Five years ago, I wrote a column about the unknown Holocaust in Ukraine. I was shocked to receive a flood of mail from young Americans and Canadians of Ukrainian descent telling me that until they read my article, they knew nothing of the 1932—33 genocide in which Stalin’s regime murdered 7 million Ukrainians and sent 2 million to concentration camps.
How, I wondered, could such historical amnesia afflict so many young North-American Ukrainians? For Jews and Armenians, the genocides their people suffered are vivid, living memories that influence their daily lives. Yet today, on the 70th anniversary of the destruction of a quarter of Ukraine’s population, this titanic crime has almost vanished into history’s black hole.
So has the extermination of the Don Cossacks by the Soviets in the 1920′s, and Volga Germans, in 1941; and mass executions and deportations to concentration camps of Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, and Poles. At the end of World War II, Stalin’s gulag held 5.5 million prisoners, 23% Ukrainians and 6% Baltic peoples.
Almost unknown is the genocide of 2 million of the USSR’s Muslim peoples: Chechen, Ingush, Crimean Tatars, Tajiks, Bashkir, Kazaks. The Chechen independence fighters today branded “terrorists” by the US and Russia are the grandchildren of survivors of Soviet concentration camps.
Add to this list of forgotten atrocities the murder in Eastern Europe from 1945—47 of at least 2 million ethnic Germans, mostly women and children, and the violent expulsion of 15 million more Germans, during which 2 million German girls and women were raped.
Among these monstrous crimes, Ukraine stands out as the worst in terms of numbers. Stalin declared war on his own people. In 1932 he sent Commissars V. Molotov and Lazar Kaganovitch, and NKVD secret police chief G. Yagoda to crush the resistance of Ukrainian farmers to forced collectivization
Ukraine was sealed off. All food supplies and livestock were confiscated. NKVD death squads executed “anti-party elements.” Furious that insufficient Ukrainians were being shot, Kaganovitch “the Soviet Adolf Eichmann” set a quota of 10,000 executions a week. Eighty percent of Ukrainian intellectuals were shot.
During the bitter winter of 1932—33, 25,000 Ukrainians per day were being shot or dying of starvation and cold. Cannibalism became common. Ukraine, writes historian Robert Conquest, looked like a giant version of the future Bergan-Belsen death camp.
The mass murder of 7 million Ukrainians, 3 million of them children, and deportation to the gulag of 2 million (where most died) was hidden by Soviet propaganda. Pro-communist westerners, like the New York Times’ Walter Duranty, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, and French Prime Minister Edouard Herriot, toured Ukraine, denied reports of genocide, and applauded what they called Soviet “agrarian reform.” Those who spoke out against the genocide were branded “fascist agents.”
The US, British, and Canadian governments, however, were well aware of the genocide, but closed their eyes, even blocking aid groups from going to Ukraine. The only European leaders to raise a cry over Soviet industrialized murder were, ironically, Hitler and Mussolini. Because Kaganovitch, Yagoda and many senior communist party and NKVD officials were Jewish, Hitler’s absurd claim that communism was a Jewish plot to destroy Christian civilization became widely believed across fearful Europe.
When war came, Roosevelt and Churchill allied themselves closely to Stalin, though they were well aware his regime had murdered at least 30 million people long before Hitler’s extermination of Jews and gypsies began. Yet in the strange moral calculus of mass murder, only Germans were guilty.
Though Stalin murdered 3 times more people than Hitler, to the doting Roosevelt he remained “Uncle Joe.” At Yalta, Stalin even boasted to Churchill he had killed over 10 million peasants. The British-US alliance with Stalin made them his partners in crime. Roosevelt and Churchill helped preserve history’s most murderous regime, to which they handed over half of Europe.
After the war, the Left tried to cover up Soviet genocide. Jean-Paul Sartre denied the gulag even existed. For the Allies, Nazism was the only evil; they could not admit being allied to mass murders. For the Soviets, promoting the Jewish Holocaust perpetuated anti-fascism and masked their own crimes.
The Jewish people saw their Holocaust as a unique event. It was Israel’s raison d’être. Raising other genocides would, they feared, diminish their own.
While academia, media and Hollywood rightly keep attention on the Jewish Holocaust, they ignore Ukraine. We still hunt Nazi killers but not communist killers. There are few photos of the Ukraine genocide or Stalin’s gulag, and fewer living survivors. Dead men tell no tales.
Russia never prosecuted any of its mass murderers, as Germany did.
We know all about crimes of Nazis Adolf Eichmann and Heinrich Himmler; about Babi Yar and Auschwitz.
But who remembers Soviet mass murderers Dzerzhinsky, Kaganovitch, Yagoda, Yezhov, and Beria? Were it not for Alexander Solzhenitsyn, we might never know of Soviet death camps like Magadan, Kolyma, and Vorkuta. Movie after movie appears about Nazi evil, while the evil of the Soviet era vanishes from view or dissolves into nostalgia.
The souls of Stalin’s millions of victims still cry out for justice.