The seizure of food turned Ukraine into an apocalyptic wasteland plagued by famine. People dropped dead on the streets. Ukrainians ate dirt, grass, food waste. Reports of cannibalism were widespread, and parents were said to have eaten their children. About 3.9 million Ukrainians perished in what became known as Holodomor – “death by hunger” in Ukrainian. But killing them was not enough. As a final insult, Stalin, who was infamous for erasing enemies from photographs, forbade talk of the famine and ensured statistics were altered to hide the deaths, as if his victims had never existed.
Less than a decade later, the Nazis seized Ukraine. Some 1.5 million Ukrainian Jews were killed, most by mobile Nazi death squads known as Einsatzgruppen, aided by local collaborators in what later became known as the Holocaust of bullets. Babyn Yar, just outside of Kyiv, became the final resting place for 33,000 Jews mowed down in just days. Destruction was not limited to the Jews. Cities, including Kharkiv, were reduced to swaths of rubble. Over two million Ukrainians were pressed into slave labor in Germany. Hunger descended again. In all, due to war and famine and destruction, five million to seven million Ukrainians lost their lives. Nearly 200,000 Crimean Tatars, Muslims who lived in Ukraine for centuries, were deported to Central Asia; tens of thousands died as a result.
The end of German occupation did not end the suffering, it only brought renewed Soviet repression. The USSR could not abide any identity that challenged Soviet dominance, whether in individuals or nations. For 40 years after the war, Russia methodically swept aside the Ukrainian language and culture, leaving behind a landscape of soulless Soviet kitsch, red stars and slogans and tomes of speeches by Lenin. Ukrainian identity was vestigial and subservient; I still remember my school showing us drawings of peasants in vyshyvanki – traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirts – insipidly smiling while waving Soviet flags.
The Kremlin also suppressed Holocaust remembrance, which it saw as potentially dangerous because it facilitated Jewish communal identity. For decades, the bodies of hundreds of thousands of Jews remained strewn in Nazi killing pits throughout Ukraine without so much as a grave marker. When the regime did permit memorials, the dead were invariably referred to as “peaceful Soviet citizens,” their Jewish identity purposefully omitted.
When I was still a child, in 1986, an explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant spewed a radioactive cloud through Ukraine and Belarus. Heroic local volunteers and firefighters put out the radioactive inferno, preventing a second explosion that could have decimated half of Europe; many died horrific deaths in the process and in the aftermath. A large area of land was rendered uninhabitable and remains so today. Moscow stifled discussion of Chernobyl as it happened, cloaking the accident in secrecy and propaganda.
Three years later my parents, my grandmother, my sister and I – along with thousands of other Soviet Jews – fled for Vienna. It was from America that we watched, in 1991, as the Soviet Union crumbled and the Iron Curtain was drawn back. Ukraine gained its independence, but promises of democracy were soon mired in endemic corruption.
In 2004, the Orange Revolution saw hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians reverse the outcome of a fraudulent presidential election. In the winter of 2013-14, millions joined the Euromaidan uprising, demanding that Ukraine enter into a partnership agreement with the European Union. Shortly after, Russia illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula while Russian-backed separatists launched an anti-Euromaidan uprising in the east of the country.