The Concept of Trauma within Holodomor Narratives

In his memoirs, the first post-Soviet president of an independant Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk recalls that it was his job to deny the criminality of the Great Famine, of the Holodomor. In the early 1980s, publications were beginning to appear in the Western press on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of this tragedy. Kravchuk states that “a counter-propaganda machine was put into action, and that he was one of its ‘wheels’” (Kyiv Scoop Blog, May 13, 2008).  In 1984, Kravchuk had an opportunity to study archival materials on the famine. Initially he found himself  trying to chase away the idea that the famine was a form of torture created by political design. Kravchuk continued to delve into the archival records and his initial shock turned into a powerful sense of guilt over the crimes of the Communist Party which he was still a member of.  In this blog interview he states that

the crime was so horrible and the Communist Party’s guilt so apparent, that I lost the ability to think about anything else. I had always enjoyed a strong sleep, even in hostile conditions. But now I first encountered insomnia: the faces of the children killed by famine stood before my eyes constantly. I began to feel remorseful as I realized that I belong to an organization that can justifiably be called criminal. (Kyiv Scoop Blog, May 13, 2008)


Kravchuk remained diligent in his research and requested data on the levels of rainfall during 1932-33. The appropriate offices in Moscow provided him with detailed information that indicated that the levels of precipitation for those years were normal. Attempts to dismiss the government’s complicity in starving it citizens by informing the public that the famine was the result of a drought were simply false.

The third president of Ukraine Viktor Yuschenko, himself the victim of an assassination attempt by dioxin poisoning, has called upon world governments to recognize the Great Famine as a program of mass starvation organized by the state. In his writings on this subject, he estimates that 7-10 million people starved to death which included a third of the nation’s children. He recalls that during the Soviet era it was politically “dangerous for Ukrainians to discuss their greatest national trauma” (Yuschenko, 2007). Talk about the famine was considered to be a crime against the state, and the personal narratives of survivors and the works of Holodomor historians, such as Robert Conquest and James Mace, were banned as anti-Soviet propaganda.  The presidency of Viktor Yuschenko opened up the narrative gap that was being denied in the history of  his people. In defining the famine as a trauma of national proportion he pressed for his own government’s official recognition of a history that created a political policy of collectivization which resulted in confiscation not only of property, but also of all foodstuffs which were harvested.

In attempting to define the operative concept of trauma within the context of the Holodomor, it needs to be noted that this term is used less frequently than the designation of the famine as an act of genocide.  Naimark’s designation of Stalin as a genocidaire in his book Stalin’s Genocides (2010) suggests that there still remains a need for famine historians to identify a perpetrator who was the author of this tragedy. In contrast to Hitler whose legacy of genocide was of tried and condemned at Nuremberg, Stalin remains the subject of a heroic narrative which casts him as Russia’s victor over facism. In fact when the Russian public in 2009 was asked by a television station to pick the most popular name in their history, Stalin was the top choice. Edward Radzinsky, who authored a biography of Stalin in 1995, is not surprised by this choice because the generation born after the fall of the Soviet Union has been raised on a diet of imperial myth and the glory of a country which once spanned one sixth of the earth’s geography. But, Radzinsky feels that history will judge Stalin appropriately, and that he will get the name he deserves, the Torturer (Naralenkova, 2009).  Since there were no post-Soviet attempts to prosecute the Communist Party and the KGB for crimes against humanity, it is not surprising that Stalin’s shadow legacy remains buried.

If there is no perpetrator, there is no victim and no crime. History is obliterated and the traumatic event denied as ever happening. Susan J. Brison (2002) in writing about her own experience as a result of having been raped, presents an overview of the extremely difficult terrain of making sense of the injury to self which trauma unleashes. She recounts her own periods of disbelief and derealization, and although she does mention that in her case she sensed that the police were empathetic and supportive, she did “get glimpses of the humiliating insensitivity victims routinely endure” (p. 8). It did not help that she experienced feeling a massive denial of her trauma by those around her. In Susan’s case, her love for her husband and his support, and the successful prosecution of the perpetrator were significant and positive moments in her long and painful recovery. This is not the case for many rape victims who rarely benefit from the empathy of others, and who sadly remain silent about their trauma. The ability to create a narrative of the trauma experienced is essential in any attempts towards recovery. In terms of the trauma of the famine, denial by other ethnic groups and governments still remains a key obstacle in attending to this wound in the collective memory of the Ukrainian people, and especially in the memories of survivors who are still alive.

Malcolm Muggeridge, a journalist for the Manchester Guardian, was one person who attempted to present his eyewitness narrative of the Great Famine to the public. His story is an amazing one. In early 1933 he secretly set off on a train and visited Ukraine. What Muggeridge witnessed he would never forget. Fortunately, he was able to smuggle a series of articles out of the Soviet Union in a diplomatic pouch. In these articles he described endless crowds of starving people who looked like famished cattle, and who were sometimes in the sight of full granaries which were guarded by the police. In a column devoted to his memory, Ian Hunter (2000) quotes a statement made by Muggeridge: “At a railway station early one morning, I saw a line of people with their hands tied behind them, being herded into cattle trucks at gunpoint- all so silent and mysterious and horrible in the half light, like some macabre ballet.” Unfortunately, hardly anyone believed Muggeridge. As a matter of fact, he was subsequently fired by his newspaper, forced to leave the Soviet Union, and slandered by journalists such as Walter Duranty who was sympathetic to the social experiment of the Soviet Union.  Publicly Duranty denied that citizens of Ukraine were starving, but as Hunter notes Duranty privately told an acquaintance at the British Foreign Office that at least 10 million people had starved to dead, and that he also cynically added that “they’re only Russians” (Hunter, 2000, p. 2).

Central to Muggeridge’s eyewitness testimony is the profound effect this had on him for the rest of his life. Hunter (2000) cites the following entry in Muggeridge’s personal diary:

Whatever else I may do or think in the future, I must never pretend that I haven’t seen this. Ideas will come and go; but this is more than an idea. It is peasants kneeling down in the snow and asking for bread. Something that I have seen and understood (Hunter, 2000, p.2).

Reminiscent of the controversy surrounding the reception of the testimonio I, Rigoberta Menchu, Kay Schaffer and Sidonie Smith (2004) wisely point out that the efficacy of speaking on behalf of trauma victims, as in Muggeridge’s case, is subject to an audience which may recontextualize the narrative and even reject it outright.  It was not until the 1990s that Muggeridge’s account of the trauma he witnessed was vindicated.  Ironically, it was Duranty’s own biographer, Susan Taylor, who in commenting on Muggeridge’s eyewitness accounts, attributed the denial of their veracity as attempts by the Soviet government and its sympathizers to coverup these crimes with the intent of hiding the perpetrators from public scrutiny (Hunter, 2000).

This cursory overview of the operative concept of trauma within the context of the Holodomor in Ukraine in the early 1930s indicates that it is synonymous with the politically orchestrated starvation of a specific group of people. As has been noted, historians who are sympathetic to the victims of Stalin’s policy of collectivization have defined trauma as genocide, i.e. the intentional destruction of the Ukrainian people as an ethnic group by starvation.

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