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Was the Ukrainian Famine a Genocide?

EXTRACT: Orlando Figes, Revolutionary Russia, 1891-1991 (Pelican, 2014), pp. 155-56.

The outcome of this wholesale seizure of the harvest - encouraged by exaggerated surplus estimates from local officials eager to win favour from Moscow - was widespread famine in 1932-3. The number of deaths is impossible to calculate accurately, but demographers suggest that anything up to 8.5 million people died of starvation or disease. The worst-affected areas were in Ukraine, where peasant resistance to collectivization was particularly strong and the grain levies were excessively high. This has prompted some historians to argue that the 'terror-famine' was a calculated policy of genocide against Ukrainians - a claim enshrined in law by the Ukrainian government and recognized in all but name by the United Nations and the European Parliament.

Stalin had a special distrust of the Ukrainian peasantry. He was more than capable of bearing grudges against entire nationalities, and of killing them in large numbers, as he would demonstrate during the Great Terror and the war. The Kremlin was undoubtedly negligent towards the famine victims and did very little to help them. If it had stopped exporting food and released its grain reserves, it could have saved million of lives.

Instead, the government prevented people fleeing from the famine area, officially to stop diseases spreading, but also to conceal the extent of the crisis from the outside world. Perhaps it used the famine as a punishment of 'enemies'. In the reported words of Lazar Kaganovich, who oversaw collectivization and grain procurements in Ukraine, the death of a 'few thousand kulaks' would teach the other peasants 'to work hard and understand the power of the government'.

But no hard evidence has so far come to light of the regime's intention to kill millions through famine, let alone of a genocide campaign against the Ukrainians. Many parts of Ukraine were ethnically mixed. There is no data to suggest that there was a policy of taking more grain from Ukrainian villages than from the Russians or other ethnic groups in the famine area. And Ukraine was not the only region to suffer terribly from the famine, which was almost as bad in Kazakhstan.

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