From Stalin to Putin, Ukraine is still trying to break free from Moscow: NPR

A woman lights a candle in the Ukrainian capital Kiev in 2006 as part of a remembrance of the estimated 3-5 million Ukrainians who died in a famine in 1932-33. Ukrainians starved to death when Soviet dictator Josef Stalin forced farmers off their land and into a collectivized, state-run agricultural system.

Genia Savilov /AFP via Getty Images


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A woman lights a candle in the Ukrainian capital Kiev in 2006 as part of a remembrance of the estimated 3-5 million Ukrainians who died in a famine in 1932-33. Ukrainians starved to death when Soviet dictator Josef Stalin forced farmers off their land and into a collectivized, state-run agricultural system.

Genia Savilov /AFP via Getty Images

Ukraine was the breadbasket of the Soviet Union when dictator Josef Stalin seized rich, fertile land from local farmers in the early 1930s and forced them into a collectivized, state-run agricultural system.

The result: one of the worst famines of the 20th century. The death toll is still debated, but mainstream historians put the figure at between 3 and 5 million dead in Ukraine alone, and a few million more in other parts of the Soviet Union.

“These farmers had something that the Soviet Union considered too much. Often it was something like they had a cow or a little bit of land. It didn’t mean they were rich,” said John Vseteckaa Fulbright scholar who researched the famine in Ukraine for his doctorate in history at Michigan State.

These farmers lost everything and grain production collapsed.

“They work in the fields, they produce everything for the state, and the state doesn’t really give them anything to eat,” he said. “They end up starving to death.”

Survivors of the 1932-33 famine protested and rebelled in the years that followed. They ended up being crushed. But these events still resonate with Ukrainians when they talk about the current crisis – the more than 100,000 troops Russia has massed near the Ukrainian border.

“Starvation often comes back. It’s a point of reference. ‘Well, look what happened to my grandmother in 1932-33, or look what happened to my family,'” Vsetecka said about of his talks with Ukrainians.

I reached Vsetecka as he was reluctantly packing his bags to leave Ukraine, for neighboring Poland, due to the threat of a Russian invasion. The US State Department has told him to leave, and he doesn’t know when he might return.

Two boys fill a sack with potatoes that had been hidden during Ukraine’s devastating famine in the 1930s.

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Two boys fill a sack with potatoes that had been hidden during Ukraine’s devastating famine in the 1930s.

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Repeated attempts at independence

When the Soviet Union collapsed in December 1991, Ukraine held the independence referendum it had long sought. A whopping 92% voted in favor – a result that helped hasten the collapse of the Soviet state a few weeks later.

Professor Serhii Plokhywho leads the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard, said some were surprised by the lopsided vote. He was not.

“It was the fifth attempt in Ukraine to declare and maintain independence since the turn of the 20th century,” he said, citing efforts dating back to 1918.

Plokhy says Moscow’s leaders – from Stalin to Putin – have taken different approaches to dealing with what they see as the “Ukrainian problem”. But most have alienated Ukrainians, pushing them to go their own way.

Ukraine celebrated 30 years of independence last month as Russia began massing its troops near Ukraine’s borders.

“The sad irony of the situation is that we see Ukraine under attack, with the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the state in question,” said Plokhy, the author of several books on Ukraine, including The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine.

Ukrainians in the capital Kyiv are taking part in the 2004 ‘Orange Revolution’. Demonstrators protested what they said were Russian attempts to rig the country’s presidential election.

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Ukrainians in the capital Kyiv are taking part in the 2004 ‘Orange Revolution’. Demonstrators protested what they said were Russian attempts to rig the country’s presidential election.

Ivan Sekretarev /AP

Since independence, Ukraine has often been in turmoil

Ukraine’s independence was not easy. The country is plagued by dysfunctional governments, endemic corruption and an anemic economy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has made the task even more difficult with his repeated interference in Ukraine, seeking to keep pro-Russian leaders in power.

In 2004, Russia was seen as trying to rig the Ukrainian presidential election in favor of a pro-Russian candidate, Viktor Yanukovych. Ukrainians pushed back with massive street protests – the so-called Orange Revolution. Yanukovych was defeated.

A Ukrainian man protests to gunmen wearing unmarked uniforms in Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014. The forces were part of the Russian army, which is still in Crimea to this day.

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A Ukrainian man protests to gunmen wearing unmarked uniforms in Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014. The forces were part of the Russian army, which is still in Crimea to this day.

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In 2014, Ukrainians once again took to the streets to protest against Yanukovych – who by then had been president for four years. After weeks of protests, he fled to Russia.

“Putin has been a serial awkward when it comes to Ukraine,” said Andre WeissUkrainian expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

“A lot of what we’re seeing in this crisis is either coercing Ukraine into doing things it wouldn’t otherwise do, or using force to make it do it,” he added. . “This playbook led to several consequences that Putin would probably like the least.”

Putin “revived the NATO alliance. He gave Ukraine more national cohesion and a stronger national identity, and framed that identity on an anti-Russian trajectory,” Weiss said.

Russia has had troops in Ukraine for eight years

In a bid to secure its sovereignty, Ukraine hammered out an unusual deal in 1994, just three years after gaining independence. The country has agreed to relinquish all nuclear weapons he had inherited the Soviet Union. In exchange, Ukraine received guarantees from Russia, the United States and Great Britain that its borders would be respected.

But shortly after Putin lost politically in Ukraine in 2014, he sent the Russian military to take over Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, and the troops remained there.

Today, Putin has massed a huge military force near Ukraine’s borders, which includes ground troops, tanks and other armored vehicles, heavy artillery and air power. He says he has no intention of invading – but also says he sees Ukraine as part of Russia, not an independent country in its own right.

Researcher Serhii Plokhy says Putin should ask Ukrainians how they feel.

“The response of the Ukrainian people will be: ‘We are Ukrainians and we want to live in Ukraine and we want this nightmare to end,'” he said.

Now the 44 million Ukrainians are waiting for Putin’s next move.

Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent who was based in Moscow from 1996 to 1999. Follow him @gregmyre1.

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