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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Ukraine: a postgenocidal society

Studying it takes a cultured and tactful approach
4 November, 2008 - 00:00

This year’s international Mo­lodist Film Festival included the hors concours program “Do­cu­mentaries on the Holodomor.” The Day’s journalists were invited to the screening of one of them, Peizazh pislia moru (Landscape after the Famine). This documentary features the noted Ho­lo­do­mor researcher James Mace, who collaborated with this newspaper from 1997 until 2004. The invitations read that the film includes “excerpts from the diary of Professor James Mace of Harvard University.”

The narrator of the film, Bohdan Stupka, reads the most important and emotional passages from Dr. Mace’s articles that were carried by The Day and later included in the book Day and Eternity of James Mace (2005) and James Mace: Your Dead Chose Me (2008), both part of The Day‘s Library Series.

Work on the Holodomor requires a tactful approach. The same is true of the launch of this production. But this approach was overlooked, as the screening of documentary, which was attended by Hanna Chmil, head of the State Cinematography Service, was preceded by a commercial that struck a discordant note.

Although the mind is normally programmed to erase memories of catastrophes of biblical scope, which claim millions of lives and threaten the existence of survivors, we, Ukrainians, should realize that we will have to make a Herculean effort to grasp what happened to our land and our forefathers (and to us and our souls) during that accursed period of 1932-33, the years of the Great Famine.

What does it mean to grasp? First of all, it means to understand the socioeconomic, psychological, and even genetic consequences of that genocidal terror by famine, which was planned and carried out by the totalitarian Stalinist regime. The detailed study of these consequences will convince any unbiased individual that it was undeniably an act of genocide, a deliberate act — not the result of “poor harvest yields,” the “summing up of the class struggle,” etc.

This process of understanding what happened — and it is obvious that this will take years — shows that the potential of documentaries is not being fully realized. This is unfortunate, because artistically presented historical events, facts, and documents can produce a tangible impression on film audiences. Let us hope (with a feeling of restrained optimism) that the ice has been broken here, as evidenced by Landscape after the Famine (dir. Yurii Teresh­chenko; script by Olha Unhurian, Taras Unhurian, and Yurii Te­reshchenko; music by Viktor Krysko) which had its premiere on Oct. 24.

The creators of this documentary note that their film is “an attempt to trace the phenomenon of a postgenocidal society by using the example of a contemporary Ukrainian village.” It is largely based on the works of the outstanding scholar, historian, journalist, and civic activist James Mace, who coined the phrase “postgenocidal society.” What makes this documentary distinctive is that the filmmakers did not try to recount the Holodomor tragedy, but to show its reverberations in our time.

The documentary focuses on Velyka Fosnia, a village in Zhytomyr oblast. The ruthlessly accurate analysis of the lives of its residents is impressive: whereas during the Holodomor its people were dying of starvation, today they are being killed by alcohol.

In 1933, 64 out of 86 village homesteads were wiped out during the Great Famine. In 2007 there were 92 deaths compared to 25 childbirths: a dozen stores and kiosks in the village sell alcohol. We see a story unfolding about peasants, “masters of the land” — people who didn’t have to be told how to work their plots of land — who were physically destroyed 75 years ago. Equally horrifying is the fact that these people were educated and the bearers of Ukrainian national memory and consciousness.

The story is recounted by a resident of Mala Fosnia named Yakiv Hryshchuk, who is a civic activist and Holodomor researcher. Unfortunately, the filmmakers did not entirely succeed in overcoming the temptation to create a “mosaic” pattern, so the film occasionally displays a certain amount of confusion.

James Mace believed that Ukrainian society will not be able to evolve as long as the heavy burden of the unatoned criminal past hangs over it, because such unbelievably heinous crimes as the Holodomor penetrate the nation’s subconscious through fear. You hear these words during the documentary. There is only one conclusion: the truth about the Holodomor and its consequences has to be conveyed to the people. This requires a cultured and tactful approach. The documentary Peizazh pislia moru is a landmark on this road.

Tereshchenko’s other film, Zhyvi (The Living) will premiere in Kyiv on Nov. 22.


Yevhen SVERSTIUK, public figure:

Clearly, recognition of the Holodomor as an act of genocide is the restoration of the truth that was concealed from the Ukrainians. There are many such hidden truths. In fact, the Holodomor is our most painful issue, but it is by no means an image of Ukraine’s past. In this documentary we see only alcoholics and other degraded individuals. Of course, an act of genocide damages a nation at its roots, but it doesn’t destroy it. There was also a famine after the Second World War, but our nation survived. This is what we should ponder. I understand that truthful scenes are shown from the life of the Ukrainian countryside and that they are typical, in a sense. However, things that are typical are not an arithmetical average. Such scenes are characteristic of Belarus and Russia.

But what James Mace describes as a postgenocidal society has a far deeper significance. This postgenocidal motif is present in some comments in the film. There was nothing like this in the Ukrainian countryside before the revolution or after the abolition of serfdom. One could describe Mace as the carrier of a consistent and honest idea. This should have been the leitmotif of the documentary. You know, I wanted my son-in-law to come from Berlin to see it, but he couldn’t. I’m not sorry he didn’t.

Stanislav KULCHYTSKY, deputy director of the Institute of Ukrainian History at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine:

In January 2008 I took part in an international conference in Warsaw about the burial sites of the victims of the Second World War and mass repressions. The European countries, unlike Ukraine, are paying serious attention to this issue. Watching the documentary, I was interested to see individuals who have dedicated their lives to establishing the truth about the victims of the famine; they are researching information in the archives about people who starved to death and erecting monuments. This is moving. This documentary has two interwoven lines: the first, what James accomplished by revealing the truth about the Holodomor to the international community, and the second, the efforts of local Holodomor researchers. I wouldn’t call this documentary a work of art, but it has informative value. Also, there were a lot of commercials before the screening, which run counter to the key idea of the documentary.

Natalia DZIUBENKO-MACE, writer and widow of James Mace:

I was impressed by the scenes filmed in the Ukrainian countryside. Now and then I visit my native village in Lviv oblast. Rushing past the dilapidated fences, I tell myself that the old people who live behind them will be helped by their children. But it turns out that we have a great many orphan parents, figuratively and literally. According to this documentary, we won’t have a dignified old age. As for the problems raised in this film, obviously a couple of phrases about an act of genocide or postgenocidal society don’t suffice. This subject is much more complicated.

Why is Ukraine making every effort to have the Holodomor of 1932-33 recognized as an act of genocide by the international community? Because it was a deliberate act aimed at murdering an entire nation. James summed up its consequences in his concept of postgenocidal society. This postgenocidal nature is what is paralyzing our political, economic, and educational life, and ultimately -our morals and ethics. The documentary Svicha Dzheimsa Meisa (James Mace’s Candle) came out last year, and I should point out that it has more to say about him than this one. Few people are aware that there are two other documentaries about James. But a penetrating philosophical documentary about him has yet to be made.

Bohdan STUPKA, artistic director of the Ivan Franko Theater:

I never met James Mace, but since I was always a regular reader of The Day, I read every article by him with avid interest. He chose the right words to convey the pain in the hearts of Ukrainians, raising questions about the totalitarian Stalinist regime and the Soviet genocide against the Ukrainian nation. The Holodomor was kept secret for many years in the former USSR. Even today a number of people who are still poisoned by Soviet propaganda refuse to grasp what is glaringly obvious and they see black as white.

Mace was among the first to raise the alarm by telling the world the truth about this horrific tragedy that swept over Ukraine like a deadly hurricane, killing millions. Reading Mace’s articles, I found myself thinking that he was compelling us, Ukrainians, to respect our history, our grandfathers, and our grandfathers, even though he was born across the ocean. He had no genetic memory of the famine. He was not a Ukrainian. He was a typical American, who found out about Ukraine when he was doing his graduate work at the University of Michigan. When he began studying Soviet history, he read mountains of documents and in the process became interested in what was then the little-explored topic of the genocide in Ukraine.

I learned all this from Mace’s feature articles. I remember starting to follow everything he wrote and looking forward to reading his latest article. This foreigner was more of a Ukrainian than many of those who beat their breasts and call themselves patriots. When Yurii Tereshchenko invited me to narrate excerpts from Mace’s articles for his documentary, I agreed instantly. I believe that historians as well as artists must have their say about the Holodomor. This topic must be approached very cautiously, without any flag-waving, with a great deal of respect for all those people whom the Bolshevik commissars killed by starvation for the sake of that “shining communist morrow.”

On Oct. 28, the Small Stage of the Ivan Franko Theater premiered the one-man play Holodnyi hrikh (The Sin of Hunger), directed by Oleksandr Bilozub and based on Vasyl Stefanyk’s short story “Novyna” (The News). I think the young actor Oleksandr Formanchuk very ably conveys the nuances of the plot while recounting those terrible times. On Nov. 23, the Ivan Franko Theater will stage a sequel to the genocide theme by staging Bozha slioza (God’s Tear) written by Mykola (Nikolai) Kosmin, a Ukrainian playwright who lives in Moscow. The play tells the story of a man and a woman who lived through the ordeal of the Holodomor. The play is directed by Valentyn Kozmenko-Delinde, who is also the set designer. It stars Les Serdiuk and Liubov Kubiuk, and in the mass scenes the audience will see my third-year students at the Karpenko-Kary National University of Theater, Cinema, and Television. We dedicate both these productions to the victims of the Holodomor.”

Compiled by Tetiana POLISHCHUK
and Nadia TYSIACHNA, The Day