Why Study the Holodomor

The Ukrainian Genocidal Famine

[From Holodomor in Ukraine, The Genocidal  Famine 1932-33: Teaching Materials for Teachers and Students, by Valentina Kuryliw]

Through education to aid in preventing future genocides:

  • Genocide is one of the gravest crimes against humanity, as recognized in the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, ratified by 143 countries. Yet since its declaration in 1948, global bodies have failed to prevent a number of genocides. The prevention of genocides remains a challenge for a civilized global citizenry. Studying the processes by which genocides are implemented is important because it allows people to recognize the discriminatory and bullying behavioural patterns that may lead to genocide. The first step toward prevention is understanding the phenomenon so that the potential for genocide can be recognized and action can be taken to halt its occurrence.
  • An informed citizenry can put pressure on elected officials to act in the face of developing genocides. The genocides of the twentieth century were often met with ignorance and inaction by foreign governments that had little incentive to act. The principle of non-interference in the actions of a sovereign state is still a powerful factor that prevents outside countries from dealing with genocide. Countries that have not been taken to task for conducting genocide may also pose obstacles to other countries taking action to prevent genocides.
  • The Holodomor was planned and perpetrated by depriving nourishment from the very people who were its producers. It is a prime example of the use of “food as a weapon,” a practice that has since been repeated in other parts of the world.
  • To reduce prejudice and bullying by demonstrating the extremes to which prejudice can lead

 The study of genocide involves critical thinking, and may assist in how to understand:

  • How extreme beliefs or fundamentalist ideologies can foster and later unleash discriminatory and violent actions;
  • The incremental nature of prejudice, stereotyping, bullying and discrimination and how these can evolve into genocide;
  • How ordinary men and women can participate in ethnic violence;
  • How power relations impact decisions regarding discrimination and exploitation.
  • How it may lead to legislation to reduce prejudice and help to create a more humane and informed citizenry.

 To increase vigilance against encroachments on human rights:

  • History shows that a stepped-up “legally-enforced” erosion of human rights is often a precursor to genocide. Vigilant monitoring is required in the Western world to monitor both democratic and authoritarian governments and their actions with respect to human rights abuses and genocide. The study of the Holodomor and genocide in general helps students understand the importance of the protection of individual rights in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms; and that these rights are not the birthright of the few, but the birthright of all.
  • Genocides are often viewed in the context of “war crimes.” The Holodomor, however, was a genocide committed in a time of peace, in the 1930s. That said, it can be viewed within the context of a de facto war on independent farmers in Ukraine.
  • The Holodomor took place in Eastern Europe and can be viewed, as Yale history professor Timothy Snyder states in his book Bloodlands, as an example of the escalation of genocidal activities by an authoritarian regime, which was not confronted for its crimes against people under its authority.
  • To critically examine Canada’s response to crimes against humanity and their redress
  • Canada has played an important role in international peacekeeping and in establishing the International Criminal Court to address crimes against humanity. To further Canada’s international role in these areas, citizens must be prepared to study these questions in depth, to find solutions that prevent genocides and to ensure redress when crimes against humanity do occur.
  • Genocides perpetrated by Communist powers, for the most part, have yet to be dealt with and condemned by the world community. The Holodomor and other crimes of Communist regimes need to be addressed and examined.
  • The UN Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and its author
    The study of the Holodomor provides an opportunity to examine the origin of the term “genocide” and the views of Raphael Lemkin, the primary author of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. His story demonstrates the difficulties and the devotion required to bring about international justice. Familiar with the Armenian genocide and the situation in Soviet Ukraine prior to World War II, he pursued the question of how to prevent and redress such crimes through international law. Ultimately, he came up with the legal concept of genocide. Lemkin referred to the Soviet Ukrainian case as “a classic example of genocide.” Due to his perseverance, today we have legal means to redress this horrific crime.

 To critically review the role of media

  • The media treatment and cover-up of the Holodomor provides an excellent opportunity for teaching students about the use and abuse of media to sway world opinion in authoritarian as well as democratic societies.
  • To understand totalitarian Communist regimes.
  • The study of the Holodomor not only teaches us about the destruction of humanity that took place because of the authoritarian nature of the Soviet Union, but also provides an excellent opportunity to examine the functioning of a totalitarian society;
  • It is a horrific example of peace-time ‘social engineering’ gone wrong, wiping out millions of citizens not for what they had done, but for who they were.
  • The Soviet Union was a particularly ruthless and powerful regime with a history that spans most of the twentieth century, which lasted much longer than Nazi Germany, with dire consequences for millions of people.
  • Historians have tended to overlook the nationality policies of the Soviet Union and the subjugation of its minorities, too often treating the history of the Soviet Union and its nationalities as a homogeneous “Soviet people” or as Russians.
  • Hitler learned many lessons from Stalin. He saw that the West ignored the Ukrainian genocide in the 1930s and that Stalin was not punished for his crimes. Timothy Snyder (Bloodlands) writes that Stalin’s strategy was well thought out, even methodical, and was likely a template for the crimes of the Nazis. One question to consider is whether Hitler would have been so bold with his genocidal plans if the perpetrators of the Ukrainian genocide had been held accountable internationally in any way.

To understand Ukraine today:

Today, Ukraine is both a post-genocidal and post-colonial society that is still coming to terms with its history, including the devastation of its culture, the physical destruction of its people and the denial by some of its separate identity. The study of the Holodomor is crucial to understanding political processes in Ukraine and Eastern Europe today. As well as Russian aggression via a vis Ukraine.

To make connections to Canadian history

  • Canadian soldiers encountered thousands of refugees of Ukrainian background in Displaced Persons camps in Eastern Europe and in German concentration camps at the end of World War II. Many of these were also survivors of Soviet concentration camps and the Holodomor. These Ukrainians faced the peril of forced repatriation to the Soviet Union (with dire consequences) because of an agreement between the Western powers and Stalin regarding the return of displaced persons. Some of these survivors have given testimonies about how they survived the Holodomor during the 1930’s.
  • More than 1,250,000 Canadians are of Ukrainian ancestry, among them, survivors of the Holodomor, their children and grandchildren. Canadians of Ukrainian ancestry across the country expect that significant events in Ukraine’s history be included in the curriculum taught to their children and their friends.

To consider the consequences of denial and historical injustice

  • The Holodomor has been denied, ignored and covered up for eighty years. The Holodomor is still denied in some circles. The Holodomor raises the question of historical justice. Should the victims be acknowledged and the perpetrators brought to light?
  • In contrast to international criminal proceedings, historical justice may involve restitution, reparation, rehabilitation, truth commissions, official apologies, material or symbolic rectification. Studying the Holodomor provides an opportunity to examine appropriate responses to genocide.