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75 Years After Holodomor: where do we go from here?

Andrey Chikatilo, one of the most gruesome serial murderers in the history of the world, grew up with stories of Holodomor. His mother said that his older brother, Stepan, whose birth and death have never been officially confirmed, was eaten by cannibals during the terrible famine of 1933. Chikatilo’s mother used this tale as a means of dissuading her son from playing outside on his own.

This year, the always-entertaining mainstream Russian press has branded Andrey Chikatilo “a Ukrainian nationalist,” citing an interview with Chikatilo’s son (himself a convicted criminal), stating that his father spoke of “the breaking away of the republics, he spoke, essentially, of regime change. He said that if Ukraine became independent, it would live normally, like Poland, but otherwise all money is taken away by Moscow, this isn’t right.”

The fact that such statements should be considered newsworthy, or even, in some circles, inflammatory, does not bode well for the future of Ukrainian – Russian relations.

The “logic” of the riveting conversation with Yuriy Chikatilo is clear: Chikatilo was a serial killer. He was also a “nationalist.” Oh, and he was pissed off about the Holodomor too.

Clearly, all of those other people pissed off about the Holodomor are probably closet serial killers as well. Hardy har har!

It’s been 75 years since Stalin’s collectivization policies resulted in a reign of agricultural terror against peasants – Ukrainian, Kazakh, Russian – by the time it was all over, millions were dead of either starvation of cannibalization.

The famine of 1933 calls for a closer inspection of the word “genocide” – although we are used to seeing genocide as having a basis in ethnicity, we fail to include the idea of class genocide, for example. Of course, talking about class gets you in trouble with everyone these days – and the Ukrainian government is no exception.

Denying Holodomor in Ukraine is outlawed. But does speaking about the other victims of what was an essentially man-made famine constitute denial? What about speaking on the subject of Ukrainian collaborators of which – by some accounts – there were many?

Grain was literally taken away from peasants. Who took that grain? How do you subdue a multi-million population without having inside help?

These are questions that many of the Ukrainian ruling elite – and an elite they are, despite our shabby democracy – presently consider irrelevant. Any discussion of the Holodomor must be smooth and simple. Smooth and simple is what politicians do best, particularly when in front of the press, anyway.

Of course, the Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, would not be outdone in the classiness department here. He has openly, and forcefully, spoken of the “so-called Holodomor” as an evil ploy by Ukrainian nationalists to further drive a wedge into relations between Russia and Ukraine, a tactic disrespectful to famine victims of other nationalities.

While the politicization of Holodomor is both obvious and unavoidable, Medvedev’s rhetoric is itself disrespectful: snide, belittling, dismissive, another one for the Kremlin Leaders’ Rhetorical Hall of Fame. Lurking in such statements is the Russian propaganda machine’s continued insistence that EVERYONE hates them and it is ALL about them. A butterfly cannot beat its wings on the other side of the Atlantic without some pundit or politician tearfully lamenting the butterfly’s plan to destabilize the weather over central Russia.

And yet if Dmitry Medvedev cares so much about those other victims of the famines, the ones for whom the phrase “the starving of the Povolzhye” was coined, for example, he does have a funny way of showing it. They are only remembered in passing, a rhetorical barb against Victor Yuschenko & Co. and not much else. As much as I detest the remembrance posters currently plastered around Kyiv – the ones with an unfortunate design that reminds me of fireworks and jars horribly in my head with the solemnity and terror of the occasion – I have yet to hear of any such posters going up in Moscow to commemorate those Russians who died in 1933.

I am one of those foolish people who believes in the importance of Russia and Ukraine’s shared heritage and proximity. I detest, for example, how the Western press often ignores or minimizes the importance of the relationship between Russia and Ukraine, as if the Kievan Rus’, a rhetorical and historical symbol of our ties, never even existed. This is why I view the escalating war of words over Holodomor with increasing dismay:

Yes, it happened. Yes, it was at least partially ethnically motivated, considering Stalin’s views on even the tiniest possibility of Ukrainian independence. Yes, it was genocide, no matter what the EU or the dictionary says. Yes, many others died as well, no less horribly or tragically. No, the bodies of the dead are not battering rams.

As much as I make fun of paranoid Russians, even of my own Russian mother, I harbour my own, very similar fears about Ukraine: I see it ripped to shreds like carrion. I see a wall going up in Kyiv, my favourite city and the city of my birth – a wall to rival the one they tore down in Berlin in 1989, around the time that Chikatilo was committing his final murders.

I want to be proven wrong, of course. I want to die an old woman who had not seen a tenth of what my grandmothers, one Russian, one Ukrainian, lived to see in their lifetimes. But it seems to me that Stalin’s dead do not yet rest. Perhaps they never will. Perhaps we have no right to demand of the ghosts to leave us alone either.

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Natalia Antonova

Natalia is a writer and journalist. She's the associate editor of openDemocracy Russia and the co-founder of the Anti-Nihilist Institute.

4 thoughts on “75 Years After Holodomor: where do we go from here?

  1. …and of course, there’s no connection between someone being a serial murderer and the extreme trauma it sounds like was his family legacy. (Even putting aside the whole “yeah, actually, most other nationalists don’t express it in such ways, especially those espousing sentiments like that. Did he watch porn, too? Lefthanded…?)

    and really: it’s like…-is- it Stalin who said something about how one person’s a murder, a million’s just a statistic? something of that sort?

  2. In response both to this column on Global comment and to the parallel posting about the Holodomor, dated December 10, on Natalia’s personal website:

    I wonder if the Kremlin’s rehabilitation of Stalin together with dismissal of Stalin’s crimes against non-Russian populations (e.g., the Holodomor), is partly meant to support and exploit the rise of Russican “ethnic consciousness” and counteract the resurgence of non-Russian ethnic nationalism both in non-CIS post-Soviet states like Georgia and Ukraine and also inside the CIS itself.

    Paul Goble, in his blog “Window on Eurasia” at http://windowoneurasia.blogspot.com, has explored the rise of Russian “ethnic consciousness” as well as the resurgence of non-Russian ethnic nationalism in the CIS (Chechens, Bakshirs, Ingush, etc.). Offhand, I don’t recall if Goble discusses the Russian dismissal of the Holodomor.

    But back to Stalin: I mention the rehabilitation of Stalin in connection with the rise of Russian “ethnic consciousness,” because Stalin, besides being responsible for the Holodomor, had also reimposed Russification in Ukraine (I think) and also, during World War II, restored to Russian Orthodoxy its former cultural (but not political) standing and reintroduced Czarist-style recognition of the military officer corps.

    Stalin’s restoration of specifically Russian cultural traditions was meant to win the support of ethnic Russians in resisting the Nazi invasion, since such Russians might have been ambivalent about Stalin himself.

    So I speculate whether the Kremlin’s rehabilitation of Stalin ‘the Russifier’ together with a dismissal of Stalin’s crimes against non-Russian populations (like the Holodomor), is part of a Kremlin plan to reassert a specifically Russian national identity to win over present-day ethnic Russians, even if such present-day ethnic Russians might be ambivalent toward the current Russian government.

    Sorry for the long post. But I wanted to discuss the above issues and also call attention to Paul Goble’s blog about Russian politics.

    Finally, Natalia, thanks for these outstanding columns on the Holodomor, on both Global Comment and on your personal website. These columns go far in explaining to Americans what is going on in the former USSR.

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