The impression hits you immediately. An opening of an exhibition held to commemorate survivors and families of one of the darker atrocities of human experiments; and it features ample food and wine. The commemorative occasion, however, was in stark contrast to the mass starvation that led to the deaths of millions in the Soviet Union’s drive to collectivise farming in 1932.
Those survivors of Ukraine’s Holodomor, their photos featuring at the SpACE@Collins in Melbourne’s Collins Street, gaze at the audience with varying degrees of feeling, their craggy faces traced and filled by the wearing of age. These are the chronicles of tired flesh told.
The occasion, however, cannot be left to poignancy that is brought from sheer suffering and the cruelty of state policies. That would merely be a concession that the road to utopia on earth is strewn with corpses. This was a chance to be wearily political, and the Australian Federation of Ukrainian Organisations has been busy doing just that. Dr. Ulana Suprun, Ukraine’s acting minister for health, was on hand to open the photographic collection. Victorian state politician and President of the Legislative Council Bruce Atkinson was also present to lend a helping hand of agreement.
Both took little time to bring the cruel privations and deeds of the past into present focus: the culprit, the instigator, is Russia, pure and simple. (Here, a convenient continuum of brutality is insisted upon.) Suprun was keen to remind her audience that the Russians were not only behind the downing of Malaysian passenger flight MH17, but more than suggested they had intended it so. The predecessors of the Putin regime had merely employed other more dramatic methods of terror – that of famine – to make their case. Atkinson was similarly keen to keep matters simple and direct against a specific form of “terrorism”. At no point did either reflect on the dogma of Bolshevik collectivisation that gripped all practitioners of the brutal policy at the time. This is a time of nationalist response and revision.
Intent, as this occasion shows, is always imputed. It supplies certitude, and gets over any impediments. For decades, a campaign has wound its way through various corridors of activism and power: that of declaring the Holodomor an act of state sponsored genocide. To an extent, this is understandable, given the veiling of the disaster in various press outlets at the time, and the demonization of various scribes of verity such as Gareth Jones.
Historians have given the catastrophe much attention, and the field teems with interpretations on intention, knowledge or reckless indifference on the part of Joseph Stalin and his coterie. Robert Conquest holds one side of the argument: that “the famine of 1933 was deliberately carried out by terror”, a point demonstrated “by the figures on the millions of tons of available grain reserves”.
Michael Ellman combs through Stalin’s statements, detecting in the expression “a knock-out blow” as probative of intention to murder. Hiroaki Kuromiya in Europe-Asia Studies offers a different view that provides scant comfort to survivors. “Although Stalin intentionally let starving people die, it is unlikely that he intentionally caused the famine to kill millions of people.” Nothing quite gets close to sheer callousness.
Ukraine itself gave the starvation event its much anticipated genocidal recognition in law N 376-V on November 28, 2006. That same year, US President George W. Bush signed into law Public Law 109-340, authorising the Ukrainian government “to establish a memorial on Federal land in the District of Columbia to honour the victim of the Ukrainian famine-genocide of 1932-1933.”
In October this year, the United States Congress passed a bipartisan resolution solemnly remembering “the 85th anniversary of the Holodomor of 1932-1933” and recognising “the findings of the Commission of the Ukraine Famine as submitted to Congress on April 22, 1988, including that ‘Joseph Stalin and those around him committed genocide against the Ukrainians in 1932-1933’.”
These measures do raise a question: whether the term genocide has been all too readily pressed into usage, when intent to do so must be the only reasonable inference on the evidence. (This salient point was reiterated in the Radislav Krstić case of the International Tribunal of the Former Yugoslavia.) Legal concepts can be such finicky things.
The murderous actions of the commissars and the agricultural appropriations in Ukraine that led to mass starvation were ideological and political moves, and deemed as such. Behind famines, argues Amartya Sen, lies the unscrupulous politician. But even Raphael Lemkin, originator of the term genocide, would have to concede that the UN Genocide Convention was narrower than his own envisaging, despite pressing for the Ukrainian calamity to be so designated as a genocidal one. The acts of destruction, he had claimed more broadly in the American Journal of International Law, “are directed against groups, as such, and individuals are selected for destruction only because they belong to these groups.”
One of the hurdles built into the final, accepted draft of the UNGC was its marked avoidance of the killing of groups based on political and cultural reasons. Unsurprisingly, both the Soviet Union and the United States were particularly influential in making proof of genocide a rather tall order. Exterminating people for political or cultural reasons would have to fall into other categories of atrocity, and by then the very idea that “genocide” might be identified as state policy was cooled before the icy confrontations of the Cold War. The post-Cold War gave the word a renewed and bloody urgency.
Unfortunately, politics is an untidy business marked by vast grey spots of compromise, betrayal and collaboration. Peering into the Russian-Ukrainian past is an exercise doomed to find more similarities than differences, made subsequently absurd by such pointless exercises as identifying what Gogol’s true identity was. Poisonous parochialism has a tendency to afflict all sides, shredding common threads and creating false islands of difference.
Ukraine’s current political orientation has made good use of the Russian bugbear and its rapacity, an effort to isolate and distance a larger neighbour, but history is a cruel teacher. In the choking haze of victimhood, focus vanishes before a forced clarity, and here, a state politician in Australia, and a Ukrainian official, could both come to a happy understanding: that modern Russia was merely an extension of the Soviet Union, a state sponsor of terrorism, unjustifiably interested in the territory of its neighbours and an aggressor keen to relive history.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org