STEPANTSY, UKRAINE -- Olga Skoba's memories of the great famine in her
village are dominated by a single image.
When she was a girl, about 12 years old, she watched men pile the emaciated corpses of those who had died onto a wooden cart each day to take them to the cemetery. The cart was so full, she remembers, that the bodies could not fit on it properly. One morning, the head of one of her neighbours dragged behind the cart, bouncing off stones as a final indignity on the way to the grave.
Ms. Skoba, like anyone old enough to remember the famine of 1932-33 in Ukraine, which left an estimated seven million to 10 million people dead, has many terrible memories. By her estimate, half of this tiny farming community was wiped out. She says she survived only because her mother hid bread under her head scarf to keep the Soviet secret police from seizing it.
Seventy years later, she still doesn't know why it happened.
"There were rumours that Comrade Stalin took the grain and dumped it into the sea," the 82-year-old said, furrowing her wizened brow. "But other people say it was just a bad harvest that year."
For decades after Soviet dictator Josef Stalin committed one of his greatest crimes, deliberately inflicting mass starvation on the Ukrainian peasantry, he and his regime got away with the big lie.
Denying the famine ever happened was for decades the unbending Soviet
line. In many ways, the game has only just ended.
Thousands of documents declassified by the Ukrainian government this year support what many historians have been saying for years: that the starvation was orchestrated by Stalin in order to crush a peasantry that had vehemently opposed his plans to collectivize all agricultural production.
Memorial, a Kiev-based human-rights group that has put together an exhibition on the famine, says the harvest in 1933 was actually quite a good one, but that the grain was forcibly taken and sold to Depression-stricken United States and Germany in exchange for equipment that helped modernize Soviet industry. Those who didn't hand over all their crops voluntarily had their food stocks seized. Resisters were executed.
This spring, Ukraine's parliament, the Rada, belatedly passed a motion declaring the famine to have been an intentional crime against the Ukrainian people. "The famine of 1932-33, which was an inhuman way to eliminate millions of Ukrainians, was a genocide perpetrated by the regime of the time," the resolution reads. "This tragedy has been kept silent for decades."
The government took its case to the United Nations, and asked the world body to formally recognize the genocide of 1932 and 1933. No one would second the motion -- there were rumours of Russian opposition -- so now a second motion is being drafted using the somewhat milder term "crime against humanity."
While the diplomatic game plays out in New York, many Ukrainians are wondering why it took the government so long to open this chapter in its history, and why there is still no museum to the genocide anywhere in Ukraine. Twelve years after Ukraine gained independence, a small monument inscribed "1932-1933" in downtown Kiev is the only public acknowledgment in the country of what took place.
"For 70 years, people couldn't talk about this, and today we still don't," said Artur Yeremenko, a senior researcher with Memorial, which terms the famine "Ukraine's Holocaust."
"The U.S. Congress has put together a 33-volume report on what happened. The Ukrainian government hasn't written one volume."
Ostap Skrypnyk, executive director of the Winnipeg-based Ukrainian Canadian Congress, said the delay is a symptom of a wider lack of historical understanding among many Ukrainians. Politicians, including President Leonid Kuchma, have been loath to go too far in condemning the Soviet era, since much of the electorate still looks on that time with a certain fondness.
Taking the step of calling the famine a genocide necessarily raises the question of who should take the blame for what happened. Stalin and most of his cronies are dead, and the institutions that outlive them are running for cover.
The Ukrainian Communist Party, which continues to deny Stalin and his regime played any role in the famine, boycotted the Rada debate on declaring it genocide, insisting the famine was caused exclusively by drought. Russia, which assumed many of the debts and assets of the Soviet Union when it collapsed, quickly made clear that it didn't see any reason it should be held responsible, despite calls from groups such as Memorial.
It's the cruelty that survivors say they can never forget. Ivan Leschenko says his tiny village of Kirilo-Anovka, in eastern Ukraine, was hit so hard that it is deserted even now, 70 years later. Everyone who lived there either died or went to the nearby city of Poltava to beg for food.
A journalist during the Soviet time, Mr. Leschenko, 80, knew better than most that the forced famine was a topic never to be discussed, let alone written about. He's dismayed at how long it has taken an independent Ukraine to begin dealing with its history.
"The old powers from the Soviet time control Ukraine still. They supported the ideology that committed this famine. They will be judged some day."