Ukrainians remember suffering inflicted by Stalin, Putin 90 years apart

Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his wife Olena place candles and ears of wheat to a monument to Holodomor victims during a commemoration ceremony of the famine of 1932-33, in which millions died of hunger, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, Ukraine November 26, 2022.

KYIV, Ukraine – As Ukrainians lit candles and observed a moment of silence on Saturday to remember millions of their countrymen who died in a 1930s famine, European leaders gathered in the Ukrainian capital accused Moscow of using “hunger as a weapon of war against Ukraine.”

The prime ministers of Belgium, Poland and Lithuania, and the Hungarian president, met with Ukraine’s leader, Volodymyr Zelensky, for an “international summit on food security.” The gathering was brought about by Moscow’s continuing squeeze on Ukrainian grain exports, which has created food shortages across the globe. The German and French presidents and the head of the European Commission also spoke video, news reports said.

Saturday was also the day that Ukrainians remembered the “Holodomor” – or “death by hunger” – a Soviet-orchestrated famine in 1932-33, which Ukrainians commemorate annually on the fourth Saturday in November.

At 4 p.m., local time, Ukrainians paused to remember those who died in the mass starvation, which stretched across the Soviet Union but hit the Ukrainian portion of the USSR particularly hard.

Ukrainian farmers were forced into collective farms. Those who resisted had their food and possessions, including farming tools, seized. As many as 4 million may have starved to death in Ukraine alone.

The summit in Kyiv also took place amid Russia’s weeks-old campaign targeting Ukraine’s electrical grid and other critical infrastructure. On Wednesday, dozens of Russian cruise missiles and self-destructing drones pummeled the country, killing and wounding scores and plunging most of the country temporarily into darkness.

As the missile barrages continue on almost a weekly basis, Ukrainians could face a major humanitarian crisis this winter, as part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to force Kyiv to the negotiating table.

The parallels between Moscow’s war against the Ukrainian population 90 years ago, and the one unfolding now was not lost on Ukrainian officials and some of participants in the conference.

“The Soviet Union’s horrendous Holodomor killed millions of Ukrainians,” said Jens Stoltenberg, Secretary General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

“Today, Russia is using hunger as a weapon of war against Ukraine, and to create division and further instability among the rest of the world.”

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that the attacks on Ukrainian civilian targets demonstrated that Russia was moving “from imperial war to imperial terror.”

“If we allow Putin to continue, he will become the Stalin of the 21st century,” he said. “And all our countries know too well what ‘Stalin’ means.”

President Zelensky, in a statement posted on his Telegram channel, emphasized the similarities between the Soviet era and now, without directly referring to Moscow or Russian officials.

“Ukrainians went through very terrible things,” he wrote “And despite everything, they retained the ability not to submit and their love of freedom.”

“Once they wanted to destroy us with hunger, now – with darkness and cold,” he said, adding that “we will conquer death again.”

On Saturday, Zelensky and the visiting leaders told a news conference that their meeting produced a “Grain from Ukraine” initiative, whereby Ukraine will send 60 ships with its agricultural products in the first half of next year to some of the world’s poorest countries, including Ethiopia, Yemen and Somalia. Each ship should provide food for about 90,000 people, Zelensky said.

Zelensky originally proposed the grain initiative to a meeting of the Group of 20 industrial nations two weeks ago, and invited them to contribute financially. On Saturday, he said Kyiv had raised around $150 million from 20 countries and the European Union.

The plan, the Ukrainian leader said, showed that global food security was “not just empty words” for Ukraine.

As the leaders met in Kyiv, fighting continued in Ukraine’s south and east. The head of the Ukrainian national police Ihor Klymenko said in a Facebook post that around 30 civilians had been killed by Russian shelling in the Kherson region since the Russian withdrawal on Nov. 9 to the eastern bank of the Dnieper River.

Russian forces are still shelling the city of Kherson, the regional capital, forcing a number of hospitals to evacuate their patients, authorities said on Friday. At the same time, electricity had been restored to the city, officials said.

Britain’s Defense Ministry also said in its daily update on Saturday that it is possible that Russia is using older cruise missiles stripped of their nuclear warheads, in an attempt to divert Ukraine’s air defenses.

“Whatever Russia’s intent, this improvisation highlights the level of depletion in Russia’s stock of long-range missiles,” the ministry said.

Meanwhile, Belarusians received unexpected news that the country’s foreign minister, Vladimir Makei, 64, who had held his post since 2012, died “suddenly” on Saturday, according to the Belarusian Foreign Ministry Facebook page, which did not provide any further details.

Makei was once seen as a more pro-Western voice within the circle of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. However, his position shifted sharply to the anti-Western camp after mass protests broke out in Belarus in 2020, following Lukashenko’s victory in 2020 presidential elections, condemned in the West as fraudulent.

Lukashenko’s government became more closely aligned with the Kremlin following the elections, and Belarus played a key role in Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, serving as a base for Russian troops who crossed from Belarus into Ukraine and for missiles fired on Ukraine’s infrastructure, according to western and Ukrainian officials.

In September Makei blamed NATO and the West for inciting the invasion, saying that they had “overlooked the legitimate security interests of Russia and Belarus.”

Lukashenko and some Russian officials expressed their condolences in short statements. Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said on her Telegram channel that she was “shocked” by the news.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Belarus’ exiled opposition leader, said that Makei had betrayed the Belarusian people and supported tyranny – “this is how he will be remembered by Belarusians,” she wrote in a tweet, adding that the Belarusian opposition would continue to fight “despite changes in Lukashenko’s apparatus.”