Michael Bociurkiw is a global affairs analyst and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington
During the 1970s, while my non-Ukrainian friends headed for the hockey rink or football pitch, my Saturdays and Sundays were spent in various Ukrainian schools in Canada and Britain learning about the painful history of Ukraine. Even if my teachers were unsuccessful in drilling wartime massacres, deportations and famines into my head, those stories would sink in one way or the other through folk songs shared at Ukrainian summer camps, family gatherings and in various community halls during anniversaries of Ukrainian independence.
If you are a member of our large diaspora, chances are you eventually caught on that the themes of Ukrainian folk songs essentially fall into three categories: love, mama and war. Family dinner table talk, especially when relatives from Ukraine paid a visit, often drifted into dark memories of Russian attempts over the past quarter millennium to eradicate the Ukrainian language, culture and religion. As the offspring of a world-renowned specialist on the suppression of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Bohdan Bociurkiw, my siblings and I were at a very early age privately schooled by our father on the atrocities of Joseph Stalin and other Kremlin leaders to follow. There was no mincing of words in his recounting of history.
This year, after having witnessed the brutality of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine firsthand, it was probably natural to experience vivid flashbacks of Russian atrocities committed in Ukraine long before the current war – including how some of our closest relatives were forcibly deported to the Soviet gulag, never to be seen again. I can now comprehend the darkness in my father’s eyes, the insistence to learn the language, his tireless efforts to document Russian attempts to liquidate the Ukrainian Catholic Church. “This is history repeating itself,” I commented several times as I travelled through war-torn Ukraine.
Since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the brazen stealing of grain and destruction of agriculture infrastructure has reawakened within me and others memories of the Holodomor – the man-made famine of 1932-33 ordered by Stalin in which at least four million Ukrainians died. It was the “largest policy of mass killing in Europe in the 20th century” until the Holocaust, wrote Yale University’s Timothy Snyder.
Aside from Prof. Snyder, American journalist and historian Anne Applebaum and Harvard University’s Serhii Plokhy, a veritable army of scholars, historians and experts have produced astonishing evidence of how the Holodomor was organized and how orders to starve Ukrainians came right from the top leadership. In their article The Holodomor of 1932-1933 in Ukraine as a Crime of Genocide Under International Law, Volodymyr Vasylenko and Myroslava Antonovych documented Stalin’s “crushing blow” through such policies as executions, impossible grain procurement quotas, confiscation of grain and rules that prevented peasants from freely travelling in search of food.
Those of us who have stayed in Ukraine through most of the war have also been documenting as history repeating itself Russian suppression of the Ukrainian language and culture.
During a visit to Kyiv around the Easter period, I shook my head in disbelief as I gazed at the statue of the bard of Ukraine and symbol of Ukrainian nationalism, Taras Shevchenko, concealed by protective scaffolding. (Months later during a Monday morning rush hour, a Russian missile struck the very park where the Shevchenko monument sits, destroying a playground and creating a huge crater, and damaging no less than seven museums.)
The list of atrocities being committed by Russia on Ukrainian soil occurs pretty much on a daily basis – including as recently as Nov. 11, when Western journalists entering the liberated regional capital of Kherson heard horrific stories from civilians of torture, intimidation and threats of rape during the weeks of Russian occupation.
Wherever Russian troops have occupied Ukrainian territory, the picture that emerged is one of a reign of terror: the destruction of cultural monuments and stealing of treasured artifacts; the mass deportations to Russia of Ukrainian citizens, including unaccompanied children reportedly given for adoption into Russian families; the stealing of Ukrainian grain and destruction of grain storage facilities; mass murders of civilians; renewed attempts to curtail the use of Ukrainian language and change school curriculums; and the proliferation of symbols of the occupation, such as Russian medals, statues and road signs.
The attacks on agricultural infrastructure in a country known as the breadbasket of the world have hit hard: About 14 per cent of the population was employed by the sector and it accounted for US$27.8-billion in export revenue in 2021, according to U.S. estimates. In Odesa, where port activity has been drastically reduced, the city has for months resembled a metropolis in a sort of induced coma.
The large-scale theft of Ukrainian resources didn’t only start in February of this year. As far back as 2014, as part of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, our monitors documented how massive amounts of coal were being shipped out of the occupied Donbas into Russia. It was later claimed that Russia extracted about 500,000 tons of coal a month from the Donbas region that was sold to the European Union.
Unlike the time of the Holodomor, when evidence of atrocities was much easier to conceal, modern technology such as AI and machine learning, images and videos captured on smartphones and journalists’ reports have created a real-time journal of war crimes and atrocities. Because the U.S. government maintains large contracts with commercial satellite firms, it has been able to track and document such data streams as grain storage volumes of Ukrainian silos that can be used to prove Russian thefts. Open-source data and geolocation technology have allowed various organizations to track in real time Russian vessels carrying stolen Ukrainian grain to Lebanon and elsewhere.
Aside from this being a war of history repeating itself, it has also been an invasion of irony, especially when it relates to the stated goals enunciated by Russian President Vladimir Putin for his so-called special military operation. Weren’t we told that Russian speakers in Ukraine are oppressed and that they need to be liberated by Mother Russia? If that is the case, then why has so much of the carnage, rape and oppression taken place in predominantly Russian-speaking areas such as Kharkhiv, Chernihiv, Mariupol – and most recently, Kherson?
When I visited Chernihiv a few months after the invasion started, the locals explained to me in Russian how they suffered for weeks under the occupation. Take in some further irony by considering that those defending Ukrainian positions on the front line are, in large number, either Russian-speakers or soldiers who call eastern Ukraine home.
Going forward, it is frightening to contemplate what the Kremlin may have in store for Ukraine, especially given its record over the decades of using every tactic at its disposal, no matter how reprehensible, to destroy all aspects of Ukrainian identity.
Aside from Russia making further use of Iranian-made drones and missiles to strike crucial infrastructure, Ukrainians cannot discount the possibility of chemical or biological attacks, a tactical electromagnetic pulse strike that could cripple Ukraine’s military and civilian infrastructure, as well as deliberate strikes on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which is currently under Russian control. Given how disastrously Russian ground troops have performed on the battlefield, expect Kremlin tactics – or more accurately shameless acts of cowardice – to pivot more toward attacks launched from inside Russia and the increased use of cyberwarfare. Until Kyiv is given the ability to protect its skies, no inch of Ukrainian soil can be considered safe from Russian attacks.
How can it be that in 2022, we are yet again witnessing not only Russian attempts to rob Ukraine of food, but also to push many other countries to the brink of mass starvation with the Kremlin’s blockade of the Black Sea? Even though Russia has rejoined the UN/Turkey-brokered Black Sea Grain Initiative, emerging evidence suggests that the Kremlin is deliberately delaying ships laden with grain from sailing on to world markets.
On the 90th anniversary of the Holodomor, as we honour the memory of the millions who died at the hands of Stalin in 1932 and 1933, the West needs to rededicate itself to the “never again” policy: Russia’s genocidal assault on Ukraine – as well as attacks on other countries – must be stopped.