WORLD AFFAIRS.  This year’s Holodomor Remembrance Day, the November 27th commemoration of the Stalin-engineered famine of 1932–33 that killed between 3 and 4 million Ukrainians, took place with some interesting background developments.

Two days before, Israeli President Shimon Peres enjoined Ukrainians to “forget history.” One day before, Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovich called the Holodomor an “Armageddon” and asked Ukrainians not to forget it. And in the months preceding the commemoration, the chorus of distinguished scholars who consider the Holodomor genocide acquired two American members.

Peres obviously knows that the creation of Israel would have been impossible without “history” — or, more precisely, historical memory. But he also knows that, just as remembering the past can be indispensable to forming nations, it can also become a source of later problems once nations have established themselves. There can, evidently, be too much of a good thing.

Yanukovich is obviously trying to square the discursive circle. On the one hand, he’s kowtowing to the Kremlin’s insistence that the Holodomor was just the local variant of a Soviet-wide famine (WikiLeaks shows how Russia pressured Azerbaijan on this point:); on the other, he’s hoping to accommodate Ukrainian sensibilities and growing expert opinion that the horror of the Holodomor is best captured by the term genocide.

In his 2010 book Stalin’s Genocides, Norman M. Naimark of Stanford University makes a forceful case for regarding Stalin as a “genocidaire”; the Stalinist system as genocidal; and dekulakization (the bloody process of eliminating “rich” peasants “as a class” from 1929 to 1932, when “some ten million kulaks were forced from their homes”), the Holodomor, and the “murderous campaigns against non-Russian nationalities” (such as Poles, Chechens, and Crimean Tatars) as instances of genocide.

In Bloodlands (also published this year), Timothy Snyder of Yale University approvingly notes: “Rafał Lemkin, the international lawyer who later invented the term genocide, would call the Ukrainian case ‘the classic example of Soviet genocide.’” And with respect to “each of the cases” of mass killings “discussed in this book, the question ‘Was it genocide?’ can be answered: yes, it was.” According to Snyder, “In 1933, Ukrainians would died [sic] in the millions, in the greatest artificial famine in the history of the world. This was the beginning of the special history of Ukraine, but not the end. Hitler would seize Ukraine from Stalin and attempt to realize his own colonial vision beginning with the shooting of Jews and the starvation of Soviet prisoners of war. The Stalinists colonized their own country, and the Nazis colonized occupied Soviet Ukraine: and the inhabitants of Ukraine suffered and suffered. During the years that both Stalin and Hitler were in power, more people were killed in Ukraine than anywhere else in the bloodlands, or in Europe, or in the world.” (See a recent documentary, with English subtitles, about Holodomor survivors in Kharkiv Province.)

Naimark’s and Snyder’s claims raise some troubling questions. After all, if Stalin committed genocide, then the individuals who executed, supported, and condoned it must be considered his collaborators.

Russians need to ask whether the Russian Federation’s status as successor state to the Soviet Union entails moral responsibility for Stalin’s crimes. Is a formal apology necessary? Might reparations be in order? They also need to ask why and how Russians, and their language, culture, and identity, came to be so deeply implicated in, and supportive of, Soviet institutions of oppression.

Both Russians and non-Russians need to ask who among them pulled the triggers, ran the concentration camps, and starved the peasants. Most post-Soviet states have avoided “lustration” — exposing crimes and barring perpetrators from office — on the grounds that it would be destabilizing. The case for not rocking the boat was plausible when the crime wasn’t genocide. If it is, can silence still be justified?

Communists, Soviet sympathizers, and fellow travelers in Western Europe and the United States need to ask whether they bear some moral responsibility for Stalin’s genocides. They knew of dekulakization, the Holodomor, and the murderous campaigns — and did nothing. Worse, they defended Stalin and the Soviet Union. Are mere mea culpas enough?

Finally, Western policymakers need to explain just how they can justify turning a blind eye to the Kremlin’s rehabilitation of Stalin. Reset buttons and cheap gas are important, of course, but perhaps mass murder masquerading as Armageddon matters, too.

Or should one just forget? Too bad President Peres didn’t say how.

Alexander J Motyl

Ukrayinska Dumka


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