Holodomor: It’s all about justice now

Almost 70 years after the commission of a crime and 13 years after independence declaration the question of the impunity for the famine was brought up again


Today, on Holodomor Memorial Day, we commemorate those who died of starvation during the great famine of the 1932-1933. This post describes the treacherous path to the recognition of this grave crime and concludes that Ukraine must demand justice in the name of the dead and the living, and the unborn.

The Events of the 1932-1933 Famine

The Holodomor, also known as “famine-genocide in Ukraine,” was a man-made famine in the Ukrainian SSR between 1932 and 1933. Millions of Ukrainians died of starvation in an unprecedented peacetime catastrophe; the estimates vary from 1.8 to 10 or even 12 million. According to one of them, Ukrainian population losses caused by Holodomor directly constitute 4.6 million people, but the demographic deficit caused by unborn or unrecorded births is estimated as high as 6 million.

Rafael Lemkin (the lawyer who invented the term “genocide”) viewed the Holodomor as a pattern of a broader range of Communist tactics aiming at “the destruction of the Ukrainian nation.” He described several typical and systematic prongs of the Soviet campaign attacking fresh outbursts of national spirit, including starvation aimed at the large mass of independent peasants who were repositories of national tradition and the “moving force” of the nationalist movement.

Starting from the fall of 1932 Stalin had been sending special commissions to force the Soviet Ukrainian authorities to accept higher delivery quotas of grain procurement (which were unrealistic), and to supervise forced requisitions from starving farmers. Villages that could not fulfill the procurement quotas were placed on “black boards”. All of the stored goods and seeds of the community members were seized; trade and procurement of any goods was forbidden. In total, collective farms in 82 regions of Ukraine were placed on the “boards.” In practice, a village placed on a “black board” saw its peasants starve to death.

Recognition of the crime. The Soviet era

The issue of accountability for the Holodomor remained taboo for the Communist Party. The first instance when the great famine was mentioned along with the other crimes of Soviet Regime was the release of Khrushchev’s 1956 report on Stalin’s crimes. However, not only the organizers of the Holodomor were not held accountable, the fact of the crime was ignored as such.

On February 14, 1988, the International Commission of Inquiry into the 1932-1933 Famine in Ukraine was formed under the initiative of the World Congress of Free Ukrainians, an independent NGO founded by reputable jurists and legal scholars. The Commission of Inquiry found that the responsibility for the famine lies with the authorities of the Soviet Union. However, this finding failed to aggravate any reaction on the part of the Soviet Union and for decades the famine was concealed. Once the civil attempted to raise the question of impunity for the crime, authorities depicted it as natural disaster and a result of poor harvest.

The breakthrough

Almost 70 years after the commission of a crime and 13 years after independence declaration the question of the impunity for the famine was brought up again. This might be explained by Ukrainian shift to pro-European position in 2004 as well as by the bias in position of the Council of Europe regarding totalitarian communist regimes from recommendations to dismantle their heritage in 1996, to condemnation of their crimes in Resolution 1481 in 2006.

On November 28, 2006, the Law “On the Holodomor in Ukraine of 1932-1933” recognized that the famine was an act of genocide. Two years later in response to the request from the World Congress of Ukrainians, the National Commission for Strengthening Democracy and the Rule of Law approved a Resolution that Holodomor was an act of genocide against Ukrainian people under the definition embodied in the 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The Conclusion states the principal aim is “in assuring the irrevocability of punishment.”

In 2009 Central Investigation Department of Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) launched a criminal case on the Holodomor in Ukraine in order to legally establish the crime and prosecute those who organized the Famine-Genocide. In its investigation, SBU pursued criminal charges based on the law passed by Parliament in November 2006 that recognized the Holodomor as genocide against the Ukrainian people, as well as Article 442 of Ukraine Criminal Code, which outlaws acts of genocide. On January 12, 2010 Kyiv Court of Appeals upheld the conclusions of SBU investigators on the accountability of the leaders of Bolshevik totalitarianism, namely Stalin, Molotov, Kaganovich, Postyshev, Kosior, Chubar and Khatayevych, for the organization and commission of genocide against Ukrainian national group, i.e. creation of artificial life conditions facilitating partial physical destruction of the group. The Court dismissed the case pursuant to the death of accused.

In 2008, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that recognized the Holodomor as a crime against humanity. Two years later PACE adopted a resolution declaring that the famine was caused by the “cruel and deliberate actions and policies of the Soviet regime”, but rejected the amendments recognizing that the Holodomor was as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people. Despite that, there are 24 states that have already condemned the great famine and recognized it as genocide against Ukrainian people. Moreover, there is a growing number of scholars concluding that famine falls under genocide definition under the UN Genocide Convention.

In lieu of conclusion

Modern Russia adores demanding “the historical justice”: Putin loved insisting “Khrushchev’s transfer of Crimea to Ukraine was unconstitutional” and he played this card so many times. The more media repeat this argument, the stronger is the desire to remind Mr.Putin and his passionate supporters of the real historical injustice: Russia as a successor state to USSR remains liable and should be held responsible for the act of genocide orchestrated from Kremlin walls. Russian leaders are evidently scared of any progress towards recognition the famine in Ukraine as an act of genocide. In 2008 WikiLeaks published the following piece:

“[Prince Andrew of the British crown] told the Ambassador [the US Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Tatiana Gfoeller ] that he […] had noticed a marked increase in Russian pressure and concomitant anxiety among the locals post-August events in Georgia. He stated the following story related to him recently by Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev. Aliyev had received a letter from President Medvedev telling him that if Azerbaijan supported the designation of the Bolshevik artificial famine in Ukraine as “genocide” at the United Nations, “then you can forget about seeing Nagorno-Karabakh ever again.” Prince Andrew added that every single other regional President had told him of receiving similar “directive” letters from Medvedev except for Bakiyev.”

It is crucial that this fear is not completely illusory. The ancestors of Polish officers detained in Soviet camps has already raised the question of Russia’s responsibility in relation to crimes committed by Soviet authorities. In 2011 European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) declared admissible two complaints against Russia filed by relatives of the Katyn massacre victims. In 2012 the Court described the Katyn massacre as a “war crime” and stated that “(the applicants) suffered a double trauma: losing their relatives in the war and not being allowed to learn the truth about their death for more than 50 years.” In 2013 the Grand Chamber delivered its final decision in the case of Janowiec and Others v. Russia. The Court ruled that it had no temporal jurisdiction to examine the adequacy of an investigation into the mass murders since they were launched before the adoption of the European Convention on Human Rights in 1950. Nevertheless, the Court unanimously decided that Russia had failed to comply with its obligations to furnish necessary facilities for examination of the case (Russian government failed to produce a copy of the decision of 21 September 2004 by which the investigation into the Katyn massacre had been discontinued). Although this case has not become decisive victory, the applicants had the strength to demand what they deemed fair.

The case of the famine of 32-33 in Ukraine is different and the difference is crucial. If Ukraine can manage to prove that these events were an act of genocide, it becomes possible to apply the 1948 Genocide Convention retroactively. Since genocide is a jus cogens crime, state responsibility for genocide is not subject to the statute of limitations. Today Ukrainians have an impressive collection of documents, archives and research shedding the light on the causes and circumstances of the famine at their disposal. Both, the 1980s International Commission of Inquiry and 2010 SBU investigations found and collected the unique documents, namely records of forensic expertise, archival books, registration of deaths, annual reports and business correspondence. Investigation materials contain more than 3.5 thousands of documents in 253 volumes. The Commission heard testimony from 57 eyewitnesses to the Famine of 1932-1933 and transcribed a supplement of over 200, in-depth interviews with eyewitnesses. What Ukrainians lack is confidence and strive to justice.

Right now Ukrainian community is loosing its best people in a war for the very same reason as 82 years ago: people made a stand and proved that they are unique independent nation. If there’s a time to be outspoken and demand justice, this is THE time.


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