Edmonton Journal | 22Jan2008 | Will Zuzak

Independence Day holds bittersweet meanings for Ukrainians

Ever since I was a child, our family always celebrated Jan. 22, 1918, as Ukrainian Independence Day. That was the day the Ukrainian government, under Simon Petliura, declared independence from the collapsing Tsarist Russian Empire.

Unfortunately, Ukraine was soon conquered by the Bolshevik Red Army and incorporated into the Soviet Union, and Petliura was assassinated in 1926.

It was not until 1991 that Ukraine regained its independence -- hopefully, for good.

However, from secret documents declassified in Ukraine recently, we learn that this anniversary date carries a more sinister significance for the Holodomor -- the Ukrainian famine-genocide of 1932-33. On Jan. 22, 1933, Josef Stalin issued his infamous decree to seal the borders of Ukraine to prevent starving peasants from entering Belarus or Russia in search of food -- thus ensuring the deaths by starvation of some 10 million people.

Since the summer of 1932, Communist functionaries in Ukraine warned Stalin of the developing famine conditions and pleaded with him to lower the grain procurement quotas and even to send food relief to stricken areas. Stalin's response was to accuse the Communist Party of Ukraine of being infiltrated by Petliurites and bourgeois nationalists, to purge its leadership and to send in hardliners such as Viacheslav Molotov, Lazar Kaganovich and Vsevolod Balitsky to enforce the grain procurement decrees.

Reports by Balitsky and OGPU chief Genrikh Yagoda informed Stalin of a massive exodus of peasants from Ukraine since December 1932.

Within six weeks of Stalin's decree, 220,000 persons had been arrested, of which 187,000 were sent back to their villages to starve, while the rest were either sent to the Gulag or shot.

One wonders if Stalin and his entourage took particular satisfaction in destroying the Ukrainian nation exactly 15 years after its initial declaration of independence? So in 2008, should Ukrainians celebrate or mourn today's anniversary?

Will Zuzak, Edmonton