Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have protested in the streets over the past three weeks, culminating in the current occupation of government buildings and pitched battle with riot police in central Kiev. The ostensible trigger was the last-minute decision of President Viktor Yanukovich to back out of a trade agreement with the European Union, moving instead toward a deal with Russia and its Customs Union.
Commentators have framed the demonstrations in terms of competing economic interests, geopolitical intrigues, Russian-speaking eastern vs. Ukrainian-speaking western Ukraine, and Russian-Ukrainian relations. Yet these analyses don’t explain why so many Ukrainians are protesting this time. At the heart of their outrage is an emphatic rejection of what many Ukrainians see as Soviet-style rule. Explaining why they are in the streets, the protesters occasionally mention economics, but more often they say, “to live in a normal, civilized country,” “so that our children can live with human dignity,” or “to be free to travel, to work and to live our lives.”
The Soviet legacy of authoritarianism and terror is not so easily shed. The most devastating chapter was the Holodomor - the Famine of 1932-33, when Soviet authorities forcibly removed grain and foodstuffs from farmers, many who had resisted collectivization. Borders were closed to prevent people from seeking food beyond Ukraine. Many millions of Ukrainians were starved to death. Joseph Stalin launched an assault on Ukrainian cultural leaders as well, murdering and exiling thousands of artists, intellectuals, and clergy. The Holodomor was a demographic and cultural catastrophe for Ukraine, exacerbated by Soviet Russification policies.
Oksana Zabuzhko, one of Ukraine's best-known writers, believes that today’s corrupt Ukrainian state is a direct consequence of the 1933 genocide, when the most ruthless prospered. “Those who stole the most during the Holodomor made out the best. And indeed, in independent Ukraine, those adept at stealing managed to take hold of the collective farm,” Ms. Zabuzhko told me. “That is, all of Ukraine, from which they’ve plundered, carrying the wealth back to ‘their own house.’ Our current leadership, the third generation, is not capable of having a different, state-centered ‘managerial’ mentality. And whether the house in question is a hut with a pigsty or an offshore account on the Cayman Islands is purely a quantitative, not a qualitative, difference.”
For three generations, to mention the word “famine” was taboo; the Soviets denied that the Holodomor had taken place until the end of the USSR. Only then did archives become accessible that illuminated its scope and intentionality.
Yet the administration of President Viktor Yanukovich is engaged in diminishing the significance of the Holodomor. This year, staff at the Institute of National Memory in Kiev produced a book, the central thesis of which echoes Soviet-era Cold War propaganda - that the Holodomor was conceived as a means to discredit the USSR. Similarly, Russia refuses to accept the Holodomor as a Ukrainian rather than a general Soviet tragedy, and leaked diplomatic documents have shown that Russian officials have threatened post-Soviet countries should they recognize the Holodomor as a genocide.
Fear, and in particular, fear before authority, is the most enduring impact of the Holodomor, according to psychiatrist Semyon Gluzman, president of the Ukrainian Psychiatric Association and former Soviet dissident. In an interview weeks before the protests, he said: “It lingers in the consciousness of our Ukrainian people, who are still not free.” It would take another generation, he added, for Ukrainians to be rid of it.
The first generation to come out of the shadows of the Holodomor has arrived. Born after the fall of the Soviet Union, they are as likely to have spent time in Paris or Munich as in Moscow. They differ from their parents in other ways. They are completely at home with social media, and they expect information to be shared, and shared quickly. When government forces beat peaceful protesters on Kiev’s maidan, or main square, authorities claimed that these special forces had been clearing out hooligans impeding the assembly of a huge Christmas tree (or rather, New Year tree, the term used since Soviet times). But video of the brutal assault was already on the internet for all to see. At least three websites are streaming live feeds as events in Kiev unfolded
Whatever the short-term outcome of the protests, young Ukrainians will continue to press for change in their country. With a sense of identity informed by the tragedy of their country’s past, they are impatient for Ukraine to cast off its lingering Soviet ways. They see no reason why Moscow should determine their fate. They will not be satisfied until their country’s institutions guarantee democracy, rule of law, and human rights - which just happen to be criteria for joining the European Union.
Marta Baziuk is executive director of the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium at the University of Alberta’s Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies.