How Many Perished in the Famine and Why Does It Matter?
Even if the Holodomor did account for 10 million victims, the final claim, about this being the biggest crime in history, would still be incorrect. There was also a famine in China... Again, it is difficult to estimate the number of losses...
Even after I had earned a PhD in history from the University of Michigan and had been working as a researcher at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies for several years, I was extremely naive about how scholars arrived at estimates for major catastrophes on the order of the Holocaust of the Jews or the Holodomor in Ukraine. When I was a young man, most of what I read suggested that each of these events took about six million lives. I thought that either the murderers kept a tally of their victims or else it was a fairly simple matter of subtracting the results of one census from those of another.
I began to realize the complexity of the issue rather late, in 1980. I was working closely at that time with a scholar from Poland who was a visiting professor at CIUS, Janusz Radziejowski. He was mainly in Edmonton to help prepare the uncensored English version of his book on the Communist Party of Western Ukraine, which the Institute published in 1983. But one day he said to me that he also had an interest in collectivization in Ukraine and in the great famine of 1932-33 and would like to present a paper based on his research. He wrote it all up, presented it at seminars in Edmonton and Toronto, and then published it in the Fall 1980 issue of the Journal of Ukrainian Studies.
Janusz had demographic training and was used to working with census materials. Therefore, at the end of his paper, he offered a brief estimate of the population losses from collectivization and famine. The conclusion he came to was that there was a "demographic loss of 9,263,000" Ukrainians in the USSR between 1926 and 1939. I was astounded at this high number. I never realized, I said, that the famine killed over 9 million people. He patiently explained to me that a demographic loss is not the same as the number of persons killed. In addition to the latter, this number includes children not born to those killed, other children not born for other reasons connected to collectivization and famine, and Ukrainians who assimilated to Russian nationality. Given the data available at that time, he doubted that we could sort out how much of this loss was attributable to each category.
My next close encounter with these issues came in 1983-84. I was a Neporany Fellow at CIUS, and my only obligation was to work on my book about Galician villagers and the Ukrainian national movement in the nineteenth century. I would spend every day in an office in the basement of Athabasca Hall poring over my sources and writing my monograph. In the room next to me was another researcher, also working on a book on the Ukrainian peasantry. This was Alex Babyonyshev, better known under his pseudonym Maksudov. He was a former human-rights activist in the USSR and interested in demographic questions, history, and politics. His book was about collectivization and the famine.
Needless to say, two researchers with a basement to themselves and working on related topics entered into intense discussions of their projects. Alex tested every one of his ideas on me and had me read and discuss everything he wrote. For me, it was like a year-long seminar on how collectivization was implemented and on how to arrive at a more accurate estimate of the population losses. I learned that these estimates were much more complex than even Janusz had taught me. Alex was busy drawing up graphs of the age structure of populations (they look like Christmas trees), examining economic indicators that might help estimate the extent of out-migration from Ukraine in the 1930s, and attacking the problem from numerous other angles. His book was never published in English, but the results of his research appeared in a Russian-language book, Poteri naseleniia SSSR (1989). He estimated that the total demographic loss in Ukraine came to 4.5 million.
Later, in the mid-1990s, I began to work as a side theme on the Holocaust. My readings in this field only reinforced the lessons I had learned earlier on the difficulty of estimating the number of victims when mass murder was involved. It was often helpful to scholars when a particular German unit would report to Berlin that they had dispatched a certain number of Jews in such and such a locality, but generally the picture was extremely fuzzy.
I bring all this up to help explain why I am disturbed by blithe claims I see being made about seven or ten million Ukrainians killed in the famine. I know that President Viktor Yushchenko and his administration are also using the ten million figure. That does not make it correct, however.
It used to be that President Yushchenko relied for advice on historical issues on a professional historian, Stanislav Kulchytsky, but in the past six months or so he seems to have decided to use history as a political tool and, as the saying goes, does not want to be confused by the facts. In Ukraine politicians frequently appeal to identity politics, since symbols are easier to deliver than better health care, education, or civil service.
Dr. Kulchytsky was one of the ideological architects of Yushchenko`s campaign to have the Ukrainian famine recognized internationally as a genocide. He devoted a number of publications in 2005 precisely to explaining why the famine fit the definition. These publications appeared in Ukrainian, Russian, and English. The latter were circulated electronically by The Day in Kyiv as well as by E. Morgan Williams` Action Ukraine Report and Dominque Arel`s Ukraine List. (I have reviewed the key text in the Summer 2007 issue of Kritika: Explorations of Russian and Eurasian History.) In the texts of 2005, Kulchytsky stuck to the results of his earlier research on the demographic effects of the famine in Ukraine: that there were 3,238,000 deaths directly attributable to the Holodomor.
Kulchytsky had conducted careful research on the subject and published several works devoted to the demography of the famine, notably Demohrafichni naslidky holodmoru 1933 r. v Ukraini, which came out in 2003. What distinguishes Kulchytsky`s research from that of the earlier researchers who gave me my first lessons in famine demographics is that it draws on statistical information that was not available before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the opening of the archives.
Kulchytsky also drew heavily on recent studies by the Australian historian and demographer Stephen Wheatcroft. Wheatcroft had once produced estimates that were much too low for the losses connected with famine and collectivization, but in the past several years he has corrected his methodological errors and supplemented his sources with formerly inaccessible Soviet documentation. Wheatcroft now estimates that there were 3-3.5 million excess deaths in Ukraine (and about 6-7 million in the USSR as a whole).
Another serious attempt to estimate the losses in Ukraine was conducted by a team of French and Ukrainian demographers (Jacques Vallin, France Mesle, Serguei Adamets, and Serhii Pirozhkov). The results of their research were published in Population Studies, which is a top journal in the field of demography (November 2002). Here is their conclusion: "The disasters of the decade culminated in the horrific famine of 1933. These events resulted in a dramatic fall in fertility and a rise in mortality. Our estimates suggest that total losses can be put at 4.6 million, 0.9 million of which was due to forced migration, 1 million to a deficit in births, and 2.6 million to exceptional mortality."
So how many people were actually killed by the famine? From 2.5 to 3.5 million. Those who died disproportionately were the rural population (predominantly Ukrainians) and little children. May their memory be eternal.
And let me add: may it be unsullied by falsehood.
I find it disrespectful to the dead that people use their deaths in a ploy to gain the moral capital of victimhood. To this end, they inflate the numbers. Let me just take one symptomatic case. Marta Tomkiw and Bobby Leigh are working on a film about the famine (google holodomorthemovie to see the trailer). The trailer opens with a definition of Holodomor. There follow the texts cited below:
"The Darfur, Sudan Genocide claimed the lives of 180,000 people in 4 years.
"The Armenian Genocide claimed the lives of 1-1/2 million people from 1915 to 1918.
"The Holocaust claimed the lives of 6-1/2 million people in 9 years.
"They are not forgotten.
"Unfortunately, Holodomor has exceeded these tragedies by claiming the lives of 10 million Ukrainians in only 17 months.
"History knows no other crime of such nature and magnitude."
Here I do not want to single out this particular movie project for criticism. These are views one can easily find in many other Ukrainian representations of the famine, particularly in the North American diaspora. But the trailer formulates them clearly.
The point of these ideas is that the Holodomor is bigger than the others, particularly bigger than the Holocaust. I do not understand why others are not offended by this competition for victimhood, even if the numbers were true, which they are not. I think the discussion of tragedies like these demands a certain moral probity. Disasters like these should not be taken lightly, manipulated, instrumentalized, or falsified. Moreover, these are not simply deaths, but crimes, murders, violations of the moral order. How much more careful we should be about them, how much more respectful of the truth.
Even if the Holodomor did account for 10 million victims, and even if this competition for the greatest number of victims were perfectly decent, the final claim, about this being the biggest crime in history, would still be incorrect. There was also a famine in China directly attributable to the campaign for the Great Leap Forward. Again, it is difficult to estimate the number of losses, but Western and Chinese scholars estimate that from 15 to 43 million peasants starved to death in China in 1959-61. (In a forthcoming number of Kritika: Explorations of Russian and Eurasian History, the Viennese scholar Felix Wemheuer will be comparing the famines in Ukraine and China.)
Somehow a gap has opened up between scholarship in Ukrainian studies and popular diaspora notions of history. Here I have attempted to bridge that gap with information about the number of deaths actually attributable to the Holodomor. But I am also raising a moral question about how we should remember our dead. Many thinkers across the world are increasingly disturbed about what happens to the memorialization of the dead in the context of the nation and the state. I will leave those debates aside. But I think it should be clear to all that the respect and honesty we owe the departed means that we should refrain from using their deaths to gain political popularity in Ukraine or to score points in interethnic rivalry in North America. Above all, we must be careful not to embed their deaths in a falsehood.
Dr. John-Paul Himka is a professor at the University of Alberta Department of History and Classics. His areas of expertise are Ukraine, Eastern Europe, Iconography of the Eastern Church, Memory of World War II, and the Holocaust.