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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Annals of Genocide

The Baltimore Sun reports:

Hryhory Haraschenko tells the stories feverishly, gesticulating with veined hands. He hauls out newspaper clippings, witnesses' tales and pencil-drawn maps. He speaks like a man haunted by memories and by decades of forced silence.

Haraschenko, 89, 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 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 buried in Soviet silence and smothered in official denials, the Stalin-era famine has emerged as a painful topic that festers at the heart of tensions between Russia and Ukraine.

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 A. Yushchenko. They believe that a declaration of genocide would bolster Ukraine's independence from Russia, helping it regain its sense as a separate country bonded by national tragedy.

'Russian history'

"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: internationally and internally, among different factions of a nation historically split between its allegiances to Russia and the West.

But no struggle has proved so bitter 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 visitors who refer to "the Ukraine" - an older expression - as though the nation were merely Russia's frontier.

'He is Ukrainian'

"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 shifting 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 positive historical figures or even heroes.

This trend has infuriated Russia, where the sense of Ukraine as a piece of Russia remains strong, and many are suffused with newfound nostalgia for the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics. Vladimir V. Putin, who became Russia's prime minister after his presidential tenure ended in May, has complained of Ukraine's recent historical reinterpretation.

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

The rawest nerve

The famine might 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 every last kernel 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 death, he said, and left the remains on the streets. At least 3.5 million Ukrainians died, and 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.

Request to Bush

During a luncheon toast here in April, Yushchenko asked President Bush to recognize the famine as an act of genocide.

"We will be immeasurably grateful," he said.

Bush stopped short. But he visited the famine memorial, a stone angel at St. Michael's gold-domed cathedral backed by signs reading, "Victims of the criminal deeds of the Bolshevik regime" and "the Ukrainian holocaust."

In 2007, Yushchenko pushed a bill that would make denying either the Holodomor or the Holocaust a crime punishable by prison time. Some Ukrainians, leery of damaging strained ties with Moscow, have criticized the president.

"It makes me feel like we are living in 1937, as if we could be talking and I say the Holodomor existed, and you say you have doubts, then I have to write a complaint and take it to the police department so you face charges," said Oleksandr Moroz, head of the opposition Socialist Party. "This is idiotic. We'll make our fellow citizens the enemies of one another."

Russia furious

But the rhetoric out of Ukraine has already infuriated Russia. Nobody is denying that millions of Ukrainians died when Stalin's regime stripped the peasants of their crops during forced collectivization. But officials in Moscow say that massive numbers of non-Ukrainian Soviet peasants, including millions in Russia, Kazakhstan and other parts of the Soviet Union, also starved to death under Stalin's rule. They reject the notion that Ukrainians were targeted.

"There is no historical proof that the famine was organized along ethnic lines," the Russian Duma said in an April resolution. "Its victims were millions of citizens of the Soviet Union, representing different peoples and nationalities living largely in agricultural areas of the country. ... This tragedy does not have, and cannot have, any internationally recognized indications of genocide and should not be used as a tool for modern political speculation."

Even Nobel Prize winner Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn, who was exiled for his searing literary portraits of Soviet injustice, came out of retirement in April against the Ukrainians.

"This provocateur's cry of 'genocide' began to germinate decades later," he wrote in the newspaper Izvestia. "First, secretly, in the moldy minds of chauvinists maliciously set against [Russia], and now elevated to government circles of today's Ukraine."

NATO: Join or not?

The argument has intensified against the backdrop of looming tensions between the neighboring countries, which are tightly bound by ancient ties of religion and history.

Ukrainian opinion is divided over whether the country should work to join NATO, and many people here regard the question as an existential choice between Russia and the West.

"It's some kind of ultimate choice, strategic or even civilizational choice to be part of the West," said Oleksandr Sushko, director of Kiev's Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation. "Russia is very concerned now in our history, the names of our streets, who's considered a hero or not, the famine, what's written in our textbooks. This is the state of our relations. They are still living in their mental frame of a former empire."

Old memories

In a modest apartment with his wife and cat, Haraschenko knows exactly what he wants for his country. He has never forgotten the lifestyle he witnessed as a young soldier in Austria and Czechoslovakia. Those memories have lingered, fueling a nationalistic desire to see Ukraine detached from Russia's shadow and united with Western Europe.

"Here, to this day, we haven't achieved 1 percent of what they had already achieved at that time," he said. "I compare it to the current situation in Ukraine and I can say that they were further along."

But mostly, he wants to recount his memories of the famine.

"We all kept silent," he said. "And now there are just a few left who can tell these stories."

1 comment:

elmer said...

From "The Whisperers," by Orlando Figes, page 192:

In August 1933, a "brigade" of 120 leading Soviet writers went on a boat tour of the White Sea Canal organized by Semyon Firin, the OGPU commander of the labour camps at the canal. The idea of the trip had its origins in a meeting that took place in Maksim Gorky's Moscow house in October 12932, at which a number of the country's leading writers discussed the tasks of literature with several Politburo members, including Stalin, and other Party functionaries. In one of the earliest statements of the Socialist Realist doctrine, Gorky called for a heroic literature to match the "grand achievements" of the Five Year Plans, and Stalin, who compared the Soviet writers to "engineers of the human soul, " proposed a tour of the canal to inspire them. Everything was organized by OGPU. "From the minute we became the guests of teh Chekists, complete Communism began for us," the writer Aleksandr Avdeyenko later commented ironically. "We were given food and drink on demand. We paid nothing. Smoked sausage, cheeses, caviar, fruit, chocolate, wines and cognac - all was in plentiful supply. And this was the year of the famine."