France: The difficult question of recognizing the Ukrainian Holodomor as genocide

People light candles and lay flowers at the monument to the victims of the Holodomor, the Great Famine, which took place in the 1930s and killed millions, in Kiev, Ukraine, Saturday, Nov. 1, 2019. 26, 2022. AP - Andrew Kravchenko

Text by: Anastasia Becchio

8 min

The Holodomor, the great Ukrainian famine of 1932-33, is on the agenda of the French National Assembly. MEPs are preparing to examine a motion for a resolution on the recognition as genocide of this tragedy that killed 3.5 to 4 million people in Ukraine.


Read more

After the German Bundestag and the European Parliament at the end of last year, and most recently the Belgian Chamber, it is the turn of the French Parliament to pronounce on this historic event to which the war led by Russia in Ukraine gives a particular echo.

When he crisscrossed the Ukrainian lands during his trip to the USSR, at the invitation of the Soviet authorities, in August-September 1933, Édouard Herriot, the mayor of Lyon, saw nothing, or wanted to see, of the drama that was then being played. The famine against the backdrop of collectivization of land, orchestrated by Stalin, decimated millions of households.

Ninety years later, the French deputies who must examine the "motion for a resolution n°770 to recognize and condemn the Holodomor as genocide", will perhaps have in mind the blindness of this figure of the radical party, who was president of the National Assembly. "It is important that the National Assembly, for its own honor, vote this resolution," says Green MP Aurélien Tâché, stressing that Édouard Herriot "played an active role in concealing the genocidal character of the Holodomor."

This qualification is still debated. This is one of the reasons why the legislative process took time, explains the elected representative at the origin of the draft resolution, Anne Genetet, Renaissance MP for the 11th constituency of French people living outside France, which includes Ukraine and Russia. "During my previous mandate, I had already been alerted by the French and Ukrainians about this deep Ukrainian wound," she said. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 and the visit of a delegation of French parliamentarians in September accelerated things: "Vodolymyr Zelensky, whom we met, asked us that the France recognize the Holodomor as genocide. It took a little time, because there was a doubt about the qualification, "continues Anne Genetet.

Read also: Ukraine commemorates the 90th anniversary of the Holodomor, the great famine caused by Stalin

The intention of extermination of the Ukrainian peasant population by the Soviet authorities, by provoking this famine, is discussed by specialists. In 2008, the European Parliament described it as a "terrible crime perpetrated against the Ukrainian people and against humanity", before recognizing the "genocide" last December, after the German Bundestag and before the Belgian Chamber.

The debate among historians is not settled, some arguing in particular that Ukraine is not the only one to have been the victim of forced collectivization and dekulakization, that is to say the expropriation of the private property of the kulaks for the benefit of the kolkhozes in Stalinist Russia, nor the only one to have suffered punitive measures. Peasants on the Don and Kuban plains, and in Kazakhstan, were also affected.

Children light a candle to commemorate the victims of the 1932-33 Holodomor, Ukrainian for "starving," in Lviv on Nov. 26, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. AFP - YURIY DYACHYSHYN

Debates on the characterization of the crime


Where the qualification of genocide is played out is in deliberately criminal decisions," says Thomas Chopard, historian specializing in the history of Soviet Ukraine. And to enumerate: "The fact of organizing a blockade of Ukraine and deporting, from January 1933, the starving peasants who tried to flee Ukraine to starve them, the crops of sowing and livestock from November 1932, specific to Ukraine, which are not found elsewhere, including Kazakhstan, and finally, the so-called "blackboard" technique, which consists of transforming either a village, a canton, or a collective farm into a blocked village.


What distinguishes the Ukrainian famine is "the concomitance of this attack on the Ukrainian peasantry which represented the majority of the Ukrainian population, with an attack on the Ukrainian church and against the Ukrainian intelligentsia. In a way, we attacked the body as well as the mind and the brain," explains Iryna Dmytrychyn, head of Ukrainian studies at Inalco (National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations), who recalls that Joseph Stalin, who saw in the Ukrainian national element one of the reasons for the resistance of the peasants to follow his policy, put an end to Ukrainization and launched the Russification of these regions.

This deadly famine has long been ignored. The Soviet power hid and denied it, aided by Western personalities such as Édouard Herriot or the then Moscow correspondent of the New York Times, Walter Duranty.

Today, Russia still disputes its genocidal character, highlighting the relative importance of the various factors that led to the famine. In Ukraine, on the other hand, the Holodomor is a central event in collective memory, a pillar of the national narrative. In the wake of the Orange Revolution, in 2006, the Rada adopted a law describing this "extermination by hunger" as "genocide".

During the time of the USSR, his memory first spread through the Ukrainian diaspora in the West. In France, it was worn by Natalia Pasternak, now deceased. Her husband, Jean-Pierre, remembers that his wife regularly went to see deputies and senators, with under her arm a book on the Holodomor, published by the World Congress of Ukrainians.


It was still a little too early ", he notes, recalling that fifteen years ago, a draft resolution had received only 37 votes. "This is one of the dark pages of Ukraine, so this recognition is very important for Ukrainians to enable them to move forward and build Ukraine's future," says Jean-Pierre Pasternak. Ukrainians see the recognition of the Holodomor as "the beginnings of a recognition of what is happening today," Dmytrychyn said.

Read also: Grand prize of Fipadoc for a documentary on the Holodomor, "the famine in Ukraine", in 1933

Current resonances

The recognition of the Holodomor as genocide by the French National Assembly has a particular dimension against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine. "Making known the conflictual history of Russian-Ukrainian relations, with Moscow's recurrent denial of the Ukrainian national fact, is important to maintain the support of Western public opinion, which is decisive for the outcome of the armed conflict," said Anne Genetet and Socialist MP Boris Vallaud, in a statement. The ecologist Aurélien Tâché highlights the current political resonance of the Holodomor, for which, "the war led by Vladimir Putin has a genocidal character: deportation of children or destruction of places of culture are elements that participate in a desire to truly erase the Ukrainian identity and its people".

Today, the terms crimes against humanity, even genocide, regularly reappear in the speeches of the Ukrainian authorities to describe the torture inflicted on civilians by Russian forces, murder, rape or deportation of children. "Today, we have a war that aims to destroy Ukraine, its identity, to Russify the Ukrainians. Somehow, this is already what was happening in 1932-33," says Pierre Ramain, secretary of the association For Ukraine, for their freedom and ours, signatory of an article in Le Monde denouncing the abductions, transfers to Russia and forced adoptions of Ukrainian children, as "a genocidal project conceived by Vladimir Putin and his inner circle".

The Anne Genetet approach is part of a desire to "denounce the crimes of Stalinism" at a time when "Vladimir Putin is trying to rehabilitate it". Would it have had any chance of succeeding before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, or even in the first months of the war, at a time when attempts at dialogue with Moscow were still ongoing? "As much as I am certain that we would have had the very broad signature of the entire hemicycle during the previous mandate, but I think I would have encountered a form of resistance on the side of the Quai d'Orsay," says the MP.


The "rediscovery" of the famine has played a crucial role in the political debate, in the confrontation between supporters of a break with Russia and supporters of maintaining close ties with the "Russian big brother". " writes historian Nicolas Werth. In the National Assembly, the text is expected to receive the votes of representatives of the main parliamentary groups. They are all signatories, with the exception of the France Insoumise, the National Rally and the Communists.

The event is likely to irritate Moscow. Should we see a link there? On Monday, March 27, the website of the National Assembly was targeted by pro-Russian hackers. A denial-of-service attack "triggered by an influx of requests" shut down the site for a few hours. It was claimed by the hacker collective Noname057.

► Read also: Russia and Ukraine: the tragic memory of the "border country"

Newsletter Receive all the international news directly in your mailbox

I subscribe

Follow all the international news by downloading the RFI application

Read on on the same topics:

  • Ukraine
  • Russia
  • History
  • French politics
  • Our selection