Ukrainian Reunion: a holiday not forgotten

It was on January 22 in 1919 that the two republics making up what is now Ukraine signed the Zluky Act that would merge the two into one, thus uniting the Ukrainian people.

The two republics were the Ukrainian People’s Republic and the West Ukrainian People’s Republic, and the triumphant ceremony took place at St. Sophia Square in Kiev (below).

Signing of the Zluky Act, Jan. 22, 1919

It is a rare holiday in Ukraine in that it does not mark an occasion of sadness, defeat, or bloodshed.

Unfortunately this newfound unity of independence was short lived.

That same year Bolsheviks gained control of the country and declared Ukraine a part of the Federation of Soviet Republics. Thousands of Ukrainians died in the fighting, but this is nothing to the numbers who would perish over a decade later when the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin enforced an unprecedented, massive famine throughout Ukraine killing millions.

On January 22,1990 the Ukrainians celebrated their Reunion Day publicly and proudly for the first time, creating a 300,000 person human chain that stretched from Kiev to Lviv. This show of solidarity hastened the downfall of Soviet influence over Ukraine, which declared its independence in 1991.

“My nation has proved that Ukraine can never be deprived of freedom. It is no longer possible to divide the people into westerners and easterners.”

— announcement on the celebration of the Reunion Day of Ukraine, 2007, decreed by President Viktor Yushchenko

Ukrainian Flag

The Day Ukraine United
Den Sobornosti, or Unity Day
The Ukrainian National Revolution: 1917-1921
належить 22 січня 1919

Reunion Day – Ukraine

January 22

Reunion Day is a rare holiday in Ukraine in that it marks neither tragedy nor defeat nor bloodshed.

On this day in 1919, West Ukraine joined Greater Ukraine. The two republics signed the Act Zluky to form an independent united Ukraine. The triumphant ceremony took place at St. Sophia Square in Kiev.

Signing of the Act Zluky on January 22, 1919
Signing of the Act Zluky on January 22, 1919

The joy was short lived.

Later that year Bolsheviks gained control of the country and declared Ukraine a part of the Federation of Soviet Republics. Thousands of Ukrainians died in the fighting.

But that was nothing compared to the number of those who would perish during the horrifying Holomodor.

The Holomodor, literally “plague of famine,” was one of the most gruesome chapters in European history.

The Five-Year Plan

Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin implemented the Soviet Union’s first Five-Year Plan in 1928 to boost national productivity. Nationalization appeared to work in the industrial sector as millions of workers flocked to urban areas to work. Agricultural was another matter.

Stalin failed to foresee (or simply didn’t care about) the demoralizing effect of collectivization on small peasant-owned farms, and he underestimated farmers’ attachment to the land. Collectivization resulted in lower yields and in some cases rebellion. Due to low yields, the Soviet government punished the farm workers by seizing the crops they reaped in order to feed the cities and other parts of the Union. Nowhere was this practice more brutal and devastating than in Ukraine.

The Holomodor

Blaming Ukraine for the failure of the plan, Stalin attempted to force the republic into submission by instituting the world’s most vicious man-made famine.

“When the snow melted true starvation began. People had swollen faces and legs and stomachs. They could not contain their urine…And now they ate anything at all. They caught mice, rats, sparrows, ants, earthworms. They ground up bones into flour, and did the same thing with leather and shoe soles; they cut up old skins and furs to make noodles of a kind and they cooked glue. And when the grass came up, they began to dig up the roots and ate the leaves and the buds, they used everything there was; dandelions, and burdocks and bluebells and willowroot, and sedums and nettles…”

— Vasily Grossman

It’s hard to imagine a death more cruel than slow murder by starvation. And to watch powerlessly as one’s village, family, and children wither up over the course of several months or a year.

Between 1931 and 1932 the Holomodor killed an estimated 7 million Ukrainians.

The famines of the Ukraine led to mass emigration to other parts of the globe, notably Canada and the United States.

After World War II, the Soviet Union consistently denied the extent of the Ukrainian Genocide.

Ukrainian Independence

On January 22,1990, still under Soviet power, Ukraine celebrated the anniversary of its short-lived 1919 independence publicly and proudly for the first time. On that day a human chain of 300,000 people stretched from Kiev to Lviv.

The show of solidarity reinvigorated Ukrainian nationalism. Ukraine declared its independence in 1991.

To this day Russia has not recognized the Ukrainian Genocide. So when Russia and the Ukraine battle over gas lines, it’s about more than gas.

“There were blockades along all the highways, where militia, NKVD men, troops were stationed; the starving people were not to be allowed into the cities. Guards surrounded all the railroad stations. There were guards at even the tiniest of whistle stops. No bread for you, breadwinners!

Death from starvation mowed down the village. First the children, then the old people, then those of middle age. At first they dug graves and buried them, and then as things got worse they stopped. Dead people lay there in the yards, and in the end they remained in their huts. Things fell silent. The whole village died. Who died last I do not know…

Before they had completely lost their strength, the peasants went on foot across country to the railroad. Not to the stations where the guards kept them away, but to the tracks. And when the Kyiv-Odesa express came past, they would just kneel there and cry: “Bread, bread!” They would lift up their horrible starving children for people to see. And sometimes people would throw them pieces of bread and other scraps. The train would thunder on past, and the dust would settle down, and the whole village would be there crawling along the tracks, looking for crusts. But an order was issued that whenever trains were travelling through the famine provinces the guards were to shut the windows and pull down the curtains.

Vasily Grossman, Forever Flowing

Memoirs of the Ukrainian Genocide

Happy (Old) New Year!

January 14

Happy New Year!

It’s January 1 in the Orthodox Calendar, observed by Orthodox Churches in Russia, Macedonia, Serbia, and many of the former Soviet Republics, including Ukraine, Armenia, Belarus, and the one that’s all consonants. (Kryrrrgyztyrgystan)

So is Russia two weeks behind the times? Do they feel the need to have the last word on New Year’s Eve parties? Or does being torn between two New Year’s dates simply give them the chance to party for two full weeks?…(which the Russian winter could definitely use.)

Russian New Year

The story goes that up until the late tenth century, much of Russia and Byzantium celebrated the New Year during the spring equinox. That changed in 988 AD when Basil the “Bulgar-slayer” Porphyrogenitus* introduced the Byzantine Calendar to the Eastern Roman Empire.

Basil II
Basil II

The Byzantine Calendar was like the Julian Calendar except it began on September 1, and its “Year One” was 5509 BC—the year historians calculated as the creation of the world (Anno Mundi) according to genealogies of the Bible, from Adam to Jesus.

It took roughly four centuries for the “September 1st” New Year to make its way into the heart of Russia. And just when the Russians were getting used to that, Peter the Great switched to the Julian Calendar, moving New Year’s to January 1 in 1700 AD.

It was only a matter of 50 years until all of Protestant Europe stopped using the Julian Calendar altogether, in favor of the Catholic Europe’s Gregorian Calendar, leaving Russia and the Orthodox Church out in the cold.

So for the next two-hundred years, even though Russia celebrated New Year’s on January 1st according to their calendar, their entire calendar was about 11-13 days behind the rest of the West. (Which is why the Russian October Revolution took place in November.)

It wasn’t until 1918 that Lenin finally moved Russia to the Gregorian calendar.

But the Soviet Union couldn’t let sleeping dogs lie. During the 1930s they declared war on the number 7, dividing months into five six-day weeks. Fortunately, this decade-long practical joke on the Russian people ended in June 1940.

Soviet Calendar of 1933
Soviet Calendar of 1933

These days, when it comes to the Old Calendar vs. the New Calendar, the Russians have tossed aside their austere ways and say, “Why choose? Have both!”

Most New Year celebrations happen on December 31st, but the holiday season continues until January 14. It’s a day of nostalgia, called Old New Year, a more sedate version of New New Year, often spent with family and watching the 1975 classic “Irony of Fate”, the Russian “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

"Irony of Fate" poster
"Irony of Fate" poster

Julian Day

Today we also celebrate day 2,454,846 in the Julian Day system—the number of days that have passed since noon, Greenwich Mean Time, January 1, 4713 BC. The Julian Day system was developed by Joseph Scalizer in 1582, and is used mainly by astronomers and people with way too much time on their hands.

*Basil’s title Porphyrogenitus means “born in the purple”. The title was bestowed at birth upon children who were (1) born to a reigning Emperor and Empress of the Byzantine Empire, and (2) born in the free-standing Porphyry (purple) Chamber in the Great Palace of Constantinople. (That’s why there’s less Porphygenituses than Smiths.)

Russian New Year

Happy Old New Year

Russian Orthodox Calendar

Ukraine Independence

August 24

Today is the sixtieth birthday of Ukrainian activist, writer, agitator and politician Levko Lukyanenko. But Ukrainians aren’t celebrating the man, they’re celebrating the document he wrote on this day in 1991, Ukraine’s Declaration of Indpendence:

In view of the mortal danger surrounding Ukraine in connection with the state coup in the USSR on August 19, 1991,

Continuing the thousand-year tradition of state development in Ukraine,

Proceeding from the right of a nation to self-determination in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and other international legal documents, and

Implementing the Declaration of State Sovereignty of Ukraine,

the Verkhovna Rada of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic solemnly declares Independence of Ukraine…

Levko Lukyanenko
Levko Lukyanenko

Back in 1959 Lukyanenko had helped to form the underground organization “Ukrainian Workers and Peasants Society”, for which he wrote the party program. For his involvement, he was sentenced to execution, a sentence that was later mitigated to fifteen years hard labor in the Gulag. His time didn’t dim his revolutionary fervor, but cemented it. After his release, he helped found the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Group.

“All in all, Levko Lukyanenko spent twenty five years in prison and concentration camps and five years in exile, his crime being not murder or armed assault, or robbery but something the soviet regime considered to be the most grievous offence–having views and ideas inconsistent with the soviet ideology.”

Maria Vlad – Levko Lukyanenko, Indomitable Champion of the National Cause

Lukyanenko was released during the Soviet prestroika reforms of the 1980s. In 1990 the former enemy of the state was elected to the Ukrainian parliament.

Oh, and it’s Ukraine, not The Ukraine. It means “Borderland”.

Ukraine also gave us St. Nestor the Chronicler (c. 1056 – c. 1114), the monk who spent twenty years writing the great Russian and Ukrainian history “The Tale of Bygone Years”, or “The Chronicle”.

Independence Square, Kiev
Independence Square, Kiev

Victory Day – Russia

May 9

In Russia and in several of the countries that were formally part of the Soviet bloc (including Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova), today is Victory Day. It celebrates the surrender of Germany in 1945 and the end of World War II in Europe.

France, the United Kingdom, and other Western European countries celebrate Victory Day on May 8, but it was already the following day when the news hit Russia, the only country in the world that spans 11 time zones. And ever since then, May 9 has been celebrated with full Russian military pomp and circumstance. This year (2010) troops from England, France and the United States participated in Russia’s Victory Day parade for the first time.

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Despite a 1939 treaty with Germany agreeing not to attack each other (and to split up Poland instead) Russia found itself cast in the role of Germany’s next victim only two years later. They encountered devastating losses in the first couple of years. However,

“…Russia was quick to learn from its mistakes, quicker than the Germans learned from theirs…Part of this was accomplished by simple attrition: less capable officers and troops were killed off, more capable ones survived. But there was also feedback from the front. Divisions were left in action until fewer than half the troops remained alive and fit for action…The veterans knew that everyone’s prospects of survival increased according to how much of their combat experience could be transferred to the new recruits.”

The World War II Bookshelf by James Dunnigan

In addition to its effective armored “Tank Corps” attacks, for which Germany never developed a practical countermeasure, the Soviets made use of their biggest advantage: Europe’s largest population. They overpowered the Germans with sheer numbers and indomitable resilience. The unfortunate result of this strategy was that over 20,000,000 Soviets were killed in the war, nearly half of them civilians.

While France, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. focused mainly on the Western Front…

“the ‘Eastern Front’ was the largest theater of war in history, notorious for its unprecedented ferocity, destruction, mass deportations, brutal weather conditions, and immense loss of life by means of battle, starvation, disease, and massacre…The Eastern front was arguably the single most decisive component of World War II, eventually serving as the main reason for Germany’s defeat.”

Eastern Front (World War II) —

Siege of Leningrad, diorama, Sergey Nemanov

Standing out even among the battles of the Eastern Front were the Sieges of Leningrad and Stalingrad. Leningrad lasted nearly 900 days and was the deadliest siege in world history. But it was the Battle of Stalingrad that marked the turning point of the war and eventually broke the back of the German army.

“Victory at Stalingrad did not come easily or cheaply for the Russians. Nearly half a million soldiers and civilians died in defense of the city. Almost all of its homes, factories, and other buildings were destroyed. But the Russians had won, and that victory united the Russian people, giving them the confidence and strength that drove them on to Berlin.”

— “Top 10 Battles of All Time” by Lt. Col. (Ret.) Michael Lee Lanning

Had Hitler cut his losses at Stalingrad, the war might have turned out differently, but in January 1943, he ordered General Von Paulus:

“6 Army will hold their positions to the last man and the last round and by their heroic endurance will make an unforgettable contribution towards the establishment of a defensive front and the salvation of the Western world.” — Adolf Hitler, Jan. 24, 1943

According to World War II: Blitzkrieg and the Eastern Front,

“Out of 250000 [German] soldiers trapped in the Stalingrad pocket, approximately 90000 became prisoners; Barely 5000 survived the war.”

Upon learning of the defeat…

“Hitler ordered a day’s national mourning in Germany, not for the men lost at the battle, but for the shame von Paulus had brought on the Wehrmacht and Germany.”

The final battle of the war (in Europe) and indeed the last major battle on Western soil was the Battle of Berlin. In April 1945, the Soviets plowed into Berlin with 2.5 million soldiers. Hitler committed suicide in Berlin on April 30. Germany officially surrendered on May 8, 1945.

Soviet flag atop Reichstag, Berlin, photo by Yevgeny Khaldei