03/22/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 05/21/2014 05:59 EDT

Ukraine tension has roots in 'hunger extermination' of 1930s

[Philip Coulter is a documentary producer for CBC radio's Ideas who has worked on programs about everything from the fall of Yugoslavia to the detainees at Guantanamo, and from the medieval Knights to the novels of James Joyce. He also produces the annual Massey Lectures series for Ideas.]

The tumult we’re seeing in Ukraine isn’t simply a recent tension over Crimea. Its roots go back to the defining event of Ukraine’s modern history: the Holodomor or "hunger-extermination" of the 1930s, in which as many as eight million people died.

Ukraine in 1932 was a satellite of the Soviet Union that had long been struggling to find its place as an independent republic in the USSR. In that year and the one following, Joseph Stalin closed the borders and seized almost all the harvest, leaving little for Ukrainians themselves.

After the Holodomor that left so many millions dead, opposition to Moscow was crushed. But the push-back against the Soviets flared a number of times over the following decades: in 1954, 1972, 1988, in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and again in 2004 with the Orange Revolution against a corrupt and eastward-looking government.

Four years ago, I did a radio documentary series for CBC Radio’s Ideas called “The Great Hunger.” Part of that series was devoted entirely to Ukraine – to which I travelled looking for the traces and legacy of the Holodomor.

There were a few survivors, old people in their nineties with sharp memories of bodies in the streets and Soviet soldiers searching for hidden food.

Katerina Shlionchyk was one who remembered the dreadful time. "First my grandparents, then the smallest children - the one-year old, the two- and three- and five-year-old - they all died, one by one over three days."

I found the Museum of the Soviet Occupation and its passionate curator, Roman Krutsyk, devoted to righting what he sees as the untruths of the Soviet era. 

"This museum is the main thing in my life", he says, "I consider this struggle against the lie to be the main thing in my life."

And I also found a profoundly spiritual understanding of the Holodomor among many Ukrainians.

At the National University, for example, I discovered Valentina Borysenko's monumental project to create an oral history of the Holodomor featuring interviews with every known living survivor.

"As an anthropologist," she says, "I believe that the dead still take care of those who live, and those who died during the Holodomor didn't have a candle lit for their souls. So what we have to do is light a candle and keep it in our hearts so that their souls may rest."

In light of the recent tensions building in Ukraine, I’ve updated the Ideas program with new interviews. I thought it was important to see how the Soviet occupation and the Holodomor led not only to the Ukraine I saw a few years ago, but also to the events of today.

I located my former translator, journalist Roman Horbyk, who is surprised by the level of pro-Ukraine sentiment in more Russia-oriented cities: "It's something we hadn't really seen in 2004, the Orange Revolution, so I think that makes a real difference."

And there was OstapKryvdyk, whom some called the "commandant of Maidan" – who is now an advisor to the Committee for National Defense. Speaking of those protestors who died in Maidan Square, he says "this big tragedy is a uniting moment for us, and it's a guarantee of reforms. This heavenly unit of self-defense will always be with us."

From the countless deaths of the Holodomor to the protests in Maidan Square, it’s a very short line.

[Listen to the full documentary, The Great Hunger, on the Ideas website or in the audio link at the top-left of this page.]