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.
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