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Reflections on the “Contextualizing the Holodomor” Conference

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

On September 27 and 28, 2013, I had the opportunity to attend a conference in Toronto called “Contextualizing the Holodomor”, which was held to mark the 80th anniversary of the 1932-1933 famine-genocide in Ukraine.  The conference was organized by the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium (HREC).  HREC was established in January 2013 “to research, study, publish and disseminate information about…the Holodomor, ensuring that the Ukrainian experience receives greater recognition in society at large and that it is represented in the teaching of history.”

Poster of the conference Contextualizing the Holodomor, a conference on the 80th anniversary of the 1932)1933 famine in ukraine. September 27 - 28, 2014.

Cover of the “Contextualizing the Holodomor” conference program.  Courtesy of the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium.

The conference adopted a creative approach.  Rather than focusing on the event itself, organizers asked the panelists to reflect on how the study of the Holodomor has informed our understanding of related historical phenomena, including Stalinism, communism, genocide, Soviet history and Ukrainian history.   

The panels themselves – each comprised of a presenter, discussant and chair - were extremely compelling, and afforded insightful discussion and debate between the presenters and discussants, and via questions from the audience.  For instance, a panel on the Holodomor’s influence on our understanding of Stalinism included a spirited debate between presenter Françoise Thom (via Skype), who argued that the Holodomor showed Stalin as a totalitarian dedicated to destroying perceived threats to his power (in the case of the Holodomor, Ukrainian nationalism), while discussant Mark von Hagen countered that Stalinism needs to  be understood in a broader context that also bears in mind other issues that the Soviet government was negotiating as it waged the genocide.

Another creative feature of this event was the format of the panels.  At many conferences, each panel has 3 to 4 participants, each of whom speak for around 20 minutes on topics that are only moderately related to each other. Q and A sessions are often only 15-20 minutes, and thus tend to focus on only one or two of the papers.  At “Contextualizing the Holodomor”, each panel had one speaker and one discussant (each of whom were given about 45 minutes) that both focused a single topic.  A robust 45-minute Q and A session followed each panel that afforded complex engagement that is often lost in the short time usually allocated per paper/topic at conferences.

Such a successful conference on the impact of Holodomor research stands as a testament to the breadth and vibrancy of the field – no small feat considering that Holodomor studies really only emerged as specific area of scholarship in the early 1980s.  On behalf of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, I thank and congratulate the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium for organizing such a stimulating event to mark the 80th anniversary of the famine-genocide.  When it opens in September 2014, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights is excited to host similar events on a wide variety of human rights themes, and invite people from all over the world into the human rights conversation.

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