Russia, Ukraine: History and Denial

Global Voices Online
Monday, March 2, 2009

Paul Goble of Window on Eurasia reported on Feb. 24 that Russia’s emergency situations minister Sergei Shoigu said the Russian parliament should "make the denial of the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II a crime in order to ensure that 'the presidents of certain countries who deny this won’t be able to visit our country without punishment'.”

Goble wrote:

[...] Shoigu’s idea appears to be modeled on laws in more than a dozen countries which make the denial of the Holocaust a crime and reflects at least in part a Russian response to Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko’s proposal to make the public denial of the terror famine in Ukraine a crime there. [...]

A day later, according to James of Robert Amsterdam's Blog, it was Russia's prosecutor general Yuri Chaika who was talking of declaring "denial of the Soviet people's 'achievements' in the victory in the Great Patriotic War a criminal offense":

[...] Russia wants a Holocaust denial law, "just like the other kids". But it doesn't really want that, so it's had to come up with a surrogate. Let's see... The Holocaust is treated with great solemnity as a horrible human tragedy that happened, as the Russians say, "during the time of the Second world war". What have the Russians got that's similar? Yes! The Great Patriotic War (1941-1945). Most of our readers are probably aware that while the rest of Europe was busy fighting World War II "during the time of the Second world war", the Soviet Union was engaged in a separate war of its own against Germano-fascist invaders. And the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) is absolutely sacred in all of the former Soviet Union. So, it fits the bill perfectly: solemn, horrible human tragedy, right time in history - but uniquely Russian, unlike the Holocaust. [...]

Also on Feb. 25, there appeared a news item about a statement made by the head of Russia’s Federal Archives Agency on "the famine in the USSR." Window on Eurasia wrote:

[...] Yesterday, Vladimir Kozlov, the head of Russia’s Federal Archives Agency, told a Moscow press conference that the famine in Ukraine and elsewhere in the USSR was “the result of [Stalin’s] criminal policy” but that “of course, no one planned any famine” or singled out any ethnic group as its victim (

Instead, he said, “the famine was the result of the errors and miscalculations of the political course of the leadership of the country in the course of the realization of collectivization.” And he insisted that he and his researchers had not found “a single document” showing that Stalin planned “a terror famine” in Ukraine.
Instead, Kozlov said, “absolutely all documents testify that the chief enemy of Soviet power at that time was an enemy defined not on the basis of ethnicity but on the basis of class,” in this case the peasantry which Stalin wanted to force to join collective farms throughout whatever means he could.

Kozlov’s comments came as he presented a new collective of documents, entitled “The Famine in the USSR,” and a DVD which contained a selection of those documents and others, which he said will total some 6,000 items, to be published in three volumes that are to be published this year.

The Russian archivist and others in Moscow said they were convinced of two things, first, that these documents undercut all Ukrainian claims to the contrary and, second, that the evidence these documents provide about the much broader but class rather than ethnic based crimes of the Soviet regime are not a problem for the contemporary regime. [...]

Streetwise Professor posted this comment on his blog:

[...] I’m sure all of the millions who starved, or were shot, or were brutalized, would feel so much better to know that they were not singled out for their ethnicity, but instead for their class. Or to learn that they died because of “errors and miscalculations.” Whoops! Uncle Joe’s bad! No hard feelings! I guess it could have been worse: head archivist Kozlov could have said that the leadership just became “dizzy with success,” thereby committing mistakes that led to the deaths of millions. Or he could have said “well, to make an omelette you need to break some eggs.”

Several comments.

First, why is it so hard for modern Russians, who bear no personal responsibility for the deaths of millions in the early-1930s, to pay some deference to Ukrainian (and, Cossack and Kazakh) pain and sensitivities? The steadfast rationalization, minimization, and deprecation of the calamity is widespread among Russians, suggesting that they feel they would incur a substantial psychological cost to acknowledge the exceptional suffering inflicted on Ukraine, Kazakhstan and the Cossack/Tatar regions. Why? What does this say? I don’t know exactly, but it can’t be good.


The obvious official desire of the modern Russian government to absolve the Soviet Union, and Stalin, of any culpability for genocide speaks volumes about that government, and about the popular attitudes which give that government broad support in these efforts. The lengths to which the Russian government, and too many individual Russians go to defend the indefensible suggests that proprietary, possessive, and imperial attitudes towards Ukraine run strong and deep in Russia today. That does not bode well for a peaceful reconciliation in the years to come.

Finally, on Feb. 28, according to Window on Eurasia, Russia's Yabloko Party called "for making the denial of Soviet crimes against the people a criminal offense as part of a broader effort to help Russians overcome the communist past and build a political and economic system capable of sustaining itself in the 21st century":

[...] Beyond any question, yesterday’s YABLOKO statement represents a liberal response to the proposal by Sergey Shoigu on February 24th to make those who deny the Soviet victory over Hitler in World War II, something he would extend to those, especially in Eastern Europe, who say that Stalin simply imposed one form of totalitarianism in place of another.

But it would be a mistake to treat this statement as only that. In fact, it represents a broader effort, albeit one with few immediate chances for success, to escape the Soviet past by denouncing its crimes rather than opening the way to its restoration -- as some like Vladimir Putin have done -- by celebrating its achievements regardless of how they were obtained.

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