John Peters Humphrey on the 1932-33 Famine in Ukraine

On September 28 1990, John Peters Humphrey spoke at the Ukrainian Canadian Research and Documentation Centre, a non for profit institution in Toronto, Canada in front of an audience which included the chairman of the institution and most likely professors and other researchers. The topic of his speech, the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine, is known in Ukrainian as Holodomor which translates to “death by hunger”. The following paragraphs examine the controversial nature of labeling the famine in as a genocide, as well as the findings of the  International Commision of Inquiry into the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine.

Humphrey was asked to comment on the report of the International Commission of Inquiry into the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine of which he was a member. The aforementioned commission was set up in 1984 by the World Congress of Free Ukrainians. The primary goal of this commision was to determine whether or not there was a famine in Ukraine from 1932-33, and furthermore, as Humphrey states, “its extent, the cause or causes of the famine; its effect on Ukraine and its people; and, finally, who or what was responsible for the famine.”[1] Another main topic of discussion for the commission was “the meaning of the term genocide and whether the norm prohibiting it already existed in the thirties.”[2] Humphrey argues that “rules of law prohibiting genocide did exist in the thirties and the government of the Soviet Union was bound not to engage in acts amounting to genocide.”[3]

During his speech at the Ukrainian Canadian Research and Documentation Centre, Humphrey discusses the evidence put forth to the International Commission of Inquiry into  into the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine which included “documentary material, the testimony of witnesses […], accounts in contemporary Western press and diplomatic correspondence.”[4] Humphrey remarks that the Commission was unable to examine witnesses in the Soviet Union and archives from that nation, partly because of Soviet denial of the whole event. Humphrey later states that the Soviet Government now admits there was a famine “and that literally millions of people died as a result of it.”[5] The time during which the Commission was investigating the famine, coincides with the rise to power of Mikhail Gorbachev.

Gorbachev was the Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1985-1991 and was President of the Soviet Union from 1990-91. Gorbachev’s policy of Glasnost, increased government transparency, could be attributed to the Soviet Union’s acknowledgment of the occurrence of the 1932-33 Famine in Ukraine. In a memoir, Gorbachev recounts his memories of the effects of the famine on his hometown of Privolnoye in the northern caucasus region of the Soviet Union: “In that terrible year [1933] nearly half the population of my native village, Privolnoye, starved to death, including two sisters and one brother of my father.”[6]

Ultimately the commission found that “there was in fact a famine in the Ukraine in the early thirties.”[7] Humphrey states that the commission found there to be three main causes of the famine; excessive grain procurements, forced collectivization of farms, and liquidation of kulaks (affluent peasants).[8] “The Commission was in full agreement as to the existence of these causes which it also agreed were manmade.”[9] Furthermore, Humphrey exclaims that the Commission found that “Stalin used the occasion of the famine to combat traditional Ukrainian nationalism”[10] which constituted genocide.

The term genocide did not exist until 1944 when a Polish-Jewish lawyer by the name of Raphael Lemkin sought to create a term to describe the Nazi policies of murder in regards to Jews during the Holocaust.[11] The word “genocide” comes from the greek word genos meaning race or tribe, and the latin word cide meaning killing. Humphrey states that “controversy arose in the Commission” because certain members believed “that no such thing as genocide existed until after the 1948 Convention [on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide] came into force.”[12] Additionally, Humphrey reminds his audience at the Ukrainian Canadian Research and Documentation Centre that in 1946 the “U.N General assembly had already declared that genocide is a crime under international law.”[13] Humphrey further exclaims that the 1948 Convention “was simply establishing something more firmly that already existed, namely, the crime of genocide,”[14] effectively countering the argument that the concept of genocide did not exist pre 1948. According to Humphrey, laws prohibiting “elements of genocide” did exist in the thirties but didn’t yet have a name.[15]

John Peters Humphrey concludes his speech at the Ukrainian Canadian Research and Documentation Centre by stating that a man made famine did occur, and “ these individuals [Joseph Stalin and his colleagues] and indeed perhaps the government of the Soviet Union were guilty of genocide” because they used the famine “to combat Ukrainian nationalism.”[16] Humphrey stance on the famine represents a controversial perspective because to this very day, although many countries such as Canada, recognize that the famine was horrific and resulted in the death of millions, not all nations, for example Russia, regard the famine as a genocide against the Ukrainian people. Many “Kremlin officials insist that, while the Holodomor was a tragedy, it was not intentional, and other regions in the Soviet Union suffered at that time.”[17] Furthermore, Ukraine’s current leader Viktor Yanukovych claims it is “”incorrect and unjust” to consider the Holodomor “the genocide of a certain people.””[18] On the flipside, Oleksandra Monetova, from Kiev’s Holodomor Memorial Museum, believes the famine should be considered a genocide: “The officials’ intentions were clear. To me it’s a genocide. I have no doubt.”[19]

While there may still be debate on whether or not the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine should be labeled as a genocide, the event is widely recognized as painful and horrific. In 1983 a monument to Holodomor was erected outside of city hall in Edmonton, Alberta which marked the 50th anniversary of the tragedy. Saskatchewan was the first to recognize Holodomor as a genocide in North America and introduced the The Ukrainian Famine and Genocide Memorial Day Act on May 14 2008. On 2 June 2010, the Province of Quebec  passed bill 390, titled “Memorial Day Act on the great Ukrainian famine and genocide (the Holodomor).”

Yale Historian Timothy Snyder estimates 3.3 million people died during the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine, while others estimate the number is much higher.[20]

[1] MG 4127 C.18 F.363 – Ukrainian-Canadian Research and Documentation Centre, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Mikhail Sergeevich Gorbachev, Manifesto for the Earth: Action Now for Peace, Global Justice and a Sustainable Future (Sussex: Clairview Books, 2006), 10.

[7] MG 4127 C.18 F.363 – Ukrainian-Canadian Research and Documentation Centre, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Raphael Lemkin and the Creation of the Word Genocide,” United to End Genocide, accessed February 20, 2017, http://endgenocide.org/learn/what-is-genocide/.

[12]  MG 4127 C.18 F.363 – Ukrainian-Canadian Research and Documentation Centre, John Peters Humphrey Fonds, McGill University Archives.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Holodomor: Memories of Ukraine’s Silent Massacre,” BBC News, November 23, 2013, http://www.b bc.com/news/world-europe-25058256

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

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