By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 27, 2008
MOSCOW -- Relations between Russia and Ukraine, bedeviled by disputes over natural gas supplies and NATO expansion, have lately been roiled by one of the great tragedies of Soviet history: the famine of 1932-33, which left millions dead from starvation and related diseases.
Ukraine is seeking international recognition of the famine, which Ukrainians call Holodomor -- or death by hunger -- as an act of genocide.
When Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin forced peasants off their homesteads and into collective farms, special military units requisitioned grain and other food before sealing off parts of the countryside. Without food and unable to escape, millions perished.
Ukraine, according to Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, became "a vast death camp."
"There is now a wealth of historical material detailing the specific features of Stalin's forced collectivization and terror famine policies against Ukraine," Yushchenko wrote in the Wall Street Journal late last year. "Other parts of the Soviet Union suffered terribly as well. But in the minds of the Soviet leadership there was a dual purpose in persecuting and starving the Ukrainian peasantry. It was part of a campaign to crush Ukraine's national identity and its desire for self-determination."
There are no exact figures on how many died. Modern historians place the number between 2.5 million and 3.5 million. Yushchenko and others have said at least 10 million were killed.
But Russian politicians, historians and writers say Yushchenko and his allies are attempting to turn a Soviet crime that also killed Russians, Kazakhs and others into a uniquely Ukrainian trauma. They argue that the famine was the awful but collateral consequence of ruthless agricultural policies and the drive to industrialize, not a case of deliberate mass murder.
"There is no historical proof that the famine was organized along ethnic lines," the lower house of the Russian parliament said in a resolution passed this month. "Its victims were millions of citizens of the Soviet Union, representing different peoples and nationalities living largely in agricultural areas of the country."
Moreover, some Russians say, the push for the designation of genocide has more to do with demonizing modern-day Russia in the West than any desire for historical justice. Since Yushchenko came to power in early 2005, the two countries have repeatedly clashed over a host of issues, particularly his desire to integrate Ukraine into Western institutions and away from Russia's orbit.
The Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, in a front-page commentary in the newspaper Izvestia this month, wrote that the "provocative cry about 'genocide' " took shape "inside spiteful, anti-Russian, chauvinistic minds."
"Still, defamation is easy to insinuate into Westerners' minds," he wrote. "They have never understood our history: You can sell them any old fairy tale, even one as mindless as this."
That broadside came a few days after President Bush, on a visit to Ukraine, laid a wreath at a memorial to the victims of the famine. The United States and several other Western countries have recognized the famine as genocide.
But historians remain divided over whether the famine meets the United Nations definition of genocide, which defines it, in part, as the "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group."
"Registry office statistics for 1933 show death rates in urban localities no higher than average in contrast to the exorbitant death toll in the countryside, not only in Ukraine but all over the Soviet Union," Andrei Marchukov, a researcher at the Institute of Russian History, wrote in an article published by the Russian news agency RIA Novosti. "People were doomed not on the grounds of ethnicity but merely because they lived in rural areas."
The issue has also divided Ukrainians, with Russian-speakers, who live mainly in the eastern part of the country, dismissing the genocide charge as grandstanding by Yushchenko. The president has also proposed a law that would criminalize denial of Holodomor.
The pro-Russian party led by former prime minister Viktor Yanukovych boycotted a parliamentary vote on a 2006 law recognizing the famine as an act of genocide. His party has suggested using the word "tragedy" to describe the famine.
"It happened on the territory of many countries," Yanukovych said. "Maybe in Ukraine it had a greater effect, as Ukraine is a more agricultural country."
Some Ukrainian historians, such as Stanislav Kulchitsky, an authority on the famine who works at the Institute of History in Kiev, counter that while the famine enveloped many regions of the Soviet Union, the "smashing blow," as he said Stalin called it, fell on Ukraine and Kuban, a region heavily populated with Ukrainians.
"The mechanism was different in Ukraine," Kulchitsky said in a telephone interview. He cited the sealing off of the Ukrainian countryside in particular, saying there were no such efforts elsewhere.
Kulchitsky said the famine should be understood as part of a larger effort to wipe out Ukrainian culture and nationalism that began in the 1920s.
"It was not industrialization or modernization," he said. "It was cold-blooded killing by hunger."