New York Times | 15Mar2009 | Richard J. Levy

A New View of a Famine That Killed Millions

KIEV, Ukraine -- A quarter century ago, a Ukrainian historian named Stanislav Kulchytsky was told by his Soviet overlords to concoct an insidious cover-up. His orders: to depict the famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in the early 1930s as unavoidable, like a natural disaster. Absolve the Communist Party of blame. Uphold the legacy of Stalin.

Professor Kulchytsky, though, would not go along.

The other day, as he stood before a new memorial to the victims of the famine, he recalled his decision as one turning point in a movement lasting decades to unearth the truth about that period. And the memorial itself, shaped like a towering candle with a golden eternal flame, seemed to him in some sense a culmination of this effort.

“It is a sign of our respect for the past,” Professor Kulchytsky said. “Because everyone was silent about the famine for many years. And when it became possible to talk about it, nothing was said. Three generations on.”

The concrete memorial was dedicated last November, the 75th anniversary of the famine, in a park in Kiev, on a hillside overlooking the Dnieper River in the shadow of the onion domes of a revered Orthodox Christian monastery. More than 100 feet tall, the memorial will eventually house a small museum that will offer testimony from survivors, as well as information about the Ukrainian villages that suffered.

In the Soviet Union, the authorities all but banned discussion of the famine, but by the 1980s the United States and other countries were pressing their own inquiries, often at the urging of Ukrainian immigrants.

In response, Communist officials embarked on a propaganda drive to play down the famine and show that the deaths were caused by unforeseen food shortages or drought. Professor Kulchytsky said he had been given the task of gathering research but concluded that the famine had been man-made.

“I became convinced that everything was not as I once thought,” he said.

He refused to falsify his findings and instead released them publicly, escaping punishment only because glasnost had begun under the Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

The famine is known in Ukrainian as the Holodomor -- literally, death or killing by starvation -- and the campaign to give it recognition has played a significant role in the Ukrainian quest to shape a national identity in the post-Soviet era. It has also further strained relations with the Kremlin, another of the festering disputes left by the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The pro-Western government in Kiev, which came to power after the Orange Revolution of 2004, calls the famine a genocide that Stalin ordered because he wanted to decimate the Ukrainian citizenry and snuff out aspirations for independence from Moscow.

The archives make plain that no other conclusion is possible, said Professor Kulchytsky, who is deputy director of the Institute of Ukrainian History in Kiev.

Professor Kulchytsky is 72, though he looks younger, as if he has somehow withstood the draining effect of so much research into the horrors of that time.

“It is difficult to bear,” he acknowledged. “The documents about cannibalism are especially difficult to read.”

Professor Kulchytsky said it was undeniable that people all over the Soviet Union died from hunger in 1932 and 1933 as the Communists waged war on the peasantry to create farming collectives. But he contended that in Ukraine the authorities went much further, essentially quarantining and starving many villages.

“If in other regions, people were hungry and died from famine, then here people were killed by hunger,” Professor Kulchytsky said. “That is the absolute difference.”

In recent years, Ukraine’s president, Viktor A. Yushchenko, has regularly spoken out about the famine, and has even sought to make denying it a crime. Ukraine has asked other countries to recognize the famine as genocide and to establish memorials. One is being built in Washington.

In Kiev, the memorial has started to become a pilgrimage site.

“Of course, it is needed,” said Hrigory Mikhailenko, 75, a construction executive from central Ukraine who stopped by during a business trip. “So many people died. Four members of my family. It’s very important to note what happened. That is why Russia is pressuring us.”

Russia has spurned the memorial. Instead of attending its dedication, Russia’s president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, sent a letter to Mr. Yushchenko accusing him of using the famine to discredit Russia.

“We do not condone the repression carried out by the Stalinist regime against the entire Soviet people,” Mr. Medvedev wrote. “But to say that it was aimed at the destruction of Ukrainians means going against the facts and trying to give a nationalist subtext to a common tragedy.”

Last month, Russian historians and archivists sought to bolster the Kremlin’s case, issuing a DVD and a book of historical documents that they said demonstrated that the famine was not directed at Ukraine. Many of the documents were translated into English, underscoring how the two countries are waging their fight on an international stage.

Professor Kulchytsky said the Kremlin feared that if it conceded the truth, Russia, considered the successor to the Soviet Union, could face claims for reparations. Still, he said he would not ignore misstatements by the Ukrainian side, either.

For example, President Yushchenko has said that as many as 10 million Ukrainians died, while Professor Kulchytsky believes that the figure is 3.5 million.

Nor is the professor enamored with the design of the memorial, saying that he would have preferred some of the other proposals. But he said there was no doubt that the country had to be reminded of its history.

“I know many people, including famous people -- smart, intellectual people -- whose relatives, grandparents, died in the famine, and they speak out harshly against focusing on Holodomor,” Professor Kulchytsky said. “They consider it not a part of the present. But how can we be quiet about what occurred? Our people were the victims of a great crime.”

A version of this article appeared in print on March 16, 2009, on page A11 of the New York edition.