NEW YORK—Russian-friendly Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych this week assured the Ukrainian Diaspora in the United States that he does not deny the existence of the communist-era famine that killed millions of people in Ukraine in 1932-33, adding that he would even order the famine documents to be declassified. Yanukovich, however, would not recognize the famine as genocide as many other countries and Ukrainian leaders have.
The famine statement comes strategically before his visit to the United States to take part in the United Nations Global Summit. His visit will likely be used to seek more dialogue with the Ukrainian Diaspora abroad.
Official estimates say that from 7 to 10 million people died during the famine, known as the Holodomor, in Ukraine.
“I am told that I deny the famine somehow [so] I am initiating the declassification of famine’s archive documents,” he said.
At the same time that President Yanukovych has stressed his recognition of the famine, the section on his presidential website that details the atrocities of the famine reappeared after being removed in February of this year.
The Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, a voice for the Ukrainian Diaspora, held a demonstration in front of Ukraine's mission to the United Nations in New York on Wednesday to protest against the Yanukovych’s control over Ukrainian media and his unwillingness to consider the famine to be genocide.
Tamara Olexy, the head of the committee, said they felt “deep disappointment and surprise” after reading Yanukovych’s letter. She also said that Yanukovych had sent them the letter in order to stop them from protesting when he came for fear that it would tarnish his image.
Previously, President Yanukovych claimed at the Council of Europe’s meeting in April that he does not think the famine should be called genocide. Instead, Yanukovych shares the Russian view that considers the famine to have taken place not only in Ukraine, but in Russia’s Volga region and Kazakhstan. The subtle perspective change attempts to shift the blame away from the Russian-based Soviet government that ruled Ukraine at the time of the famine.
Since taking office, Yanukovych has been noted for improving relations between Kyiv and Moscow.
Declassification Not Necessary
Former director of the Security Service of Ukraine’s (SSU) archive department Vladimir Vyatrovich said that Yanukovych’s order for declassification of famine documents was not necessary because all secret famine documents had already been declassified in Ukraine.
“If Yanukovych really wants to declassify the truth on the famine further, he should ask his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev to do the same declassifications of archives it holds as in Ukraine,” Vyatrovich said, according to the Ukrainian Center on Liberation Movement Studies.
For the last several years, the SSU has requested that its Russian counterpart cooperate with them on this issue, but those requests have been denied.
Ukraine made a concerted effort to expose and shed its leftover communist elements during the presidency of Victor Yushchenko, who was in power for the last five years. Less friendly to Russia, Yushchenko made a priority of exposing the communist regime that ruled Ukraine until 1991.
In 2006, the Parliament of Ukraine formally recognized the famine as genocide. A resolution supported in 13 countries, including the United States, Poland, Australia, and Canada, did the same.
In January, the Kyiv Court of Appeals posthumously convicted communist leaders Stalin and Molotov for engineering the 1932-33 famine, classifying it as “genocide” toward Ukrainian people in Ukraine.
Dispute Over National History
Since President Yanukovych came to office, declassifying the SSU’s archive of secret famine documents has been suspended as the position of the archive department head was taken by a representative of the Communist Party of Ukraine, which still exists as a political party in Ukraine. The communist-affiliated official said that what was secret must be secret.
There are also concerns that the SSU is putting pressure on historians and workers of some national history museums to cover up the atrocities of communism.
In early September, the SSU initiated a criminal case against Ruslan Zabiliy, a historian and the director of Lviv-based museum known as The Prison on Lasko, which billed itself as a memorial for those who lived under occupying regimes. That museum is currently under the SSU’s control.
Zabiliy is being accused of trying to obtain secret state documents. In his defense, he said that he just worked with public documents.
About 140 historians and scientists supported Zabiliy sending a protest letter to President Yanukovych calling on the president to stop prosecuting him.
Former Ukrainian President Yushchenko has stressed his concerns over the issue, saying that the authorities have now started persecuting scientists and historians.
“Doing it this way, the authorities want to make it a point that Ukrainian history is a secret and are making the people fight against themselves,” said former Ukrainian President Victor Yushchenko in a letter addressed to current President Yanukovych.