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Ukraine no longer silent about famine

Times Staff Writer

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.

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“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.

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

Last year, 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 already strained ties with Moscow, have criticized the president for going too far.

“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.”

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 note 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 bitterly reject the notion that Ukrainians were targeted.

“There is no historical proof that the famine was organized along ethnic lines,” the Russian lower house of parliament, the State 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 laureate Alexander I. Solzhenitsyn, who was exiled for his searing literary portraits of Soviet injustices, came out of retirement in April to rail against the Ukrainians. “This provocateur’s cry of ‘genocide’ began to germinate decades later,” he wrote in a piece published by Izvestia newspaper. “First secretly, in the moldy minds of chauvinists maliciously set against [Russia], and now elevated to government circles of today’s Ukraine.”

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Looming tensions

The argument has intensified against the backdrop of looming tensions between the two 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 the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 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.”

Tucked away 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 countries such as Austria and Czechoslovakia. Those memories have lingered all these years, fueling a nationalistic desire to see Ukraine detached from Russia’s shadow and united with Europe.

“Here, to this day, we haven’t achieved 1% 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.”

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megan.stack@latimes.com


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