1930s Famine Still Mars Russia-Ukraine Relations

Russia and its neighbor Ukraine have had a longstanding dispute over Russian natural gas deliveries. Now they're engaged in a war of words over a famine that happened more than 75 years ago — an event that one historian has called "Josef Stalin's original sin."

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Vice President Biden is in Ukraine today, and he will pay respects at a memorial to what Ukrainians call Holodomor, or death by starvation. That was the famine of 1932 and 1933 that hit Ukraine as well as parts of Russia and Kazakhstan. There had been other famines in the Soviet Union, but this one was different. One historian calls it Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's original sin. Brigid McCarthy reports.

BRIGID MCCARTHY: It started with Stalin's forced collectivization of agriculture in the late 1920s. Millions of peasants, especially in Ukraine, responded to the confiscation of their land and livestock by refusing to work on the new, state-run farms. Grain production fell and by 1932, Soviet cities were running out of food. Stalin was furious, so he sent special detachments into the villages to seize whatever food they could find.

Petro Matulla(ph) lived in a village about 75 miles south of Kiev. He was only 4 years old at the time.

Mr. PETRO MATULLA: But I do remember when they came to search for our food.

MCCARTHY: He says the Soviets did this for a simple reason.

Mr. MATULLA: So you wouldn't eat. So you'd die.

MCCARTHY: His family managed to survive on a sack of grain his grandfather hid under their barn. But many other families in his village slowly starved to death. Petro Matulla says his mother was haunted by one image.

Mr. MATULLA: A dead mother was laying on the street, and the baby was sucking on her breast.

MCCARTHY: Other survivors and eyewitnesses describe villages where virtually everyone died of starvation. During the famine, Soviet policies enabled the government to feed cities and factory workers, and export more than a million tons of grain to the West.

No one knows how many people in the countryside died, but the latest research suggests 6 or 7 million. That's seven times as many as perished during the political arrests of Stalin's great terror a few years later.

Andrea Graziosi, a historian at the University of Naples, says Stalin didn't just take food away from the villages. In Ukraine, he also blockaded the cities so peasants couldn't escape from the famine zones.

Professor ANDREA GRAZIOSI (Historian, University of Naples): In 1933, they tried, but they were shipped back to their villages to die.

MCCARTHY: Professor Graziosi says the Soviets were using hunger to teach the peasants a lesson.

Prof. GRAZIOSI: At the end of '33, they spoke of victory. The famine completely tamed the peasants.

MCCARTHY: Historians say after that, Stalin could do almost anything. The Soviet government never acknowledged the famine. But with the collapse of the USSR, Russian and Ukrainian scholars have been unearthing a flood of new information.

Now, Ukraine is an independent country, and the famine has become a major political issue. Ukrainian nationalists, including President Viktor Yushchenko, call the Holodomor a genocide, and they're waging a campaign to get other countries to do the same. Nineteen nations have agreed. So has a special commission set up by the U.S. Congress. But the U.S. government has not.

The Russian government says the famine was a shared tragedy that affected many parts of the Soviet Union, not just Ukraine. Moscow also accuses President Yushchenko of using the issue to poison Russia's relations with the West.

John-Paul Himka, a historian from the University of Alberta, thinks the political debate draws attention away from more important moral questions.

Professor JOHN-PAUL HIMKA (Historian, University of Alberta): How is it that a young man or a young woman gets fired to serve the fatherland and to serve the cause of socialism and justice and equality, and ends up taking food away from a starving family?

MCCARTHY: Oha Matulla(ph), a famine survivor who lives in the U.S., is just grateful this issue is finally getting attention.

Ms. OHA MATULLA: For us, it fulfills our goal in life because we cannot forget our past.

MCCARTHY: And when long-suppressed crimes are acknowledged, she says, it brings a measure of healing.

For NPR News, I'm Brigid McCarthy.

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