The Ukrainian Famine Memorial, which received final approval from the National Capital Planning Commission earlier this month, is a fascinating case in point. It is meant to honor the victims of one of the most horrific evils of the 20th century — Stalin’s political use of hunger and starvation to punish or annihilate Ukrainian peasants in the early 1930s.
When finished, the monument will sit on a small but prominent triangle of land just off Massachusetts Avenue, northwest of Union Station. Designed by Larysa Kurylas, a Washington-based architect of Ukrainian descent, it will include a sculpture of grain set into a stone marker with an inscription that reads: “Famine-Genocide in Ukraine: In memory of millions of innocent victims of a man-made famine in Ukraine engineered and implemented by Stalin’s totalitarian regime.”
The memorial was strongly supported by Ukrainian American groups, which include survivors of what is now called the “Holodomor.” Their memories of the suffering are horrific: relentless and punitive requisitions of grain and livestock; gangs of government thugs wandering the countryside, stealing or destroying food and other vitals of life; babies dying in their mother’s arms; bodies littering streets and fields; borders sealed to flight; and whole villages reduced to eating bark, roots and worms, before even that proved insufficient for survival. Scholarly estimates put the death toll at around 3.5 million to 4 million people, though more politically contentious figures have claimed as many as 7 million to 10 million victims.
But set aside the question of whether the memorial recalls a powerful and painful event, and consider the problems created by allowing the Ukrainian government to create it — with substantial control over the text and design competition. Perhaps when the memorial was authorized in 2006 — after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine brought what seemed to be more reform-minded, Western-leaning leadership for the former Soviet state — this seemed like a good idea. But times change, and even as the memorial was clearing the last approvals in Washington, it was still a matter for debate in Ukraine, where there is little agreement about whether the Holodomor was a genocide, and whether the blame should be laid at the feet of Stalin in particular, and Russia by extension.
Plans for the memorial emerged soon after the 2004-5 political turmoil and elections, which brought to power Viktor Yushchenko, a passionate advocate of Ukrainian nationalism who was committed to convincing the world that the events of 1932-33 were an organized and genocidal attack on the Ukrainian people. In April 2005, Yushchenko addressed a joint session of Congress, speaking of the “Holdomor, the genocide famine masterminded to annihilate millions of Ukrainians.” The rhetorical climate in the United States was susceptible to the idea that freedom was spreading, democracy was on the march, that the United States was winning a centuries-long geopolitical argument about self-governance and human rights.
But in February 2010, Yushchenko’s divided and ineffectual government was voted out of power, replaced by one nled by Viktor Yanukovych, a Russian-speaking politician with a criminal past, a reputation for corruption and strong support from local oligarchs and Russian Prime Minister (now President) Vladimir Putin. According to Alexander Motyl, a professor at Rutgers University in Newark and a specialist in the former Soviet Union, one of the first things Yanukovych did upon taking office was delete a link to information about the Holodomor on the presidential Web site. Contrary to laws passed under his predecessor, which made it illegal to deny the Holodomor was a genocide, Yanukovych told a Council of Europe audience that “it would be wrong and unfair to recognize the Holodomor as an act of genocide against one nation.”
According to Dominique Arel, chair of Ukrainian studies at the University of Ottawa, the Yushchenko memorialization campaign, which included building monuments in foreign countries and securing official statements recognizing the genocide from foreign governments, “slowed to a screeching halt.”
Yet plans for the memorial in Washington moved forward, with the new administration in Kiev — apparently hostile to the very idea of the Holodomor as a concerted, intentional attack on the Ukrainian people — in charge of the project. Last week, after the NCPC met, Kiev approved the text that mentioned Stalin, a surprise to many observers, who expected the Yanukovych government to balk at anything that might offend their prickly neighbor to the East.
While Kiev’s assent to an inscription it doesn’t much like moves this memorial one large step toward completion, there is another problem created by outsourcing its costs: Will future Ukrainian governments pay for its maintenance?
It is by no means the first monument on American soil paid for by a foreign government. Most famous is the Statue of Liberty, a gift from the French. Foreign heroes are routinely honored in Washington, recently with memorials to the Czech patriot Tomas Masaryk, the Indian hero of nonviolence Mahatma Gandhi and Bernardo de Galvez, the Spanish supporter of the American Revolution. Foreign embassies often create memorials on their own property, creating a citywide pantheon of foreign monuments and statues.
But the Famine Monument is a conspicuous if not unprecedented example of an unstable, democratically challenged foreign government in charge of memorializing an event about which its own population is divided.
Officially, it is the Park Service that builds and maintains the memorial, though the funds come from Ukraine. According to Peter May, the associate regional director of the National Park Service who oversees planning and design issues, the money for maintenance will be detailed in a “memorandum of understanding.” But that doesn’t mean they have the money in hand. “We have not in the past required that they put money into an endowment,” May says. “We trust that they will live up to their end of the agreement.”
Let’s hope so. The Ukrainian Famine Memorial may turn out to be a beloved new fixture of the Washington landscape, a well-maintained park where visitors can learn about an event long ago, in a country far away, which left indelible scars on some Americans whose families came from the Breadbasket of Europe. But the process whereby it was authorized, designed and built suggests that we have made little progress in bringing order and rationality to the building of monuments in Washington, D.C. We still haven’t decided if memorials are meant to be remedial historical education projects, or collective statements about the importance of a person or event. We haven’t decided how closely related to a specifically American narrative an event or person must be to merit official memorialization. We don’t really know whether a memorial should be an argument, or a statement, an act of provocation or consolation.
There is one way we might get closer to some kind of philosophical consensus, however. Which is, we should agree to pay for them ourselves, which would force us to think about what memorials are truly necessary and exactly what they should say.