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Ukraine, A Post-Genocidal Society

Ukraine's famine survivors still bear the emotional scars.
Ukraine's famine survivors still bear the emotional scars.
Distrust of government and future uncertainty are just two of the most conspicuous features of the post-genocidal syndrome that psychologists have identified in modern Ukrainians some 75 years after the famine of 1932-33.

On a more intimate level, famine survivors still value every breadcrumb, and their descendants greet guests with tables overloaded with a variety of dishes. In one form or another, Ukrainians will universally impress on each other the importance of "having something to eat."

Doctors describe a number of symptoms of post-genocidal syndrome that are unconnected to the trauma directly, but which can still seriously undermine the sufferer's health. Victims feel pain in places that are not supposed to hurt and experience nightmares and hidden anxieties that steal their ability to laugh and enjoy life.

Taras Vozniak, the editor of "Ji" magazine, has described the experience as "such a trauma that for people who survived it is very difficult to remember what happened." He compares it to the effects of rape: "[Victims] don't want to testify, or to remember. They want to erase the tragedy from their memory."

Having survived a famine that was brought about by the policies of the Soviet government, Ukrainians now question the very notion of government. They have -- if not fear -- then a feeling of permanent uncertainty about the future. Under each shift in political direction or change of political leaders, Ukrainians rush to buy the necessary essentials. Just in case.

The memory of their ancestors -- who were robbed of food by their own people on orders from the Kremlin -- forces many Ukrainians always to keep something for a "black day" and never truly reveal themselves fully, even to close acquaintances.

That same instinct compels Ukrainians to stockpile food, and to invite anyone who stops by their home to sit down for a meal. Ukrainians tend to rely on themselves, living by their wits and soothing themselves with the eternal saying, "God willing."

Academician Myroslav Popovych survived the famine and believes that other survivors can never really forget. He says, "conditions then were such that all people who belong to that generation carry this taint." But he also asserts that "personality always wins out in the end -- I wouldn't say that I have become more obedient or completely focused on earthly problems."

But the most important thing that Ukrainians carry from these terrible times is a complete revulsion toward totalitarian regimes.

"Ukrainians still lack a political culture because of their history, but we have a huge drive toward liberty," Popovych says. "I don't know whether you can call this famine memory, but it is certainly a total aversion to totalitarian mentality."

Ukrainian society is highly individualistic, partly because its history has incorporated the terrible experience of death and survival of famine. Old notions such as "my home is my сastle" and "I'm my own boss" have hampered the formation of civil society and a genuine national elite in Ukraine.

At the same time, this attitude turns the average Ukrainian into a libertarian. They view even the slightest attempt by politicians to elevate themselves with sarcasm, and they sense the slightest false note in officials' speeches about their "love of the people" and their promises to solve the problems of average citizens.

One must remember that, aside from the natural psychological reaction to survived horrors, Ukrainians for decades were not allowed to speak about the famine -- it could have cost them not only their liberty but also their lives.

Former dissident and political prisoner Yevhen Sverstiuk recalls seeing fear in countrymen's eyes when he asked them about the 1932-33 famine even after perestroika. People asked whether they would be executed. Many said they still feared being punished for speaking out. That despite the fact that they'd been invited by the village council to speak on the subject, and the entire project soliciting their views had been authorized by the regional government.

Philosopher Yevhen Sverstiuk believes that the time has come when Ukrainians can cry over their painful experiences. They can process the past by talking about the famine, identifying all the villages where people died, naming all of the victims, and taking steps toward closure.

After crying out their trauma, people should wipe their tears and get to work, says Sverstiuk. Otherwise, they risk the danger of becoming spiritual beggars. The world values the brave. By telling the truth, and overcoming their fear, Ukrainians overcome their inferiority complexes.

Writer Ivan Dziuba calls the famine a blow to Ukraine's future. And the only way to fight back is to free oneself of this heavy burden of genetic memory by revealing the entire truth.

The late American researcher James Mace began the process by defining Ukraine as a post-genocidal society. Mace believed Ukraine would be incapable of further development until the entire truth of the famine was told.

That idea has been confirmed by the experiences of other nations that suffered similar traumas, defeats, and the burden of penance. Society returns to successful development through awareness, and acceptance of its national memory and history.

The best that the current government in Kyiv can do to commemorate those killed by famine is to create the conditions so that all Ukrainians could feel certain and security. Little is required in order to achieve this -- just respect for human rights, abiding by the rule of law, and hard work.

Iryna Shtogrin is a correspondent with 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