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Kiev, 2003: Some 2,000 people with Ukrainan flags and Orthodox gonfalons are seen through the monument to victims of the country's 1932-34 famine. Millions of people died in the famine engineered by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.ANDREI LUKATSKY/Associated Press

Anne Applebaum’s latest book is Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, from which this essay is adapted.

Those who lived through the Ukrainian famine always described it, once they were allowed to describe it, as an act of state aggression. The peasants who experienced the searches and the blacklists remembered them as a collective assault on themselves and their culture. The Ukrainians who witnessed the arrests and murders of intellectuals, academics, writers and artists remembered them in the same way, as a deliberate attack on their national elite.

The archival record backs up the intuition of the survivors. Neither crop failure nor bad weather alone caused the famine in Ukraine. Although the chaos of collectivization helped create the conditions that led to famine, the high numbers of deaths in Ukraine in 1932-34, and especially the spike in casualties in the spring of 1933, were not caused directly by collectivization. Starvation was the result, rather, of the forcible removal of food from people’s homes; the road blocks that kept peasants from seeking work or food; the harsh rules of the blacklists imposed on farms and villages; the restrictions on barter and trade; and the vicious propaganda campaign designed to persuade Ukrainians to watch, unmoved, as their neighbours died of hunger.

Joseph Stalin did not seek to kill all Ukrainians, nor did all Ukrainians resist. On the contrary, some Ukrainians collaborated, both actively and passively, with the Soviet project. But Stalin did seek to physically eliminate the most active and engaged Ukrainians, in both the countryside and the cities. He understood the consequences of both the famine and the simultaneous wave of mass arrests in Ukraine as they were happening. So did the people closest to him, including the leading Ukrainian Communists.

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Joseph Stalin, shown in 1946, seven years before his death.Associated Press

At the time it took place, there was no word to describe a state-sponsored assault on an ethnic group or nation and no international law that defined it as a particular kind of crime. But once the word “genocide” came into use in the late 1940s, many sought to apply it to the famine and the accompanying purges in Ukraine. Their efforts were complicated at the time, and are complicated still, by multiple interpretations of the word “genocide” – a legal and moral category rather than a historical one – as well as by the convoluted and constantly shifting politics of Russia and Ukraine.

In a very literal sense, the concept of genocide has its origins in Ukraine, specifically in the Polish-Jewish-Ukrainian city of L’viv. Raphael Lemkin, the legal scholar who invented the word – he combined the Greek word “genos,” meaning race or nation, with the Latin word for killing, “cide” – studied law at the University of L’viv. Although he left for Warsaw in 1929, Lemkin wrote in his autobiography that he was inspired to think about genocide by the history of his region and a long tradition of invaders who sought to attack not just people but their “political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion.” In a 1953 essay, he described Soviet policy in Ukraine as “genocidal.” Ukrainian elites, he wrote, are “small and easily eliminated, and so it is upon these groups particularly that the full force of the Soviet axe has fallen, with its familiar tools of mass murder, deportation and forced labour, exile and starvation.”

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L'viv, Ukraine. Legal scholar Raphael Lemkin, who invented the word "genocide," studied law in the Polish-Jewish-Ukrainian city, whose complicated political history inspired his thinking on genocide and power.GLEB GARANICH/REUTERS

Had the concept of genocide remained a scholarly and intellectual category, there would be no argument today. According to Lemkin’s definition, the Holodomor was a genocide – as it is by most intuitive understandings of the word. But the concept of genocide became part of international law in a completely different context: that of the Nuremberg trials and the legal debates that followed.

Lemkin served as adviser to the chief counsel at Nuremberg, Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, and, thanks to his advocacy, the term was used at the trial. After Nuremberg ended, many felt, for reasons of both morality and realpolitik, that the term ought to be enshrined in the United Nations’ basic documents.

But Cold War politics shaped the drafting of the UN convention on genocide far more than Lemkin’s scholarship. The Soviet Union, knowing it could be considered guilty of carrying out genocide against political groups, ensured that the definition of genocide was organically bound up with Fascism-Nazism and other similar race theories.

When the convention finally passed, the legal definition was narrow, and it was interpreted even more narrowly in the years that followed. In practice, genocide, as defined by the UN documents, came to mean the physical elimination of an entire ethnic group, in a manner similar to the Holocaust. Because the Soviet Union itself helped shape the language, it has become difficult to classify any Soviet crimes, including the Holodomor, from being classified as genocide.

This difficulty has not stopped a series of Ukrainian governments from trying to do so – or many governments from joining them. The first attempt followed the Orange Revolution of 2004 – a series of street protests in Kiev against a stolen election, corruption and perceived Russian influence in Ukrainian politics. Those protests led to the election of Viktor Yushchenko, the first president of Ukraine without a Communist Party pedigree. Mr. Yushchenko made references to the Holodomor in his inaugural speech and created a National Memory Institute with Holodomor research at its heart. He also lobbied for the United Nations and other international institutions to recognize the Holodomor as a genocide.

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Top: Viktor Yushchenko, then an opposition presidential candidate, speaks to thousands of supporters in Kiev in 2004. Bottom: Mr. Yushchenko, then Ukraine's president, looks at a picture during the opening of an exhibition in Kiev in 2005, as the country holds ceremonies honouring the victims of the Holodomor.Associated Press, Reuters

He understood the power of the famine as a unifying national memory for Ukrainians, especially because it had been so long denied. He undoubtedly “politicized” it, in the sense that he used political tools to draw more attention to the story. But he stopped short of using the famine to antagonize Ukraine’s Russian neighbours. At the 75th anniversary Holodomor commemoration ceremony in 2008, as on other occasions, Mr. Yushchenko went out of his way to avoid blaming the Russian people for the tragedy:

“We appeal to everyone, above all the Russian Federation, to be true, honest and pure before their brothers in denouncing the crimes of Stalinism and the totalitarian Soviet Union … We were all together in the same hell. We reject the brazen lie that we are blaming any one people for our tragedy. This is untrue. There is one criminal: the imperial, communist Soviet regime.”

The Russian political establishment, which was by the mid-2000s recovering its own imperial ambitions in the region, nevertheless insisted on interpreting Mr. Yushchenko’s campaign as an attack. Pro-Russian groups inside Ukraine followed the Russian state’s lead: In 2006, a group of Russian nationalist thugs, led by a member of the local Communist Party, entered the office of Volodymyr Kalinichenko, a historian who wrote about the famine in the Kharkiv region, kicked at locked doors and shouted threats. In 2008, the Russian media denounced the Holodomor commemorations as “Russophobic,” and then-Russian president Dmitry Medvedev turned down an invitation to attend, dismissing talk of the “so-called Holodomor” as “immoral.” Behind the scenes, Mr. Medvedev threatened other leaders in the region, advising them not to vote for a motion designating the Holodomor as a genocide at the United Nations. According to Prince Andrew of Britain, Mr. Medvedev told the president of Azerbaijan that he could “forget about Nagorno-Karabakh,” a region disputed by Azerbaijan and Armenia, unless he voted against the motion.

The historiography of the famine also became controversial inside Ukraine. Mr. Yushchenko had put the famine at the centre of his historical and cultural policy. But his opponent and successor, Viktor Yanukovych – a pro-Russian president elected in 2010 with open Russian financial and political support – abruptly reversed that policy. Mr. Yanukovych removed references to the Holodomor from the presidential website, replaced the head of the National Memory Institute with a former Communist historian and stopped using the word “genocide” to describe the famine.

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Aug. 4, 2006: New prime minister Viktor Yanukovych smiles as he presents a document on his appointment to lawmakers as Ukraine's president Viktor Yushchenko, right, looks on.Mykhailo Markiv, Presidential Press Service/Associated Press

He continued to speak of the famine as a “tragedy” and continued to hold annual commemoration ceremonies. He did not stop or harass archival researchers, as President Vladimir Putin did in Russia at about the same time, although many feared he would. Nevertheless, the president’s change of tone and emphasis enraged his political opponents. In particular, his refusal to use the word “genocide” was widely dismissed as a gesture of deference to Russia (it is notable that Mr. Medvedev did finally visit a Holodomor memorial in Kiev in 2010, during the Yanukovych presidency, perhaps as a reward for the toned-down language). One group of citizens even tried to take Mr. Yanukovych to court for “genocide denial.” His disastrous presidency further discredited all his policies, including his historical ones. He systematically undermined Ukrainian political institutions and engaged in corruption on an extraordinary scale. He fled the country in February, 2014, after his police shot more than 100 protesters dead in Kiev’s Maidan square during an extended protest against his rule.

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Top: Anti-government protesters clash with riot police in Kiev's Independence Square on Feb. 18, 2014. The protests led to the ouster of the pro-Russian Mr. Yanukovych, shown at bottom in a mock wanted poster near a Kiev barricade.Reuters, Associated Press

His disgrace left its mark on the public historical debate. Thanks to the politics that swirled around it, the word “genocide” became a kind of identity tag in Ukrainian politics, a term that could mark those who used it as partisans of one political party and those who did not as partisans of another. The problem worsened in the spring of 2014, when the Russian government produced a caricature “genocide” argument to justify its own behaviour. During the Russian invasions of Crimea and eastern Ukraine, Russian-backed separatists and Russian politicians both said their illegal interventions were a “defence against genocide” – meaning the “cultural genocide” that “Ukrainian Nazis” were supposedly carrying out against Russian speakers in Ukraine.

As the conflict between Russia and Ukraine intensified, attacks on the history and historiography also worsened. In August, 2015, Russian-backed separatists destroyed a monument to the victims of the famine in the occupied eastern Ukrainian town of Snizhne. That same month, Sputnik News, a Russian government propaganda website, published an article in English titled “Holodomor Hoax.” It presented views reminiscent of the Soviet era, calling the famine “one of the 20th century’s most famous myths and vitriolic pieces of anti-Soviet Propaganda.”

By 2016, the arguments had come full circle. The post-Soviet Russian state was once again in full denial: The Holodomor did not happen, and only “Nazis” would claim that it did. All of these arguments muddied the application of the word “genocide” so successfully that to use it in any Russian or Ukrainian context is wearyingly controversial. People feel exhausted by the debate – which was, perhaps, the point of the Russian assault on the historiography of the famine in the first place.

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March 5, 2016: A Russian Communist Party supporter holds red carnations and a portrait of Stalin during a memorial ceremony to mark the 63rd anniversary of his death at Moscow's Red Square.Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty Images

And yet, the genocide debate, so fierce a decade ago, has subsided for other reasons, too. The accumulation of evidence has changed the conversation. That the famine happened, that it was deliberate and that it was part of a political plan to undermine Ukrainian identity is becoming more widely accepted, in Ukraine as well as in Western academic circles, whether or not an international court confirms it.

Slowly, the debate is also becoming less important to Ukrainians. In truth, the legal arguments about the famine and genocide were often proxy arguments. Their real subject was Ukraine, Ukrainian sovereignty and Ukraine’s right to exist. The discussion of a famine was a way of insisting on Ukraine’s right to a separate national history.

Ukraine’s patient diplomacy, the state’s dogged pursuit of recognition of the famine as a genocide, has its place. The legal definition of the word has been interpreted too narrowly. If only to undermine the Soviet definition of the term, in due course, all Western states should recognize the Ukrainian famine, along with the persecution and mass murder of other ethnic groups in the Soviet Union, as a genocide. But now – after more than a quarter-century of independence, two street revolutions and a Russian invasion that was finally halted by a Ukrainian army – sovereignty is a fact, not a theory that requires historical justification, or any justification at all. Ukraine’s resurrection is a triumph over Stalinism – and Ukraine’s persistence is a triumph over Putinism, too.

Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine is this year’s winner of the Lionel Gelber Prize, a literary award for the world’s best non-fiction book in English on foreign affairs, presented in partnership with the Lionel Gelber Foundation, Foreign Policy magazine and the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. Ms. Applebaum will receive her award and give a free public lecture at the Munk School on April 17.

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Kiev, 2008: A woman holds a candle near the monument commemorating the Ukrainian mass famine of 1932-34.Konstantin Chernichkin/Reuters

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