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The Great Famine Debate Goes On…
by David Marples
Edmonton Journal, 30 November 2005
David Marples, a professor of history at the University of Alberta, was
recently awarded a Killam Annual Professorship for 2005-06.
Two contrasting comments caught the eye this week.
On November 28, Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko called for the international
community to recognize the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine as an "act of
genocide" against the Ukrainian people.
In an on-line review of a new book by R.W. Davies and Stephen G. Wheatcroft,
called The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture, 1931-1933, Mark B. Tauger,
associate professor of history at the University of West Virginia, writes
that the perspective of the famine as genocide: "is wrong. The famineS¹was
not limited to Ukraine or even to the rural areas of the USSR…and
it was far from the intention of Stalin and others in the Soviet leadership
to create such a disaster."
Neither Davies nor Wheatcroft, both senior British economic historians
(Davies is now retired; Wheatcroft teaches in Melbourne, Australia), believe
that the Ukraine Famine was genocide.
In July, at the International Congress of Central and East European Studies
in Berlin, Wheatcroft elaborated his views at a panel chaired by Michael
Ellman. Ellman had also found other factors to explain the Famine in an
article in the reputable British journal Europe-Asia Studies in September
2005. When Professor Roman Serbyn of the Universite de Montreal raised
a question about the Ukrainian perspective, he was pointedly ignored by
In an article in the on-line Ukrainian newspaper Den', the contrasting
views are discussed by Stanislav Kulchytsky, deputy director of the Institute
of History at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in Kyiv, and one of the
leading authorities on the Famine. Kulchytsky cites University of Toronto's
Lynne Viola as another leading historian who does not ascribe to the view
of the Famine as genocide.
All these scholars have worked extensively in Russian and/or Ukrainian
archives so their claims cannot be dismissed lightly. Their views clash
with those of the various world governments that have already recognized
the Famine as genocide, including a motion accepted in the Canadian Senate
two years ago and another by the US House of Representatives.
Thus the debate continues despite the testimony of thousands of eyewitnesses
as to what they experienced 72 years ago, and in spite of factors such
as the closure of borders, and V.M. Molotov's decree stipulating that
if no grain remained in the Ukrainian villages, then his "enforcers"
must confiscate vegetables, beets, potatoes and anything else they found
The biggest puzzle might be what is motivating this debate and what Tauger
calls "revisionism" on the Ukraine Famine. Almost a quarter
of a century has passed since Robert Conquest, a historian at the Hoover
Institution, was commissioned to write a book on the Famine, which appeared
in 1986 under the title Harvest of Sorrow. Much of the research was conducted
by his assistant James E. Mace, then a new Michigan PhD who was working
Mace's own career is instructive. For four years he headed the US Commission
on the Ukraine Famine, which produced a volume of analysis and three volumes
of testimonies, before concluding that the Famine must be considered an
act of genocide. According to Kulchytsky, because of his strong views,
Mace was barred from an academic career in the United States and obliged
to migrate to Ukraine, where he died prematurely in May 2004 at the age
of 52. Whatever the factors behind Mace's departure, his outlook proved
much more similar to academicians in Ukraine than to those of his compatriots.
With Mace's death, to my knowledge, there are no English-speaking historians
working exclusively on Ukrainian aspects of the Famine. Indeed the leading
authority, in terms of output, appears to be Tauger. And Tauger subscribes
to what he calls the "environmental school," i.e. that climatic
conditions resulted in famine, and the Stalin government took some steps
to alleviate it.
Those who perceive more sinister aims are faced with the continuing retort
that the 'environmentalists' have consulted the archives and base their
conclusions on painstaking research. That they could choose to ignore
the fact that a national republic lost a quarter of its population through
the deliberate confiscations of Soviet grain procurement commissions is
nothing short of extraordinary.
However, and it is a large "however," one has to make some reluctant
conclusions. First of all, Conquest's book, written before Soviet archives
opened, is inadequate. At the very least, some of the advanced research
in Ukraine should be translated into English; particularly that of historians
like Kulchytsky and Yuri Shapoval. [A new translation of Shapoval's work
has just been published in Canada. See item 1 above -DA]
Second, if this atrocity-and to call it anything other than a atrocity
is unconscionable-is to receive the attention it deserves, then it is
essential that Conquest's work be superseded by a thorough study based
on archives and villages of Ukraine; one that in contrast to the studies
by Tauger, Davies, Wheatcroft, Viola, and others, pays more attention
to the national republics of the former USSR and Stalin's obsession with
disloyalty among his non-Russian subjects.