The Great Famine – Building the myth

It’s been long I’ve been wanting to devote myself to the topic of the famous Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33, named as Holodomor – which would roughly translate as ‘death by hunger’ – still reported, by some, to have caused more than 10 million Ukrainian deaths. I finally decided to devote myself to it. What I thought would be one “simple” text as revealed itself a somewhat more complex task. I’ve decided then to explore the steps that led to the construction of the Holodomor myth and in subsequent texts explore, not necessarily by this order, the famine in its context (beyond Ukrainian borders and other famines), agricultural and meteorological constraints, and security concerts (national and revolutionary perspective).

What is the Holodomor? It is an undeniable fact that in the Winter of 1932-33 there was a huge famine in Ukraine, and that, like any other famine, it caused an immense number of deaths. In the 1950s the idea emerged that in an organised and seemingly coherent manner the idea of an orchestrated famine to bend the Ukrainian resistance to the membership into the USSR – of which Ukraine was one of the four founding members.

The idea of the Holodomor is introduced in the 1950s by three books published almost simultaneously in USA, Canada, and the United Kingdom. These three books have rather suggestive titles as about to their biases: The Golgotha of Ukraine (1953), The Black Deeds of The Kremlin (1953), and Communism the Enemy of Mankind (1955). The publishers of these titles are even more foretelling than their titles, respectively: Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, Ukrainian Association of Victims of Russian Communist Terror (affiliated with the Ukrainian catholic church), and the Ukrainian Youth Association in Great Britain.

But it isn’t until the 1990s that the narrative gains momentum, after the publishing of the book “The Harvest of Sorrow” (1986) by Robert Conquest – which at the time of the publishing of the abovementioned opuses worked for the Information Research Department of the British government, working with publishing anti-communist propaganda and black propaganda (read fabrication of fake stories purposedly relayed by those diminished by the publishing). The same timeframe of McCarthyism in the USA. This book is then later followed by 2010’s and 2017’s publishing of, respectively, Timothy Snyder’s “Bloodlands”, and Anne Applebaum’s “The Red Famine”.

The 1950s’ books are basic recollections of recites from exiled Ukrainians – for sure representative on the dramas of hunger, but unlikely to provide a scientific overview of the happenings. As for the three more recent works, despite engaging in the usage of more scientific expressions, they unfortunately remain rather scarce on hard data, widely used in scientific studies of the topic, focusing once again on following the line of direct report used on their predecessors.
From Conquest’s book it is relevant to transcribe what J. Arch Getty, a reputed American researcher on Soviet Studies, wrote in his review published by the London Review of Books: “Conquest’s hypothesis, sources and evidence are not new. (…) The intentional famine story, however, has been an article of faith for Ukrainian émigrés in the West since the Cold War. Much of Conquest’s most graphic description is taken from such period-pieces as The Golgoltha of the Ukraine (1953), The Black Deeds of the Kremlin (1953) and Communism the Enemy of Mankind (1955). Conquest’s book will thus give a certain academic credibility to a theory which has not been generally accepted by non-partisan scholars outside the circles of exiled nationalities.”

As for Snyder’s work, where he mostly tries to equivalate Soviet Union to the German Reich. This is rather clear in the preface of his Bloodlands where, when presenting his numbers of deaths, he briefly mentions those one the Nazi tab and keeps on reinforcing the ones on the soviet side – and he does so for two different time frames: from 1933 to 1945 for USSR and 1939-45 to the Nazi account (a relation of one to two). He ends up by ascribing, excluding those who died in combat, 3 to 4 million (he never comes up with a round number) deaths to the Soviet side, and 10 million to the German side. Those 3-4 million are in line with the nowadays scientifically agreed 3.5 to 5 million. It is clear, and Snyder does not hide it, that the goal is to promote the idea that both regimes were equally deadly – numbers he presents, and the way he presents them, explain on their own how reliable Snyder’s claims are.

Finally, the book by Anne Applebaum. Anne Applebaum has a few titles published books on the topic of Eastern and post-soviet Europe. Her work Red Famine is an engaging writing, with hundreds of foot notes and references. Yet, it does not manage to detach itself from the transmission of narrative, as we can see precisely on the footnotes: a great deal of her sources are the “testimonies” of normal individuals (read non-scholars). Stephen Wheatcroft, who wrote an extensive number of revised papers on the topic of the 1932-33 famine, said about Applebaum’s book that “[survivors] of major catastrophes can certainly provide the best accounts of what it felt like to experience the catastrophe, but they do not necessarily provide the best explanations of the causes and the consequences of these catastrophes”, concluding that “[victimhood] does not necessarily result in improved understanding”.

Although both Snyder and Applebaum are presented as historians, dressing themselves up with the validity of science, truth is they never went to the extent of having their views on the 1933-32 famine validated by the scientific community: this would be done by submitting their theses to a peer revied reviewed publications. In the case of Snyder, and his recent incumbency of teaching Yale students, he barely published anything on the Ukraine and its history.
This detachment from the scientific approach, in favour an obviously more idealistic one, is quite patent in the sources they chose to ignore. It is totally impossible to research on the Soviet famine of 1932-33 without reading the peer-revised works of Mike Tauger or Stephen Wheatcroft. And yet Snyders refers only to two publications by Wheatcroft not directly related with the famine, while Applebaum doesn’t even bother to quote the relevant works from any of them. This being said… one cannot but be correct to wonder about the validity of the “scientific” claims of those two writers.

In correspondence with Wheatcroft, as stated and not contested in his book “The years of Hunger 1931-33” (2004), Robert Conquest admitted, in a letter that “‘Stalin [did not] purposely inflicted the 1933 famine. No. What I argue is that with resulting famine imminent, he could have prevented it, but put ‘‘Soviet interest’’ other than feeding the starving first—thus consciously abetting it”. And this settled the man-made famine issue until very recently. At least until the events of 2014 in Ukraine, from when the Ukrainian government has been pushing hard for a recognition of the 1933-32 famine as having been not only man-made but built with the purpose of a genocide against the Ukrainian people. So far there have been 4 joint statements of UN’s general assembly members on that sense (gathering never more than 38 subscribers) and the efforts for recognition by other countries as a genocidal act have gathered the support of merely 16 countries – after writing this text and before publishing it Germany, led by the hegemonic discourse, joined this small group.

And this about all concerning the narrative construction around the Holodomor. Hope to deliver the next parts soon.