Russia Denies Stalin’s Killer Famine
Sputnik News, the slick Kremlin-owned multimedia site once dubbed “the BuzzFeed of propaganda,” usually offers a predictable mix of content with a pro-Moscow message: These days, it’s accounts of Russian heroics in Syria, concern-trolling reports on troubles in the United States and Europe, and opinion pieces denouncing the West’s hypocrisy on human rights. Full-throated apologetics for Josef Stalin are not part of the standard fare. But last week, Sputnik ran a feature that offered exactly that—along with what can be reasonably called genocide denial.
The title of the article, by one Ekaterina Blinova—who has no bio on the site, but describes herself on Twitter as an “independent political analyst”—speaks for itself: “Holodomor Hoax: The Anatomy of a Lie Invented by West’s Propaganda Machine.” The Holodomor, roughly translated as “murder by starvation,” is the Ukrainian term for what the late Robert Conquest called “the Terror-Famine”—the devastating, human-made hunger epidemic that killed as many as seven million Soviet peasants, most of them Ukrainians, in 1932-33.
The famine has been the subject of much political controversy as well as scholarly debate. For supporters of Ukrainian independence from Russia, the Holodomor has long been a symbol both of brutal oppression and of national identity. After the 2004 “Orange Revolution,” Ukraine’s pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko made Holodomor commemoration a national issue, particularly for its 75th anniversary in 2008. The Ukrainian parliament voted to declared the famine a genocide; Ukraine also sought such recognition on an international level. A European Parliament resolution passed in October 2008 stopped short of using the term “genocide” but condemned the famine as “an appalling crime against the Ukrainian people, and against humanity,” deliberately and “cruelly planned by Stalin’s regime” to crush peasant resistance.
Russia’s reaction was hostile and defensive. Ukraine’s Holodomor commemoration was decried as “Russophobic,” even though Yushchenko explicitly laid the crime at the doorstep of “the imperial, communist Soviet regime” rather than blame “any one people.” Then-president Dmitry Medvedev peevishly declined an invitation to attend a Holodomor remembrance event in Kiev in November 2008, accusing the Ukrainian leadership of distorting the tragedy “to achieve its political ends”; later that year, Ukraine’s moves to introduce a United Nations resolution recognizing the Holodomor as a genocide were thwarted by Russia.
Yet by and large, neither the Russian government nor the pro-Kremlin media at the time questioned the Stalin regime’s responsibility for the famine; they simply argued that the policies which led to mass starvation were not specifically directed at Ukrainians but at the peasant class regardless of ethnicity. The favored Russian view was reflected in the work of Penza State University historian Viktor Kondrashin, whose 2008 book, The Famine of 1932-1933: The Tragedy of the Russian Village, argued that common estimates of the famine’s toll lowballed the numbers for the Russian countryside in the Volga regions. At the height of the Holodomor controversy that fall, Izvestia ran an interview with Kondrashin under the headline, “Russia wasn’t killing Ukraine. A leader was killing his people.”
Kondrashin was harshly critical of Ukraine’s leadership for portraying the Holodomor as a crime against Ukrainians and supposedly diminishing the suffering of Russians (and other ethnic groups). But he was also unequivocal that the “Great Famine” was a form of state terror—an artificial calamity brought about by the collectivization of agriculture, violent reprisals against resisters, and measures sealing off famine-stricken regions to stop starving people from fleeing in search of food. The Izvestia feature included bloodcurdling excerpts from Kondrashin’s interviews with survivors, as well as archival documents: novelist Mikhail Sholokhov’s April 1933 letter to Stalin describing the atrocities he had seen commissars inflict on villages suspected of hoarding crops, and several letters from the paper’s own archives for the 1930s in which either foolish or brave Soviet citizens demanded to know why there was no coverage of the hunger.
By contrast, the Sputnik News piece—illustrated with a photo of a benignly smiling Uncle Joe—is a throwback to Soviet-era propaganda which denied the terror-famine altogether. Indeed, it opens with a passage that could have time-warped from the editorial offices of Pravda circa 1980:
Since the October Revolution of 1917 in Russia, Western media has made every effort to downplay the achievements of the Soviets, creating a picture of complete horror and despair which had allegedly engulfed the USSR.
The bold historical experiment kicked off by Communists and based on the concept of a “fair distribution of national wealth,” egalitarianism and internationalism, made the blood of Western plutocrats run cold. ... If the new system proved effective it would have changed the world forever. Needless to say, it did not comply with the plans of the Western financial and political elite.
Rather confusingly, Blinova spends the first half of the article “proving” that the famine was an anti-Soviet fiction concocted by Western propagandists, Nazis, and pro-Nazi Ukrainian exiles—only to turn around and explain that the famine was due to bad weather and a poor harvest. (It’s what Freud called “kettle logic”: a man accused by his neighbor of returning a borrowed kettle in a damaged condition replies that he returned it undamaged, that it was already broken when he borrowed it, and that he never borrowed it anyway.)
The main source for Blinova’s “hoax” claim is a 1987 book titled Fraud, Famine and Fascism: The Ukrainian Genocide Myth from Hitler to Harvard (PDF), which has a rather colorful history. Ukrainian-born Canadian historian Roman Serbyn reports (PDF), citing Soviet archive materials, that the book’s first draft was circulated among Soviet Ukrainian Party apparatchiks and academics in 1985 as “counter-propagandistic material” prepared by “Canadian communists” as a rebuttal to Harvest of Sorrow, Conquest’s groundbreaking book on the famine, and the award-winning documentary Harvest of Despair. After some revisions, the manuscript was apparently approved by authorities including the director of Ukraine’s Institute of Party History. While the listed author of Fraud, Famine and Fascism is Canadian labor activist Douglas Tottle—whom Blinova generously describes as a “researcher”—University of Alberta historian Frank Sysyn believes (PDF) “the book was likely compiled in the Soviet Union.”
Fraud, Famine and Fascism was rejected by the now-defunct Ukrainian-Canadian socialist publisher Kobzar, despite pressure from the Canadian Communist Party, and ultimately published by the Toronto-based Progress Books, which even a sympathetic journalist described as “an outlet for Soviet releases.” Just about the only notices it got were in the Communist press; one such review asserted, in language remarkably similar to Blinova’s Sputnik News piece, that “capitalists were horrified by the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917” and that “their main way of discouraging workers from fighting for communism is by attacking the then-socialist USSR under Stalin.”
Meanwhile, glasnost-era reforms ended the taboo on discussing the Holodomor in the Soviet Union; in January 1990, the Ukrainian Communist Party passed a resolution that not only declared the famine a “national tragedy” but blamed it squarely on Stalin and his henchmen. Tottle’s book lost whatever shreds of credibility it might have had. But it remains popular on websites like The Stalin Society and The Espresso Stalinist—and now, it seems, at Sputnik News, the international news agency of the Russian government.
As for Blinova’s actual evidence of a Holodomor hoax? It mainly boils down to the fact that one sensational account on the famine in the Western press, a 1935 series in the Hearst papers by Thomas Walker, was demonstrably fraudulent: Walker (aka Robert Green), a con man and convicted forger, claimed to have witnessed starvation in Ukraine in 1934 and used photos from an earlier Soviet famine in the 1920s. But his malfeasance doesn’t disprove the Holodomor any more than Binjamin Wilkomirski’s phony memoir of surviving as a Jewish orphan in Auschwitz casts doubt on the Holocaust.
Indeed, the journalist who debunked Walker’s claims, The Nation’s Louis Fischer, briefly acknowledged the famine in his 1935 book Soviet Journey—though only to argue that the peasants brought it on themselves by “passive resistance” to collective farming. “History can be cruel,” Fischer wrote, in a passage typical of the mental gymnastics of Western fellow travelers in the 1930s. “The Bolsheviks were carrying out a major policy on which the strength and character of their regime depended. The peasants were reacting as normal human beings would. Let no one minimize the sadness of the phenomenon. But from the larger point of view the effect was the final entrenchment of collectivization.”
Not surprisingly, Blinova makes no mention of that—or of reports on the famine by British journalists Gareth Jones and Malcolm Muggeridge two years before Walker’s fictions. (Jones, who coined the term “man-made famine,” was barred from re-entering the Soviet Union in retaliation; in 1935, he was murdered by bandits while traveling in China, in what may have been a hit organized by Stalin’s secret police.) Nor does she mention accounts by Russian Jewish writers Vasily Grossman and Lev Kopelev, who could hardly be suspected of pro-Nazi sympathies. And, of course, she does not say a word about declassified documents such as government decrees imposing draconian punitive measures on villages that failed to meet grain production quotas—including confiscation of all food and a complete cutoff of supplies.
The only actual scholar cited by Blinova is University of West Virginia agricultural historian Mark Tauger, who has argued that a poor harvest due to weather conditions was a major factor in the starvation. While Tauger is credited with some contributions to the study of the famine, his conclusions have been vigorously disputed by Conquest and most researchers in the field. But that aside, Tauger does not exonerate the Stalin regime as Blinova seeks to do: he stresses that “the regime was still responsible for the deprivation and suffering of the Soviet population in the early 1930s” and that the famine’s toll points to the horrific costs of collectivization and forced industrialization.
The Holodomor is a subject of legitimate debate. Was the famine deliberately engineered to both punish and break the recalcitrant peasantry, or was it the unintended result of Stalin’s war on private farming which included mass deportations of “rich” peasants and ruthlessly enforced grain requisition quotas? Were Ukrainian villages singled out for particularly harsh treatment? (Proportionately, the republic that suffered worst was Kazakhstan, which lost about a third of its population to the famine.) Was it, as Ukraine argues, a genocide—or is it more accurate to use the term “stratocide,” coined by former Lithuanian dissident and Yale University professor Tomas Venclova to describe the destruction of a social class?
The facts and issues are full of complexities. It’s true that many of the apparatchiks and commissars who pillaged the Ukrainian countryside were themselves ethnic Ukrainians. But it’s also true that the Holodomor coincided with a massive purge of Ukrainian political and intellectual elites, driven by Stalin’s fear of Ukrainian nationalism as a potential threat to Soviet unity. This fact has led noted French historian Nicholas Werth to conclude that “it possible to define the totality of intentional political actions taken from late summer 1932 by the Stalinist regime against the Ukrainian peasantry as genocide,” albeit motivated by political strategy rather than ethnic or racial animosity.
Genocide or not, no one except Stalinist cranks doubts that the Soviet famine of 1932-33 was a crime against humanity. Indeed, Russia supported a 2010 resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe that condemned it as such. But that was when Kremlin-friendly Viktor Yanukovych was running things in Kiev—and making it clear that he was committed to keeping Ukraine in Russia’s orbit. Not coincidentally, Yanukovych also halted the campaign for international recognition of the Holodomor as a genocide.
But now, Ukraine is the westward-looking enemy—and the Kremlin rolls out the big lie once again, this time for international consumption. Blinova’s article also seems to be part of a concerted campaign rather than a one-off contrarian opinion. A fairly similar piece under the same byline, “Holodomor Hoax: Joseph Stalin’s Crime That Never Took Place,” ran on Sputnik News in August (it too referenced Tottle as well as Montclair State University literature professor Grover Furr, a “revisionist” on a career-long quest to exonerate Stalin). The intent seems clear: to cast doubt, at least among the more gullible segments of the Western public, on an earlier Moscow regime’s crimes against Ukraine while also tarnishing pro-independence Ukrainians with the “Nazi” brush.
That Sputnik News is using an apparent Soviet fabrication as a source for its new canard is both ironic and fitting. Russia may not be truly back to the USSR, but the propaganda machine, it seems, has come full circle.