The winter of 1932 to 1933 in Ukraine was without parallel in the history of that nation. In a cynical move to shore up his own despotic rule, Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin ordered the NKVD, the forerunners of the KGB, to take complete control of Ukraine’s agricultural sector and export its total output to Russia.
Chekist units set up machine gun posts in the wheatfields of the country regarded as the breadbasket of Europe. That horrific winter 80 million people starved as their food was shipped off to Moscow. Today we still do not know how many Ukrainians died in the deliberate famine created by Stalin and his henchmen but the estimates range anywhere from 2.5 to 20 million. Far higher figures are entirely possible. Survivors who later in life made their way to Australia recalled scenes from that dark winter straight out of hell: whole families perishing through starvation, bodies being carted to sheds where they froze solid and were stacked like logs awaiting burial in Spring. Workers on collective farms stealing potatoes which they secreted in their pockets (although they would have been shot if discovered) to feed their starving families.
Ukrainians have a term for that experience, which they call the Great Terror-Famine or, in Ukrainian, the Holodomor. Today the Holodomor is recognised as deliberate genocide.
In the west, the pseudo-intellectual left pretended the famine was not happening. A young Malcolm Muggeridge, then working as its Moscow correspondent for the left-wing British newspaper, The Manchester Guardian, heard the rumours and caught a train to Ukraine where he saw the truth. The stories he filed were spiked by editors convinced they could not possibly be true and he was sacked.
A year after the Great Famine, an increasingly paranoid Stalin assassinated Sergei Kirov, the head of the Communist Party in Leningrad (formerly St Petersburg), a member of the Politbureau and a charismatic and popular leader within the Party. Kirov’s assassination was the beginning of the Great Terror, which saw millions of Russians and Ukrainians disappear into the vast concentration camp system known as the Gulag, never to return. Especially targeted were Christians and the Christian faith, Orthodox or Catholic. For the tens of millions of deaths it led to, Kirov’s assassination was literally the crime of the century. Under Stalin, Ukraine became a nation of confessors and martyrs.
It is little wonder that when Nazi Germany invaded Ukraine in 1941, Ukrainians welcomed them initially with flowers as liberators, only to discover to their horror that their conquerors regarded them as ‘racially inferior’ Slavs to be dispensed with to pave the way for the Third Reich’s lebensraum.
Ukrainians therefore have every reason to fear the consequences of invasion, especially by a Russian President who is essentially nothing more than an exceptionally dangerous and corrupt former KGB officer determined to reimpose Soviet-style Russian tyranny as he follows in the steps of his Chekist predecessors. How dangerous? So far at least 10 political opponents or critics of Vladimir Putin have been silly enough in recent years to go and get themselves accidentally shot or poisoned to death, such as Stanislav Markelov and Anastasia Baburova in 2009, or Boris Berezovsky in 2013, or Boris Nemtsov in 2015 – to name just a few.
Will the world allow Putin to have his way? As The Catholic Weekly went to press it was impossible to predict with much certainty how the situation will unfold. Still, certain things seem clear. The invasion of Ukraine has been long planned and prepared for. Western sanctions will have already been taken into account and will do little to deter Russian strategy. But they will likely serve as a face-saving exercise for leaders such as US President Joe Biden who has (like many US Democrats) just learned more in one week about the reality of Putin’s Russia than in his previous 45 years in politics. Sanctions will enable him to say he is doing something while in reality he will likely do little at all.
A longer term danger for Ukraine is the world’s indifference and abandonment, something in which western nations are expert. Siberian gas and oil may prove in the long run more important to western European governments than a mere group of Slavs clamouring for freedom.
Now is a moment for our Christian faith to speak. If Catholics adopt the western model of indifference, then their faith has lost its salt. Every Catholic parish in Australia should deluge Ukrainian Catholic Bishop Mykola Bychok CSsR in Melbourne with promises of prayers for Ukraine’s freedom. As Lent begins this week, every Catholic family should besiege the Great and Most Holy Mother of God through the Rosary to intercede for a miracle of peace and just victory for Ukraine. As part of your almsgiving this Lent, you can help those struggling in Ukraine in a tangible way through the Caritas Ukraine Appeal. Evil can only be conquered by good individuals who act. This is the very least we can do.