Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Ukraine Separatists Rewrite History Of 1930s Famine

DONETSK, Ukraine -- Yevdokiya was still a young girl, her nephew recalled, when the neighbors invited her over for a social occasion of some sort.


Igor V. Kostenok, the education minister of the Donetsk People's Republic, said that the intention of the new curriculum was to highlight the region’s long ties with Russia and weed out Ukrainian nationalist ideas.

This was during the great famine of 1933, he said, and her family became alarmed when she failed to return.

She never did come home, said the nephew, Aleksandr S. Khodakovsky, now a senior official in the Russian-backed separatist government of the Donetsk People’s Republic.

To their horror, her parents discovered that she had been cannibalized by the desperate neighbors, not an uncommon occurrence in a famine that killed 3.3 million people, by most estimates.

Traditionally, Ukrainian historians have characterized the famine as a genocide, the direct result of Stalin’s forced collectivization and the Soviet government’s requisitioning of grain for export abroad, leaving Ukraine short — and its borders sealed shut.

Since Ukraine gained independence, that is what its students have been taught.

But that is not what students in southeastern Ukraine are learning this year.

Instead, under orders from the newly installed separatist governments, they are getting the sanitized Russian version, in which the famine was an unavoidable tragedy that befell the entire Soviet Union. 

Even Mr. Khodakovsky, whose aunt’s remains were later found in a well, has trouble accepting that line in its entirety.

“It was terrible,” he said of the famine, and not at all unavoidable.

Rather, he said, it was the result of Stalinist policies, particularly the sale of grain to finance industrialization.

Ukraine’s 20th-century history is steeped in blood.

After the famine, the country took the brunt of Stalinist-era repression and the violence of the eastern front in World War II, when upward of five million Ukrainian civilians died.

In the current civil war, aside from the control of territory, nothing has been so fought over as this history.

Natalia S. Skrichenko, a history teacher, has been watching that process unfold all around her.

Soon after the separatists took over, Ms. Skrichenko and other history teachers in separatist-held areas of eastern Ukraine were told to throw their existing Ukrainian history texts into the trash.

For months, teachers improvised until the separatist Ministry of Education came out this year with new mimeographed guidelines, called “Materials for the Questions of History Teaching,” for use in the second semester this year — literally rewriting history midway through the school year.

“History doesn’t change,” Ms. Skrichenko said philosophically about the new curriculum for students in rebel-held portions of Ukraine.

“People just look at the facts with a new mentality. We don’t really know what happened in the past. It’s gone. All we can know is what we see through the prism of our own time.”

At School No. 14 in Donetsk where she teaches, students are being taught jarringly different lessons about some of their country’s darkest and most contentious periods in the 20th century.

They include not just the famine, but dealings with the Nazis, the Stalinist repression and relations with Russia.

She said she encourages her students who started 20th-century history under the old program, only to change tack now, to think of the shift as a teachable moment, illustrating how history is written.

And history is hardly academic these days in Donetsk.

Russia and the groups it has supported in eastern Ukraine have justified their uprising, which has led to the deaths of more than 6,100 people and the displacement of about 1.5 million, by calling the revolution that ousted the former President Viktor F. Yanukovych a neo-fascist coup.

As evidence, they cite the Ukrainian nationalists’ reverence for Stepan Bandera, an independence leader whom Russia has labeled — unfairly, in the eyes of many historians and certainly to western Ukrainians — a Nazi collaborator who shares blame for the murder of Russians, Poles and Jews during World War II.

This month, Ukraine’s Parliament passed laws allowing the official commemoration of individuals and organizations that fought for independence, including Mr. Bandera and his Ukrainian Insurgent Army, and outlawing the display of both Soviet and Nazi symbols in Ukraine.

On the Ukrainian side, those opposed to any Russian influence, including that of the separatist governments in the east, cite the famine of 1933 to support their argument that Russia forever lost the moral right to rule their country.

Several students interviewed outside School No. 14, soaking up the early spring sunshine on a recent afternoon after classes, seemed unruffled by their shifting history.

A main problem is the excessive note taking, as there are no textbooks, complained Polina Zyagina, who is in ninth grade.

“There’s no sense in studying the history of Ukraine any longer,” she said.

“We’re not in Ukraine. I cannot talk any more. I have to go home.”

Igor V. Kostenok, the rebel minister of education who prepared the guidelines, said in an interview that the intention of the new curriculum, called “Fatherland History,” was to highlight the Donetsk region’s long ties with Russia and weed out the Ukrainian nationalist ideas including the use of the word “genocide” to describe the famine.

“It’s an idea about socialization, about creating a culture, a culture for the Slavic world, for the Russian world,” he said in an interview.

The students will not be taught a Ukrainian identity, he said.

Despite his horrific family history during the famine, Mr. Khodakovsky, the separatist leader, said that the Ukrainian insistence on calling the famine genocide “was intended to tear up the roots of what united Russia and Ukraine” and that it needed to be stopped.

In the new guideline, the curriculum for World War II spells out in regard to Mr. Bandera that “respecting collaborators is seen as unacceptable the world over, including in France.”

The unit on the 1930s for 10th-grade students, for example, is called “Donbass in the Period of Modernization,” referring to the name of the coal basin that is the heart of rebel territory today.

It details dozens of topics teachers should touch upon from the 1930s.

One is cheerily titled, “the accomplishments of the coal and metal industries” in the interwar period, when a Stalinist project of forced industrialization was backed by a terrorist campaign.

Another makes sure teachers bring up the “final liquidation of adult illiteracy” under Stalin in Ukraine.

It helpfully mentions they might discuss with students the successes of “science and technology in the first five-year plan,” which ended in 1932. 

A mere two study topics out of a total of 52 for the 10th-grade unit on the 1930s make any mention of “the tragedy of famine of 1932-1933.”

That seems short shrift for a searing, blood-chilling depopulation of the countryside that sent crowds of stick-figure-thin peasants into the cities to beg and die by the thousands in the spring of 1933.

Mr. Khodakovsky’s family on his mother’s side dealt with the cannibalization of Yevdokiya and other hardships by remaining secretly religious through the Soviet period.

“It’s God sending us these tests,” he said.

He was not, in any case, raised to hate the Russians, and has relatives living in Moscow.

The excessive grain requisitioning was a Soviet atrocity, not a Russian one.

“My mother never blamed anybody,” he said.

Source: The New York Times

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