Book Note: A. D. McVay and L. Y. Luciuk, eds., The Holy See and the Holodomor. Documents from the Vatican Secret Archives on the Great Famine of 1932-33 in Soviet Ukraine

ACCH Quarterly Vol. 18, No. 1, March 2012

Book Note: A. D. McVay and L. Y. Luciuk, eds., The Holy See and the Holodomor. Documents from the Vatican Secret Archives on the Great Famine of 1932-33 in Soviet Ukraine (Toronto: University of Toronto and Kashtan Press, 2011), 99 Pp., ISBN 978-1-896354-37-8.

By John S. Conway, University of British Columbia

In 1933-1934 the Soviet government embarked on a ruthless programme of collectivization of the Ukrainian peasantry, confiscation of much of their harvests to feed urban workers, and sales of grain abroad to gain hard currency with which to pay for the ambitious industrialization projects. The result was widespread famine and starvation amongst the Ukrainian villagers. Several million victims died—at a conservative estimate—in what is now commonly known as the Holodomor. There were even reports of cannibalism. Despite Soviet denials and censorship, news of the increasing rural destitution and hunger leaked out. Appeals for help were sent to various western agencies, including the Vatican. The Pontifical Commission Pro Russia, under its president Bishop d’Herbigny, obtained permission from the Pope Pius XI to use the Vatican’s newspapers to publish the appalling sufferings of the Ukrainians. But d’Herbigny’s subsequent campaign to have the Vatican sponsor a famine relief mission was never approved. The Secretariat of State, under Cardinal Pacelli—the later Pope Pius XII—turned down the suggestion on prudential grounds. The Vatican had no official contacts with the Soviet regime. Since the latter refused to acknowledge the disaster, any attempt to intervene with a relief mission would only be rebuffed and might have punitive consequences for the few Catholics in the area. Discretion was called for, all the more since the Vatican had no means of ensuring that any relief it might offer would in fact reach the famine’s victims. In addition, caution dictated that the Vatican would be wiser not to take any lead, though limited financial assistance could be offered through indirect channels.

The background for this abortive effort is given in the sixty brief documents from the Vatican’s files printed here, excellently translated into English, and by the valuable introduction and afterword provided by the Ukrainian Canadian editors. In their view, the Vatican’s stance was strongly influenced by the rise of the Nazis to power in Germany in early 1933, whose anti-Soviet propaganda took every advantage of the famine to condemn Stalin and the Communist policies of repression. But Pacelli’s priorities at that moment were to secure the Nazi government’s agreement to a Reich Concordat, finally concluded in July 1933. Any steps which appeared to be assisting the Soviet Union or its peoples might therefore have fateful consequences. This stance naturally disappointed all those who expected the Vatican to live up to its moral professions to help humanity in crisis. The resulting paralysis and lack of action set a precedent for the even more agonizing dilemmas which the Vatican had to face in the course of the Second World War a few years later. It was an unenviable position, easily criticized in retrospect, but far less easily managed at the time.