Houston Chronicle | 28Dec2008 | Bill Murphy

Working to shine a light on a dark period for Ukrainians
Efforts under way to mark man-made famine that left up to 7 million dead

Many Americans have never heard of the holodomor — the estimated 7 million people who starved to death in the Ukraine when Joseph Stalin turned farms into collectives in the early 1930s.

Even while the famine was ravaging parts of the Ukraine, few in the West knew of it. Journalists such as Walter Duranty of the New York Times, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Soviet Union in 1932, reported there was no evidence of starvation or an artificially created famine, which was the position of the Soviet government.

In Russia, the holodomor, viewed as genocide by many Ukrainians, gets scant or no mention today in some high school history books.

Local Ukrainian-Americans, along with others of Ukrainian heritage worldwide, are rankled that so few know of the mass deaths. During this year, the 75th anniversary of the holodomor, they are holding vigils and working to raise awareness of what happened in the Ukraine in 1932 and 1933.

"The Ukrainian farmers grew the food, but they were not allowed to eat it," said Larisa Scates, chairwoman of the famine committee at the Ukrainian-American Cultural Club of Houston. "The Soviet government never acknowledged that it was happening. They hid it. The deaths need to be commemorated. Lessons need to be learned, or we're bound to repeat the past."

A vigil was held outside City Hall last month to mark the holodomor, which means "death by hunger." Ukrainian-Americans persuaded the Houston Public Library to put up displays on the tragedy at one of its downtown buildings. One of the displays includes copies of paintings by Houston artist Lydia Bodnar-Balahutrak that were inspired by the deaths.

Settled in north Houston

Unlike Chicago and New York City, Houston does not have a large Ukrainian-American population. About 4,000 Ukrainian-Americans live in Harris County. Most didn't come to Houston until after World War II, when Ukrainians displaced by the war began to arrive, said Martha Noukas, president of the local branch of the Ukrainian National Women's League of America. Her parents were among those who came over after World War II.

Many of the newly arrived families, Noukas said, settled near the Protection of the Mother of God Ukrainian Catholic Church, near Airline Drive and Gulf Bank Road in north Houston.

Growing up in Houston, Noukas said she heard bits and pieces about the holodomor from other Ukrainian-Americans.

But it took historians to provide a more comprehensive account of what happened in Ukraine, which was part of the Soviet Union until 1991.

Ukrainian farmers, known for their independence, resisted Soviet collectivization of their farms, Robert Conquest and other historians have written in books on the collectivization process.

The Soviets imposed ever-higher quotas for grain exports on the Ukrainians, hoping to feed workers needed to industrialize the Soviet Union. Grain also was sold abroad to raise money for industrialization efforts.

The quotas were raised so high that no food was left for the peasants growing the grain, according to historians.

"It was an artificial famine," Scates said. " The communists took all the food. Canada has recognized that it was a genocide. The Russian government has never apologized or acknowledged that it happened."

Other victims

Ewa Thompson, a Slavic studies research professor at Rice University, said some Russians, Polish citizens and others died because of the famine.

But these deaths do not support the idea, cited by some Russians, that the famine wasn't aimed at the Ukrainians, Thompson said.

The evidence indicates, she said, the Soviet Union imposed high grain export quotas as a way of undermining any impulses the Ukrainian people might have toward seeking independence.

"Russians don't acknowledge any genocide that they attempted on other nations," she said.

Vladimir Putin, the second president and current prime minister of Russia, has tried to prevent Russian high schools from using history textbooks that dwell on dubious events in Russian and Soviet history, according to a recent New Republic article by Leon Aron, director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank.

"As to some problematic pages in our history — yes, we've had them," Putin is quoted in the New Republic article. "But what state hasn't? And we've had fewer of such pages than some other (states). And ours were not as horrible as those of some others. ... Other countries have had no less, and even more.

"In any case, we did not pour chemicals over thousands of kilometers or drop on a small country seven times more bombs than during the entire World War II, as it was in Vietnam, for instance."

One artist's efforts

Thompson said Russia and the Soviet Union have a long history of whitewashing past events. She understands why Ukrainians are trying to increase awareness of the holodomor.

"Nations build their memories on remembrances of victories but also on remembrances of defeats," she said. "For Ukrainians, they can look into the future towards a time when events like this won't happen."

Artist Bodnar-Balahutrak is among local Ukrainians memorializing the event. After traveling to the Ukraine in the early 1990s, she worked on a series of dark-themed paintings about the holodomor.

Some were overtly political, such as A Despot's Commandments, which depicts Stalin, and Stalin's Victims Return, which shows three hooded figures above the bones of famine victims.

"These horrible, horrific events precipitated by Stalin should be known. They need to be acknowledged, and maybe the past won't be repeated," Bodnar-Balahutrak said.

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