however, is that Lemkin’s thinking about an international law to punish perpetrators of what he originally labeled the “Crime of Barbarity” came not in response to the Holocaust but rather following the 1915 massacres of Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians within the Ottoman Turkish empire.
Likewise overlooked were Lemkin’s views on Communist crimes against humanity. In a 1953 lecture in New York City, for example, he described the “destruction of the Ukrainian nation” as the “classic example of Soviet genocide,” adding insightfully: “the Ukrainian is not and never has been a Russian. His culture, his temperament, his language, his religion, are all different…to eliminate (Ukrainian) nationalism…the Ukrainian peasantry was sacrificed…a famine was necessary for the Soviet and so they got one to order…if the Soviet program succeeds completely, if the intelligentsia, the priest, and the peasant can be eliminated [then] Ukraine will be as dead as if every Ukrainian were killed, for it will have lost that part of it which has kept and developed its culture, its beliefs, its common ideas, which have guided it and given it a soul, which, in short, made it a nation…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.”
Yet Ukraine’s declaration that the Great Famine of 1932-1933 (known as the Holodomor) was genocide has secured very little official recognition from other states, Canada one of those few. Most have succumbed to an ongoing Holodomor-denial campaign orchestrated by the Russian Federation’s barkers who insist famine occurred throughout the USSR in the 1930’s, did not target Ukrainians and so can’t be called genocide. They ignore key evidence – the fact that all foodstuffs were confiscated from Soviet Ukraine even as its borders were blockaded, preventing relief supplies from getting in, or anyone from getting out. And how the Kremlin’s men denied the existence of catastrophic famine conditions as Ukrainian grain was exported to the West. Millions could have been saved but were instead allowed to starve. Most victims were Ukrainians who perished on Ukrainian lands. There’s no denying that.
A thirst for Siberian oil and gas explains why Germany, France and Italy have become Moscow’s handmaidens, refusing to acknowledge the Holodomor and blocking Ukraine’s membership in the European Union, kowtowing to Russia’s geopolitical claim of having some “right” to interfere in the affairs of countries in its so-called “near abroad.” More puzzling was a 28 January 2009 pronouncement by Pinhas Avivi, deputy director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry: “We regard the Holodomor as a tragedy but in no case do we call it genocide…the Holocaust is the only genocide to us.” Yet if only the Shoah is genocide what happened to the Armenians, or to the Rwandans, not to mention to those many millions of Ukrainians?
This year the 28th November is the date on which the Holodomor’s victims will be hallowed. Thousands of postcards bearing Lemkin’s image and citing his words have been mailed to ambassadors worldwide with governments from Belgium to Botswana, from Brazil to Bhutan, being asked to acknowledge what was arguably the greatest crime against humanity to befoul 20th century European history. There is no doubt that Lemkin knew the famine in Soviet Ukraine was genocidal. If the world chooses to ignore what he said than what this good man fathered – the word “genocide” – will loose all meaning, forevermore.
Professor Lubomyr Luciuk teaches political geography at the Royal Military College of Canada and edited Holodomor: Reflections on the Great Famine of 1932-1933 in Soviet Ukraine (Kashtan Press, 2008).