27.02.2008 | Halya Coynash

Reaching out


Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee

John Donne

Making people silent is all too easy.  The Soviet regime reminds us of that wherever we turn. Millions were silenced for ever.  Others understood that to survive they should say nothing.  The leaders of other countries seldom saw a need to say anything.  There were always reasons, always interests to be protected.  There were those who were not silent – and our infinite respect to them.

These words are written with Holodomor 1932-1933 in mind.  They could be about many places, many horrors.  Each totally unique, and each bitterly familiar in one thing alone – that the world looked away.  

So why should they want to know?

St. Augustine said that until asked he understood what time was.  Perhaps it is the same here: the very question of why we should want to know diminishes our humanity.

 The following will therefore only consider why we must know in order to draw vital lessons, and will examine certain arguments based on binary and highly questionable logic.

I’m Ukrainian and therefore …

Most, although by no means all, of those who call for Holodomor 1932-1933 to be recognized as an act of genocide are Ukrainian.  It is fashionable these days to talk of each ethnic group’s "memory".  If Holodomor is an undoubted source of pain primarily to Ukrainians, does this in any way undermine its reality?  It does not.  The crime is not subject to question.  The food was available, with enough grain exported in 1932 to have prevented any deaths at all from starvation* Grain procurement policy effectively took all food from the Ukrainian countryside.  The resistance from people fighting for their lives and those of their children was strong at first, but was broken through repression and brutality - and through hunger. And then they closed the borders, those between Soviet Ukraine, Soviet Kuban and the rest of the USSR and prevented peasants travelling anywhere by train in search of food.  

Many agree that the regime was monstrous, but argue that ill intent, so to speak, was not directed at any specific group.  This is not borne out by the facts.  Correspondence between Stalin and Kaganovich indicate that he saw Ukraine as a threat to the integrity of the Soviet empire and wanted to crush the process of Ukrainization which encouraged the use of the Ukrainian language and allowed nationally conscious Ukrainians to attain positions of authority at local level. The removal of food from the Ukrainian countryside coincided with a ferocious onslaught against Ukrainization.  This is most graphically reflected in a secret decree signed by Stalin and Molotov on 14 December 1932**

It is important to note that the target of repressions was not only Ukraine but also Ukrainians in the Kuban and other regions of RSFSR with high percentage of ethnic Ukrainians. In the Kuban region of the Northern Caucasus, with a very large Ukrainian population, all the measures applied in Ukraine itself were used: hunger, an attack on Ukrainization and the closing of borders.

"Rewriting history"

The Russian authorities, echoed by increasingly sycophantic journalists, have been accusing Ukraine over recent times of rewriting history in their own political interests.  It is true that under President Yushchenko, there has been a concentrated drive to gain official recognition worldwide of Holodomor as genocide.  Whether any individual leaders have their own political motives is simply not relevant.  There are archival records which do not distort, but confirm the testimony of witnesses and studies carried out by historians. Many historians, including Nicolas Werth, who were originally doubtful as to whether this was a case of genocide have, on the basis of this new evidence, acknowledged that it was***. It should be noted that while the Ukrainian Security Service has now made public all archival material in its possession, the Russian FSB [Federal Security Service] is not providing access to material they hold.  In our appeal to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs ( ) we therefore call upon them to make all information available.  We can all only benefit from the truth about Holodomor. We wish to know the truth, not rewrite it.

Looking for covert nationalists or devious tricks

The aim of our appeal is to unite people of all nationalities in seeking the truth about a crime not only against the Ukrainian nation, but against humanity.  That sounds ambitious however our expectations were per force modest. The discomforted efforts to avoid eye contact were all too familiar, as were the responses like "not our problem" and "we don’t want to make problems with your neighbour".  

There has been a lot of support which is cheering.  It convinces us that we mustn’t stop. Aspirations are higher, and we are reaching out.  We do not believe that recognition of Holodomor is a Ukrainian matter alone. We are realistic and do not believe that simply calling such crimes by their names and honouring their victims can ensure that they never occur again. Rwanda and Darfur are bitter reminders that it is all much more complicated. Nonetheless, an end to the conspiracy of silence means a great deal.

Each Russian signature, we admit, was particularly appreciated, as was coverage on Russian human rights sites (,, and others).  In trying to fathom why there has not been more support from Russians, we encountered some strange reactions.  Some scoured the text and could not give specific places, yet asserted that "nonetheless" nationalism seeped through.  Proving that something which isn’t there is indeed not there is as difficult as expressing this task in words, so I will pass.

There were also torrents of examples from Russian history with one rather defensive aim in mind, this being to prove that Russians have also been victims.  Who is denying this?  However, 75 years ago a crime was committed against the people of Ukraine and ethnic Ukrainians in Kuban and the Don.
The bizarre somersault of "logic" would seem to be "if they were victims, then we weren’t".  Or, more primitively, "If they were victims, we were monsters, and we can’t live with that."  The conclusions are obvious".

We were all victims of a monstrous regime.  Understanding how this was possible cannot be easy for any of us, but is part of a vital process of freeing ourselves from that past.  By repeating the lies of those times, including the denial of Holodomor, we not only betray the victims of genocide, but ourselves remain victims of our past.

No competition
 It is, unfortunately, not only Russians who show signs of defensiveness with regard to Holodomor.  It is difficult to even write these words, yet there seem to be people who feel that promoting knowledge about Holodomor, Ukrainians are trying, somehow, to minimize the horror of the Holocaust. The suggestion is so distressing that it is hard to find any words.  The Holocaust can never be in any way minimized, and the mere suggestion that recognition of Holodomor would do this, is preposterous.  
 "Competition" in terms of numbers or any other scale is quite simply unthinkable.
 All crimes, however, must be known, and downplaying one on the pretext that it may offend those more immediately concerned about another, is an affront to the memory of all the victims.
 I believe that any arguments about numbers, including heated controversy regarding the number of victims of Holodomor, are totally inappropriate and run the risk of blurring the real issue.  All such information must be known, but cannot influence our assessment of the crime.
 Any attempts at comparison, arithmetical or other, are frightful.  Promoting awareness of the suffering and the crime of Holodomor are not a nationalist issue and are not aimed at settling any scores.  Nor, however, must they be a matter of conviction alone.  Efforts to find out all information about Holodomor, including the number of victims, must be totally unwavering.  
 Let’s leave our comparatives for everyday life and not insult the memory of victims of a crime against humanity. Suffering does not lend itself to comparison.
 All crimes of genocide are crimes against you and I.

You can read (and sign) our appeal at:  (scroll down for English).  If you prefer, write to:  (It helps if you say which country you’re writing from). The world was silent too long – let’s be heard together

*  “The grain exported from the 1932 harvest was sufficient to assure the survival of all the victims of the famine. Besides this, USSR had another million and a half tons in grain reserves that could also have been used.”  Roman Serbyn, “The Ukrainian Famine of 1932-1933 and the UN Convention on Genocide”

**  Resolution No. 121 from 14 December 1932 “"On Grain Procurement in Ukraine, Northern Caucasus and the Western Oblast” which can be found In the original Russian version online at:

*** “La grande famine ukrainianne de 1932-1933” in La terreur et le désarroi. Staline et son système. Paris 2007.


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