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Holodomor Parallels Russia's Genocide in Ukraine

The Holodomor commemoration came as President Vladimir V. Putin was accused of degrading Ukraine’s power grid to freeze the country into submission.

Placing candles on Saturday at a memorial to honor the victims of the Holodomor, a famine engineered in 1932 by Joseph Stalin that killed millions of Ukrainians. Credit: Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

Nov. 26, 2022Updated 4:58 p.m. ET

KYIV, Ukraine — When Joseph Stalin engineered a famine designed to break the will of Ukrainians opposed to the Kremlin’s farming policies, he turned the grain-rich breadbasket of Europe into a land of starvation, deprivation and death.

Ninety years later, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has turned his missile arsenal on civilian infrastructure in an effort to shatter Ukrainian resolve and force Kyiv to bend to his will, leaving millions in darkness and cold, threatening access to clean water and compromising the nation’s health care system.

But when Ukrainians across the country lit candles at 4 p.m. on Saturday to mark the 90th anniversary of the Holodomor, which means “death by hunger” in Ukrainian, President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed that Ukrainians would not allow history to repeat itself.

“Once they wanted to destroy us with hunger, now — with darkness and cold,” he said. “We cannot be broken. Our fire will not go out. We will conquer death again.”

This time, he said, the world would not be silent.

Mr. Zelensky was joined by European leaders in the gilded halls of Mariinsky Palace, the ceremonial home of the president of Ukraine that was commissioned by the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna of Russia in 1744, to announce a new “grain from Ukraine” initiative, using the potent symbolism of the day to pledge to support nations struggling to feed their people.

“Even as the country struggles with food shortages, devastated farmland and widespread blackouts, we will never forget our role as a responsible global citizen, especially having experienced famine as a nation ourselves,” Mr. Zelensky said.

Salvaging belongings and clearing debris from a residential building hit by Russian missiles this week in Vyshhorod, Ukraine. Credit: Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

At least 20 nations have pledged more than $150 million to fund the effort to deliver 60 Ukrainian vessels loaded with grain to some of the world’s poorest countries next year to feed roughly one million people.

That includes Hungary, which has frustrated its NATO allies by remaining friendly with the Kremlin. But on Saturday, President Katalin Novak became the highest Hungarian official to travel to Ukraine since Russia invaded in February — an apparent effort to shed the country’s image as Europe’s weak link in an otherwise united front against Russian aggression.

The visit by Ms. Novak came just days before the European Union was scheduled to make a final decision on whether to release billions in frozen funding for Hungary.

She noted that Hungary had “150,000 reasons” to support Ukraine, a reference to the country’s ethnic Hungarian population.

“I am horrified by what is happening in our neighborhood,” she said, noting that Mr. Putin’s responsibility for the war was “crystal clear.”

But it was Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of Poland and Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte of Lithuania who drew a clear connection between the events of the past and what Mr. Morawiecki called the “imperial terror” of this war.

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

Ms. Simonyte said that far too few people knew the history of the Holodomor, and that it was the duty of the world’s nations to stop Russia’s “grotesque plans” to commit another genocide of the Ukrainian people.

Leaders and scholars in Eastern and Central Europe have long lamented that the West lacks a full appreciation of the Soviet crimes in the region stretching from Lithuania to Ukraine, a swath of territory that the Yale historian Timothy Snyder labeled the “Bloodlands” for the sheer scale of the suffering inflicted on the people there in the 20th century.

Jostling for food handouts in Kherson, Ukraine, this month. Credit: Finbarr O'Reilly for The New York Times

That history was also obscured by Soviet rule, which made discussion of the crimes of Stalin — and the Holodomor specifically — taboo. But there is now widespread scholarly agreement that the Holodomor, which spread in Kazakhstan, through southern Russia and across Ukraine, was an orchestrated event designed by Stalin that started in 1932 and ended 22 months later with millions dead.

“Survival was a moral as well as a physical struggle,” Mr. Snyder wrote in his groundbreaking book on the period. “The good people died first. Those who refused to steal or to prostitute themselves died. Those who gave food to others died. Those who refused to eat corpses died. Those who refused to kill their fellow man died. Parents who resisted cannibalism died before their children did.”

The United States is among the 17 nations that recognize the Holodomor as an act of genocide, and Mr. Zelensky urged other nations to follow suit.

While it was forbidden to be spoken about publicly in Ukraine for years, a survey this month by the Rating Sociological Group found that some 93 percent of Ukrainians agreed with the statement that the Holodomor was genocide of the Ukrainian people.

“Different historians call different numbers of victims, but either way, all of them are shocking,” Mr. Zelensky said. He added that every Ukrainian had someone in the National Memory Book of victims.

“We remember the stories of those who managed to survive these horrors, truly vivid memories,” he said. “How you can be shot for a hidden bowl of grain or flour. How a large family shares a loaf of bread for a week.

How it is a soup from two rotten potatoes to eat the whole day. How in the morning there is no strength to even live and open your eyes. How it is hard to fall asleep at night because you just want to eat. How exhausted people fall dead on the road.”

Today, with soldiers huddled in freezing trenches, nationwide missile attacks on critical infrastructure, daily shelling tearing apart towns and cities stretching across a 600-mile front line and millions struggling to stay warm, Ukrainian officials sought to use the shared suffering of the past to inspire endurance today — including for those now living under Russian occupation.

A funeral in Kyiv on Saturday for a Ukrainian soldier who was killed in action fighting in eastern Ukraine. Credit: Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

Petro Andriushchenko, an exiled adviser to the mayor of the occupied city of Mariupol, said that Russian forces destroyed the monument honoring the victims of the Holodomor even as hundreds of people now had to resort to lining up for bread.

“As in the past century, the Russians continue to destroy Ukrainians and destroy them with hunger,” he said.

Amid the hardship, there were glimmers of recovery. For the first time since Russian soldiers blew up much of the infrastructure in the southern Kherson region as they departed two weeks ago, the authorities said on Saturday that the electricity supply had been restored.

That still left more than six million households without power after another deadly barrage of Russian airstrikes this past week that further damaged an already battered national grid. That was down from 12 million on Wednesday evening, the day of the strikes, Mr. Zelensky said.

Ukraine has struggled to restore power, as weeks of Russian strikes have degraded its infrastructure, making repairs progressively harder as the destruction piled up. The waves of Russian assaults have left about 40 percent of Ukraine’s critical energy infrastructure damaged or destroyed, officials say — with some sites hit at least five or six times.

The national energy utility, Ukrenergo, said on Saturday that the grid could now meet 75 percent of the country’s consumption needs. In a statement posted on Facebook, it urged Ukrainians to continue conserving energy.

Repairing a transformer this month at an electrical substation damaged by a Russian missile strike in central Ukraine. Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s energy grid are taking a growing toll on the nation. Credit: Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

But one could sense tensions rising in the capital, which has been particularly hard hit by the latest wave of blackouts.

Mr. Zelensky has championed a national drive to create “Points of Invincibility,” thousands of makeshift centers that would provide basic services — electricity, internet access, heat, water and more — in the event of prolonged blackouts. But on Saturday he expressed some frustration over the pace of getting the sites up and running.

He singled out the capital and its mayor, Vitali Klitschko, in particular, though he did not mention him by name, saying that some of the sites “still need to be improved, to put it mildly.”

“Kyiv residents need more protection,” he said in his nightly address. “I expect quality work from the mayor’s office.” He added, “Please be more serious.” Mr. Klitschko did not immediately respond.

© 2022 The New York Times Company


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