Ukraine remembers a famine under Stalin, and points to parallels with Putin Ukraine marked 90 years since a terrible famine that killed at least 4 million of its people. The event was especially poignant this year as Ukraine deals with its present crisis.

Ukraine remembers a famine under Stalin, and points to parallels with Putin

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This weekend, Ukraine marked 90 years since a terrible famine that killed at least 4 million people. It's blamed on Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. The event is commemorated every November, and it was especially poignant this year as Ukraine deals with its current crisis, which is blamed on the man now in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin. NPR's Greg Myre has the story from Kyiv.


GREG MYRE, BYLINE: At nightfall, bells rang at a centuries-old monastery. Ukrainians stepped outside into a cold mist to light candles in memory of the devastating famine of 1932, '33. They call it the Holodomor, which means death by hunger. At the museum dedicated to the famine, one visitor, Roman Vashchenko, spoke in somber tones of suffering old and new. He recalled stories his grandmother told him.

ROMAN VASHCHENKO: (Through interpreter) She was one of 10 children. They were not allowed to leave their village, so they didn't know what was happening elsewhere. But they had a cow. And that's why they survived, because they had milk.

MYRE: He also spoke of pain that's much more recent.

VASHCHENKO: (Through interpreter) In March, the Russians shot and killed my sister and her husband.

MYRE: Their sons, ages 12 and 6, survived.

Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union when Josef Stalin seized private farms and turned them into state-run operations. It was an absolute disaster in the fertile farming region known as the breadbasket of the Soviet Union. At least 4 million Ukrainians died within two years. Ukraine calls it a genocide, and nearly 20 other countries now agree, though not Russia. One country that shares Ukraine's position is Poland. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki visited Kyiv this weekend.


PRIME MINISTER MATEUSZ MORAWIECKI: If we allow Putin to continue, he will become the Stalin of the 21st century.

MYRE: Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, also made the link.


PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) We see what is happening today in the world, what is happening in Ukraine. They want to destroy us with bombs, bullets, cold and hunger again.

MYRE: Zelenskyy marked the anniversary by hosting an international conference Saturday on food security called Grain from Ukraine. Russia cut off Ukraine's abundant food exports during the early months of the war. They're now flowing, though at lower levels than normal.


ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) Do not just send Ukrainian foodstuffs to those countries that suffer the most from the food crisis. We affirm that never again should hunger be used as a weapon.

MYRE: At the Holodomor Museum, there are books as thick as encyclopedias filled with the names of those who died in the famine. Visitors page through them looking for relatives they never knew. Many say they heard firsthand accounts of the famine from relatives who survived - like this woman, Iryna Kopalova.

IRYNA KOPALOVA: (Through interpreter) People were trying to live by eating grass and roots. My great-grandfather was a miner, and they got 100 grams of bread every day. Because of this bread, they survived.

MYRE: This past spring, Kopalova says that as the fighting neared their village, her 6-year-old daughter understood that the Russians were the enemy.

KOPALOVA: (Through interpreter) When she heard the first explosions, she asked me, Mother, should I speak Russian now? But we just fled our home. We didn't wait for the Russians to arrive.

MYRE: The famine and today's war speak to a country that's endured so much hardship. It explains why the national anthem begins with the words Ukraine has not yet perished.

As I was about to leave the museum, Roman Vashchenko, the man who lost his sister and brother-in-law this spring, came over to tell me more about the couple's two orphaned children. Twelve-year-old Timothy has kept a journal during the war. When his parents were killed, he didn't believe it at first, hoping they might still be alive. Eventually, he accepted the loss, writing in his journal, dreams don't come true.

Greg Myre, NPR News, Kyiv.

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