This week, the Ukrainian parliament banned all Russian films released after Jan. 1, 2014, the year Russia annexed Crimea, moving it from Ukraine's jurisdiction to Russia's. The note accompanying the decision said it was taken for reasons of national security. Connecting security with movies sounds like eccentric policy, but perhaps not in Ukraine. Earlier, parliament banned all Russian military films made after 1991, the year Ukraine established its independence. Last month, the broadcasting regulator removed 15 Russian TV channels from Ukraine.
Most countries pay some attention to cultural politics. It certainly matters in Canada, for instance. But in Ukraine (pop. 44.5 million) it's a question of national survival. Ukraine's existence depends on it. Anxiety about it reflects the country's crumpled national ego.
In 1917, Russia made Ukrainian schools stop teaching in the Ukrainian language. It banned books and newspapers in Ukrainian. Through modern times, Russia has tried to absorb Ukraine. The central motive of Ukrainian nationalists has been to remain Ukrainian and avoid becoming Russian. According to one poll (taken by Russians), more Russian is spoken than Ukrainian in the everyday life of Ukraine. Yet Ukrainian is the one official language. Proposals to add Russian as a second official language have failed to generate much enthusiasm. Many Ukrainians fear becoming a Russian colony, a condition they experienced for many years, including about seven decades of the 20th century. They feel marginalized by their comparison with their much larger (and much more confident) neighbour.
Around the world, Ukraine and its problems are too often ignored. Condescension is the most it can hope for in discussions of international affairs. In the current issue of the New York Review of Books, Anne Applebaum writes that even as Ukraine develops its own historical debate and its own national literature, "It is still missing from Western historiography, the Western literary canon, and even from Western political consciousness."
Ukraine's right to exist as a nation at all is routinely questioned in Western capitals, Applebaum notes. And, of course, in Moscow. Perhaps many agree with President Vladimir Putin that "Ukraine is not a country." Certainly it is not a well-known country. On the intellectual map of the West, Ukraine lives as a blank space.
Worst of all, from the standpoint of Ukrainians, the Holodomor is forgotten or only briefly mentioned. Few non-Ukrainians know the word, but the Holodomor is the great tragedy in the history of the nation's life, as crucial to Ukrainians as the Holocaust is to Jews. "Holodomor" is a Ukrainian word that translates into English as "hunger-extermination." It was an event that combined the horrors of famine and genocide. During 1932-34, millions of Ukrainians died as a result of the official Soviet Union's malign indifference. In collecting the results of the wheat harvest across Ukraine, the local commissars were so anxious to fill their quotas that they confiscated not only the harvest, but also the seed reserves. Newly established collective farms had nothing to sow and soon the farmers had nothing to eat. Villages were abandoned, whole districts depopulated. Almost no one seemed to care. And this was in a vast sea of rich land, once the breadbasket of Europe.
One witness was the young Arthur Koestler, then a communist, who was travelling across the country to see what Stalin had created. At every train station he saw crowds of beggars with starving children, offering to trade an icon for a loaf of bread. His Russian companions took pains to explain that these wretched crowds were kulaks, rich peasants who had resisted the collectivization of land and had to be evicted from their farms.
That was the Moscow line, as transmitted to the outside world through censorship. Walter Duranty, the best-known correspondent in Moscow, defended that argument. "Russians Hungry, But Not Starving" said the heading on one of his stories, Ukrainians lumped in with Russians. Duranty's reports have since been described as the most shameful in the history of his paper, The New York Times.
Other correspondents reported the truth. Malcolm Muggeridge accurately reported the famine for the Manchester Guardian and never ceased to recount the horrors he saw. Gareth Jones, a young Welsh journalist, wrote several accurate pieces; two books about him have recently appeared. Georges Simenon, the Belgian novelist, wrote about the few days he spent in starving Odessa. He was told that the beggars he saw should not be pitied. They had not adapted to the communist regime, so "There is nothing for them but to die."
No one knows how many did. Estimates range from four million to seven million. In various countries across the world, the Ukrainian diaspora tries to document the tragedy and honour the memory of the dead. One example is a valuable anthology, The Holodomor Reader, published by the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Alberta.
There's pathos as well as tragedy in Ukraine's fate. It has lived in the shadow of Russia for so long that it lacks identity. At the moment several parties in the Ukrainian parliament are trying to create a presumably stable and coherent coalition. They hope to qualify for a $1.7-billion recovery loan from the International Monetary Fund, which has already warned that political paralysis is putting the loan at risk. Once more, Ukraine's fate rests in foreign hands.