Century of Russification, American Inaction Are Context for Putin’s War

‘Unfortunately, there do not appear to be any measures which this Government may appropriately take at this time in order to alleviate the sufferings of these unhappy people.’

Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin pool photo via AP, file
President Putin in March. Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin pool photo via AP, file

Anyone doubting President Putin’s willingness to use brutal force to crush Ukrainian nationalism — or that the American government and left-wing press will do little to stop him — would be advised to take a break from the headlines and spend some time browsing the Report to Congress of the Commission on the Ukraine Famine.

It’s a highly illuminating document. It provides the big picture — a death toll estimated as high as 15 million, though lower numbers closer to 8 million are also commonly accepted. It also offers gruesome details from eyewitness testimony. The hunger was so desperate and pervasive that it drove many to resort to cannibalism. 

The Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, imposed this starvation on Ukraine in the 1930s as a weapon, the way Mr. Putin might fire a tactical nuclear missile. America did nothing to intervene then, just as now it is refusing Ukraine’s request for a no-fly zone.

The famine commission’s report to Congress, issued in April 1988, makes clear that  the policy amounted to a deliberate attack from Moscow against Ukraine. It quotes Robert Conquest’s book “The Harvest of Sorrow” to the effect that “when it comes to motive, the special measures against the Ukraine … were specifically linked with, and were contemporaneous with, a public campaign against their nationalism.”

The scholar who was staff director of the commission, James Mace, at a 1983 event at the American Enterprise Institute marking the 50th anniversary of the famine, observed, “Ukraine is a nation whose very language had been illegal in the Russian Empire from 1876 until 1905. … In 1930 there was a massive purge of Ukrainian cultural and spiritual elites.” The famine, Mace said, was “an important tactic in nationality policy, an attempt by the Soviet regime to solve its Ukrainian problem once and for all.”

Or, as Mace put it, “Ukraine was a sore spot, a place culturally, agriculturally, mentally, and spiritually very different from Russia and very self-assertive. The Soviets wanted to crush it.” 

At that 1983 event, Conquest observed that “Stalin and the Bolshevik leaders felt a hatred for the Ukrainian nation as a troublemaker.” In the West, by contrast, “the idea that Ukraine was a nation, that its people had national feelings, had not established itself … simply because Ukraine had had only very brief periods of independence.” 

Senator Arthur Capper, Republican of Kansas, wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt about the issue. He got an answer back from the secretary of state, Cordell Hull. “Unfortunately, there do not appear to be any measures which this Government may appropriately take at this time in order to alleviate the sufferings of these unhappy people,” Hull wrote in a letter dated April 26, 1933. 

As the famine commission’s report to Congress put it, “The American government had ample and timely information about the Famine but failed to take any steps which might have ameliorated the situation. Instead, the Administration extended diplomatic recognition to the Soviet government in November 1933, immediately after the Famine.”

A major enabler of the genocide was the New York Times’s correspondent in Russia, Walter Duranty. “During the Famine certain members of the American press corps cooperated with the Soviet government to deny the existence of the Ukrainian Famine,” the commission found, describing Duranty as “the central figure in concealing the famine.” Anyone tempted to dismiss this as right-wing press-bashing might consider that the commission was thoroughly bipartisan, chaired by Daniel Mica, a Democratic congressman from Florida.

More accurate accounts were readily available. Harry Lang published in the Jewish Daily Forward his account of his 1933 trip to Ukraine; it was later serialized by Hearst’s New York Evening Journal and Chicago American. It reported that a Soviet official had estimated the death toll at 6 million.

Mr. Putin has a way to go yet before reaching Stalin levels of depravity. President Biden, unlike FDR, has imposed economic sanctions on Russia and has sent humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine, though neither step has averted the crisis. Today’s press, while far from perfect, appears to be doing a better job than Duranty did.

The contemporary clashes around Kiev and Kharkiv are somewhat more understandable, though, with the context that Russia has been trying to quash Ukraine for more than a century. The Russification effort continued from the tsars through Communism and now into the Putin era. That Ukrainian nationalism survived the Stalin-imposed famine suggests that it may yet withstand this latest Russian offensive. It is only the latest in the cruel history of Russia’s attempts “to solve its Ukrainian problem once and for all.”

The New York Sun

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