Guardian | 18Nov2009 | James Marson

Ukraine's forgotten famine
A political row over Russia's refusal to recognise the Holodomor is obscuring the horror of a famine in which millions died

Around a well-stocked Ukrainian dinner table one evening recently, I watched in surprise as a friend's grandmother carefully swept together the breadcrumbs on the table in front of her, then ate them from the palm of her hand.

"She knows the value of food," my friend explained. "She lived through the Holodomor."

The Holodomor, or "death by hunger", was unleashed on the country in 1932-33 as part of Stalin's drive to collectivise farming across the Soviet Union. Forced grain seizures left millions dead, and Ukraine, with its fertile black earth, was worst hit. Ukraine's suffering was intensified by the simultaneous attempt to crush Ukrainian nationalism, seen as a threat to the Soviet project and the integrity of the Soviet Union. Pavel Postyshev, who became known as "the hangman of Ukraine", was sent by Stalin in 1933 to step up seizures, but also to hunt down "nationalist counter-revolutionaries" and throttle Ukrainian culture.

Seventy-six years on, the "forgotten famine" still remains little known in the west, despite the particularly assiduous, and continuing, efforts of the Ukrainian diaspora. Knowledge of the Holodomor at the time was tainted by the accounts of Walter Duranty, New York Times reporter and Stalin sympathiser. From the comfort of Moscow, he wrote that "any report of a famine is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda".

But two journalists -- Gareth Jones and Malcolm Muggeridge -- overcame travel restrictions and wrote of the suffering and death they saw first hand. A documentary about Jones was aired last week, and his diaries are currently on display at the University of Cambridge.

In the Soviet Union, the story of the Holodomor was hushed up, with the famine blamed on drought. The silence that surrounded it for decades left the wound festering, before Ukraine's independence brought new life to the issue. The country's first post-Soviet president, Leonid Kravchuk, called the first commemoration ceremony in 1993, and his successor, Leonid Kuchma, called for governments worldwide to recognise it as genocide in 2003.

The current Ukrainian president, Viktor Yushchenko, has invested much effort in rethinking Soviet interpretations of the nation's history. It is unfortunate that his political failures have limited the impact of these attempts, which have been largely well received. When a large new memorial was opened last year, thousands of Ukrainians from across the country flocked to see it.

Modern Russia, on the other hand, has not made any attempt to come to terms with the famine, as with many other aspects of Stalin's legacy.

Russian politicians and talking heads argue that it was not genocide, as millions died across the Soviet Union, ignoring the evidence that the famine was purposefully intensified in Ukraine. Revealingly, Russia does not commemorate those deaths. Russian president Dmitry Medvedev refused Yushchenko's invitation to the 75th anniversary ceremony in Kiev last year with a coarse dismissal of "the so-called Holodomor". Russian dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, widely lauded on his death last year for his stance against Soviet gulags, echoed his president, calling it "a loopy fable", dreamed up to tear Ukraine away from Russia's bosom. The Holodomor has thus come full circle, and become a part of Russia's attempt to keep Ukraine within its sphere of influence.

This modern political debate in many ways obscures the horror of what happened. Perhaps the current focus on Jones's story will bring the narrative away from the political, and back to the human aspect, to which his work gives such a direct and eloquent voice.