Statue of a small girl clutching ears of wheat to her chest at Ukraine’s National Museum of the Holodomor Genocide

The upcoming Holodomor Memorial Day (25th November) highlights an intergenerational trauma that frames how ordinary Ukrainians view the present conflict

The historical weight of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has long been clear to anyone familiar with the history of the region. The conflict between the two countries stretches back hundreds of years. Even if we focus only on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we see repeated struggles between Russian claims over Ukrainian territory and Ukrainian resistance, which has occasionally taken ultranationalist form.

The Tsars treated Ukraine as a heartland of Russia itself, alienated through decades of Polish rule and thus in need of a renewed ‘Russification’. The 19th-century Ukrainian national movement was regarded as merely another group aiming to lead astray what was essentially Russia’s ‘Southwestern Lands’. For Ukrainian nationalists, who sought cultural autonomy and later independence, this looked different: as Poland had occupied and colonised Ukrainian land earlier, the Russian Empire was now seen to do the same. Accordingly, Ukraine’s first attempt at independence – the Ukrainian People’s Republic (1918-1921) – was crushed by Bolshevik Russia and Poland, who divided Ukraine between themselves.

As interwar Poland oppressed its Ukrainian minority and Stalinist rule brought mass deportations and famine, many Ukrainians hoped for help from elsewhere. In 1939/41, that help seemed to come from Nazi Germany. Some Ukrainians, rallying around Stepan Bandera and the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), actively collaborated with the Nazi occupiers, hoping to purge Ukraine of all ‘foreign elements’, including Jews, Poles, and Russians. As elsewhere in post-Soviet East Central Europe, it became difficult to disentangle these nationalist struggles against ‘foreign rule’ from complicity in the genocide of the European Jews.

Memory wars

The Russian leadership takes recourse to history in its justification for the present war. There are undoubtedly far-right and neo-Nazi groups operating in Ukraine, including some battalions incorporated into the Ukrainian army. However, Russia’s presentation of Ukraine as overrun by ‘fascists’ resonates amongst the Russian public in part because of the way in which the Second World War is remembered in the two countries. Many Ukrainians remember the OUN as freedom fighters, struggling against Ukraine’s enemies, who included Poles, Nazis, and Soviets. For others in Ukraine, and in Russia, the dominant narrative is of the ‘Great Patriotic War’, liberation from Nazi occupation, and the Soviet victory over fascism.

This is why the decision of the Canadian parliament to invite a veteran of the Waffen-SS Galicia Division to the sitting at which President Zelenskyy was present was so controversial. The Galicia Division was a Nazi military unit that has been accused of direct involvement in atrocities, including the murder of Jews. In September 2023, the 98-year-old Yaroslav Hunka, who fought for the unit, was described by the Speaker, Anthony Rota, as a “hero” and received a standing ovation. The incident sparked outrage and calls for Rota to resign. It also added fuel to the fire of those who would cast Ukrainians as ‘fascists’.

Starvation as a weapon of war

Memory of the Second World War is not the only one that resonates with the family memories of ordinary Ukrainians. A War Crimes dossier is set to accuse Russia of deliberately causing starvation in Ukraine by blocking and/or destroying food supplies – an act that will remind many of the man-made famine in Ukraine in the 1930s, known as the Holodomor. Whereas many historians urge us to see the Holodomor in a broader context of catastrophic famines engineered across vast areas of the Soviet Union to crush alleged counter-revolutionary tendencies, most Russian historians dismiss it as the consequence of an unfortunate harvest failure. The Holodomor killed 3 to 7 million, equalling 10 to 25 percent of the population of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. For many Ukrainians, it remains the most powerful piece of evidence for Russia’s history of genocidal policies directed against Ukraine.

In research carried out for the AHRC-funded project Post-Socialist Britain?, led by Sara Jones, Natalia Kogut carried out interviews with Ukrainian movers to the UK, predominantly those displaced by the most recent Russian aggression. In several of them, the history of the Holodomor is described as an intergenerational trauma that frames how Ukrainians view the present conflict. Olena* recalled: "My grandmother survived the Holodomor and saved her two children, including my grandfather. And I know absolutely exactly what was happening in our village at that time: how people were eaten, how whole villages were dying […] we know that genocide was taking place, and we understand that genocide is happening now."

Another participant, Daryna, described the memory of famine as “embedded in DNA”, noting that especially older Ukrainians would stockpile goods even in peacetime. She notes that the younger generation might not have inherited this “genetic” trait: "But the current war will teach them what the older generation did. Because they do not know what will happen tomorrow […] they stock up on […] things that have a long shelf life."

*All names are pseudonyms.