Toronto Symposium Examines The Holodomor In Comparative Perspective

Holodomor Research and Education Consortium.

An international symposium on “Starvation as a Political Tool from the Nineteenth to the Twenty-First Century,” held on October 22 at the University of Toronto, brought together leading scholars to discuss the Irish Famine, the Armenian Genocide, the Ukrainian Holodomor, and the genocide by attrition in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan, in particular to the extent to which starvation has been used, or become a way to discriminate against, punish, or eliminate national, ethnic, racial, or religious groups.

The event was organized by the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium (HREC) at the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies (University of Alberta), the International Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (A Division of the Zoryan Institute), the Canadian Foundation for Ukrainian Studies, the Petro Jacyk Program for the Study of Ukraine (Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies, University of Toronto), and the Chair of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Toronto.

The symposium’s speakers were Mark McGowan (University of Toronto), George Shirinian (Zoryan Institute), Andrea Graziosi (University of Naples), and Samuel Totten (University of Arkansas). Joyce Apsel, a renowned expert on comparative genocide and human-rights studies from New York University, served as a discussant. The event concluded with a special presentation by Natalia Khanenko-Friesen (University of Saskatchewan).

The symposium was the second major academic event examining the Holodomor in comparative perspective organized by HREC. In 2014 HREC sponsored a conference on “Communism and Hunger” looking at famines in China, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and the Soviet Union. In his opening remarks, Dr. Frank Sysyn, the chair of HREC’s executive committee, noted “With this conference, HREC has sought to examine famine as a political tool over a long period and in widely dispersed countries in order to achieve a broad comparative perspective in famine and genocide.”

In the first session, Professor McGowan provided on overview of the history and historiography of the Irish Famine of 1845–52. He noted that while British authorities had not engineered the famine, they exacerbated its effects through inadequate relief efforts and by adhering stubbornly to a laissez-faire economic policy that made relief food supplies unaffordable for the general Irish population. About one million people died in this period, while the harsh conditions forced some 1.5 million others to emigrate. At the same time, landlords were able to expel numerous tenants and then consolidate their holdings into larger tracts in pursuit of animal husbandry.

Mr. Shirinian examined starvation as a factor in the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians that started in April 1915. He focused on the forced marches that accompanied the expulsion of Armenians – ostensibly for the purpose of military security – from their homes in (present-day) Turkey. Food and water were routinely withheld from the Armenians in the deportee caravans or, when provided, were in inadequate amounts or required exorbitant cash payments. The occasional efforts of the local Muslim population to provide relief were routinely rebuffed by the Ottaman authorities. Shirinian noted that rather than being killed outright, the Armenians were deliberately subjected to measures meant to enhance their physical suffering as a way for the Ottomans to exert violently their domination over this subordinate group, which was perceived to be challenging the existing social order.

In her comments, Professor Apsel followed up on the deliberate withholding of food in the Armenian case as a means of eliminating the vulnerable. As for the Irish Famine, she paid specific attention to the issue of agency and government responsibility. It was noted that many parties could share blame – rigid politicians, greedy merchants, opportunistic landlords, conflicted churchmen, and self-serving farmers. Professor Apsel also raised the issue of the long-term impact of such famines. Later discussion noted that in both the Irish and the Armenian case, the famines had a strong impact on their respective societies and diasporas over several generations.

The afternoon session started with a presentation by Professor Graziosi about the Ukrainian Famine of 1932–1933 in Soviet Ukraine, known now as the Holodomor. The famine grew out of the general Soviet campaign against its peasantry that began in 1929 with the campaigns of collectivization and dekulakization. Matters took a distinctive turn in November 1932 when Stalin decided to launch an all-out assault against the Soviet Ukrainian republic, after reckoning that Party officials there were siding with the peasants to subvert the state’s hugely ambitious but unrealistic grain-procurement plans. He sent in his henchmen to restore political order and instigate punitive measures. Foodstuffs were confiscated from the peasants, who were then prevented from leaving the Ukrainian SSR in search of food. As a result millions of people died there in the spring of 1933.

Professor Totten presented an account of the lesser-known situation in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan in Sudan, where the local population initially tried to steer clear of a renewal of civil war that erupted in the country in 1983. However, by the end of the 1980s the conflict had come to them. Government forces started destroying farms in the low-lying areas of the region, forcing people to flee to the mountains for shelter. The terrain provided shelter but not the means to grow food, and over time people were compelled to make do with eating leaves, grass, and roots. Their lot was exacerbated by the fact that any government agreements allowing humanitarian relief for the war-torn areas of Sudan excluded the Nuba Mountain region. The Nubas did not gain specific concessions from the 2005 peace agreement brokered in Sudan, and today remain in a precarious position.

In her comments in the afternoon presentations, Professor Apsel emphasized the importance of recognition of crimes and noted that within Sudan the situation in Darfur has gained attention, whereas the Nuba region has not. She also pointed out that the enormous crime of the Holodomor had previously been written out of history, but that that omission has been corrected through the use of archival sources.

In the final presentation, Professor Natalia Khanenko-Friesen provided the background to a project in Ukraine during the 1990s to interview people about their experiences during collectivization and the Holodomor. Led by American ethnomusicologist William Noll, this undertaking provided the basis for the 1999 publication in Ukrainian of The Transformation of Civil Society: An Oral History of Culture in the Ukrainian Village of the 1920s–1930s. Khanenko-Friesen has launched a project at the University of Saskatchewan to digitize and make available the interviews from this project with the assistance of HREC. A link is available at the HREC website ( under “Memoirs.”

The symposium ended with a reception where the work of HREC was summarized by Professor Graziosi, and a launch of the book Contextualizing the Holodomor: The Impact of Thirty Years of Ukrainian Famine Studies, containing the papers of a previous HREC conference. Special thanks were expressed to Ian Ihnatowycz and Marta Witer, who made possible the publication of this volume with a grant from the Ihnatowycz Foundation, as well as to James and Louise Temerty for their on-going funding of HREC through the Temerty Family Foundation.