of the Ukrainian Peasantry

F.P. Burtians'kyi


Fifty years ago, Ukraine survived a famine that was deliberately created by communist Moscow. This famine enveloped all of rural Ukraine and killed more than ten million people.

I am a witness of this horror, and I want to describe it as I saw it, survived it, and recount how I managed to escape death by a miracle.

My family lived in Selevyna, a village in the Odessa province. It consisted of about two hundred households and was considered prosperous. During the struggle for national liberation, during the rule of the Ukrainian People's Republic, my father was chosen the (assistant) vice county chief of Lovshyn. When Ukraine lost the war with the Russian communists, and the latter came to power, my father was arrested by the Cheka and summarily shot.

The new communist regime ushered in a period of robberies and the famine of 1921. Forty people died in that misfortune in our village.

The new regime also brought in new leaders for the village, headed by the communist Makovs'kyi. The new communist authorities began persecuting the wealthier peasants, giving them the shameful name, "kurkuli" or "kulaks." My entire family was categorized as "kulaks," and our family was considered an enemy of the communist authorities.

In 1928, the so-called collectivization began, the first phase of which was the establishment of the SOZ (Land Cultivation Collective). The population opposed these SOZ, but some of the poorest peasants and communist activist joined, apparently of their own free will. The communist authorities considered the peasants' hostility to the SOZ to be the result of the inimical activities of the kulaks. A campaign of cruel persecution was initiated, and our family was subjected to it. My mother died that year, and I was left completely orphaned. Local officials categorized me as a "batrak," or proletarian hireling.

In our village, there were no local communists at the time. However, there was one grand old farmer of middle income, Omelko Kovalenko. His son had left the village for Donhas two years back, and found work at the Rovenky mine. There, he joined the Communist Party and returned to our village when collectivization began. The district committee appointed him as the head of the village council. And thus it came about that this half-baked head of the council, Kyrylo Omel'kiv Kovalenko, included his own father on the list of individuals to be dekulakized. Thus, he served the Party faithfully. The Party, however, repaid him in 1930, by sentencing him to ten years of imprisonment for some misdemeanor. "To each hangman his due" as the people say, but I know nothing of his subsequent fate.

The years of 1929 and 1930 were marked by oppression and terror used by the Party and the government to force the peasants to join the collective farms. These were the years of dekulakization and the liquidation of kulaks as a class. I had already married and had joined the collective farm. However, the communists would not forget that my father had been executed by their Cheka, and persecuted me to the point that I decided to leave for Donbas. However, they took their revenge on my young wife and our infant. They stole all of our possessions and threw my wife and our five month old child out of our house. They forbade people to help them, saying: "let her suffer under the open sky until she brings her husband to us?' While they were robbing us of everything we had, they tore the shirt from my wife's back, then tore our five-month old son from her breast and threw him to the floor like a rag... From that day, our poor child began to ail, and he died at eleven months of age.

By the end of 1931, 68 families from our village had been dekulakized, and the rest had been herded into the collective farm. Dekulakization proceeded along the following lines: the district committee of the Communist Party and the district executive of the village council would draw up a list and designate those who were to be dekulakized and arrested; those who were to be deported out of the district or province; or those who were to be deported out of the republic, in other words, those to be sent to the far north, "the far reaches of the country of the Soviets?' All property of these unfortunate industrious farmers was stolen by the local communists and Komsomol members, who carried out these inhumane and horrible assignments. Of course, such things as the land, buildings, farm implements, and livestock were taken by the collective farms that had already been set up, and the grain was taken by the state.

Alongside the campaign of collectivization came the grain consignments. Peasants had to give their grain only to the state, and in quantities dictated by the state. Production quotas were higher for the wealthier peasants, and they sometimes were two or three times greater than the norm. This was called the "plan by estate," that is, the wealthier the estate, the greater the amount of grain it was asked to hand over. In this way, all grain was taken (ostensibly, bought) from the peasants, leaving them with nothing for either food or seed.

Special so-called grain consignment "staffs" were established by the local communists in each village. These staffs included local communist activists and Komsomol members, who called the peasants, who had not yet joined the collective farm, to appear, at all times of the day and night, before their committee, and demanded that these peasants meet the quotas of grain consignment.

The methods used at these sessions are difficult to imagine. During winter sessions, peasants were doused with water and then sent out into temperatures of twenty below zero and kept there until they froze over. The hapless peasant would then be hauled back into the staff room to face further tortures: fingers rammed into doorjambs, faces seared with oil lamps. This was all done under the supervision of one of the aforementioned 25,000, or some other dignitary of the district or province, Such as the Jew Oliforov an official of the OGPU. Honest farmers from our village, such as Musii Burkovs'kyi and Ivan Ishchenko died during the course of such tortures, may theirs be the Kingdom.

Those farmers who were subjected to the "plan by estate" endured other forms of punishment. The communists accused them of hiding grain by mixing it with chaff and straw, or by burial. In the course of searches for this imaginatively stowed grain, brigades of communists and Komsomol members would arrive with iron staves and pitchforks, and scatter the chaff lying in barns, prod the earth in the barns, tear up chimneys in houses, smash chests... Of course, they never found grain because there was none to find. Then a monetary fine would be imposed. This served as a punishment for the non-performance of the plan for grain consignment. The fine was always such that the farmer could never hope to pay it. Then all of the individual's property was seized and sold at an auction, ostensibly in order to pay the fine. The farmer and his family were simply thrown out of their house, or run out of the village.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church and its clergymen suffered just as much. There was a church in our village, and its prior was Father Petro Tkachenko. He was not only a sincerely religious man, but also a good-hearted spiritual guide. He owned his own plot of land in the neighbouring village and he cultivated it with the help of his wife and two children. He was arrested together with T. Zabiiaka, the principal of the school, and nobody ever found out what befell them.

The communists turned the church into a prison, where those destined for deportation to the distant Russian north were held in the dead of winter. After being held under guard by armed Komsomol members, all of the wretched prisoners, including children, women, aged, and the infirm, were led, like thieves, to the railway stations, herded onto freight cars and shipped off to the distant, northern, wild tundra and taiga. People were forbidden to approach prisoners with any manner of assistance, whether in clothes or food, nor were they allowed to bid farewell. Can one consider those who carried out these actions, those who abetted them with their "laws," human? No, they were not human, they were terrible beasts for whom no name has yet been devised.

By the end of 1931, our village had been completely despoiled by the authorities and had been forcibly impressed into the collective farm. 380 work-horses had been communized, and of these, 44 were still alive in 1932. The horses died of overwork and from their non-forage feed. They were only fed straw. Nevertheless, those who supervised these horses were severely punished for negligence and sabotage.

By 1932, virtually all peasants had been inducted into collective farms, and so the grain consignment plans were applied to the latter. In applying the plan to the collective farms, the government dictated that the state quotas were to be satisfied first, and then the needs of the individual collective and its workers dealt with. However, the grain consignment plan was so unrealistic that even entire collective farms were unable to meet them, let alone provide enough for the needs of its members. The cruelty of the Communist Party in its dealings with communized farmers offered no hope for compromise between the two parties. The defenceless collective farm workers were thrown to the mercy of fate, and were thus destined for famine. Nobody stood up for them and there were no laws that protected the collective farms from such robbery. The Party and the government were like bandits stealing not only grain, but also all food. As a result of this, people managed to find food during the summer, but by fall and early winter, the famine began in earnest. My God. What a terrifying word that is, and how much more of a terrifying sight.

My wife and I had already fled to Donbas to escape the famine. Here I found a job and received my food ration as a worker. These rations saved the three of us from a death by starvation. But not everyone survived: our infant son could not endure, and left us for a better world.

In the spring of 1933, my wife and I both worked in a mine and we both received food rations. I filed for leave from work, because I had decided to visit the village of my brothers and sisters, and to provide my in-laws with some assistance. While still on the train, I wondered at the fact that all of the windows were covered. Later, I found out that these were coverings put in place to prevent anyone from seeing what was going on outside. When I arrived at Zinovievsk (now Kirovohrad) I found a real hell. The station was empty, and all around swollen, starving people begged everyone who had arrived for but one crust of bread. The dead lay in the street -- they were only taken away at night. Those who were still moving and those who were already dead, were all village people, I could tell by their clothing.

As I passed through the city, I noticed the building of the local government administration. There was a Torgsin (Soviet-Foreign Trade) shop on the first floor. I steeled my courage and dared to look inside. Everything you could desire was in that store, but only for gold or silver. This was ostensibly free trade, and yet all communists, higher officials and OGPU operatives benefited from outfitters not open to the public called "zakritie raspredy" (closed outlets).

I went to a bazaar that was located near an alcohol distillery and saw a terrible sight. On one side of the plant, waste and still mash were pouring into the Inhul river. People were falling into this waste, drinking it, and dying slowly. No one made any effort to prevent them from doing this; no one tried saving their lives. On the plant grounds, cisterns full of clean mash stood under armed police guard -- intended for feeding pigs and other livestock.

In the bazaar, it was possible to buy bread, but a half kilo piece cost forty to fifty karbovantsi.

I hurried on my way to the village, and arrived in the evening. Here I had spent my childhood and my tempestuous youth, but I could not recognize the place. It was all in gloom; everything was dead; no dogs barked, no birds chirped, no children shouted. I shuffled through the weed-covered streets until I reached my sister Onila's house. The yard was overgrown with briars, and I was afraid to go into the house: was anyone alive in there? Both my sister and her husband were in fact alive, but they were both emaciated by hunger. They told me what was happening in the village, and listed off the people who had already died of hunger. Only those who managed to com~ to work in the collective farm were surviving, because they could eat in the mess hall, as they did.

I stayed with my sister overnight and then moved on to Reimentarivka where my in-laws lived. On the way, I passed through the Rozpashka farm. It stood empty. The once luxurious orchards were reduced to stumps overgrown with nettles and brambles, and collapsed houses seemed to stare up at the sky with their crumbling chimneys. People from Redchyna and Zashchyta told me that some of the villagers had been dekulakized and deported somewhere, and those who remained had died of starvation. The last residents of the farm, the father and his two sons, had been imprisoned, apparently for cannibalism.

When I reached Reimentarivka, I went to the village council building to register my arrival. The head of council was a relative of my wife's, Ivan Hudzenko. He related the events of the recent past in the village to me, and said that seven hundred people had perished of hunger.

On my way back to Donbas, I stopped in on my sister once again. She told me that in Selevyna over three hundred people had died of hunger. It was only June at the time, two months of waiting until the next harvest.

I relate these terrible events to the Canadian people, because they took us in, exhausted and beaten though we were, to live in this God-given Canadian land. I would like this article to be a warning to its good-hearted people about the threat of the Russian communists propaganda that carries the poison of famine and death. We are lucky to be living out our lives in a democratic Canada, where glorious future for our children is secure.

Let this memoir shine like an everlasting, unquenchable candle among free Christian people, and let the victims of the famine be forever remembered.