Russian-backed rebels are re-writing the history of the Ukrainian genocide

Local residents wait to board a bus to flee the conflict in Debaltseve, eastern Ukraine, February 5, 2015. Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Pro-Russian separatists are teaching students in southeastern Ukraine that a forced famine in the 1930’s was not a genocide but a “tragedy” that befell the entire Soviet Union, the New York Times reported.

Anywhere from 3 million to 10 million Ukrainians starved to death in the the Holodomor, translated as “killing by means of hunger,” which historians say was an attempt by Stalin to quell Ukrainian nationalism after the country first declared independence in 1918.

Historians agree that the famine falls under the legal definition of genocide as it deliberately targeted a large group of people — in this case ethnic Ukrainians — and directly resulted from Stalin’s forced collectivization and mass export of grain between 1932 and 1933, totaling roughly 1.8 million tons.

That amount would have been enough to feed 5 million people for one year, estimated Russia expert and University of Amsterdam professor Michael Ellman. Even Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the term “genocide,” used the Holodomor as an example.

The whitewashed Russian version of the Holodomor, however, denies that the famine was organised along ethnic lines. Rather, the country frames it as part of a larger disaster: the Soviet famine from 1932 to 1933, which resulted from a poor crop season and the subsequent inability to harvest grain.

Pedestrians in Kharkiv, Ukraine in 1933 walk by starved bodies on the street. Wikimedia Commons

The Soviet Union had denied the famine ever occurred up until the mid-1980’s. Even now, Russia doesn’t recognise the Holodomor as a genocide, nor does Ukraine’s ousted, pro-Russian president, Viktor

Now, students living in the Russian-backed separatist government of the Donetsk People’s Republic and other rebel strongholds are being taught a revised version of events that even a pro-Russia senior official has trouble accepting.

“It was terrible,” he told the Times, referring to the famine, which he considers to have been an intentional consequence of Stalinist policies.

During the Holodomor, entire villages were wiped out, their streets littered with the corpses of those who tried to leave their homes in search of food but didn’t make it. The death rate reached one-third in some regions, and many eyewitness accounts describe people eating their dogs and, horrifyingly, their own children.

Regardless of the horrors, history teachers in the separatist-held areas of eastern Ukraine have been ordered to trash their old textbooks — halfway through the school year — and start teaching Ukrainian history according to new government-provided guidelines called “Materials for the Questioning of History Teaching,” according to the Times.

When asked about the new curriculum, history teacher Natalia S. Skrichenko was careful not to overtly criticise the shift.

“History doesn’t change,” she told the Times. “People just look at the facts with a new mentality. We don’t really know what happened in the past. It’s gone. All we can know is what we see through the prism of our own time.”

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