Concordia's Thursday Report

Vol. 28, No.6

November 20, 2003


Book describes little-known Ukrainian famine genocide

By Jason Gondziola

Twenty years ago, many otherwise informed Canadians denied that the starvation of between 3 million and 10 million Ukrainians in the 1920s and ’30s was deliberate. A book launched at Concordia on Nov. 10 said otherwise.

The Concordia-based Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies co-sponsored the launch of Famine-Genocide in Ukraine, 1932-33: Western Archives, Testimonies and New Research. It was indicative of a growing acknowledgment of the famine and its origins, according to Roman Serbyn, one of the book’s contributing writers.

“This shows how things have evolved, because in the past the Ukraine Famine was not recognized,” he said. “The Soviet Union, which caused the famine, never admitted that there was a famine, and just said it was used by anti-Soviet elements to discredit the Soviet Union.”

The book presents recently written and recently discovered material on the mass starvation, which at its peak was consuming 17 Ukrainians per minute. Concordia’s involvement in its launch is itself important, an important change from The Link’s late 1980s reprint of an article from a Winnipeg student paper that denied the famine genocide.

The actual numbers of dead are unknown due to the official policy of denial on the part of the modern-day Soviets and Stalin’s ruthless concealment of evidence.

“This is something that’s impossible to settle, because the Soviet statistics have not been reliable,” Serbyn said. “As a matter of fact, Stalin ordered some of the statisticians who were doing the 1937 census to be shot.”

Opponents of the famine genocide view paint a picture of a government ignorant of the situation in Ukraine, but recent discoveries, such as those contained in the book, illustrate a government well aware of its actions, according to Serbyn.

“Now there’s so much evidence that has come out of the Soviet archives which shows that Stalin and the Kremlin were very well aware of the famine and that it was a deliberate policy to break the back of the Ukrainian nation at that time.”

The motivations were twofold. Rising Ukrainian nationalism posed a real threat to the Russian hold on the area. Losing Ukraine could have started an unwanted domino effect, severely reducing the land and resources available to the Russian government.

To counteract this, the Russians were imposing Russian instead of Ukrainian in local administrations and schools, and increasingly oppressing the intelligentsia in Ukrainian cities.

Secondly, industrialization was high on Stalin’s agenda, but in order to expedite the mechanization of the rising Russian state the government needed extra funds. For this, they turned to the Ukraine, the famed “breadbasket of Europe,” and started confiscating grain, with devastating results. In perhaps this story’s saddest irony, millions of Ukrainians starved to death surrounded by plenty.

That being said, governments around the world are lending their support to the 70-year-long battle for recognition, including those of Canada and the U.S.

History professor Frank Chalk explained, “A combination of increased activism by Ukrainians at home and in the Ukrainian diaspora, wider awareness of the problem of genocide and the opening of key files in the old Soviet archives explain the new interest in the famine-genocide in Ukraine.”

Chalk said he had just come back from presenting at a conference sponsored by the Kennan Institute of the Wooodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., where he put the Ukraine famine in perspective.

“There is no question in my mind that the famine-genocide suffered by the Ukrainian people deserves recognition as one of the largest and most neglected of the twentieth century. We felt an obligation to offer MIGS as a facilitator so the story would become better known.”

For more information, see