The Ukrainian Holodomor: A Trauma Beyond Trauma (Part I)

A Trauma beyond Trauma: The Great Famine of 1932-1933 in Ukraine

The reign of Joseph Stalin as head of the Politburo of the Communist Party during the 1930s, and then as Premier of the Soviet Union in the 1940s and 1950s, is associated with massive arrests and deportations, the oppression of all forms of religious expression, the destruction of the intelligentsia, and the brutally implemented collectivization of the farming system in Ukraine which resulted in the starvation of a minimum of 5 million people.  In his recently published book, Norman M. Naimark (2010) argues that Stalin should be considered a genocidaire and notes that when this dictator listened to reports of the countless numbers of deaths which were the result of his purges he did not express remorse. Between the late 1920s and his death in 1953, it is said that he was personally responsible for more than a million executions, and that millions more fell victim to massacres, deportations, famine, not to mention detentions and interrogations. Regarding the matter of the Great Famine of Ukraine, termed Holodomor (translated as execution by starvation), Naimark states that “descriptions of the death agony of the Ukrainian killer famine of 1932-33, including widespread cannibalism, left him cold and unmoved” (p. 32).

Naimark (2010) presents a powerful narrative slant on the life of Stalin, and his utilization of the term genocidaire may very well be of his own coinage. Without a doubt, his arguments that Stalin’s name is synonymous with genocide and the collective traumas of millions are consistent with historical records and personal narratives. The specific focus of concern for this study is the millions of victims of what many consider to have been a politically orchestrated famine in Ukraine in 1932-33. But, there exists another narrative which minimizes the famine or even denies the veracity of this claim. Questions remain. Was the famine politically motivated, or caused by bad weather and crop failure? Was the famine genocide?  Can it be considered a collective trauma, defined as “an open wound in the collective memory” (Fassin & Rechtman, 2009)?

A number of authors (Naimark, 2010; Snyder, 2010; Conquest, 1986; Dolot, 1985) point out that the historical record undeniably supports that the famine did occur and that it was the result of the oppression of rural communities. Collectivization, and the consequent starvation, of farmers were in part due to the perception of the Bolsheviks that the peasantry was backward, primitive, attached to religiosity, and inherently petit-bourgeois. With regard to the Ukrainian farmers, the Communist Party was particularly fearful of a growing political sentiment of self-determination and independent statehood. Farmers and peasants were easily labeled as enemies of the state, and their meager ownership of a small plot of land to farm and a few livestock was construed as rampant capitalism.

This inquiry will explore three vital facets of the Great Famine of 1932-33, which some have labeled as “trauma” (Dolot, 1985). The first part of this study will respond to the question of what is the concept of trauma operative within the context of discussions on this human tragedy.  This will continue with an overview of perceived injuries on the part of individuals and the community. Finally, consideration will be given to the question of what are my stakes in engaging this particular material.


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