In downtown LA, I noticed a bronze plaque in the civic plaza that reads
In memory of 7,000,000 Ukrainians, victims of Russian communism, who lost their freedom, property and life by order of the Soviet government during 1932-1933 genocide by starvation in Ukraine. -- Dedicated by the Genocide in Ukraine Commemorative Committee, Los Angeles.
I presume the number 7 million on the plaque was chosen by Ukrainian-Americans to one (million) up the 6 million dead of the Jewish Holocaust, but what was the real number?
A reader responds:
According to the Wiki entry for Holodomor, estimates vary anywhere from 1.5 to 10 million, and most scientific estimates put the number somewhere between 2.5 and 4.8 million.
6 million Jews is also an estimate of course; the death toll from Nazi genocide of the Jews is generally estimated to have been between 5 and 6 million.
Some people who like to split hairs about things like these have called the Ukrainian famine a "democide" since its aim was the elimination of the Ukrainian nation but not the Ukrainian people - millions of Ukrainians had to die to accomplish this political goal, but physical liquidation of all Ukrainians was not the objective. This seems to me to be splitting hairs; very few genocides in history have been quite as comprehensive in their intent as the Nazi genocide against the Jews, so that's probably setting the bar too high.
The Ukrainians, in any event, clearly have as good a claim as the Armenians to being victims of genocide, perhaps better, as the famine was clearly both intentional and centrally directed, whereas there is some ambiguity about the Armenian case as to both the objective - eliminate the Armenian nation or forcibly remove it? - and the degree to which it was centrally planned.
(To some degree this debate exists about the Nazi genocide of the Jews as well, but not to the same degree; the functionalist historical school notwithstanding, there's no serious scholarly debate about whether, by the latter years of the war, the Nazis intended to physically exterminate the Jewish people; the debate is about how the Nazis got to that point, to what extent Hitler intended such a plan from 1938, or 1933, or 1924, and to what extent the extermination of the Jews became the primary war aim only once all other war aims were manifestly unachievable.)
In terms of numbers of dead, of course, both tragedies are chicken-feed compared to Mao's Great Leap Forward, which resulted in something like 30 million deaths.
The numbers who died during periods of disorder in China, such as the famine caused by Mao's farm collectivization and backyard steel mill mania, or the 19th Taiping civil war, or An Lushan's rebellion in the 8th Century A.D. are staggering. My impression is that, due to earlier and more universal marriages than in Europe, the Chinese population tended to grow to closer to the ultimate carrying capacity of the land with the current population than in Europe, so periods of bad rule or anarchy led to gigantic die-offs.
The other big question about the Ukrainian Holocaust was just how intentional it was. At one end of the scale, the Jewish Holocaust was extremely intentional because the Nazis paid a price in reduced war effectiveness in order to kill Jews. Extermination was the goal. At the other end of the scale, some of the Chinese die-offs were, I assume, unplanned by-products of dynastic jousting.
Stalin's killing sprees are a little complicated. First, he specifically had huge numbers of people shot for political reasons in urban secret police headquarters. "No man, no problem" was Stalin's byword. Stalin was much more wasteful of his own regime's officials than was Hitler.
But, second, the Gulag labor camps weren't by design death camps like Auschwitz. The goal was to use up every bit of labor in a prisoner, but whether he died or survived and returned home a broken man was a matter of indifference. So, Stalin's camps were more profitable economically to the regime than Hitler's.
Third, there were large scale ethnic cleansings during WWII on Soviet territory, in which large numbers of national minorities died in transit or upon arrival at their forbidding new homes.
Fourth, there was the appalling treatment of returned Soviet prisoners of war by the regime, as memorialized in Al Stewart's song "Roads to Moscow."
And, fifth (and no doubt leaving out several more categories of Soviet beastliness), there was the Ukraine, where the intention was to both extract sufficient grain to fund the forced industrialization of the Soviet Union, and to break the will of Ukrainians to resist the regime, whether on class or national lines or both.
So, massive death tolls as an instrument of intimidation were always part of the plan for the Ukraine, although the goal was never complete extermination, as with Hitler's plan for the Jews, since somebody had to survive to continue slaving in the fields.
Whatever its precise magnitude, the Ukrainian Holocaust is perhaps the most ignored event of the 20th Century. The only persons I've ever heard use the phrase "Ukrainian Holocaust" on television have been Pat Buchanan and Mel Gibson during the "Passion of the Christ" brouhaha. I imagine the phrase went right over the heads of 99% of the people watching the interview, but I also suspect (although without much evidence) that Mel was aiming it to be a thumb in the eye to Abe Foxman of the ADL and the like to show them that he knows that they know the secret of the Ukrainian Holocaust.
What is the secret?
The reason you almost never hear about the Ukrainian Holocaust, unlike, say, the Armenian Holocaust of 1915, is that among "Stalin's Willing Executioners" (to use Berkeley historian Yuri Slezkine's phrase in his landmark 2004 book, The Jewish Century, which restores the dignity of Jews, after decades of being portrayed solely as passive victims of history, by showing how Jews, qua Jews, were among the most dynamic actors in the central events of the 20th Century) in the Ukraine, secular Jews were vastly over-represented in proportion to their small numbers
Stalin went out of his way to assign Jewish secret policemen to the homicidal collectivization of Ukrainian agricultural because, being a close student how he could exploit all that is twisted and hate-ridden in history, he knew that Jewish Communists would be the least likely to show mercy to the Ukrainian peasants due to the ancient ethnic animus between the farmers and the Jews employed by the ruling Polish nobles as rent and tax collectors, a hostility which culminated in the pogroms of the 1648 anti-Polish uprising in the Ukraine.
It's easy, though, to over-estimate the role of Jews during the first 2 to 3 decades of the Soviet Union, as Kevin MacDonald sometimes does. Since they made up no more than 2% of the total population, only at rare times and places did they ever make up a local majority of the Communist ideologues and killers. But that Jews were, on average, the most enthusiastic supporters of the Leninist-Stalinist state of all the many ethnic groups within the Soviet Union seems indisputable after the publication of The Jewish Century by Slezkine, a 1982 dissident refugee from the Soviet Union, who is himself half Jewish.
Of course, the NKVD butcher boys weren't religious Jews, but then neither were many Jewish heroes like Einstein. As Slezkine documents, Bolshevism was appealing to secular Jews for reasons specifically deriving from their Jewish ethnicity:
- Jews were disliked because they were so good at capitalism, so they wanted to get rid of capitalism.
- Jews were disliked for religious reasons, so they wanted to get rid of religion.
- Jews were disliked for nationalistic reasons, so they wanted to get rid of nation-states
And, indeed, as Slezkine copiously documents, Jews rose up to positions of power and prestige faster in the Soviet Union than even in America over the same period, where they were held back by anti-Semitism. That's why so many Communist Jews around the world kept their faith in the Communism even through the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939 and the emergence of overt Soviet anti-Semitism after WWII. Finally, the Soviet Union's siding with Egypt against Israel in 1956 convinced a lot of true believers that the Soviet Union really wasn't good for the Jews.
History has since been rewritten to make Jews into the leading victims of the rise of the Soviet Union, when at the time Jews tended to feel they were the leading beneficiaries.