The coniferous attack on Ukraine’s president was not the main highlight of Dmitri Medvedev’s most recent visit to Kyiv. Sure, it was funny, and Victor Yanukovych’s administration made things worse by trying to ban footage of President vs. Wreath on television. Yanukovych’s macho ego was due for a little deflating, but far more significant events did transpire.
One example: the two presidents’ homage to the victims of the Holodomor. They may not agree that the artificial famine designed by the Kremlin and implemented by Stalin’s Soviets to kill Ukrainians was genocide, yet they honoured its victims. Actions speak louder than words. That they even went to the memorial is amazing and deserves as much discussion as the incident by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Flashback to the early 1980s, when Ukrainians outside the USSR embarked on a campaign to let the world know that artificial famines were instruments of Soviet policy that took millions of lives in Ukraine and other parts of the Soviet Union. Twenty-five years ago, the Soviet propaganda machine and its cogs in Western academia* dismissed the accusations that the Bolshevik-run state had organized the death of millions by famine. Either the fact of famine was denied or excuses like drought or poor harvest were provided. The “myth” of famine was dismissed as a fraudulent figment of “fascist” imagination.
Twenty-five years later, the truth of the matter has been revealed in such a way that not even the Kremlin dares deny the Holodomor. Twenty-five years ago, the Soviet apparatchiks were in denial mode. Today, the chiefs of post-Soviet states are lighting candles to honour the memories of victims of Soviet crimes. Now that, in the bigger scheme of things, is progress.
Yanukovych is the first Ukrainian president to deny that genocide took place. His three predecessors are very clear on the issue, as are the heads of all the Orthodox churches in Ukraine, including Metropolitan Volodymyr of the so-called Moscow patriarchate. The nation’s first president, Leonid Kravchuk, detailed how he was ordered to counter the Holodomor campaign of the 1980s in his capacity as communist party ideologue. Today, he is unequivocal in his assessment: it was genocide.
In Brussels, Yanukovych singlehandedly dismissed the genocide claim for the sake of better relations with Russia. In Yanukovych’s Ukraine, monuments to the Holodomor’s head honcho Stalin are erected. Meanwhile, when Russia’s president came to Kyiv, he makes a point of honouring the Holodomor’s victims. What’s going on?
Ukraine’s president looks silly, while Russia’s president looks progressive, like a senior statesman and real leader. Medvedev’s condemnation of Stalin in early May and his honouring of Stalin’s victims in Kyiv are consistent. Yanukovych is sending mixed messages. He does not know what he wants. It’s another argument for letting Moscow run and re-establish primacy over the region. The underlying messages from the Kremlin: a) if they are left on their own, states like Ukraine will fail, and b) the world needs Russia to keep order in the former Soviet space, otherwise you’ll have to deal with yahoos that build Stalin monuments.
The Kremlin has learned that denial and cover-up can only go so far and that sooner or later truths of matters tend to surface, be they radioactive clouds emanating from Chornobyl or archival documents showing how Stalin and his henchmen planned and executed the murder of millions within the boundaries of Soviet Ukraine. (The Kremlin has also learned how to trivialize those truths or make them serve its own interests, but that’s another topic altogether.)
Ukraine’s new leadership has not learned the decades-old lessons of glasnost: cover-ups and denials don’t work. The incident with the falling wreath is but one example.
Perhaps Ukraine’s new leaders do not want to learn and are content with letting Moscow do all of their thinking for them. Otherwise, they would have handled the Holodomor a little differently. For example, Yanukovych could have told Brussels: "Holodomor was genocide. We are not saying that Ukrainians were the only ones targeted and systematically murdered by the Bolsheviks. We know that Stalin committed genocide against other peoples as well. Ukrainians are talking about what happened within the borders of Soviet Ukraine. Ukraine has declassified all of its Soviet archives pertaining to this period and the proof is undeniable: the murder of millions within the confines of Soviet Ukraine was planned by the state. We encourage other former Soviet republics to declassify their documents and do the same. Tell the world about the other Soviet genocides."
That would be the best way to honour all of Stalin’s victims, be they in Ukraine, or Russia.