Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/11/2010 (3377 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Seventy-seven years ago and half a world way, tens of thousands of people were dying daily from an artificial famine created and executed by a foreign government in a country famed for its agricultural plenty. And readers of the Winnipeg Free Press knew all about it.
The land was Ukraine. And Winnipeg, home to a large community of Ukrainian immigrants, became a battleground between the people who were desperately trying to let the world know what Stalin was doing to their old country and the local communists who dismissed the reports of forced starvation as propaganda.
That battle was waged in public meetings and church halls and did not go unnoticed by this newspaper, which in 1933 carried at least four reports on what has come to be known as the 1932-33 Holodomor genocide.
Stalin's campaign of forced collectivization began five years earlier and 1932-33 were the final nail-in-the-coffin years that culminated more than a decade of genocidal Bolshevik policies towards Ukrainians.
Raphael Lemkin, the father of the UN's Genocide Convention, later described the Soviet genocide of Ukrainians that spanned more than one decade. First they killed the "national brain" — the intelligentsia. Next they went after the "soul" by destroying churches and killing priests. Only then did they go after the body — the "large mass of independent peasants" through artificial famine.
So by the time 1933 came around, Ukrainians in Winnipeg knew what was happening in the land they left behind and harboured no illusions about Stalin. They knew the truth through letters, first-hand accounts from people who'd travelled to Ukraine and Canadian newspapers, such as The Globe in Toronto and Winnipeg Free Press.
On May 8, 1933, Winnipeg Free Press readers learned about Hunger in the Ukraine — the headline of a dispatch reprinted from the Manchester Guardian Weekly. That paper's reporter, Malcolm Muggeridge, travelled through Ukraine and the North Caucasus, an area settled by Ukrainians, without official permission to see if the rumours of famine were true.
"The grain collection has been carried out with such thoroughness and brutality that the peasants are now quite without bread. Thousands of them have been exiled; in certain cases whole villages have been sent to the north for forced labour; even now it is a common sight to see parties of wretched men and women labeled kulaks being marched away under an armed guard. The fields are neglected and full of weeds; no cattle are to be seen anywhere, and few horses; only the military and the G.P.U. (secret police) are well-fed, the rest of the population obviously starving, obviously terrorized," Free Press readers learned 77 years ago.
In September 1933, Ukrainians in Winnipeg held memorial services for the victims of what they claimed was "a determined, planned annihilation of the Ukrainian peasants."
Covering both sides of the story, the Winnipeg Free Press reported local communists as saying: "Only the idle and rich are starving in Russia" and those claiming there is "starvation in the Ukraine" are "lying."
In subsequent reports the Free Press did not quote the communists. Articles headlined Grim conditions in Ukraine are cause of worry (Sept. 27, 1933) and Soviet Methods are denounced by Ukraine Speaker: Prof. V. P. Timoshenko says peasants endure enslavement worse than in czarist rule (Dec. 25, 1933) continued to inform readers.
But this "information war" was won by the communists and their apologists, including Pulitzer Prize winner Walter Duranty, who denied the famine was occurring while Moscow bureau chief for the New York Times. Muggeridge called Duranty a liar.
Despite the community's efforts, the truth was buried and suppressed for decades until the Soviet Union fell apart. But once the truth was out, denying genocide was no longer possible. Ukraine's first president, Leonid Kravchuk was the first to officially call the Holodomor genocide in the early 1990s. A decade earlier, he was spearheading a denial campaign as the chief communist party ideologue.
Ukraine's church hierarchs across all denominations, including Metropolitan Volodymyr of the so-called Moscow Patriarchate Orthodox Church, whose family members perished in the Holodomor, have been unequivocal in their assessment: it was genocide. All of Ukraine's past parliaments and presidents agreed and campaign for international recognition.
Except for the current president, Victor Yanukovych. After winning the presidency earlier this year, he made a point of demonstrably breaking his own country's law and publicly denying that the Holodomor was genocide of the Ukrainian people. He dismissed workers of the state archives whose job was the declassification of Soviet secret police archives. He appointed an education minister who has made restoring Soviet historical narratives in textbooks a priority. And, perhaps most cynically, he appointed a communist to head the Institute of National Memory, a governmental body whose mandate was to help a traumatized people deal with 90 years of communist crimes.
During the election campaign, Yanukovych didn't promise any of these measures. Yet they emerged as priorities for him. Perhaps he wanted to please Russia's leaders, who are desperately afraid of Ukraine developing its own national identity. Perhaps he took these measures to thank the communists for their support in the elections. Perhaps it's because he comes from a part of the country that likes Stalin. Since Yanukovych became president, one statue to Stalin has been erected and plans for others have been announced.
Instead of building on everything that's already been done on this issue in Ukraine and encouraging Russia to come to terms with the genocide it claims happened there, too, he has trivialized the memories of millions of his fellow countrymen.
Yanukovych is either being cynically and purposefully deceitful or somebody else's "useful idiot" when it comes to this tragic page in Ukraine's history.
As was the case with the Winnipeg communists who denied the Holodomor in 1933, only time will tell.
Stephen Bandera is a freelance journalist who has returned to Winnipeg after 12 years in Ukraine, where most recently he reported for the Kyiv Post.