It is now generally accepted that in 1932-1933 several million peasants-most of them Ukrainians living in Ukraine and the traditionally Cossack territories of the North Caucasus (now the Krasnodar, Stavropol, and Rostov on the Don regions of the Russian Federation) -- starved to death because the government of the Soviet Union seized with unprecedented force and thoroughness the 1932 crop and foodstuffs from the agricultural population (Mace, 1984; Conquest, 1986). After over half a century of denial, in January 1990 the Communist Party of Ukraine adopted a special resolution admitting that the Ukrainian Famine had indeed occurred, cost millions of lives, had been artificially brought about by official actions, and that Stalin and his associates bore criminal responsibility for those actions (Holod, 1990, pp. 3-4).
The Ukrainian Famine corresponded in time with a reversal of official policies which had hitherto permitted significant self-expression of the U.S.S.R.'s non-Russian nations. During and after the Famine, non-Russian national self-assertion was labeled bourgeois nationalism and suppressed. The elites which had been associated with these policies were eliminated (Mace, 1983, pp. 264-301). The authorities of the period denied that a famine was taking place at the time, sought to discredit reports on the factual situation, insofar as possible prevented the starving from traveling to areas where food was available, and refused all offers of aid to the starving (Conquest, 1986; Commission on the Ukraine Famine, 1988: vi-xvv). They were assisted in this policy of denial by certain Western journalists, most notably Walter Duranty of The New York Times (Taylor, 1990, pp. 210-223).
In order to understand the Ukrainian Famine, a brief excursion into the preceding period is necessary. Despite their numerical strength as the second-largest of the Slavic-speaking nations, Ukrainians may be classed with what Czech scholar Myroslav Hroch (1985) designated the "small nations" of Europe. Such nations "were in subjection for such a long period that the relation of subjection took on a structural character," that is, the majority of the ruling class belonged to the ruling nation, while the subjugated nation possessed an incomplete social structure partially or entirely lacking its own ruling class (Hroch, 1985, p. 9). The Ukrainians were basically a nation of peasants, their national movement being led by a numerically small intelligentsia. As in other areas occupied by subject nations in imperial Russian and early Soviet history, the local nobility, bourgeoisie, and urban population in Ukraine were overwhelmingly Russian or Russian speaking (Liber, 1992, pp. 12-15). In the nineteenth century Ukrainians underwent a national revival similar to that of Czechs and other "small nations," that is, romantic scholarly excursions into the local language and history along with the creation of a vernacular literature brought a spreading sense of local patriotism and national identity which in turn gave way to political aspirations and, ultimately, territorial home rule. Yet, when in 1925 Stalin wrote, "The national question is, according to its essence, a question of the peasantry" (Stalin, 1946-51: VII, p. 72), this held true for almost all the non-Russian peoples of the Soviet Union and certainly for Ukrainians.
The social development of Ukrainians in the Russian Empire had been retarded by extraordinarily repressive policies. In 1863, the imperial Russian government responded to what it perceived as a nascent threat of "Ukrainian separatism" by banning education and publications (except for folk songs and historical documents) in the Ukrainian language, declaring it to be a substandard variant of Russian. This ban was broadened in 1876 to eliminate the modest exemptions in the earlier measure and remained in effect until 1905 (Savchenko, 1930). After 1905, a Ukrainian language press enjoyed a brief flowering in central Ukraine, but creeping reimposition of the old prohibitions all but eliminated it within a few years. Because repressive tsarist policies had stunted the growth of social differentiation within Ukrainian society, Ukrainian activists could expect to gain mass support only among the peasantry. Consequently, when Ukrainian political parties evolved in imperial Russia at the turn of the century they assumed a revolutionary socialist character, and the form in which Ukrainian political aspirations gained majority support during the revolution of 1917 was through the agrarian socialism of the Ukrainian Party of Socialist Revolutionaries (Hermaize, 1926; Khrystiuk, 1921-1922, Vol. 1, p. 35).
After the collapse of the Russian imperial authority in 1917, the national movements which attempted to establish local governments throughout the former empire's non-Russian periphery, including the Ukrainian movement, drew most of their mass support from the village, while in the cities various groups competed more or less as they did in Russia proper.
The group which seized power in the center, Lenin's Bolsheviks, mistrusted the peasants as petty property owners and relied on forced requisitions of agricultural produce in order to keep the urban population fed. Thus, the national struggle between Russians ("Red" or "White"), and the subject peoples was at the same time a social struggle of the countryside versus the town, where even the working class was drawn from the oppressor nation or had assimilated its culture. As Ukrainian Communist spokesmen recognized as early as 1920, the Russian-speaking worker, who provided the main source of support for Soviet rule in Ukraine, sneered at the Ukrainian village and wanted nothing to do with it (Mace, 1983, pp. 68-69). During the wars that followed the Russian Revolution of 1917, a Soviet regime had been imposed on Ukraine by Russia against the will of most of Ukraine's inhabitants, an absolute majority of whom had voted in free elections for groups that supported Ukrainian self-rule (Borys, 1980, p. 170, table).
In order to overcome rural resistance to the Soviet order, in 1921 proclaimed the New Economic Policy (NEP), which ended forced procurements and allowed a private market in which agricultural producers could sell what they had produced. In 1923, in order to overcome the continued national resistance of the non-Russian countryside, Lenin proclaimed a policy of "indigenization" (korenizatsiia), which attempted to give non-Russia Soviet regimes a veneer of national legitimacy by promoting the local language and culture in the cities, recruiting local regime, ordering Russian officials to learn the local language, and a broad range of cultural activities (Mace, 1983, pp. 87-95; Liber, 1992, pp. 33-46).
The Ukrainian Famine of 1932-1933 occurred within the context the so-called "Stalinist Revolution from Above," a violent experiment social transformation in which state-orchestrated paranoia about and external enemies was used to blame shortcomings on the of class enemies. Like Naziism, Stalinism attempted to explain the world as a struggle between different categories of people, some of whom were considered inherently deleterious and whose elimination was an essential requisite toward the attainment of a new and better state of affairs. As degenerated offshoot of Marxism, Stalinism attempted to explain by using class categories rather than the racial ones employed by the Nazis. But what Hitler and Stalin had in common was a dualistic view of human society as composed of two implacably hostile forces, the "good" force destined for victory (Aryans for Hitler and the proletariat for Stalin) which could only liberate itself and achieve its destiny by destroying utterly the forces of evil (for Hitler, Jews and Gypsies, which he considered racially polluting elements, and for Stalin, representatives of "exploiter classes").
A major difference between Stalinism and racism (like Naziism) is that racism at least knows how to define what it hates: people who look or speak differently or have different ancestors. Class warfare, however, is a sociological concept, and sociological categories are much easier to manipulate than racial ones, especially when applied in and by a state that claims, as did Stalin's, a monopoly on truth and science thanks to its correct understanding and application of a theory based on claims of holistic scienticism; that is, claims that it explains everything with the certainty of (pseudo-) scientific laws. By redefining and manipulating such notions as class enemies, enemies of the people, and objectively serving the interests of such dark forces, Stalin was able to declare practically any group or individual as worthy of destruction. This enabled Stalin to reduce Marxism, one of the great (if flawed) intellectual systems of the nineteenth century, to the level of a sanctioning ideology for perhaps the paradigmatic example of what Leo Kuper (1990) has called the genocide state.
Marxism views history as class struggle. It holds that modern capitalism is defined by the struggle between proletarians and capitalists, the former being destined to triumph over the latter and thereby create a new socialist stage of human history in which the economic exploitation of one person by another will be abolished. Independent smallholding peasants are viewed as peripheral to this struggle, a petty capitalist holdover of an earlier era. Leninists saw an inevitable process of class differentiation among peasants into three strata: the relatively wealthier kulaks (Ukrainian kurkuls) or village exploiters, the middle peasants or subsistence farmers who did not hire labor or depend on outside employment to get by, and the poor peasants, who could only make ends meet by working for others and thus were at least partially rural proletarians. The middle and poor peasants were often lumped together as the toiling peasantry in order to mark them off from the kulaks. However, such a division of the peasantry into such categories was arbitrary, and just who was a kulak was never defined with any precision (Lewin, 1985, pp. 121-141).
As for the national question, most varieties of Marxism reject nationalism as a species of false consciousness which reflects the interests of an exploitative bourgeois class by convincing the exploited that they owe loyalty to their capitalist-ruled nation rather than to the international working class. Orthodox Marxists believe that only internationalism can serve the interests of the working class. There have been many conflicting policy prescriptions advocated by Marxists designed to overcome nationalistic prejudices and achieve the internationalist unity of the toiling classes.
Just as nationalism can have a variety of meanings, so can internationalism. In the pre-Stalinist period, the Soviet authorities found what they considered the "correct" internationalist approach to building socialism by attempting to combat the imperial pretensions of Russians (the dominant group) and by assisting the formerly subject peoples of the Russian Empire to overcome the legacy of colonial domination by rebuilding their various national cultures and societies--under the Party's guidance, of course. This ideological prescription actually reflected political necessity: before the adoption of such a policy non-Russian peasant dissatisfaction had threatened political stability in wide areas of the new Soviet Union. But there were certainly other Marxist views of internationalism. For example, Rosa Luxemburg (1976) advocated a view often criticized as "national nihilism" when she argued that national self-determination was a chimera: it was utopian so long as capitalist exploitation survived and would be rendered irrelevant once socialism had brought about the final end of all forms of exploitation (pp. 308-314).
Once an ideology comes to power, theory becomes the stuff of practical politics, influencing and being influenced by considerations of power. Ukrainization, the Ukrainian version of indigenization, went further than elsewhere in the Soviet Union because roughly thirty million Ukrainians were several times more numerous than any other single national group. On the eve of the Famine they constituted about two-fifths of all non-Russian inhabitants of the U.S.S.R. The policies of indigenization, designed to placate the national aspirations of the non-Russian, overwhelmingly peasant nations, went hand-in-hand with the limited free market policies of the New Economic Policy (NEP), which were designed to satisfy the economic aspirations of both Russian and non-Russian peasants. With indigenization having legitimized national priorities among non-Russian Communists and the high politics in Moscow centering on a protracted struggle for power, during the 1920s national Communists in the constituent republics of the U.S.S.R. accumulated a large measure of autonomy from central dictates. When at the end of the decade Joseph Stalin emerged victorious in the succession struggle, he abruptly changed course by announcing the crash collectivization of agriculture on the basis of the liquidation (that is, destruction) of the kulaks as a class.
Collectivization meant forcing millions of small farmers into large collective farms, which many peasants--not without reason--saw as a reinstitution of serfdom, the only difference being that the state was now taking the place of the nobleman who owned the peasants' grandparents. Forcing the majority of the population to restructure their lives in a way they did not wish to meant provoking a degree of hostility that rendered politically irrelevant concessions that had been designed to placate the non-Russian peasants on national grounds.
The changed political situation enabled Stalin to pursue four objectives toward the non-Russians. Donald Treadgold (1964) rightly has summarized them as follows: (1) the elimination of centrifugal pressures by stifling local nationalism, (2) subversion of neighboring states by having members of a given Soviet nationality conduct propaganda among their co-nationals in neighboring areas, (3) "economic and social transformation designed to destroy native society and substitute a social system susceptible of control by Moscow," and 4) the economic exploitation of non-Russian areas (pp. 297-298).
Transforming society by force far exceeds the capacity of any traditional authoritarian state. It requires the mobilization and motivation of mass constituencies who could be called upon to do the regime's will. Starting with a phony war scare in 1927 and followed by show trials designed to point out various social groups (managers and engineers held over from the old regime, academicians, people who had been associated with national or religious movements, etc.) as nests of plotters in the pay of world capitalism, a massive propaganda campaign was carried out designed to convince people that the Soviet Union was under siege by the hostile capitalist world which encircled it. Soviet society had to catch up with the capitalist West or be crushed. The crash collectivization of agriculture was portrayed as essential in order to do this.
In order to expropriate kulaks, enforce collectivization, and take possession of agricultural produce, the authorities mobilized anyone they could. As a self-proclaimed workers' state, it was logical that the regime would turn first to the workers and trade unions for personnel to impose its will. The entire network of officially sanctioned social organizations was mobilized. The resistance they faced was interpreted in class terms as kulak terrorism, for who but a kulak or his agent could oppose the socialist transformation of the countryside? Ultimately, any problem was blamed on "kulaks" or their "agents" and repressive policies were justified by the need to an enemy presence which was ever more broadly defined. The village became an object of official mistrust as tens of thousands of factory workers were issued revolvers and sent into villages with the power to completely reorganize life there as well as to circumvent or abolish governmental bodies on the village level. Workers were sent from factories, and sometimes a factory would be named "patron" of a given number of villages; that is, the factory would be assigned villages from which to enforce collectivization and seize food. Local "activists," that is, individuals whose position gave them an active role in officially sanctioned social and political life, would also be given these responsibilities. Special peasant "tow" (buksyr) brigades were organized and given the task of "taking the kulaks in tow" by ejecting those selected by the local authorities for expropriation from their houses or searching for concealed foodstuffs. The members of these brigades did not always volunteer: sometimes county or district authorities would simply call up the able-bodied men in one village to act as a tow brigade in a neighboring village. For example, a schoolteacher had no choice but to take part in the work of the local activists. At the height of the famine, when most peasants were physically incapable of work, lines in front of city stores were raided from time to time, and the unfortunates rounded up were sent to weed sugar beets (Commission, 1988, 448-449).
The essence of the collective farm system was official control over agricultural production and distribution. The state's "procurement” of agricultural produce was carried out by force such that procurements (purchases) really became forced requisitions. Since, however, the collective farm was in theory a private cooperative, not a state enterprise, the authorities assumed no responsibility for the welfare of the collective farmers. Whatever the state required came from the "first proceeds" of the harvest; that is, the state took its quota first. If there was anything left, it went first to what was needed to run the farm, such as seed reserves, and what was left over was then shared among the collective farmers according to the labor days (trudodni) they had earned (Jasny, 1949, pp. 64-85).
These labor days were not actual days worked. Rather, they were allocated according to complex formula designed to calculate the different values of different kinds of labor by converting all types of labor on the farm into the Marxist concept of simple labor time. Skilled workers, like a tractor driver, might earn two labor days for each day worked, while a simple farmer without any particular skill might have to work two days in order to earn one labor day. This, however, was of no consequence if there was nothing left: in that case, of course, the labor days of the collective farmers were worthless.
At the time of the famine, roughly 20 percent of the Ukrainian peasantry was still outside the collective farms. They had their own household quotas which were imposed by local authorities. If they could not meet a given quota, they were fined, and their farms searched with the aid of metal prods.
Collectivization led to a crisis in agricultural production which the regime met sometimes with force and sometimes with promises to overcome "errors" or "excesses" or "deviations" from the party's "Leninist general line." Such shortcomings were always blamed on subordinate officials, never on the policies of the Communist party and Soviet state, which were held to be infallible. The first agricultural procurement campaign after crash collectivization, that of 1930, was met, thanks to a fortunate harvest. The following year, the quota was not met in spite of considerable force which succeeded only in creating pockets of starvation. In the first half of 1932, the regime announced that there had been a crop failure in parts of the Volga Basin and Asiatic Russia and sent aid there from other regions. In May, agricultural quotas for the coming crop were lowered to about the level of what had been obtained from the 1931 crop. Various officials were denounced for having used excessive force in seizing agricultural produce and promises were made that such "distortions" of the official policy would not be tolerated in the future. Some local officials who had been particularly harsh toward peasants in their charge were publicly tried and punished. For a few weeks, even Ukraine received limited food aid.
Then, in the summer of 1932, with Ukraine on the verge of mass starvation, Stalin abruptly changed course. At a Ukrainian Communist party conference in July, amid reports that the situation in the Ukrainian countryside was growing desperate, Stalin's top assistants--Prime Minister Viacheslav Molotov and Agriculture Minister Lazar Kaganovich--announced that Ukraine's quotas for bread grain deliveries would stand at the level announced the previous May. But once the harvest was in, there simply wasn't enough grain to meet the quota. The Ukrainian authorities appealed to Moscow for an end to the grain seizures but to no out the fall of 1932, Stalin sent various high officials to Ukraine to supervise the local Communists. In November, bread that had been "advanced", the collective farmers at harvest time was declared to have been distributed and was therefore seized. In order to make up for shortfalls where, those farms which met their quotas were subjected to supplementary quotas of foodstuffs which had to be delivered to the state. Local, officials were ordered to determine how much bread there was in ever farm and to put it toward the quota.
On December 14, Stalin's intimate involvement in the Ukrainian Famine became clear when he called the top leaders of Ukraine, the Caucasus, and the Western (Smolensk) District to Moscow. This produced a secret decree signed by Stalin as head of the Party and Molotov as head of government. While the leader of the Western District was let with a simple admonition to meet its quotas, the Ukrainian and Caucasus representatives were blasted for having failed to root out Ukrainian nationalism:
As a result of the extremely weak efforts and lack of revolutionary vigilance of a number of local Party organizations in Ukraine and Caucasus, in a substantial portion of these organizations counter-revolutionary elements--kulaks, former officers, Petliurists, adherents of the Kuban Rada and so forth--have been able to worm their way into the collective farms as chairmen or as influential members of their administration, bookkeepers, store managers, threshing brigade leaders, and so forth, were able to worm their way into village councils, agricultural offices, cooperatives, and attempted to direct the work of these organizations against the interests of the proletarian state and the Party's policy, attempted to organize a counterrevolutionary movement, to sabotage the grain procurements, and to sabotage the sowing, the All-Union Communist Party Central Committee and Council of Peoples Commissars of the USSR direct the Communist Party and government leadership of Ukraine and the North Caucasus to resolutely root out the counterrevolutionary elements by means of their arrest, long sentences of confinement in concentration camps, and not excluding application of the highest measure of legality [that is, execution--JM] in the most criminal cases. ("Postanova TsK VKP(b) ta RNK SRSR pro khlibozahotivli na Ukrainy, Pivnichnomu Kavkazi ta Zakhidnii oblasti"
[Decision of the All-Union Communist Party Central Committee and USSR Council of Peoples Commissars on Grain Procurements in Ukraine, the North Caucasus, and Western District], Zoloti vorota: Al’manakh, No. 1 (1991), p. 78.)
The decree went on to name officials on the local level who had failed to make their quotas, mentioning the officials by name and detailing which of them were to be given prison sentences and which of them were to be shot. In addition, Ukrainian officials were condemned for their "mechanistic" (that is, overzealous) implementation of Ukrainization, while Ukrainization was ordered halted in the North Caucasus (Postanova, 1991).
A week later, Stalin's representatives in Ukraine ordered the seizure of even the seed that had been put aside for spring planting. In January 1933, Stalin took direct control of the Ukrainian Communist party apparatus. His appointees, accompanied by tens of thousands of subordinates, initiated a campaign which led to the destruction of nationally self-assertive Ukrainian elites, the end of the Ukrainization policy and virtually all Ukrainian cultural self-expression, and the gradual return to Russian language in Ukraine's cities and educational institutions (Commission, 1988: xi-xvii; Holod, 1990, pp. 148-235).
The food seized, people began to starve. Millions died either from starvation--an agonizingly slow process in which the body literally consumes itself until the muscles of the chest can no longer lift the rib cage to inflate the lungs and the victim suffocates--or, more commonly, from diseases which in such a weakened condition the body can no longer fend off. But to report deaths from starvation or from diseases like typhus, which are associated with famine, was considered anti-Soviet. Physicians used euphemisms like vitamin or protein deficiency (which does usually accompany caloric deficiency), heart failure (because the heart stops), diarrhea (from eating plants the body cannot digest), or "exhaustion of the organism" (Gannt, 1937, pp. 147-162). Estimates of the number of victims in Ukraine range from three to eight million. According to the long-suppressed 1937 census, released only in 1991, in 1937 Ukraine had a million fewer inhabitants than in 1926, three million fewer than official estimates of the early 1930s, which were probably not far off the mark ( Vsesoiuznaia, 1991, p. 28, table). Using these and other long suppressed figures, demographers in the former Soviet Union have calculated that, while the population of the U.S.S.R. increased from 148.7 million in 1927 to 162.5 million in 1937. during the year 1933 the population decreased by 5.9 million. Their figures suggest that the number of victims of famine in 1933 was between 7.2 8.1 million (summarized in Ellman, 1991, pp. 375-379). Given that but one or two million of these victims perished in Ukraine, the number victims of the Ukrainian Famine would be in the range of five to seven million.
As living conditions worsened, the authorities expanded the system hard currency stores, the torgsin. The name was an abbreviation for Russian phrase, torgovlia s inostrantsami (trade with foreigners), because only foreigners had the right to possess precious metals and convertible currency. In exchange for food, these stores helped extract the last valuables remaining in the countryside. Often a small piece of jewelry, a gold tooth, or concealed silver or gold coin meant the difference between life and death.
The Famine had a major long-range impact on Ukrainians. The adoption in 1932-1933 of an internal passport system from which peasants were excluded meant that the agricultural population could not leave the countryside without official permission. This meant attaching the peasantry to the land in a way not entirely different from traditional serfdom. The psychological traumatization inevitable in any situation of mass mortality was undoubtedly compounded by a policy of official denial extending to the most remote village. At the height of the famine, Stalin adopted the slogan: "Life has become better; life has become more fun," and even the starving had to repeat it. To speak openly of everyday reality meant running the risk of punishment for propagating anti-Soviet propaganda. Children were encouraged to inform on their parents, and Pavlik Morozov, a boy who had informed on his parents and was killed by villagers after the parents' subsequent arrest, was held up as a model for Soviet young people. As a result, parents became afraid to talk openly in front of their own children. While Stalin's rapid industrialization brought millions of Ukrainian peasants to Ukraine's cities, mines, and factories, the abandonment of policies promoting the use of the Ukrainian language there often meant the rapid linguistic and cultural Russification of these new workers and city dwellers.
As a result of the Famine and accompanying destruction of national elites, the Ukrainian nation was literally crushed. Their leadership (including the natural village leadership, the more prosperous and industrious peasants) was destroyed. Their language and culture, which had made significant inroads in the cities in the 1920s, was largely pushed back to the countryside whence it came. And in the countryside, about one out of every five people had perished. As a result, the development of Ukrainians as a nation was violently and traumatically set back.
The Ukrainians might never have recovered as a nation had it not been for Stalin's 1939 pact with Hitler, by which the Soviet Union annexed Western Ukraine as its share of the dismembered Polish Republic. Western Ukraine contained areas which had never been under Russian rule and were consequently the most developed and nationally conscious regions of Ukraine. The joining of Western Ukraine to the devastated central and eastern Ukrainian territories largely undermined Stalin's deconstruction of the Ukrainian nation in the 1930s, paving the way for Ukrainian independence in the 1990s.
Drawing lessons from history is always a risky business, but surely one of the principal lessons of the Ukrainian Famine has to do with the dangers of pseudo-scientific totalitarian ideologies. Such ideologies, which claim scientific validity, explain problems within a given society by blaming them on the presence of permanent enemies which by virtue of their very existence prevent the bulk of society from achieving its destiny, the good life, or otherwise solving its problems. Such enemies may be racial, national, political, or social, but however defined, such ideologies may easily be used as warrants for mass murder and genocide. The monopolies or near-monopolies of propaganda, reward, and coercion which totalitarian societies possess in turn make it possible for totalitarian regimes to attract sufficient mass participation to carry out such designs. Moreover, as George Orwell demonstrated nearly half a century ago in 1984, the totalitarian monopoly of official expression allowed the Stalin regime to define and redefine concepts in order to radically change their meaning. Thus, in the Ukrainian case, class categories were manipulated in order to redefine national issues as class ones. Thus, the Ukrainian Famine further shows that the Fascist Right has no monopoly on genocide. Even ideologies espousing internationalism and social justice can be manipulated so as to target ethnic groups by redefining its terms to mean whatever might seem expedient at a given moment.
The refusal of even the moderate Left to perceive the full horror of Stalinism also carries lessons about the selective perception of evil. While it is understandable that one is more charitable to actions taken by regimes that profess adherence to "one's own" side of the political spectrum, civilized adherents of both the Left and the Right should realize that the most important issue of political life is not between continuity and change but between those who uphold such universal human values as the right of living people to remain among the living and those who do not recognize such a right for members of a given out-group. For those who profess values, the willingness to countenance the death of millions for their ceases to have anything in common with political progress: it is simply murder on an unspeakable scale.
S. Lozovy, "What Happened in Hadyach County," The Black Deeds of the Kremlin: A White Book, ed. S. Pidhainy, et al. (Toronto and Detroit, 1953-1955), I: 246-255. The Black Deeds is the classic collection of eyewitness accounts of the famine, compiled by the Democratic Association of Ukrainians Who Had Been Repressed by the Soviets (DOBRUS), which was associated with the Ukrainian Revolutionary Democratic Party, a socialist group formed after World War II by Ukrainians who had emigrated from Central and Eastern Ukraine.
Having received from comrade Kolotov, boss of the county seat, instructions to establish a commune, the chairman of the village soviet, Tereshko Myshchachenko, took great pains to carry them out. He gave them wide publicity and, as a further incentive, put his name first on the list of commune farmers. Another reason was comrade Gapon from the city of Orel who certainly would have been made chairman if Tereshko had failed in his "duties."
This was in 1930. The village of Kharkivtsi then numbered 780 individual farmers. Out of this number, only four followed his lead and joined the commune. It was easy for them to do so because they had never had places of their own, or else had sold their houses shortly before the instructions were received.
But this venture was still-born. Even these four, having tasted commune life for one season, turned against it and began to think of leaving it.
The authorities, aware of the fact that people were reluctant to join a commune, changed their tune and began to encourage the idea of a collective farm. With this object in view, there appeared Demen Karasyuk from the city of Tambov. He spoke a Russian-Ukrainian jargon, while his family spoke only Russian. Karasyuk appropriated the house of seredniak (middle peasant) Brychko and sent him to Siberia, where the poor fellow was worked to death six months later. Thus began collectivization and the liquidation of kurkuls (kulaks) as a class.
Rallies were held in the center of the village each day, at which communists from the county seat agitated for collectives. But people did not want to join them and said so, arguing that the government had divided the land against them. And every day GPU agents arrested two or three men.
The village soviet, seeing that people did not want to attend these rallies, hired a boy of 12 to go around with a list and ask people to sign promises that they would attend the gathering. The measure was not successful because men would hide, and their wives would sign their own names arguing that the law gave both sexes equal rights. They also caused a lot of confusion at the rallies by making a terrible noise. The GPU stopped this by sentencing Maria Treba to one year in jail.
The communists changed their tactics. The farmers were called out individually. Under threat of reprisals they were asked to sign papers agreeing to have their property nationalized.
The farmers began to sell their livestock and horses. Their unwillingness to join the collective was stimulated by the fact that people from the neighboring counties of Komyshany and Myrhorod, from villages already collectivized a year ago, came to the village begging for bread. This was an indication as to what they could expect from a collective farm and "communist socialism."
The taxes had to be paid in kind and those who paid them received additional demands, sometimes even greater than the first time, to pay with their products, especially grain.
Seeing no end to this the people began to hide their grain and potatoes if they had any left. A new arrival from the Hadyach Center, comrade Shukhman, who was commissioned to collect grain in three or four counties, gave orders to form buksyr (tow) brigades who had authority to manhandle every farmer until he gave all his grain to the state. These brigades were supplied with special tools made in advance in some factory to facilitate the "grain hunt." These were steel rods about 5/8 inch in diameter, three to ten feet long, with one end sharpened to a point and the other equipped with an oval-shaped handle. Some had a kind of drill on the end instead of a point. The buksyrs would attack piles of straw, first of all sticking their rods into it to see if sacks of grain were hidden in it. The other tool was used to drill in the gardens and other likely places. The grain when found was, of course, confiscated and the owner was forbidden to remain in Ukraine and was sent to Russia (Solovky, Siberia, etc.). The collective farmers did not hide the grain they received for their labor days (trudodni) because there was very little of it.
In October 1932, comrades Shukhman and Kolotov organized a "Red Column." Commandeering about 60 farm wagons, they filled them with toughs and sent them to the villages. Coming to a village, the toughs would scatter, go to the houses of the collective farmers and ask how much grain each had, pretending this was only for registration purposes. When the information was in hand, teams would come up to each house and the grain would be taken away. When all the farmers had been robbed of their grain, the wagons would be decorated with banners and slogans which proclaimed that the farmers had voluntarily, and in an organized manner, given their grain to the state.
This red column passed through villages to be observed, but it was always under GPU protection. When guards were absent, the columns would run into the woods or be robbed by former prisoners who escaped. Such columns took their toll from all the neighboring villages.
It should be observed here that the communists robbed people not only of grain but also of potatoes and any other thing that could be eaten. In some cases farmers were ordered to thresh the straw when the records showed a yield to have been poor. Combatting the communist menace, farmers would leave some grain in the straw by breaking the teeth in the cylinder of the threshing machine. Sometimes they succeeded in concealing up to 30% of grain which remained unthreshed in the straw. They hoped to thresh out this grain later, and thus save themselves and their families. But cases when farmers, in desperation, burned the straw together with their sheds were common.
Searches and arrests led people to despair. The indignation reached its culminating point on November 21, 1932, when great unrest in the village made the village soviet and all the buksyrs flee to the county seat for protection. The collective flew to pieces in half an hour. It was exclusively the work of women. They took their horses and cattle home, and the next day went to the approximate location of their former fields because all the field boundaries were destroyed.
The communists were prompt in checking the incipient rebellion. They arrived in force in GPU cars the next night, arrested five persons and ordered that all collective farm property be returned. This order was carried out.
A stranger was now the chairman of the village soviet. Nobody knew where he came from, though he had a Ukrainian name, Boyko. He began to continue the work of his worthy predecessor, paying special attention to the Ukrainian movement for independence. "This is the work of our arch-enemy, Petlyura," he said. Then he tried to find out who had served in Petlyura's army.
Alarmed by the prospect of inevitable doom which was approaching, the people carried off one night all the grain from the collective farm stores, covering their tracks with pepper to protect themselves from detection by GPU hunting dogs. Some went to the forest to gather acorns, but this practice was soon stopped by Boyko, who declared the woods to be state property. It was forbidden to go there.
It was impossible to grind grain in the mill because the government grain quotas were not fulfilled. The farmers constructed hand mills and stampers. Boyko issued an order for the immediate arrest of the man who had built these machines, O. Khrynenko, but he was warned in time and ran away to the Donbas (industrial region of the Donets River Basin). His wife was thrown out of the house, and it was locked by the GPU. Then she was tortured to reveal the whereabouts of her husband and where he had hidden some gold coins. She gave them 230 rubles in gold but did not know where her husband was and died in their hands.
The former chairman of the village soviet, Myshchachenko, sold his house to buy liquor. Then he took a house from Petro Yarosh and, with the assistance of Boyko, managed to have the Yarosh family exiled to the region of Sverdlovsk where all eight family members died from hard labor and ill treatment. Another case was that of E Shobar, who did the same thing with the brothers Mykola and Stepan Nedvyha. One of them escaped and the other perished in Siberia together with his family of ten.
A week or so later the GPU arrested the following families: Borobavko--5 persons, V. Brychko--7 persons, Ostap Ilchenko--5 persons, Nykyfor and Zakhar Koronivsky--3 persons, O. Perepadya-- 4 persons, K. Riznyk--7 persons, Shyka – 4 persons, Taras Elesey--6 persons, Vasyukno--4 persons, and others. All of them received life terms with hard labor and were sent 280 miles north of Sverdlovsk. In 1942, 5 of them returned and said that all the others had died from hard labor and scurvy. They were lucky to get forged papers and caped to Donbas, where they worked in the mines. (During their terms) they had not stayed long in any one place, because as soon as they cleared a patch in the forest and built barracks and other buildings, they were sent to another place in the wilderness 18 to 24 miles away where the same thing was repeated. The direction was always further north. Their address was Sverdlovsk 5, Letter G.
"There are no kurkuls now and presumably no Petlyura partisans, and we can build up our collective farm in peace," said Boyko. "But you should keep in mind that there are many sub-kurkuls whom we have to watch and, if they are going to harm our Soviet government, we will send them after the others." He again held meetings urging people to join the collective farm. The government took away grain and meat for taxes. There were no cows or sheep in the village.
In the evening of November 2, an unknown group of farmers attacked a buksyr brigade. Makar Verba was killed, and three men ran away. The next day the GPU confiscated all the shotguns in the village. The attackers were not caught. Boyko then threatened that the Soviet Red Army would come and wipe out all the farmers.
The people were terrified. It was hard to find a farmer who had not served a jail term. Practically all joined the collective farm now; only twelve swore that they would not do it and did not until 1941. these were all women and children whose husbands were in exile Siberia.
After the fall of 1932, it became customary to go around and for bread or food from neighbors. These beggars were usually children and old people.
A new buksyr brigade appeared in the village, more cruel than first one.
In the spring of 1933 one third of the people in the village were starving.The others had a little food and ate once a day to keep from swelling. To save themselves and their families from starvation, men began to offer their properties for sale or in exchange for food. Some went to Kharkiv, Kiev or Poltava (major cities of Ukraine) to buy a little food and came back disappointed. Those cities were no better than Hadyach. Then they went to Moscow, Stalingrad, Voronezh and Orel (cities in Russia) where food could be obtained. But the GPU soon found this out and the people were searched on the trains, food confiscated, and they themselves were charged with speculation. Then an order was issued that no farmer would be allowed to travel by train without a permit from the county soviet executive.
In March 1933 all the people from the collective farm went to the authorities, asking for bread. They were not even allowed to enter the courtyard.
On March 28, 1933, we were shocked by the news that Myron Yemets and his wife, Maria, had become cannibals. Having cut off their children’s heads, they salted them away for meat. The neighbors smelled meat frying in the smoke coming from their chimney and, noticing the absence of children, went into the house. When they asked about the children, the parents began to weep and told the whole story. The perpetrators of this act said that they would have children again. Otherwise, they would die in great pain and that would be the end of the family.
Chairman Boyko arrested them himself, and about six hours later the GPU began to question them. "Who has so cunningly persuaded you to do this, kurkuls, near-kurkuls or Petlyura henchmen? You know that this is the work of our enemies to cast dishonor upon our country, the Soviet Union, the most advanced country in the world. You have to tell us who did it!" Hoping to save themselves in this way, the accused pointed to Pavlo Lytvynenko, who was supposed to have said: "If you have nothing to eat, butcher the children and eat them!" Lytvynenko was arrested and shot as an example to the others. Myron and Maria were sentenced to ten years in prison. However, they were shot about three months later because even the Soviet government was ashamed to let them live.
At the end of March or the beginning of April, a big department store was opened in Hadyach on Poltavska Street, by the park, across the street from Lenin's monument. It was called Torgsin. Stocked very well even with goods from abroad, it had one fault, that of selling only for platinum, gold, silver or precious stones. The prices were: For 10 gold rubles one could buy there 17 pounds of bread, 22 pounds of buckwheat cereal, 6 2/3 pounds of millet and 10 herrings.
As soon as people learned about this, all who had any gold or silver flocked to the city. There was a line eight abreast and 1/3 mile long in front of the store. There were always 50-70 people who could not get in before the store closed for the day. They spent their nights on the sidewalk disregarding cold, storm or rain. Thefts were very common, but most died from hunger or stomach cramps after eating too much and too greedily the food they bought. The corpses were removed every morning by a GPU truck.
I also stood in line with my mother. There I saw with my own eyes ten dead bodies thrown on the truck like so many logs and, in addition, three men that were still alive. The dead were hauled to Hlyboky Yar (Deep Ravine) and dumped there.
None of the clerks in this store were Ukrainians and the store belonged to the state.
A month later, in April, this store was broken into and robbed. Half an hour before the opening an alarm was sounded that the store had been robbed at daybreak. The militia with dogs began to search the people waiting in line. All who were a little stronger, had little or no swelling and, perhaps, some gold, were arrested and taken to the building of the country executive committee which was quite close and had a large basement. The prisoners were searched and the gold coins or any other valuables they might have had were confiscated. Other GPU agents without dogs did the same.
One woman, Maria Bovt, had a gold "ship" which had been awarded her husband during the Russo-Japanese War for his bravery in saving a Russian ship. She was also arrested during this investigation and was sent to work at construction projects in Komsomolsk on the Amur River near the Pacific Ocean. All trace of her vanished. The ship must have been taken to swell the Russian treasury or went into the pocket of some GPU agent. Two weeks later, it was discovered that the real culprits had been the clerks in collusion with the militia. They were not punished because they had false documents prepared in advance, and they escaped arrest. This explanation was given out by comrades Shukhman and Kolotov.
The department store had its good and bad sides. The Russians robbed the people of practically all the gold they had. On the hand, it saved many people's lives because 6-11 pounds of grain saved one from starving to death. Those who had no gold for food like flies or went to the cemeteries in search of corpses.
The most critical point was reached just before harvest. More and more people starved to death each day. Everything was eaten that could be swallowed: dogs, cats, frogs, mice, birds, grass, but mostly thistles, which were delicious if the plants were about 15 inches high and cleaned of spines. Many people went to graze and often died in the "grazing fields."
When rye ears began to fill out and were at least half full, the danger of death from starvation receded. The people cut ears of grain in the fields, dried them and, rubbing them down, they ate the precious green grains.
The communists now began to combat "the grain barber menace," that is, people who cut off ears of grain with scissors. Mounted guards on watchtowers protected the grain from the "barbers." One of these watchmen, Fanasiy Hursky, killed a fellow who dared to "steal government property." But sometimes the "barbers" struck back. Some of them sawed through the props under the tower of Ivan Palchenkov when he was asleep. When the wind blew, the tower toppled down, and Ivan was killed.
In the spring of 1933, 138 people died in the village of Kharkivtsi. In comparison with some places this was very good. A great many people died from diseases caused by hunger, especially dysentery. There was only one child born at that time in the whole administrative unit to which Kharkivtsi belonged.
The 1940-1941 school year saw no beginners at all, while previously there had been about 25 each year. The new school principal, a communist, saw the implication, and to save face made a first grade out of children a year younger if they were a little better developed than others. The same thing happened in neighboring villages.
The orphans who survived the famine were taken to a children's home in the village. They were well cared for and most of them grew up properly and reached maturity in the years 1939-1941. The boys raised in these homes when inducted into the army in 1941 were the first to desert with arms and go back to avenge themselves on the communists in their home villages, who deserved punishment.
Case History SW34, U.S. Commission on the Ukraine Famine, Report to Congress (Washington, 1988), pp. 385-393. The interview was conducted as an oral life history in 1987 by Sue Ellen Webber and translated by Darian Diachok under the auspices of this commission.
Question: Please state your year of birth.
Q: Where were you born?
A: In Stavyshche, in Kiev Province.
Q: In which district?
A: The Stavyshche District.
Q: Where did you live during the 1920s and the 1930s?
A: In Stavyshche.
Q: What was your parents' profession?
A: My father worked in a bank, and my mother worked as a saleslady in a store.
Q: I see. So they weren't peasants, is that correct?
A: No, they weren't.
Q: And you had said you were born in ....
Q: Do you remember anything from the NEP period?
A: Well, I might have been, oh, about seven or eight years old at the time. People lived well then. But this was only for a few years. Then people were milked dry. Every single drop was wrung out of them.
Q: What can you recall about collectivization?
A: I only remember that they took away horses, farming implements, tools. Everything was taken from people against their will. And then they shoved you into a collective farm.
Q: And what social category were you given, given the fact that your family wasn't a peasant family, how were you designated?
A: Well, I come from the peasant class, but I'm not a peasant. It was a painful experience looking at all that was going on, seeing how the people were being uprooted and scattered about, how the dying were being brought in. At the time I lived close to the hospital. People were being driven in from villages near and far, as well as from Stavyshche, my native village. People were even bringing in their own children, who were already swollen. They would come to spend the night. And they would spend the night, and then they would be ....
Close by, there was a park belonging to the hospital. It was quite a large park. There were yellow acacias planted in the center of the park and fenced off. Well, this is right where the cemetery was. Enormous open pits were dug and the doctors carried on stretchers the bodies of those who had died and tossed them into the pits. The process would be repeated each day until the open pit was filled and covered over with dirt shoveled over it. I know the earth over the pits has settled quite a bit since that time. But today you can still locate the exact burial spot, right by the cemetery. This was the hospital morgue where they took patients who had died. Later, they didn't bother with the morgue anymore, but took the corpses straight to the open pits on stretchers. Often nurses carried as many as ten children on stretchers and tossed them into the pit.
Q: When did people begin to die?
A: The precise time? When spring came. People were wandering about thegardens and hoping to come upon something left behind in the gardens; they would dig and dig, and examine every clump of earth. If they came upon a smelly old potato, they would clean it and take the starchy residue. They would also dry and grind acacia blossoms. Linden leaves would also be dried and made into ersatz pancakes. People dug up all sorts of roots. It was terrible, absolutely terrible. People scattered all over; they wandered here and there. Sometimes, they'd spot some small creature in the water, like a turtle and eat it as food. It was terrible. People were reduced to this state. I was right there. Some of the starving were in such a bad way that they had begun to stink already. Their feet would swell up; their wounds would open and fester. It was terrible. You would see them walking about, just walking and walking, and one would drop, and then another, and so on it went.
Q: How many were there in your family?
A: Well, there were four children, my mother, father, and grandmother, who was already quite old
Q: And how did you survive?
A: How I survived? I'll tell you. We always had a supply of pickled cabbage, which we would prepare for the winter, as well as a supply of onions and potatoes. And that's all we had. This was the common practice. In villages, there were various ways to prepare provisions. Some people had had all their provisions, all their potato crop, seized, and they themselves had been thrown out of their houses. That's all that I remember, because I was still small then. It all began in 1929, and at that time I was only seven years old. And I can recall how they would deport people, people who never returned. And where they exiled people, I can't say. Everything that they had was destroyed.
Q: Was there a church in your village?
A: We had three churches, in fact. One of them was called Rozkishna Church. It belonged to a rather large town of over ten: sand inhabitants. The town was located on the other side of a dam: could be reached by taking the bridge. But for some reason church was on our side. I recall going past it in 1931 when the was being taken down. But I was not an actual witness to the dismantling of the bells. Apparently, they needed the metal to make weapons. During the dismantling, a band of the women assembled at to protest what was going on. The militia was called; the women roughed up, hit over the head. The next day, activists arrived at and quietly cut down the bells.
The church was converted into a grain bring grain from Zhazhkiv, eighteen miles away from our village, was once part of Kiev Region, but which is now part of Cherkasy Region. And that's one of the places from where they were trucking the grain out. They had an enormous grain elevator there, and day and night they transported the grain from there, grain collected from the collective farms. Day and night!
This was all done at the MTS, the Machine-Tractor Station. And everywhere there were placards with the inscriptions, MORE GRAIN!, and other similar exhortations. More grain for the government. They literally pumped the grain out of the countryside, and all for the government. In the spring the Party sent in Komsomol who walked about the villages with pikes to which small scoops were attached. The Komsomol members searched literally everywhere to find hidden grain. They looked especially in places like hay piles in barns.They dug everywhere. And if they happened to find some grain that someone had hidden away, well, that was pretty much the end of him. He would never see the light of day again. That's how it was.
Q: And who exactly were these Komsomol members? Whose children were they?
A: The Komsomol members? Well, there were some among them, that's true. But the vast majority were sent from Moscow. At one point, the so-called 10,000-ers 'had been sent; there were supposed to have been ten thousand of them sent. Later, the government realized that this number was not enough, so it brought in the so-called 25,000-ers. And it was these groups that confiscated the grain all over the countryside. And if you happened to be a member of the Komsomol, you were forced to do these things, too. But the possibility was always open to you, that if you did find hidden grain, you could fail to report it, or you pretend you hadn't seen anything.
Q: Did the Committees of Non-Wealthy Peasants exist at this time?
A: Non-Wealthy Peasants? Yes, there were such committees, in fact, pretty much all over the countryside; but they were quickly suppressed. Even though I was quite young, I remember that during the SVU (in 1930), they were branded as "enemies of the people." I myself was also considered "an enemy of the people." They took away my father in 1937.
Q: Why was he taken away?
A: Why? Well, he had been branded an "enemy of the people," and they took him away in 1937. And they also took away one of my father's brothers, and another brother, as well. And to this day, we don't know what happened to them. And when my mother went to inquire as to my father's whereabouts at the militia, they told her that he had been sentenced to ten years without the right of correspondence. It was common knowledge that this meant he had been shot. Most likely, his body is somewhere in Vinnytsia. So, the four of us were left. Yurii was the youngest, just six months old at the time. And that was how my mother was left to fend for herself. Many of the other women were sent off to Kazakhstan. It was common practice for wives of the men that had been sentenced to be sent for five years to Kazakhstan to pick cotton, or to perform similar tasks. Five years! My own Godmother was sent there and actually returned. But this was during the war. After the war, my mother came here for a visit, and told us that it became standard practice to tell the wives whose husbands had been sentenced without the right of correspondence: "Your husband was killed in 1945." This was the standard line they gave everyone during the Khrushchev era.
Q: Do you recall how many people died of hunger during the Famine? What was the percentage?
A: In our village, you mean?
Q: Yes. Would you say it was about a half of the villagers?
A: Well, there was a village not far away from us called Krasenivka, which had a population of about ten thousand. It was a rather large village. They had to put up a black flag at one end of the village, and another one at the other end which indicated that absolutely no had survived, not even a dog, or cat. The houses were all with goosefoot and other weeds. And our village? Well, what can I you? About ten percent of our village died of hunger. It was terrifying. Utterly terrifying.
Q: Were you yourself repressed during collectivization?
A: Well, in the beginning, you know, we had our own house, which later became my uncle's house. They evicted us and told us that needed our house as part of the new collective farm, and the5 office out of my uncle's house. And they also confiscated ninety cent of everything we had. They took the land together with the house and all our belongings. We had had this garden there--and we lost all of this.
Q: And they didn't tell you anything?
A: At that point, they took whatever they wanted to, since technically these things were no longer ours. They would walk all over fields, probing the latter with the sharp pikes. The pike was into the ground and pulled up. If any grains of wheat were picked up, the conclusion was that grain was being hidden from the state. The men with the pikes were everywhere.
Q: were you going to school at the time? And if so, was it a Ukrainian school?
A: Yes, it was. In our school, whenever any of the children mentioned the famine, they were corrected by the teachers. They were told that there was no famine, simply a year of difficulties. They confiscated all that we had and designated the year as one of difficulties!
Not far from us was a cemetery. There were many beautifully made crosses and memorials there. This was during the famine. Every night there were two or three graves dug up. Wealthy people had been buried there, and, naturally, there were valuables in the caskets--a ring perhaps, a watch, or earring. The robbers were caught: a man by the name of Abramovich and his son. The father had forced the son into it. Well, they had been trying to break into a tomb - the rich people had all been buried in tombs. The valuables buried with them were just waiting to be taken. Nothing was done to prevent theft. The entire site was ruined and everything of value was taken.
Well, when someone like a priest was buried, a gold cross was of ten placed in his casket. During the famine hundreds of graves were unearthed. On one occasion, they caught the father who had been forcing his son to steal. They crawled into the tomb with a candle... and they managed to get in carrying a candle, and the two were caught. The father was placed in custody... the boy was crying; his classmates were asking him about it.
During the famine they used to give us tea and a small piece of bread at school. The tea was made in the following fashion. It was simply overcooked sugar and some coloring. And that was our tea. A lot of children did not go to school; they were no longer able to, because they had already reached the stage where their bodies had swelled. A large number of children died.
A few of the villagers had planted potatoes in the spring, but they had to do the plowing with shovels, because by this time, all the horses had died and no implements were left. They dug the earth with shovels and planted the potatoes. But the problem was that anyone could easily figure out where it was that you planted the potatoes, and the next day, usually at night, someone would come and dig up what you had planted. The field would again be barren. That's what went on. So, as a result, people would try to cover their tracks by raking over the newly sowed ground dig. We used to plant small potato cuttings which were little more than peels. Well, we planted these in our garden, and the potatoes grew beautifully. Something so simple, it could only have come from God. k was just a potato peel with some eyes on it. We planted the peels and got perfectly good potatoes that way. That's how we did it.
The greatest number of deaths from starvation actually occurred when the wheat-ears had matured. People began to steal the wheat-ears. They were starving, you understand, and all at once the wheat-ears were available. And when the people began eating great quantities of wheat-ears, they died even more rapidly, because their intestines would rupture. That's when the greatest number of corpses began appearing.
Q: And what did they do with the corpses?
A: What indeed! Well, they went looking for them; they collected the corpses and dumped them into pits. And if the authorities happened to come across someone who was somehow managing to stay relatively healthy, well, they gave him the job of watching over the pit that they had dug out to make sure that it wasn't used by anyone else.
Q: Are you aware of any cases of cannibalism?
A: I heard of instances, but had never witnessed anything personally. But everyone talked about it. We had our own newspaper, The Red Collectivist. The newspaper mentioned that someone had been apprehended in connection with the discovery of barrels of salted meat. I can't recall the entire episode. Rumors were circulating involving the activists. There were Ukrainians among them, and there may have been others as well. They were the real activists, you know. They were involved in dekulakization, and they used to go drinking in the gardens. In fact, they didn't do much of anything else, except when it came time to dekulakize someone, they'd come and confiscate everything, throwing the children out, like unwanted puppies, into the courtyard. And this was in the dead of winter. The head of the household would go the village Soviet and request help for his seven children, and the activists would tell him something like, "Get out of here, and take those little mongrels with you!" That's how it was. And no one would help these people out. And so they would just die ....
Q: Who was the head of the village Soviet at the time?
A: The head of the village Soviet? A man by the name of Makharynsky. I've forgotten his first name. And later they took him away as well. I don't know what the cause of that was.
Q: And what sort of man was he? Can you describe him?
A: What kind of man? Well, he did whatever they ordered him to do.
Q: I see, a bureaucrat.
A: Whatever the bureaucracy told him to do, he'd do. You know, he himself didn't actually participate in the dirty work of dekulakization; and whenever they told him to pump the grain out of a particular village, he would send in the activists, the so-called 10,000-ers, and later the 25,000-ers sent by Moscow. And these were all foreigners, outsiders.
The famine existed only in Ukraine. There were a lot of people, a lot of people who wanted to go to Russia. People figured they could go there with the shirt on their backs and sell it for bread. On their way back everything they were carrying would be confiscated. And they would be arrested and sentenced. I myself know of several people who went there. You see, Russia was some distance away from us. The who lived closer did try to go, but the ones who made it with anything. Everything they managed to get was confiscated. By this time, the passport system had already been introduced. According to this system, you would be arrested and in great difficulties if you happened to be somewhere for nine days without reporting. So, whatever you did, you would invariably find yourself in hot water.
Q: Did you leave the village during the famine?
A: My father was still around. I remember once we bought some coffee. The so-called coffee had actually been made out of barley. It was just over-roasted barley. Well, since there was nothing to eat, we were told to mix some of this and some of that into this coffee. This mixture was awfully bitter! Yecch!
Q: Do you remember how the famine came to an end?
A: How the famine ended? Well, they began to provide a little something for the people; people began to go m the collective farms for soup. But as far as to how the famine actually ended? Well, it happened gradually, in stages. How can I explain? Well, the thing is that it never really completely ended. That's the way it is over there. People were no longer dying en masse, but in a sense the famine still continued. In fact, it recurred in 1947. Once again there was a great famine in Ukraine. My mother recounted how there was a great migration to the cities. Life was a bit better in the cities. But even in the cities, people were dying of hunger.
Q: Did a lot of people try to get to Donbas during the famine?
A: A lot of people fled to Donbas. They got jobs in the mines, but they weren't permitted to register as residents there. In our village there was a man by the name of Kruk. He had been involved in the revolution and was supposed to have shot some Communists. In schools, this fellow was always mentioned as a "bandit." When the Germans came, he returned to the village from Donbas, where he had been the director of a mine there. And he had also been a Party member. And he also provided papers to people who needed them to enable them to get on with their lives. The older villagers immediately recognized Kruk upon his arrival. I didn't know him personally. They shouted that Kruk had arrived, but what happened to him after that, I can't say.
Q: What sort of people joined the Party in your village?
A: There were very few Party members in our village.
Q: Well, what sort of people were the Party members?
A: What sort? There was a man by the name of Pokotylo who shot himself during the famine. I believe he was in the District Party Committee, but I don't know what his rank was. I just know that he was a Communist and that he shot himself. There was another by the of Nahornyi who also shot himself. This all happened during inc. These Communists committed suicide during the famine, Mykola Khvyliovy, the writer, and Skrypnyk. Others committed suicide, too, because they saw what was actually going on. At one they had embraced Lenin's slogans that Ukraine would be allowed separate from the Soviet Union if it chose to. They or at least I suppose they did. But later, when they understood truth, they shot themselves. They had to. And that's how it was our Party members.
And then came the Party purges. They were directed from cow. Party purges. And these were public spectacles. There was a building in our village that served as a club. And this is where the proclamations were made. When the Party purge began, they zeroed in on fellow named Hrynchenko. They started in on him, tagging him all sorts of accusations--that he had pumped out insufficient ties of grain, that there was too little of this and too little of that. though there was already nothing at all left to pump out, and still accusing him of falling short. "Too little!" they shouted at him.
By 1934 they were already giving out 250 grams for one labor day. This is about half a pound of bread a day. But you really had to work to earn this ration. This was a very difficult life, but people began to manage. They planted potatoes and different varieties of pumpkins, and other staples. But during the famine, a group of Soviet would come through the villages and would even pull out people happened to be baking in the oven. In the markets even confiscate and destroy such items as beans in jars. It was terrible.Well, this is what I myself know and saw.
Q: How did people rebuild their lives after the famine?
A: Slowly. Before collectivization, there were still large the countryside, but all these were burned as firewood. Whoever fences for keeping in domestic livestock, these people didn't have anything to keep themselves warm. The only that was left were so-called "houses on chicken legs.” Reconstruction was simply awful. It was repulsive just to look at these buildings. It’s probably the same way today. They say that there have been some changes, minor changes made, that some sidewalks have been added, that electrical lines have been added, and that sort of thing ....
Q: Did people ever talk about the famine after it was over?
A: They talked about it constantly. If I knew you well, then I would feel free to talk about it; but if I didn't know you well, I wouldn't feel comfortable talking. I would be afraid of your denouncing me to the NKVD. There were so-called Judases who were capable of turning you in. Whatever you would say, they would immediately report it, and you would be in for some real trouble.
Q: You were only eleven years old during the famine?
Q: But did you hear the adults talking about the political affairs of the day? Did you know at the time who Skrypnyk was? Kaganovich? What was being said about these political figures?
A: We all knew! Kaganovich, Molotov. Except that at that time no one could speak openly about these matters. We couldn't speak openly. Let me tell you about this little song that we had from that period. I can still remember this song from my school days.
During the famine, they sent this fellow, Postyshev, as secretary to Ukraine. And then there was this other fellow, Kossior, who was Polish. He was in the Politburo. So you can see for yourself what lovely songs we had to sing as we starved:
Hey, our harvest knows no limits or measures.
It grows, ripens, and even spills over onto the earth,
Boundless over the fields; while the patrolling pioneers
Come out to guard the ripening wheat-ears of grain.
And now here's the refrain:
We've hardened our song in the kilns fires
And carry it aloft like a banner, offering it to you;
And in this way, Comrade Postyshev, we are submitting
Our report of the work we've done.
I remember the song as if it were yesterday. We had a very beautiful park in our village, with a stream flowing by. A gorgeous park. And in all the parks, there were loud-speakers placed, as part of this radio network, which was itself linked to the post office. And in these parks, you could always hear songs in Russian being sung, one song in particular:
Swiftly as birds, one after another,
Fly over our Soviet homeland
The joyous refrains of town and country:
Our burdens have lightened
Our lives have gladdened.
They broadcast this song while people were dying in the famine. "Our lives have gladdened." I can recall this song from my school years, when they were teaching the children to sing The Patrolling Pioneer. What kind of a country is this in which they keep bread from the people for the sake of a "better life?" They themselves sang, "The joyous refrains of town and country." And this song would play every day, ten times a day, and as you listened to the song, everywhere all around you people are screaming, and starving to death, while the song played on: "Our burdens have lightened."
Q: And what were you thinking?
A: What could I think?! All I could think of was where could I get some food. I didn't think anything. They let the Ukrainians have it because they had wanted to separate from Russia. That's what I think. The Ukrainian nation is still paying for that even up to this very day.
Q: Would you like to add anything to what you've said?
A: What is there that I could add? As long as you have Communism there, you will have this endless agony there. They can always institute another policy similar to NEP; they can always try something like that again. From what I hear, they want to give the people a greater share, a greater share of land as well--the primary reason being that the private plots of land yield more crops per acre than the collective farms. But people aren't going to fall for this. First of all, they don't have the implements with which to farm private land; and, secondly, let's say, a man does work his field, and he seeds it and plants something -- potatoes, for example--then they'll tell him to pay his taxes. And regardless whether or not something grows or doesn't grow in your garden, you have to come up with the payment. People don't want system and aren't going to be taken in by it. And as long as this system continues to exist over there, then that's how it will be over there.
Q: Thank you very much indeed for this most interesting
A: I was quite young, but I saw a great deal. In fact, I can events of those times better than I can recall what I did yesterday.
Q: Oh, yes.
A: It was all so horrible.
Vasyl' Pakharenko, "Holodnyi 33-yi," Molod' Cherkash-chyn July 18-24, 1988; trans. Vera Kaczmarskyj, Soviet Ukrainian Affairs, Autumn 1988, pp. 14-15. The author is a schoolteacher in the city of Cherkassy, a regional capital in Ukraine.
Recently I was leafing through a thick notebook filled with eyewitness accounts. I had jotted them down at various times and different villages. They are simple narratives (I tried to record them verbatim). A surrealistic tragedy unfolds behind these words ....
Here is Iaryna Larionivna Tiutiunyk's account of the death of her neighbor's 6-year-old son, Myt'io. (Iaryna was born in 1905 in the village of Subotiv in the Chyhyrin region): "He was on his way to the kindergarten one morning, where the collective farm was distributing a serving of millet meal, the size of a matchbox. And he dropped by, begging--Auntie, give me a piece of bread. I am so hungry. I didn't give him any because I was mad at him for eating the greens I had planted in the garden. To the day I die I will not forgive myself for begrudging the child a piece of bread. In the evening, on our way home from work, we found him sitting right in the middle of the footpath-dead. He was probably returning from the kindergarten, had got tired, sat down, and died."
Antonina Oleksandrivna Polishchuk (born in 1925). She lived in the village of Buzhanka in the Lysians'kyi raion: "In 1933, our mother pretended to sew some dolls for children, filling them with grain, so that they would not take away all the grain from us. But they found the grain even there and seized it. They took our ox away... and killed it, taking the meat for themselves ....
"Our father died from hunger, as did my 14 year-old brother, Vasia, and my twin sisters, Katia and Dunia (born in 1927). We ate only weeds and drank water. The corpses were carted out to the cemeteries on big carts. They pushed 300 bodies into one hole .... "
Tetiana Iakivna Vdovychenko (born in 1911 ) lived in the same village. "It happened that they took people who were still alive and would throw them into the common graves. This happened with Khotyna Revenko. When they came to her house, she was still alive They started dragging her to the cart by her feet. 'Where are you pulling me to? Give me a beet. I am hungry, I still want to live.' She was young, not yet thirty.
"'You think we are going to come back for you tomorrow?' growled the men in response, pulling her onto the cart by her feet. They brought her to the gravesite and threw her inside. She did not fall on her back, but propped up in a sitting position, her back against the side. They poked at her head and she finally fell back.
"Motria Vdovychenko was also taken to the gravesite and buried alive with her two children (who were also still living). Such incidents were frequent."
Denys Mykytovych Lebid' (born in 1914) from Iablunivka in Lysians'kyi raion: "I was transported to the gravesite and thrown into the common grave, but they did not cover it up that day. My friend Iaremii Stavenko was passing by and pulled me out."
Stepanida Hryhorivna (born in 1905) from the village of Zhab'ianka in the region by the same name: "In 1933, my neighbor lured my daughter to her house, killed her with a knife and ate her. My daughter was all of 6 years old at the time. When the beast was seized and taken to the raion [to be imprisoned], she kept taking out slices of meat and eating them, saying 'Umm, how tasty. Had I known, I would have killed her earlier.' The police could not tolerate this any longer and shot her right there on the road .... "
Oleksander Mishchenko, Bezkrovna viina (Kiev, 1991), pp. 48-49. The author, a member of the Union of Writers of Ukraine, collected 42 accounts in the Poltava region in 1990. The following account is that of Petro Ivanovych Bilous, born 1909 in the village of Andriiky, which was formed from four farmsteads (khutirs) including the Andreiko farmstead, in the Poltava region.
In 1932-1933 the people were terrified. They no longer slept nights but sat in their houses and waited for the brigades to come for bread. In order to survive, some tried to hide some produce somewhere. For example, at Laryvon Andreiko's house the brigade leader found some buried potatoes and beneath them a few poods of wheat. Then they crawled in the attic where there were flowerpots, cast-iron pots, and jars. And in every jar and pot there were beans, dried apples, ground millet, or crab-apples, all covered with charcoal to hide it. They found it all the same. They took it down from the attic and poured it all in one sack. They found a little cask of cheese. They ate his sauerkraut and I ate some, too, because I was hungry. Old man Laryvon was left with nothing. He survived somehow, but his wife died.
In our family both mother and father perished. Mother died when the rye was already being harvested. She went to look at how they were pouring it. Even though the rye was ripe, they wouldn't allow anyone to cut an ear. Even in their own garden. My brother was already married then. He went to live with his wife's family at Marfyna Andreiko's house. They had a cow, and he survived there. Another brother went around to the small farming communities (khutirs) and begged. And I was already near death, so swollen that I couldn't get out of bed, but someone remembered about my army requalification. And I was taken to the hospital. I stayed there a month and got better. I returned home. The house stood empty. All there was were the four walls. I didn't think about that then. All I thought about was going somewhere in order to earn a piece of bread and not die.
But in the village there was no place to go. The dead lay in the shadows, in kitchen gardens under a tree; the people wandered sluggishly, apathetically, dazed, and no one even buried the dead. Over there across the gully lived Kateryna Andreiko. She lost four daughters, and she also gave up her spirit to God, but her two sons, luckily, survived. One was already married, and his younger brother stayed with him.
Andrii Vasyl'ovych Andreiko lost two boys and five daughters. The daughters were little, school-age. Andrii Vasyl'ovych from time to time served as chairman of the collective farm, and then they dismissed him, and then he died. His wife, too. Not only did our own people die but even outsiders who had been sent in. There was starvation in every house.
At my wife's, thanks to the fact that her father had a cow, nobody died. But everybody was swollen: her mother, father, and brother. She was given a little bread in the collective farm--she didn't eat it herself but brought it home. And that's how she saved her immediate family.
At Odarka Andreiko's house, not far from here, the father died, two brothers, and the sisters Mariika, Nastia, and Mylia. Odarka was already married then. She buried them in a pit. She worked on the burial detachment. Nobody made her. She came home and buried them herself. She buried Mariika, she buried Nastia, she buried her father. Before he died, her father asked for a piece of bread: "Give me some, my child, if only some crumbs, because I'm dying." She didn't have any to give him. There just wasn't any bread at all.
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Reprinted with permission