Communism and Hunger

The Holodomor Research and Education Consortium (HREC), the Munk School of Global Affairs and the Asian Institute at the University of Toronto along with the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta organized the ‘Communism and Hunger’ conference which took place at the University of Toronto and at the St. Vladimir’s Institute in Toronto.
The conference turned out to be a comparative study between the Ukrainian, Chinese, Kazakh and Soviet famines. It brought together the leading scholars of famine studies and hosted a interesting dialogue and comparative debate between the scholars and students present. Some of the most well-known scholars in the Holodomor and Chinese (“The Great Leap Forward” famine of 1958-1961) famines included Nicolas Werth, Lucien Bianco and Andrea Graziosi were in attendence.
Nicolas Werth from the L’Institut D’Histoire du Temps Présent in France opened the conference with an outline of the famines that happened under the Soviet Union (from 1928-33). Werth mentioned the contrast of the late 1920’s in Soviet history: while it was seen as the golden age of peasantry in Soviet political and historical circles, there was actually a famine occurring on the ground which killed tens of thousands of peasants. It was because of this first famine that the peasant economy became so fragile and weak that Stalin’s policies in the early 1930’s managed to almost completely destroy the Ukrainian peasants. Werth also pointed out that the famine, which occurred along the Volga, should not be compared with that of the Holodomor as national policies were not considered the principle reasons for its occurrence.
Werth concluded his talk with pointing out the following statistics: 92% of those who died in the Holodomor were located in the rural areas of central Ukraine while only 8% were the small and middle class populations of the cities. Werth explained that the Holodomor was a political act against the bearers of the Ukrainian national political and social identity – the Ukrainian peasantry.
Lucien Bianco of the School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in France compared the Soviet and Chinese famines and stated the horrors of death were prevalent in both cases. He particularly looked at the medical reasons of death in both. Since the Chinese famine took place after the war and with the advances of modern medicine, it was interesting to see that the majority of those who died there were diagnosed with measles rather than hunger.
Olga Andreiewsky from Trent University in Ontario stated that “80% of people who died of famine in the 20th century died in the Soviet Union and China”. These communist countries were responsible for more deaths during peacetime than any other medical or natural disasters. These famines were triggered by politics and policies and because of this, “ideology matters.” Both regimes were (and in China’s case, still are) authoritarian modernist models focuded on central planning to alter the social world. Because the millions of peasants who lived within these societies were viewed as weak, they threatened the authority’s positions.
The conference included a closed session that allowed students to discuss and question the famine study’s experts. The discussions ranged from the role of religion in the Holodomor (the “trauma of collectivization was so catastrophic” that it gave the rise to many apocalyptic cults), to the idea of imperialism and its influence in the non-Ukrainian Soviet famines to the medical profession’s reaction to hunger.
The most anticipated speaker of the conference was Andrea Graziosi from the Italian National Agency for the Evaluation of University and Research and receiver of the Order of Prince Yaroslav the Wise for his work on Holodomor studies. He discussed how hunger was used as a mass weapon against the peasantry. He also stated something he mentioned in other conferences and academic writings: there is a common mistake to misinterpret the Holodomor as a modernization drive. However, “modernization should not be mistaken with collectivization…you do not need to collectivize in order to modernize.” Graziosi insists that “collectivization doesn’t bring you more, it actually brings you less.” The myth that the communist parties protected workers should also be abandoned as in both cases, the workers were also dying – not in the same way as the peasants but “life wasn’t great for them either.”
Stalin and Mao wanted to transform their countries, not modernize them. However, it was because of Stalin’s complete control of the Soviet Union and the portrayal of his Five-Year Plan (1929-1933) as a success, that Mao believed that the party could transform the rural areas of China into an industrial power. Because there was dissent among the ranks of the Soviet party over this (and the complete silence over the number of dead), Mao and the Chinese communist party simply “copied the Stalin model” with much more tragic results (from 20-43 million dead).
Liudmyla Hrynevych from the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine was very glad that the Holodomor was being discussed in a scholarly conference outside of its anniversary year. When asked about next month’s commemoration in Ukraine and how it will be different from previous years, Hrynevych said that all scholarly dialogue between Ukraine and Russia has stopped. Next month’s commemoration will be like almost everything else in Ukraine – done against the backdrop of war with Russia.
Sarah Cameron from the University of Maryland examined the current research of the Kazakh Famine of 1930-1933. She commented about the temporality (how the famines differed), memory studies and intentionality of the famines. Niccolo Pianciola from the Lingnan University in Hong Kong also discussed the Kazakh famine and how there were differences in forced population movements that resulted from these policies (the differences between forced peasant relocations from Ukraine to Kazakhstan and the forced mobilization of labour from rural to urban communities).
The Chinese Famine scholars included Zhou Xun from the University of Essex who stated something very important to better understand the silence that surrounds the Chinese famine in China itself: “the memory of the famine destabilizes the communist party which portrays itself as a stabilizing force in China.” The conference ended with a special public lecture by Andrea Graziosi on “Stalin and Hunger as a Nation-Destroying Tool”.
Overall, the conference cemented the Holodomor as a basis of famine studies. It brought up interesting conclusions that would have been unimaginable 30 years prior. The idea that Stalin was threatened by Ukraine’s national identity was a popular theme at the conference and is one of the main arguments that many scholars have now come to accept as truth.
Holodomor study has come a long way from the early 1990’s when its mention was seen as an academic mishap: the conference proved that Holodomor studies has become a serious academic pursuit that has already destroyed many myths rooted in the Soviet times and Soviet ideology.

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