Knyzhka Corner Book Review: Starving Ukraine – The Holodomor and Canada’s Response

In this edition of Knyzka Corner, we will be discussing Serge Cipko’s ground-breaking book Starving Ukraine – The Holodomor and Canada’s Response.

Starving Ukraine is a richly detailed history of Canada’s response to the Holodomor, the great famine in Ukraine in 1932-1933. By examining Canadian newspapers, contemporary letters, and government documents, Cipko paints a shocking picture of famine and death, and the Soviet government’s denials of these events.

Cipko probes several important questions, “What was the nature of the coverage in the Ukrainian-language press in Canada? How did the pro-Soviet segment of the Ukrainian community respond to the stories about famine in the Soviet Union? What relief efforts existed among Ukrainians, Mennonites, and others in Canada?  How did the Canadian government respond to petitions about the famine?” (p. xix)

Canadians learned of the famine from a multitude of contradictory sources including newspaper articles, personal letters, political speeches, and organized events to protest this Soviet atrocity. Serge Cipko’s examination of Canada’s response to the famine begins with the Edmonton Journal’s commentary about a scarcity of wheat in Ukraine in early April 1932. This was the earliest reporting about the Holodomor in the mainstream Canadian press. However, in May the Toronto Star journalist Pierre van Paassen contradicted this report by praising Stalin’s policy of collectivization and describing living conditions in Ukraine as “very satisfactory.”  Contradictory reports about the Holodomor would continue as the Soviet government covered up its complicity in starving millions of people.

Cipko’s book is organized chronologically beginning in 1932 and ending in 1934. Chapter titles are quotations from contemporary documents about the Holodomor. Early chapters such as, “We Are Starving Terribly” and “Starvation, Real Cause of Soviet Trial,” examine the causes and impact of the Holodomor on the Ukrainian people. Later chapters such as, “What to Believe about Russia” and “What Are 1,000,000 in a Population of 162,000,000?” examine the Soviet cover-up of the starvation. The final three chapters examine the responses of various groups to the Holodomor including: the Canadian government, the Pro-Soviet community in Canada, aid groups and the League of Nations.

What did Canadians know about the famine as it was happening? The Soviet Union tightly controlled access to the Ukrainian countryside by foreigners. As a result, information was contradictory, and reports of starvation were dismissed as an over-reaction.  The Soviet Union refused foreign aid claiming there was no famine.  Despite the fact that the events of the Holodomor were raised in the Canadian press, Canada’s response was tentative. However, the response of the Ukrainian community in Canada was more powerful. There were compelling articles in the Ukrainian-language press and protests throughout Canada urging Canada to help those suffering starvation.  Canadian politicians also urged provincial and federal governments to help the victims of Stalin’s collectivization policies. James G. Gardiner, leader of the Liberal opposition in Saskatchewan, made a powerful plea for helping those starving in Ukraine on March 20, 1933, “Surely the great nations of the world can find a way to get this food to the proper place, in the proper way…We must say these people must not die.” (p. 228)

Cipko’s book is an important contribution to Holodomor studies since it examines how Canada responded to the horrific events. The contradictory newspaper articles about starving people by journalists such as Pierre Van Paassen, and Walter Duranty are shocking. The Soviets were very effective in co-opting the press into reporting what they wanted to hear. However, there were many journalists in Canada, America, and England who spoke out about the Holodomor. This should be a reminder to all of us about the importance of the free press in a time of political turmoil. Starving Ukraine provides readers with detailed contemporary and archival research, as well as an extensive bibliography which would be very useful to anyone doing further research on this topic.

Serge Cipko is co-ordinator of the Ukrainian Diaspora Studies Initiative for the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta. He has published Ukrainians in Argentina, 1897-1950: The Making of a Community, as well as One-Way Ticket: The Soviet Return-to-the-Homeland Campaign, 1955-1960. Starving Ukraine should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the history of the Holodomor and how Canadians responded to this international crisis.

Starving Ukraine – The Holodomor and Canada’s Response is available at Chapters/Indigo and Amazon.

–Reviewed by Myra Junyk.





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