Early Diaspora Interpretations of the Famine as a Genocide and Attempts to Influence Opinion in the USA

The Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33 came to the attention of a wider scholarly community and public in the 1980s during the commemorations of its 50th anniversary. Much of the discussion at this time was associated with the reasons for the Ukrainian community’s attention or even fixation on this event,  which was at the time denied by the Soviet Union. Some commentators saw its depiction as a man-made famine and as a genocidal act as a way to win victim status for Ukrainians and believed the large numbers of victims claimed as even an attempt to equate it with the Holocaust. Some saw it as propaganda of emigres in the Cold War. As research on the Holodomor has expanded, the degree to which Ukrainians in the 1930s in Western Ukraine, in the European centres of the Ukrainian emigration, and in the Ukrainian diaspora communities in North and South America  saw it as a genocidal act has become apparent. Thus long before the term genocide was coined or given a legal status, the genocide thesis for the Ukrainian Famine had emerged. In the same way, before the Holocaust,  figures of 6 or more million victims were quoted. The text reproduced below was an example of the attempts of members of the Ukrainian diaspora community to convince Western societies and leaders of the criminal nature of the Soviet regime. Published on July 19, 1935, under the subheading “Soviet Russia’s Crime against the Ukraine,” it illustrates how the Famine had become a central topic for anti-Soviet Ukrainians in the United States. The author like the overwhelming majority of the Ukrainian American community originated in Western Ukraine, but already saw the Famine as a planned anti-Ukrainian action that should concern all Ukrainians and a wider public.


Lesio Sysyn (1895-1987) was born in the village of Mshanets in the Staryi Sambir County of Habsburg Galicia. The village pastor Father Mykhailo Zubrytsky had a great influence in instilling a love of learning and Ukrainian patriotism in him. In 1913 he left Galicia for the United States and ultimately settled in Garfield, New Jersey. In the 1920s he led the movement to form Holy Ascension Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Passaic, New Jersey. He remained dedicated to the cause of Ukrainian independence throughout his long life and was a supporter of the Organization for the Rebirth of Ukraine.  He was a frequent contributor to the Ukrainian American press, with numerous articles on community and political issues published in Svoboda. In the 1940s he assisted in establishing the branch of the Ukrainian Congress Committee in Passaic. He maintained a life-long dedication to informing the world community about the Famine. A frequent speaker at community events, he introduced the memorial commemoration in Passaic on the 30th anniversary of the Great Famine on December 1, 1963 (See the Memorialization section on St. Andrew’s Memorial Church in South Bound Brook, excepts from Ukraïns’ke pravoslavne slovo  February 1964, vol.15, no.2). He took great pride in the building of the new Holy Ascension church in Clifton, constructed by the well-known architect Jaroslav Sichynsky . He kept a lively interest in contemporary Ukraine, condemning those who wanted to come to an accommodation with Soviet Ukraine (Novyi shliakh 6:1966,15) and supporting the work of Smoloskyp. He was present to speak at the 60th anniversary of his parish in 1985 and to call its members to remain loyal to its Ukrainian identity, but he did not live to see Ukraine’s independence.

Lesio Sysyn’s publication of an expansive discussion on Ukraine in a major New Jersey newspaper was seen as a success by the community and ensured its reprinting in the New Jersey Ukrainian daily Svoboda.  His writings demonstrate that he followed events in Ukraine closely. Still the detailed discussion of events in Soviet Ukraine and in the Western press in the text and the level of its English raise the possibility that this may have been a text prepared by one of the Ukrainian political factions and distributed to its members. One would have to find other copies of this text to prove such a hypothesis. In any event, the author had succeeded in reaching one public, albeit in a regional newspaper in an area with large Eastern European immigrant communities.