New York Times | 15Mar2009 | Richard J. Levy
A New View of a Famine That
KIEV, Ukraine -- A quarter century ago, a Ukrainian historian named
Stanislav Kulchytsky was told by his Soviet overlords to concoct an
insidious cover-up. His orders: to depict the famine that killed
millions of Ukrainians in the early 1930s as unavoidable, like a
natural disaster. Absolve the Communist Party of blame. Uphold the
legacy of Stalin.
Professor Kulchytsky, though, would not go along.
The other day, as he stood before a new memorial to the victims of the
famine, he recalled his decision as one turning point in a movement
lasting decades to unearth the truth about that period. And the
memorial itself, shaped like a towering candle with a golden eternal
flame, seemed to him in some sense a culmination of this effort.
“It is a sign of our respect for the past,” Professor Kulchytsky said.
“Because everyone was silent about the famine for many years. And when
it became possible to talk about it, nothing was said. Three
The concrete memorial was dedicated last November, the 75th anniversary
of the famine, in a park in Kiev, on a hillside overlooking the Dnieper
River in the shadow of the onion domes of a revered Orthodox Christian
monastery. More than 100 feet tall, the memorial will eventually house
a small museum that will offer testimony from survivors, as well as
information about the Ukrainian villages that suffered.
In the Soviet Union, the authorities all but banned discussion of the
famine, but by the 1980s the United States and other countries were
pressing their own inquiries, often at the urging of Ukrainian
In response, Communist officials embarked on a propaganda drive to play
down the famine and show that the deaths were caused by unforeseen food
shortages or drought. Professor Kulchytsky said he had been given the
task of gathering research but concluded that the famine had been
“I became convinced that everything was not as I once thought,” he said.
He refused to falsify his findings and instead released them publicly,
escaping punishment only because glasnost had begun under the Soviet
leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
The famine is known in Ukrainian as the Holodomor -- literally, death or
killing by starvation -- and the campaign to give it recognition has
played a significant role in the Ukrainian quest to shape a national
identity in the post-Soviet era. It has also further strained relations
with the Kremlin, another of the festering disputes left by the breakup
of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The pro-Western government in Kiev, which came to power after the
Orange Revolution of 2004, calls the famine a genocide that Stalin
ordered because he wanted to decimate the Ukrainian citizenry and snuff
out aspirations for independence from Moscow.
The archives make plain that no other conclusion is possible, said
Professor Kulchytsky, who is deputy director of the Institute of
Ukrainian History in Kiev.
Professor Kulchytsky is 72, though he looks younger, as if he has
somehow withstood the draining effect of so much research into the
horrors of that time.
“It is difficult to bear,” he acknowledged. “The documents about
cannibalism are especially difficult to read.”
Professor Kulchytsky said it was undeniable that people all over the
Soviet Union died from hunger in 1932 and 1933 as the Communists waged
war on the peasantry to create farming collectives. But he contended
that in Ukraine the authorities went much further, essentially
quarantining and starving many villages.
“If in other regions, people were hungry and died from famine, then
here people were killed by hunger,” Professor Kulchytsky said. “That is
the absolute difference.”
In recent years, Ukraine’s president, Viktor A. Yushchenko, has
regularly spoken out about the famine, and has even sought to make
denying it a crime. Ukraine has asked other countries to recognize the
famine as genocide and to establish memorials. One is being built in
In Kiev, the memorial has started to become a pilgrimage site.
“Of course, it is needed,” said Hrigory Mikhailenko, 75, a construction
executive from central Ukraine who stopped by during a business trip.
“So many people died. Four members of my family. It’s very important to
note what happened. That is why Russia is pressuring us.”
Russia has spurned the memorial. Instead of attending its dedication,
Russia’s president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, sent a letter to Mr. Yushchenko
accusing him of using the famine to discredit Russia.
“We do not condone the repression carried out by the Stalinist regime
against the entire Soviet people,” Mr. Medvedev wrote. “But to say that
it was aimed at the destruction of Ukrainians means going against the
facts and trying to give a nationalist subtext to a common tragedy.”
Last month, Russian historians and archivists sought to bolster the
Kremlin’s case, issuing a DVD and a book of historical documents that
they said demonstrated that the famine was not directed at Ukraine.
Many of the documents were translated into English, underscoring how
the two countries are waging their fight on an international stage.
Professor Kulchytsky said the Kremlin feared that if it conceded the
truth, Russia, considered the successor to the Soviet Union, could face
claims for reparations. Still, he said he would not ignore
misstatements by the Ukrainian side, either.
For example, President Yushchenko has said that as many as 10 million
Ukrainians died, while Professor Kulchytsky believes that the figure is
Nor is the professor enamored with the design of the memorial, saying
that he would have preferred some of the other proposals. But he said
there was no doubt that the country had to be reminded of its history.
“I know many people, including famous people -- smart, intellectual
people -- whose relatives, grandparents, died in the famine, and they
speak out harshly against focusing on Holodomor,” Professor Kulchytsky
said. “They consider it not a part of the present. But how can we be
quiet about what occurred? Our people were the victims of a great
A version of this article appeared in print on March 16, 2009, on page
A11 of the New York edition.