Standing before a monument dedicated to the millions who perished from the Great Famine of the 1930s, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko marked the famine’s anniversary with a fresh appeal for the world to recognize the tragedy as an act of genocide by then-Soviet leader Josef Stalin.
The ongoing effort by Mr. Yushchenko to revive a history long suppressed by the Soviet Union, and still dismissed by many in Russia, could well define his presidency.
“We did almost the impossible,” the leader told a large crowd on Saturday gathered near the memorial on an overcast day. “We saved and returned to the people the truth about the Great Famine of 1932-33. We returned it from the abyss, from the precipice, from that which fails to return.”
Ukraine’s Soviet-era archives, opened to the public by Mr. Yushchenko, has allowed historians to take a fresh look at the Holodomor, or death by hunger. It refers to the famine that killed between 3 million and 7 million Ukrainians, mostly from the country’s central and eastern regions, in 1932 to ‘33. Some estimates of the toll run as high as 10 million.
Mr. Yushchenko and scholars say Stalin ordered the famine as a way of breaking the Ukrainian people and its leadership. Both had serious disagreements with the Soviet leader over his collectivization policies and were unwilling to meet quotas that he had set for the agriculturally rich Ukraine.
Using agricultural records as proof, historians have argued there was no reason why millions of people should have died of hunger in Ukraine during that time, because the country enjoyed bumper harvests those years. The only way to explain the deaths, they say, was if the famine was purposefully planned.
Mr. Yushchenko earlier this year signed a decree opening up Ukraine’s secret Soviet archives to scholars and journalists for study.
Ukraine 3000, a nonprofit foundation that Mr. Yushchenko founded before becoming president, has sponsored books and a documentary film about the Holodomor. Mr. Yushchenko ensured the erection of the famine memorial, which resembles a candle, and accompanying underground museum in record time.
Ukraine’s parliament officially recognized the famine as genocide in 2006. Thirteen countries, including Canada, Poland and Australia, have followed suit.
The United States had been reluctant to call the famine genocide — a view that offends many Russians.
However, earlier this month, President Obama said, “Ukrainians could have fed themselves and saved millions of lives, had they been allowed to do so.
“As we remember this calamity, we pay respect to millions of victims who showed tremendous strength and courage. … Remembering the victims of the man-made catastrophe of Holodomor provides us an opportunity to reflect upon the plight of all those who have suffered the consequences of extremism and tyranny around the world. We hope that the remembrance of Holodomor will help prevent such tragedy in the future,” the president said in a statement.
Mr. Yushchenko early on found an unwavering ally in his search for historic truth in Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, the director of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). As head of the service that is the successor to Ukraine’s KGB, Mr. Nalyvaichenko has been a major force in ensuring that the archives, which fall under his domain, are declassified.
Not only have archival personnel been especially helpful to scholars and journalists looking into the Holodomor, but the SBU has also opened several reading rooms across the country where individuals can gain access to archival documents, which are now being digitized.
In addition, the SBU itself has been on a fact-finding mission, gathering information about alleged perpetrators of the famine in order to initiate court proceedings against those responsible, even though it is unlikely any are still living.
Mr. Nalyvaichenko told Ukraine’s Channel 5 news channel over the weekend that prosecutors from his service may be ready to send criminal cases to the courts by year’s end. He said no statute of limitations exists on crimes against humanity.
Critics have charged it is not the SBU’s role to be probing into archives and bringing cases against people who have long been dead. In a recent interview with The Washington Times, however, Mr. Nalyvaichenko said bringing people to justice is an essential ingredient of democracy.
“First you need the truth, and then you move forward with that,” he said.
During his televised address on Saturday, Mr. Yushchenko said a substantial amount of work has already been done that proves not only the massive scale of the Holodomor, but its criminality as well. The identities of 2 million who died during the famine have been restored, 14,000 affected villages in 18 regions have been identified and the locations of 3,577 mass graves have been determined, he said.
“We have constituted concrete orders from the communist authorities, instructions and telegrams for murder,” Mr. Yushchenko said. “They exist. Thankfully, the archives have not burned.”
Despite Mr. Yushchenko’s demands that the doors to the famine be opened, his political future remains uncertain. He faces a tough re-election battle in January 2010.
The once-popular president’s ratings have plummeted, in part because of very public battles with former allies. Others have criticized Mr. Yushchenko for being too open with the past.
Should he not win re-election, there is concern the president’s efforts to address Ukraine’s Soviet-era past may be rolled back.
“We need to maximally ensure that there is no road back,” said Volodymyr Viatrovych, who heads the SBU’s archives. “We want to open all the documents of the totalitarian system.”