Canada, Great Britain, and the Ukrainian Famine: Failing to Respond to a Humanitarian Crisis, 1932-33
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The Ukrainian famine of 1932-33, also known as the Holodomor, is regarded by historians as one of the twentieth century’s worst human catastrophes. While it took decades for the famine to receive suitably detailed analysis from historians, and with it the recognition that the famine was not an entirely natural occurrence, it has since achieved widespread recognition as a huge catastrophe for the people of the Ukraine. The famine, occurring on such a massive scale because of the deliberate action of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet communist regime, which exacerbated natural hardships in the area, is still not as widely known today as other mass crimes against humanity occurring in modern history where most of the general public are concerned. Therefore it is unsurprising that even those scholars who are familiar with the famine are still unfamiliar with the role that the international community played while millions of Ukrainians were perishing of starvation. While this deliberately inflicted starvation upon the Ukrainian people was carried out by the totalitarian Soviet communist dictatorship, some historians also ask whether Stalin’s regime relied upon the Western liberal democracies to help him accomplish his end of eliciting the total submission of the Ukrainian people. Whether through awareness of what was happening in the Soviet Ukraine and remaining silent, or continuing their economic relations with the Soviets in spite of such knowledge, the political representatives and private businesses of Western nations have attracted accusations from a few scholars that they indirectly helped to ensure that Stalin’s goals were accomplished without hindrance. Ultimately, however, it was the inability to take concerted action, affected by the realities of the political and economic concerns of the day, that prevented Western nations from using the means available to them to act effectively. These means included either making an appeal to the League of Nations or enacting a full boycott on Soviet goods (a partial boycott having been enacted early during the tenure of the Canadian government of R.B. Bennett), neither of which materialized as actions by the British or Canadians. Though the reports prepared by individuals such as Andrew Cairns relayed in detail the realities of the famine to these governments, and though their populations were informed via the efforts of journalists such as Malcolm Muggeridge and Gareth Jones, this knowledge in itself could not bring about a meaningful change in policy. The economic partnership between the USSR and Western nations began at the start of the period of Soviet collectivization of agriculture and was already firmly established and functioning by the time that the Ukraine became the target of Stalin’s aggressive agricultural policies. Canada and the United Kingdom were among the Western governments which did business with the Soviet regime in order to purchase its cheap exported grain. With time, however, these governments became more aware of the impact that the Soviet policy of collectization was having upon the peasantry.. The trade in grain between the Soviet Union and these nations occurred both before and during the Ukrainian famine . This thesis aims to explore whether or not the governments of Great Britain and Canada became aware, through the correspondence of their representatives in the Soviet Union (and through their correspondence with one another’s government bureaus), that the famine in the Ukraine was the result of deliberate Soviet policy, and if so, what prevented them from taking action or raising protest using the means and methods at their disposal that would have been realistic at the time. Contemporary historians recognize that a significant portion of what is currently known about life in the Soviet Union comes from documents that Western scholars were only able to access after the fall of communism. That being said, at the time of the Ukrainian famine, there were various Western observers in the USSR whose firsthand experiences made the reality of the situation apparent even without their having access to the inner political workings and policy decisions of Stalin’s Kremlin. In seeking to provide context for why these governments failed to take action as millions of people were deliberately starved to death, despite the information on the subject being at their disposal, this thesis interrogates more deeply the events in question. In the process it will pose a series of additional questions; To what extent were the Canadian and British governments aware of the famine, and its roots in pre-meditated Soviet policies? If they were aware of it, what if anything did they do in response? If they desired to make official protest or to take some form of action against the Soviet regime, what alternatives were there available at the time that could have realistically been pursued? Was the Canadian government response at all affected by its prior history with the Ukrainian minority in Canada? In essence, the governments of Great Britain and Canada became aware through their representatives that the famine in the Soviet Ukraine was artificially created by Stalin’s regime as an act of political violence against the Ukrainian people. The Canadian government had a complicated history with Canada’s Ukrainian minority, one rendered turbulent by the anxieties surrounding the presence of “enemy aliens” in Canada during the First World War and the Russian Civil War, which combined with widespread feelings of nativist hostility towards ethnic minorities meant that as late as the early 1930s some Ukrainians were regarded with suspicion by Ottawa as being potentially disloyal. However, due to R.B. Bennett’s staunch anti-communism, Canada was prepared to work with Great Britain in trying to use the methods available at the time to both nations to take punitive economic and political action in the face of Soviet human rights abuses. Unfortunately, in the end the realities of foreign trade, of the global economic climate and international relations meant these governments were unable to take meaningful action to alleviate the suffering of the Ukrainians. To provide context to the relationship between the Ukrainians in Canada (and by extension the Ukrainian people) and the Canadian government, this thesis shall also examine how the history of Ukrainian immigrants in Canada until the early 1930s involved a high degree of intercultural conflict, hostility, bigotry and animosity directed at the Ukrainians by the English-speaking majority, resulting in the Ukrainian immigrants being the victim of official prejudices that were still recent history in 1932. Whether or not this history of tense relations affected the Canadian government’s response to the protests for action of the sizeable Ukrainian community in Canada is another matter to consider . The role of Great Britain will also be considered, given that these Ukrainians were British subjects as well as citizens of Canada, and the two governments during this period cooperated closely in making economic and political decisions that impacted the British Empire as a whole as much as its individual colonies and dominions. The thesis will also examine the Ukrainian famine (also known as the Holodomor) itself, in order to explore the premeditated manner in which Stalin’s regime went about consciously constructing a campaign of mass starvation against the Ukrainian people as a calculated act of political warfare. Then it examines how the government of Great Britain became aware of the famine and its artificial origins through their observers in the Soviet Union, and how the Canadian government became informed. The famine was initially seized upon by anti-communist politicians such as Canadian Prime Minister R.B. Bennett) as further motivation for the countries of the British Commonwealth to enact an embargo on Soviet imports to their countries . It shall then outline how economic realities (such as dependence on Soviet imports) resulted in the failure of their plans to punish the Soviets economically. This information shall support the argument that the British and Canadians were quite aware of the artificial nature of the Ukrainian famine, but opted not to protest to the Soviet government or cease trade relations with the USSR because of economic considerations. The early history of the Ukrainians in Canada provides a window into how public opinion (specifically the opinion of the English-speaking majority) regarded the Ukrainians, the origins of the widespread hostility and prejudice against them, and how the events that befell them during the first few decades of their history in Canada was affected by a combination of the unfolding of events in international and domestic politics and by the actions of a few outspoken members of the Ukrainian-Canadian community. The established historiography on the background of the Holodomor itself and its origins in the deliberate policy of the Soviet state (and the machinations of Joseph Stalin) demonstrate how, besides being a humanitarian crisis, the Ukrainian famine was an artificially created crisis, one which stood to be affected significantly by the action or inaction of external forces. . Furthermore, the existing historiography also provides insight into how Canadian and British politicians viewed the famine. Primary sources shed new light into their decision making processes, while secondary sources reveal how these decisions were affected by the ideological viewpoints of the politicians and their pragmatic considerations of the economic and political realities. Primary sources, ranging from British and Canadian government documents to newspaper articles from major contemporary publications such as the Globe provide further insight into why the events in question took the course they did, incorporating information that which most secondary historians have not yet incorporated into their own research. These sources will range from contemporary newspapers, magazines, books and pamphlets from various countries to dossiers of information compiled by governments in order to brief politicians and civil servants, providing insight into the thoughts and activities of these governments and the current affairs that affected their decisions. Historians seldom touch upon Canadian trade with the Soviet Union during the first twenty years of the Soviet regime, or on the role of Canada under the leadership of R.B. Bennett in trying to assist the British Empire in reconciling ideological opposition to Soviet communism with the economic realities of international trade during the Great Depression. The Canadian government’s awareness of the famine is in itself a rarely discussed topic, let alone that this burgeoning awareness occurred at the same time that Bennett was urging the entire British Empire to boycott Soviet goods in an effort to crush international communism. While Bennett’s domestic anti-communism is a well-known aspect of his policies while in office, that it also materialized itself as a campaign to try and strangle the USSR economically is far from well known, let alone the eventual faltering of his campaign . While all of these elements have been touched upon in individual secondary sources, no scholar has brought them into dialogue to furnish a broader narrative involving British imperial economic relations with the Soviet Union during this period. There is another factor that must be taken into account. A significant portion of the historiography created regarding the early history of Ukrainians in Canada, the Ukrainian-Canadian internment between 1914 and 1921, and Ukrainian-Canadian history in the interwar period, has been chronicled by Ukrainian-Canadian historians. Their work has often been published by organizations devoted to the preservation of Ukrainian-Canadian history and to the commemoration of such events as their wartime internment. There is a distinct danger that the historical narrative they present may be one that emphasizes Ukrainian historical victimhood at the hands of the English-speaking Canadian majority, in an effort to obtain compensation for what they regard as past wrongdoings against their people. Whatever wrongdoing may have occurred, as vital as these historians’ work may be to exploring the subject, effort shall be made whenever possible to avoid the simple repetition of the narrative presented in their books, and to temper it with additional information that will hopefully present the subject in a more complex light.
Cite this work
Andrew David McCormick-Johnson (2016). Canada, Great Britain, and the Ukrainian Famine: Failing to Respond to a Humanitarian Crisis, 1932-33. UWSpace. http://hdl.handle.net/10012/10989