Letter to the editor: The Holodomor, Russia’s war against Ukraine and the question of genocide


A couple sits in an underground metro station used as bomb shelter in Kyiv on March 2, 2022. – On the seventh day of fighting in Ukraine Russia claims control on March 2, 2022, of the southern port city of Kherson, street battles rage in Ukraine’s second-biggest city Kharkiv, and Kyiv braces for a feared Russian assault. (Aris Messinis/STF/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

By Victoria A. Malko

The eight-month Russian war of aggression against Ukraine must be stopped. 

This has been a genocidal war from the beginning. In April 2022, the Ukrainian parliament adopted a resolution that defined acts perpetrated by the Russian top leadership and rank-and-file military and security forces as genocide. At the time, President Biden also commented that Putin’s actions in Ukraine qualify as genocide. 

Today, the entire world recognizes the viciousness of Russian expansionism. However, only Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Canada and the Czech Republic have recognized this atrocity as a genocide. 

Unfortunately, those Russian traits of aggression have existed for centuries and affected Ukraine in 1932 and 1933 during the Holodomor. Josef Stalin used both lethal and non-lethal means to subjugate the Ukrainian people [through] executions of Ukrainian political, intellectual and cultural elites; Ukrainian Orthodox clergy; and independent farmers, while reeducating the remaining population into loyal Russified cogs of the state apparatus. 

The acts committed by Stalin and his accomplices back then resemble Putin’s genocidal acts now: 

  1. Missile and drone strikes kill innocent people. Entire cities like Mariupol are razed to the ground and political activists are executed in the occupied areas. 
  2. Physical and mental harm is systematically inflicted in torture chambers in the occupied territories. Hospitals and schools are destroyed while museums, churches and books are burned.
  3. The Russian military deliberately creates conditions intended to obliterate life in all the territory of Ukraine by targeting critical infrastructure, electric power grid and water supply, and the Russian propagandists boast about this openly on television. Confiscation of the Ukrainian grain, the destruction of agricultural fields, businesses and killing farmers are designed to starve the population into submission.
  4. Deportations of pregnant women and rape of women and girls intend to prevent births within the Ukrainian national group.
  5. Out of four million Ukrainians (10% of the population) deported to Russia, 10s of 1,000s of Ukrainian children have been forcibly transferred to orphanages or adopted into Russian families so that they would not know their language and culture but would grow up as obedient slaves of the regime. 

In October 2022, the United Nations listed 7.5 million Ukrainian refugees across Europe, including 3 million in Russia””many of the latter were forcibly deported there by Russian occupiers and were subjected to a “filtration” process with credible reports of war crimes emerging, including evidence of executions and torture. In 1932—1933, the borders of Ukraine were sealed and escape in search of provisions was impossible. As a result, the Ukrainian nation suffered its most devastating loss, an estimated 7—10 million. Witnesses recalled that a third to a half of the population or even entire settlements were depopulated. These victims deserve justice.                                                                                

All genocides must be recognized and acknowledged to effectively learn from history and to not repeat such atrocities in the future. If we are resisting to recognize the Holodomor, then we are saying that it is not the same as the Holocaust or Armenian or Bosnian or Rwandan genocide. By denying the recognition of the Holodomor as genocide we are raising the bar for the cruelties that need to be perpetrated in order to justify our “designation” because we are “not feeling like it is genocide.” The denial of the Holodomor as genocide, the revision of the past, and the rehabilitation of Stalinism in Russia have led to the outbreak of the current war of aggression. History helps us to see this is happening again. We prefer not to see. We assure our consciousness that we are good and civilized people. We are here, and they are there. We can do nothing about it. We abdicate our responsibility to see and to act.    

Ninety years ago, the leaders of the democratic world turned a blind eye to murder and granted diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union. The crime that has never been prosecuted has been committed again.

As a Ukrainian American, I respectfully request that you urge Gov. Gavin Newsom and President Joe Biden to designate the Holodomor as genocide against the Ukrainian nation and honor its victims during November — the Holodomor Remembrance Month. Such designation would speak truth to power, redress the historical injustice, and pave the way toward the accountability for the crime of genocide in the court of justice.

Victoria A. Malko is a founding coordinator of the Holodomor Studies Program in the Department of History at California State University, Fresno. She is the author of The Ukrainian Intelligentsia and Genocide: The Struggle for History, Language, and Culture in the 1920s and 1930s (Lexington Books, 2021).