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Holodomor - House of Lords debate

My Lords, the whole House is deeply indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Risby, for initiating today’s debate, for the way he introduced it and for the work that he has done for the people of Ukraine over so many years. In reinforcing his speech, I will divide my remarks into two parts—first, why the Holodomor matters in understanding events in Ukraine today and, secondly, why and how the determination of what is a genocide is an issue that still has to be resolved. I first heard about the Holodomor when I visited Ukraine in 1989 with a small jubilee campaign delegation. I have never forgotten the sheer courage and determination of pro-democracy activists whom I met on the streets of Lviv as they risked their lives to throw off the shackles and chains of the Soviet Union. We met people whose family, in the preceding generation, had lost their lives in the Holodomor, Stalin’s mass starvation of Ukraine—the man-made famine that convulsed Ukraine in 1932 and 1933. As Stalin replaced Ukraine’s small farms with state-run collectives and punished independent-minded Ukrainians, the Holodomor—a combination of the Ukrainian words for “starvation” and “to inflict death”—led to millions of people dying. The writer Alex de Waal described the Holodomor as “a hybrid … of a famine caused by calamitous social-economic policies and one aimed at a particular population for repression or punishment”. In Ukraine, I visited Greek Catholic churches that Stalin had closed 40 years earlier and where, every day, fresh flowers were defiantly left at the doors to replace the ones removed earlier by Soviet soldiers. Religious belief was violently repressed. I met courageous people, such as Bishop Pavlo Vasylyk and Ivan Gel, a politician and dissident, a member of the Ukrainian Helsinki group and the Ukrainian Christian Democratic Party. Between them, they had spent 17 and 18 years in the Soviet death camp at Perm. I met a young priest who as a punishment had been sent three years earlier to Chernobyl, without any protective clothing, to clear radioactive waste. Those people wanted this story known, and I was grateful to the BBC and the Independent newspaper for enabling us to do so. Stories matter, not least the story of the Holodomor, because we forget too easily the price that has been paid for our liberties. The stories matter because they illustrate why, even as we meet here at Westminster, Ukrainians are fighting to the bitter end to protect their hard-won freedoms, and why they will resist Putin’s attempts to resurrect a Russian empire, which ultimately means the death of their nation. They will resist his attempts to crush democratic rights and sovereignty, to roll the clock back and reverse the gains made across Europe with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Putin’s deluded idea that these brave people would line the streets with flowers, cheering the new imperial occupation and the reconquest of their country, simply beggars belief. Since Putin instigated his illegal war, under the obscene pretext of protecting people from genocide, I have often thought about the people I met then and since, and about the courage and bravery of Ukraine’s anti-Soviet, faith-led, pro-democracy movement. I have often thought about the price of political progress and the illegal demonstrations I attended where Ukrainians, in their thousands, proudly held aloft their blue and yellow flags of defiance, and how religious freedom had been so violently repressed. As I have watched the consequences of Putin’s orders to destroy vast acres of arable land and their crops, to prevent grain reaching hungry people in the developing world, especially Africa, and to abduct and remove Ukrainian children, I have thought back to the conversations I had 35 years ago about Stalin’s Holodomor. Stalin’s Holodomor, like Putin’s today, was an entirely manmade catastrophe, leading to anything from 3.5 million to 5 million deaths, or possibly the figure that the noble Lord, Lord Risby, gave the House: as many as 10 million. However, motive not numbers is the issue in determining genocide. I will come back to that later, but many historians regard this technically, formally and properly as a genocide. The Holodomor was methodically planned; it was executed by denying the producers of the food the sustenance necessary for survival. It seems especially cruel and perverse to have used food as a genocidal weapon in the breadbasket of Europe. As Ukrainians resorted to eating grass and acorns—even cats and dogs, as we have heard—Stalin banned any reference to famine. His “Five Stalks of Grain” decree stated that anyone, even a child, caught taking produce from a collective field could be shot or imprisoned for stealing socialist property. In 1933, 2,000 people were executed. While people were starving to death in the terror famine, the Soviet state stole over 4 million tonnes of Ukraine’s grain, enough to meet the needs of 12 million people in a year. In 1997, I founded the Roscoe lectures, a public lecture series hosted by Liverpool John Moores University, and in 2009 I invited the writer, Anne Applebaum, to give one of those lectures. It was entitled Hitler and Stalin: the 20th Century’s Cruellest Tyrants. Subsequently, in 2018, she published her magnificent Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine. In it, she says the famine launched by the Soviet leadership was “a disaster specifically targeted at Ukraine and Ukrainians.” In harrowing testimonies, we hear from Tetiana Pavlychka, who remembered that her sister Tamara “had a large, swollen stomach, and her neck was long and thin like a bird’s neck. People didn’t look like people— they were more like starving ghosts.” Applebaum quotes another survivor who remembered that his mother “looked like a glass jar, filled with clear spring water. All her body that could be seen . . . was see-through and filled with water, like a plastic bag.” Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Applebaum was able to access previously unseen archival material, which she says “backs up the testimony of the survivors … Starvation was the result … of the forcible removal of food from people’s homes; the roadblocks that prevented peasants from seeking work or food; the harsh rules of the blacklists imposed on farms and villages; the restrictions on barter and trade; and the vicious propaganda campaign designed to persuade Ukrainians to watch, unmoved, as their neighbours died of hunger.” She cites extraordinary statistics, which graphically illustrate the scale of the deaths and the lives cut short—the noble Lord, Lord Risby, referred to this. Applebaum says that females born in Ukraine in 1933 “lived, on average, to be eight years old. Males born in 1933 could expect to live to the age of five.” Such terrible experiences were within the living memory of some of those I met in 1989. Others had been told the stories by parents and grandparents, who had vowed never to forget and to use every sinew to struggle for a free Ukraine. Lest anyone imagine that such shocking experiences can easily be expunged or erased, as the son of a native Irish speaker, I can say that my mother told me the stories of the Irish famine which had occurred 100 years earlier. The deaths and emigration of millions poisoned British-Irish relations for decades afterwards. What memories are being made in Ukraine today? In addition to the daily bombing of civilians, the appropriation of Ukrainian territory and mass displacements, Putin is a mirror image of Stalin and he is committing food terrorism by purposefully destroying Ukraine’s agricultural infrastructure and stealing Ukrainian grain and agricultural machinery. I initiated the debate about this in your Lordships’ House on 21 July this year. Since then, we have seen vivid footage of his militias setting fire to fields, scorching the earth and reducing crops to ash. There have been reports from eastern Ukraine of people drinking water from radiators and puddles, and even killing and cooking stray dogs to avoid starvation, as we have heard. It is clear why memories of the past are so relevant in the present, yet most people in Britain have never heard of the Holodomor and that should not be the case. That the crime was committed by a communist regime does not make it any less bad than a crime committed by a Nazi regime. I commend James Bartholomew of the Foundation for the History of Totalitarianism, which has been working to make the Holodomor better known. It has created a school assembly plan and two lesson plans, all of which are free to download from its website. It has actively promoted these resources to schools. It also recently produced a booklet on the subject and metal lapel badges. It held a competition to design a candleholder with “Holodomor” clearly displayed, so that on the appropriate day people can place a candle in their front window and passers-by will know why. The Holodomor should find more of a place in the national curriculum or the exams set by the various exam boards. I hope the Minister will comment on that proposal when he replies. The noble Lord, Lord Risby, alluded to a second matter, which I also want to raise. Last year, Dr Ewelina Ochab and I published State Responses to Crimes of Genocide. I gave a copy to the Minister, as it challenges the long-standing policy of the FCDO on the determination of what is and is not a genocide. It builds on the all-party amendments passed by this House with three-figure majorities, and Private Members’ Bills, the fifth and latest of which has just been selected again in this year’s ballot for new Bills. I am particularly pleased to see my noble and learned friend Lord Hope of Craighead in the Chamber, because his expertise and knowledge was enormously helpful in framing the amendments to the Trade Bill. Two recent Prime Ministers agreed with us that the determination should be made by the High Court of England and Wales, not by politicians. The FCDO prevented that change, while trotting out the repeated line that only a court could decide, knowing that no court is in a position to do so. A former Minister and Member of this House told me that it is a deliberate sleight of hand. In the case of the Holodomor, the Canadian Government, Australian Parliament, United States Congress and others listed in the excellent House of Lords note for this debate labelled the Holodomor as a genocide by Stalin’s Soviet regime. In November 2022, the German Federal Parliament passed a resolution put forward by the parties of its coalition Government declaring the Holodomor a genocide, as did the European Parliament in December 2022. As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Risby, during a House of Commons debate in May, Leo Docherty MP, a Minister at the FCDO, said that the UK Government’s policy would ensure that genocide determinations remain “above politics, above lobbying and above individual, political or national interests”.—[Official Report, Commons, 25/05/23; col. 518.] In reality, however, the refusal to allow the English courts to make this decision means that genocide determination remains entirely political and subject to all the things that Mr Docherty says he opposes. It is an illusionist’s conjuring trick worthy of Houdini. The new Foreign Secretary has the chance to put this right. Of course, the Chinese, who refuse even to allow a debate about reports concerning Uighurs at the UN, might not like it. The Holodomor, like the Armenian genocide, which is also unrecognised by the FCDO, was about the targeting of a specific group of people. Ukrainians were subjected to mass starvation, exile and displacement, were sent to gulags and suffered grievously. This Soviet genocide was of a piece with other communist genocide in Mao’s China and Pol Pot’s Cambodia. As we watch the crime of starvation waged against the Ukrainians right now, we need to recollect that this is not the first time that this crime has been committed against them. I draw the Minister’s attention to the following, from Dr Ochab: “A newly published investigation of the Starvation Mobile Justice Team, a team of experts supporting the work of Ukraine’s Office of the Prosecutor General, has revealed evidence of starvation tactics used by Russian soldiers. As they said, the techniques were ‘designed to break the Ukrainian people.’ Their findings, published on June 2, 2023, indicate that they collected credible evidence of numerous incidents recorded in Chernihiv that help to establish a track record of ‘repeated and/or coordinated attacks resulting in objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population being targeted’”. Global Rights Compliance has called for the prosecution of the crime of starvation and says that it is crucial to explore the crime of starvation against the definition of genocide in Article II of the genocide convention. Is the Foreign Office involved in helping to do that? Global Rights Compliance says that “mass starvation has long been described as a ‘societal torture’”and that “when directed against—in the case of Ukraine—a national group, the concerted attack on the very foundation and fabric of such groups can be indicative of genocidal intent”. To end, recognising past and present genocides for what they are is a step to ensuring justice and accountability and a step towards deterring and preventing future genocides—a word which itself means the breaking of the human family, the crime above all crimes. That is why this initiative from the noble Lord, Lord Risby, is so important and so welcome.


At 15:52 you will hear the contribution from Lord Alton of Liverpool. The Hansard transcript is here:

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