Andrea Graziosi, 2005
“The Soviet 1931-33 Famines and the Ukrainian Holodomor:
Is A New Interpretation Possible, What Would Its Consequences Be?”
Then came the 1991 archival and historiographical revolution. It allowed the accumulation of new knowledge, and caused a leap in the quality of polemics which, but for few exceptions, grew into serious controversies. True scholarly spirit, and a firm moral commitment, born out of the awareness of the immensity of the tragedy they deal with, animate both fields in which it is possible to group today’s existing positions, at the price of some forcing and much schematism. One can thus contemplate these past few years, in which Conquest’s conclusions have been integrated, and in part surpassed, with a sense of satisfaction, and find in them some reason for optimism.
By means of yet more forcing, these two fields’ positions may be summed up this way (I am quoting from the letter a brilliant young Ukrainian scholar recently wrote me). On the one hand there are what we could call (A) people. They support the genocide thesis, and see in the famine an event artificially organized in order to: a) break the peasants and/or b) alter (destroy) the Ukrainian nation’s social fabric, which obstructed the transformation of the USSR into a despotic empire. On the other hand, we have (B) people who, though fully recognizing the criminal nature of Stalin’s policies, deem it necessary to study the famine as a “complex phenomenon”, in which many factors, from the geopolitical situation to the modernization effort, played a role side by side with Moscow’s intentions and decisions.
I believe that we have today most of the elements needed for a new, and more satisfactory, interpretive hypothesis, capable of taking into account both the general, and complex, Soviet picture, and the undeniable relevance of the national question. It can be put together using as building blocks the excellent works of Ukrainian, Russian, and Western scholars, thus breaking the wall still partially separating their efforts.
In the next pages I will try to sketch the outline of such interpretation, grounded in the research of outstanding scholars such as Danilov, D’Ann Penner and Kondrashin, Davies and Wheatcroft, Ivnitskii, Kul’chyts’kyi, Mace, Martin, Meslé and Vallin, Shapoval and Vasil’ev, and Oleg Khlevniuk, whose works on Stalin and his circle, though not focusing directly on the famine, allowed us to situate it in its proper political context.
My hope is not only to push forward the interpretation of the “Great famine” (a collective noun for the 1931-33 famines), but also to stimulate a debate that will contribute to the breaking of the even taller, and stronger wall that isolate its students from their colleagues studying the European XX century, a century that without those famines it is simply impossible to fully understand.
In order to formulate this new interpretation, we need first to define the object of our investigation. As it should be by now clear, we are in fact dealing with what it would be more correct to call, on a pan-Soviet level, the 1931-1933 famines, which had of course common causes and a common background, but included at least two very different and special phenomena: the Kazakhstan famine cum epidemics of 1931-33 and the Ukrainian-Kuban (the latter, though belonging to the Russian Republic’s province of Northern Caucasus, was mostly inhabited by Ukrainians) Holodomor of late 1932-early 1933.
Many past misunderstandings have been caused by the confusion between these two national tragedies and the general phenomenon which provided their framework. In a way, it is as if students of Nazism would confuse Nazi repression in general, with quite specific, and crucial, cases, like the extermination of Soviet prisoners of war, or that of Poles and Gypsies, not to mention the Holocaust, an exceptional phenomenon that cannot be simply explained as an aspect or element of Nazi killings at large, and yet certainly was also a part of them. Both Nazi repression in general, and such “specific” tragedies, existed, and both must be studied, as in fact they are, in and by themselves, as well as in their connections.
A very clear distinction between the general phenomenon and its republican or regional manifestations should therefore be introduced also in the Soviet case. However, most (A) supporters are in fact speaking of the Holodomor, while many of the (B) proponents think on a pan-Soviet scale. If we analytically distinguish what they are doing, we end up discovering that in many, albeit not all, ways, they are right in their respective domains.
The second step consists in yet another analytical distinction. We must separate the 1931-1932 “spontaneous” famines—they too were, of course, direct, if undesired, consequences of the 1928-29 choices—from the post September 1932 one, which took on such terrible features also because of human decision (events in Kazakhstan followed an altogether different pattern and I will therefore only make some passing references to them).
The third step we need to take is to gather and combine useful elements from both (A) and (B), and drop their unsatisfactory parts.
(A) people are right in drawing our attention to the national question. Anybody studying the Soviet Union should be acutely aware of its importance, as Lenin and Stalin were (after all, the former decided not to call the new state Russia, and the latter, who initially opposed such choice, never reversed it in later years). One should be as aware of the Ukrainian primacy in this field. As it has been noted, Ukraine played after 1917 the role that previously belonged to Poland. In late 1919 Lenin started the switch towards indigenization (korenizatsiia), up until then an extreme nationalists’ request, on the basis of the Ukrainian Bolsheviks’ defeat of 1919, and Stalin gave to korenizatsiia a new spin in late 1932 because of the Ukrainian crisis. But in Ukraine, at least up to 1933, the national question was the peasant question. This is what both Lenin and Stalin thought, and rightly so. (A) people seem instead to be wrong in thinking that the “famine” (meaning also the pan-Soviet one) was organized (“planned”) to solve the Ukrainian national, and/or peasant, problem.
(B) people give us a detailed and precious reconstruction of the causes and the wider context of the famine on pan-Soviet scale, with all its complexity, and are thus able to convincingly criticize (A) simplistic versions. However, they seem unable to fully understand, and make room for, the national factor, that is, to “descend” from the pan-soviet to the republican level. (B) people also do not seem always capable to see that Stalin, even when he did not initiate something willfully, was always very quick to take advantage of “spontaneous” events, giving them a completely new turn. The obvious parallel here is with Kirov’s murder, that most probably Stalin did not organize, but quite certainly “creatively” used.
One can thus use good (B) data for the development of the pan-Soviet crisis, stressing however that at this level too Stalin at a certain moment decided to use hunger to break the peasants’ opposition to collectivization. For a number of causes, such opposition had been stronger mostly in non-Russian areas, where events soon started to follow their own course. By reconstructing this course we can crack the secret surrounding the 1932-33 events since their inception, a secret which, as Raskol’nikov’s letter seems to suggest, was known to the Bolshevik elite.