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Ukrainian Holodomor

Volume 564: debated on Tuesday 11 June 2013

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mrs Riordan. Interestingly, this debate follows one about the first world war. The Minister came into the Chamber just after what was said about how we remember our past and how that is very important for our future.

The purpose of the debate is to call on the United Kingdom Government officially to recognise a dreadful and tragic part of Ukraine’s history as genocide. I have met the Ukrainian community in Derby, who are still distressed that we have never recognised the Ukrainian holodomor as genocide, even though other countries have, including some in the Commonwealth.

The Ukrainian holodomor refers most specifically to the brutal, artificial famine imposed on the Ukrainian people in 1932 and 1933 by Stalin’s regime. In its broadest sense, the holodomor refers to the Ukrainian genocide that began in 1929 with massive waves of deadly deportations of Ukraine’s prospering farmers, as well as the deportation and execution of its religious, academic and cultural leaders, which culminated in the devastating forced famine that killed millions of innocent men, women and children. Between 1932 and 1933, a man-made famine raged through Ukraine and Kuban, resulting in the deaths of between 7 million and 12 million people, mainly Ukrainians, and it was instigated by the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin.

There are of course deniers of the holodomor, as there are those who deny the existence of the holocaust. In fact, there is a division of opinion in Ukraine on the number who died—from 2 million or 3 million up to 12 million—but they agree that it was a man-made famine directed at Ukrainians in Ukraine and Kuban, and that it meets the criteria for the definition of genocide in the 1948 UN convention. It is hardly surprising that there is some confusion about the holodomor, because it is poorly documented, the records were manipulated and those who conducted the census were executed.

The main goal of the artificial famine was to break the spirit of Ukrainian farmers and force them into collectivism. It was used as an effective tool to break the resistance of Ukrainian culture. Moscow perceived it as a threat to Russo-centric Soviet rule, and therefore acted brutally and sadistically to crush cultural resistance. The goal of the artificial famine was to ethnically cleanse Ukrainians from vast areas.

In 1932, Stalin increased the basic grain procurement quota for Ukraine by 44%, knowing that such an extraordinarily high quota would result in a grain shortage and the inability of Ukrainian peasants to feed themselves. Such a goal would not have been achievable had the communists not already ruined the nation’s productivity by eliminating the best farmers.

That year, not a single village was able to meet the impossible quota, which far exceeded Ukraine’s best output in previous years. Soviet law was quite clear that no grain could be given to feed the peasants until the quota was met. Stalin then issued one of the cruellest orders of his career: if quotas were not met, all grain was to be confiscated. As one Soviet author wrote much later:

“All the grain without exception was requisitioned for the fulfilment of the Plan, including that set aside for sowing, fodder, and even that previously issued to the kolkhozniki”—

the collectivised peasants—

“as payment for their work.”

The authorisation included seizure of all food from all households, and any home that did not turn over all its grain was accused of hoarding state property.

With the aid of military troops, USSR Government secret police and the USSR law enforcement agency, Communist party officials moved against peasants who might have been hiding grain from the Soviet Government. Of course, to try to avoid starvation, nearly every family attempted to conceal food, as we would expect: if people’s children were dying, they would not want to let their children die, never mind themselves. Experience soon made the brigades proficient at detecting even the cleverest hiding places. The result was mass starvation that took millions of lives during the terrible winter of 1932-33. Food was nearly impossible to find anywhere. Unable to get food, many ate whatever passed for it—weeds, leaves, tree bark and insects; some were lucky enough to be able to live on small woodland animals.

In August 1932, the Communist party of the USSR passed a law mandating the death penalty for theft of social property. Watchtowers were built and were manned by trigger-happy young communists. Thousands of peasants were shot for attempting to take a handful of grain or a few beets from the kolkhozes to feed their starving families.

To put that into perspective, at the height of the genocide, Ukrainians died at a rate of 25,000 per day, and nearly one in four rural Ukrainians perished as a direct result. At the same time, the Soviet Union dumped 1.7 million tonnes of grain on western markets. Nearly a fifth of a tonne of grain was exported for each person who died of starvation, and more than 3 million children born in 1932 and 1933 died of starvation.

Many peasants attempted to reach Ukraine’s cities, such as Kiev, where factory workers were still allowed a little pay and food. However, in December 1932, the communists introduced internal passports. That made it impossible for a villager to get a city job without the party’s permission, which was almost universally denied. The internal passport system was implemented to restrict the movements of Ukrainian peasants so that they could not travel in search of food. Ukrainian grain was collected and stored in grain elevators guarded by military and secret police units, while Ukrainians starved in the immediate area. That Moscow-instigated action was a deliberate act of genocide against the Ukrainian peasants.

Peasants hoped to get to Poland, Romania or even Russia, where there was no famine, but emigration was strictly forbidden. Ukrainian train stations were swamped with the starving who hoped to sneak aboard a train or to beg in the hope that a passenger on a passing train might throw them a bread crust. They were repelled by guards, who found themselves faced with the problem of removing the countless corpses of those who had starved and which littered the stations.

As I said, at the famine’s height, 25,000 people died per day. As the winter of 1932-33 wore on, Ukraine became a panorama of horror. The roadsides were filled with the corpses of those who had died seeking food. The bodies, many of which snow concealed until the spring thaw, were unceremoniously dumped into mass graves by the communists. Many others died of starvation in their homes, with some choosing to end the process by suicide, commonly by hanging—if they had the strength to do it. One American correspondent reported:

“The bodies of some were reduced to skeletons, with their skin hanging grayish-yellow and loose over their bones. Their faces looked like rubber masks with large, bulging, immobile eyes. Their necks seemed to have shrunk onto their shoulders. The look in their eyes was glassy, heralding their approaching death.”

The worst paradox is that much of the confiscated grain was exported to the west, and large portions were simply dumped in the sea or allowed to rot by the Soviets. For example, a huge supply of grain lay decaying under guard at a station in Poltava province. Passing it in a train, an American correspondent saw

“huge pyramids of grain, piled high, and smoking from internal combustion.”

In the Lubotino region, thousands of tonnes of confiscated potatoes were allowed to rot, surrounded by barbed wire.

News of this act of brutality was got out to the west, including to Germany in observations from its consulate in Kharkiv, and to Britain by various journalists, such as Gareth Jones—I have just heard that a book about him is to be published imminently—and Malcolm Muggeridge, who never forgot what he saw. In Canada and the United States, the Ukrainian community explained what was happening.

The genocide continued for several years with further destruction of Ukraine’s political leadership, resettlement of its depopulated areas with other ethnic groups, blatant public denial of famine and prosecution of those who dared to speak of it publicly. It was the official policy of the Soviet Union to deny the existence of a famine and therefore to refuse any outside assistance. Anyone claiming that there was in fact a famine was accused of spreading anti-Soviet propaganda. Inside the Soviet Union, a person could be arrested for even using the words “famine”, “hunger” or “starvation” in a sentence.

The holodomor was kept out of official history until 1991, when Ukraine—a country of 47 million people—finally won its independence. As James Perloff wrote:

“The Holodomor stands as a permanent warning of what happens when unlimited state power destroys God-given rights. A cursory review of America’s Bill of Rights demonstrates that virtually every right mentioned was trampled on by Stalin in Ukraine. Yet although the dictator used every means to eradicate the people’s will, the national spirit lived on unbreakably, until Ukraine gained its independence.”

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. There is a vibrant Ukrainian community in Huddersfield and Colne Valley, and I celebrated Christmas with them in January earlier this year. Four years ago, following an exhibition on the holodomor in the Kalyna community centre in Huddersfield, Kirklees council, my local council, voted to accept that the holodomor was genocide. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is now time for the United Kingdom to recognise formally that these horrific events were in fact genocide?

Yes, and I thank my hon. Friend for intervening with that point. That is exactly what I hope the Minister will be able to say in his response to the debate, because innocent people who have come to this country and are contributing to society in Britain in a very positive way deserve recognition of their horrific past.

Ukraine’s Government are now asking the United Nations to recognise the disaster as an act of genocide. In recent years, the then Ukrainian President, Viktor Yushchenko, ordered the release of old KGB records on the famine. With that information, it has become very apparent that the famine was a deliberate act of genocide—a method to ethnically cleanse Ukrainians from the territories of Ukraine and parts of Russia. At first, only several thousand documents were released. Another batch of 25,000 documents is in the process of being declassified. As more and more documents are released, this event in Ukrainian history has taken on a very ominous tone.

On 28 November 2006, the Parliament of Ukraine—the Verkhovna Rada—passed a law defining the holodomor as a deliberate act of genocide. Since then, many nations have recognised that the holodomor was an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people. Those nations include Australia, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Estonia, Ecuador, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Poland and the United States. Other countries have made a holodomor declaration. They include Argentina, the Czech Republic, Chile, the Slovak Republic, Spain and the Balearic islands, and the Vatican.

Russia is still in complete denial that the event occurred and that it was a deliberate act. In fact, in Russia, it was made illegal to commemorate the event. The success of using food as a weapon to control, punish and eliminate a people was first used by Soviet communists. Since then, it has become a standard tool in the arsenal of communist regimes to control, punish and eliminate people and it has been used by such regimes as China, North Korea, Ethiopia, Cambodia and Zimbabwe.

I am asking the Minister to investigate seriously the issue of the Ukrainian holodomor, which I have raised today. It is time for the UK to follow the example of the countries that I have mentioned—many from the Commonwealth—and set the history record straight once and for all. We have a large Ukrainian community in this country, and I believe that we owe it to them to recognise the extermination of millions of their ancestors who, through no fault of their own, suffered an horrific time. It can be defined only as genocide. That community would be extremely grateful to the Government if they were to change their mind and redefine the holodomor as the genocide that it feels like to so many people. This is not about politics, reparations or blame, but about basic human morality and respect for life.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) for her success in securing this debate and for the way in which she made her case. She did so with a commitment, eloquence and passion that did justice to the gravity of the appalling events that we are debating.

To say that the famine that culminated in 1932 and 1933 was a terrible tragedy is to underestimate the sheer brutality and inhumanity of what took place. I think that my hon. Friend would be the first to agree that the anecdotes and illustrations on which she drew in her speech can give us only the briefest glimpse of an horrific picture that was the daily experience of suffering among people in Ukraine during that time. The numbers of people who were involved and who suffered are staggering. Across vast swathes of what was then the Soviet Union—notably in Ukraine, but also as far west as Moldova and eastwards into Kazakhstan—millions of people starved to death because of the policies of their own Government.

It is a cause for some heart searching in the western world that for decades this tragedy was often overlooked or ignored. Worse, it was in some quarters denied, even among some who had pretentions to serious scholarship. Of course, countless people inside and outside Ukraine have fought to keep alive the memory of those who died in this atrocity and to raise awareness of the holodomor, but probably in the west it was pioneering historians of their time, such as Robert Conquest, who first drew attention to what had happened. I still remember reading as a schoolboy the first volume of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago” and finding there his account of the famine set in its broader context of policies of persecution, policies sometimes of slaughter, that were directed by Lenin and Stalin against the peoples over whom they ruled. What the efforts of those historians and of those many people inside and outside Ukraine have achieved is that people across the world continue to remember those who were lost and reflect today on the warning from history that the famine clearly provides.

There is no question, in the Government’s view, but that the famine took place as a result of Stalin and the actions of his Government. It was a man-made tragedy. It is clear, too, that it was within modern Ukraine where the terrible consequences of those actions were most heavily borne. On the question whether Ukraine was specifically targeted, whether this was a campaign directed by Stalin against any manifestation of Ukrainian nationhood, that is certainly widely believed, although it is not without controversy inside Ukraine, but it is also true that other parts of the then Soviet Union were gravely affected by the famine. In Kazakhstan, for example, the death toll as a proportion of the local population was higher than that in Ukraine. Areas of rural Russia were also affected; innocent people died there, too.

However, it is also clear that the Soviet regime felt deep hostility towards any manifestation of Ukrainian nationalism and it must have known that policies targeting the agricultural regions of the Soviet Union would have a disproportionate effect on Ukraine. The fact that, during the famine, Stalin closed the eastern border of Ukraine to prevent starving peasants from entering Russia in search of food is perhaps one of the strongest indications that his policy was, at least in part, motivated by a hostility towards Ukraine as a nation, with an identity, tradition and culture of its own. I think that no reasonable man or woman today would deny the horror, the atrocity, that was the holodomor.

My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire asks whether the Government will recognise the holodomor formally as a genocide. Given the history of the holodomor, I can well understand the depth and strength of feeling in favour of doing that and why some Parliaments around the world have already done so. As the House knows, there is still a debate among historians and others on the question of recognition of the holodomor as genocide. Genocide has a defined status in international law, following the 1948 UN genocide convention. The holodomor predates the establishment of the concept of genocide in international law and the convention was not drafted to apply retrospectively.

Government policy is that recognition of genocides should be a matter for judicial decision, bearing in mind the terms of the convention and the consequences for individuals and Governments that can follow from the designation of their actions as genocide. It should be for judges, rather than Governments or non-judicial bodies, to make a designation of genocide. Recognition decisions should be based on a credible judicial process, and the courts are best placed to judge what are essentially criminal matters. The British Government have not proactively designated any atrocities as genocide. Those we have recognised—the holocaust, the 1994 killings in Rwanda and the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica—are all cases in which judicial bodies had judged the outrages to be genocide, in line with the definition in international law.

We have made clear, and will continue to make clear, our abiding horror at what happened in Ukraine in the 1930s. Every year, the Ukrainian Government host a formal ceremony of commemoration in Kiev. They invite foreign ambassadors, and our ambassador normally represents the UK at that event. To mark the 75th anniversary of the holodomor in 2008, their Royal Highnesses the Duke of York and Princess Eugenie travelled to Kiev, took part in the ceremony and laid wreathes at the Kiev memorial to the victims of the holodomor.

I give my hon. Friend and the House the undertaking that we will not forget or overlook what happened. It is important for all of us that Governments and peoples throughout Europe continue to learn the lessons from what happened in Ukraine and elsewhere in eastern Europe in those years, to ensure that no one is again tempted towards policies that could have such an appalling effect on innocent men, women and children. We will look for other opportunities to demonstrate our solidarity with the people of Ukraine. We will mark with them the opportunity to mourn those who suffered or lost their lives during the holodomor and recall the importance of remembrance of the atrocity for the new generations growing to adulthood today. Nothing should diminish the horror or magnitude of the events in Ukraine and elsewhere in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. Man-made policies, a brutal dictatorship and a pitiless ideology led to the deaths of many millions of innocent people. That is something that the world cannot and should never forget.

Sitting suspended.