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Ukraine wants Soviet-era famine deemed genocide

Students attended a remembrance lesson Nov. 20 in Krasylivka, Ukraine, commemorating the 75th anniversary of a Soviet-engineered famine that killed millions in the USSR. Students attended a remembrance lesson Nov. 20 in Krasylivka, Ukraine, commemorating the 75th anniversary of a Soviet-engineered famine that killed millions in the USSR. (Efrem Lukatsky/associated press)
Email|Print| Text size + By Maria Danilova
Associated Press / November 25, 2007

KRASYLIVKA, Ukraine - Ukraine marked yesterday the 75th anniversary of the famine of 1932-33, engineered by Soviet authorities to force peasants across the former USSR to give up their privately held plots of land and join collective farms. Millions perished.

President Viktor Yushchenko is leading an effort to gain international recognition of Holodomor - or death by hunger, as it is known here - as a crime rather than merely a disaster, by labeling it an act of genocide.

"Our political and social ills find their way back to this fear of returning to one's national roots - as that was the very reason for the deaths of millions," Yushchenko said yesterday in a speech in Kiev. "And here lies the difficult path of moving closer to one another, to understanding and unity," he said

Long kept secret by Soviet authorities, accounts of the great famine still divide historians and politicians, not just in this nation of 47 million but throughout the former Soviet Union.

Some are convinced the famine targeted Ukrainians as an ethnic group. Others say authorities set out to eradicate all private land owners as a social class, and that the Soviets sought to pay for the USSR's industrialization with grain exports at the expense of starving millions of its people.

Dictator Josef Stalin's collectivization drive affected the entire USSR, but was particularly calamitous for Ukraine, which had some of the former Soviet Union's richest agricultural land.

The campaign coincided, as well, with the Kremlin's efforts to root out a growing Ukrainian nationalist movement.

Estimates of the number of people who perished in Holodomor differ, but there is no doubt the death toll was horrific.

Yushchenko estimates 10 million Ukrainians died, while Stanislav Kulchitsky, a Ukrainian historian, believes the number is closer to 3.5 million.

Authorities set production quotas for each village. But these quotas generally exceeded crop yields and in village after village, when farmers failed to meet their targets, all their food was confiscated.

Residents were prohibited to leave their homes, effectively condemning them to starvation.

In Krasylivka as many as 1,017 people - roughly the village's present day population - died in the course of that year, according to a list of the victims compiled by village authorities. Elders say the famine nearly wiped out the village.

Villagers tell stories of their neighbors collapsing in the street and dying. Driven to despair, people ate whatever they could scrounge: leaves, dirt, birds, dogs, rats and - several witnesses said - even one another.

Olena Yaroshchuk, 94, her wrinkled face framed by a green kerchief, said she filled her aching stomach with grass. "Those who could survived, those who couldn't - that was the end of it, one house after another - almost all died," she said.

Kulchitsky, a leading famine researcher, says the famine was a genocide aimed at Ukrainians who resisted Soviet rule.

"The conditions authorities created for the Ukrainian peasantry were incompatible with life," he wrote in a recent article.

But Heorhiy Kasyanov, a top historian with the National Academy of Sciences, says the issue is more subtle.

"There is no hard evidence that there were concrete statements or actions aimed at destroying ethnic Ukrainians by someone else. I don't have a clear answer whether or not it was genocide," Kasyanov said.

The Ukrainian Parliament has already labeled the famine genocide. So has the United States, and some other countries. But Russia, the legal successor to the Soviet state, resists the label.

Under international law, genocide is defined as deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial or ethnic group.

Moscow says the famine also targeted other groups, including Russians and Kazakhs.

"There are no grounds to talk about genocide. We can talk about 'sociocide' - the extermination of peasants, a political crime on the part of Soviet leadership," said Andrei Petrov, a historian with the Russian Academy of Sciences.

But another Russian historian said Holodomor was one of many acts of genocide by Stalin against the peoples of the former Soviet Union.

"It was genocide in the direct sense of this word - it is the killing of people, the killing of the Ukrainian people," he said. "The same must be done for the Kazakhs, the Russians and peoples of other territories."

Ukrainian politicians are themselves divided on the topic.

The genocide vote in Parliament last year was boycotted by the party of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who draws his support from Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, as well as the communists.

Even in Krasylivka, people say the issue is complicated. Many survivors blame the Soviet government for the famine. But many also say that the cruelty of the local authorities compounded the tragedy.

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