How to Explain What’s Happening in Ukraine

The conflict that we are seeing today stems from a deadly famine that Stalin engineered back in 1932.

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Marko Djurica / Reuters

A Pro-European integration protester waves a Ukrainian national flag as she stands on a statue during a mass rally at Independence Square in Kiev, Dec. 15, 2013.

In Ukraine, the nationalistic West is Ukrainian-speaking and welcomes the E.U., while the Russian-speaking East, where current President Victor Yanukovcyh rose to power, sees the Kremlin as an indispensable ally and wants to remain outside the E.U. This has given rise to massive demonstrations vowing to overthrow the government, police brutality, and the President’s urgent meetings with the Kremlin. A civil war or an official breakup of the country is a very real possibility. To better understand the origins of this conflict, one must realize that this divide is not natural but rather stems from murderous work by Joseph Stalin and one of the largest Western media cover-ups in history.

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East Ukraine was once as nationalistic and Ukrainian-speaking as Western Ukraine is today. The dramatic transformation of the area was a result of ethnic cleansing. In 1932 a famine engineered by Stalin killed up to an estimated 10 million people, mostly in East Ukraine. Beginning in 1933, the Soviets replaced them with millions of deported Russians. Western Ukraine was then part of Poland and spared. Raphael Lemkin, who first coined the word genocide, used the Ukrainian famine as an example.

Despite scholarly evidence and public protests, Yanukovych toes the Kremlin line that the famine was not genocide. Coincidentally, this year marks the 80th anniversary of the famine, known as the Holodomor — Ukrainian for “death by hunger.” The toppling and beheading of the statue of Lenin in Kiev was more than sending a message to Putin; it was an act of retribution for Soviet atrocities. Ukraine suffered far worse under Stalin than Russia, according to Timothy Snyder, professor of history at Yale University and author of Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin.

Stalin engineered the famine to rid himself of a stubborn enemy. Ukrainians had fought for their independence during the Russian Revolution, and for a short time, they had beaten back the Reds. What’s more, Ukraine, being the “bread basket of Europe,” had a rich and ancient culture of farmers, who wanted to hold on to their language, their land and their identity. As a civilization, Ukraine is a thousand years older than Moscow. For Stalin, as for Putin today, this would be a very hard back to break.

Beginning in 1932, Stalin sent in soldiers from Russia to seize the agriculture industry in Ukraine. Impossible production quotas were set, and the overzealous soldiers made sure every single ounce of grain went to meeting those quotas. Homes were searched, soldiers used spikes to stab the earth looking for buried grain, kulaks — rich landowning farmers — were rounded up and deported to Siberia, and the poorer, less established farmers who stayed behind were forced to join the newly built collective farms.

The Orwellian tactics accelerated. Soviet soldiers destroyed cooking utensils, ovens and killed pets — anything that could provide nourishment. With the borders of Ukraine sealed by the military, starving Ukrainians, wandering blind and delirious from hunger, were trapped to die a slow, excruciating death.

In Moscow, Western journalists knew what was going on. Lucky refugees, who had managed to escape, fled to the city to beg for food, to trade wedding rings for bread. “They gathered faster than the police could clear them away,” wrote UPI reporter Eugene Lyons in his confessional memoir Assignment in Utopia. Meanwhile, the West continued to believe that the Soviet Union was the workers’ paradise. Leading intellectuals, most notably George Bernard Shaw, willfully ignorant, flocked to Moscow and declared the Soviet Union a utopia. As Lyons wrote, “Every correspondent, each in his own measure, was guilty of collaborating in this monstrous hoax on the world.”

A naive 27-year-old Welsh journalist named Gareth Jones entered Ukraine, where he witnessed the ravaged countryside and interviewed survivors. His eyewitness account shocked the world. Much like the Kremlin controls the media in Moscow today, it pressured American and British journalists to publish articles condemning Jones as a liar. “There is no actual starvation or deaths from starvation but there is widespread mortality from diseases due to malnutrition,” Walter Duranty wrote in the New York Times. Ever a social ringmaster, Duranty lived in a luxurious apartment inside the Kremlin, was beloved internationally as “Our Man in Moscow” and had just won the Pulitzer Prize. Who would the world believe? Jones was silenced, and two years later was murdered, research suggests, by the KGB.

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For Ukrainians, E.U. membership means more than economic opportunities and mobility. It is about distancing themselves from Putin, who is said to revere Stalin, the very dictator who tried to erase Ukraine and managed to partition it, at least politically. If that weren’t enough, just this past week, Putin tightened his control of the press by shutting down Russia’s leading news agency, RIA Novosti. This is just another chilling reminder of the Holodomor to the Ukrainian people and a reason they continue to protest in arctic temperatures to get away from his grasp.

Chalupa is a Brooklyn, New York–based writer and columnist for Big Think. She studied at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and is the author of Orwell and The Refugees: The Untold Story of Animal Farm. She is helping build Uncoverage, a crowd-funding platform for investigative journalists launching in January in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity. The views expressed are solely her own. You can follow her on Twitter @andreachalupa.