On Saturday, November the 7th, once the biggest holiday in the Soviet Union with the possible exception of Victory Day, the blue and gold Ukrainian flag was everywhere, fluttering in the shadow of Union Station, Washington D.C.’s main train station.
Around one thousand people had packed the park outside the station despite the chilly, rainy weather to see the official commemoration of a memorial to the Holodomor, a forced famine-genocide that took place between 1932 and 1933 in present-day Ukraine. The word “Holodomor” in Ukrainian means simply “Extermination by hunger”. Statistics vary widely on how many people died in the Holodomor, but what we do know is that most of the victims were ethnic Ukrainians and that somewhere between 2 and 10 million people died as a result of the famine.
The event was staged slightly east of the memorial, and featured influential speakers from both the United States and Ukraine. First Lady Maryna Poroshenko addressed the crowd and a video message from President Poroshenko was shown on the large screen above the crowd. Also addressing the crowd were two survivors of the great famine and various American politicians. A documentary was shown on the great famine.
The Kremlin walks a strange line in regards to the Holodomor. Under the communists, the mere suggestion that there was a famine at all was punishable by jail time or exile, although this was relaxed somewhat with the advent of glasnost. In 2003, at the seventieth anniversary of the famine, Russian delegates at the United Nations signed a statement with the United States and Ukraine which read:
“In the former Soviet Union millions of men, women and children fell victims to the cruel actions and policies of the totalitarian regime. The Great Famine of 1932–1933 in Ukraine (Holodomor), took from 7 million to 10 million innocent lives and became a national tragedy for the Ukrainian people. In this regard we note activities in observance of the seventieth anniversary of this Famine, in particular organized by the Government of Ukraine.
Honouring the seventieth anniversary of the Ukrainian tragedy, we also commemorate the memory of millions of Russians, Kazakhs and representatives of other nationalities who died of starvation in the Volga River region, Northern Caucasus, Kazakhstan and in other parts of the former Soviet Union, as a result of civil war and forced collectivization, leaving deep scars in the consciousness of future generations.”
While this sounds like acknowledgment of Stalin’s totalitarian brutality, the Kremlin does not consider the Holodomor an act of genocide like the United States, Ukraine, and many other countries do. Most of North and South America recognize the genocide, as does much of Central and Eastern Europe. The Kremlin recognizes that the famine happened and that the policies of Stalin’s USSR were part of the reason for their occurrence. However, the Russian government doesn’t consider the events to constitute a deliberate attempted extermination of the Ukrainian people since other regions of the USSR were also suffering from famine in the 1930s.
This is a troubling assessment that has widened the already large rift between Russia and Ukraine. To Ukrainians, failure to acknowledge of the genocidal crimes of the Holodomor is to slap the Ukrainian people in the face, especially when it comes from the country most Ukrainians blame the famine’s deadly implementation for, not unlike the resentment Armenians feel towards the Turkish government for not recognizing the Armenian Genocide, a feeling that was palpable at the dueling demonstrations on April 24th outside the Embassy of the Republic of Turkey, where hundreds of Armenians and Turks shouted and jeered each other from across Massachusetts Avenue in Washington.
Here’s where things get ironic and political. Turkey argues that the Armenian Genocide was not a genocide because the Ottomans did not have an explicit plan to exterminate Armenians for their ethnicity like Hitler did for Jews in the Holocaust. The Turkish government argues that since many of the atrocities of the “Great Crime” (1915 to 1923) as Armenians refer to it, happened concurrently with the Turkish War of Independence (1919 to 1923) that the conflict was not as one-sided as the Armenian account. Ankara admits there were many atrocities committed against the Armenian people living in what is today Eastern Turkey, but stubbornly denies the actions constitute genocide.
Likewise, the Kremlin claims the Holodomor was merely a terrible famine and that the policies set in motion by Stalin’s government were merely neglectful rather than deliberately cruel and with the intent to exterminate the Ukrainian people. The Kremlin also points to the rising tide of Ukrainian nationalism in the 1920s and 1930s that sometimes resulted in clashes between separatists and the Red Army to argue that the actions of 1932 and 1933 were genocidal.
The double standard here is that the Russian government recognizes the Armenian Genocide as a genocidal crime, and has done so since 1995. President Putin reiterated the Kremlin’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide as recently as April of this year, promptly infuriating Turkey.
Turkey’s denial of the Armenian Genocide and Russia’s denial that the Holodomor was a genocidal act share many similarities.
Across the Atlantic, the opposite is reality. The Holodomor is recognized as genocide in the United States, but the Armenian Genocide is not. Washington quietly refuses to recognize what happened to the Armenian people between 1915 and 1923 because relations with Turkey, a vital ally in NATO, would be severely damaged. Despite a large Armenian-American community and forty-three of America’s fifty states recognizing the genocide, Washington refuses to budge.
Russian state media enjoys pointing out the United States’ hypocrisies and double standards, and in the case of these genocides, it has a point. But “Do as I say, not as I do” is not and never will be a valid way to go about geopolitical feuds. If the Kremlin wants to criticize the United States on its failure to recognize Armenia’s Genocide, it has to reconsider its biased look into the Holodomor. Until then, it commits the same sins it decries when Ankara and Washington commit them.