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Ukraine remembers a famine under Stalin, and points to parallels with Putin

Residents hold a remembrance ceremony during the 90th anniversary of the Holodomor at a Museum of the ‘Stryiska Death Camp Prison’ in Drohobych, Ukraine on November 26, 2022. Many Ukrainians feel the past repeats itself amid the current Russian invasion. 1200 people were tortured and killed at this prison, dying at the hands of Russian NKVD-KGB functionaries. This region was not affected by the man-made famine of Holodomor that killed millions of Ukrainians from 1932 to 1933. Some historians conclude that the famine was made by Joseph Stalin repressions to eliminate a Ukrainian independence movement. Ukraine and a number of other countries view it as a genocide carried out by the Soviet regime. Oleksandra Melko, 52 years old, is the granddaughter of Antin Yasenitsky, who was killed here and whose name is etched on the wall. Her grandmother said that he went for a walk one day and no one saw him again. In the 90s, an exhumation was made here. ‘No one could ever think that all these horrors would repeat again,’ she says about the current Russian invasion.
Residents hold a remembrance ceremony during the 90th anniversary of the Holodomor at a Museum of the ‘Stryiska Death Camp Prison’ in Drohobych, Ukraine on November 26, 2022. Many Ukrainians feel the past repeats itself amid the current Russian invasion. 1200 people were tortured and killed at this prison, dying at the hands of Russian NKVD-KGB functionaries. This region was not affected by the man-made famine of Holodomor that killed millions of Ukrainians from 1932 to 1933. Some historians conclude that the famine was made by Joseph Stalin repressions to eliminate a Ukrainian independence movement. Ukraine and a number of other countries view it as a genocide carried out by the Soviet regime. Oleksandra Melko, 52 years old, is the granddaughter of Antin Yasenitsky, who was killed here and whose name is etched on the wall. Her grandmother said that he went for a walk one day and no one saw him again. In the 90s, an exhumation was made here. ‘No one could ever think that all these horrors would repeat again,’ she says about the current Russian invasion.
https://ondemand.npr.org/anon.npr-mp3/npr/atc/2022/11/20221128_atc_ukraine_remembers_a_famine_under_stalin_and_points_to_parallels_with_putin.mp3?orgId=1&topicId=1124&aggIds=1082539802&d=271&p=2&story=1139402378&ft=nprml&f=1001

KYIV, Ukraine — As bells rang out at a centuries-old monastery, Ukrainians stepped out into a cold, misty night to light candles in memory of the devastating famine of 1932-33.

This annual commemoration was especially poignant this year, marking 90 years since the famine gripped Ukraine. Many here say Soviet dictator Josef Stalin was trying to destroy Ukraine then, and the current Kremlin leader, Russian President Vladimir Putin, is trying to do the same thing now.

They call it the Holodomor, which means "death by hunger."

At the National Museum of the Holodomor Genocide, one visitor, Roman Vashchenko, 44, spoke in somber tones of suffering old and new. First, he recalled stories his grandmother told him.

"She was one of 10 children. They were not allowed to leave their village. So they didn't know what was happening elsewhere," he said. "But they had a cow, and that's why they survived, because they had milk."

Then he spoke of pain that's much more recent.

"In March, the Russians shot and killed my sister and her husband," he said softly. Their sons, ages 12 and 6, survived.

Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union when Stalin seized private farms and turned them into state-run operations. It was an absolute disaster in this fertile farming region known as the "breadbasket of the Soviet Union."

Other farming regions also suffered famine, including Kazakhstan. But no place was hit as hard as Ukraine.

An estimated 4 million Ukrainians died within two years, though there's no precise figure and some historians say the toll may have been significantly higher.

Ukraine calls it a genocide, and nearly 20 other countries now agree — though not Russia.

Drawing parallels between Stalin and Putin

One country that shares Ukraine's position is Poland, and its prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, visited Kyiv this weekend.

"If we allow Putin to continue, he will become the Stalin of the 21st century," Morawiecki said.

Ukraine's President Volodomyr Zelenskyy also made the link between then and now.

"We see what is happening today in the world, what is happening in Ukraine. They want to destroy us with bombs, bullets, cold and hunger again," Zelenskyy said.

There are no official figures, but most estimates point to tens of thousands of Ukrainian deaths among soldiers and civilians since Russia invaded in February.

Nearly 8 million Ukrainians fled the country. While some have returned, it remains the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.

Millions more Ukrainians have fled their homes in the east and the south of the country, the scene of the heaviest fighting, and taken refuge in other parts of the country.

Zelenskyy marked the anniversary of the famine by hosting an international conference Saturday on food security, called "Grain from Ukraine."

Many European leaders attended, either in person or virtually. A total of 20 countries pledged $150 million to to help deliver Ukraine's farm exports by ship.

Russia blocked Ukraine from using its main export channel via the Black Sea in the early months of the war. Ukrainian wheat and other products are now flowing, though at lower than normal levels. Prices for basic foods remain expensive on the international market, straining the budgets of developing countries in Africa and Asia in particular.

"We do not just send Ukrainian foodstuffs to those countries that suffer the most from the food crisis. We affirm that never again should hunger be used as a weapon," Zelenskyy said.

Documenting the famine

At the Holodomor museum, there are books as thick as encyclopedias, some more than 1,000 pages. They're filled with the names of those who died in the famine. Visitors page through them, often looking for relatives they never knew.

Many say they heard firsthand accounts of the famine from grandparents or great-grandparents who survived.

"People were trying to live by eating grass and roots. My great-grandfather was a miner, and they got 100 grams of bread every day. Because of this bread, they survived," said Iryna Kopalova, a 37-year-old engineer.

This past spring, Kopalova said that as the fighting neared their village outside Kyiv, her 6-year-old daughter understood that the Russians were the enemy.

"When she heard the first explosions, she asked me, 'Mother, should I speak Russian now?' But we just fled our home, we didn't wait for the Russians to arrive," Kopalova said.

That famine, and today's war, speak to a country that's endured so much hardship.

It explains why the national anthem begins with the words, "Ukraine has not yet perished."

As NPR was about to leave the museum, Roman Vashchenko, the man who lost his sister and brother-in-law this spring, came over to say more about the couple's two orphaned children.

The 12-year-old, Tymofiy, has kept a journal during the war. When his parents were killed, he didn't believe it at first, hoping they might still be alive. Eventually he accepted the loss, writing, "Dreams don't come true."

Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent currently on assignment in Ukraine. Follow him @gregmyre1 . Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Transcript :

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This weekend, Ukraine marked 90 years since a terrible famine that killed at least 4 million people. It's blamed on Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. The event is commemorated every November, and it was especially poignant this year as Ukraine deals with its current crisis, which is blamed on the man now in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin. NPR's Greg Myre has the story from Kyiv.

(SOUNBITE OF BELLS RINGING)

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: At nightfall, bells rang at a centuries-old monastery. Ukrainians stepped outside into a cold mist to light candles in memory of the devastating famine of 1932, '33. They call it the Holodomor, which means death by hunger. At the museum dedicated to the famine, one visitor, Roman Vashchenko, spoke in somber tones of suffering old and new. He recalled stories his grandmother told him.

ROMAN VASHCHENKO: (Through interpreter) She was one of 10 children. They were not allowed to leave their village, so they didn't know what was happening elsewhere. But they had a cow. And that's why they survived, because they had milk.

MYRE: He also spoke of pain that's much more recent.

VASHCHENKO: (Through interpreter) In March, the Russians shot and killed my sister and her husband.

MYRE: Their sons, ages 12 and 6, survived.

Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union when Josef Stalin seized private farms and turned them into state-run operations. It was an absolute disaster in the fertile farming region known as the breadbasket of the Soviet Union. At least 4 million Ukrainians died within two years. Ukraine calls it a genocide, and nearly 20 other countries now agree, though not Russia. One country that shares Ukraine's position is Poland. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki visited Kyiv this weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER MATEUSZ MORAWIECKI: If we allow Putin to continue, he will become the Stalin of the 21st century.

MYRE: Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, also made the link.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) We see what is happening today in the world, what is happening in Ukraine. They want to destroy us with bombs, bullets, cold and hunger again.

MYRE: Zelenskyy marked the anniversary by hosting an international conference Saturday on food security called Grain from Ukraine. Russia cut off Ukraine's abundant food exports during the early months of the war. They're now flowing, though at lower levels than normal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) Do not just send Ukrainian foodstuffs to those countries that suffer the most from the food crisis. We affirm that never again should hunger be used as a weapon.

MYRE: At the Holodomor Museum, there are books as thick as encyclopedias filled with the names of those who died in the famine. Visitors page through them looking for relatives they never knew. Many say they heard firsthand accounts of the famine from relatives who survived - like this woman, Iryna Kopalova.

IRYNA KOPALOVA: (Through interpreter) People were trying to live by eating grass and roots. My great-grandfather was a miner, and they got 100 grams of bread every day. Because of this bread, they survived.

MYRE: This past spring, Kopalova says that as the fighting neared their village, her 6-year-old daughter understood that the Russians were the enemy.

KOPALOVA: (Through interpreter) When she heard the first explosions, she asked me, Mother, should I speak Russian now? But we just fled our home. We didn't wait for the Russians to arrive.

MYRE: The famine and today's war speak to a country that's endured so much hardship. It explains why the national anthem begins with the words Ukraine has not yet perished.

As I was about to leave the museum, Roman Vashchenko, the man who lost his sister and brother-in-law this spring, came over to tell me more about the couple's two orphaned children. Twelve-year-old Timothy has kept a journal during the war. When his parents were killed, he didn't believe it at first, hoping they might still be alive. Eventually, he accepted the loss, writing in his journal, dreams don't come true.

Greg Myre, NPR News, Kyiv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.