The Holodomor, or famine, is for most Ukrainians the defining dark chapter of their history. Millions died of starvation in Ukraine in 1932-33 as Soviet commissars seized Ukrainian grain to ship further east to feed the swelling industrial ranks. Ukrainians say it was a coordinated policy to rub out the Ukrainian nation. Russians reject any program to wipe out the Ukrainians. But now a court in Kiev has judged the famine was an act of genocide and President Viktor Yushchenko has hailed the ruling as a "landmark that restores historical justice."
The court case followed an 8-month investigation by the Ukrainian security service that produced more than 300 volumes of evidence including testimonies by survivors and witnesses, and recently declassified materials.
The Kiev court ruling comes four years after the Ukrainian parliament voted in favor of a resolution calling the famine an act of genocide.
Nineteen other countries have done so as well.
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The Kiev court ruling does not contain any claims against Russia as the legal successor of the Soviet Union, though legal experts say the case could result in international organizations officially recognizing the Holodomor as genocide.
Overlooked by most media accounts of this story was Yushchenko's other announcement Thursday. According to his press service, Yushchenko also called for the creation of an international tribunal for Communist crimes.
The presidential press service reported that he asked leaders of Eastern Europe countries hurt by Communist regimes (Russia, Poland, Georgia, the Baltic States and others) to sign an international agreement on the creation of such a tribunal outlining the principles of its creation and activities, and charter, the Ukrainian presidential press service reported on Thursday.
Meanwhile, in Moscow the reaction was far from celebratory.
The decision is “part of a plan aimed at initiating a row with Russia,” said the Speaker of Russia’s State Duma, Boris Gryzlov. Gryzlov, one of the leaders of the ruling United Russia party, believes that such a plan has been on the roll for several years now.
Russians eagerly point to a decision by the Council fo Europe last December, erasing the word 'genocide' from a Ukranian report on those tragic years.
It is not news that the mass famine was the result of “criminal actions of the state’s leadership,” the Head of the State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Konstantin Kosachev told Interfax news agency.
There is no need to artificially separate Ukraine from the rest of the former USSR, he added.
Kosachev said Russia would give its official response to the 'famine' debate on January 25 when it will unveil its own study into the famine in the USSR in the 1930s.
Kosachev, who also heads the Russian delegation to the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly (PACE), said that document “will become a far more significant and important event” in the discussion of the famine issue.
Two years ago, on October 23, 2008 the European Parliament did adopt a resolution that recognized the Holodomor as a crime against humanity.
But getting organizations to take that next step and recognize the famine as genocide has been tough for Ukraine, with Russia usually working in the shadows to foil such attempts.
Like in 2008 when Moscow threw a diplomatic wrench into Kiev's hopes to have the UN General Assembly debate the 1930s famine.
Five years earlier in 2003, the UN did agree the famine was the result of cruel actions and policies of the totalitarian regime that caused the deaths of millions of Ukrainians, Russians, Kazakhs and other nationalities in the USSR.
Historians of all stripes agree Ukrainians suffered horribly under the Soviet collectivization drives of the 1930s.
However, many stop short of labelling those events a 'genocide.'
In his eloquent, and exhaustive account of the famine, Robert Conquest ( the book is highlighted higher up) had this to say:
Fifty years ago as I write these words, the Ukraine and the Ukrainian, Cossack and other areas to its east -- a great stretch of territory with some forty million inhabitants -- was like one vast Belsen. A quarter of the rural population, men women and children, lay dead and dying, the rest in various stages of debilitation with no strength to bury their families or neighbors. At the same time (as at Belsen), well-fed squads of police or party officials supervised the victims.
This was the climax of the "revolution from above," as Stalin put it, in which he and his associates crushed two elements seen as irremediably hostile to the regime: the peasantry of the USSR as a whole, and the Ukrainian nation.