Holodomor and Holocaust

Nikita Kadan, from the series “Mutilated Myth”, 2020


Holodomor and Holocaust

Georgiy Kasianov on the Politics of Memory.

Vulnerable, violated bodies, encircled by dark figures, fleeing from the perpetrators. It’s hard to look and not to look at these images, which seem like a horrifying anticipation of the catastrophe that Ukraine is currently experiencing. Nikita Kadan’s (1982, Kyiv) images from the series “Multilated Myth” (2020) blatantly uncover the horrors of mass violence and the Holocaust in Ukraine in 1930-40s. In his work, he focuses particularly on the impotence of Ukrainian contemporary society to deal with its past traumas, appealing to existing documentary images in Soviet and Polish archives.*

Georgiy Kasianov on the Politics of Memory

The horrific evidence of terror against civilians added to the apocalyptic pictures of devastated Ukrainian cities and destroyed hospitals, schools, theaters, and churches. Lawyers speak of war crimes as well as crimes against humanity. Politicians declare it a genocide, a term which initially emerged as a political marker to draw global attention to the inhumane treatment of civilians. However, this is not only about murder, rape, and torture, it is also about creating unlivable conditions for civilians. The fate of the residents of the besieged Mariupol or occupied Bucha may serve as horrific examples in this regard.

However, in addition to the narrow legal definition of genocide–or the political instrumentalization of the term–we can also discuss a broader, existential context. Putin and his entourage do not recognize the existence of Ukrainians as separate sovereign people. In their worldview, reinforced by sick historical delusions, Ukrainians are only a part of “historical Russia;” therefore, Ukrainians and Russians supposedly constitute a single people. Any claim of independent existence by Ukrainians therefore presents an existential threat to the “historical body” of the Russian people. According to this worldview, part of this body suddenly decided to secede, live independently, and join the hostile West, calling for surgical measures to either reattach, amputate, or destroy it. Not surprisingly, Ukrainians, in turn, perceive this approach as an existential threat to their being. They understand Putin’s intentions and actions as a desire to destroy them as an independent, sovereign cultural, ethnic, and political entity. Therefore, they themselves refer to the Kremlin dreamer’s war against Ukraine as genocide.

The term genocide is nothing new to Ukrainians, especially in their relations with Russia. In 1932-1933, Ukraine, which was then part of the Soviet Union, lost about 4 million (about 13% of the total population) to an artificial famine resulting from the actions of the top Soviet leadership in Moscow and Kyiv. In 2006, the Ukrainian parliament passed a political resolution calling the famine of 1932-1933 (Holodomor) genocide. While academic circles (primarily Western) are still debating whether the famine of 1932-1933 was in fact genocide, in Ukraine, over 80% of the public agree with this classification, according to opinion polls.

Nikita Kadan, from the series “Mutilated Myth”, 2020

School history curricula and textbooks presented the Holodomor as the biggest tragedy for Ukrainians in the 20th century. As a form of cultural memory, the Holodomor lives on in dozens of movies and thousands of studies, and is extensively covered in the media. In addition, around seven thousand Holodomor monuments and memorials commemorate the event and its victims, and the legislatures of nearly two dozen countries in Europe and North America have acknowledged it as a genocide.

Ukrainians are familiar with the concept of genocide also in connection with other tragedies that occurred on Ukrainian territory: Every fourth victim of the Holocaust is from Ukraine. Unlike in Western Europe, most Jews exterminated by the Nazis in Ukraine were killed where they lived. The extermination of Ukrainian Jews therefore is called the "Holocaust by bullets".

Official politics of memory in Ukraine has focused on making the Holodomor the primary historical marker of Ukraine on the world stage (in effect copying the experience of constructing a global memory of the Holocaust) and placing it at the center when forming the Ukrainian historical identity. Until the mid-2000s, the Holocaust was absent in Ukrainian history textbooks; it was only presented in the world history textbooks as an external, European event. Therefore, it was not possible to measure how much Ukrainians know about the Holocaust in their country. Although sociologists have conducted about a dozen opinion polls on the Holodomor since 2006, no survey about the Holocaust was undertaken until 2021.

Moreover, the promotion of the Holodomor as a constitutive Ukrainian historical event resulted in a bizarre (however hidden) victimhood competition. In fact, the number of victims of the Holodomor was deliberately exaggerated within this competition paradigm. To come out "on top," it had to exceed six million, thus the numbers were inflated to the unbelievable seven or even ten million. It is worth mentioning that the Ukrainian academic community by in large did not support this questionable undertaking.

Russia has played a tremendous role in shaping the Ukrainian historical consciousness, with Ukrainian elites considering Russia as a constitutive Other.

Promoting the cultural memory of the Holocaust in Ukraine was primarily the work of non-governmental organizations funded by Western donors. Ukraine only started officially commemorating the International Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2011.

However, the situation has recently begun to change. In 2016, the word Holocaust–previously nearly absent from the vocabulary of top Ukrainian politicians–began to be heard at the highest political level. Special sections on the Holocaust in Ukraine suddenly appeared in the school textbooks and curricula. In 2019, Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky personally supported a grandiose memorial project at Babyn Yar, which was initiated by private investors.

In 2021, the first opinion poll devoted to the Holocaust marked an impressive change: 81 percent of respondents in Ukraine identified the Holocaust as an integral part of Ukrainian national memory.

However, the combination of glorification at the state level of organizations and figures of the Ukrainian nationalist movement and commemoration of Holocaust victims pertains to the most acute problem. The Ukrainian nationalists not only held openly anti-Semitic positions during World War II (following the narrative of Judeo-Bolshevism), they also collaborated with Nazis in exterminating Jews.

Finally, it was only during Russia’s war against Ukraine that the Ukrainian state officially recognized the 1944 deportation of Crimean Tatars by Stalin as genocide of the Crimean Tatar people. Until 2016, Crimean Tatars themselves commemorated May 18 as the Day of Genocide of Crimean Tatar People, while state bodies neglected to observe this anniversary.

Nikita Kadan, from the series “Mutilated Myth”, 2020

The 20th century–or as Eric Hobsbawm put it, the age of extremes–was a tremendously traumatic period for Ukraine. To understand why the victimhood narrative is so strongly represented in Ukrainian history, one must simply consider a long sequence of events, such as the First World War, the revolutions, the struggle for independence from 1917 to 1920, Stalin’s repressions during the 1930s to 1950s, the occupation, the mass famines from 1921 to 1923 and again from 1946 to 1947 to. For the first twenty years of independence, this narrative has dominated representations of the past, echoing the patterns of historical consciousness of Eastern European nations in the second half of the 19th century.

Since 2014, however, a heroic narrative based on the ethics of resistance and struggle for independence has replaced it. The revolt in the winter of 2014, known as the Revolution of Dignity, resulted in the re-emergence of the heroic and militant Cossack myth. Courage, stoicism, and the spirit of freedom cultivated as particularly Cossack virtues became the most popular values of the protesters. This was complemented by the story of the heroic sacrifice of the young defenders of Kyiv, who fought with Bolsheviks near Kruty railway station in the winter of 1918. Graffiti drawn by protesters on the walls near barricades read: “Our Kruty are here.” The cult of the Ukrainians Insurgent Army and the Organization of Ukrainians Nationalists emphasizing sacrificial heroism and the ability to fight under highly unfavorable circumstances also became a part of the official politics of memory. According to sociological polls, the peak of the public appreciation of the UPA and OUN struggle for independence coincides with the time of the Russian hybrid war against Ukraine after 2014. The share of support for recognizing UPA and OUN as independence fighters raised from 27% in 2013 to 49% in 2017.

Russia has played a tremendous role in shaping the Ukrainian historical consciousness, with Ukrainian cultural and political elites considering Russia as a constitutive Other. The book’s title, published by President Leonid Kuchma in 2003, formulates it clearly: “Ukraine is not Russia.” The whole history of Ukrainian independence since 1991 is a history of the emancipation of Ukraine from Russian dominance: cultural, political, economic, and historical. Putin has labeled Ukraine as an anti-Russia and used this label as a casus belli. However, he has misunderstood history in this regard. Ukraine does not want to be anti-Russia, nor does it want to be Russia. However, his criminal effort to bring Ukraine back to Russia through war and destruction is what will turn Ukraine into an anti-Russia.

Georgiy Kasianov is a historian with interest in the social, political and cultural history of Ukraine in the 19th and 20th centuries. He is Head of the Laboratory of International Memory Studies, Marie Curie-Sklodowska University, Lublin.

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