Ukraine was the breadbasket for the Soviet Union until dictator Josef Stalin took the fertile, rich land from the local farmers and made them work for the state.
It was one of the worst famines in the 20th century. Although the death toll remains to be determined, most historians place the number at between 3 million and 5 million in Ukraine, with a few more million in other parts.
The Soviet Union thought these farmers were too rich. This was often something like a cow or a small amount of land. “It didn’t necessarily mean they were wealthy,” stated John Vsetecka a Fulbright scholar, who was in Ukraine studying the famine to earn his doctorate in history from Michigan State.
These farmers lost everything and grain production crashed.
He said, “They are working the fields, producing everything for state, and the government is giving them nothing to eat.” They will eventually starve to death.
The survivors of the 1932-33 Famine rebelled and protested in the years that followed. They were finally crushed. Those events are still resonant with Ukrainians today when they speak about the crisis — Russia’s more than 100,000 troops positioned near Ukraine’s borders.
“The famine is a frequent topic. It serves as a reference point. “Well, look at what happened in 1932-33 to my grandmother, or what happened in my family,” Vsetecka stated about his interviews with Ukrainians.
Vsetecka was packing up to leave Ukraine for Poland due to Russian invasion threats. I met him as he was reluctantly packing. He was told by the U.S. State Department to leave and isn’t sure when he will return.
Multiple attempts to achieve independence
Ukraine held a referendum to decide whether it wanted independence, just as the Soviet Union was crumbling in December 1991. A staggering 92 percent voted for independence, which helped speed up the fall of the Soviet Union just weeks later.
Professor Serhii plokhy is the head of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard. He said that some were shocked by the lopsided vote. He wasn’t.
He stated, citing attempts dating back to 1918, “That was the fifth time in Ukraine that we tried to declare and keep independence.”
Plokhy claims that leaders from Moscow, including Stalin and Putin, have used different approaches to address the “Ukraine Problem.” However, most of them have alienated Ukrainians and forced them to choose their own path.
Last month saw the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence. Russia began to build its military forces near Ukraine’s borders.
Plokhy, who is the author of multiple books about Ukraine, said that “the sad irony of this situation is that Ukraine is under attack, with sovereignty and territorial integrity of state in question.”
Ukraine has been in turmoil since independence
The road to independence for Ukraine has been difficult. It has suffered from dysfunctional governments, corruption rampant and an emic economy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin made it more difficult by his continued meddling in Ukraine. He is trying to keep pro-Russian leaders in power.
Russia was accused of trying to rig Ukraine’s presidential election favoring Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian candidate. The so-called Orange Revolution was a massive protest by the Ukrainians. Yanukovych was defeated.
Ukrainians protested Yanukovych in 2014 after he had been president for four years. He fled Russia after weeks of protests.
“Putin is a serial smuggler when it comes Ukraine,” stated Andrew Weiss a Ukrainian expert at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
He said that much of the crisis we are seeing is about forcing Ukraine to do something it would not otherwise do or using force to get them to do it. This playbook has had several consequences that Putin would not like.
Putin “has revived NATO.” Weiss stated that Putin “has given Ukraine greater national cohesion, and a stronger national identity. He also framed this identity on an antiRussian trajectory.”
Russia has been stationed in Ukraine for eight years
Ukraine reached an unusual agreement in 1994 to protect its sovereignty. This was just three years after it gained independence. The country was willing to part with all nuclear weapons that it had inherited the Soviet Union. In return, Russia, the U.S., and Britain gave Ukraine guarantees that their borders would be respected.
Putin lost the election in Ukraine in 2014. Putin sent the Russian military to seize the Crimean Peninsula. The troops have remained there ever since.
Putin has assembled a large military force close to Ukraine’s borders. This includes ground troops and tanks, as well as heavy artillery, air power, and heavy artillery. While he claims that he doesn’t intend to invade, he also said that he considers Ukraine to belong to Russia and not an independent nation.
Serhii Plokhy, a scholar, says Putin should question Ukrainians about their feelings.
He stated that the Ukrainian people would answer with: “We are Ukrainians and we want to live here in Ukraine. We want this nightmare to end.”
Now, 44 million Ukrainians await Putin’s next move.