World News

85 Years Later, Ukraine Marks Famine That Killed Millions

Posted November 24, 2018 5:37 p.m. EST

KIEV, Ukraine — His frail hand covering his heart, Mykhailo Matvienko, 92, peered at the yellow flame of a candle on his kitchen table Saturday and recounted his childhood during the Great Famine.

A searing event seen as one of the great atrocities of 20th-century Europe, the Ukrainian famine of 1933 killed more than 3 million people, by most estimates, and has become a touchstone in post-Soviet Ukrainian society.

“It is very important to remember the famine,” Matvienko said. He lit his first candle in the morning, and kept them burning through the day.

On Saturday, Ukrainians lit candles on their tables or windowsills to commemorate the famine, called the Holodomor, which means death by hunger in Ukrainian. The atrocity is marked annually on the fourth Saturday of November.

But every year, fewer survivors remain alive to offer their firsthand accounts of the famine, a brutal narrative that for many Ukrainians helps make the case against Russian influence in the country today.

Ukrainian historians argue that the famine was a genocide orchestrated by Josef Stalin, then head of the Soviet Union, to crush Ukrainian aspirations for independence. While the famine of 1932 and 1933 brought on by the forced collectivization of farms undeniably affected other parts of the Soviet Union, in Ukraine, entire villages were cut off and their inhabitants left to starve.

The famine began in Kazakhstan and southern Russia but hit Ukraine hardest.

“The specific policies implemented in Ukraine were known to be lethal,” Timothy Snyder, a Yale historian and the author of a book about the period, “Bloodlands,” said in an interview. “Soviet documents make it clear that Ukrainians were to be blamed for the disaster of collectivization and that death was to be deliberately concentrated in Ukraine.”

The Soviet Union exported grain from Ukraine even as its inhabitants starved. Estimates by Western historians put the death toll between 3.3 million and 3.9 million Ukrainians, Snyder said.

Russia, which has formally designated Ukraine an area within its zone of “privileged interest,” has pushed back against this interpretation. On Saturday, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying the famine in the Soviet Union, “touched many people living on the territory of the young state.”

“It became the common tragedy of the Russians, the Ukrainians, the Kazakhs and other nationalities,” the statement read.

In Ukraine on Saturday, survivors were honored guests at memorial events. But many are now too frail to attend.

Matvienko, the youngest of seven children, was just 6 when the famine began in the winter of 1932. The crops harvested in his village were taken, and those who sought to stockpile food were shot, he recalled. Soon, the dogs, cats and rats vanished, too.

“The village was scary, everything was dead,” he said. “No dogs or roosters were heard. People ate everything: dogs, cats, rats. Frogs were delicacies in spring.” Matvienko’s stomach swelled from hunger, he remembered.

People died on the streets and their bodies were left unburied, he said. His father was arrested and killed but the remainder of the family managed to survive.

“It’s a miracle,” he said.

At the formal commemoration Saturday, a solemn ceremony at the Museum of the Holodomor, Ukrainian politicians lit votive candles in memory of the lives lost.

“Our moral duty is to write every innocent name in the history book of memory, because it is absolutely necessary and a warning to humanity from repeating such crimes,” President Petro Poroshenko said during the ceremony.

Since 2006, when Ukraine adopted a law designating the famine a genocide, 18 countries and 21 U.S. states have followed suit. The State Department on Friday issued a statement calling the events a “catastrophic man-made famine” and “one of the most atrocious acts of the 20th century and a brutal reminder of the crimes of communism.”