Prof. Alexander J. Motyl – Holodomor in Ukraine and Food Insecurity Today

Prof. Alexander J. Motyl,
Professor of Political Science, Rutgers University

Holodomor in Ukraine and Food Insecurity Today: “Implications for the Media, NGOs, and International Organizations”

Let me start my brief talk with selections from an article that appeared in The New York Evening Journal in April 1935. The author is Harry Lang, an American journalist.

My trip to Soviet Russia was part of a world’s tour which took a year and included 19 countries. As a Socialist, as a lover of freedom, and as a Jew, I went to Russia full of fervent expectations.

I came out crushed, shell-shocked. Nowhere did I see suffering on such a titanic scale. Nowhere did I find the tragedy of a great people so effectively concealed behind a conspiracy of silence.

I went down to the Ukraine and saw with my own eyes the destruction wrought there, the wreckage of a great country. […]

A high official of the Ukrainian Soviet, with whom we established contact, confidentially advised me to take a trip to the villages. Only there, he said, would I see the full handiwork of the famine. And he added:

“Six million people have perished from hunger in our country in 1932-33.: Then he paused, and repeated: “Six million.” […]

I wondered. What was the purpose of such a poster? The Soviet official explained to me:

“It is one of our methods of educating the people. We distributed such posters in hundreds of villages, especially in the Ukraine. We had to.”

“Is the situation that bad?” I asked in astonishment. “Are people really in such a condition as to eat their children’s corpses?”

The official was silent. It was a painful, disturbing silence.

“Not all our people are enlightened,” he remarked a little later.

Again I shuddered.

Lang is one of many Western journalists to have reported on the Ukrainian famine. Unfortunately, much of the world chose not to acknowledge their reports, preferring to join the Stalinist regime in denying the famine’s very existence.

We now know most of the facts about the Stalin-engineered famine in Ukraine in 1932-1933. As the eminent French historian Nicolas Werth wrote in 2008:

For Stalin, the Ukrainian peasant question was “in essence, a national question, the peasants constituting the principal force of the national movement.” By crushing the peasantry, one was breaking the most powerful national movement capable of opposing the process of the construction of the USSR. As the famine decimated the Ukrainian peasantry, the regime condemned the entire policy of “Ukrainization” underway since the early 1920s: The Ukrainian elites were rounded up and arrested. This specifically anti-Ukrainian assault makes it possible to define the totality of intentional political actions taken from late summer 1932 by the Stalinist regime against the Ukrainian peasantry as genocide. With hunger as its deadly arm, the regime sought to punish and terrorize the peasants, resulting in fatalities exceeding four million people in Ukraine and the northern Caucasus.

Indeed, already in 1953 Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish scholar who coined the term “genocide” and played a large role in the UN’s adoption of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, had written:

“In the office of a Soviet functionary I saw a poster on the wall which struck my attention. It showed the picture of a mother in distress, with a swollen child at her feet, and over the picture was the inscription: “EATING OF DEAD CHILDREN IS BARBARISM.”

What I want to speak about is perhaps the classic example of Soviet genocide, its longest and broadest experiment in Russification—the destruction of the Ukrainian nation. […] As long as Ukraine retains its national unity, as long as its people continue to think of themselves as Ukrainians and to seek independence, so long Ukraine poses a serious threat to the very heart of Sovietism. […] Ukraine is highly susceptible to racial murder by select parts and so the Communist tactics there have not followed the pattern taken by the German attacks against the Jews. The nation is too populous to be exterminated completely with any efficiency. However, its leadership, religious, intellectual, political, its select and determining parts, are quite small and therefore easily eliminated, and so it is upon these groups particularly that the full force of the Soviet axe has fallen, with its familiar tools of mass murder, deportation and forced labour, exile and starvation.

What does the Ukrainian famine of 1932-1933 have to do with food insecurity today? Harry Lang inadvertently provides the answer to this question by writing the following:

While traveling in Soviet Russia, I often asked myself, “What has happened to civilization? We have a press boasting of its far-flung system of facilities unsurpassed in history. We have the technical marvels of telegraphy and radio, which in a few minutes bring the news of the least event in a remote corner of the globe to the whole wide world. And yet we have also developed systems of modern dictatorship which can prevent the starvation of millions of people, such as has occurred in Soviet Russia, from becoming known.”

Lang’s final comment is as relevant today as it was in 1935. The mass media and a host of non-governmental organizations report on atrocities in general and politically induced famines in particular, but the sad fact is that—despite the growing attention these gross violations of human rights attract—atrocities continue to occur. Had Lang been alive in the last few decades, he would have had a surfeit of man-made famines to write about.

Let me highlight just a few.

In China in the early 1960s, over 40 million Chinese peasants died during the drive for collectivization and the resulting famine.

In Cambodia in the late 1970s, the brutal Pol Pot regime of the Khmer Rouge destroyed some 2-5 million Cambodians by means of famine, forced labor, and executions.

In Ethiopia in the mid-1980s up to one million people died as a result of the policies of the regime of President Mengistu Haile Mariam.

And in Sudan and Somalia today food insecurity is being used to promote political ends, thereby placing the lives of millions in jeopardy.

Why do food insecurity and famine continue to be employed for political ends?

The first part of the answer is that dictatorial regimes use famine because it is an effective means of fighting their opponents. Famine, in this sense, is an extreme form of a scorched earth policy. The second part of the answer is that dictatorships continue to use the food weapon because the world lets them. States either have no interest or no capacity to prevent such atrocities. And although states, the media, and NGOs engage in moral suasion, dictators are never swayed by moral arguments.

How, then, can food insecurity be abolished and famines not be used as political weapons? There is, unfortunately, no easy answer promising quick results.

But there is reason for hope precisely because all the components of a long-term solution are already in place.

Although the international community, the world media, and NGOs failed to respond adequately to the Ukrainian famine of 1932-1933 and to many other subsequent man-made famines, these three institutions may be the best instruments for dealing with the root cause of man-made famines: dictatorship.

As the renowned Indian scholar and Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen says:

“In a word, famine continues to be used as a weapon of politics despite the vastly increased attention of the global media and the impressive activities of international and national NGOs.”

Famines are easy to prevent if there is a serious effort to do so, and a democratic government, facing elections and criticisms from opposition parties and independent newspapers, cannot help but make such an effort. Not surprisingly, while India continued to have famines under British rule right up to independence … they disappeared suddenly with the establishment of a multiparty democracy and a free press. … a free press and an active political opposition constitute the best early-warning system a country threatened by famines can have.”

If Amartya Sen is right, then politically induced famines will not, and arguably cannot, occur in societies with democratic regimes.

These reflections point to a simple conclusion: democracy is the answer.

And that means that the media must continue to expose atrocities and thereby shame repressive regimes into acting more humanely and openly. NGOs must continue to help and empower their victims, thereby contributing to the formation of vigorous civil societies. And the international community must continue to promote the key components of democratic societies: literacy, education, development, human rights, women’s rights, and freedom—from both want and repression.

In sum, the global media, NGOs, and the international community are the best means of promoting democracy. But we must understand that democracy takes time. It cannot be imported from abroad and implanted overnight.

In the short term, therefore, politically induced famines will, alas, continue to plague the world. But, in the medium to long term, it is perfectly realistic to expect an alliance of the global media, NGOs, and the international community to ensure food security and make politically induced famines a thing of the past.