From Socialist Voice, December 2009

The Ukrainian famine and anti-Soviet propaganda

It is accepted by credible historians that famine did occur in Ukraine in the early 1930s. There is, however, no consensus on the causes of what is known to many as the “Holodomor.” Within this debate, the objectives of anti-Soviet propaganda should be scrutinised when searching for the truth and not substituted as the truth.
     The Ukrainian famine was not the first famine in the USSR. Russia itself endured 150 famines in its thousand years of recorded history.1 The culmination of the disaster of Tsarist adventurism in the First World War, revolution, foreign military intervention, international political isolation, civil war and severe drought resulted in the famine of 1921–22. History cannot blame Bolshevism for this drought. When Spanish flu killed 20 million people in America and Europe in the years 1918–1920 nobody blamed the governments of those states for murdering their own citizens.
     When the USSR tried to modernise its agricultural infrastructure in order to feed its 120 million peasants it unavoidably led to instability in the countryside. Previously, peasants farmed with methods that went back to the Middle Ages and even to Biblical times.2 Farming methods were determined by religion. A. L. Strong notes that the dates for the planting of seeds were linked to certain holy days, regardless of consequences. Additionally, priests led farmers in stoning tractors as “devil-machines.” Opposition to the new farming methods thus became “a fight for religion.”
     The conflict over collectivisation, which in some regions amounted almost to civil war, the sabotage by those hostile to the Soviet state and drought have been played down as contributing factors in the cause of the Ukrainian famine.3 Mario Sousa adds that the lack of food and undernourishment weakened people, which in turn led to an increase in the number falling victim to epidemic diseases.4 It was only with the development of penicillin (which did not become generally available until the late 1940s) that such epidemics could be contained.
     In relation to the causes of the Ukrainian famine, on the other hand, Soviet planning, excesses and mistakes have been exaggerated to the level of a man-made famine—genocide. The Sovietologist John Arch Getty noted in the London Review of Books (quoted by Jeff Coplon) that there “is plenty of blame to go around. It must be shared by the tens of thousands of activists and officials who carried out the policy and by the peasants who chose to slaughter animals, burn fields, and boycott cultivation in protest.”5
     However, on the so-called man-made famine, Sousa traces the myth of deliberate genocide back to Hitler and the Nazi Party. In 1925, in Mein Kampf, Hitler proclaimed the Ukraine an essential part of German lebensraum (“living space”). Germany would “liberate” this territory in order to make space for the German master race, and the indigenous population would be enslaved in order to grow cereals for their Aryan masters. But the Nazi “liberation” of the Ukraine could come only with a war against the Soviet Union, and the excuse for such a war had to be prepared well in advance. The purpose of the genocide myth was to prepare world public opinion for the eventual Nazi invasion of the USSR.
     World opinion obviously did not include the people of the USSR. It was in the main directed at public opinion in the West, particularly in America and Britain. In the civil war that followed the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, military forces from up to fourteen countries (including the United States and Britain) were fighting against the fledgling Soviet state.6 The purpose of the intervention was justified by the then British Secretary of State for War, Winston Churchill: that Bolshevism must be strangled at birth. Thus the Cold War that predated the Second World War was the context in which the Nazis attempted to justify their ambition of eastward expansion.7 The Nazis also needed to win the hearts and minds of their own citizens for any war. So the propaganda machine under Goebbels peddled the story of ethnic Germans starving in the USSR as a direct consequence of the Soviet five-year plan.1
     To influence public opinion in the West the Nazis turned to their friend William Randolph Hearst, a multimillionaire American media tycoon, the inspiration for Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane and the creator of “yellow journalism” (sensationalised stories of dubious reliability). Through his thirty newspapers and magazines Hearst exercised enormous political influence. He was totally hostile towards the Soviet Union and especially against Stalin.4
     Hearst also tried to use his newspapers for overt Nazi propaganda purposes, publishing a series of articles by Göring, Hitler’s right-hand man. The protests of many readers, however, forced him to stop publishing such items and to withdraw them from circulation.
     After his visit to Hitler, Hearst’s sensationalist newspapers were filled with “revelations” about the terrible happenings in the Soviet Union. Murders, genocide, slavery, luxury for the rulers and starvation for the people—all these were the big news items almost every day. The material was provided to Hearst by the Gestapo. We should not forget that these articles were read each day by 40 million people in the United States and millions of others around the world.
     Hearst, who was known during the 1930s as “America’s number 1 fascist,” employed Benito Mussolini to write articles—paying him a higher salary than he received as head of the Italian state.3 Hearst also had financial incentives in his dealings with Hitler: the Nazis agreed to purchase their foreign news through Hearst’s International News Service, for a reported one million marks a year.3 In August 1934 Hearst was reported in the New York Times as stating: “If Hitler succeeds in pointing the way of peace and order . . . he will have accomplished a measure of good not only for his own people but for all of humanity.” Indeed, in his New York Journal American in 1941 Hearst advised Europeans—even those under Nazi occupation—to support the German invasion of the USSR, “to unite in the face of expanding communism.”
     While the myth of a deliberate famine was first concocted between the Nazis and their Western media sympathiser, it did not die with the defeat of the Nazi regime in 1945. Cold War warriors hostile to the idea of communism—whether Western intelligence agencies, sponsored academics, or Ukrainian ultra-nationalists (including ex-Nazis)—carried on the genocide myth for their own political agenda. They still do so today.
     As already mentioned, there is a consensus that a famine did occur in the Ukraine. No agreement is forthcoming on its causes. Neither is there a consensus on the numbers that perished. But the victims are used as anti-communist propaganda to this day.
     Writing in Slavic Review, the demographers Barbara Anderson and Brian Silver maintain that limited census data makes a precise death count impossible. Instead they offer a probable range of 3.2 to 5.5 million “excess deaths” for the entire Soviet Union from 1926 to 1939 . . . Which leaves us with a puzzle. Wouldn’t 1 or 2 or 3½ million famine-related deaths be enough to make an anti-Stalinist argument? Why seize a wildly inflated figure that can’t possibly be supported?
     The answer tells us much about the Ukrainian nationalist cause, and about those who abet it. “They’re always looking to come up with a number bigger than six million,” observed Eli Rosenbaum, general counsel for the World Jewish Congress. “It makes the reader think, ‘My god, it’s worse than the Holocaust.’”5
     Felix Wemheuer notes that the literal translation of holodomor is “hunger plague”; and to Western ears it sounds like “holocaust.” All this is part of an attempt to create a Ukrainian national myth that the famine was a deliberate genocide by Stalin.9
     If anti-communists are so fixated on trying to top a death toll of 6 million they should look at the United Nations report State of Food Insecurity in the World (2004). This report states that “one child dies every five seconds as a result of hunger and malnutrition.”10 That’s an annualised death rate of more than 6 million a year, every year. (One child every five seconds is 12 children a minute, 720 children an hour, 17,280 children a day, and 6,307,200 children a year.)
     In memory of those who died in all famines, and in genuine concern for those still vulnerable to starvation, it is obligatory on us all to create a political and economic system that plans and shares its resources, not for the maximisation of profit but in order to eradicate once and for all the scourge of hunger.

     1. Mark B. Tauger, “Natural disaster and human actions in the Soviet Famine of 1931–1933,” Carl Beck Papers in Russian and East European Studies, no. 1506 (University of Pittsburgh), 2001.
     2. Anna Louise Strong, The Stalin Era, New York: Mainstreeet Publishers, 1957.
     3. Douglas Tottle, Fraud, Famine and Fascism, Toronto: Progress Books, 1987.
     4. Mario Sousa, “Lies Concerning the History of the Soviet Union” (English translation), March 1999.
     5. Jeff Coplon, “In search of a Soviet holocaust,” Village Voice (New York), 12 January 1988.
     6. Perry Moore, Stamping Out the Virus: Allied Intervention in the Russian Civil War, 1918–1920, Atglen (Pa.): Schiffer Publishing, 2002.
     7. John Lewis Gaddis, Russia, the Soviet Union and the United States: An Interpretive History, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990.
     8. A. A. Weinreb, “Matters of Taste: The Politics of Food and Hunger in Divided Germany, 1945–1971,” PhD dissertation, University of Michigan, 2009.
     9. Felix Wemheuer, “Regime changes of memory,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, vol. 10, no. 1 (winter 2009).
     10. United Nations, State of Food Insecurity in the World ( 007/y5650e/y5650e00.htm).

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