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Famine in Ukraine, 1932–1933 — genocide against the Ukrainian nation
Once, in February this year, on “The Day of the Defenders of Motherland,” which used to be “The Red Army Day” in the Soviet times, my son returned from school with a disgusting military-style blue tunic and a shower gel which he got as gifts from the girls of his class. The Soviet traditions persist.
I feel it is getting to be harder and harder for me to ignore the mindlessness and forgetfulness of this ailing society, the cursed spinelessness of my downtrodden people who do not seem to learn by their own mistakes and keep making them over and over again — it is particularly evident when they chose those who will govern them, without minding the consequences, without caring.
It is increasingly horrifying to realize that millions of my fellow Ukrainians who were imprisoned, physically and spiritually murdered by the Soviet regime, who were killed by the Famine of 1932–1933, were not just the victims of terrible injustice — they were the carriers of truth, mercilessly destroyed.
Myroslava Barchuk on the great tragedy of the Ukrainian people which took millions of lives and has left an indelible mark on the Ukrainian mentality.
The word Ukraine has acquired a painful poignancy for me. For the first time I felt the pang of this poignancy when I was twenty — at that time I lived in Canada, and watching the CNN newscast about the 1991 coup (which proved to be abortive) in the then Soviet Union of which Ukraine was still a part, I thought to myself, Have I lost a chance of seeing my native land for good?
Ukraine is part of my soul, an integral part of my world outlook. Whenever I engage in soul searching, in asking myself what I am as a person, in searching for the sense of life, then I acutely feel myself inextricably linked with my native soil of Ukraine. And when I feel I cannot find happiness in this land, then maybe it is because “happiness has never made appearance in my native land”? — to borrow the words of Adam Mickiewicz, a great nineteenth-century Polish poet.
My country is living through a crisis — but not of an economic one. You will not feel it if you come here as a tourist for a short stay; maybe you will not even see the reflection of it in the eyes of people you meet. This crisis is the main cause of that hellish falsehood of Ukrainian society — of my society. It is a crisis of faith, of spiritual and moral values; this crisis lies in the complete depletion of the Ukrainian personality. It has turned out that the loss of the sources which fed the Ukrainian spirit and the ruination of the myths which were widely believed in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s, are not the final devastation. The most terrible thing today is the manipulation with the substituted ideas and twisted-around concepts — these days we have robbery established as a right; violence as a democracy; deceit as a generally imposed truth; spiritual slavery presented as true freedom.
Where does this feeling of surreal impotence of my nation, of its suffering a block, of its complete indifference and despondency come from? James Mace, Ph.D., an American professor of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Kyiv, calls the current period Ukraine is living through “post-genocidal.” He has worked out a formula of a progressing process of an intellectual and moral decline of Ukrainian society that has been going on since the time when the Ukrainian intellectuals were exterminated after a short period of Ukrainian cultural renaissance of the 1920s and a great loss of life in the 1933 Famine when the cream of the Ukrainian nation and the most hardworking sections of the Ukrainian population were wiped out. The famine of 1932–1933, the Stalin repression and purges and millions of lives taken by the Second World War resulted in the reduction of the Ukrainian nation by at least one third! Will it ever be possible to replenish the Ukrainian nation’s gene pool, to break the vicious and tragic circle of its history?
“You cannot make an omelette
without breaking eggs.”
My great-grandmother Yaryna from Poltava spoke of the Bolshevik coup of 1917 in this way: “Yes, we heard on the grapevine that the czar had been overthrown.” Which means she did not remember any radical changes hitting the countryside at that time. As late as the early nineteen-twenties the Ukrainian rural life continued to go on along the lines of the old traditions, it still retained the age-old spiritual and moral laws, and traditional values. The urban life had been affected to a much greater extent, with the Bolshevik rule getting an ever firmer grip. By contrast, the countryside where the majority of the population lived, was, in a large measure, still free of the pervasive Bolshevik ideological infiltration (though, of course, the destructive Bolshevik economic policy began to be felt at an alarming pace). One of the greatest dangers for the Bolsheviks lay in the fact that the rural population was extremely reluctant to be converted into the communist faith (only one in 125 peasants did get converted). Stalin found such a situation unacceptable. Besides, “the threat that the perfidious capitalist world” posed for “the young socialist state” began to loom large. It was then that the insane idea to turn the Soviet Union within a decade into a nation with a powerful industry began to be implemented. “We are lagging fifty-to-hundred years behind the advanced nations. We must catch up with them in ten years. Either we do it, or we’ll be crushed,” said Stalin in 1931.
In the nineteenth-century industrial boom, Ukraine took several decades to achieve a palpable progress — by contrast, in the early 1930s, hundreds (!) of factories and plants were being built at the same time. It was a strain the country could hardly sustain. Between 1929 and 1932, 12.5 million jobs were created in the industries — and it meant that millions of people were moved from the rural into the urban areas. In 1930, the Soviet urban population was estimated to be 26 million people, but only a year later the urban population swelled to 33.2 million. This increase of 26 percent was in no way supported by the agricultural production — the production of grain had grown only by 6 percent. By 1932 the rouble on the free market had fallen to about one-fiftieth of its 1927 value. That is, there was massive inflation. Workers’ real wages were about a tenth in 1933 of what they had been in 1926–7. The Stalin industry development plan envisaged purchases of grain from the peasants at low prices to provide for the speedily growing multitudes of workers in towns, and to sell the grain abroad in order to buy advanced technologies and equipment abroad. But the Ukrainian peasants refused to sell their grain “dirt cheap” (the prices set by the state were, at times, only one eighth of the actual market prices). And then Stalin launched another campaign — “collectivization” of agriculture, which, in other words, meant taking the land away from the peasants and giving it to “the collective farms” which, in their turn, were to be under complete communist party control.
“Land tillers are not quite as harmless
as they may seem from a distance.”
Stalin realized that the well-off peasants (“kurkuls”) were most likely to stand in opposition to the collectivization and he launched a slogan: “Liquidation of the kurkuls as a hostile class.”
But actually who were these kurkuls? Most of the wealthy Ukrainian land owners were “liquidated” during the civil war of the late 1910s, and formerly poor peasants who toiled day and night, working their fingers to the bone, gradually earned enough to acquire a piece of land (on average, about 10 to 15 acres), a few horses and cows. What an average “kurkul” had in his possession would hardly be worth more than 600 to 800 US dollars in today’s rates.
It so happens that in the cruel and iniquitous times the most amoral people come to the fore — the human flotsam in the storm of social upheaval — who are, under the more normal conditions to be found on the margins of society; many of them find an easy way up the social ladder to the very top of power. My great-grandmother Yaryna used to tell about the Bolshevik “triykas” (“threesomes”) which were made up of the drags of the rural society and of downright criminals. These triykas included a secret service representative, head of the local soviet and local communist party secretary. It was these special “mini-committees” that decided who was a kurkul and who was not. In most cases, envy and old grudges were the decisive factors. Those peasants who refused to give their property to the collective farms, were either shot by the firing squads or deported to the northern regions of Russia or to Siberia for forced labour. In the early 1930s, about 850,000 Ukrainian peasants were thus deported; there is no telling how many of them, children in particular, died on their way to their terrible destinations. My great-grandma’s family were declared to be “pidkurkulnyky” (“sub-kurkuls,” that is close to the status of the kurkuls, but not quite), and one day the Bolshevik triyka showed up at their house. The local communist party secretary began shouting at Yaryna’s husband — my great-grandfather: “Are you against the kolkhoz? If you are, you must know that those who are against the kolkhoz are against the Soviet power! So, tell me, son of a bitch — are you against the kolkhoz?” And my great-grandfather had little choice but give his cow, a calf and two goats to the collective farm together with the piece of his land. Not to do so could have meant instantaneous death. Two years later, four children in the family died of starvation.
“Remember, we must get Ukraine back into Russia’s fold.
Without Ukraine no Russia is possible. Without Ukrainian coal,
iron, ores and bread, without the Black Sea, Russia cannot exist —
it will suffocate, and if Russia dies, the Soviet power will die with it,
and we, all of us here, shall meet the same fate.”
Leo Trotsky, head of the Revolutionary Military Soviet
of the Russian Federation
Once Winston Churchill asked Stalin whether the shock and experience of WWII were as hard on him as the collectivization had been, and Stalin replied that the collectivization was even a greater trial than the war, and called the policy of collectivization “a terrible struggle lasting four years and involving ten million people.” He did not add though that these ten million people who had died were mostly defenceless Ukrainian peasants.
The 3rd All-Ukrainian Communist Party Conference held in July 1932 can be regarded as a presage to the horrors of famine. Ignoring the protests of the Ukrainian rank-and-file communists, the conference adopted — under coercive pressure of V. Molotov and L. Kahanovych, two high-ranking Moscow representatives — a new plan of the grain-collection quotas. The new requirements which went up by 44 percent simply could not be met.
A decree was passed in the Soviet Union on August 7 1932 which became popularly known as “the Law on Five Grain Ears” — an attempt to hide grain from being collected, picking up grain ears left in the kolkhoz fields after the harvesting, gathering the grain crops from one’s own vegetable garden without permission, grinding one’s own grain without permission were to be regarded as “crimes against the state,” and were to be punished by an execution by the firing squad with the confiscation of the offender’s property, or, in case of attenuating circumstances, by imprisonment for a term of at least 10 years and also with the confiscation of the offender’s property.
On November 18 1932, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine was coerced by Molotov into adopting a decree about the confiscation of all the foodstuffs from those peasants who did not have any grain to give to the state.
Also, Molotov had an “emergency grain-collecting commission” established. Under the general guidance of this commission, teams of “party activists” went searching for grain and any food that the peasants might still have stored away somewhere. They burst uninvited into every house, looked into every nook and cranny, checked every conceivable place where something could have been hidden, ripped the wooden planks from the floors to look under them, dug in the vegetable gardens, looked even into the wells. When the raiders saw that the people they had burst on were emaciated and had swollen stomachs, typical signs of advanced stages of starvation, they would nevertheless take away all the grain they could find. When the people did not look starved, they were accused of hiding the grain.
Famine that began in Ukraine in 1932, acquired terrifying proportions in the early months of 1933. On average, every peasant had a monthly quota of about 1.7 kilograms of grain (about 3.5 pounds) to feed on. At the same time, one hundred million tons of grain were taken out of Ukraine during the same terrible year of 1933! The peasants were reduced to eating cats, dogs, rats and carrion. Those from my great-grandmother’s family, who survived, did so thanks to eating pancakes made of ground bark and bast and boiled potato peelings. In some regions, the entire population of many villages died out. The first to die were the men, followed by children and the children’s mothers, who had gone insane watching their loved ones slowly die. It was a slow death, with no one to turn to for help, with the bodies of the relatives and loved ones lying around unburied, the death that was particularly terrible since there was no way to redeem it by self-sacrifice. It was not a heroic death in the cause of something worthwhile or lofty. The Famine of 1932–1933 killed seven to ten million of my country fellows; one third of those who died of starvation were children…
The Soviet propaganda did its disgusting best to conceal the horrors of the 1933 Famine, or even the fact of the famine altogether. But the scale of the tragedy was too great for a tight cover-up. Boris Pasternak, the prominent Russian poet, translator and author of the widely read novel Doctor Zhivago for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize, wrote, “In the early 1930s, there was a movement among writers to travel to the collective farms and gather material about the new life of the village. I wanted to be with everyone else and likewise made a trip with the aim of writing a book. What I saw could not be expressed in words. There was such inhuman, unimaginable misery, such a terrible disaster, that it began to seem almost abstract, it would not fit within the bounds of consciousness. I fell ill. For an entire year I could not write”.
At the same time, Mendel Khatayevych, one of the high-ranking officials in charge of the grain-collection campaign and a secretary of the Dnipropetrovsk Communist Party Regional Committee, brazenly declared: “There’s a cruel war being fought between the peasantry and our power. It’s a fight to the death. The year 1933 has been a trying test of our strength and of their resilience. The famine has shown them who is the master in this country. The famine took millions of lives but the collective farm system will live forever — we have won the war!”
“1933 was the year of a complete defeat
of the Ukrainian nationalistic revolution.”
P. Postyshev, a secretary of the Central Committee
of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union
It would be very wrong to assume that the man-made famine of 1932–1933 was designed only as a repressive measure in order to suppress the resistance of the Ukrainian peasants to the collectivization. The famished and wasted people of the Ukrainian countryside were not fit for any resistance whatsoever. The only thing that was on the people’s mind was where to get a piece of bread to feed the children. Besides, the collectivization had been largely completed by the end of 1931, and there was not much left to resist against. The 1933 Famine was not just a repressive measure, “a police action;” neither was it just a punishment or revenge — it was an integral part of the economic policies conducted in Ukraine, the goal to be achieved. The collectivization was conducted in Russia as well, not only in Ukraine, but the consequences were much less disastrous, as far as the loss of human life was concerned, than in Ukraine. Vasiliy Grossman, a once communist-party activist and later a Soviet writer of some prominence, had this to say: “It was clear that Moscow pinned great hopes on Ukraine. And as a result, it was Ukraine that drew the greatest ire of Moscow. We were told that the private ownership instincts were stronger in Ukraine than in the Russian Federation. And in fact, things [the process of Sovietization — tr.] in Ukraine were moving much slower than in Russia.”
The Soviet Communist Party leaders always connected “the solution of the national problem” with “the solution of the peasantry problem.” J. Stalin once even inadvertently blabbed: “The peasantry constitutes the core of the national movement… and to solve the national issue is, in fact, to solve the issue of the peasantry.” The failure to get as much grain from Ukraine as it had been planned was ascribed by the Moscow communist party leadership to “the wrongly conducted national policy.” S. Kosior, the first secretary of the Communist Party of Ukraine, speaking at the 17th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, said: “The nationalistic slant in the Communist Party of Ukraine has played a pivotal role in causing and then exacerbating the crisis in the country’s agriculture.” In other words, the Soviet leadership, using Kosior as their mouthpiece, put the blame for the famine on those “who conducted the national policy.”
“The Ukrainians were the biggest non-Russian people among all the other peoples of the Soviet Union. To break down Ukraine meant that Moscow would get a free hand to do with all the constituent republics of the Soviet Union whatever it wanted.” (James Mace)
“There is no doubt that we have achieved
a situation, in which the material
well-being of the workers and peasants
is improving with every passing year.
Only the bitterest enemies of the Soviet
power could have doubts about this fact.”
J. Stalin, 1933
After 1933, the objective demographic statistics was affectively put an end to by the Soviet authorities. The functions of the chief demographer Stalin assumed himself. At the 17th Communist Party Congress in 1934, Stalin emphatically declared that the population of the Soviet Union had grown up to 168 million people, and that “every year now our population grows by about the entire population of Finland” (which at the time was about 3 million people). The figures were simply invented, and were not supported by any correctly conducted surveys.
Four years later, Ivan Koval, the main coordinator of the recently — in January 1937 — conducted national census, was awarded the Order of Lenin for “the exemplary way the census was taken.” The figures made public, showed that the population of the Soviet Union was only 162 million people — in other words, the Soviet population had been reduced by six million since 1934 — even if we accept the exaggerated and actually phoney figure provided by Stalin. Also, if we accept Stalin’s declaration that the Soviet population was annually increasing by 3 million people, in three years it should have given us an additional increase of 9 million people, and should have been 172 million, rather than 162. There is hardly any doubt as to the fate of these missing 15 million people.
For publishing such devastating statistics, Ivan Koval was arrested and executed. Practically all the leading Soviet demographers were imprisoned, exiled or executed. The 1937 census was declared to have been “wrongly conducted,” its results were declared null and void, and a new census was taken in 1939. In order to have the population grow at accelerated rates — there was a further reduction of the population due to the purges and the campaign of terror — Stalin had the abortions banned. The ban was lifted only in 1955.
The world should have shuddered at the news of the genocide perpetrated by the Soviet authorities in the Ukrainian countryside. But did the West know about the scale of the tragedy? There is enough evidence to suggest that the leaders of the western democracies, the USA included, did know what was going in Ukraine — but chose to ignore it. Incidentally, it was in 1933 that the USA, the United Kingdom and France officially recognized the Soviet Union. The Soviet entrance to the League of Nations was affected in 1934. Did the international community suddenly go blind?
According to the Ukrainian historian V. Marochko, Ph. D., there are dozens of extant western diplomats’ reports to be found in the archives, in which these diplomats inform their respective governments about the famine and its horrifying consequences in Ukraine. Another Ukrainian historian, O. Subtelny quotes in his “History of Ukraine” a document of the British Foreign Office, which reads in part: “It is true that we have a certain amount of information about famine in Southern Russia… However, we do not want to make this information public since it may be regarded as offensive by the Soviet government and could thus damage our relations.”
When Edouard Herriot (1872–1957), French statesman and man of letters (he was the long-time leader of the Radical Party; he served in nine different cabinets and was premier of France three times) paid a visit to the Soviet Union in 1933, he categorically denied “the lies disseminated by the bourgeois propaganda about famine in the Soviet Union.”
The New York Times Moscow correspondent Walter Duranti was honoured by being given a chance to interview “Uncle Joe” himself and in his articles he persistently denied that Ukraine was in the grip of a devastating famine. Later he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for “the depth, objectivity, sober assessment and exceptional clarity” of his reportage from the Soviet Union. Pulitzer Prize for deception?
The examples of such inexplicable blindness could be easily continued. George Bernard Shaw once said, “What is history? History lies, as always.” These words turned out to be prophetic. In 1933, while on a tour of the Soviet Union, the famous playwright, made a public statement, picked up by all the leading press media of the world, that he had not seen any signs of famine, and that he had been treated to a most delicious dinner in Moscow.
At the same time, the Ukrainian emigre organizations were unambiguously vocal in blaming the Soviet authorities for the humanitarian catastrophe. As early as June 1931, the Holovna emihratsiyna rada (Chief Emigration Council) with the headquarters in Paris, called upon the governments of the European countries to stop trade with the Soviet Union. “The whole world must realize that Ukraine is on the verge of famine, and yet the grain so much needed to feed Ukraine’s children, is being taken away for the needs of export. On behalf of all the numerous Ukrainian emigres who are scattered all over Europe, we make this desperate and urgent appeal to the civilized world and ask not to encourage the Soviet infamous trade, not to buy grain from Ukraine — the grain splattered with the blood of Ukrainian peasants; we turn to you with a request not to finance the occupation Russian forces in Ukraine. Stop the trade with the Soviets!” read one of the Holovna emihratsiyna rada’s addresses.
The representative of the government of the Ukrainian People’s Republic in exile O. Shulhyn, turned to the chairman of the 14th Assembly of the United Nations in Geneva with the following message: “Mister Chairman, I have the honour to attract Your Excellency’s particular attention to the terrible famine which Ukraine is now in the grip of. Millions of men, women and children are suffering terribly from lack of food and are dying from starvation. Our country is in the threat of being depopulated; the populations of entire villages are dying out…
We ask Your Excellency:
1. To take measures to prevent grain exports from the Soviet Union — most of the grain comes from Ukraine;
2. To set up a committee which would be able to ascertain the scale of the disaster on site;
3. To organize international aid for the starving people of Ukraine.”
A number of political and cultural figures from Halychyna, in Western Ukraine (then under the Polish rule) wrote a letter to the League of Nations Chairman in September 1933 which said in part: “Your Excellency, we the undersigned, are representatives of the Ukrainian Central Committee for help to the Soviet Ukraine, turn to you with an ardent request to kindly raise the issue of the famine which is raging in the Soviet Ukraine, at the sitting of the League of Nations, in order to have the League to organize an international action to provide aid to the Ukrainian population that is dying from starvation. …Those Ukrainians who live in the west of Ukraine outside the territory of Ukraine controlled by the Soviets, and also citizens of Canada and the USA of Ukrainian descent, are prepared to provide their starving brothers and sisters with amounts of grain and other foodstuffs if the League of Nations undertook to send them to Ukraine for fair distribution under international control.”
Thus we have conclusive evidence to say that the international community, and the League of Nations of which it was the focal point, knew about the disastrous famine in Ukraine. Information and hard facts about it came not only from the Ukrainian emigres but also could be gleaned from publications in such leading papers and magazines as The Daily Telegraph, The Manchester Guardian, The New York Herald Tribune, Le Figaro, Neue Zuricher Zeitung, and La Stampa.
The League of Nations did react to the calls for help to the starving Ukrainians, but in a very peculiar manner — on September 17 1934, the Soviet Union was admitted as a member, the main motivation being the Soviet promise “to abide by all the international obligations and pledges and fulfil all the decisions taken by the League in accordance with Article One of its Charter.”
It was the international community’s diplomatic way of maintaining moral neutrality.
“How unbearably sweet is my dear,
repugnant native-foreign land.”
Vasyl Stus, the Ukrainian poet who died
in a concentration camp in 1985
Did you ever have night dreams in which you were fleeing from an ogre that was after you? You run as fast as your legs would carry you and yet the ogre is catching up? Similarly, my country seems to be trying to run away from its history.
This year marks seventy years since the most terrible famine struck Ukraine — the famine which was nothing short of genocide which claimed up to ten million lives. Is Ukraine planning in any way to mark this saddest of anniversaries? Has the evidence of the tragedy been properly studied and assessed? Have all the underlying causes been fully revealed? Has the legal and moral judgment been passed? Have my country fellows been fully informed? Have they been duly impressed and shocked? Have they been grief-stricken?
These seem to be rhetorical questions. Another question presents itself: Has there been in the past history of the world humanitarian catastrophes in their tragic scope and devastating consequences similar to the 1933 Famine in Ukraine? The Holocaust comes to mind first. Raul Gilbert in his book “The Destruction of European Jews” cites the figure of 5 million one hundred thousand Jews who were executed and killed in the gas chambers of the Nazi death camps. The Holocaust has been recognized as one of the greatest tragedies in the European history. The number of Ukrainians who died of starvation in the 1932–33 Famine exceeds this figure by several million and yet the Ukrainian tragedy has not been legally recognized as genocide of immense proportions. Besides, among the victims of the Soviet genocidal practices were not only those who died during the Famine — the “kurkuls” and those who perished during the collectivization should be added to the list of the victims. The Soviet regime in those years was geared to a continuous destruction of its own citizens. The overall number of the direct victims of the collectivization, deportations and of the man-made famine is estimated to be at least 15 million people. The Holocaust has become an integral part of Jewish consciousness, museums and exhibitions devoted to it have been founded and held, information about the Jewish tragedy has been made widely available. It has been instrumental in consolidating the newly born Jewish state, a unifying factor. Has the 1933 Famine played a similar role for Ukraine and the Ukrainians?
“The Ukrainians emerged alive from all the trials that history tested them in, but badly traumatized and suffering from amnesia,” said the Ukrainian poet Yevhen Sverstyuk, “a dissident” in the Soviet times.
In 1988, thanks to the efforts of the Ukrainian Diaspora, the US Congress recognized the fact of genocide against the Ukrainian people; later an international commission of lawyers did the same. At about the same time, Congress set up a committee to conduct investigations into the 1932–33 Famine in Ukraine. During the four years that the commission worked, over 600 witnesses were interrogated, the relevant archive documents were examined, 32 volumes of evidence collected, and conclusions prepared. All these materials were delivered to the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine nine years ago where these materials disappeared without trace. A Kafkaesque twist indeed. Only not surreal but very real, Ukrainian style.
A monument to the victims of the 1933 Famine has been erected. But not in Kyiv or anywhere else in Ukraine — it was erected in Los Angeles, USA. A volume of documents dealing with the Famine was published in New York. Robert Conquest, an English writer, published The Harvest of Sorrow, a book about the Famine. The upper chamber of the Canadian parliament is planning to consider a resolution which would recognize the 1932–1933 Famine in Ukraine as a historical fact of genocide against the Ukrainian people, and would proclaim the fourth Saturday of November to be marked each year in Canada as the day of remembrance of the victims of the Famine in Ukraine.
Several books about the Famine have been published in Ukraine in recent years. The number of copies printed was limited, and the books were released only thanks to the patriotic, enthusiastic efforts of several politicians, cultural figures and writers, with little help provided by the state. Robert Conquest’s book The Harvest of Sorrow was translated and released in Ukrainian in 1993 but the publication was financed by the Ukrainian diaspora.
In November 2002, Verkhovna Rada adopted two important resolutions: about the 70th anniversary of the 1933 Famine and about the Famine issue to be fully considered at a parliamentary hearing sometime in February 2003. The leaders of the Ukrainian state at a modest official ceremony put several wreaths at the inconspicuous monument in the shape of cross commemorating the famine victims in Mykhaylivska Ploshcha in Kyiv on a gray day last November.
I have failed to find the results of Verkhovna Rada deliberations on the subject of the Famine on the Verkhovna Rada website. Neither have I seen so far any extensive analytical materials either in the newspapers or magazines with large circulations, or on television high-rating channels.
Says Roman Krutsyk, head of the Kyiv Organization of the All-Ukrainian Society Memorial: “The 1948 international convention ‘On Prevention of the Crimes of Genocide and Punishment for their Perpetration’ defines genocide as acts designed to destroy entirely or partially a national, ethnic or racial group. One of such acts can be the creation of such living conditions for a particular group of people which lead to the entire or partial demise of this group. The parliamentary hearings recently held in Verkhovna Rada did not achieve their main purpose — they did not provide the legal interpretation of the tragic events of 1932–1933. In other words, the 1933 Famine was not recognized officially as genocide against the Ukrainian people, the way it was done by the Jewish and Armenian people. If it had been done, the 1986 Convention which deals with the inapplicability of the limitation period to the crime of genocide, could be invoked and the documents of the hearing could be passed on to the International Court. I continuously feel the resistance on the part of the Ukrainian authorities to reveal in full measure the historical truth. I am convinced that the current leadership of Ukraine is personally interested in maintaining historical amnesia in this country.”
I would wish to express my gratitude to the Kyiv Organization of the All-Ukrainian Society Memorial, and to Roman Krutsyk and Artur Yeremenko in particular, for giving me an access to books, photos and other materials, from which I have derived much of the information I needed for writing this article.
Witnesses of the Famine speak:
We had a good harvest in 1933, but they took away everything, everything! Even the beans! We usually kept the beans in earthen jars but my Mum spilled them all over the floor hoping they would not care to pick them up. They did, leaving us with nothing.
My husband Vanya died. My children died soon after. Pavlyk was two and Virochka was six months old. My tiny Virochka wanted to suckle but my breasts were like empty, shrivelled pouches. I took my dead children to the cemetery. I dug a grave for my Pavlyk myself, and when I brought my tiny daughter to that cemetery I saw a hole somebody had dug for their dead, and I placed my Virochka into it.
My mother cried so much when saw that my legs and feet became swollen from hunger. She cried more when she saw that the same happened with her five-year old brother Pavlusha two days later. She cuddled us to herself, and wept.
They say that people clutch at straws. My mother took us to the central office of the kolkhoz Dumka Lenina (“Lenin’s Thought”). She begged the chairman of the kolkhoz to let us, her children, be taken to a nursery school — she knew that the kids there were given some food. The chairman took pity on us and we were accepted. They gave us some slops (flour in hot water) and a thin slice of bread. I said to my brother, “Look, they give us some food here, and our father is both sick and hungry. Let’s hide away the bread they give us and give it later to our Dad and Mom. We’ll make do with the slops they give us.” And my brother agreed to do that. On the way home from the nursery school I saw that my brother once in a while would stop and pinch a bit from the bread he kept under his shirt. I did not do that. When we got home we put the bread in front of our Dad. When Pavlusha pulled his piece of bread from under his shirt, a little crumb fell to the ground. My brother bent down and picked that tiny crumb from the ground and put it immediately into his mouth. When our father saw him do it, he burst into tears and said he would not eat any bread, and no matter how hard we tried to persuade him to eat the bread we had brought, saying we had had enough, he refused to touch it.”
Those who had a bit of grain, a pound, could not have it ground into flour because the mill did not work. People started grinding the grain by the millstones. Then an order came from the authorities to have the millstones destroyed. A group of men was hired to go around the village to break the millstones with sledgehammers.”
There were instances when people who were still alive were buried together with the dead. Vasyl Tanchyk, my neighbour, died, and his wife died, but their small child, a suckler, was still alive. It clung to her mother’s breasts. The tiny child was taken to the cemetery and thrown into the grave with the body of her dead mother. It crawled into the corner and the dirt was thrown on top of her.”
That year we were eagerly awaiting for the linden to go into leaf. They say that the linden leaves could be used for food. My brother Myshko climbed up the linden trees, gathered leaves to fill a bag. Then our mother dried the leaves in the oven. Next she pounded them into tiny bits in a mortar, added potato peelings, again pounded, and then baked this mixture. Some people ate cooked thistles. Others looked for the rotten potatoes that had been left in the ground since the previous years, dug them up, pounded them into a sort of pulp, and fried them as pancakes. And for cooking oil they used the grease that is used for the lubricating the wheels on the wagon. I’ll never forget the taste of a pancake made like this from the rotten potatoes — a girl from next door gave me one. It was the greatest piece of food that I had ever eaten. Fifty five years have passed since then but I still remember that taste.”
I was thirteen when they told me I was to go round the village to pick the dead bodies. I remember that first day all too vividly. I loaded the dead bodies onto the wagon, and then drove to a big hole that had been dug on the outskirts of the village. There was no one to help me unload the dead bodies either. So I drove up to the top of a knoll that stood by the side of the hole, unharnessed the horse, and then put my skinny shoulder against the side of the wagon and then gave it a push. The wagon overturned spilling the dead bodies onto the slope and they, dear ones, rolled down as though they were logs. Then I rolled them into the pit. And went back to the village. I made many trips like that.
I had a two-year old brother, Vanya by name. He kept asking for food. “I’m hungly,” he would repeat over and over again. “Don’t cry, Mum’s coming soon, she’ll bring some bread,” I kept telling him. One day, after asking for bread for some time, he lied down and seemed to go to sleep. Our mother came home in the evening, very tired — she had to walk quite a distance to her place of work in the kolkhoz and then she toiled away from morning till night to earn a piece of bread. She asked immediately, as she came in, since when Vanya had been sleeping and rushed to him to wake him up and give him that piece of bread she had brought. But he would never wake up, and never would he ask for bread any more.”
When they began to determine who was a kurkul and who was not, my grandfather did not fit the kurkul category — he did not have either the cattle or land. All he had was a nice house. So one day several wagonloads of people arrived at our house. They burst in, threw everything out, right into the snow — beds, trunks with our things, bed sheets, towels, pillows, rugs, everything! Even my trunk with my dowry. Then they loaded all these things onto a wagon and off they went. And others began taking our house apart. And then carted everything away. The next day they came back and destroyed the barn, the outhouse and the shed. They took away even the hay that we had. There was only the stove and chimney left. But they tore off all the little doors from the oven.
My grandmother Yavdokha was forced to harness herself to a wagon and take wagonloads of corpses to a clay pit in the vicinity of the village. There were just a handful of people left alive in the village. Yavdokha would go around the village, watching the crows — if she saw crows circling over a house, she would go in, drag out the corpses and load them onto the wagon. Those who were still alive, crawled to the doors so as to die at the thresholds — they wanted to make the work of those who would come pick their dead bodies easier… When Yavdokha went into the house where her relatives lived she discovered no grown-ups there — only three children. One of the children, Sanya who was eighteen months old was dead. Khodysya, a four-year old, was making a shirt for her dead sister from a towel. She knew that the dead must be dressed before they were to be buried. She looked up from her handiwork — a big needle with thick thread in her hands — and asked Yavdokha, “Auntie, cut off one of my finger, and I’ll eat it. I tried to bite it off and I could not. I did not have enough strength to bite it off.”
They took away our horse, our cow and our two piglets. They stripped the iron roof from the barn and took it away. There were children in the family, and in the winter of 1933 we went around hungry. In fact, we were starving. Our mother was the first to die. Our father left to look for food. While he was away we, the four of us, huddled together to keep warm. Once, I woke up and for some reason wanted to wake up Petya, my elder brother, who slept next to me. But he would not wake up. By the time our father came back, Styopa, my seven-year old brother, also died. Before he could cook something out of crudely ground flour he had brought wrapped in a piece of old cloth, Vera, my six-year old sister, died too. Father broke down and wept, he would not stop sobbing and crying.”
The communists went around the village looking for grain. If they failed to find anything or if they found some grain and suspected there was more of it hidden away, they would probe into the walls, ceiling and floor with metal sticks. They dug in the garden and in the backyard. Once, when my mother was preparing to cook a soup from beans, these cursed monsters turned up and took away the beans and together with the bowl they were in. Father was the first to go down — he kept giving his tiny share of food to us. Before he died, he called all of us to come close, put his hand on the head of each one of us, one after the other, and said, weeping, “Children mine, may the sun help you!” I grabbed my father’s hand that began to grow cold, and put my lips to it. I could not even cry — I was in a heavy, gray stupor. My father’s last words live in my heart.”
Excerpts from the witnesses’ accounts of the Famine of 1932– 1933 have been taken from Holod 33.
Narodna knyha-memorial (“Famine 1933. People’s Memorial Book), edited and compiled by Lidiya Kovalenko and Volodymyr Manyak.