A quest to publicize an atrocity in Ukraine

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A quarter century ago, a Ukrainian historian named Stanislav Kulchytsky was told by his Soviet overlords to concoct an insidious cover-up. His orders: to depict the famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in the early 1930s as unavoidable, like a natural disaster. Absolve the Communist Party of blame. Uphold the legacy of Stalin.

Professor Kulchytsky, though, would not go along.

The other day, as he stood before a new memorial to the victims of the famine, he recalled his decision as one turning point in a movement lasting decades to unearth the truth about that period. And the memorial itself, shaped like a towering candle with a golden eternal flame, seemed to him in some sense a culmination of this effort.

The concrete memorial was dedicated last November, the 75th anniversary of the famine, in a park in Kiev, on a hillside overlooking the Dnepr River in the shadow of the onion domes of a revered Orthodox Christian monastery. More than 30 meters, or 100 feet, tall, the memorial will eventually house a small museum that will offer testimony from survivors, as well as information about the Ukrainian villages that suffered.

In the Soviet Union, the authorities all but banned discussion of the famine, but by the 1980s the United States and other countries were pressing their own inquiries, often at the urging of Ukrainian immigrants.

In response, Communist officials embarked on a propaganda drive to play down the famine and show that the deaths were caused by unforeseen food shortages or drought. Professor Kulchytsky said he had been given the task of gathering research but concluded that the famine had been man-made.

The famine is known in Ukrainian as the Holodomor — literally, death or killing by starvation — and the campaign to give it recognition has played a significant role in the Ukrainian quest to shape a national identity in the post-Soviet era. It has also further strained relations with the Kremlin, another of the festering disputes left by the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The pro-Western government in Kiev, which came to power after the Orange Revolution of 2004, calls the famine a genocide that Stalin ordered because he wanted to decimate the Ukrainian citizenry and snuff out aspirations for independence from Moscow.

The archives make plain that no other conclusion is possible, said Professor Kulchytsky, who is deputy director of the Institute of Ukrainian History in Kiev.

Last month, Russian historians and archivists sought to bolster the Kremlin's case, issuing a DVD and a book of historical documents that they said demonstrated that the famine was not directed at Ukraine.

Many of the documents were translated into English, underscoring how the two countries are waging their fight on an international stage.

Professor Kulchytsky said the Kremlin feared that if it conceded the truth, Russia, considered the successor to the Soviet Union, could face claims for reparations. Still, he said he would not ignore misstatements by the Ukrainian side, either.

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