Every November Ukraine commemorates the Holodomor, the famine and genocide of 1932 and 1933. Since 2010, President Viktor Yanukovych has marked the occasion with a formal address to the people. Read in isolation, none of them is terribly interesting. A comparative look at all three speeches, however, reveals some interesting shifts in tone and content that may illuminate Yanukovych’s own evolving thinking about the genocide and his regime.
But first a striking continuity. Yanukovych has never called the Holodomor a genocide. He’s called it a crime, a tragedy, and an Armageddon, but not genocide. Ironically, he does use the term Holodomor, which means “killing by means of hunger” and, in that sense, is virtually a synonym for genocide. There are indications that this reluctance to call a spade a spade may change.
Back in 2010, during his first encounter with Holodomor remembrance day, Yanukovych stated (this and subsequent citations are the translations provided on his website):
I bow to the memory of those innocently killed by the Holodomor.
Even now, the tragedy of 1932–1933 is difficult to comprehend. It was a real Armageddon, when people were loosing [sic] their human essence because of hunger.
Therefore, this national tragedy that has devoured millions of innocent people, is no subject to oblivion.
Note the reference to “a real Armageddon” and the “millions of innocent people.” Note as well, however, that Yanukovych treats the Holodomor almost as if it were a natural catastrophe that somehow befell Ukraine. And he can’t resist chiding the Orange government of Viktor Yushchenko for its efforts to commemorate the famine:
However, when these sad commemorations have begun to resemble a conveyor, when at numerous gatherings and round tables some so-called “scientists” have begun throwing around with ease the numbers of those, who died of starvation—3 million—5 million—7 million and even more, it became a blasphemy. After all, even one person’s death is an uncompensated loss not only for the family, but also for the Cosmos. So how can one throw around millions at the abacus as though it is something insignificant? It is an unforgivable sin.
One year later, in 2011, Yanukovych’s speech strikes different tones. For one, it’s much shorter—94 words as opposed to 336 in 2010, when finger-pointing was the order of the day. For another, Yanukovych clearly implies that the famine actually had a political cause: totalitarianism.
Every year, in late November, we pay tribute to the victims of a terrible famine that killed millions of people. The unprecedented tragedy of global scale inflicted an irreparable loss on Ukraine.
Terrible years of totalitarianism have been a spiritual catastrophe: numerous churches were demolished, hundreds of thousands of peasants, workers, and intellectuals were physically eliminated or sent to the Gulag camps, almost every Ukrainian family suffered.
The bravado that characterized the 2010 speech is also gone: after almost two years of power, Yanukovych knew he had little to boast about and ends his speech as follows:
Preserving the sacred memory of our tragic past, the Ukrainian state is confidently moving forward, building civil society on the principles of rights and freedoms, laying a solid foundation for future generations.
In 2012, a further shift is evident. The speech is still short (141 words), but the Holodomor is now a “crime” and crimes always have, as we know, perpetrators. Yanukovych doesn’t say who is responsible and he expands the Holodomor to “other countries of the former USSR,” but the implication is clear: the totalitarian Soviet regime committed the crime.
These days it will turn 80 years since trouble has come to our land.
In the period of 1932–1933, Holodomor covered the territory of Ukraine and other countries of former USSR.
This crime has changed the history of Ukrainian people forever. It has been one of the severest challenges of Ukrainians. Holodomor not only killed people, but also had the purpose of causing fear and obedience. For decades, any mention of those dreadful events has been banned.
No less important, there is no talk of past or present governments and their failures or achievements: after all, by November 2012 Yushchenko is just a memory and the Yanukovych regime is a complete bust. Instead, Yanukovych acts like a politician in serious trouble and praises the people for their fortitude and strength:
But Ukrainian people demonstrated tenacity. Due to belief in its power, love to Ukraine, primordial pursuit of freedom and independence we have survived.
Today, a little candle flame unites us in a prayer for souls of Holodomor victims. We also remember those who shared the last piece of bread and saved lives of compatriots.
Here’s a tentative prediction. If the regime continues to decay at its current rate and if the economy tanks, as it’s very likely to do, Yanukovych will—hold on to your seats!—utter the word genocide in his Holodomor commemorative address of 2013. If he does, you’ll know that he knows his days in power are numbered.