Diplomatic Pouch / November 19, 2015
By Larry Luxner
On a gloomy, overcast Saturday earlier this month, thousands of Ukrainian-Americans and their supporters crowded Columbus Plaza in front of Union Station to commemorate a long-awaited occasion: the inauguration of Washington’s first-ever monument to victims of the horrific Ukrainian famine of 1932-33.
They came from near and far — from Silver Spring, Md., Cleveland and Detroit, from New York, Toronto and Los Angeles. And some even traveled all the way from Kiev to speak about the Holodomor, in which untold millions of Ukrainians died as a direct consequence of Soviet efforts to forcibly strip the countryside of all grain so its export could finance Joseph Stalin’s massive industrialization program.
And even though Stalin is long gone, it is another leader in Moscow — Russian President Vladimir Putin — that today makes Ukrainian blood boil, given Russia’s ongoing violent military incursion in the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, and the 2014 annexation of Crimea.
“Many Ukrainians in America and around the world have been waiting for this day,” said Valeriy Chaly, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States. “This memorial sends a very clear message about the truth, and helps us tell the story.”
Chaly sat on a dais next to Maryna Poroshenko, the glamorous wife of his friend, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who warned the large crowd by video from Kiev that “once again, death is coming from the east.”
Chaly was joined onstage by diplomats, Ukrainian community leaders and lawmakers, both Democrat and Republican.
“This genocide, if not clearly told, can spawn another, and the Holodomor monument we unveil today does just that,” said Sen. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), co-chair of the Congressional Ukrainian Caucus. “For all of us here, wherever we come from, this monument represents our hopes for victories for shared values, and most significantly, for our humanity that binds us together. May it be for all the days and years ahead.”
The Nov. 7 unveiling of the National Holodomor Memorial — located on a triangular piece of land at North Capitol Street and Massachusetts Avenue — coincided with a temporary exhibit at Union Station that told the story of Ukraine’s famine in 60 informational panels, beginning with the collapse of the Russian monarchy in 1917 and the declaration of independence by Ukraine, once the breadbasket of Europe, a year later.
The memorial itself is a bronze, bas-relief sculpture of a 30-foot-long stylized “field of wheat” elevated on a stone wall. Following the site’s blessing on Dec. 2, 2008, by Ukrainian Orthodox and Catholic priests as well as then-First Lady Kateryna, Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism conducted a design competition won by Washington architect Larysa Kurylas. Work on the project began in December 2013. Construction workers set the finished sculpture into place on Aug. 4, 2015.
“This monument is so located that thousands in the capital of our nation will pass it every day, some in a hurry. But hopefully many will pause to reflect, and vow to remember,” said Levin. “It will perpetually keep alive and honor the memory of millions who lost their lives totally innocently.”
According to an explanatory pamphlet, this field of wheat transitions from high positive to deep negative relief, “underscoring the deliberate nature of the famine.”
Mrs. Poroshenko, speaking in Ukrainian with English subtitles superimposed on a large overhead screen, said it is impossible to justify such atrocities against millions of innocent people.
“Ukraine withstood the threat of total destruction and survived in the unilateral struggle against evil. Today, here in the capital of the United States, in a country based on the principles of freedom and democracy, we are commemorating every soul, every victim and every martyr,” she said to loud applause. “Seven years ago, we opened the national memorial to victims of the Holodomor in Kiev. I would like to express my deep gratitude to the Ukrainian community worldwide, which has made an incredible effort to restore justice and get this tragedy recognized as genocide.”
Representatives of two 2016 presidential candidates, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, read statements of support, as did Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who in a video message urged the White House to send military assistance to help Ukraine defend itself from pro-Russian separatists loyal to Moscow.
Ukrainians in the crowd interrupted the speeches with occasional shouts of “Slava Ukrayini!” [Glory to Ukraine], and gave a standing ovation when several wounded Ukrainian soldiers in uniform who are now recovering from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center were introduced.
Eugene Czolij is president of the Ukrainian World Congress (UWC), which represents 20 million Ukrainians in the diaspora.
At the height of the famine, he said, 17 Ukrainians were dying every minute, 1,000 every hour and 25,000 every day. By 1937, he said, Ukraine had only 26 million people, when there should have been 36 million.
“Ukrainians fought for and ultimately regained their independence in 1991, and after a courageous Euromaidan, got rid of an authoritarian and corrupt regime in order to be able to live in dignity and move forward towards Europe — and no longer backwards towards another Soviet Union,” said Czolij, whose organization is based in Toronto.
“Sadly today, 82 years after the Holodomor, Ukrainians are once again forced to confront a new Russian aggression which threatens their aspirations to live freely. In 1932-33, the international community turned a blind eye to Ukraine’s unimaginable suffering, and to Russia’s brazen violation of our common fundamental freedoms and basic human rights. As a result, less than a decade later, another despot was emboldened to orchestrate another genocide — the Holocaust against the Jewish people — and to provoke the Second World War.”
This is why, said Czolij, the UWC “reiterates its call upon the international community, under the leadership of the United States, to effectively assist Ukraine in defending its border and stop Russian aggression from progressing further into Europe.”
Foreign policy expert and former diplomat Paula Dobriansky read a letter from President George W. Bush, who in 2006 signed legislation that secured land for the Holodomor memorial.
“Such a scale of human suffering is hard to comprehend,” Bush wrote. “The memorial you dedicate today provides assurance that generations to come will remember those who were starved at the hands of Josef Stalin.”
The crowd also heard from several elderly Holodomor survivors including Alexander Severin, who experienced the horrors of 1932-33 as a young boy growing up in a village in eastern Ukraine.
“I am filled with joy to see this monument consecrated and unveiled in the capital of America,” said Severin, speaking Ukrainian. “We can never allow the world to forget the wholesale devastation, the horrors of collectivization, the destruction of the peasantry and the forced repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians to the USSR. This monument must be a warning for the future.”
In a videotaped message, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) added: “It’s been 82 years since Stalin used hunger as a weapon against the innocent and the defenseless, but praise God, he failed in both. Stalin is gone, Soviet Russia is gone, but the Ukrainian people live on. Even in the most difficult of circumstances — including those faced today — Ukraine will endure and thrive.”