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Case Study: The Great Ukrainian Famine
of 1932-33

by Nicolas Werth, April 2008

. . . Two fundamental issues need to be considered in defining the Ukrainian famine of 1932-33 as a genocide, along lines set by the December 1948 United Nations Convention: intention and the ethnic-national targeting of a group (Article II of the Convention recognizes only national, ethnic, racial, and religious groups, not social or political). In the case of Ukraine, sufficient evidence exists to demonstrate intention. A crucial document on this point is the resolution of January 22, 1933 signed by Stalin, ordering the blockade of Ukraine and the Kuban, a region of the Caucasus with a majority-Ukrainian population. The blockade intentionally worsened the famine in Ukrainian-populated areas and in these areas alone. On the question of target group, i.e. whether Stalin viewed the peasants of Ukraine and the Kuban as peasants or as Ukrainians, which is key to justifying use of the term genocide, scholars disagree. For some historians (Martin, Penner), the famine’s primary objective was to break peasant rather than national resistance. Others (Serbyn, Shapoval, Kulchytsky, Vasilev) argue that the peasants of Ukraine and the Kuban were targeted first as Ukrainians: For Stalin, the Ukrainian peasant question was “in essence, a national question, the peasants constituting the principal force of the national movement” (Stalin, 1954: 71). By crushing the peasantry, one was breaking the most powerful national movement capable of opposing the process of the construction of the USSR. As the famine decimated the Ukrainian peasantry, the regime condemned the entire policy of Ukrainization underway since the early 1920s: The Ukrainian elites were rounded up and arrested.

This specifically anti-Ukrainian assault makes it possible to define the totality of intentional political actions taken from late summer 1932 by the Stalinist regime against the Ukrainian peasantry as genocide. With hunger as its deadly arm, the regime sought to punish and terrorize the peasants, resulting in fatalities exceeding four million people in Ukraine and the northern Caucasus. That being said, the Holodomor was very different from the Holocaust. It did not seek to exterminate the Ukrainian nation in its entirety, and it did not involve the direct murder of its victims. The Holodomor was conceived and fashioned on the basis of political reasoning and not of ethnic or racial ideology. However, by the sheer number of its victims, the Holodomor, seen again in its historical context, is the only European event of the 20th century that can be compared to the two other genocides, the Armenian and the Holocaust.

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