Soft-Pedaling Stalinist Genocide

What caused several million Ukrainians “to die”?

figure03Max Fisher, foreign affairs blogger for the Washington Post, recently posed “nine questions about Ukraine you were too embarrassed to ask.” Fisher’s answers are informative but someone with a master’s degree in security studies from John Hopkins University, should be embarrassed, or even ashamed, about his account of a crucial part of Ukraine’s story.

Fisher says what’s happening in Ukraine is “really important,” and he is also right that it can be “confusing and difficult to follow for outsiders who don’t know the history” that led to the current crisis. That crisis began last November, when president Viktor Yanukovych dumped a deal with the European Union and drew the nation toward Russia. 

Fisher explains that Ukraine has “a long history of being subjugated by foreign powers.” The nation has “only been independent since 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and it broke away.” The last time it was independent was for a few years after World War I, and “briefly in the 1600s.”

The primary foreign power subjugating Ukraine is Russia. As Fisher notes, that began 250 years ago with Catherine the Great. Like other Russian rulers she wanted the eastern part of the country “some of the most productive farmland in the world.” So many Russians swept in to Ukraine’s southeast it became known as “Novorossiya,” or “New Russia.” Russian leaders, hoping to make the territory permanently Russian, banned the Ukrainian language.

“Then came Joseph Stalin,” Fisher explains. “In the 1930s, the Soviet leader ‘collectivized’ peasants into state-run farms, which caused several million Ukrainians to die of starvation. The governments of Ukraine and the United States consider it a deliberate act of genocide, though historians are more divided.”

Note the description of Stalin as the Soviet “leader,” not a “dictator,” as even FDR called him, much less a totalitarian dictator, Communist dictator, or mass murderer, which is what Stalin was. As for the millions of deaths, the American and Ukrainian governments consider this deliberate genocide but Fisher isn’t sure. “Historians are more divided,” on the question, he says, but he mentions no names. Some of the details he left out may be found in this Library of Congress account.

Stalin wanted to “crush all vestiges of Ukrainian nationalism.” In 1932 Stalin raised Ukraine’s grain procurement quotas by forty-four percent, which meant “there would not be enough grain to feed the peasants.” Stalin deployed regular troops and secret police units, in “a merciless war of attrition” against the peasants, and this “condemned millions to death by starvation.”

The death toll of the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine “has been estimated between six million and seven million.” For one of Stalin’s lieutenants it was a great success. It showed the Ukrainians “who is the master here. It cost millions of lives, but the collective farm system is here to stay.”

According to Walter Duranty of the New York Times the Ukraine at the time was a veritable cornucopia, flowing with milk and honey. In Duranty’s narrative famine was impossible under the scientific, planned economy of the USSR and wise leadership of Stalin. Duranty won a Pulitzer Prize and later admitted he knew the full horror of the famine all along.

Max Fisher fails to mention any of that. The Washington Post blogger purports to write “so that anyone can understand” but on the crucial question of genocide he’s not up to the task. 

Communist dictator Josef Stalin deliberately starved to death more than six million Ukrainians. Modern Ukrainians know this all too well, a major reason why they are protesting the tilt toward Russia, whose president Vladimir Putin says Stalin was no worse than Oliver Cromwell.

Meanwhile, if modern Americans want to become more informed on Stalinist genocide in Ukraine and other places they should read Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.

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