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Ukraine: Famine Anniversary Marked Amid Denials

  • Daisy Sindelar --> A famine victim in Ukraine in 1933 (Ukrinform) November 24, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Ukrainians who survived the Great Famine remember the horrifying extremes of hunger: eating birds and earthworms; watching as family members died in their arms; and in the worst instances, consuming the flesh of the dead.

Resurrecting such painful memories is part of independent Ukraine's drive for an honest assessment of its national history. President Viktor Yushchenko, opening an exhibit commemorating the famine, or Holodomor, in Kyiv this week, said any nation that forgets the victims of past tragedies has no prospect for the future.

Estimates vary, but as many as 14 million people in the Soviet Union died of starvation during Josef Stalin's drive to force individual farmers into collectivized agriculture. The famine spread to Kazakhstan, the North Caucasus, and parts of Russia. But most of the victims were Ukrainians, and the Holodomor is viewed by many as the Soviets' attempt to destroy the Ukrainian nation.

A number of countries have formally labeled the 1932-33 Holodomor as genocide -- a man-made famine created by Stalin in one of the USSR's most fertile regions.

Historic Culpability

The issue has been a distasteful one for Russia. Moscow flatly rejects recognizing the Holodomor as genocide -- and sees Kyiv's insistence as another provocation in the two countries' thorny relations.

"This can only be interpreted as an attempt to provoke Russophobia in Ukraine, in line with current tendencies; to rewrite history in order to present Russia as an enemy, which is completely false," Dmitry Peskov, spokesman to Russian President Vladimir Putin, said this week. "Not only Ukrainians fell victim to the Holodomor, which took place in other former republics of the Soviet Union. It did not affect one sole nation."

Peskov's comments only heightened tempers in Kyiv. The previous week, activists from a Russian nationalist youth group attempted to destroy an exhibition on the Great Famine on display at a Ukrainian cultural center in Moscow.

The group, the Eurasian Youth Union, has also claimed responsibility for disabling Yushchenko's presidential website in October, and for other attacks on Ukrainian national emblems. It is believed to receive financial support from the Kremlin, and is banned in Ukraine.

Ukraine's parliament in November 2006 narrowly passed a bill branding the Great Famine as an act of genocide. In naming the culprit, however, the bill's language sought to distance modern-day Russia from the Bolshevik regime of the 1930s.

Distortions, Denials

Moscow, unappeased, has accused Kyiv of "unilaterally distorting history" with its account of the famine. But Foreign Ministry spokesman Andriy Deschitsya said this week that Kyiv will not waver from its position, and that it is Moscow, not Kyiv, that requires a history lesson.

A monument to victims of political repressions in Donetsk (AFP)

"Exchanging statements back and forth is absolutely tactless; we only humiliate ourselves by doing so," he said. "The question of acknowledging the Holodomor in Ukraine as genocide is not on the agenda; we've already acknowledged it. I'd like to give our Russian colleagues some friendly advice: read history books."

In their fight to raise the issue of the Holodomor to prominence, Ukrainian activists are continuing a separate battle as well -- attempting to strip a Western journalist of a high-profile award he won for coverage of Ukraine in 1932, which made no mention of the famine.

"The New York Times" correspondent Walter Duranty won a Pulitzer Prize for his accounts of life in the Soviet Union during the early 1930s -- coverage that included reporting from Ukraine at the start of the famine.

Ivan Lozovy, a Ukrainian-based political analyst, organized a march in central Kyiv on November 21 to call for Duranty's Pulitzer to be revoked. The Pulitzer committee has ruled it will not revoke the prize, arguing it was awarded for pieces not directly related to the famine.

Lozovy and others say Duranty, who openly admired Stalin, helped cover up and perhaps deepen the effects of the Great Famine by failing to report on it. Lozovy says he hopes his campaign will highlight the role that Westerners like Duranty played in allowing the famine to continue unchecked.

"It would be historical justice," he said. "What interests me in this case is to make sure that Duranty is never forgotten, even if the prize is never revoked. Duranty is symbolic of how the West ignored this issue and Ukraine itself for many years, including after independence, until the Orange Revolution. This is a much wider and more important issue than just a prize given away 75 years ago."

(RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service and Central Newsroom correspondent Claire Bigg contributed to this report.)

In Depth
Survivors' Stories
"My brother died from starvation. He was small and there was nothing to eat. What could our mother give us to eat when there was nothing?" more
Eliminating An 'Enemy Class'
Many historians argue that the famine was the culmination of a savage piece of human engineering designed to eliminate an economic class. more
RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, And Moldova Report

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