Ukraine Revisits Its Somber Past

KIEV, Ukraine -- Outside the walls of Kiev's stunning Mikhailov cathedral and monastery, history is being revisited through an exhibition of large black-and-white photographs.

Monument to the Great Famine in Kiev

They show dead animals and corpses rotting in the fields and people, barely able to stand, dressed in ragged clothes. The pictures are from 1932-1933.

In Ukraine's collective memory, those years are known as the "Great Famine" when the Soviet Communist Party under Stalin forced Ukrainian peasants to give up their land and join collectivized farms by confiscating all food. Anyone caught saving food or taking even a grain of corn was sent to Siberia or shot.

Historians estimate that 7 million to 10 million Ukrainians died as a result of Stalin's policies, which were implemented with the help of the Ukrainian Communist Party.

Ukraine quietly started commemorating the famine a few years ago. But the authorities refrained from criticizing the former Soviet Communists, or Ukraine's Communists, for executing such policies. Igor Plaschkin, a political analyst at the Kiev offices of the conservative Konrad Adenauer Foundation, said it had been impossible to do so because Communists still dominated the Parliament and other state institutions.

Since it gained its independence from Moscow in the early 1990s, Ukraine has been slow to deal with its past. This is in contrast to other former Communist countries, particularly in Eastern Europe, where several governments - after a first rush of historical re-evaluation in the 1990s - have recently started taking bolder steps to understand how the Soviet Union ruled its satellites.

The new conservative government in Poland started opening Warsaw Pact files last month. Radek Sikorski, the defense minister, showed how in 1979 the Kremlin was prepared to use Poland as its own cordon sanitaire in the event of a nuclear war with Western Europe.

Relations were tense at the time because of the election of a Polish pope, a standoff between Moscow and Washington over deploying nuclear missiles in Germany and the increasing influence of the Polish underground trade union movement.

In Prague, Czech senators last week proposed a bill establishing a National Memory Institute that would examine and disclose crimes of the former Communist regime, including its security forces and functionaries. The senators said the new institute should give access to documents from 1948, when the Communists seized power, to 1989, when Communist rule collapsed.

Hungary has already opened its archives as historians in these countries try to understand how the Kremlin exercised power throughout the Communist bloc.

But it was only two weeks ago that the Ukrainian president, Viktor Yushchenko, adopted a completely different tone toward the famine, and Ukraine's past.

In a ceremony at Mikhailov Square, he said the famine had been "a crime against humanity that had perpetrators." But, he added, "From the legal standpoint, no guilty parties have been found."

Yushchenko, catapulted into power after the Orange Revolution last year in which hundreds of thousands of demonstrators called for a free press, an end to corruption and fair elections, continued in this open manner.

"A murderer may be found responsible for killing one person, but for the destruction of millions no one is held responsible. Perhaps this is why we in Ukraine have such difficulty today restoring the rule of law, good and social justice."

Unlike previous commemorations, which never pinpointed blame for the famine, Yushchenko directly criticized the Communists for not apologizing, saying that such a failure explained further misfortunes.

"Perhaps this is why we encourage such difficulty in changing our consciousness, haunted by fear and ideological slavery," he said.

Yushchenko added that it was time to "immortalize a memorial on the victims of repression and famine in Ukraine." He said that the government would also establish a Ukrainian Institute of National Memory.

The point of the commemoration, Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk said, was to allow Ukraine to deal with its history and identity. "So many Ukrainians suffered," he said in an interview. "Only 6 of the 13 children in the family of my father survived."

Tarasyuk said it was hardly surprising that the Communists in Ukraine had protested the style of the commemorations. "They understand rightly that it is their own crime, their own ideology," he said. "That is why they are the only political force in Ukraine who are refusing to recognize this very fact. The Communist tyrants did it.

"Today," he continued, "the official Russian version is that Russia had nothing to do with the famine in Ukraine, that it was the policy of the Bolshevik authorities."

In Russia, foreign policy experts are critical over how Ukraine and other former Communist countries have been dealing with history, saying that this is feeding anti-Russian sentiment.

The Russian Foreign Ministry, responding to the Ukraine commemorations, issued a sharply worded statement. "Attempts to use the tragic facts of our common history in present-day Russian-Ukrainian relations are counterproductive, politically motivated and even harmful," it said, adding: "One can hardly say who suffered more from the totalitarian regime or who suffered less. Everyone suffered."

Other Russians say the past is increasingly being used by nationalists in Ukraine and Eastern Europe to criticize today's Russia.

"All the troubles and bloody events in the past are considered through the lens of anti-Russian intentions," said Nikolai Petrov, an expert on Russian domestic policy at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "There are a lot of very complicated things in the Soviet past. But they were not ethnically based. There was starvation in other regions.

"Besides," he continued, "it was Georgians and Ukrainians who were leading the country, not Russians." Stalin was from Georgia.

Petrov says he can understand why former Soviet-bloc countries use the past to promote national consolidation.

"But it becomes very difficult to create a national identity because it is sometimes 'us' versus 'them,"' he said. "There is a temptation among East Europeans in particular and other post-Soviet states to look at all bad things of their past as coming from outside. Russia is blamed for all of this."

Hryhoriy Nemyria, director of the Center for European and International Studies in Ukraine, denies that the commemorations have been motivated by anti-Russian sentiment. "The commemorations are linked to Ukraine's national identity," he said. "It is very important for the nation's identity. It is about saying goodbye to the Soviet Union."

Source: International Herald Tribune