Writing about time and historical periodization in his 2012 book, Foundational Pasts: The Holocaust as Historical Understanding, Alon Confino contended that “Linking the events to what came before and after is crucial to the interpretation of what actually happened.” What Confino meant by this is that “foundational pasts,” or events that are “brief, radical, violent, and self-avowedly transformative,” must be understood within larger understandings of historical beginnings and ends. In other words, major historical ruptures, such as the French Revolution and the Holocaust (the foundational pasts on which Confino focuses), are shaped by the events that come before and after them.
Confino’s theoretical framework is important because it forces historians, of which I am one, to think more critically about how we define historical ruptures in terms of time. Historians often designate historical events into digestible, neatly-defined moments to which we apply dates and years. In many respects, this is useful for marking events and situating them within larger processes at work, but such designations can also be limiting. I agree with Confino when he states that time periods “should be regarded as heuristic devices, categories used to make sense of the story, not as having inherent meaning.”
Confino’s theoretical positioning on historical beginnings and ends became apparent to me when I began formulating my dissertation topic on the aftermath of the 1932-1933 famine in Soviet Ukraine, now referred to as Holodomor (death by starvation). I became interested in the idea that such a significant historical rupture like the man-made famine of 1932-1933—or what we might call the “foundational famine,” to use Confino’s terms—could really just end in 1933. The famine’s toll was enormous, and it left some three to five million people dead. For those who did not survive starvation, the famine was the ultimate rupture. Those who survived were left to make sense of it, and for many, the famine did not simply end.
Whereas most research on the Holodomor ends in 1933, this is where mine begins. The Holodomor, which is now a regularly researched topic by scholars in a number of disciplines, has been the focus of several articles and books in recent years. Newer publications, such as Anne Applebaum’s popular history of the Holodomor, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, speak to this. Despite new scholarship, there is still a dearth of literature dedicated to the aftermath of the famine.
Inspired by the absence of such literature on the aftermath of the Holodomor, I felt compelled to ask more questions about the people who suffered and survived the Holodomor. How did Ukrainians begin to make sense of the famine? In what ways did people begin to recover their lives? How did individuals and groups respond? What types of aid and assistance were organized on their behalf? How was the separation of family members and loved ones reconciled after so many people were separated from each other during the famine? What happened to the children who became homeless as a result? It was these social questions—histories of everyday people attempting to reconstruct, rebuild, and piece-back-together their lives after tragedy—that inspire my work.
Since the aftermath of famine is not written about widely in the historiography of the Holodomor, I was forced to turn to literature outside of Ukrainian history to better understand how to write about the problems left behind by historically defining events. I was tremendously inspired by several texts, including Tobie Meyer-Fong’s work on the aftermath of civil war in China in her book What Remains: Coming to Terms with Civil War in 19th Century China, Ronen Steinberg’s newly published monograph, The Afterlives of the Terror: Facing the Legacies of Mass Violence in Postrevolutionary France, which examines the ways that individuals struggled to come to terms with the Reign of Terror in postrevolutionary France, and Drew Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, which encapsulated the importance of death and its ability to change and shape society. All of these texts reiterated to me the importance of looking to the “aftermath” of major historical ruptures. Doing so, I have come to realize (and am still in the process of learning), reveals a great deal about the event itself.
The above texts, which have all left their intellectual fingerprints on my work, allowed me to take their methodologies and apply them to the study of the famine. For instance, Drew Faust and Meyer-Fong’s work helped me to think more critically about how the living interacted with the dead and the way that death shaped Ukrainian society after famine.
In my dissertation, I explore both individual and collective experiences of mass death. One of my protagonists, a photographer who lost one of his sons to starvation, documented his son’s funeral and burial by taking photos of the process. He used his photography skills to create memory boards that he would place at the dining room table to remember his late son. In essence, he captured his own grieving process and, in doing so, left us valuable evidence that provides insight into the ways that everyday people attempted to grapple with the famine’s effects after 1933.
Other aspects of my dissertation, like a focus on international relief efforts, reveal the ways in which various relief committees, religious groups, and individual efforts in countries all over the world responded to the outbreak of famine in Soviet Ukraine. These groups attempted to provide aid and relief in earnest beginning in July 1933, despite the fact that the Soviet Union denied that a famine was occurring and refused to let in humanitarian organizations like the Red Cross.
Although mass starvation largely subsided by the end of 1933, fears of future famine—particularly in 1934—loomed in the minds of Ukrainians and international actors. Such fears helped to propel a slew of unofficial fundraisers and donations in late 1933 and throughout 1934 and beyond. The famine even made its way into a closed-door session of the League of Nations in 1934 on the eve of the admission of the Soviet Union to the League, although the issue of the famine was eventually pushed to the side to maintain geopolitical stability. The study of relief efforts, therefore, reveals that the famine was of international concern well beyond 1933, and it is a story that cannot be told without incorporating Ukraine into world history.
It is therefore prudent that historians, as well as other practitioners, consider how we mark time. Simple beginnings and ends are useful to a degree, but if we take Alon Confino’s advice and look more closely at the events that come before and after major historical episodes, particularly acts of genocide, atrocity, and mass violence, we may find that these ruptures leave a number of unresolved issues behind that do not come to a definitive end.
John Vsetecka is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at Michigan State University where he is working on his dissertation (tentatively titled), “In the Aftermath of Hunger: Rupture, Response, and Retribution in Soviet Ukraine, 1933-1947.” John is the founder and current co-editor of H-Ukraine, a site dedicated to the academic study and promotion of Ukrainian studies. During 2021-2022, John will be on a Fulbright grant to Kyiv, Ukraine, to conduct dissertation research.