Commemorating Ukraine's Holodomor
Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovich (C) and former presidents Leonid Kravchuk (L), Leonid Kuchma (2nd R) and Viktor Yushchenko (R) take part in a commemoration ceremony for Holodomor victims in Kiev (Reuters)

The former Soviet state of Ukraine and members of the Ukrainian diaspora around the world have been remembering one of the darkest times in the country's history when millions of their forebears were starved to death under the iron rule of Joseph Stalin.

Eighty years ago (1932-33), when Ukraine was under USSR rule, millions of ordinary Ukrainians perished mostly from starvation as a result of the liquidation of private property and industrialisation. It became known as "Holodomor", or "execution by hunger".

Stalin decreed that Ukrainian peasants must join collective farms and that their harvests would be confiscated by Soviet authorities. Bolshevik forces swept through villages taking food and carrying out mass executions. Anyone caught stealing food or trying to leave the region in search of bread was either imprisoned, turned back or executed.

Many Ukrainians survived by eating bread made from weeds and grass, and there were documented accounts of cannibalism.

Kiev claims that the total number who perished could have been as high as 10 million - a quarter of the population - although Western historians believe the total was nearer 3.5 million. However many the actual figure, the country suffered a terrible trauma that many remember to this day.

The Soviet government of the time denied that there was famine in the Ukraine and anyone who spoke of it was sent to the gulags or executed. Only on the 50th anniversary of the Holodomor did the USSR admit that any peasants had died, although it also insisted that drought had been the cause. Today, the Russian government accepts there was a huge famine in Ukraine but denies it was part of a concerted attempt to wipe out the population.

Remembering the Holodomor
A commemoration ceremony at a monument for Holodomor victims in Kiev (Reuters)

Since 2006, Ukraine has decreed the fourth Saturday of every November as a day to remember Holodomor. In a statement released to mark the 80th anniversary today the Ukrainian government said: "Though the Holodomor was an example of the worst in mankind, the tremendous resilience and courage demonstrated by the Ukrainian people in the face of such cruelty is testament to an indomitable national spirit.

"Even during the worst days of the famine, the people of Ukraine never gave up hope that their homeland would one day become independent and free."