The Crisis In Ukraine Has Much Deeper And Darker Roots Than Many Realise

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

Growing up in a Ukrainian family, I always wondered where my Baba’s frantic need to feed everyone originated.

My grandparents didn’t talk about how they suffered during the Holodomor — a forced famine in Ukraine perpetuated by the Soviets in the 1930s. I have seen pictures though, of them waiting in line for bread at a relocation camp. They finally fled Ukraine in 1943. My uncle was born during the journey somewhere in Poland.

With mounting pressure from the West, Russian President Vladimir Putin has tried to defend his invasion of the Crimea section of Ukraine. Putin claims Russia has a right to protect the former government headed by President Viktor Yanukovych in a “lawless” country like Ukraine.

But many people forget the history of oppression against Ukraine goes much further back than Putin’s recent invasion. During Soviet rule in the 1930s, when my grandparents lived there, Stalin lead a genocide of Ukrainians.

“The Ukrainians have a lingering memory of a previous union with the Russians that nearly broke the back of their nation,” Walter Zaryckyj, executive director for the Center for U.S.-Ukrainian Relations (CUSUR) told the National Review.

In 1932, Joseph Stalin and his forces perpetuated a famine in Ukraine known as “Holodomor,” meaning “death by hunger.”As a communist leader, Stalin wanted to curtail the country’s growing independence (declared for the first time in 1918). He considered wealthy farmers, known as “kulaks,”capitalist and, therefore, anti-socialist. Consequently, Stalin instituted “dekulakization,” seizing families’ estates and imposing heavy grain taxes.He hoped not only to feed his growing forces but also to force Ukraine to abandon their national pride and adopt Soviet ideals.

No one knows how many Ukrainians perished, but historians estimate anywhere from 3 million to 10 million people starved to death. Some eyewitness accounts describe people eating their dogs and, horrifingly, their own children.

But history often ignores Stalin’s reign of terror. Currently, Russia doesn’t recognise the Holodomor as a genocide, nor does Ukraine’s ousted, pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych.While Kremlin-supporters fail to acknowledge the genocide, many countries, as well as the United Nations Human Rights Council, recognise the event as exactly that. Even Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the term “genocide,” used the Holodomor as an example. While we can never call one tragedy “worse” than another, some historians claim Stalin killed just as many Ukrainians as Hitler killed Jews — possibly more.

Although Ukraine declared independence 1918, that government soon collapsed, and the country wouldn’t gain true independence until after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Decades later, Yanukovych has maintained a close relationship with Russia and Putin, a leader who makes no secret of his pro-Stalin ideology. Recently, he dedicated the Sochi Olympics to his favourite communist leader. On top of that, Yanukovych has refused to allow Ukraine to join the European Union and cut troubled ties to Russia.

“For Ukrainians, E.U. membership means more than economic opportunities and mobility. It is about distancing themselves from Putin, who is said to revere Stalin, the very dictator who tried to erase Ukraine and managed to partition it, at least politically,”Andrea Chalupa, who studied at the Harvard Ukrainian Institute, wrote for Time.

Although fewer than one-fifth of Americans feel the U.S. has any obligation to protect Ukraine from Russian invasion, according to a YouGov poll
, history reminds us of the need to watch closely. Putin’s affiliation with Stalin looks all too clear. And Hillary Clinton, among others, already compared the Kremlin’s actions to those of Adolf Hitler.

For Ukraine, this invasion just signifies another notch in a long line of abuses.