On September 20, 1953, Dr. Raphael Lemkin, a legal scholar, spoke in New York City about Stalin’s four-pronged offensive against Ukraine. That country’s dismemberment began with the evisceration of its heart, mind and soul, achieved through the murder or deportation of Ukraine’s writers and poets, intelligentsia and clergy. That outrage was coupled with a body blow against Ukraine’s peasantry, the repository of the nation’s traditions, orchestrated through a man-made famine. To finish off the assault, the country’s ethnic character was diluted through a mass resettlement of non-Ukrainians, particularly along Ukraine’s eastern marches.
Lemkin, known to history as “the father of the UN Genocide Convention,” understood clearly what had been done, branding it a “classic example of a Soviet genocide.” He estimated that five million Ukrainians perished during the Great Famine of 1932-1933, now known as the Holodomor. Another observer, Fred E. Beal, reported this same figure in his 1937 book Proletarian Journey. In a conversation held in 1933 with one of the famine’s architects, Grigory Petrovsky, the president of the ostensibly independent Soviet Ukraine, Beal asked, “They say five million people have died this year… What are we going to tell them?” Petrovsky responded frankly, “Tell them nothing! What they say is true. We know that millions are dying. That is unfortunate, but the glorious future of the Soviet Union will justify that. Tell them nothing!”
Demographers now calculate that more than four million Ukrainians starved in just six months, one of the greatest genocides to befoul 20th century European history, yet for decades, what happened was almost forgotten. Those who spoke out were invariably derided, most notably Gareth Jones, a brilliant Welsh journalist whose first-hand accounts of widespread starvation were suppressed by the “fake news” spread by Walter Duranty, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Moscow correspondent of The New York Times. He knowingly bleated the Kremlin line that there was no famine at all. Another truth-teller was the courageous Jewish-Canadian journalist, Rhea Clyman, whose searing accounts of the horror included a May 1933 article in the Toronto Telegraph. She described a peasant near Kharkiv crying, “We have no bread! We have nothing to eat. Our children were eating grass in the spring... there was nothing else for them.”
Despite these cris de coeur, and even with Pope Pius XI’s willingness to organize international relief, millions endured agonizing deaths. Appallingly, their destruction was covered up because, as the British Foreign Office’s Laurence Collier wrote in June 1934, “The truth of the matter is, of course, that we have a certain amount of information about famine conditions… there is no obligation on us not to make it public. We do not want to because the Soviet Government would resent it and our relations with them would be prejudiced.”
Even more troubling is how, on September 26, 1933, William Strang, of the British Embassy in Moscow, recorded Duranty admitting, “As many as 10 million people may have died directly or indirectly from lack of food in the Soviet Union during the past year.” That intelligence was buried. Western governments were complicit in the cover-up of this genocide.
Decades passed before Lemkin’s text was located in The New York Public Library. Published in 2008, widely circulated and translated into many languages since, the thoughts of the man who coined the word “genocide” tell us he was in no doubt that “A famine was necessary for the Soviets and so they got one to order, by plan… This is not simply a case of mass murder; it is a case of genocide, of the destruction, not of individuals only, but of a culture and a nation.” Stalin’s offspring, the descendants of those who dismissed survivor accounts as the ranting of anti-Soviet émigrés, cannot ignore Dr Lemkin’s conclusion.
On September 20, with our friends at the Ukrainian Institute of America, the world’s first and only English, Ukrainian, Yiddish and Hebrew plaque, honoring Dr. Lemkin for recognizing the genocidal nature of the famine while hallowing the memory of the millions who perished, was unveiled. Flowers were placed on his grave. This was all done on the 65th anniversary of his speech, in the company of ambassadors, scholars, writers and the public. Remembering a man who spoke truth to power was our privilege, especially at a time when the KGB man in the Kremlin and his minions not only deny the Holodomor but deploy troops against a free Ukraine.
I was a newborn when Dr Lemkin spoke; now I am older than he was when he died. Yet I know that what happened 85 years ago will not be forgotten, never again, and for that we have thanked a righteous man by the name of Raphael Lemkin.
The author is a professor of political geography at The Royal Military College of Canada.