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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Holodomor Wikileaks and Russia's Single Historical Space

The Holodomor won’t go away. This past weekend, we marked the sad anniversary of the terror-famine that occurred nearly eighty years ago. And just when the Kremlin thought it was over for another year, the Holodomor has surfaced in the wikileaked US embassy cables.

Ukraine is mentioned in eight of the 278 embassy cables leaked thus far, and it’s not just in connection with Muammar al-Qadhafi’s “voluptuous” Ukrainian nurse. 

(The US Embassy in Kyiv is not (yet?) among the embassies listed as sources for the cables.)

The Holodomor is referenced twice in cables from the past two years.

At the end of October 2008, the US Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Tatiana Gfoeller attended a lunch briefing in Bishkek with Prince Andrew of the British crown ahead of his royal highness’ meeting with the Kyrgyz government. Many issues were discussed, and the Prince “pounced” when the topic of Russia came up:

"[Prince Andrew] stated the following story related to him recently by Azerbaijan’s President Aliyev. Aliyev had received a letter from President Medvedev telling him that if Azerbaijan supported the designation of the Bolshevik artificial famine in Ukraine as 'genocide' at the United Nations, 'then you can forget about seeing Nagorno-Karabakh ever again.' Prince Andrew added that every single other regional President had told him of receiving similar 'directive' letters from Medvedev except for Bakiyev. He asked the Ambassador if Bakiyev had received something similar as well. The Ambassador answered that she was not aware of any such letter."
More recently, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov raised the Holodomor with Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman when the two met in Moscow at the beginning of June 2009, according to a US Moscow embassy cable:

"Lavrov raised Russian concern with ‘historical revisionism’ regarding the Soviet Era and Second World War, which, he said, was particularly acute in Eastern Europe but was also present in Israel. He cited Israel's official recognition of the Holodomor, the 1930s famine that occurred in Ukraine. Lieberman explained that by recognizing this tragedy, Israel had not said Russia was guilty of causing it, nor that it was an act of genocide."
Lieberman has probably not read Raphael Lemkin’s assessment of the Soviet genocide in Ukraine. Lemkin was a Jewish lawyer who lived in Poland near border with Soviet Ukraine during the years of Holodomor; he was also the man who is credited with coining the term genocide.

Then again, Israel is no longer all that interested in history. At least that’s the message Israel’s President Shimon Peres recently delivered in Ukraine when, during a public lecture on “political and economic challenges in the epoch of globalization,” he said:

“If I was asked what advice to give Ukraine, I’d say: forget history, history isn’t important... you won’t be able to avoid the mistakes of the past, you’ll simply repeat them,” according to the BBC.

Wow is right. Anyway, back to wikileaks and Holodomor: Why would the President of Russia threaten the leaders of former Soviet states with dire consequences if they recognize the Holodomor as genocide? Why would the Russian foreign minister raise the same issue with his Israeli counterpart?

Ukraine never blamed Russia as a state for anything; in fact a Ukrainian court established the guilt of seven organizers of the famine led by Josyf Stalin: two Russians, two Jews, a Georgian, Pole and Ukrainian.

So what exactly irked Russia about former President Yushchenko’s campaign surrounding the Holodomor?

Some would argue that reparations could be demanded from the Russian Federation, as the legal successor state of the USSR, if the international community recognizes genocide (kinda like the Germans paying for the Holocaust).

Others would argue that Russia is not afraid of paying, it’s more afraid of losing face.

Others would argue that Ukraine’s Holodomor narrative – and any historical narrative that’s independent of Russia’s – is unacceptable, because it will undermine Russia’s plans to re-establish hegemony.

Not only does Russia want Ukraine to be part of the Single Economic Space, it also wants all the Soviet republics to be part of the Single Historic Space. (The Single Religious Space and Patriarch Kiril’s Russian world Orthodox Church is part of that plan, too, but that’s another issue altogether).

There can be no room for Ukraine’s unique Holodomor in the common, shared experience of the Soviet Union. Collectivization can only be a common tragedy shared by all the people united by a Great Fatherland (as in Great Patriotic War instead of WWII).

Ask Education Minister Dmytri Tabachnyk: he can give you a copy of the new history text book he's writing for Ukrainian schoolchildren -- it'll all be in there.

Moscow just won’t have it any other way, as the wikileaks have shown. And that makes the Holodomor and other events from the past more than just far off history: it’s about the geopolitics of the very near future.

Friday, November 26, 2010

How many million will be enough?

In the presidential “Slovo” to the people of Ukraine on occasion of Holodomor Remembrance Day, President Victor Yanukovych’s slovo-writers take a sarcastic swipe at those people who claim that “three to five to seven million and even more” died from the tragedy.

Is the president really using the occasion of the Holodomor as an opportunity to criticize his political opponents?

More likely, this debate over the number of victims is allowing Yanukovych to avoid the real issue: that the 1932-33 Holodomor was part of the sustained Soviet genocide in Ukraine.

A similar swipe at Ukrainian Canadians was recently taken by a Canadian journalist in his blog. I left a comment earlier this week, but it has not appeared there. I don’t know why (or if) it’s being censored, so I’ll make the point here, because I feel it’s an important one, especially in the run up to the sad Holodomor anniversary.

By way of background, in his blog entry “Hyperbole has no place in national tragedies,” Peter O’Neil scolds Canada’s Prime Minister and Ukrainian Canadians for claiming that ten million people died in the Holodomor. *

O’Neil decided to take issue with the “ten million” figure after an academic from Australia wrote him that it was wrong. O’Neil did not report that this same academic, Stephen Wheatcroft, has claimed that the “famine was an accidental consequence of ill-conceived policies” and “ecological factors.”

O’Neil’s research let him to discover that other academics felt that the estimate of ten million deaths in 1932-33 is excessive and decided to make a story of it called “Harper accused of exaggerating Ukrainian genocide's death toll .”  (He also chose to make Harper’s visit to Lonsky Street Prison Museum in Lviv one-sided, but that’s another story.)

In focusing on the ten million, what O’Neil failed to realize that rather than an attempt to maliciously exaggerate the number of dead of the part of the PM and/or Ukrainian Canadians, something may have simply been lost in translation: Was it ten million in 1932 and 1933, or ten million in multiple famines in 1921 to 23, 1932 and 33 and 1946 and 47 combined? O’Neil failed to mention that there was more than one artificial famine during Ukraine’s Soviet experience.

I wrote, copied and pasted my comment, but it appears to be trashed by the censors. Working from memory, I wrote something along the following lines:
The monument in Kyiv where Stephen Harper honoured the victims of artificial famines is in memory of those innocents who died in the holodomors – plural.
The Soviets engineered the deaths of Ukrainians by starvation in 1921-23 and 1946-47 as well. The 1932-33 famine was but one episode in the three decades Lenin, Stalin and their bolsehvik henchmen spent killing Ukrainians through civil war, famine, execution, collectivization, forced labour and other means as they tried to replace the Ukrainian “ethnic material” with a new kind of person called homo sovieticus.
If you tally the number of Ukrainians killed by the communists between the 1920s and 50s, then saying that they killed ten million – or the equivalent of the population of Canada – would not be a stretch. It would be understatement.
But be wary of those trying to make this a debate about millions! That’s taking away from the bigger issue raised by PM Stephen Harper during his visit to Ukraine – and covered by the Ukrainian media – an issue that’s obfuscated by the debate over millions, namely that the crime of communism, and the communists themselves, have not had their Nuremberg.
Would the Holocaust not be genocide if only four million Jews were killed? Or (something an O’Neil might appreciate) would the Potato Famine be less of a tragedy if the population of Ireland fell by only fifteen percent?

Harper’s statements on communism not having its Nuremberg and genocide of Ukrainians were, in my opinion, more newsworthy than a rehash of the tired and old millions debate kept alive by O’Neil’s sources.*

But that news took a back seat to a chance to criticize Harper, Ukrainian “nationalists” and do some moral grandstanding. It’s just too bad that the memories of X million have to be dragged through the mud for the purposes of satisfying egos and avoiding the genocide charge.

As for Yanukovych, who wants "truth above all" in matter concerning the Holodomor, perhaps the truth about all the crimes of communism will come to see the light during his presidency. Perhaps this willl be accomplished by the communist he appointed to head the Institute of National Memory. For comparison's sake, that's like appointing a neo-Nazi to head Yad Vashem.

* Peter O’Neil’s favourite source when it comes to matters of Ukrainian history has been self-dubbed "anti-historian" John Paul Himka of the University of Alberta who wrote “How Many Perished in the Famine and Why Does It Matter?” in 2008.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Yanukovych's left foot

Yo Vic! Look Left!

Yanukovych better start looking both ways before crossing Ukraine’s political street. The “left” is increasingly joining the “right” in criticizing him; the union in parliament and cabinet between the communists and his Regions is being questioned by the believers of bolshevism.

Communist Party of Ukraine leader Petro Symonenko said that his reds are the “only political opposition” in Ukrainian society to the “governing oligarchic capital.” Speaking after local elections that saw his party clash with the Regions in eastern Ukraine and Crimea – areas that provide core support for both parties – Symonenko appeared on the defensive as he justified his party’s cooperation with the Regions in parliament as “tactics.” He said his communists joined the Regions in creating the governing coalition in parliament and cabinet for the sake of “stability” and the chance to better protect the rights of the working class.

Why is Symonenko now justifying his party’s cooperation with the government? He didn’t see the need to do so nine months ago, when his party essentially delivered Yanukovych the victory in the presidential elections.

Yanukovych won those elections by less than fifty percent of the vote. He beat Yulia Tymoshenko in the second round by 887,000 votes; Symonenko scored 872,000 votes two weeks earlier in the first round of elections before endorsing Yanukovych in round two.

Yanukovych thanked the communists with positions in government, including control of the Institute of National Memory (that’s supposed to deal with the crimes of communism) and the appointment of Dmitri “the false” Tabachnyk to head the education and sciences ministry.

Yanukovych and his party have remained true to some of the ideological tenets they share with the commies, including genocide-denial, no to NATO, hate for Halychyna, love for Russia and the Russian language.

But issues of history, language and geopolitics tend to take a back seat when hunger and basic social needs are driving peoples’ needs.

Yanukovych’s government is working closely and depending on the IMF for sustained bailout and pushing through some unpopular measures like raising natural gas prices for residential consumers (after promising lower prices as a result of prolonging Russia’s lease of its naval base in Crimea).

These measures, coupled with funny business at the ballot box that saw the Regions snatch some sure victories away from the commies, have some communists to start asking questions. One prominent communist leader, Leonid Grach of Crimea, demonstrably left the party caucus in protest over his party’s marriage of convenience. All of a sudden the communist leaders have some splaining to do to their rank-and-file rickies and lucies with coal on the soles of their shoes.

Leonid Kuchma was once confronted by an opposition that transcended left and right, but he made sure it remained fragmented and divided by skilfully making concessions to the right and the left as required. Yanukovych could borrow a page from Kuchma’s playbook, but will firing Tabachnykoff, for example, be enough when students come out to protest Russian as a second-language and higher tuition fees?