As hundreds of thousands continue to occupy Kiev’s Maidan square, and protests rage across Ukraine, plenty of explanations have been offered for the unrest, which was triggered by the Ukrainian president’s considering a closer relationship with Russia. It’s about a clash of economic interests, some say, or the divide between the western and eastern halves of the country, the latter Russian-speaking and much more industrial. While those issues are important, Walter Zaryckyj, executive director for the Center for U.S.-Ukrainian Relations (CUSUR), argues that the mass protests have deeper roots: in Stalin’s great genocide by famine of the Ukrainian people in the 1930s and Ukraine’s collective memory of the atrocity.
Zaryckyj, who has been in consultation with experts in Eastern Europe, such as former Ukrainian parliament member and National Institute of Strategic Studies senior analyst Evhen Zherebetsky, as well as with people on the ground in the protests, such as the CUSUR’s own Marko Suprun, tells National Review Online that to understand the protests now one must look to what happened 80 years ago.
“There’s a conscious element of a memory of nation breaking. It isn’t just of famine. The Ukrainians have a lingering memory of a previous union with the Russians that nearly broke the back of their nation,” Zaryckyj tells me. “In fact, some may claim that it did break them.”
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Holodomor — a genocidal famine inflicted on the Ukrainian people by Stalin’s Soviet government, during which millions perished in the span of months and Ukraine’s intelligentsia and political, social, and religious elites were annihilated.
Remembering the outcome of their last alliance with Russia, Ukrainians have a natural aversion to any grand friendship between the two countries. “The Ukrainian nation understood what the last union with Russia had given them. If nothing else that memory is as powerful as the EU was as a pull — and the EU is a powerful pull,” Zaryckyj says. “So [the protesters] said no to any union with Russia. No to the customs union or any kind of union.”
Andrea Chalupa, a columnist for Big Think who studied at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute, recently echoed Zaryckyj’s sentiments in Time, saying that, for Ukrainians, joining with the EU “means more than economic opportunities and mobility. It is about distancing themselves from Putin, who is said to revere Stalin, the very dictator who tried to erase Ukraine and managed to partition it, at least politically.”
In this light, the tearing down of the Vladimir Lenin statue in the Maidan was more than a popular rejection of a Russian customs union — it was a message that Ukraine rejects Russia and its history of domination.
After the 2004 Orange revolution in Ukraine, which blocked the fraudulent election of Ukraine’s current, Russophile president, students began to be taught from Ukrainian-language books, not Soviet-era Russian books, and got a history that fully recognized the genocide. “Kids came to the conclusion that there is a Ukrainian history rather than the old Soviet history, which was really glorified Russian history,” Zaryckyj tells me. “When kids starting buying a common Ukrainian history and asking their grandparents and great grandparents who were still alive, the kids found out that, yes, the Holodomor really did happen.” Consciousness of this history, recently regained, contributes to the intensity of the anti-Russia protests, in Zaryckyj’s opinion.
Zaryckyj worries that Putin has ambitions beyond an economic partnership: He wants a military alliance between the two countries, pulling Ukraine further away from the West. “The big issue now is that the pressure of the West has to be there,” Zaryckyj says. “You’ve had crowds of a half a million in the first weekend and that second one near a million. When you have those kinds of crowds and President Obama doesn’t say something, that’s not good.”