest's, James Mace's and Malcolm Muggeridge's credentials and compare them to Walter Duranty's. As skulls continue to emerge from the Ukrainian soil, both from the Famine and the mass executions of the later 1930s, there is no more need for the "other point of view," "both sides," "objectivity," "pursuing the truth," "evaluating for ... trustworthiness," and "non-political investigations." As volumes upon volumes of testimony are being collected in Ukraine from survivors who only now can speak openly after six decades of fear, as official documents of the time appear, as the burial mounds and crosses are only now being raised over the mass graves of whole villages, I wonder what the consciences of our other Canadian revisionists are telling them. They knew, dammit, they knew all along. For this I cannot forgive and I will not forget. I cannot dwell on this, though, for life goes on. Yet when similar issues of Ukrainian history and experience surface in the media and Ukrainian credibility is questioned, I can only hope that that the media do their job honestly, and that truth will triumph, as it did in this case. But it would have been better if the hungry years of 1932/33 had not happened at all.
In 1929-1932 the Soviet Communist Party under Stalin's leadership... struck a double blow at the peasantry of the USSR as a whole: dekulakization and collectivization. Dekulakization meant the killing, or deportation to the Arctic with their families, of millions of peasants... Collectivization meant the effective abolition of private property in land, and the concentration of the remaining peasantry in "collective farms" under Party control. These two measures resulted in millions of deaths...
Then in 1932-3 came what may be described as a terror famine inflicted on the collectivized peasants of the Ukraine and the largely Ukrainian Kuban (together with the Don and Volga areas) by the methods of setting for them grain quotas far above the possible, removing every handful of food, and preventing help from outside -- even from other areas of the USSR -- from reaching the starving. This action, even more destructive of life than those of 1929- 32, was accompanied by a wide- ranging attack on all Ukrainian cultural and intellectual centres and leaders, and on the Ukrainian churches. The supposed contumaciousness of the Ukrainian peasants in not surrendering grain they did not have was explicitly blamed on nationalism... The Ukrainian peasant thus suffered in double guise -- as a peasant and as a Ukrainian...
The total [conservative] peasant dead as a result of the dekulakization and famine [were] about 14.5 million... seven million plus from dekulakization and about seven million plus in the famine...
[There was] ... the ability of Stalin and the Soviet authorities to conceal or confuse the facts. Moveover, they were abetted by many Westerners who for one reason or another wished to be deceived. And even when the facts, or some of them, percolated in a general way into the Western mind, there were Soviet formulae which tended to justify or at least excuse them...
Conquest, Robert. The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press in association with the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, 1986.
(reprinted by permission)
Copyright © 1993-1999 Orysia Tracz
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada