Depicting Genocide: 20th Century Responses to the Holodomor

Depicting Genocide: 20th Century Responses to the Holodomor

The Holodomor was an extremely unnatural disaster. It was a famine that resulted in staggering levels of mortality, but it was not simply a result of bad weather, poor harvests, or overzealous collectivization efforts. These massive death rates were the result of intentional actions by the Soviet regime which many scholars believe meet the definition of genocide.

It went beyond being just a famine, though that itself was horrifying enough. It was part of a broad campaign to quash any residue of Ukrainian autonomy and self-determination by attacking the deepest sources of that identity: language, culture, and traditions centered on agriculture and the land. As such, is one of the sharpest "before and after" demarcation points in modern Ukrainian history.

This exhibition opens during the 90th anniversary of the Holodomor. It also opens as Russia continues its war of aggression against Ukraine, during which genocide is yet again being perpetrated.

Compared to the Holocaust, the Armenian and Cambodian genocides, and more recent atrocities such as those in Bosnia and Rwanda, the Holodomor has not been a part of public consciousness outside of Ukraine and the Ukrainian diaspora. This is not an accident: it is due in good measure to efforts at denial, erasure, and disinformation by the Soviet Union, Russia, and their apologists.

Soviet authorities systematically attempted to erase the memory of the genocide among the Ukrainian population. Any discussion of famine in 1932-1933 was forbidden and could result in persecution. But memory of the Holodomor did not completely vanish. Older family members would whisper stories to children and grandchildren with the warning to "keep quiet" about it. Ukrainians in the diaspora, of course, faced no such restrictions: they reported what they could in their newspapers, they organized protests and commemorations, and they promoted scholarly study of the Holodomor and attempted to bring it to the attention of the broader public. And they created works of art and literature.

"Depicting Genocide" explores some of the ways in which the Holodomor was represented during the 20th century, particularly though art.

The artistic depiction of genocide is challenging. Should horrors be depicted directly and graphically — with skeletons or dead bodies? Or should the approach be more understated, providing the viewers or readers with just enough to allow them to create the images of horror in their own minds? While many artists and writers were quick to create a substantial body of work about other genocides (such as the Holocaust), depictions of the Holodomor were remarkably sparse prior to the last decade of the 20th century. The Ukrainian History and Education Center is honored to have a number of these early works in its permanent collection. This exhibition is built around those items and explores the extremely varied approaches that artists over more than seven decades have used to tackle the Holodomor.

We believe that this art cannot be fully appreciated without an understanding of the Holodomor as a historical event and its impact on Ukrainian society. Given the general lack of familiarity with the Holodomor, we have include considerable background information on the historical context of the Holodomor. These are illustrated with public domain images from Ukrainian archives and other sources, as well as primary source materials in the UHEC's collections. We also explore how the Holodomor was portrayed in the press and how Ukrainians in the diaspora responded to it.

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