Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and former First Lady Kateryna Yushchenko reflected on the 18 months since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 during a trip to Chicagoland to speak on the history of the years of Soviet-occupied Ukraine.
The pair spoke to a packed room at Evanston’s Rotary International for the 90th anniversary of the Holodomor, a year-long genocidal campaign waged by former Soviet Premier Josef Stalin whose effects, they said, are still being felt.
From 1932 to 1933, Stalin carried out the Holodomor by closing the borders of Ukraine and taking crops and farm equipment from Ukrainian farmers in what was described by the USSR as an attempt to collectivize farming in the region.
As a result, 10 million Ukrainians starved to death, the Yushchenkos said. Two of the survivors of the genocide were Kateryna Yushchenko’s mother and father. Kateryna herself was named after her aunts, one of whom found Kateryna’s grandfather’s body after he was hanged for alleged anti-Soviet activities and the other who was stolen from her preschool at age three and never seen again.
“My family history was shaped by Holodomor,” she said.
When Kateryna Yushchenko, a former White House and State Department official and Chicago native, first started visiting family in Ukraine, she would ask about the Holodomor and would be told that it never happened. Eventually, her family explained to her how they were told to forget and wanted to forget.
During his time in office from 2005 to 2010, Viktor Yushchenko made efforts to ensure the world didn’t forget those lost. In 2006, Ukraine’s Parliament passed a bill declaring the Holodomor as a genocide. He also spearheaded the creation of the National Museum of the Holodomor-Genocide in Kyiv, Ukraine, which opened on the 75th anniversary of the genocide in 2008.
“When Viktor first created the museum, many people came and it’s interesting because we would see many people like my family, finally recognizing that what they knew and thought they didn’t know, they knew again,” Kateryna Yushchenko said.
She explained many Ukrainians denied the genocide out of fear and heartache that remained even years following Ukraine’s vote for independence in December 1991. This most recent trip to Chicagoland served as an extension of the pair’s goal to educate the public about the impact the Holodomor had on Ukraine then and now.
“We have an obligation to mobilize the world so that (regarding) one of the greatest tragedies in the 21st century, we speak with one voice and we can recognize this as a genocide,” the former president said.
The history of the Holodomor has connections to the current war in Ukraine, according to founding coordinator of the Holodomor Studies Program at California State University, Victoria A. Malko. She explained that similarities between the ongoing war and Holodomor — including how both were described as special operations, civilians were targeted and subjected to symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome to deny them of their Ukrainian culture — constitute both as genocide.
“This current genocide has become possible precisely because it (the Holodomor) has never been prosecuted,” Malko said. “The denial of genocide harbors the seeds of further violence.”
Rotary International’s General Secretary and Chief Executive Officer John Hewko said Russia needs Ukraine to win just as the rest of the world does to force Russian society to reflect much like Germany did after World War II.
Last week, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to news reports, and stirred up concerns about the two countries engaging in a weapons transfer. For the former president, the meeting proved that Putin is struggling in the war and grasping at straws for support.
“This alliance shows really how far Putin has fallen, how far he has to dig to find support,” Viktor Yushchenkosaid. “His only allies today are regimes which for decades have been under international sanctions. His only allies are countries that are run by dictators and I think this proves yet again that we are on the right side of history.”
Regarding current Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the progress of the war, Viktor Yushchenko said with Zelenksyy’s constitutional majority in Parliament and his place as the president with the largest percentage of votes in the country’s history, he has the potential to make deep, lasting decisions about the path of the country going forward. However, the war must first be won.
“A very important part of Ukraine’s policies today is the war has united Ukrainian society and now everyone in our society has one goal to overcome Russia and Putin,” he said. “There are many issues that we can discuss when it comes to financial, economic, security issues — policies that have to be debated and discussed, but we feel strongly as a society that’s something we should put off until our victory.”
That victory isn’t far off, the former president believes, saying “this is our last battle with Russian colonialism, which every generation that came before us dreamt of. That’s the only context in which I view what’s happening today in Ukraine. This is a great time for us and we will have a great victory.”
The continued support to Ukraine from the United States has been up for debate in recent months as candidates for the 2024 presidential election outline their platforms. Republican candidate Vivek Ramaswamy said during the Aug. 23 Republican National Debate he would pull support from Kyiv while candidate Ron DeSantis said he would continue support only if European nations increased their support. Viktor Yushchenko said he hopes American voters understand the war in Ukraine is the chief political issue impacting the world today.
“The war that the Ukrainian nation is now having to fight against Russia is a great battle for the values of collective security policy and American security as well,” he said. “It’s a system of responsibility and of course the Ukrainian nation would like to see that the American voter, no matter which side he supports, should be a partner of Ukraine.”
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