Winnipeg marks millions of victims in Ukraine's Holodomor

24.11.2014, 18:15

Under mild winter skies, clergy chanted somber hymns to the millions of victims in the Ukrainian Holodomor, Stalinist Soviet-era famine that altered the political landscape of the East European country.

In Winnipeg, descendants of Holodomor survivors who immigrated here filed forward with their families for the short outdoor service Saturday at city hall.

Many held candles in bread-bun candle holders. They stood silently under the chorus of hymns led by Ukrainian Catholic and Ukrainian Orthodox bishops and priests.

A few in the crowd lowered flags of black muslin cloth half-mast.

That was the image Saturday before the city’s monument to a 20th century genocide that was largely hidden from the rest of the world for the better part of a century.

Similar services played out elsewhere, including Ukraine.

The Ukrainian Canadian Congress (UCC) observed National Holodomor (Death by Famine) Awareness Week from 17-23 November to commemorate the tragedy. The most catastrophic of a series of famines was orchestrated from Moscow and gripped Ukraine from 1932-1933. That was followed by a series of oppressions that Ukraine weathered. Some seven to eight million people lost their lives, experts now believe.

Margaret Friesen, a Ukrainian Mennonite recalled her parents survived the Holodomor, coming to Canada after the Second World War.

Friesen said the first Stalinist famine was imposed on the Ukrainian population to cleanse the population.

"These people," she said gesturing to the lines of people five or more rows deep at the event, "are mostly from the Ukrainian community, but Stalin targeted more than just Ukrainians. There were other groups, too who were collateral damage," she said.

"My mom said they (Soviets) would come into the home and take the food off the stove. It wasn’t just the grain. It was everything," Friesen said.

This year, observances carried added poignancy as the ex-Soviet state wages war against separatists holding large chunks of eastern Ukraine since the overthrow of a Russian-backed president and Russia’s annexation of the Crimea peninsula.

"Ukraine is undergoing a tremendous transformation," said Bill Balan, chief administration officer with the University of Winnipeg.

He and his wife, who was on the Winnipeg organizing committee for the Holodomor events, returned just weeks earlier from Ukraine. A parliamentary election last month, the first since the revolution that ousted President Viktor Yanukovich, brought in a broadly pro-Western assembly. Petro Poroshenko, also pro-Western in outlook, won last June’s presidential election.

"They are forming a government, with a reform agenda . . . against a lot of odds. They’re up against a two-year window to bring in substantive change and it doesn’t help that they’re fighting a war . . .," Balan said.

Balan visited Dnipropetrovsk, a city in eastern Ukraine, which was the epicentre of the first famine. Moscow repopulated the region with Russians but today many of them are strong Ukrainian patriots, he said.

"There used to be a statue to Lenin in one of main boulevards, but that’s gone now. They didn’t just take down the statue, they took away the pedestal, too. They reseeded the area with grass," he said. The patch of grass sits empty, a visual reminder of how the city’s population is moving past historic injustice, he said.

On Saturday, the day set down to mark the Holodomor in Ukraine and elsewhere, the UCC called upon all Canadians to remember the victims with a moment of silence at 7:30 p.m. local time.

That can also include lighting candles of remembrance in homes and taking part in commemorative events and memorial services.

Canada’s 1.2 million-strong community is one of the largest Ukrainian populations outside Ukraine and Winnipeg has one of the largest populations inside Canada.

22 November 2014 Winnipeg Free Press