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Memory, Sorrow..


Between the years of 1917 and 1954, there were many awful places to be alive in the world. It’s pretty certain most of us wouldn’t have coped with being a victim of the Bengal famine of the 40s, or been happy being placed in the middle of the Rape of Nanking. Perhaps the most awful place to have been alive, consistently, for that entire period though, would be Ukraine.

Between 1914 and 1917, 4 million Ukrainians fought on either side of the Great War. Tsarist “Russian” casualties of the war were enormous. And for the civilians, tens of thousands were murdered, imprisoned. Between 1917 and 1921, it was the cockpit of the civil war – hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions dead in the countryside. Purges. Pogroms. There followed a famine in which 1.5 million died. For 10 years following, it languished under Leninism, which slowly turned to Stalinism, and after that, we have Holodomor, where between 3 and 10 million people died, 80% of them Ukrainian, we have purges, we have mass ethnic cleansing. And then the Germans come. And the Ukrainian nationalists sided with the Germans and helped them with their crimes, killing hundreds of thousands of Jews, while millions more – Ukrainian peasants, soldiers, died again. Then 10 years of guerilla warfare against the Soviet state, all the while Stalin sending political prisoners east, purging the Tartars from Crimea (Which – with the exception of a brief period of 33 years until 54 – had always been part of the same administrative unit as Southern Ukraine).

My last post was on the subject of my own memories. I’ve come to the conclusion of late that we forget the impact of memory on the world, and we are ignoring it at our peril. In the UK, at present, we are limbering up for the anniversary of the commencement of World War I. By the official figures, just short of a million people from the UK died in the war. A horror that we today think unimaginable. Now think of the losses of Ukraine. Every ethnic group there suffered. Jews. Ethnic Germans. Ukrainians. Russians. Millions upon millions. And the major proportion of this, at the hands of their neighbours to the East. Dwarfing by far our deaths in World War 1 and World War 2 combined.

And this, really, in living memory. Less than a lifetime ago this stopped. And all the while it carried on, a forced “Russification”, Russian language and culture made de rigeur, in an attempt – not in the slightest unique to Ukraine – to destroy national identity. This was still happening when my parents were children. You think how we’ve been told stories by our parents and grandparents about the First World War, the Second World War…

Think what the tales of Ukraine must sound like. It must be like having an entire nation built on the site of the Somme.

And you come along with your talk of “natural spheres of influence”, and “Russia’s strategic interests”, and your footling concerns about o’erweening EU power when people who have this forty year period of horror in their cultural memory bank are looking next door to see an overmighty neighbour gearing up for war, using bellicose nationalist language, using quite obvious blood and soil rhetoric, passing laws that make the regaining of “lost” territory “legal”. The question is not “how can we judge the Russians, with the blood on our hands, with the mistakes and the lies of Western power?”. The question is “how does it feel to be Ukrainian this morning? How scared are you?”

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