This Was Not the Holocaust

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As the mid-point of the twentieth century approached, a totalitarian regime murdered several million people in an act of horrific genocide, causing heartache and misery for years to come. This was not the Holocaust, but rather, the Holodomor.

The Holodomor, which means “death-by-hunger” or “hunger-extermination,”[i] was a man-made famine in Ukraine from 1932-1933 that resulted from USSR absolute collectivization. In short, the Ukrainian kolkhozes (collective farms) were forced to fulfil quotas to be sent to Soviet Russia, and would only be permitted to distribute their own food amongst their own people after this task was completed. Even in the Ukraine, the “breadbasket of Europe”, the quotas were cruelly unrealistic, leaving little to no food left for the Ukrainian people. The lowest estimation of the death toll is 2 million people, the highest 4.8 million[ii].

Statistically, the Holodomor should be considered as shameful a moment for humanity as the Holocaust. But was the suffering comparable? Many thousands of people can be obliterated quickly and relatively painlessly, as nuclear weapons demonstrate, but prolonged agony is somewhat worse. Given the choice between a gunshot to the head or being burned alive, the former seems hugely preferable. On close inspection, the Holodomor is revealed as host to a multitude of harrowing stories.

One survivor, Olena Goncharuk, recalls a terrifying experience of cannibalism that she endured as a child,

“We were afraid to go out in the village, because people were starving and they hunted children. My neighbour had a daughter, who disappeared. We went to her house. The head was separated from the body, and the body was cooking in the oven.”[iii]

It is one thing to do unspeakable things to another people, but to cultivate such torment in one’s victims so that they are willing to inflict similar torture on others in order to survive is unforgivable malice wholly deserving of the label “evil”. The Holodomor reaches the same peaks of cruelty as the Holocaust, and has bred real hatred in Ukraine for their Russian neighbours, which burns today with the same intensity as in the 1930s.

At this point, it is important to focus on my use of the word “genocide”, as there is no consensus that this word is appropriate in application to the throes of Ukraine. The UN definition of “genocide” is as follows:

“acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”[iv]

 These acts include atrocities such as “killing members of the group” and “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group”. So the question appears: did the USSR intend to eliminate, “in whole or in part”, the Ukrainian people? Or were they simply utilising Ukraine’s resources and labourers with indifference to human life outside of their own needs? (This is not to suggest that the latter is in anyway less terrible).

Yevhen Zakharov in his comprehensive report on the Holodomor[v] argues that the third stage of the Holodomor, which began in 1933, should be viewed as a “crime against humanity and as the crime of genocide”. In this period, the “already excessive” quota was increased and the Ukrainian people were “prohibited from leaving in search of food or from receiving it from elsewhere”. This ensured that the famine occur, and should thus be considered an act of genocide. Stalin’s USSR was not only hording food from the Ukraine, effectively under slave-labour, but was defiant in its wish that the Ukraine should not receive food from anywhere else. Starvation was not a hideous by-product; it was inherent in USSR policy.

Why should this be considered one of the significant events of the 20th century? Firstly, I should hope that the sheer horror of 1932-1933 is itself sufficient to grant it importance. But if one needs further reason, it is worth noting that many of the tensions between the Ukraine and Russia (as is the case with many of the ex-USSR states in the Eastern Bloc) are of direct consequence of the USSR, particularly the influence of Stalin. And also Russia’s apparent reluctance to admit that the Holodomor occurred, or claim any kind of historical responsibility[vi] has created a Ukrainian society desperately searching for closure and one day even reconciliation. In credit to Germany, they have taken historical responsibility for the atrocities of the Nazi regime and made admirable attempts to expose those crimes, educate future generations, apologise and prevent any similar event from happening again. This has not happened in the case of the Holodomor. This was not the Holocaust.