"Without Doctors and Priest without Graves and Crosses"

(from A Hunger Most Cruel: The Human Face of the 1932-1933 Terror-Famine in Soviet Ukraine, by Dimarov, A., Hutsalo, Y., Zvychayna. O.)

 

Back then, in the villages they ate human flesh
And baked bread out of crumbled bark . . .
Starving children eyed greedily
Their dead sister's bloated body . . .
And thus, although we had long since abandoned our caves
In the twentieth century we became cannibals . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Back then a peasant coming to the city for bread
Starved on the pavement and joined the dead.

Yuriy Klen

It is with these words that best describe the famine of 1932-33 in Ukraine.

 

Scene I
The Showcase Window

May 1933.

You are with me in Mykolayivsky Square in the centre of Kharkiv. Listen carefully! You will hear that the groan “Bread!” is the leitmotiv of the din in the capital. Look carefully! It is ragged peasants who are groaning; maimed by hunger, they are scattered in large numbers throughout the crowd.

Before us stands the squat, white-columned building of the All-Ukrainian Central Executive Committee—abbreviated as “VUTsVyK.” This building resembles a white bird—a bird with widely spread wings that has settled down in the very centre of Kharkiv.

“What are those people up to? The ones who are swarming around the right wing of the VUTsVyk building like bees around honey?” you ask.

“Do you really want to know? Come with me!”

And a moment later, you and I are standing in a restlessly moving crowd of famished people from the district of Kharkiv and . . . we are looking, along with this crowd, at the windows of the building.

“Why, the sumptuous displays of food in these windows can compete most favourably with those in New York!” you say.

And it is true! A huge sturgeon, laid out on a shelf, stretches from one end of the display case to the other. Marinated herrings in small casks vie for top honours with their smoked brothers and sisters whose golden spines are heaped in woven baskets . . . There are eels here that resemble snakes, dried navaga, pink cured slabs of sturgeon, and tender mackerel.

And, next to this window, there is another one filled with meat—and this display is in no way inferior to that of the fish. Here there are mountains of sausages, topped by the Ukrainian variety, appetizing headcheese, and delicately pink hams that draw the voracious stares of the starving residents of Kharkiv and its outlying districts.

And that is not all! In a third window there is an entire sea of cookies, elaborately baked pastries, and other dainties. The butter called “Extra” flaunts itself there, along with candies, sugar, and honey! And, in the very middle of the display, as if it had assumed the position of the master, stands a sack of brilliantly white flour with the coveted red label “000”.

“All this looks wonderful!” you say. “But why are all these people just staring and swallowing their saliva instead of going inside to buy something?”

“It's really quite simple. This is the Torhsin, and the food may be bought only with foreign currency or gold.”

At that moment, a horrifying, strangled groan forces us to glance down, beneath the window.

It is the groan of a peasant, a man in the prime of life, twisting himself over on his back. His eyes are closed, his lips are parched and cracked, his work-worn hands are calloused and swollen with a serous liquid, and his feet and legs, worn-out, rough, and chapped, are bloated like logs . . . Sighing heavily the peasant exhales hoarsely, straightens out, stretches his body out tautly, grows rigid and then . . . becomes oblivious to everything around him.

And just like that, ever so simply, without any dramatic effects, this son of our fertile soil dies of hunger under this elegant window of the Torhsin, under the hospitable wing of the VUTsVyK.

You shift your glance from the calloused hands of this still warm body to the white flour with the coveted red label “000,” and . . . you become thoughtful.

I leave you to your thoughts.

The peasants, disfigured by hunger, sit and lie - ghastly and motionless - beneath the showcase windows of the Torhsin, forming a unique wholeness with the products of their labour that fill those windows, products that are displayed strictly for show, and sold only for foreign currency or gold . . .

And now, look over there, at that peasant family that is settling down under the window showcasing the fish. There is the still youthful father in his homespun trousers, the mother with the face of a martyred saint, and their two small whimpering children, their voices broken, thin, and ragged. Oh, it is clear to see that they have walked for a long time, and begged for a long time, imploring the crowds in the city to give them succour! Their bags are empty, their strength is drained …

Now the father lies down with his legs tucked tightly under him - the space under the display windows is cramped! - and places his unkempt, tousled head on the mother's knees, and she, clutching both infants to her breast, freezes into a state of complete immobility.

This grouping of four human beings creates a tableau of indestructible unity, an eternal cohesiveness that neither Soviet intransigence nor death itself is able to rend asunder.

It is a typical peasant family; it is the unshakeable foundation of our Nation. “But isn't the Soviet press aware of all this?” you ask in wrathful indignation. “Where is the press?”

“Right over here!” and I point at a large grey building situated directly across from us, on the other side of the narrow street “It is in that building that the editorial offices of the newspaper The Communist are housed. You see the signs don't you? Buy a copy of today's paper and you will see that, choking in its haste to praise the collective system of farming and the achievements of collectivization, it calls upon everyone to destroy the kurkuls as a class, while taking great pains to pretend that it does not see what it really sees…”

“But why aren't these unfortunate people taken away to a hospital?” you ask.

“Because it is strictly forbidden to take this ‘social scum’ to a hospital.”

How horrifying, how terrifying for a peasant to starve to death under the wing of a building housing the labour-peasant government of the Ukrainian S.S.R., under showcase windows that so cynically display the stolen products of their layout. And in Direct view of the editorial offices of The Communist!

“Are you serious? You've decide to step inside the Torhsin? Well, if you have foreign dollars, the Torhsin is at your service!”

How peaceful and pristine, how dazzling and magnificent it is inside the Torhsin! Bow elegantly the salesclerks are dressed, and how solicitously polite they all are. And then there is the handsome doorman with his ravishing long beard! How diligently he ensures that not a single hungry peasant should, by chance, cross the threshold!

And just look how thick and solid the masonry walls are! And look at these heavy windowpanes! In here, neither the crying of the children nor the final sighs and prayers of those who are completing their life’s journey on the other side of the thick stone wait, can be heard.

 

- - - - - -

Scene II
Artificial Orphans

You and I are at Kharkiv's main market, the one that is called Blahovishchensky, or, for short, Blahbaz.

A sea of people . . .

Against the background of this sea, our eyes catch sight of an island of ragged peasants who, sitting and lying in rows, are selling off their last remaining heirlooms: some are selling a tablecloth executed in fine needlework; others - a rushnyk; and still others a beautiful plakhta. And all these treasures are being bought by shrewd hagglers for a scrap of bread, for a couple of boiled potatoes…

“But why don't they go and find some work, while they still have the strength to do it?” you ask.

“There is a categorical decree forbidding people to hire this 'social scum,”' I reply. 'But are you aware that the Blahbaz is where, every day, peasant children are abandoned by their mothers?”

'What? Why?'

“They abandon them in the hope that the Soviet government will take the orphans to a shelter and . . . feed them there . . . Listen to what Hanna Bezlushchenko related to me once:

“Do you hear what I'm saying?” she asked me. “I abandoned my little Yustynka at the Blahbaz. I told her - stay right here, my dear little daughter, and wait for me! And I'll go buy some bread. I watched her. My little one was standing obediently in the spot where I had left her. And then I ran away as fast as I could without looking back … I walked, I ran, I cried, and my tears clouded the roadway, and all the while she - my dearest little one — stood before my eyes …”

Mothers! Do you feel the overwhelming, unspeakable horror of a moment like that?

Do you see these artificial orphans in their grimy homespun shirts, with their skeletal arms and legs, their large, distended bellies, their sallow faces, and their little eyes crazed with terror? Every one of them is searching in vain in the sea of strange faces for his or her mother’s face … Every one of them is crying, wailing, shrieking … And then, exhausted by their screaming they instinctively huddle together like little chicks whose mother hen has just been swooped up by a hawk . . .

The artificial orphans of an artificial famine!

 

- - - - - -

Scene III
“The Union of Town and Country”

This is the phrase coined by Moscow communists to express the 'exciting unification” of the village and the city a union supposedly created by Soviet socialism.

The wheels of our taxi roll along smoothly: you and I are traveling to Tovkachivka … I'll tell you later why we are going to Tovkachivka. But in the meantime … the hopelessly grey cloth of life in the capital city of the Ukrainian S.S.R. unwinds before your eyes—a cloth that death uses as a background on which to embroider its own distinctive patterns with cross-stitches as black as the chornozem.

A flood of hungry people deluges the city and flows in turbulent streams through its streets and squares. Everywhere, absolutely everywhere, there are piteous farmers with empty bags. Some shout and plead: “Bread! A bit of bread!” Others are silent and sit, spent with fatigue, under the masonry walls - these are the “nearly dead.” Still others, indifferent to everyone and everything, occupy “comfortable” places in sheltering corners and concavities in the stone walls—these are the dead.

“Why don't the urban residents organize assistance and relief?' you ask.

“Because officially there is no famine and asserting that there is a famine, or organizing relief for this 'social scum' is viewed as counterrevolutionary activity for which you will pay with your life. And, as for private assistance, it also is impossible, because every worker receives only a small, clearly inadequate portion of bread with his ration card. Do you see these queues snaking their way through the city?”

“Yes.”

“The 'fortunate' residents of socialist Kharkiv are constantly standing in line to get what is “given” to them. 'What is it that is given?' This is a question that makes you want to go deaf …

“On their ration cards they are 'given' bread, millet, kerosene, kamsa - tiny and terribly salty fish that we greedily swallow whole, together with their intestines, tails, and heads - are some other things like that . . .

“Occasionlly they are 'given' shoes or four metres of fabric for a dress, but they also stand in line for days on end not to get these ‘factory goods,’ because … it is impossible to make enough shoes for everyone! Just look at the dresses the women are wearing. It's true that they're multicoloured, but they are all made out of old clothing that has been dyed, turned inside out, and sewn anew.

“Well, what do you think? How much bread can someone who receives only 300 grams on a ration card spare for a hungry person? A labourer gets a little more, but he needs more …”

“But are there people who have enough to eat and who can clothe themselves in a normal manner?”

“Yes! Of course! There are even those who eat and dress luxuriously but they are government officials, the administrators of the Red Terror and their families. They do not help the hungry as a matter of principle, because they view them as 'social scum' fated for exterminations.”

“Bread! A bit of bread!”

These groans hang like a cloud over the city. There is no escaping them …

A human being from a village begs a human being in the city for a bit of bread, and then dies in full public view without ever receiving any.

And there you have “the union of the town and country,” the union about which the creators of Soviet socialism speak with such pride!

 

- - - - - -

Scene IV
Commerce

A line-up of several thousand starving peasants is twisting, bending, and winding in spirals on the wasteland beyond Tokachivka . . . It is twisting, bending and zigzagging its way forward, striving, like a sentient arrow to reach its ultimate goal— the kiosk with commercial bread.

“What is commercial bread?”

“What? You don't know? The word comes from “commerce.” The labour-peasant government of the Ukrainian S. S. R. is engaged in commerce: the grain that it has stolen from the peasants it sells back to hungry peasants as bread for three karbovantsi a kilo… That is why the bread is called commercial. And it is the correct name for it. But to have the good fortune to eat that bread, three karbovantsi are not enough. After registering in the evening, you have to guard your spot in the queue all night, and, from six o'clock in the morning, you have to keep a good grip on the person ahead of you; you have to stoically withstand rain, hail, shoves, and curses, and in some cases you pay for your dream about bread with your very life.

“What are those?” you ask in horror, casting your eyes at a row of motionless bodies near a ravine.

“Those are corpses. To be more precise - they are the victims of today's queue for “’commercial bread,’” I reply. “Every time that the queue of hungry people, exhausted by the intolerable wait, comes into contact with bread that has just been delivered there is a violent assault on the kiosk, an assault resembling tornado, a hurricane. The stronger peasants push forward with all their might, and the weaker ones fall to the ground; and then the stronger ones, treading on the bodies, get a better spot in the line. Ribs and bones crunch. This 'social scum' is destroying itself – thereby fulfilling the goals of the Red Kremlin. The labour - peasant militia observes what is happening with callous satisfaction: its function is to toss the corpses aside when the current of self-destruction finally ebbs… And then the queue, in 'exemplary' order and clutching the person ahead by the waist, enters the kiosk ten at a time under the watchful eye of the militia: 'Bread! Bread! One kilo - per one pair of hands.”'

Over here is one of those fortunate ones who has finally (!) got his ‘commerce’ and he sits down on the grass to eat it … Look how his fingers tear at the loaf; how he gulps, chokes, snorts, and swallows the bread without chewing it … But before the 'fortunate' owner of this kilogram of bread can finish his splendid repast, the remaining bread drops helplessly from his weak hands. He writhes, roars from the very bottom of his belly, and vomits throwing up the bread that he has obtained with such great effort.

In the doorway of the kiosk a militiaman appears and, struggling to speak in Russian, says: “So, citizens, there is bread for only thirteen groups of ten. The rest of you must disperse! We don't want to see hide or hair of you here! Come on now, off you go - on the double!”

He quickly counts off thirteen groups of ten, and the queue of people that so recently was twisting bending, and zigzagging its way like a sentient arrow striving to reach its goal, is suddenly transformed, as if by a thunderbolt, into an exhausted group of “the nearly dead.”

And, in this throng of the “nearly dead,” unscrupulous people are already roaming about, offering to buy a kilo of bread … for thirty karbovantsi. This black marketeering with black bread is conducted under the protective wing of the labour-peasant militia. This too is “commerce” that expedites the destruction of “social scum.”

 

- - - - - -

Scene V
Without Graves and Crosses

Night.

You and I are observing life in the capital of the Ukrainian S.S.R. from a balcony on the sixth floor. Up above, the stars are barely twinkling. And down below, the dull din of the city can hardly be heard.

A truck with a canvas-covered box swoops in like a black bat to the gates of our building A few militiamen jump down. The janitor of our building appears and, with his help, the bodies of the dead and the still living are flung into the back of the truck.

A moment later, the truck, after travailing a short distance, comes to a stop in front of a neighbouring building where the same “operation” is repeated.

The dark air of the May night is pierced by the groaning and the wailing of the still living now buried by corpses. But such minor details of their “operation” do not cause the least bit of concern among the workers of the labour-peasant militia” that carries out the will of the “labour-peasant” government of the Ukrainian S. S. R.

With full loads stashed under their canvases, these trucks speed away beyond the city boundaries, into the fields, into the forest. There they unload their “cargo” into marshes or ravines, or simply leave the unfortunate wretches in the forest …

And this scene is repeated every night . . . After such an “experiment,” it is only the odd person who is fortunate enough to struggle back to Kharkiv …

It is not candles, but stars that light the way for our peasants in their final moments; it is not doctors, but death the saviour that sets them free from their suffering with a touch as cold as ice, and it is not a priest, but God Himself who accepts their final prayers and … their soul …

Do we fully comprehend the number 7,000,000? It is a number equivalent to the population of New York; it is all of Austria; it is three Slovakias!

Brothers and sisters! Let us honour the memory of the seven million victims of the artificial famine organized in Ukraine by Red Moscow - the seven million who died among stone walls without doctors and priests, without graves and crosses.

Let us rise and honour their memory with a moment of silence.

 

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Glossary

For the convenience of the reader, the plurals of certain Ukrainian words used in the stories are anglicized, i.e., the “s”' ending is used.

Bandura: a Ukrainian musical instrument similar to a lyre

Chornozem: rich black soil (Russian: chernozem)

halushka/s: small boiled dumpings made of dough

hopak: a spirited Ukrainian folk dance

Karbovanets: a dollar in pre-1996 Ukrainian currency

Karbovantsi: (plural of karbovanets)

khokhol/s: a derogatory Russian term for Ukrainians

kolhosp/s: a collective farm (Russian: kolhoz)

Komsomol: the youth wing of the Communist Party', also a member of the organization

kopiyka/s: a penny in Ukrainian currency kozak/s Ukrainian equivalent of “Cossack”'

kurkul/s: a well-to-do peasant/farmer (Russian: kulak)

kylym/s: a tapestry or patterned rug

decree on the protection of socialist property: punishment for any theft from the state sector ranged from the confiscation of personal property and a five-year term in a forced labour camp, to execution

l’origan koti: an expensive perfume

Myrrad: Myrhorod radioactive curative water

NKVD: People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs', Soviet state political police

oven bed: a sleeping area atop a clay oven

plakhta/s: a traditional Ukrainian wraparound skirt woven out of multicoloured yarn

put'ovka/s: an expensive pass to a health resort, handed out without cost to high-level government officials and supporters

pysanka: an egg intricately designed with wax and steeped in dyes

rushnyk/s: embroidered linen ceremonial cloth

sam odyn: all by himself, all alone

sarafan/s: a traditional Russian long, sleeveless dress

serednyak/s: a moderately well-to-do peasant/farmer

Torhsin: a store in the Soviet Union that accepted payment only in foreign currency or gold

to serve on Dukhonin's staff: to be summarily arrested and executed as a counterrevolutionary

TOZ (TSOZ): Association for the Common Cultivation of Land