* Abridged version of the speech delivered at the November 26, 2022 Holodomor commemoration ceremony in Calgary by NP-UN Director, Bohdan Romaniuk.
Today, we stand at the crossroads of the unthinkable and the unspeakable….
On what was to be a day of remembering and reflecting upon horrors past – the 4th Saturday of November, set aside as always to commemorate the millions of innocent victims of the Holodomor…men, women and children, intentionally and mercilessly starved to death by Stalin and his henchmen in the years 1932 to 1933, we instead now focus our attention and all of our efforts on trying to prevent Stalin’s colossal crimes of the past from being repeated or, even worse, of being exceeded by Stalin’s 21st century successor, dictator for life, Vladimir Putin.
As we all know, the dissolution of the USSR had a profound impact on Putin. He called it a “catastrophe…the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century”.
Let there be no doubt by what he meant. Putin has no desire to reconstitute the USSR. He was not, and is not, a communist. He is a liar, a thief, and a murderer but has no interest in building socialism in Russia, much less the rest of the world. Instead, what he is obsessed with is empire, the Russian empire… and, more particularly, in restoring it to its former grandeur.
Four observations are trenchant in this regard:
• Putin is a Great Russian chauvinist. He believes that the Russian language, Russian culture, and Russian brand of Orthodox Christianity mark a high point in western civilization. Indeed, he believes in Russian manifest destiny (as did the Tsars before him), specifically, that Russia is the third Rome and the defender and protector of orthodox Christian values the world over.
• Putin loathes the west, western values, western democracy, western conceptions of freedom and the west’s emphasis on the primacy of the individual over the state. Ukraine and Ukrainians have for centuries gravitated towards western values, chosen individualism over collectivism whenever free to do so, rejected authoritarianism and dictatorial rule at every turn, and have for centuries exhibited far more egalitarian and democratic preferences and tendencies than their Russian neighbours.
• Putin understands, as have all leaders of Russia that, without Ukraine, Russia is just another country, while with Ukraine it is an empire.
• Putin is incapable of grasping how Russian imperialism, colonial exploitation, and relentless Russification of the captive nations and peoples comprising the Russian empire over the centuries might not be appreciated or recalled nostalgically by the victims of such subjugation and linguistic, cultural, and ethnic, if not physical, genocide.
Putin’s own words (and officially approved statements) provide a vivid measure of how his genocidal assault on Ukraine compares with what Stalin started, but did not finish, when he undertook to destroy the heart and soul of Ukraine in the Holodomor nearly a century ago.
In July 2021, Putin published a lengthy essay titled, “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians.” It was a shameless piece of historical fabrication, amateurishly written, devoid of truth, and consisting almost entirely of the deceitful ramblings of a wannabe emperor intent on invading a neighbouring, fledgling democracy with aspirations of aligning itself politically, economically and, someday, defensively, with the European west instead of with Russia’s eastward-looking Eurasian enterprise. Putin argued that Russians and Ukrainians were one nation, one people, bound by a common language, a common history, a common culture, a common religion, and a common set of values despite being artificially separated by borders that should never have been created and that had no basis in historical necessity. He even went so far as to say that Ukraine is a historical aberration, that Ukrainians do not exist as a separate people and, in fact, have no right to exist.
Former Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, then published an open letter elaborating on Putin’s comments in a hate-filled screed dismissing Ukrainians as non-entities, “vassals”, an “absolutely dependent people… [lacking] self-identification” and concluding that “Ukrainianism is a fake. It never was and is not.”
These delusional ravings became even more extreme after Putin’s (second) invasion of Ukraine on February 24. In early April, one of Putin’s key
propagandists, Timofey Sergeytsev, published in Ria Novosti, Russia’s official state press, what world renowned historian, Harvard’s Timothy Snyder, has described as “Russia’s genocide handbook”. Titled, “What Should Russia Do With Ukraine?”, the article focused on the need for “denazification” and “de-Ukrainization” of Ukraine. Among other things, it claimed or called for the following:
• Anyone taking up arms against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a Nazi and “must be destroyed…”. All Nazis “should be exemplarily and exponentially punished.”
• “…a significant part of the masses, which are passive Nazis, accomplices of Nazism, are also guilty.”
• Nazism is often difficult to identify. It can be “disguised as a desire for “independence” and a “European (Western, pro-American) path of development”.
• To be effective, denazification must remain in place for “at least a generation”.
• “There must be total lustration.”
• Even the name “Ukraine” cannot be allowed to exist.
With this background, we can now compare the key features of the Holodomor perpetrated by Stalin with the steps Putin is cold-bloodedly pursuing to “de-nazify” and “de-Ukrainize” Ukraine:
• Stalin forcibly confiscated grain from Ukrainian peasants and thereby directly caused the deaths of millions by starvation. Although Putin’s armies have likewise confiscated millions of tons of stored grain in Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine (to be exported for hard currency), Putin’s preferred means of murdering Ukrainians on an industrial scale has consisted of the relentless, targeted bombing of (1) civilian infrastructure including hospitals, schools, apartment buildings, markets and shopping centers and (2) electrical generating stations and the national power grid to deny Ukraine’s population the basic means of survival just as winter is setting in.
• Stalin closed Ukraine’s external borders so that peasants could not escape the artificial famine and instituted a system of internal passports to block rural to urban migration to similar effect. Stalin also exiled to distant parts of the Soviet Union hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian kulaks, as well members of the intelligentsia and clergy as part of a calculated process of decapitating the leadership of the Ukrainian nation. Many hundreds of thousands more ended up in Siberian hard labour camps never to return. Putin‘s armies, meanwhile, regularly mine open fields, roads, and other escape routes and use roadside checkpoints to stop civilians from fleeing occupied cities while they are being bombed into oblivion. People stopped in this way are then sent to filtration camps to determine whether they should be executed, imprisoned, kept as prisoners for later exchange, or deported to distant parts of Russia for re-education and Russification. Over a million Ukrainian citizens, including hundreds of thousands of children have disappeared in this way from major Ukrainian cities since the war began.
• After the Holodomor had ended, Stalin transferred hundreds of thousands of Russian peasant families to the depopulated villages of Ukraine’s black earth zone to maintain agricultural production while accelerating Russification of the countryside. Putin has followed a similar process of removing the last vestiges of Ukrainian and Tatar cultural and civic life in Crimea and has signalled that once Mariupol and various other completely destroyed and de-populated Ukrainian cities that were recently annexed by Russia are rebuilt, they will be resettled by Russians.
• Stalin did his best to liquidate the entire Ukrainian intelligentsia in the 1930s and then began to Russify the next generation of Ukrainians by restricting the language of learning to Russian, adopting the Russian curriculum in Ukrainian schools and sending thousands of Russian teachers to take over the educational system in Ukraine. Putin has not only implemented very similar policies in occupied territories but has also authorized the wholesale theft and transfer to Russia of art, religious relics, museum pieces, rare historical texts, and all manner of other historical artifacts and treasures in an ongoing campaign of cultural genocide.
To date, Putin’s genocidal war – in addition to causing incalculable damage to Ukraine’s infrastructure – has physically displaced (or is now in the process of displacing) something approaching one half of Ukraine’s entire population with some 8 (if not nearer to 9) million Ukrainians (including those forcibly deported to Russia) having departed the country, whether temporarily or permanently, and easily that many and quite likely closer to 9 to 11 million people having fled to other parts of the country in search of greater safety.
The most frightening aspect of Putin’s genocidal efforts to destroy all traces of the Ukrainian language, the Ukrainian people, and the Ukrainian nation is that his chosen means of achieving this end may eventually have their intended effect, regardless of the skill and resourcefulness of the Ukrainian army, and regardless of the bravery and will to survive of the Ukrainian people, unless Ukraine’s western allies significantly step up the shipments and deliveries of needed military equipment, ammunition and financial aid to Ukraine.
Ukrainians understand that this is their do or die moment. Either Putin and his murderous armies are vanquished, or Ukraine will perish. There is no middle ground, no room for a negotiated settlement, with a country intent on erasing Ukraine and everything Ukrainian from the face of the earth.
That being said, there is still every reason to be hopeful. Although the better part of Ukrainian history is a record of foreign occupation and oppression, no enemy, no warlord, no foreign monarch, no dictator, no external power of any kind has ever come close to extinguishing the flame of Ukrainian identity and nationhood. And neither will Putin.
It would be to my eternal shame if I did not close these remarks with words of deepest gratitude to those western countries that have stepped up to help Ukraine in its time of existential need. The U.S., Canada, the U.K., members of the European Union and other western nations have all been of tremendous assistance to Ukraine in supplying it with the means to defend itself against Russian aggression. Sometimes not soon enough, and sometimes not quite enough to meet Ukraine’s needs, but they have always been there.
Special thanks, however, must be extended to Ukraine’s western neighbours – Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova – for opening their hearts to millions of homeless and destitute Ukrainians. These countries could have turned their backs on the strangers flooding across their borders, but chose to do the opposite. They showed generosity, kindness, and basic human decency to Ukrainians appearing on their doorstep seeking food, clothing, shelter and refuge. After Ukraine brings the war to an end on her terms, God will reward these countries for their kindness, while Ukraine exhausts every effort in pursuit of a just and enduring outcome against those who sought to destroy it.