Viktor Yushchenko: “All our tragedies occurred when there was no understanding within the nation”

Next year Ukraine will mark the 75th anniversary of the Holodomor, which claimed nearly 10 million Ukrainian lives in 1932- 33. It should be noted that Ukraine’s parliament passed a bill recognizing the Holodomor as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people only last year. In recent months official Kyiv has been contacting other countries and international organizations, urging them to acknowledge the Holodomor as genocide. A dozen parliaments have responded.

On Nov. 1, 2007, the 34th UNESCO General Conference (made up of 193 member countries) unanimously passed the Resolution “Remembrance of Victims of the Great Famine (Holodomor) in Ukraine.” The resolution did not mention the word genocide. How does this UNESCO resolution correspond to Ukraine’s vision of these 75-year-old events? Will Ukraine keep insisting that the Holodomor be recognized by the international community as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people? What are the lessons that the current Ukrainian generation and political elite should learn from this tragedy? Below President Viktor Yushchenko comments on these and other issues in an interview with correspondents from five Ukrainian periodicals: The Day, Silski visti, Ukraina Moloda, Fakty, and the weekly Dzerkalo tyzhnia.

President: The sun has not yet set on this question. We must understand that conveying the truth about the Great Famine of 1932- 33 to the world community is not an optional, one-year course. We should clearly understand that this issue is facing a great many challenges that the Ukrainian nation must overcome. What happened yesterday (this interview took place on Dec. 2 — Ed.) is proof that the amount of work done by Ukraine, its political forces and diplomats in the past couple of years has been recognized by 193 countries, which last night unanimously voted in favor of this decision. For me, it is very important that for the first time the world community adopted a joint consolidated decision on recognizing the Great Famine of 1932-33 on such a scale. This is the main victory. Other, more specific, details of this tragedy represent our future work. If you will pardon my saying so, how can we reproach the world when it has taken our society 73 years to get a parliament that recognizes this as the Holodomor? We have been afraid to say so for 73 years. Now we are demanding that 193 countries do something that we Ukrainians didn’t have the courage to do within our own nation, within our own leadership.

I think that we have received three signals. First, we have provided the world with enough arguments to show that this tragedy is not only a tragedy of the Ukrainian nation but a tragic page in the annals of world history, something that we must respect, honor, and know about all over the world. Second, it is an extremely important fact that the UNESCO General Conference has joined in commemorating the 75th anniversary of this tragedy. Third, it is important that this UNESCO resolution recommends that the signatories do their best to make this page in history, this particular truth, part of educational programs and high school curricula throughout the world, so that people will have a better insight into this event that took place in Ukraine.

I think that these three signals are the strongest ones, something we can really feel proud of, because this concerns our tragic history and those directives that first and foremost we want the rest of the world to understand and accept.

We’re making efforts all over the world, holding various events, and organizing visits. Dozens of conferences are being organized by the Institute of Memory. You won’t find a parliament anywhere in the world that has not received my message about the Holodomor of 1932- 33. This topic is being developed and implemented, in some places better, and in other places, worse. Sometimes circumstances are forced, which impede a quick decision- making process. Let me share one of my convictions with you: the time will come when most national parliaments will recognize this tragic page of Ukrainian history, the Holodomor of 1932-33, as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people. As a nation, we must be better consolidated with regard to this issue; we must believe in ourselves. We must finally dedicate our efforts to one of the Ukrainian themes upon which is based the kind of understanding, unity, and consolidation that our nation needs — because unity and consolidation do not come about based on something that is amorphous; least of all do they come about through silence. On the contrary, we must shoulder all the burdens of the past years and accept all the outrages that were perpetrated against the nation as our own personal drama. And in this we must sense the need for Ukraine’s unification on an organic, cellular level.

Mr. President, according to the Law on the Holodomor, any attempts to deny it are prohibited and regarded as acts of contempt to the millions of victims. How can our politicians be made to observe this law? Will you insist that the new coalition amend the Criminal Code to institute criminal liability for Holodomor denial?

President: If you recall Article 2 of this Law, it requires a sequel to the logistics of this order. If we have proof of denial, then there must be liability for it. I see logic in the fact that changes to the Law on the Holodomor of 1932-33 must contain an article on administrative and criminal responsibility. Yesterday I signed a bill to this effect and did not submit it to parliament for only one reason. I would first like to address a special message to the Ukrainian parliament, elucidating all the circumstances concerning both current and historical aspects. Then I would propose a resolution on criminal and administrative liability for denying the Holocaust and the Holodomor. These two subjects are very similar. They are topical both within our country and throughout the world, which keeps moving in this direction. I’m convinced that this will be a good example of the two greatest tragedies, one of which claimed five million and the other some ten million lives, that both will have international status on the one hand, and on the other, that there will be clear- cut boundaries of liability within the framework of national legislation. Therefore, this issue will shortly be placed on the agenda.

I’m convinced that there won’t be any problems in parliament. We’ll find sides there that have political morals and an unsuppressed national consciousness, who realize that this step is not aimed against anyone. This step is not aimed against Russia or the Russian people. Excuse me, but it is a step aimed against a regime, the only and main cause of that tragedy. Regrettably, political commentaries on this issue vary. However, I am convinced that politicians tend to mature with time and become more conscientious with each passing day as we discuss issues that are so close to the Ukrainian heart. Therefore, I’m convinced that we will get this issue moving in the Ukrainian parliament, as we did the recognition of the Holodomor of 1932-33 as an act of genocide. If anyone has questions about why genocide, they should look at two statistics, particularly Joseph Stalin’s census of 1929 and Brezhnev’s in 1979. We started with the Ukrainian nation numbering 81 million and ended up with 42 million. In 50 years the only nation that shrank by two times was the Ukrainian nation. All the others increased by two or three times. Of course, this statistic has to do not only with the Holodomor.

However, I would like to emphasize — especially for the political elite — that we must outgrow our Little Russian garb and dedicate our efforts to issues of recognition that are sensitive even to my generation. If we don’t do this, the Ukrainian nation, its consciousness, and subsequent Ukrainian generations will be deformed. That is why this is not a playful subject for me, not an optional class in Ukrainian history but one of the most urgent questions of today. Therefore, if we want to take good care of our future, we must first of all take good care of our history because the future is created precisely from history. We are filtering what is strong, what unites and identifies, what makes us a more universal and wiser nation. And on the basis of these values is formulated the answer to the question, what kind of future do we want? If someone says that the past can be cut off, like with a pair of scissors, and that we can get together at a roundtable and create a bright future, this is utopia. No nation does this. Every nation knocks on the doors of its past, seeking lines of identification that most vividly demonstrate feelings of national unity and the strength of the nation, and on the basis of this forms its own perspective. In other words, I believe that an individual that works against Ukrainian history is not a carrier of the Ukrainian future. This is what an absolutely urgent, straightforward, and contemporary approach is all about.

Dmytro Dontsov once said that Ukrainians must develop a spirit capable of effectively resisting the spirit of Ivan the Terrible, which is being constantly reincarnated in Russia. Do you agree that little has changed in the Kremlin corridors of power and generally in many European capitals and the rest of the world? To what degree do they accept Ukraine as an independent country? Is there any reverse process?

President: There is no reverse process. I am convinced that in the days of Bohdan Khmelnytsky or Ivan Mazepa asserting the Ukrainian nation was considerably more difficult than today. We live in a different era, although no one will say that we are living in easy times. This kind of work has never been easy. I do not think that these words have lost their urgency. They remain topical today. I would probably emphasize another aspect. Ukrainians always like to cry, either because they are living in the wrong times or they lack strength, or are in the wrong kind of circumstances. I am convinced that the key concept of forming national consciousness and an open society lies in our own inner will. Regardless of who and which corridors of power are thinking about Ukraine, we need our own concept of where we are today. What do we have to build up? Unfortunately, too many myths have been introduced into Ukrainian history, which have perhaps been introduced on the subconscious rather than conscious level of many generations. Living with these myths has given rise to this black- and-white attitude toward our life and our history. Without a doubt, we must have a truthful history of Ukraine. Otherwise we will long continue to wander among contemporary events.

For example, look at how it pains, or does not pain, our Ukrainian hearts to know what happened to the graves of the youths who died at Kruty? What nation tolerates uproars, like when our national anthem is murdered? In other words, this is our symbol, and not simply our symbol but that which is perhaps the best graphic evidence of our identity as Ukrainians. Why are they attacking our anthem? Why are they smearing it? Because once again they want to prove the hackneyed myth of the past that says that we have no nation, that we have no state, we have different languages in our country, different churches, even different kinds of history, and differing attitudes to our national history.

Once again, let me emphasize that this is not a problem of some other nation, some other capital city. This is a problem of my family, our families. This is a problem of our nation. If we continue to allow our national values to be treated this way, we will live with a sense of being imperfect and second-rate for a long time to come. That is why these are sensitive things for me. It is obvious that people are striking at these things, striking Hoverlia, Kruty, and erecting monuments to Catherine II. I realize that these are episodes; these are lessons after which a nation becomes different. I assure you that what we’re talking about now has never been discussed in these offices, within these walls, with this coloration, and in this context. I am inspired by this because this is progress. We don’t need to be idealists: building a state is a difficult subject. We have a great many opponents, we have a fifth column. Ultimately, they will keep working hard to prove that we have failed. Sixteen years aren’t long enough to finally answer the question whether or not we have succeeded in building our state. I have no doubts that the state has been established for many centuries to come. We still face many challenges and we must realize all of them. I have no illusions about this, either. This is a great test; there will be grave wounds; great problems connected to our historical destiny.

I would say, however, that the number-one issue is the question that above all concerns our very nation, our citizens; how much this citizen is aware of being a Ukrainian national. Another issue — I don’t want to use an insulting qualifier — is that we must develop a new breed of Ukrainian politicians, who will assign primary importance to issues pertaining to national consolidation and the formation of national memory and consciousness that have been distorted over the centuries. After all, in view of the historical depression that keeps catching up with us, bringing tears to our eyes and often serving to disunite us, it is necessary to form precisely this kind of elite.

Without a doubt, it is emerging. More and more interesting people are appearing in the Ukrainian parliament, with whom, I will say frankly, it is interesting to conduct polemics and be aware of all those threads that bind us to what we understand; that this is our job and those challenges that Ukrainian politicians, as the avant-garde, should understand. They have to keep a step ahead of things and explain them to the people. I am convinced that herein lies the great mission of the new Ukrainian political generation, a generation that may not always be fully understood by society in one aspect or another. Right now we are turning back to the pages that are acquiring passionate understanding. [I am referring to] the Holodomor in the current context, when every November tens of thousands of people gather in front of what I would describe as a sign rather than a monument, for the nation has not made an adequate acknowledgment that would pay tribute to the fate of nearly 10 million victims who died in 1932-33. This is more than we lost during the Second World War. Yet with every passing year we feel this truth taking its place in our history. And for many this is a discovery.

I will say frankly that I feel some anger toward the intelligentsia and journalists, who have not always displayed their national stand, while often exploiting the unique monopoly on the pen, which means on the idea, which only journalists have, to speak the truth. In other words, much needs to be raised in society. I only want to say one thing, that I will never blame some side for failing to do everything for all this to become a reality in Ukraine. This is exclusively a question of the titular Ukrainian nation. And I am sure that its ambitions can change the views of the world, neighbors, and various regional or international organizations. Everything starts from here.

Mr. President, what kind of information policy do you think Ukraine should adopt in commemorating the Holodomor victims?

President: I think this should be a policy for the next several years. To this I would like to add a general remark: if we keep saying that this is a bother for the state, then we won’t be able to accomplish many things, place them on the agenda, and achieve them. This is everyone’s business, no matter who you are according to your position. I am convinced that this is a question of a challenge, when we talk about how to have a single nation, incontestable territorial integrity, sovereignty, and by which mechanisms this should be consolidated. This is a discussion that involves everyone. The question is: what is your stand, of your family, your children — and not just on this question but in the widest understanding: security, defense, and integration; who will we be 10 to 15 years from now — where we have been or where we want to be?

But this is what the situation looks like. First of all, we must lock in historical memory. And for this we must develop a vast body of scholarship, carry out appropriate archaeology, and complete a proper inventory of everything that exists not only in our archives but abroad, with regard to one part of history or another. We simply have to know the truth about what happened in Ukraine in 1920, 1929, in the 1930s, in 1936, the 1940s, and the 1950s. Therefore, the topic of the liberation movement and its history is one of the very sensitive pages that we still have to comprehend. We were taught a different kind of history, so we have a vague attitude to the efforts made by Symon Petliura. We know next to nothing about what was accomplished by Yevhen Konovalets in Kyiv in 1919; about the monarchist endeavors of Hetman Skoropadsky, the dramatic conflict between him, Petliura, and Vynnychenko, or about the Arsenal tragedy, Kruty, or the Bohodukhiv army. All these issues are such a complex and painful mix that demonstrates the following: as a rule, all our tragedies occurred when there was no understanding within the nation. This history must be brought forth. If we learn it, then we will lock it in books, programs, monuments, and street names. This is a purification of our consciousness.

Therefore, I would say that first comes a great deal of painstaking scholarly work, on the basis of which enlightening work must be organized, and later, important educational work in various domains, starting of course with schools and upbringing in schools, and the introduction of special courses and all kinds of support for this kind of research to be undertaken by various scholarly institutions. In other words, perhaps the most important thing is to popularize the knowledge we already possess and acquire new knowledge. I am convinced that raising the level of our self-sufficiency and discarding Little Russianism are the key tasks of the state authorities today. We must consistently form our national consciousness. This is the key to the answer to this question. People who are enriched with national memory, consciousness, and truthful history can provide answers to the formation of key national priorities. This is an integrative connection. I would even describe it as a pair of correspondences that are interrelated. As people say correctly, history is the road to the future. Without history there is no road to the future.

You mentioned the topic of the legal responsibility for the Holodomor on the part of the political regime. After the 20th Congress of the CPSU it was far easier to discuss Stalinist repressions than it is to talk about the Holodomor today. There are a lot fewer people who know from personal experience what it was. Even now, a year after the Holodomor bill was passed, there is no understanding on this issue among the political forces that obtained seats in parliament after the early elections. Mr. President, are you certain that your proposed changes to the law, which envisage administrative and criminal liability for Holodomor denial, will be passed by parliament, and will the Party of Regions support them?

President: Frankly, above all, I’m relying on support from you. There are more of you. Believe me: it’s not worth pretending that parliament gives its consent to this with 228 or 232 votes. What decides the matter is society’s consent. Our society can demolish any opposition to this question, no matter where it is formed: parliament, or government, or in some regional organization. We must first plant these convictions in our own hearts. I am convinced that in the past two years we have accomplished more on this subject than was done in the past 70 years. Of course, the heaviest consequence of the Famine of 1932-33 is the victims. It is very important for us to know these victims because the very recognition of the existence of these victims leads us to a second conclusion: these people lived. Therefore they had their own values and views because of which they clearly suffered. We are starting to address them. For some, this means a spiritual aspect: these are souls that can give us strength through our prayers. To others these souls do not exist; they have forgotten all about them in keeping with what they were taught. They have no one to appeal to. Tear a page from a book and say that 1932-33 never existed: you are without memory. But “memory” and “memorial” have the same root. Everything that has no memory will never be history.

Why is it important for us to consolidate all this through all sorts of signs that will restore our forgotten memory? I will be announcing a competition for the best book of 2008 on the Great Famine of 1932- 33. I will raise funds, and the people who do the finest work on behalf of the Ukrainian nation will be honored. I will also announce a competition for the best film on the same subject. In fact, several film scripts are being developed right now, which will serve, I am convinced, as vivid proof for the rest of the world, not only for our nation. Right now we are talking about the completion of the drafting part of the work to create a monument to the Great Holodomor and the opening of a Holodomor museum that will occupy an area of several thousand square meters. We have enough eyewitness testimony and to spare. Over the past year the Institute of Memory has identified 1.5 million witnesses who can relay the truth about the Holodomor. Among them are people who were only a couple of years old and who remember those terrible times. Thank God, there are still people left who experienced all this as adults. Archives have been preserved in our country, although a large proportion of them were destroyed. But as far as I am concerned, besides the enormous human tragedies, the 1932-33 Famine also brought another great affliction: terror. That which took place in 1932-33 led to 1936-37: repressions and abasement of human dignity and honor — everything that was set in motion during this period. Therefore, there is no question that today we must bring up this topic in all its manifestations in as solid a fashion as possible. I am convinced that we will have a distinguished national memorial and that the victims’ memory will be duly honored throughout the oblasts. During a meeting in Kharkiv, I rebuked some heads of oblast state administrations who are obliged to apply similar steps to all local state administrations, where little has been done to commemorate the memory of the victims of the Great Famine. I am more of an optimist than a pessimist in these matters, although I am convinced that this question should have been raised in the first days of national sovereignty.

As of today, every oblast is collecting data on all those who died during the Great Famine, which will be used to compile regional Remembrance Books that will be issued next year in conjunction with the 75th anniversary of the Holodomor. I am convinced that we will start working on a National Remembrance Book in half a year. All this has to do with the subject of memory. I think this is the key to understanding the mission before us. Today we have to manage to complete this work. Assessments are ahead. We must record as much pertinent data as is absolutely technically possible because this is the most important issue at this stage.
By Mykola SIRUK, The Day

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