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Toronto Holodomor Conference a Major Success

15 October  2013—CIUS

Stanislav Kulchytsky (l) and Liudmyla Hrynevych (r), along with CIUS director Volodymyr Kravchenko (c)

Scholars from Canada, the United States, Italy, France, and Ukraine took part in the Contextualizing the Holodomor conference in Toronto on September 27–28. The event, marking the 80th anniversary of the 1932–33 Famine in Ukraine, was organized by the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium (HREC) of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies. By all standards, it was a great success.

“Given that it was only in the 1980s that Western academia began to study the Ukrainian Famine intensively and Soviet archives became available, we chose as the focus of our conference what 30 years of the study of the Holodomor have contributed to our understanding of a number of fields: Ukrainian history, Soviet history, the study of communism and Stalinism, and genocide studies,” said Frank Sysyn, who heads the HREC executive committee.

The first session led off with Andrea Graziosi (University of Naples) speaking about the Famine within the framework of Soviet history in a wide-ranging and insightful presentation, and David Marples (University of Alberta) as discussant. Explaining that it would be hard to overstate the impact of the Holodomor on Soviet history Professor Graziosi considered “What can it mean for a state and a regime to have a genocide (and possibly, in the Soviet case, more than one) hidden in its own past, and for a “system”—because the Soviet one was indeed a peculiar social and economic system—to have been born out of a genocidal confrontation with the majority of its own population?” Dr. Marples acknowledged the persuasiveness of the speaker’s points, but countered that the depiction may have been too sweeping and then followed up with specific areas of discussion.

Françoise Thom (Sorbonne University, Paris) participated via a Skype connection and focused on the centrality of Stalin’s role in the implementation of the Holodomor. She suggested that Stalin deliberately provoked the collectivization crisis, drawing a parallel with events in China during the Great Leap Forward. Discussant Mark von Hagen (Arizona State University) had misgivings about the speaker’s portrayal of the overarching power and influence of Stalin. He noted that a session on comparative famines would have been useful and raised the question of colonial relations in the creation of famines.

Norman Naimark (Stanford University) spoke on the Holodomor as genocide, providing an overview of the work and views of Raphael Lemkin, the father of the term “genocide.” He addressed a number of key issues related to the Famine: the Holodomor as a case study of communist and also Stalinist genocide; the Holodomor as an example of food as a weapon; the problematic nature of “thinking about genocide in exclusively ethnic and national terms”; and the critical issue of intent, which can be attributed according to the facts of the case “even if the chain of command to the very top cannot be established.” Discussant Douglas Irvin (Rutgers University) noted the irony that even though Lemkin’s conceptualization of the idea of genocide drew upon his reading of the USSR’s nationalities policy and the Ukrainian Famine, the Holodomor was largely sidelined from the discourse as a result of Soviet efforts to “scrub” its crimes from the formal Convention.

The conference’s second day started with a presentation by Olga Andriewsky (Trent University) who provided a wide-ranging examination of the interplay between the Holodomor and Ukrainian history. She called for the study of accounts of people affected by the Holodomor, including more localized and social history research. She also noted the extent to which the Famine constituted a severe disruption or turning point in Ukrainian history, “the end of a social order … that had persisted, with modifications of course, since the 17th century.” Discussant Serhii Plokhii agreed with Dr. Andriewsky that the Holodomor represented an epochal change in Ukrainian history as a result of the elimination of the peasantry as a social group.

Stanislav Kulchytsky (National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine) started the final session (on the Holodomor and communism) with insights on some of the research on the Famine in Ukraine as well as the genocide question, and spoke in more detail on how a pan-Soviet famine or “holod” turned into the Holodomor in Ukraine. He ended his presentation by reviewing collectivization and the Famine in the light of communist theory, Leninist practice, and Stalin’s attempt to implement the communist program. In her discussant remarks, Liudmyla Hrynevych (National Academy of Science of Ukraine) raised the issue of Ukraine’s colonial status within the Soviet Union, pointing to Ukraine’s role in the Soviet economy as a granary of the USSR, and suggested that research into the topic could help us understand this important aspect of the Famine.

Following the thematic sessions, Roman Serbyn (Université du Québec à Montréal) gave a presentation on the Famine as part of a broader genocidal assault on the Ukrainian people, citing Raphael Lemkin in this regard:

“These have been the chief steps in the systematic destruction of the Ukrainian nation, in its progressive absorption within the new Soviet nation. Notably, there have been no attempts at complete annihilation, such as was the method of the German attack on the Jews. And yet, if the Soviet programme succeeds completely, if the intelligentsia, the priests and the peasants can be eliminated, 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 rather than a mass of people.”

The presentation was followed by brief remarks by Paul Grod, National President of the Ukrainian Canadian Congress, who spoke of Dr. Serbyn’s years of dedication and activity in the field of Holodomor studies in Canada. Then, Frank Sysyn, representing HREC, presented an award to Dr. Serbyn—a replica of the statue that stands at the entrance to the Holodomor museum in Kyiv— in recognition of his long-standing service. He thanked all involved in organizing the conference, especially HREC executive director Marta Baziuk and HREC associate director of research Andrij Makuch.

A notable element to the proceedings was the participation of 18 graduate students and early career scholars who received stipends from HREC to support their attendance at the conference. They included people from various disciplines and from as far away as California, New Orleans, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan.

The conference was co-sponsored by the Petro Jacyk Program at the Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies (CERES) at the University of Toronto, the Ukrainian Canadian Research and Documentation Centre, and St. Vladimir Institute, with generous support from the Ukrainian Studies Fund, the Canadian Foundation for Ukrainian Studies, and the Ukrainian Canadian Congress.  HREC was established in January 2013 with funding from the Temerty Family Foundation. At a reception on the Friday night of the conference Louise and James Temerty were recognized for their generosity in promoting the study of the Holodomor.

A podcast of Day One of the Contextualizing the Holodomor conference can be accessed at: HREC may be reached at

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