Vatican Documents Reveal Stalin's Forced Starvation Plan

Book Gives Details of 1932 ‘Killing by Hunger’ in Ukraine

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, NOV. 17, 2011 ( The sober skies and short days of November remind Romans that this is the month to pray for the dead. It seems fitting that this month opened with a presentation of new documents regarding one of the most tragic — and virtually unacknowledged — events of the modern age, the Ukrainian Famine.

«The Holy See and the Holodomor: Documents from the Vatican Secret Archives on the Great Famine of 1932-1933 in Soviet Ukraine» by Father Athanasius McVay and Professor Lubomyr Luciuk was released Oct. 26 with a book launch at the Russian Ecumenical Center in Rome. The book is available in English through Kashtan Press and Abe Books.

The Holodomor (literally «killing by hunger») took place in 1932-33 in the fertile grain-producing region of Ukrainian USSR. While the exact number of deaths is not known due to lack of precise records, an estimated 2.4 to 7.5 million people died. This man-made famine, intended to starve the Ukrainian nationalists out of existence, has been recognized as a genocide by many nations worldwide.

Father Athanasius McVay, a Canadian Greek-Catholic priest of Ukrainian ancestry, was doing doctoral research on diplomatic relations between the papacy and the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic hierarchy during the struggle for Ukrainian independence (1918-1923), when he began to realize how little research was being done on Ukrainian subjects at all.

I had the chance to ask Father McVay a few questions about his book, his research, and the surprisingly little-known Great Famine.

I asked how the Great Famine caught his attention and Father McVay explained that his interest was piqued while «working on a historical biography of the first Ukrainian bishop for Canada, Blessed Nykyta Budka (1877-1949), the centenary of whose appointment we will be celebrating in 2012. In 2008, while researching documents pertaining to Blessed Budka, I accidentally discovered documents concerning the Holodomor.»

The Holodomor is better known in Canada than in the United States, it seems. Canada was the first country to declare the famine a genocide and the first to erect a monument in honor of its victims. Father McVay explained that he «had known about the Holodomor since the early 1980s when Ukrainians across Canada organized various conferences and demonstrations to have this humanitarian tragedy officially recognized by the Canadian government.»

His home town in Winnipeg erected a monument to Holodomor victims in 1984 directly in front of City Hall.

Accounts describing the Holodomor vary from source to source. I asked Father McVay to give an account of the 1932 events in Ukraine for ZENIT readers. «The Soviet economy was a disaster,» he began, «especially due to the ideological economic schemes such as the collective farms. Widespread famine was occurring in Russia and Ukraine at the end of the 1920s and this made the Soviet Union politically weak and fueled the Ukrainian independence movement. Stalin decided to kill two birds with one stone by weakening the Ukrainian ethnic population and also eliminating the prosperous farmer-class known as kulaks.»

I had read that the Soviet government passed a law where private ownership of food was made illegal in 1932 and those who suffered the most from this legislation were the Ukrainians. But that was not all. «Grain was confiscated at gunpoint and shipped to Russian parts of the Soviet Union that were also experiencing food shortages,» continued Father Mcvay. «The politically motivated famine was directed specifically against Ukrainian ethnics.»

I asked if he found anything new while studying the correspondence with the Holy See and the author explained that he discovered not only «many of the details of the famine but especially documents regarding how the Apostolic See sought to intervene to make the tragedy know to the world and to alleviate the people’s suffering.»

Father McVay found «that the Pope learned about the Holodomor from the French Jesuit, Bishop Michel d’Herbigny, who was the president of the Pro Russia Commission. D’Herbigny was receiving letters from the Soviet Union as well as reports from foreign diplomats who had witnessed the situation first hand. D’Herbigny attempted to move mountains in order to convince Pius XI to launch an aid-mission to the Soviet Union, just as he and his predecessor Benedict XV had done in 1921-1923.»

«The emotional Pius XI wept when he received one report,» explained Father McVay, «and he insisted that something must be done. Unfortunately churchmen and diplomats all concurred that no aid would ever reach the people because Soviet authorities were officially denying the existence of a famine that Stalin had deliberately orchestrated. In the end, the Pope was only able to authorize a gift of 10,000 Italian lire to be forwarded to starving Catholics via German charitable organizations that had contacts in Ukraine.»

A light in the Vatican Archives

Father McVay had the coveted experience of doing his research in the Vatican Archives. While portrayed in Dan Brown novels as a high tech vault where all the dirty Vatican secrets lie, the archives are a very different thing to the scholars who actually work there. The Vatican Archives have made great efforts over the past years to dispel the impression of intrigue by putting much of their holdings on line and organizing exhibits from their fascinating collections. In 2012, the archives will put many more documents on display at the Capitoline Museums in Rome. 

I asked Father McVay about his time in the archives, and he pointed out that «it is a great privilege to be permitted to perform research in such an important collection of archival funds known collectively as the Vatican Secret Archives.» Correcting the most common mistake about the archives he explained that «the official name is a bit of a misnomer. ‘Secretum’ here would be the equivalent to ‘privy’ in English. They are the Pope’s archives and, as any state archives, are private but not ‘secret.'»

The Archivium Secretum Vaticanum was opened for research to scholars by Pope Leo XIII in 1881. It has been the custom for the Roman Pontiffs to de-classify series of documents dating from not less than 80 years after the end of a pontificate of one or more of their predecessors. For Father McVay’s research, the necessary documents — those from the pontificate of Pius XI (1922-1939), were de-classified in 2006 by Benedict XVI.

I asked how many documents he read for his research, and Father McVay explained that for his doctoral dissertation he «sifted through well over 10,000 folios, mainly from two collections: the Archives of the Sacred Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs (AES) and those of the Apostolic Nunciature of Warsaw. For this particular project, virtually all of the documents are found in the Pro Russia section of the AES. Pro Russia was a Pontifical Commission created by Pius XI to handle all Catholic affairs in the Soviet Union and the Russian émigrés.»

The translating was extensive for the English language book as Father McVay explained that «the lingua franca used in Vatican diplomatic correspondence is Italian. Documents to and from secular diplomatic representatives are invariably in French. Only a very few documents are in Latin, often to or from churchmen who did not speak Italian or French.» 

The letters coming from Ukraine however, were written in Russian. Father Mcvay told me that «the AES index lists the themes of all the documents contained in that archive, including famine in Russia. Holodomor is a Ukrainian term coined later. I spent about two months on-and-off translating the documents as I had other work to perform on my biography of Bishop Budka.»

Best-kept Soviet secret

Despite the extraordinary death toll and horrific conditions of a people starving to death, this story seems to have passed under the radar in most history books. Everyone knows of the Holoc
aust, but few Americans or others would be able to explain the Holodomor. I asked Father Mcvay how this could have happened. «The Soviet Union and its successor the Russian Federation have denied that the famine was directed against Ukraine» he stated.

«Political and diplomatic pressure has been exerted on other countries not to disseminate information about the Holodomor and especially not to give it any kind of official recognition,» he added. «But when I asked him about the question of genocide, Father explained that «the question is complicated. Whatever you want to call the Holodomor, it is vital that it be recognized as a deliberate act directed mainly against the ethnically Ukrainian population of Soviet Ukraine and Russia. Films about the Holodomor have been released. At the time, journalists such as Malcolm Muggeridge and Gareth Jones broke the story after visiting Soviet Ukraine.»

But some journalists deliberately covered up the story of the famine, I had read. New York Times Russian bureau chief Walter Duranty published articles claiming that there was no famine in the Ukraine. He even won a Pulitzer prize for his reporting! Father McVay clarified this story:

«After the publication of government documents proving the existence of the Holodomor, the publication of our documents and contemporary news reports by Muggeridge and Jones, it is obvious that the late Walter Duranty’s reports were inaccurate. I don’t know what was the motivation behind such reports. I understand that some scholars have asked for Duranty’s Pulitzer prize to be posthumously revoked.»

Asked about what he considered the greatest contributions of this book, Father McVay answered, «The Holy See and the Holodomor: Documents from the Vatican Secret Archives on the Great Famine of 1932-1933 in Soviet Ukraine is a specific testimony of the Holodomor from primary and international diplomatic sources. It is also a contribution to scholarship on the inner workings of the Roman Curia during the pontificate of Pius XI.»

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. Her new book, «The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici» was published by Harcourt, Mifflin Houghton Press this Fall. She can be reached at

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