Marchers in Kiev on November 23 commemorate the victims of the Stalin-era Holodomor famine in Ukraine. Credit: Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

At the end of November, as their fellow students in Lviv, Ukraine, were taking to the streets to protest President Viktor Yanukovych’s snub of the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia, Khrystyna Bondarieva and Juliia Bukhtoiarova boarded a plane to the States.

A few days later, as protests escalated in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, the two were dressing mannequins in the main-floor gallery of Chicago’s Ukrainian National Museum, where they’ll be interning through the end of the month.

The little museum is at 2249 W. Superior, housed in an unobtrusive building across the street from the gilded domes of the Saints Volodymyr and Olha Ukrainian Catholic Church. It had just closed an extensive exhibit on the mass famine Ukrainians suffered under Soviet rule 80 years ago, and was preparing to open something cheerier: a vintage fashion show—Victorian lace, beaded flapper dresses, satin art deco wedding gowns—drawn from the collection of a now deceased museum member.

It’s the previous exhibit that sheds light on what’s going on in Ukraine today, however. And it’s not really gone. The museum’s permanent collection includes a second-floor room dedicated to the Holodomor, the 1932-’33 famine that in the eyes of many was a deliberate, Soviet-engineered genocide that cost millions their lives.

Holodomor: The Secret Holocaust in Ukraine, a booklet distributed by the museum, flatly states that this was a “campaign of genocide against Ukraine that left over 10 million dead.” It’s worth noting that this text consists of an article originally published in The New American, the magazine of the John Birch Society; books by its author, James Perloff, include Tornado in a Junkyard: The Relentless Myth of Darwinism.

Other estimates vary widely. A study by the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences, cited in a major Kiev court decision in 2010, set the number of famine deaths at 3.9 million. Yale historian Timothy Snyder puts the figure at approximately 3.3 million; officials at the Ukrainian National Museum say the museum “supports the numbers of 7 – 10 million.”

Ukraine was saddled with an impossibly inflated quota for grain production, and when it couldn’t be met the government retaliated by confiscating grain. That winter Ukrainians ate their cats and dogs, and death by starvation became a commonplace.

The degree to which the Soviets intended to bring about the catastrophe has also been debated. But even allowing for rampant bureaucratic mismanagement, it’s clear that this mass famine didn’t come about by accident in some of the richest farmland in the world, the famous “breadbasket of Europe.” Rather, the Soviet Union was collectivizing farms, Ukrainians resisted, and Stalin applied brutal force. Those who put up a fight were sent to labor camps or executed, while institutions that supported a distinctive Ukrainian identity (including the churches) were destroyed.

Things came to a head in 1932. Ukraine was saddled with an impossibly inflated quota for grain production, and when it couldn’t be met the government retaliated by confiscating whatever grain farmers had, leaving them without enough to feed themselves or to replant. That winter Ukrainians ate their cats and dogs, and death by starvation became a commonplace.

The Soviets first suppressed news of the famine, then denied that it happened, and then blamed it on natural forces. The museum’s Holodomor room contains framed newspaper pages from the Chicago American and the Chicago Herald-Examiner, with photographs and a story that ran in March 1935—two years after the fact. But that was a rarity. Access to the Soviet Union was limited, and New York Times Moscow bureau chief Walter Duranty, a 1932 Pulitzer Prize winner, sullied the paper by maintaining (though he knew otherwise) that the few reports of starvation in Stalin’s Soviet Union were false. It wasn’t until decades later that the story of the famine began to be heard.

The epic struggle between communism in the East and democracy in the West was the context for the Holodomor. And the clash of East and West is central to what’s happening today. Ukraine has been an independent nation since 1991, but the populace in the eastern part of the country still tilts toward Russia, while those in western Ukraine favor affiliation with Europe.

President Yanukovych, an easterner and native Russian speaker, is responding to pressure and the promise of rewards from Russian president Vladimir Putin. But, as the interns told me last week, it seemed to them that the violent police response to demonstrators—caught on video—temporarily united the country under the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag.

That Tuesday, December 3, opposition forces in the Ukrainian parliament attempted to pass a no-confidence vote in Yanukovych’s government. They failed, but hundreds of thousands of protesters continued to gather in the streets. On Sunday in Kiev they scored a symbolic victory, toppling a statue of Lenin, and on Monday, after riot police massed and started dispersing protesters, Yanukovych—who visited with Putin over the weekend—announced that he’d meet with three former Ukrainian presidents on Tuesday. At press time, talks were continuing.