Holodomor: Tragedy, Politics, and Memory

Let’s just get this one thing out in the open right away:

I hate the way both the Ukrainians and Russians have politicized Holodomor. On one hand, in Kiev, I walk past tacky posters proclaiming that “We are remembering/ The world is learning.” There’s even a little design on them – which looks suspiciously like fireworks (someone in some PR department has seriously messed up, in my opinion). It’s not that I think this horrendous, evil thing should not have its place in our collective memory – or that it shouldn’t be discussed and analyzed and performed (my cousin was in a really moving play about Holodomor last summer, for example) and written on – but I do believe that taking the cannibalized bodies of the millions of dead and cannibalizing them all over again in the name of political gain is something you will eventually answer for when you meet your Maker. Is this sort of cannibalization happening in Ukraine today? Yes, it is. I see it, I hear it, I am revolted by it.

On the other hand, we even have little old ladies, those who have been alive long enough to remember the brutality of the Stalin era, sagely opining on how “Ukrainians are being self-important and disrespectful” just because they wish to remember their dead, or how, honestly, Ukrainian lives don’t really matter in all this at all, considering that if the peasants had only laid down for daddy Stalin, they wouldn’t have “deserved” such punishment (I’m not kidding or exaggerating right now – the whitewashing of the Stalin era continues to this day).

I’m not going to say that the truth is in the middle. There is no truth. The only truth are millions of dead bodies, stacked on high from Ukraine, to Kuban, to Kazakhstan.

An authoritarian Russian government cannot simply look back at the Stalin period in particular and declare it to be terrible. That would go against the very nature of authoritarianism. This is why we have the present charade going on in regards to the Holodomor – it’s all “how DARE those uppity Ukrainians! What about the people starving along the Volga?” What about them, indeed? Those people were victims as well. Are Russians encouraged to remember them? Is the world?

Was the Holodomor a genocide? It was, if you expand the definition of what genocide means. Although Ukraine was targeted specifically due to Stalin’s desire to crush and destroy the merest thought of independence, it was a specific class – the peasants – who bore the brunt of the famine.

The peasants resisted unfair collectivization and paid for it dearly, with their lives and the lives of their children.

However, the ethnic element of Holodomor must also include tales of how many of the perpetrators – the ones who literally took the food out of the mouths of Ukrainian peasants – were ethnic Ukrainians sitting pretty in the lap of the regime. It seems perfectly logical. You don’t put a population as large as the Ukrainian population on its knees without many collaborators. So for all of the cries of “it was the Russians” (not stated officially but heard often nonetheless), I have to say that there was nothing so simple and clear-cut about the Stalin years. I mean, Stalin himself was Georgian. You don’t hear cries of “it was the Georgians” – not until it suddenly becomes politically expedient, anyway.

The Russian government, in its snide dismissals of the Holodomor legacy, cannot deny the very simple fact that it does not want to remember the Russians who died in the famines as well. Their bodies are only trotted out as a human flesh for the rhetorical cannons aimed against Ukraine.

Despite my dislike of Yuschenko – often so kindly described in the Western press as a “pro-Western” politician, when he is in fact a pro-Yuschenko politician – I have to admit that for all of his bluster, he has stopped short of the kinds of excesses that Russian public personae have committed when speaking about Ukraine. When Medvedev speaks of a “so-called Holodomor,” you can feel the hatred, that which journalist Dmitriy Gordon (himself a controversial figure) has described as “Russian superpower chauvinism,” rising up like bile.

I hate Russian superpower chauvinism, for social and personal reasons, not the least of which have to do with having a Russian mother and a father who declares himself Ukrainian (his own father’s Russian ethnicity having no importance to him in the matter).

The saddest thing in all of this – besides the millions of emaciated dead bodies, besides children being chased by raving cannibals – is the fact that Russia and Ukraine are still neighbours, they still have a shared history, they still have a future that’s going to see us closely entwined. And that future looks ugly, ugly enough so that children like me are being forced to choose sides, as if being forced to choose between two squabbling, divorced parents, whom they will never stop loving, no matter what.

7 thoughts on “Holodomor: Tragedy, Politics, and Memory

  1. Dear N,

    Your text sounds like pure agony and I wish I had a better comment to make. I understand the complexity of the facts you described.

    My answer to you, adapting some of your own words from the last paragraph “Russia and Ukraine are neighbors, they have a shared history, they have a future that’s closely entwined. That future doesn’t have to look ugly. Children like you should not be forced to choose sides. You can not choose one of your parents if you were made by two. You have the obligation to understand both of them, you represent both sides, you are the young generation, your have better tools to make this judgment, you have reason on your side and you can avoid repeating the old generation’s mistakes. When your parents divorce you must learn to love them both even if you are separated from one of them. We have to love them both even if they hate themselves”.

    There is a learning in this situation which is to understand the contradictions inherent to this history. The Soviet were an Empire, just like the other Empires we had in these world, they have enslaved people, oppressed, divided families, exploited and betrayed. They have also promoted a lot of changes, some very good sometimes.

    In Africa, the Americas and Asia, lust like in Ukraine, people struggle to find their identity out of the Empires sometimes by repeating old mistakes. Don’t you think you are alone because you are not.

    It is not only the people in Congo, Vietnam, Cambodja, Bangladesh, Haiti or Burma who are suffering. We, all former colonies of old Europe’s Empire are paying the same price. All Empire are cruel Empires, even if some of them try to convince the world they are not so bad as Stalin. How can they exclude themselves from judgment of history? Because they are the ones telling the history? History sometimes lies and sometime history hurts, but don’t let it hurt your family.

    Don’t make any extreme choices, choices that you don’t want to make, it is time to unite, to collect the pieces, the different pieces, and start the construction of a new nation with them. Learn to respect and love the difference is the most important thing right now. I would say…. Ukraine is NOT of Ukrainians only.

    Happy days,


  2. What really makes me feel sad is that the Pro Yushenko movement or orange movement promised the people that they’re gonna change the whole political structure in Ukraine, get rid of corruption, establish true democracy and the rule of law, put the bandits in jail!! people followed them in a fake hope for a better future. none of that happened ofcourse, the economy is still suffering, corruption is everywhere, the whole country is run by bandits and an enormous shadow economy lies beneath the rotten body of the government and its institutions, the political eliete are in an an ideological war against Russia which they can’t win neither economically nor morally.
    they think if they condemn Russia and join the NATO they’re gonna be offered a place in the EU , Europe doesn’t want a country sinking economically, a country where the law of thieves govern the country, i wish the Ukrainians would revolt again but a real revolution not one financed by the west or by the oligarchs a true revolution against both the corrupt pro western oligarchs and putin’s KGB officers too.
    We have a very famous poem in arabic that says “if the dead nations decides to rise from their graves destiny must and will respond to their will”
    its funny that both arabs and ukrainians still refuse to change their destiny…………….

  3. Thanks for the comments guys. I feel particularly stuck because people like me are not trusted – I’m not Ukrainian enough for many Ukrainians, and not Russian enough for many Russians. So talking about all of this remains problematic, personally.

    And yes, Yuschenko was a failure. In fact, standards of living have dropped for many people since he came to power.

  4. WOW Another great post that sums up exactly how I and others feel about this issue and its palatalisation. Please write more often if you can.

  5. WOW Another great post that sums up exactly how I and others feel about this issue and its politicisation. I fully agree with you assessment of Yushchenko. he has been a complete failure. The sooner he is ousted form office the better off Ukraine will be. Ukraine really needs to abandon the soviet style presidential system and adopt a European Parliamentary system of governance But that is another issue.

    Please write more often if you can.

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