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Ukraine no longer silent about famine

Survivors of the 'death by hunger' and others are speaking out about a topic long smothered by Soviet-era denial.

June 03, 2008|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

KIEV, UKRAINE — Hryhory Haraschenko tells the stories feverishly, in a voice that brooks no interruption, gesticulating wildly with veined hands. He hauls out his stash of carefully bundled newspaper clippings, witness' tales and pencil-drawn maps. He speaks like a man possessed, and in a sense he is -- haunted by memories and by decades of forced silence.

At 89, Haraschenko is among a dwindling number of Ukrainians who survived the Soviet-era famine of the early 1930s. Like other survivors and some historians, he regards the starvation -- known here as the Holodomor, or "death by hunger" -- as an act of genocide engineered to wipe out the Ukrainians.

He wants it discussed, and he wants it recognized by the world.

"Russia is afraid we'll accuse Moscow of creating this genocide and eliminating Ukrainian villages," he says. "They try to say that Russians were killed in this famine, but don't listen to them."

After decades spent buried in Soviet silence and smothered in official denials, the Stalin-era famine has emerged as a passionate, painful topic that festers at the heart of tensions between Russia and Ukraine. This spring, presidents, talk show hosts and a Nobel laureate have trumpeted their opinions on whether the starvation of millions of peasants qualifies as genocide.

The push for international recognition of the famine as genocide is being led by a new generation of Western-leaning Ukrainians, most visibly President Viktor Yushchenko. Keen to shed light on the suffering, they also believe that a declaration of genocide would bolster Ukraine's independence from Russia, helping it regain its sense of itself as a separate country, bonded by national tragedy.

"At school we had only the history of the Soviet Union, and in fact this was Russian history," said Stanislav Kulchytsky, a Ukrainian historian and famine scholar. "Ukraine has now gotten to know its own history. We're learning our victories and our tragedies. The picture of the past makes a person nationally oriented."

The battle to forge Ukraine's post-Soviet identity and allegiances has been fought on every level: in national politics, NATO debates, business deals and pipeline maneuvers. It has been fought internationally and internally, among different factions of a nation historically split between allegiances to Russia and the West.

But no struggle has proved so bitter, or touched so many nerves, as the one over Ukrainian history, culture and language. In today's Ukraine -- the country's name means "borderland" -- the smallest gestures are freighted with meaning. Some Ukrainians mind, deeply, visitors who refer to "the Ukraine" -- a term the Ukrainians say implies their nation is merely Russia's frontier.

"He will speak Ukrainian," snapped an aide to a pro-Western lawmaker when asked whether his boss might speak Russian during an interview. "He is a Ukrainian and so he will speak Ukrainian."

Ukraine has carried out an aggressive campaign to replace the Russian language, even changing the spelling of the capital, Kiev, to the Ukrainian version -- Kyiv. Meanwhile, teachers have begun to recast anti-Russian figures as varied as 18th century Cossacks and World War II anti-Soviet fighters as historically positive, or even as heroes.

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Infuriating to Russia

This trend has infuriated Moscow, where the sense of Ukraine as a piece of Russia remains strong, and many are suffused with newfound nostalgia for the USSR. Vladimir Putin, who became Russia's prime minister after his presidential tenure ended last month, has complained of Ukraine's recent historical reinterpretations.

"These unfriendly moves sadden the atmosphere of relations between our two countries," Putin, as president, wrote in a letter to his Ukrainian counterpart. "They could seriously impact bilateral cooperation in various ways."

The famine may be the rawest nerve of all.

This is what Haraschenko remembers: Coming home from Young Pioneer camp and helping to harvest the grain, only to watch the all the kernels be carted off toward Russia. The day the soldiers came through his house and confiscated every last bit of flour and milk. The hunger that grew relentlessly until the widow who lived next door killed her 4-year-old daughter and cooked the corpse to survive.

In the beginning he helped to bury the other students' bodies, but soon the villagers got used to the sight of death, he said, and left the remains to litter the streets. By the time it was over, at least 3.5 million Ukrainians were dead, and the survivors were ordered by Soviet officials to keep their memories to themselves.

"The agents went through the houses and said, 'There was no famine. Forget it. Don't say a word,' " Haraschenko said. "If you talked about it, if you even said the word 'famine,' you went to Siberia."

That's a far cry from today. During a luncheon toast here this spring, Yushchenko asked President Bush to recognize the famine as an act of genocide. "We will be immeasurably grateful," he said.

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