“A Crime Against Humanity Arguably Without Parallel in European History”: Genocide and the “Politics” of Victimhood in Western Narratives of the Ukrainian Holodomor


  • There are many different discourses on the Holodomor, including Western, diaspora, Ukrainian, and Russian, with further divisions existing between public and scholarly discussion. This paper, however, restricts itself to the Anglophone literature (including both diaspora and non-diaspora work), as an adequate consideration of all these different discourses is well beyond the scope of the present investigation. Additionally, many of the themes of Holodomor literature which we will explore, such as claims of genocide, uniqueness and Holocaust comparisons, actually began with the diaspora, and later informed the discussion which started in Ukraine itself following the collapse of the Soviet Union. See D.R. Marples, Heroes and Villains: Creating National History in Contemporary Ukraine (Budapest, 2007), p.xii. In this sense, the English-language literature represents a natural starting point for tracing the development of the different discourses surrounding the Holodomor.

  • D. Rayfield. “The Ukrainian Famine of 1933: Man-Made Catastrophe, Mass Murder, or Genocide?” in L.Y. Luciuk, ed., Holodomor: Reflections on the Great Famine of 1932–1933 in Soviet Ukraine (Kingston, 2008), p.93.

  • See C.S. Maier, The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust, and German National Identity, (Cambridge, 1988), p.161.


In the West, discussion about the Holodomor— the name given to the Ukrainian experience of the deadly famine which spread across several regions of the Soviet Union between 1932 and 1933 — has proved to be highly contentious.1 Much of the debate has focused on the genocidal “status” of the famine in Ukraine, with sharp divisions between the particular “schools” of thought. While many scholars have concluded that the famine was not a genocide, a significant body of literature has emerged which argues the opposite. In arguing for this genocidal interpretation, certain narratives about the Holodomor have developed which highlight important concerns about the “politics” of genocide and victimhood. One historian has suggested that “the word genocide has to be applied to the Ukrainian famine, the Holodomor”, otherwise “the word genocide loses all useful meaning”.2 The definitional parameters of the term are highly contested, however, and precisely what qualifies as “genocide” remains controversial. Furthermore, the discourse surrounding the Holodomor raises questions concerning the “attractiveness” of this classification, and the desire, as one commentator has phrased the issue, to “benefit from history” through claiming a particular type of victimisation.3 This paper will explore the nature of these “politics” and how they have found expression in the genocidal interpretation of the Holodomor. Overall, it cautions against allowing the agendas of the present to obfuscate ongoing efforts to adequately and appropriately come to terms with past atrocity.