The Year 1933 in Soviet Ukraine

Mvkola Prychodko

Ukrainian newspapers everywhere abroad have given a full account of the tragic events of 1933 -- the most terrible year of starvation in the country's history. 

Unfortunately, few writers in the USSR dared put on paper any account of the suffering and privations of that year. They could not, for even a mention of the famine brought swift retribution by murder from the NKVD, or slave labor in Siberia. 

For, officially, there was no famine. Stalin very graciously refused all offers of aid from foreign countries, assuring them that no famine existed in the Soviet Ukraine: the whole USSR lived in the utmost contentment and abundance. Communist papers abroad, ever-willing slaves of Moscow, outdid each other in spreading this convincing reply throughout the world. 

Yet, in 1941, when the Germans entered Ukraine, they found in the Academy of Science in Kiev the true statistics of the crops harvested in 1932. These figures proved, statistically, that the yield was sufficient to feed the Ukrainian population for 2 years and 4 months. There was no natural cause of this famine; it was purposely created to break the resistance of the farmers to the collective farm system. 

All the grain of 1932 was loaded into special trains as soon as it was threshed, and it was immediately appropriated by the government. The carloads rolled northward to feed the bureaucrats of Moscow, or to be exported to finance plans for communist revolution in China and other countries. The Ukrainian farmer received only the screenings from the threshing machines. 

During the latter part of 1932, the farm women added potato peelings, weeds, anything to stretch the loaves of black bread. With the coming of 1933, even these meagre additions were unavailable. People ground the bark of trees, scratched roots from the frozen ground, searched hopelessly for any substance which would keep body and soul together. 

Helpless, despairing, they died by thousands, by tens of thousands, yes, by millions. The statistical bureaus were ordered to register the deaths as resulting from prevalent "digestive ailments", not from starvation. 

Peasants who could still stand on their feet, gathered their few belongings and flocked to the cities. Here a person could exchange an artistically embroidered shirt, a most highly-prized possession, for a single loaf of bread. Beautiful priceless rugs, heirlooms through generations, could be bought for a few pounds of flour. The Russian elite covered their walls and floors with such treasures. 

Through the streets of Kiev, Kharkiw, Dnipropetrowske, Odessa and other cities, the miserable hulks of humanity dragged themselves along on swollen feet, begging for crusts of bread or searching for scraps in garbage heaps, frozen and filthy. Each morning wagons rolled along the streets, picking up the emaciated remains of the dead. Often even the undershirt had been stripped from the corpse, to be exchanged for a slice of bread. 

Those who were lucky enough to reach Moscow had a better chance for survival. Here were more scraps of bread, made of Ukrainian wheat, on the dumps; here one could also buy a little food on the black market. 

The difficulty was to get there. On the trains and in the stations the GPU, in their red and blue caps, halted every traveller, demanding his official travelling permit. Those who could not produce them were arrested. 

At this time my friend S., was working as an assistant in the October Revolution Hospital. Having completed his medical studies in 1931, he now worked in the surgical division. One evening he invited me to visit him in the hospital, promising me an unusual spectacle. When I arrived he took me to a large garage in the yard. A guard unlocked the door and we entered. S. switched on the light and I beheld an unforgettable picture of horror. 

Piled like cord-wood against the walls, layer upon layer, were the frozen corpses of the victims picked off the streets that morning. Some of the bodies, I later learned, were used for dissection and experiments in the laboratories. The rest were simply buried in pits, at midnight, in nearby ravines out of sight of the people. 

"This, my friend", S. whispered softly, "is the fate of our villages". 

I was too unnerved to utter a word. With unbelieving eyes I could only stare at the hundreds of outstretched frozen hands which still seemed to be begging for bread, begging for life. 

S. turned out the lights and we departed without a word. The guard slammed the door and locked it behind us. Slowly we walked home, speechless and shaken, but with mutual understanding between us. 

It seemed ages before I could rid myself of the horror in that garage, sixteen years after that fateful October Revolution for which the hospital was named. Even years later I once awoke in cold sweat from the nightmare of that ghoulish experience. 

There is another unforgettable incident which I witnessed in that year of 1933. It happened in the spring, as I was riding on the train from Kiev to Uman. At the Monasteryshche station 12 farm laborers came aboard, their faces bloated with starvation, tattered and dirty, all on their way to work on a state farm. With them was a young lad, about 14, his hands tightly pressed against his chest, inside the shirt. 

Like a pack of wolves, the men gathered around the boy, their hungry eyes glued to the hand at his bosom. The lad tightened his grip upon his possession -- a slice of black bread -- and stared back with frightened eyes at the fierce, unshaven, swollen caricatures of human faces around him. To a man, they were urging and pleading with him to share the bread with them. Tomorrow, they promised, there would be boiled potatoes at the farm, maybe even bread! 

The hungry boy stoutly refused. His mother, he explained, had somehow procured that one slice for him and had admonished him to save it for tomorrow. 

The tragic scene ended when the twelve men, as though electrified by a command, fell upon the lad and tore away the bread which crumbled and scattered over the floor. The starving, snarling, human beasts tore the crumbs out of each other's fingers, scratched them out of crevices, as though in a paroxysm of insanity. The hungry youngster sobbed bitterly, but for the men he had already ceased to exist. 

By this means, 1933 brought death to the villages of Ukraine. Many places which had formerly boasted of populations from 2,500 to 3,000, now counted some 200 to 300 inhabitants. Later, the government transported whole colonies of Russians into these villages, where the families occupied the vacant lands and to this day plow and till the rich black loam of Ukraine. 

The tougher farmers, who survived the deadly famine and lived to see the following harvest, were sentenced to ten years of Siberian slave labor if they so much as picked a pocketful of wheat heads, to chew the half-ripened grains for nourishment. This crime was known as "theft of socialist property". 

Over seven million Ukrainians died in that artificially created famine. If the statement seems far-fetched, the reader need only look into "The Small Soviet Encyclopedia" of 1940 and under the heading Ukrainian SSR note this fact: in the 1927 census Ukraine had a population of 32 million; in 1939 (12 years later), only 28 million. Where did the 4 million disappear and where was the natural increase in population, which should have numbered another 4 or 5 million people ? What became of those 8 or 9 million Ukrainians? The only answer is: The famine of 1933 and Siberia. 

Even so, the figures were unquestionably falsified by Moscow, for in 1937 a census was taken, which revealed a still greater deficit. The man responsible for these figures was the well-known member of the Academy of Science in Kiev, Ptukha. In 1938, during my imprisonment in Kiev, he was sentenced to 25 years in jail for his "errors" in the census figures. His assistant, Professor Pustokhod was sentenced to 15 years for the same crime. Ptukha received a "re-schooling" and the statistics were modified to suit requirements in 1939. 

Unable to tolerate further the tragic plight of their people, two of Ukraine's outstanding communists, Mykola Khvylovy and Mykola Skrypnyk, who had upheld the Revolution with heart and soul, committed suicide. They had realized too late the falsity, the duplicity, of the communist ideals which they had so earnestly believed in and preached. 

Today, amidst the abundance of Canada, it seems incredible, impossible, that my enslaved countrymen actually lived and suffered through the ghastly tragedy of 1933. 

Source: Pidhainy, S. O. ed. The Black Deeds of the Kremlin: A White Book. Vol I Book of Testimonies. Toronto: Ukrainian Association of Victims of Russian Communist Terror. 1953 p. 234 - 238