A famine deliberately engineered by the regime of Josef Stalin 70 years ago claimed millions of lives, mostly in Ukraine but also in some other parts of the Soviet Union. It is today considered one of the worst atrocities of the Soviet regime and a terrifying act of genocide. Even so, the famine of 1933 is relatively unknown. RFE/RL correspondent Askold Krushelnycky examines the reasons behind this and reports on a campaign to draw attention to the atrocity.
Prague, 8 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Estimates of how many people died in Stalin's engineered famine of 1933 vary. But they are staggering in their scale -- between seven and 11 million people.
But despite the horrific number of people who died, the world is relatively unfamiliar with this grisly chapter in Soviet history which claimed lives on the same scale as the holocaust. One of the main reasons is that the Germans were eventually defeated, and thousands of eyewitnesses told their stories about concentration camps and massacres. The experience was also captured unforgettably in photographs, film, and written accounts, and many of those responsible for the genocide were captured and put on trial.
Lyubomyr Luciuk is the director of research at the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association. He explained why there was no such opportunity to investigate the famine in the Soviet Union.
"The Nazis were so completely and utterly defeated and had no apologists other than a few nuts after the second world war. The Soviet Union, in contrast, imploded," Luciuk said. "There was no military conquest. Ideologically, perhaps, it was defeated. But in a sense, the regime of yesteryear -- many of its functionaries, administrators, and bureaucrats -- simply changed their shirts and became nationalists or patriots overnight. The archival record is still not entirely available. There has been no Nuremberg trial, if you like, to bring the many thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people who served the Soviet regime to justice."
British historian Robert Conquest is an expert on the period and his 1986 study of the famine, "Harvest of Sorrow," brought much information about the tragedy to Western audiences for the first time. Conquest said another contrast between the famine and the holocaust is that while Adolf Hitler had written down much of what he intended to do, Stalin did not go on record about the famine.
"In the first place, [the Germans] were caught, so it ended and they had themselves got into an operation where they said what they were doing. Stalin never said he was trying to starve anyone to death. He just took away their food. He never went on record. It was all done under the auspices of humanist talk, socialist talk -- or else denied altogether. The operations were different. And in other ways they were different, too. Hitler did many horrible things but he didn't torture his friends to tell lies. The operation was a different one."
Conquest said that while most historians now accept that a devastating famine took place, some skeptics remain that try to find a justification for Stalin's behavior.
"I don't think everybody still accepts [the famine]. I've seen recent interviews saying it was a famine and also I've read the other day something saying that people were arrested and shot and so forth under the August decree in 1932 because, after all, they were stealing," Conquest said. "I said, 'Yes, they were stealing their own stuff which had been taken from them by the state.' They hadn't thought of that. You see this is still being written now occasionally."
But Conquest said more evidence has emerged since the disintegration of the USSR allowed greater access to Soviet archives. He says he himself has uncovered documented evidence that shows Stalin knew that hundreds of thousands of peasants were trying to enter Russia in search of food.
"The expulsion of Ukrainian and Kuban peasants from Russia -- as soon as they tried getting into Russia they were sent back -- which I only got from about eight or 10 private reports, that is actually confirmed by a decree Stalin signed that this should be done and a report was put in by [Genrikh] Yagoda, head of the secret police, saying it has been done to 'several hundred thousand stupid peasants.' See, that confirmation within secret sources was complete."
Conquest is in no doubt that the famine was primarily aimed at Ukrainians and that Stalin hated not only the country peasants but even senior Communist leaders, like Mykola Skrypnyk, who eventually killed himself.
"[Stalin] was trying to break the Ukrainians, as you know, with the leading Ukrainian Bolshevik Skrypnyk committing suicide under the pressures that were put on them when they tried to defend just the ordinary alphabet of the Ukrainians. Here [Stalin] was trying to alter it, things like that. I think he also proved he never trusted Ukrainian Communists. The whole Ukrainian Central Committee was totally purged in 1937, even the ones who supported him. He had this terrific distrust of everybody, but particularly of Ukraine."
Luciuk of the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Association has a different theory for why news of the famine never reached the West. He blamed a number of Western journalists based in Moscow at the time who knew of the forced starvation but chose not to write about it or deliberately covered it up.
The journalist he says played the most influential role in the cover-up was "The New York Times" correspondent Walter Duranty. A drug addict with a shady reputation, Duranty was also an avid fan of Stalin's, whom he described as "the world's greatest living statesman." He was granted the first American interview with the Soviet leader and received privileged information from the secretive regime.
Duranty confided to a British diplomat at the time that he thought 10 million people had perished in the famine. But when other journalists who had traveled to Ukraine began writing about the horrific famine raging there, Duranty branded their information as anti-Soviet lies. Conquest believes that Duranty was being blackmailed by the Soviet secret police over his sexual activities, which reportedly included bisexuality and necrophilia.
The year before the famine, in 1932, Duranty won the Pulitzer Prize, America's most coveted journalism award, for a series of articles on the Soviet economy. Liciuk says members of the Ukrainian diaspora, as well as Ukrainian politicians and academics, earlier this month launched a campaign to have Duranty's award posthumously revoked. He said he hopes the campaign will make more people in the world aware of the famine.
"So this was a horrific genocidal catastrophe that befell Ukraine, the people of Ukraine, and commemorating it this year on the 70th anniversary -- and doing so by trying to have the Pulitzer Prize committee do the right thing and revoke Duranty's prize posthumously -- is why we've engaged in this campaign."
A spokesman for the Pulitzer board, Sid Gissler, said the board has considered withdrawing Duranty's prize on previous occasions but had decided against doing so because it had not been awarded for articles related to the famine. He said he sympathized with the Ukrainian campaign, and added the board would reconsider the question again later this year.
"I understand their concern, but as I said, the award goes for a discrete set of stories and it's not designed to say anything about a person, the body of a person's work, or their lifetime -- it's not a lifetime achievement award."
Duranty died in 1957 an impoverished drunk. Luciuk said that when details about the famine finally came into the open, Duranty was credited with coining the famously callous phrase, "You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs."
Luciuk said he hopes Ukraine, meanwhile, will do more to educate its own population about the famine. Since gaining independence, successive Ukrainian governments have done little to publicize the episode for fear of instigating a controversy with the country's still-powerful Communist Party, which continues to deny the famine was deliberately organized. Moreover, many of those who took part in the executions, deportations, and confiscation of food are still alive and receiving state pensions.
In February, the Ukrainian parliament conducted a special hearing about the famine. The deputy prime minister for humanitarian issues, Dmytro Tabachnuk, said the famine was a deliberate terrorist act that claimed the lives of up to 10 million people. He said the government is planning to build a National Famine Memorial Complex.