Globe and Mail | 11Jun2008 | James Marson

Message to Moscow

The Canadian government's recent move to recognize Holodomor, the 1932-3 famine in Ukraine, as genocide needs to be taken out of the cynical context that some critics try to set it in. Whether or not it is a play to the Ukrainian diaspora, it is an important step in standing up to Russia's refusal to come to terms with Ukraine's autonomy as an independent state.

The destructive policy of collectivization was pursued throughout the Soviet Union from the end of the 1920s. The measure met with resistance from peasants, so the authorities decided to force them onto collective farms by starving them. Ukraine, the breadbasket of the Soviet Union, became a centre of resistance, and was hit particularly hard.

Teams were sent to farms to collect grain, regardless of whether the peasants had enough to feed themselves or to plant the next harvest. To make matters worse, peasants were forcibly prevented from moving to try to find food.

Estimates of the number of Ukrainians who died in Holodomor range from two million to 10 million. The figure is unclear as the authorities stopped counting deaths in many areas.

But Holodomor was not just about collectivization -- it took place against the background of a policy, carried out throughout the 1930s, aimed at defeating Ukrainian nationalism. Nationalism was declared "bourgeois" and a threat, and the authorities, determined to eradicate it, murdered swaths of the Ukrainian cultural elite and suppressed Ukrainian language, music and literature. The Soviet period as a whole, with the exception of the 1960s, was characterized by the attempted Russification of Ukrainian culture and politics.

In 2006, Ukraine's parliament recognized Holodomor as an act of genocide by the Soviet authorities against the Ukrainian people. On April 2, this year, the Russian State Duma passed a bill claiming "there is no historic evidence that the famine was organized on ethnic grounds." There is a continued refusal in Russia to accept the crimes of the Soviet period, and the belief in Russian superiority on which many of them were based.

"I drink to the health of the Soviet people, and primarily of the Russian people," Stalin said at a speech to army commanders at the end of the Second World War. "I drink primarily to the health of the Russian people because it is the most outstanding of all the nations of the Soviet Union." In the Soviet period, the famine was concealed, and when it came to light in the 1980s, it was explained as a natural disaster or blamed on rich peasants hiding grain. There is still no serious scholarly account of Holodomor in Russian.

The current political situation in Ukraine stems from the failure of the Stalinist policy to crush Ukrainian national identity and to Russify the country. Ukrainian culture remains alive and, crucially, independent from Moscow. A belief in Russia's uniqueness and greatness is central to many Russians' way of thinking, and the fact Ukraine is now starting to look to the West, and not the East, is a source of great humiliation. Unable to offer Ukrainians anything in the future, Russia hides in the past, remembering when it could impose its will on Ukraine as it saw fit.

This kind of nationalism is the lifeblood of contemporary Russia. Vladimir Putin's popularity is based on the notion that he has "made Russia great again." This self-image has no room for admitting the crimes against other nations, because this would be to respect their independence and sovereignty.

The belief in the superiority of Russia and its imperialistic right to interfere in Ukraine remains a key factor in Russian politics. At the recent NATO summit, Mr. Putin reportedly told the U.S. President: "Do you understand, George, that Ukraine is not a state?" Watching Russia's new President, Dmitry Medvedev, at the Victory Day rally in Red Square last month, a Ukrainian friend and I were struck by the irony of his words, criticizing those who sought to interfere in independent countries' affairs.

In recognizing Holodomor as genocide, Canada has sent a message to the new Russian President that his own words should be heeded.

James Marson is a Moscow-based writer and editor.