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Holodomor Is Ukraine's Never-Ending Trauma

Ukrainian refugees from the 1932-33 famine.
Ukrainian refugees from the 1932-33 famine.
In many ways, Kyiv is a city of contrasts.

On one boulevard you will encounter a rather squat, red granite statue of Lenin, his right hand aloft pointing to the proverbial better tomorrow that, thankfully, after 70 years finally became yesterday. The authorities refuse to dismantle the statue, claiming it has "historic" value. That's the communist touch.

Walk a few blocks down to a short, gray, treeless street called Passage and you will be assaulted by ostentatious conspicuous consumption: Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Bottega Veneta, Bally, Ferragamo. That's the nouveau riche, oligarchic touch.

Up the hill from these two telling spots stands a small -- and until, last week, the only -- monument to the victims of the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine. It was erected in 1993.

Together these three points in Ukraine's capital create a kind of historic Bermuda Triangle into which things disappear and people forget. Lenin gave birth to the people who created the famine; luxury goods should make everyone forget the deprivations of the Soviet past and the pain of famine. But today almost 50 million Ukrainians somehow remain held hostage by one, two, or all three of these points of reference.

Ukraine's current president, Viktor Yushchenko, has made remembering the famine a cornerstone of his presidency. In 2006, the parliament passed a law recognizing the famine as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people. Yushchenko went to great lengths to ensure that this year's 75th anniversary of the famine be commemorated on a national level. Foreign leaders participated in the commemorations; conferences were held; memorials unveiled, candles lit, and the names of the dead remembered.

In a particularly moving sign of solemnity, the president and the prime minister even suspended their endless bickering for a day to participate in the unveiling of the new memorial complex in the capital.

Death Of A National Identity

And yet large swathes of Ukraine remain deeply ambivalent about the famine. Eastern and southeastern Ukraine -- where the famine took its greatest toll -- even today, when the facts about the famine are widely publicized and accessible, has the fewest memorials. The first attempts to commemorate the victims took place very far away from Ukraine in fact; Canadian-Ukrainians erected the first famine memorial in 1989 in Edmonton.

A woman lights a candle at the monument to victims of the Holodomor.
The late historian James Mace, who joined the famine project at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and collected material for Robert Conquest's seminal work "The Harvest of Sorrow," called Ukraine a post-genocidal society. Becoming a famine expert in his own right, Mace made Ukraine his adopted homeland. He believed that what Ukrainians call Holodomor (murder by hunger), maimed Ukraine to such an extent that it created a discontinuity in the normal development of the Ukrainian people.

In the former Warsaw Pact countries, the collapse of communism brought about a restoration of a previous independence. But in Ukraine, the Ukrainian nation -- as a community possessing a clear sense of its identity, history, and cultural values -- remained a national minority in its own country even after independence. The damage from the Soviet legacy was such that Ukrainians lacked a broad consensus concerning their future. All that remained were the surviving structures of Soviet Ukraine. The country was no longer a Ukrainian Soviet republic, but it was also not a Ukrainian Ukraine, in the sense in which Poland is Polish or the Czech Republic is Czech.

The orchestrated famine wiped out millions of nationally conscious Ukrainians. Whether or not one accepts that the famine was genocide, there is little doubt that it was targeted against Ukrainian nationalism, against Ukrainian-ness. Mykola Khvylovy, one of the most popular and talented writers of the period and a committed communist, shot himself in helpless protest. The creative engine of a people was destroyed, slowing down and distorting nation building for decades. The Soviet regime prevented families and individuals from processing both personal and national grief. For more than 50 years, Ukraine could not address this trauma openly.

Ukrainian society, however, was soon to experience new shocks: the purges of 1937-38, war, Nazi occupation and the Holocaust, Soviet reconquest, and the 1946-47 famine. The scars of the Holodomor are overlaid by those of these other tragedies. Yet, under the consequences of these repeated blows, traces of the 1932-33 famine are unmistakable. Without taking it into account, for instance, it is impossible to account for the much weaker -- compared to what happened in 1914-22 -- Ukrainian national movement that arose in the great upheaval of World War II. Western Ukraine, which in 1933 was not part of the USSR, is not surprisingly the exception.

What does it mean to be Ukrainian today? What is Ukraine? What is the Ukrainian idea? Former President Leonid Kuchma at one time created quite an angry backlash by stating that the Ukrainian idea had not worked in Ukraine. If a country called Ukraine endlessly convenes conferences on self-identity, if pundits pontificate ad nauseum on "project Ukraine," if Ukrainians themselves can't define their identity or their values, then one can safely admit that the country has something of an identity crisis.

Is it important to have the world acknowledge the Ukrainian famine as an act of genocide? For the Ukrainian state, yes. But will such recognition help the country itself? Will it ease the effects of the famine trauma? Will it steer Ukrainian society onto a path of self-awareness? Will it compel the eastern Ukrainian citizen, who is descended from the ethnic Russians who were resettled into the towns and villages emptied by the famine, feel a connection to this country? Will it give the inhabitants of the more than 13,000 towns and villages that died in 1932-33 a voice and a name? And, most importantly, will today's diverse Ukrainians, who aren't particularly eager to listen to the stories of their painful past, hear those voices?

It seems to me that James Mace was on to something. The famine is not an only an event in Ukraine's past -- it is an event in its present and its future.

Irena Chalupa is the director of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL