War on Memory: Unveiling the Persecution of Holodomor-Genocide Researchers in Ukraine

War on Memory: Unveiling the Persecution of Holodomor-Genocide Researchers in Ukraine

Despite the European Union’s acknowledgment of the Stalinist Holodomor as a genocide against Ukrainians, Ukraine is paradoxically shutting down the Holodomor Research Institute. Top scholars face persecution over their claims of the “incorrect” victim count, as per officials, of this tragic event.

On December 15, 2022, the European Parliament passed a resolution identifying the Holodomor, the mass man-made famine of 1932-1933 in Ukraine, as genocide of the Ukrainian populace. The EU’s legislative body denounced the premeditated actions of the Soviet totalitarian regime that resulted in the loss of millions of Ukrainian lives and undermined the foundations of Ukrainian society. They urged the Russian Federation, and other post-USSR nations, to disclose facts pertaining to the Holodomor, and to make relevant archives public. The EU further called upon member states and third countries to increase awareness of such events and other atrocities committed by the communist totalitarian regime.

90 years had passed since this horrific crime against humanity was committed before the historic document was approved. Orchestrated by Joseph Stalin and his cronies, the catastrophic famine was designed to quash the wave of uprisings that swept through Ukraine between 1929 and 1931, a nation that fell under Russian occupation in 1920. These rebellions were fueled by resistance against forced collectivization and the pursuit of national autonomy. The scale and frequency of these uprisings were significant enough to equate them with a full-scale Russian-Ukrainian war. Currently, Russia is claiming to “denazify and demilitarize” Ukrainians through missile and bombing campaigns, but 90 years prior, their tool of suppression was famine. Entire villages, towns, and districts were blacklisted, surrounded, stripped of food supplies, and isolated from the world. The Holodomor wasn’t limited to the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic; it also affected other Soviet republics where Ukrainians resided in concentrated populations, like the North Caucasus, the Volga region, and Northern Kazakhstan. Scholars and publicists posit that the death toll could be as high as 15 million.

This was a grave chapter in Moscow’s history of efforts to annihilate the Ukrainian nation. It was bookended by the manufactured famines of 1921-1923 and 1946-1947, the violent repression of the national movement in Western Ukraine, and a history that spans centuries. Russia’s full-blown military assault in 2022 was merely an extension of the Kremlin’s long-standing policy towards Ukraine.

Despite the staggering magnitude of the tragedy, the reality of the Holodomor remained shrouded from the world for decades. During 1932-1933, most Western governments conveniently ignored the Ukrainians’ plight, maintaining trade relations with the USSR for cheap grain. Misinformation was further aided by left-wing journalists like the American correspondent Walter Duranty. Although reporters like British journalist Gareth Jones documented the famine, their voices were largely unheard. Until the mid-1980s, only the Ukrainian diaspora in the West dared to expose the truth about the Holodomor. In Ukraine, under Russian occupation, such discussions were strictly prohibited.


Gareth Jones. Photo: National Museum of the Holodomor-Genocide

On October 30, 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed Proclamation 5273—Commemoration of the Great Famine in the Ukraine, attributing the deaths of over seven million Ukrainians to the Stalinist regime’s actions. In 1985, the U.S. Congress established the Commission on the Ukrainian Famine, chaired by scholar James Mace. This commission scrutinized the events in Ukraine during 1932-1933, presenting their findings to Congress on April 22, 1988. They identified the large-scale man-made famine as an act of genocide, with the death toll calculated at 7 million Ukrainians. In response, Moscow, for the first time, acknowledged the famine’s occurrence. This official admission came from Professor Stanislav Kulchytsky, a chosen representative of Soviet historians. His 1989 brochure, 1933: The Tragedy of the Famine, conveyed this acknowledgment. The Soviet scholar was entrusted with the task for which others in the USSR were prosecuted—he publicly announced the mass famine in Ukraine and estimated a death toll of approximately 3.5 million. However, Kulchytsky was no dissident—he denied that the Holodomor was engineered, framing its recognition as genocide as an attempt to vilify the USSR. He argued the famine resulted from “miscalculations” in Stalin’s policy. This standpoint on the 1932-1933 events is still maintained by Moscow today.


Professor Stanislav Kulchytsky. Photo: day.kyiv.ua

After gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine officially upheld the Soviet interpretation of this crime for another 15 years. It wasn’t until 2006, following the Orange Revolution’s victory and the UN’s Joint Statement issuance on the 70th anniversary of the Holodomor in 2003—endorsed by 64 nations, including Russia—that the Ukrainian parliament acknowledged the genocide of Ukrainians. In January 2010, the Kyiv Court of Appeal indicted Stalin, Molotov, Kaganovich, and other Soviet leaders for the crime of genocide against the Ukrainian people. This verdict was the result of an investigation led by the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU). The court decision also noted the tragedy’s death toll at 3.94 million Ukrainians, a number determined by a researcher from Ukraine’s Ptoukha Institute for Demography and Social Studies. The figure was based on a comparison of Soviet census data from 1926 and 1937-1939. Even then, this figure sparked controversy, as Holodomor observers estimated a death toll of at least 7-10 million. The Ukrainian diaspora commonly echoed these estimates. Presidents Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma, and Viktor Yushchenko officially cited figures between 7 and 10 million. Moreover, it is well-documented that the 1937 and 1939 censuses were falsified, with the demographers involved persecuted by Stalin’s regime. This raises questions: how much can we trust the reliability of reconstructing Ukraine’s population data from the 1930s?

“Wrong Figure”: Government Officials Clash with Scientists

In October 2019, Olesia Stasiuk, the director of the National Museum of the Holodomor Genocide, launched a new investigation, this time targeting the crime’s perpetrators. The investigation entailed numerous comprehensive forensic examinations involving government agencies and 25 experts. These experts concluded that 10.5 million Ukrainians were victims of the 1932-1933 genocide, including 9.1 million in the Ukrainian SSR and an additional 1.4 million in the North Caucasus, a region where Ukrainians comprised the majority of the populace. This new data was disclosed on September 7, 2021, at the International Forum “Mass Man-Made Famines: Remembering and Commemorating.” A month later, a major controversy erupted. Anton Drobovych, head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory—a state institution tasked with preserving national memory—vehemently denounced the examination. In an interview published on December 17, he publicly threatened to ruin the reputation of the scientists involved in the study and branded the released data as fraudulent.


Anton Drobovych. Photo: prm.ua

It is important to note that the Institute of National Memory is not a research organization. Its primary function is to promote history. However, the Institute of History of Ukraine of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine also criticized the 10.5 million victims study. The “Open Letter on Falsification of the Number of Victims of the Holodomor-Genocide of 1932-1933,” dated December 1, 2021, bears the first signature of the acting chief researcher of the Institute, Stanislav Kulchytsky. This is the same Professor Kulchytsky who was commissioned by the Soviet leadership in 1989 to acknowledge the mass famine in Ukraine. Until recently, he served as the deputy director of the Institute of History of Ukraine for research, meaning he was not just a historian but a person who shaped the trajectory of Ukrainian historical science throughout the years of independence. The professor has altered his stance on whether the Holodomor was a genocide, but his viewpoint remains consistent with his views from over 30 years ago.

Strikingly, just a few months before the commencement of the full-scale Russian invasion—when Putin was already mobilizing troops at Ukraine’s border—leading Holodomor scholars, studying the greatest crime committed against Ukrainians by Moscow, began to face persecution within their own state. In December 2021, conflicts erupted around the defense of a doctoral dissertation on the genocide by Olesia Stasiuk, the Director-General of the Holodomor Museum. Stasiuk is a renowned researcher of the Stalinist genocide, having examined the topic for over two decades. Among other accomplishments, she authored the exhibition “Executed by Starvation: The Unknown Genocide of Ukrainians,” which was displayed in 50 countries. The scholar was denied the opportunity to defend her dissertation at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, so she defended it at Hryhorii Skovoroda University in Pereiaslav on December 24.

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