Prime Minister Stephen Harper sent both direct and more nuanced messages to Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych here Monday about the alarming decline of democratic freedoms since the February election.
Harper, both before and after a meeting with Yanukovych where rights issues were raised, made emotional visits to memorials marking ghastly atrocities committed by the blood-soaked 20th century's most horrific despots — Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler.
The first was to honour victims of the 1932-33 Stalin-induced famine that left up to 10 million Ukrainians dead. It was called a genocide by the Canadian Parliament in 2008 although Moscow — and Moscow-friendly Yanukovych — continue to reject that charge.
Harper appeared to be fighting back tears while presenting a symbolic handful of wheat at the stature of a braided, bone-thin little girl.
The second emotional visit was to the Babyn Yar site here where more than 100,000 were executed — mostly Jews, Gypsies and Soviet prisoners of war — and then buried in deep ravines here from 1941-43.
The first 33,000 were Jews rounded up just days after the Nazis took control of Kyiv in 1941. They were told they were being deported, then ordered to strip naked, hand over their clothes and valuables, and walk in groups to the pit to lie face down over other bodies and shot dead.
A new book by American academic Timothy Snyder described how some of the Jewish victims during those two days of slaughter committed final acts of kindness and love.
One naked mother "spent what she knew were her last few seconds of life breastfeeding her baby," Snyder wrote in Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin.
"When the baby was thrown alive into the ravine, she jumped in after it, and in that way found her death."
Lisa Shymko of the Canada-Ukraine Parliamentary Centre said Harper's agenda was an obvious attempt to send Yanukovych a message about Ottawa's concerns.
Harper, who has made a considerable effort to woo Canada's 1.2 million-strong Ukrainian-Canadian community, was more nuanced at a joint press conference with Yanukovych.
"I would just say that I raised those matters and I raised them both generally and in some detail with President Yanukovych," Harper said when asked about the state actions to control the media, academics, the judiciary and the political opposition.
Harper avoided using the word "genocide" — the deliberate targeting of a nation, ethnic, racial or religious group.
The Holodomor (Ukrainian for death by hunger) was one of the "great crimes of history" in which up to 10 million were "killed through the deliberate plans of their own government," Harper said to a room packed with Ukrainian journalists and officials.
"I hope always that it will remind the Ukrainian people of the importance of their freedom and democracy and independence, and of the necessity of always defending those things."
Yanukovych replied that he "absolutely" agreed with Harper, but then noted that there were also victims in Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
That's code in Moscow and Kyiv to assert that the famine caused by Stalin's land and food production policies didn't target a particular national group and, therefore, was not genocide.
"Yanukovych's response was not a concession," University of Alberta historian David Marples told Postmedia News. "It is exactly the response that (Russian President Dimitry) Medvedev would have given."
Paul Grod, president of the Ukrainian-Canadian Congress, said he was disappointed that Yanukovych didn't accept the Canadian Parliament's view that the 1932-33 events constituted genocide
But he said he supports the Canadian government's decision to engage with Yanukovych. Harper announced a youth mobility agreement with Ukraine ON Monday, and said progress is being made on a Canada-Ukraine free trade deal.
"It is the beginning of a relationship," he said, "and over time I think as the friendship develops we expect the prime minister could have more frank discussions."
Harper's foreign tour, which began in Geneva where he attended the Francophonie summit, wraps up in the Ukrainian city of Lviv. He'll meet a historian who was jailed last month by state authorities.