By Mark MacKinnon, The Globe and Mail,
Toronto, Ontario, Canada, September 22, 2003
STEPANTSY, UKRAINE -- Olga Skoba's memories of the great famine in her
village are dominated by a single image.
When she was a girl, about 12 years old, she watched men pile the emaciated
corpses of those who had died onto a wooden cart each day to take them to
the cemetery. The cart was so full, she remembers, that the bodies could not
fit on it properly. One morning, the head of one of her neighbours dragged
behind the cart, bouncing off stones as a final indignity on the way to the
Ms. Skoba, like anyone old enough to remember the famine of 1932-33 in
Ukraine, which left an estimated seven million to 10 million people dead,
has many terrible memories. By her estimate, half of this tiny farming
community was wiped out. She says she survived only because her mother hid
bread under her head scarf to keep the Soviet secret police from seizing it.
Seventy years later, she still doesn't know why it happened.
"There were rumours that Comrade Stalin took the grain and dumped it into
the sea," the 82-year-old said, furrowing her wizened brow. "But other
people say it was just a bad harvest that year."
For decades after Soviet dictator Josef Stalin committed one of his greatest
crimes, deliberately inflicting mass starvation on the Ukrainian peasantry,
he and his regime got away with the big lie.
Denying the famine ever happened was for decades the unbending Soviet line.
In many ways, the game has only just ended.
Thousands of documents declassified by the Ukrainian government this year
support what many historians have been saying for years: that the starvation
was orchestrated by Stalin in order to crush a peasantry that had vehemently
opposed his plans to collectivize all agricultural production.
Memorial, a Kiev-based human-rights group that has put together an
exhibition on the famine, says the harvest in 1933 was actually quite a good
one, but that the grain was forcibly taken and sold to Depression-stricken
United States and Germany in exchange for equipment that helped modernize
Soviet industry. Those who didn't hand over all their crops voluntarily had
their food stocks seized. Resisters were executed.
This spring, Ukraine's parliament, the Rada, belatedly passed a motion
declaring the famine to have been an intentional crime against the Ukrainian
people. "The famine of 1932-33, which was an inhuman way to eliminate
millions of Ukrainians, was a genocide perpetrated by the regime of the
time," the resolution reads. "This tragedy has been kept silent for
The government took its case to the United Nations, and asked the world body
to formally recognize the genocide of 1932 and 1933. No one would second the
motion -- there were rumours of Russian opposition -- so now a second motion
is being drafted using the somewhat milder term "crime against humanity."
While the diplomatic game plays out in New York, many Ukrainians are
wondering why it took the government so long to open this chapter in its
history, and why there is still no museum to the genocide anywhere in
Ukraine. Twelve years after Ukraine gained independence, a small monument
inscribed "1932-1933" in downtown Kiev is the only public acknowledgment
in the country of what took place.
"For 70 years, people couldn't talk about this, and today we still don't,"
said Artur Yeremenko, a senior researcher with Memorial, which terms the
famine "Ukraine's Holocaust."
"The U.S. Congress has put together a 33-volume report on what happened.
The Ukrainian government hasn't written one volume."
Ostap Skrypnyk, executive director of the Winnipeg-based Ukrainian Canadian
Congress, said the delay is a symptom of a wider lack of historical
understanding among many Ukrainians. Politicians, including President Leonid
Kuchma, have been loath to go too far in condemning the Soviet era, since
much of the electorate still looks on that time with a certain fondness.
Taking the step of calling the famine a genocide necessarily raises the
question of who should take the blame for what happened. Stalin and most
of his cronies are dead, and the institutions that outlive them are running
The Ukrainian Communist Party, which continues to deny Stalin and his
regime played any role in the famine, boycotted the Rada debate on
declaring it genocide, insisting the famine was caused exclusively by
drought. Russia, which assumed many of the debts and assets of the Soviet
Union when it collapsed, quickly made clear that it didn't see any reason it
should be held responsible, despite calls from groups such as Memorial.
It's the cruelty that survivors say they can never forget. Ivan Leschenko
says his tiny village of Kirilo-Anovka, in eastern Ukraine, was hit so hard
that it is deserted even now, 70 years later. Everyone who lived there
either died or went to the nearby city of Poltava to beg for food.
A journalist during the Soviet time, Mr. Leschenko, 80, knew better than
most that the forced famine was a topic never to be discussed, let alone
written about. He's dismayed at how long it has taken an independent
Ukraine to begin dealing with its history.
"The old powers from the Soviet time control Ukraine still. They supported
the ideology that committed this famine. They will be judged some day."
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