On Friday, November 9, Professor Alexander Motyl delivered the Toronto Annual Ukrainian Famine Lecture: “The Holodomor and History: Bringing the Ukrainians Back In.” At the University of Toronto.
Alexander Motyl is professor of political science at Rutgers University-Newark and co-editor, with Dr. Bohdan Klid of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, of The Holodomor Reader.
The Holodomor and History:
Bringing Ukrainians Back In
Three or more years ago, I would not have been standing here. As most of you probably know, I have never devoted any significant amount of time in my scholarly career to studying the Holodomor. I’ve written a few brief articles and given a few talks, but I have never been a Holodomor specialist. It is only in the last two years that I’ve been able to aspire to that designation. And that is due solely to my having co-edited, together with Bohdan Klid of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, The Holodomor Reader. Bohdan is the specialist, but I was his apprentice and, as such, I was able to come to an infinitely deeper understanding of this genocide than I had possessed when he and I embarked on this project in the summer of 2010.
My deepest thanks to Bohdan as well as to Marko Stech, Frank Sysyn, and Myroslav Yurkevych of the Institute for making this book a reality and for enabling me to learn so much.
The idea for this book came to Bohdan and me, separately, sometime during the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Holodomor in 2008. Both of us were struck by the fact that, although the amount of material relating to the Holodomor was huge and steadily growing, there was no comprehensive sourcebook on the famine for English-language readers. As a result, finding basic information on the Holodomor required the kind of research that most nonspecialists have neither time nor energy to pursue.
I was one of those nonspecialists. As a political scientist who has spent inordinate amounts of time defining concepts, I had no doubt that the Holodomor possessed all the defining characteristics of genocide. But I confess to having lacked a full appreciation of the magnitude of the tragedy that befell Ukraine in 1932-33. That changed in the course of our research and translations. More important, I’ve learned a thing or two about Holodomor studies in the West.
Several things now strike me as obvious.
First, the debate about whether or not the Holodomor was or was not a genocide is over—at least in the West. Consider where the famine was in the popular consciousness of the 1950s. The answer is: nowhere. Survivors, refugees, and émigrés wrote about it extensively, but primarily in Ukrainian, and their audience consisted largely of themselves. Although some Western journalists had written about the famine in the 1930s, their focus soon shifted to other stories, while Western scholars ignored the famine almost entirely. Even in 1983, during the fiftieth anniversary of the Holodomor, the regnant view of one of the great crimes of the twentieth century maintained that it was a minor tragedy at best and a consequence of agricultural policy gone awry at worst.
Since then, the status of the famine as a nonevent or an émigré fantasy has changed by 180 degrees. No serious scholar or political figure now disputes that millions of Ukrainians starved to death in 1932–33. There is general agreement in the West that the famine was avoidable and almost universal condemnation of it as a crime. And, as The Holodomor Reader demonstrates, the empirical evidence for regarding the Holodomor as genocide is overwhelming. If one is neutral, one will be persuaded. If one is a diehard cynic, lacks the capacity for human empathy, or has a political agenda, no amount of evidence will do the trick.
There is, thus, no more need to demonstrate yet again that the Holodomor meets the requirements of any reasonable definition of genocide. There is no need to produce any more treatises using United Nations documents to show that the Holodomor was as much of a genocide as the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, the Rwandan genocide, or the Cambodian genocide. The Holodomor was not just a tragedy. It was a slaughter, and every person of good conscience knows that. There is as little reason to worry about Holodomor deniers in the West as there is to worry about the Flat Earth Society. Their numbers will, inevitably, decline. In the meantime, they should be treated with tolerance and compassion and, ultimately, with indifference.
After all, the battle has been won, and it is time to move on.
Second, the debate about the exact numbers of Ukrainians who perished in the Holodomor is best left to the experts. We can now state with reasonable certainty that the number is at least 4 million. It may be more. But whether or not that number is four or six or eight or ten no longer matters once we understand that the Holodomor was genocide and that that genocide cost some 25,000 Ukrainian lives per day at its height. The demographers are currently hard at work generating numbers and data sets. They have the skills to do so, and they also have the techniques for interpreting these numbers and producing reliable estimates.
Let me remind you that, back in the 1950s and 1960s, the battle of numbers seemed as hopeless as the battle of intentionality. And this was true despite the fact that many of the Western journalists who wrote about the famine in the 1930s spoke of six to eight to ten million victims. After World War II and the outbreak of the Cold War, however, the 1930s were forgotten. A Soviet history atlas compiled by the reputable historian Martin Gilbert in 1972, for instance, illustrates the “main area of the forced collectivization of over 5 million peasant holdings 1929–1938” and notes that “thousands of peasants were killed when they resisted (some by armed force).” Revisionist historians placed the number at several hundred thousand. Soviet propagandists, of course, denied any significant population losses at all. Consider where we stand today. No one disputes the fact that millions died. No one disputes the fact that the “kill rate”—the rate at which people died per day—was astonishingly high.
The battle of numbers has been won, and it is time to move on.
Third, it is time to shift the focus of Holodomor studies from the big-picture questions—Was it genocide? Did millions perish?—to the small-picture questions: Who were the people who died? How did they die? What lives did they lead? Who killed them? In other words, we must humanize the Holodomor. We must remind ourselves, and others, that this was not just a genocide that cost millions of lives, but that each and every Ukrainian who perished in the Holodomor was a human being worth remembering as a human being.
As Bohdan and I were compiling The Holodomor Reader, the materials that impressed me most were not the scholarly articles and the diplomatic documents, but the survivor testimonies and literary accounts. They impressed me precisely because they brought the horrors of the Holodomor to life. They placed faces on the dying and they attached names to the numbers. These materials transformed the Holodomor from an abstract event to a human catastrophe. They gave life to the dead. They enabled me to feel for them, to sympathize and even empathize, to imagine what it must have been like to be a Ukrainian peasant condemned to a slow and awful extinction in the spring of 1933.
Listen to the following lines from a poem by Wira Wowk:
of a home without a roof
distant are the storks
how many years of woe
did the cuckoo announce?
how many eclipses of the sun
how many scarecrows amidst poppies?
a stream of blood
flows through the fields
a bleached skull in the black earth
ravens circle above corpses
the shadows of children
along the fence
blinded by tears
the dark church
its zinc cupola nodding
where are you mallows
near the multicolored walls
where is the spindle of the song
where is the wreath of the dance?
death dances on the grass stubble
the zither’s strings
snapped from the lament
of millions of innocents
This is the power of memoirs and of literature: to bring the past to life. And we need much more of both. We need to hear the peasants and workers and urban dwellers. We need to do everything we possibly can to give them a voice and, thus, a presence. It is only in this manner that we will fully commemorate their sacrifice and their death. Abstractions and numbers are incapable of reaching into these inner realms of human experience and, indeed, of the human condition.
Which brings me to my fourth point. I wish to make a radical suggestion, one that will shock some Ukrainians and many non-Ukrainians. I wish to suggest that Ukrainians are human beings and that their history should be treated as the history of human beings. In a word, we need to reinvent Ukrainian history as the history—not just of elites, not just of masses, not just of peasants, not just of a territory or a state—but of people.
Some Ukrainians are heroes, and a few are saints. Some are cowards, and a few are criminals. The vast majority are just regular folk—no different from Canadians, Americans, Russians, Jews, blacks, Indians, and all the others. All Ukrainians, whatever modifier we append to them, are exactly like all other people. They want to live, and they generally don’t want to die. They fall in love, they have relationships, families, and children, and they pass away. They do smart things and they do stupid things. They do good things and they do bad things. No more and no less than all the other billions of people populating the world.
I have often wondered why I find the scholarship of the contemporary school of neo-Soviet historians unacceptable. It is not, as they like to believe, because they say controversial or critical things about Ukrainians or about Ukrainian nationalists. Nor is it because they are the first to concern themselves with moral issues related to culpability for terrorism, violence, and crimes against humanity. People of my generation were exploring the same issues they are just discovering back in the 1960s and 1970s. Just read any issue of Student, New Directions, Meta, or Dialoh from that time.
No, I find their work unacceptable because it is offensive. That is, it offends me. But not as a Ukrainian. I’m used to that and have a thick skin. Rather, it offends me as a human being. Like Soviet specialists on bourgeois nationalism of the past, the neo-Soviet historians offend because they reduce Ukrainians from complex persons to one-dimensional stereotypes with no conscience, no feelings, no brains, and no voice. It’s as if these historians had never read The Merchant of Venice, where Shylock states:
I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.
Remember: in demanding a pound of flesh, Shylock was acting brutally. Even so, we empathize with him, we even commiserate with him, precisely because we know that he was responding to the sustained humiliation of repeated wrongs. And although Shylock acted brutally, we know that he was not therefore a brute.
Our response to Shylock stands in sharp contrast to how neo-Soviet historians treat Ukrainians: as savages, as brutes, as animals that respond on impulse and lack the capacity for rational thought and human empathy. Savages, naturally, want only to be savages. Savages can have no legitimate interests, no legitimate grievances, no legitimate concerns. Regardless of context, regardless of circumstances, they want only to kill, to rape, to pillage.
Such a view is of course profoundly, and manifestly, racist, and we would not countenance this kind of stereotyping of anybody else—certainly not of blacks, women, and Jews. Just imagine if black insurrections, women’s self-assertiveness, and Jews’ anger at discrimination were explained only in terms of irrational propensities to destruction, hysteria, and greed. We would be outraged. And yet, it is perfectly acceptable to view Ukrainians in this manner. Please do not misunderstand me. I have no doubt that Ukrainians are capable of and have committed crimes. After all, Ukrainians are human. But I also have no doubt that Ukrainians are rational beings and not savages. After all, Ukrainians are human.
Where does the view of Ukrainians as irrational beings driven by primitive urges come from? I suspect that the answer has something to do with the way in which Ukrainians are represented in three key cultures and historiographies or, to use a fashionable word, discourses. Although no culture, discourse, or historiography is uniform, it is not too great an exaggeration to suggest that long-standing Polish, Jewish, and Russian representations of Ukrainians are strikingly similar. The Polish discourse tends to view Ukrainians as savage haidamaky. The Jewish discourse tends to view Ukrainians as bloodthirsty pogromchiks. The Russian, and Soviet Russian, discourse tends to view Ukrainians as treacherous barbarians. In each instance, Ukrainians represent the savage “Other” that must be tamed, and in contradiction to which the nation or people or community in question is defined.
Consider in this light how Frantz Fanon describes colonial views of natives in his classic 1961 anti-colonialist treatise, The Wretched of the Earth:
The town belonging to the colonized people … is a place of ill fame, peopled by men of evil repute. They are born there, it matters little where or how; they die there, it matters not where, nor how. It is a world without spaciousness; men live there on top of each other, and their huts are built one on top of the other. The native town is a hungry town, starved of bread, of meat, of shoes, of coal, of light. The native town is a crouching village, a town on its knees, a town wallowing in the mire. It is a town of niggers and dirty Arabs. The look that the native turns on the settler’s town is a look of lust, a look of envy; it expresses his dreams of possession—all manner of possession: to sit at the settler’s table, to sleep in the settler’s bed, with his wife if possible. The colonized man is an envious man. And this the settler knows very well; when their glances meet he ascertains bitterly, always on the defensive, “They want to take our place.” It is true, for there is no native who does not dream at least once a day of setting himself up in the settler’s place.
All nations engage in this kind of “othering.” Indeed, one might say that it lies at the core of national identity formation. What is distinctive about the Ukrainian case is that three important discourses all agree on the same image of the Ukrainian as a savage, that all three mutually reinforce one another and thereby make the stereotype seem perfectly natural and acceptable, and that the Ukrainian alternative to this othering is at best recent, and at worst feeble.
That is not surprising. Ukrainian nation building began much later than Polish, Jewish, and Russian nation building. Moreover, unlike Poles and Russians, Ukrainians lacked a state and a political elite. And unlike Jews, Ukrainians lacked a literate urban class. Small wonder that all three discourses have been able to acquire a hegemonic status in so many of the cultural assumptions that guide historians, journalists, artists, and policy makers in their thinking about Ukraine and Ukrainians. The neo-Soviet historians—whether in Canada, Germany, or Dmitri Tabachnik’s Ministry of Education—are, in this sense, no different than the Soviet historians and propagandists who depicted good Ukrainians as passive Little Russians and self-assertive Ukrainians as murderers.
Especially striking about neo-Soviet depictions of Ukrainians is their complete lack of empathy. This is hardly surprising in light of the deep-seated Orientalism of such depictions. When I view Ukrainian history—or, for that matter, African American or Jewish history—I am gripped with a profound and almost inexpressible sadness. I see fundamentally good people being confronted with impossible circumstances and impossible choices that have no good outcomes. The neo-Soviets and Soviets appear to view Ukrainian history as the story, not of powerless humans, but of powerful brutes.
Listen to Fanon again:
When the settler seeks to describe the native fully in exact terms he constantly refers to the bestiary…. Those hordes of vital statistics, those hysterical masses, those faces bereft of all humanity, those distended bodies which are like nothing on earth, that mob without beginning or end, those children who seem to belong to nobody, that laziness stretched out in the sun, that vegetable rhythm of life—all this forms part of the colonial vocabulary.
Naturally, reality is a tad more complicated than the Orientalist imagination would have it. Ukrainians are not interested, and have not been interested, only in killing Poles, Jews, and Russians. Like other peoples, Ukrainians do want to be masters of their own fates. They want to enjoy freedom. They want to make mistakes. They want to speak. And not just when they are spoken to or spoken about. They want to be human.
They also want to know who killed them and why. They want to bear witness. They want to remember.
I have had the good fortune this last year of occupying myself with my parents’ memoirs. It was a good fortune that was premised on bad fortune. My father died in 2007 and my mother died in 2011. My father had written over 150 pages of memoirs in the course of the 1980s and 1990s, while my mother wrote some 15 pages in 1983. I took it upon myself to commemorate their lives by editing their memoirs, adding footnotes and photographs, and publishing them in—where else?—Kinko’s. What began as a seemingly simple project turned into a massive undertaking. My father’s memoirs had to be edited extensively and the repetitions removed. Both sets of footnotes turned into research expeditions about their families and friends. I now know more about my relatives, and my parents’ lives, than I ever did before. And, naturally, I am profoundly saddened by the realization that I could have learned so much more if I had only had more conversations with them.
The project has been immensely rewarding. Finally, after so many years, I think I understand my parents. Sad to say, I never fully appreciated that my father had spent several weeks in a Nazi prisoner of war camp in the fall of 1941. That, for a fleeting moment in 1944, he considered joining the nationalist underground but then, for reasons even he couldn’t explain, decided to flee west. That he continually faced existential and moral choices with no easy answers. That he was persuaded by a friend that he was Ukrainian, and not Rusyn, while bicycling from a small town to their village—a distance of some 7 kilometers that can probably be traversed in 15 minutes. I know I’ve acquired a better understanding of myself. And I know I’ve acquired a better understanding of Ukrainian history and, dare I say it, of life.
Take my mother’s home town of Peremyshlyany. Back in the interwar period, it had a population of about 5,000, with Poles and Jews comprising about 90% and Ukrainians the rest. All three communities had a highly exclusionary sense of identity and they all lived side by side, didn’t like one another too much, but more or less got along. Since then, the town has been “erased,” to use Omer Bartov’s term, several times over. The pre-war Jews and their memories are gone. The pre-war Poles and their memories are gone. The pre-war Ukrainians and their memories are gone. And, now, the post-war Ukrainians, with their Sovietized memories, are also going—either to the West or, prematurely, to the graveyard.
The town generated many remarkable individuals. One is my uncle, Bohdan Hevko. He’d spent some five years in Polish prisons in the 1930s, underwent extensive beatings and torture, was arrested by the Soviets on June 22, 1941, and then killed during the “night of long knives,” on June 30, along with thousands of other western Ukrainian political prisoners. The locals found him at the bottom of a pit, his hands tied behind his back with his underpants and his tongue torn out.
Another is my mother’s best friend, Fania Lacher, a Jewish girl who survived the Holocaust by finding refuge in a Ukrainian Catholic monastery, converted to Catholicism, became a nun, Sister Maria, and turned into a leading figure in the underground church in Soviet times. The love of her life was a young Ukrainian nationalist, Volodymyr Zaplatynsky, who helped hide her and her parents from the Nazis and took his life during a firefight with the Soviets in 1944.
Still another is Father Omelian Kovch, the parish priest who persuaded the local Gymnazium to let my mother finish her studies tuition-free and who, for his efforts to save Jews, was arrested by the Nazis and killed in the Majdanek concentration camp. The street my mother lived on is named after Kovch, who was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2001.
And, finally, there was Adam Rothfeld, son of the head of Peremyshlyany’s Judenrat and future Polish minister of foreign affairs, who survived the Holocaust in a nearby Ukrainian Catholic monastery.
My mother’s short memoir has hardly resurrected these brave individuals from forgetfulness. But her memories give life to them in ways that more dispassionate studies cannot. Her memories remind us that these people were not just numbers, but human beings who lived exceedingly complex—that is to say, human—lives.
I am proud to have added two voices, by two average Ukrainians, to the written record of twentieth-century Ukrainian history.
We need thousands more such voices. Some living Ukrainians survived the Holodomor. Many of them left their testimonies: some have been published, many no doubt remain hidden in attics and basements. It is now the task of the descendants of Holodomor survivors to bring their parents or grandparents or great grandparents back to life. Many living Ukrainians experienced the horrors of World War II and of totalitarianism, whether of the Nazi or Communist variants. They too should be writing down everything they possibly can. The works need not be polished prose. Rough drafts will more than suffice to remind future generations of who they were and what they experienced. The all-important thing is to leave behind written, or even oral, accounts. There must be a record. There must be Ukrainian voices. If there are not, there can be no Ukrainian history.
I fully understand that national histories are considered passe in this day and age, but that particular academic fashion need not worry us. Whether the history of Ukraine is national, transnational, global, multiethnic, or something else, the fact is that the stories of Ukrainians form an important part of it—but, naturally, only if they exist on paper, whether real or virtual.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. I recently read the 1943 diary of one Samuel Golfard, a Polish Jew who fled Radom after the Nazis and Soviets divided Poland in September of 1939 and eventually wound up in Peremyshlyany, where he was killed. As you would expect, his is a passionate, angry, and altogether persuasive voice. Several other Jewish voices appear in the volume. As a result, we feel for the Jews, we sympathize with their predicament, and we empathize with them. Peremyshlyany also had Polish and Ukrainian communities, but their voices are barely audible. Instead, in discussing the Holocaust in Peremyshlyany, the editor of the volume provides us with a potted history of the town and its inhabitants and, wittingly or not, reduces both Poles and Ukrainians to bit players in a drama that countenances only three roles for Gentiles: those of perpetrator, victim, or bystander.
Naturally, some Poles and Ukrainians were perpetrators and some were victims. But the vast majority were not bystanders. They did not just stand by for three years and watch as the Holocaust unfolded. Indeed, they did not stand by at all: they ran, they hid, they hurried, they worked, they whispered, they cried. They lived—or tried to live as best they could—while the world around them was falling apart. The image of bystander is thus completely inaccurate. Poles and Ukrainians actually had lives, just as Samuel Golfard had a life. But you’d never know it, precisely because their voices are absent from the picture. If the Poles and Ukrainians could talk, we would learn just what they did or did not do during those terrible years. Instead, the editor treats them as “others” without a voice and with preconceived roles to play.
It is imperative, therefore, that Ukrainians be brought back into history—and especially their own history. Of course, Poles, Russians, Jews, Hungarians, Germans, Rusyns, and many others must have voices in the history of Ukraine. But those voices—especially if suffused with questionable assumptions about the humanity of Ukrainians—should not drown out the barely audible and all too few voices of Ukrainians.
All too often in the past, Ukrainians have been reduced to extras in the already existing scripts developed by their neighbors. As we struggle to produce histories of Ukraine that incorporate all the people who inhabited that land, we should not forget that Ukrainians also inhabited Ukraine and that they were not just the bad guys and heavies.
We can contribute to the humanization of Ukrainians and, thus, of Ukrainian history by remembering that the Holodomor was not an abstraction that affected some imagined category called a nation or a peasantry. Millions of human beings were exterminated. And the people who puffed up, grew listless, and died of hunger, the people who behaved as scavengers, as good Samaritans, as ruthless cowards, and as cannibals did so, not because they were savages, but because they were forced into circumstances that deprived them of their humanity.
We should not compound that injustice by denying the victims and survivors of the Holodomor a voice. We should, instead, insist that they have a voice and that that voice matter to all honest historians.
Only when what Wira Wowk called the “lament of millions of innocents” is heard will those millions finally be free. Only then will their “distended bodies,” as Fanon put it, assume human form again.
Thank you for your attention.