Ninety years after a Soviet-caused famine killed millions of Ukrainians, demonstrators gathered in Chicago on Saturday to call attention to that tragedy and rally in support of Ukraine’s fight against Russia’s invasion.
Around 200 Ukraine supporters gathered outside the Chicago Water Tower on North Michigan Avenue and called on President Joe Biden and Congress to label the 1932-1933 famine a genocide. Known as the Holodomor, which translates to “death by hunger,” the famine is estimated to have killed more than 3 million Ukrainians.
The demonstrators also pleaded for American politicians to declare Russia a terrorist state, likening current Russian assaults targeting essential civilian infrastructure and food stocks to the devastating famine of the past.
“We are facing genocide number two. The world cannot let this happen,” said Dan Diaczun, president of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America’s Illinois division.
Diaczun and other speakers called attention to Russian attacks against hospitals, grain silos and schools. Many in the crowd draped themselves in blue-and-gold Ukrainian flags, holding tea candles and bundles of wheat.
The speakers alternated between English and Ukrainian as onlookers passed by in the busy Michigan Avenue shopping district. Many shared their own connections to the Holodomor, which Ukranians remember every year on the fourth Saturday of November, recalling parents and grandparents who survived the famine.
Millions of people could again starve because of Russian attacks on Ukrainian agricultural infrastructure, said Serhiy Koledov, Consulate General of Ukraine in Chicago. Ukraine supplies large portions of the world’s barley, sunflower and wheat crop, particularly to African and Asian countries, he said.
“Putin is using food as a weapon to implement his aggressive political agenda,” Koledov said.
When Liliia Popovych, the demonstration’s organizer, looked from the steps of Chicago’s Old Water Tower upon a bright, towering Christmas tree and a candlelit crowd, she said the vision was hard to take in.
“Because in Ukraine, there’s no light. And worse, there’s no life,” she said.
Those twinkling lights were the only thing Halia Didula could see for nearly an hour. She stood in front of the demonstration’s speakers wearing a white blindfold, a symbol for the world to “open its eyes,” but the candles and Christmas decorations shined through.
Didula moved to Chicago from Lviv three months ago to study social work at Illinois State University, she said. She had been sleeping in a bomb shelter every night before she moved, and she’s sick to be away from her four siblings and parents, who are back in Ukraine.
But the memory of that family and her many friends now at war fighting Russian invaders pushed her to help organize Saturday’s protest. It’s the least she could do, she said.
“I love my country and I miss it so much,” Didula said.
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A table laden with the makeshift, nutritionless food many starving Ukranians turned to during the famine was set in front of the blindfolded women: a leather belt, grass and tree bark. Mila Ugryn, who moved from Ukraine to Chicago when she was 15, said that people who tried to eat such items to survive were often beaten or killed.
“Every Ukranian is touched by this. Every single one,” she said.
She struggled to keep it together as she watched the protesters around her, she said.
“It’s very hard every day. It’s like history is unfolding in front of our eyes,” Urgyn said.
Violetta Radchenko’s grew up hearing dark Holodomor survival stories, she said. Her grandmother had to sneak onto trains to hunt for the few grains she could find outside of her village, Radchenko remembered hearing.
“Nobody talks about it,” she said. “We want people to know what happened.”