KYIV, Ukraine — As bells rang out at a centuries-old monastery, Ukrainians stepped out into a cold, misty night to light candles in memory of the devastating famine of 1932-33.

This annual commemoration was especially poignant this year, marking 90 years since the famine gripped Ukraine. Many here say Soviet dictator Josef Stalin was trying to destroy Ukraine then, and the current Kremlin leader, Russian President Vladimir Putin, is trying to do the same thing now.

They call it the Holodomor, which means "death by hunger."

At the National Museum of the Holodomor Genocide, one visitor, Roman Vashchenko, 44, spoke in somber tones of suffering old and new. First, he recalled stories his grandmother told him.

"She was one of 10 children. They were not allowed to leave their village. So they didn't know what was happening elsewhere," he said. "But they had a cow, and that's why they survived, because they had milk."

Then he spoke of pain that's much more recent.

"In March, the Russians shot and killed my sister and her husband," he said softly. Their sons, ages 12 and 6, survived.

Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union when Stalin seized private farms and turned them into state-run operations. It was an absolute disaster in this fertile farming region known as the "breadbasket of the Soviet Union."

Other farming regions also suffered famine, including Kazakhstan. But no place was hit as hard as Ukraine.

An estimated 4 million Ukrainians died within two years, though there's no precise figure and some historians say the toll may have been significantly higher.

Ukraine calls it a genocide, and nearly 20 other countries now agree — though not Russia.

Drawing parallels between Stalin and Putin

One country that shares Ukraine's position is Poland, and its prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, visited Kyiv this weekend.

"If we allow Putin to continue, he will become the Stalin of the 21st century," Morawiecki said.

Ukraine's President Volodomyr Zelenskyy also made the link between then and now.

"We see what is happening today in the world, what is happening in Ukraine. They want to destroy us with bombs, bullets, cold and hunger again," Zelenskyy said.

There are no official figures, but most estimates point to tens of thousands of Ukrainian deaths among soldiers and civilians since Russia invaded in February.

Nearly 8 million Ukrainians fled the country. While some have returned, it remains the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.

Millions more Ukrainians have fled their homes in the east and the south of the country, the scene of the heaviest fighting, and taken refuge in other parts of the country.

Zelenskyy marked the anniversary of the famine by hosting an international conference Saturday on food security, called "Grain from Ukraine."

Many European leaders attended, either in person or virtually. A total of 20 countries pledged $150 million to to help deliver Ukraine's farm exports by ship.

Russia blocked Ukraine from using its main export channel via the Black Sea in the early months of the war. Ukrainian wheat and other products are now flowing, though at lower than normal levels. Prices for basic foods remain expensive on the international market, straining the budgets of developing countries in Africa and Asia in particular.

"We do not just send Ukrainian foodstuffs to those countries that suffer the most from the food crisis. We affirm that never again should hunger be used as a weapon," Zelenskyy said.

Documenting the famine

At the Holodomor museum, there are books as thick as encyclopedias, some more than 1,000 pages. They're filled with the names of those who died in the famine. Visitors page through them, often looking for relatives they never knew.

Many say they heard firsthand accounts of the famine from grandparents or great-grandparents who survived.

"People were trying to live by eating grass and roots. My great-grandfather was a miner, and they got 100 grams of bread every day. Because of this bread, they survived," said Iryna Kopalova, a 37-year-old engineer.

This past spring, Kopalova said that as the fighting neared their village outside Kyiv, her 6-year-old daughter understood that the Russians were the enemy.

"When she heard the first explosions, she asked me, 'Mother, should I speak Russian now?' But we just fled our home, we didn't wait for the Russians to arrive," Kopalova said.

That famine, and today's war, speak to a country that's endured so much hardship.

It explains why the national anthem begins with the words, "Ukraine has not yet perished."

As NPR was about to leave the museum, Roman Vashchenko, the man who lost his sister and brother-in-law this spring, came over to say more about the couple's two orphaned children.

The 12-year-old, Tymofiy, has kept a journal during the war. When his parents were killed, he didn't believe it at first, hoping they might still be alive. Eventually he accepted the loss, writing, "Dreams don't come true."

Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent currently on assignment in Ukraine. Follow him @gregmyre1.

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