Responding to Professor Roman Serbyn re Book Review: RED FAMINE – Stalin’s War on Ukraine

I received a comment on my review of Anne Applebaum’s latest book: RED FAMINE – Stalin’s War on Ukraine, from Professor Roman Serbyn.  Professor Serbyn is an historian, and a professor emeritus of Russian and East European history at the University of Quebec at Montreal, and an expert on Ukraine. He is well known for his books and many articles about Ukrainian history, particularly the Holodomor.  I thank Professor Serbyn for his comment and questions, and respond below.

Comment & Questions

I suggest the reviewer read Raphael Lemkin’s paper “Soviet Genocide in the Ukraine”. It can be found on the internet. Anne Applebaum refers to it in her book, but she did not really understand the full scope of Lemkin’s conceptualization of the Ukrainian genocide. I have a question for Mr. Karnavas: how does he understand the term “destroy” used in the Convention, in reference to the fifth form of genocidal destruction: transferring children from one group to another? How are they or rather their group destroyed when their lives are saved? If Mr. Karnavas honors me with a reply, I will then expand this theme into a wider discussion concerning his rejection of the Ukrainian genocide.


If I fully grasp the nettles of your comment and questions, you do not find Applebaum’s account of the events objectionable, but you do object, as I did (but for other reasons), to her conclusion on whether the Ukrainian famine of 1932-1933 and all associated atrocities committed by the Stalin regime amounted to a genocide.

Attributed to Stalin in the novel Children of the Arbat (1987) by Anatoly Rybakov.

I am familiar with Raphael Lemkin’s work and had read his 1953 article Soviet Genocide in the Ukraine, though I had not consulted it in writing my review. Having re-read it thanks to your suggestion, I reserve judgment on whether Applebaum misunderstood the thrust of Lemkin’s arguments. But even if Applebaum had understood Lemkin the way you do, I venture to say her assessment on whether the Holodomor was genocide would remain. Applebaum goes off the tracks when she makes the Holocaust-Holodomor comparison, claiming:

In practice, ‘genocide’ as defined by the UN documents, came to mean the physical elimination of an entire group, in a manner similar to the Holocaust. The Holodomor does not meet this criterion. The Ukrainian famine was not an attempt to eliminate every single living Ukrainian; it was also halted, in the summer of 1933, well before it could devastate the entire nation. (p. 357)

In any event, I do not see how Lemkin’s article can cure Applebaum’s faulty appreciation of the elements of the crime of genocide.

Can it be said that what Lemkin recounts and the conclusions he draws about the 1932-1933 events in Ukraine would meet the strict criteria of the 1948 Genocide Convention? I think not, but I remain open to be corrected.

While Lemkin’s article is laced with loaded language and broad historical accounts, he does not, as far as I can tell, convincingly establish his thesis that “the classic example of Soviet genocide, its longest and broadest experiment in Russification [is] the destruction of the Ukrainian nation.” (p. 1) His narrative does not add up, just as his definition of genocide does not entirely square with the definition ultimately adopted – which, I submit, is the only definition that matters since it is the definition the signatories to the Genocide Convention singed on to and the only one effectively recognized at the international(ized) criminal tribunals and courts.

In recapping his thesis of genocide in Ukraine, Lemkin claims in the penultimate paragraph of his article: “This is not simply a case of mass murder. It is a case of genocide, of destruction, not of individuals only, but of a culture and a nation.” Again, other than listing some historical events, he does not demonstrate how these events meet all the elements of the crime of genocide. Presumably, if I get the gist of Lemkin’s thesis correct (which some historians such as yourself may find convincing), it is that Stalin (and the Soviet apparatus) harbored an overarching specific genocidal intent which they acted on through their various directives and policies, with the famine of 1932-1933 being the apex or final manifestation of the desired genocide – that the Holodomor cannot be examined in the abstract when trying to determine if the crimes were committed with special genocidal intent. While context definitely matters, there must be linkage. And since this thesis is heavily reliant on circumstantial evidence, can it be said with certainty that this is the only plausible interpretation – to the exclusion of all others?

There can be no doubt that the Ukrainian culture suffered because of Stalin’s policies. Applebaum repeatedly weaves into her account the events as they were unfolding in stark detail: how the intellectuals, artists, political elites and others relevant to the preservation of Ukrainian cultural heritage, and of course, the peasants were singularly targeted for elimination and starvation, and all the misery that ensued.

These horrors, unspeakable as they may be, do not in and of themselves establish the requisite mens rea (the subjective element) of genocide – the special genocidal intent. When considering whether Stalin – and those within the Soviet apparatus responsible for designing, orchestrating, and executing the various plans in dealing with the Ukrainians – committed or were attempting to commit genocide, it is essential, in my view, to determine whether the special genocidal intent can be established based on the historical facts and objective assessment of direct and circumstantial evidence. And herein lies the rub.

The policy set in motion to deliberately starve the peasants, the quarantining of these peasants (closing off the Ukrainian boarders) to deny them any possibility of escape from the effects of this policy as reflected in Stalin’s Secret Directive of 22 January 1933, the loss of life, the Russification of parts of Ukraine (populating it with Russians in order to dilute Ukraine of its population and culture), and so on (recognizing I am painting with a broad brush), do not ipso facto establish the requisite special genocidal intent – at least based on the narrative presented by Applebaum.

Tempting as it may be, from the evidence Applebaum presents and the narrative she constructs, it is not conclusive that Stalin’s policies against the Ukrainians were the direct consequences of a specific genocidal intent to destroy the Ukrainians in whole or in part for who they were as a national, ethnical, racial or religious group – even if Stalin set in motion a sustained process to terrorize and punish the Ukrainians into submitting to his collectivization (and Sovietization) plan, causing a large segment of the Ukrainian farming population and intellectual and cultural elite to perish. Put differently, though the outcome of Stalin’s policy may resemble that of a genocide, it is contestable whether it amounts to the crime of genocide.

From what Applebaum recounts, and even considering the Secret Directive of 22 January 1933, the evidence suggests that Stalin’s intent was to get the Ukrainian peasants to embrace the Soviet collectivization plan. Though by its very nature this served and complemented Stalin’s desire and policies to Sovietize the Ukrainians by diminishing their sense of national identity and hopefully eradicating their inherent penchant for independent thinking and private entrepreneurship, it would not necessarily meet the specific genocidal intent to destroy the Ukrainians in whole or in part, as such.

While Stalin, by all accounts, harbored desires of diluting the Ukrainian culture and altering the independent spirit of Ukrainians and any national aspirations they clung to, before fixing on genocide as the only plausible conclusion, one has to look at more than just the consequences of Stalin’s 1932-1933 policies. As much as Stalin suffered from Ukrainophobia (as Andrei Sakharov put it), I did not get the sense from Applebaum’s renditions of the historical facts that Stalin embarked on a mission (or that a mission evolved) to destroy the Ukrainian people in whole or in part, as such – as understood under the Genocide Convention. And as I’ve noted, I am not convinced that the starvation of the peasants can be viewed as the intent to destroy in part the Ukrainians as a national/ethnical group, as such.

From 1981 Portrait of a Tyrant, where Soviet historian Anton Antonov-Ovseyenko attributes this quote to Stalin as an alleged response during the 1943 Tehran conference when Churchill objected to an early opening of a second front in France.

Others, no doubt, see things differently: how could it not be genocide when considering the numbers of victims? There is a difference between what constitutes a part under the Genocide Convention and the requisite specific genocidal intent. In other words, even if the number of victims targeted constitute a part, my understanding of the purpose of recognizing and establishing the crime of genocide rests on the intent behind the destruction, not the size of it – though size can, but not necessarily, matter.

Having read your article – The Ukrainian Famine of 1932-1933 as Genocide in the Light of the UN Convention of 1948, LXII The Ukrainian Quarterly, 181-194 (2006) – I understand you see things differently. You argue for instance that the “[f]amine came after most of the collectivization was already accomplished and the peasants’ foodstuffs confiscated” (p. 191), and thus the Ukrainians were subjected to starvation when there was no need to terrorize and starve them into acceding to collective farming. Here I defer to your account on the historical facts. You are the historian and I am primarily relying on Applebaum, who may not have made this observation – at least I do not recall coming across this historical finding. Be that as it may, even if the collectivization process in Ukraine had been completed, further terrorizing them into further submission for future purposes and/or further punishing them (and perhaps setting an example for what other national groups could expect) does not axiomatically show the existence of specific genocidal intent.

Granted (and I think here is where an international(ized) criminal tribunal or court would probably be inclined to give significant consideration), if indeed the famine induced and enforced on the Ukrainians in 1932-1933 was gratuitous for meeting Stalin’s collectivization aims, circumstantially, the evidence could reasonably be interpreted as showing a much more sinister purpose – to eradicate a significant segment of the Ukrainian population for who they were. And if so, this could lead to a finding of specific genocidal intent. Also, the physical perpetrators may have harbored specific genocidal intent when carrying out Stalin’s starvation policies, even if Stalin’s intent (as I am suggesting) was different. Under this scenario, and based on all the direct and circumstantial evidence, I can envisage an international(ized) criminal tribunal or court finding Stalin, at a minimum, complicit in committing genocide under Article 3(e) of the Genocide Convention – in addition to having committed extermination and other crimes against humanity, abundantly.

The fact that a segment of the population was targeted, constituting a part of it, may be relevant indicia in establishing specific genocidal intent, but it is neither the definitive indicator nor a supplement for the requisite specific genocidal intent in finding genocide. In other words, size and character of the group may matter, but they are just indicators – and not inherently the decisive ones.

Now to your questions.

Q: How do I understand the term “destroy” used in the Convention, in reference to the fifth form of genocidal destruction: transferring children from one group to another?

A: I do not recall Applebaum making any factual/historical claims that Stalin was transferring children from one group (Ukrainian) to another. But to the point, if children were being transferred from one group to another on a fairly large and systematic scale (as opposed to some isolated incidents) for the purpose of depriving these children of their identity (and the Ottomans come to mind in their kidnapping of Christian male babies in the Balkans and raising them into Ottoman Janissaries), it could amount to genocide, depending on the circumstances and the intent behind this policy or actions. In other words, one has to look not just at the results of the objective elements, but also whether the subjective element – the specific genocidal intent – is met.

Q: How are they or rather their group destroyed when their [children] lives are saved?

A: The children being saved may be of no consequence. Depending the circumstances and the intent, the policy and/or actions could constitute conspiracy to commit genocide or attempt to commit genocide under Article 3 (b) and (d) of the Genocide Convention, respectively.

Thank you again, Professor Serbyn, for taking the time to submit your thought provoking comments.


Author: Michael G. Karnavas

Michael G. Karnavas is an American trained lawyer. He is licensed in Alaska and Massachusetts and is qualified to appear before the various International tribunals, including the International Criminal Court (ICC). Residing and practicing primarily in The Hague, he is recognized as an expert in international criminal defence, including, pre-trial, trial, and appellate advocacy.

One thought on “Responding to Professor Roman Serbyn re Book Review: RED FAMINE – Stalin’s War on Ukraine”

  1. This is a particularly interesting and thought-provoking thread, Michael. I look forward to Professor Serbyn’s riposte, if he has one.

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