August 14, 1983

Eyewitness accounts of the Great Famine. Part I


(Publication date: Sunday, August 14, 1983)

Teacher cries for starving children

Iryna Medvid told the following story of her experiences as a teacher in famine-torn Ukraine.

On the orders of the People’s Commissar of Education Mykola Skrypnyk, the third course in Kharkiv University in the academic year 1931-32 was divided into two parts. On the surface this seemed a logical move for students were graduating from the pedagogical institute to practice teaching in schools. In reality, authorities had ulterior motives.

Arrests and escapes of many school teachers in Ukraine had resulted in a serious teacher shortage, and the order was issued to relieve the situation. I was assigned with a group of students to the Vovchansk district, in the Kharkiv region. The District Department of Education then sent me to student teach in a school at the children’s village, Tsiurupa, which was located on the old estate of General Brusilov.

Even though the children’s village was maintained by the government, the children were always hungry. The daily ration consisted of two thin slices of soggy bread, a colored liquid in the morning they called tea, a thin liquid they called soup and a thicker one called cereal for lunch, and again a thin liquid for dinner. The children were listless, apathetic, drowsy. They paid no attention and displayed little reaction to anything.

The small children suffered most of all because anything they had was stolen from them by the older ones. It was impossible to accomplish anything in such difficult conditions and finally all our youthful fervor waned amid the starvation and hopelessness.

One day, during the Russian-language period, I had gone through the whole program – checked the pupil’s homework, explained the new assignment in the difficult foreign language and asked some questions. The monosyllabic answers took very little time. The classroom was shrouded in an oppressive stillness. The children sat motionless waiting for the bell, never laughing, talking or asking questions. I racked my brains wondering how to dispel the gloom and awaken some spark of interest in the children.

Then my eyes fell on a new April issue of the Teacher’s Magazine. I leafed nervously through the pages until an article caught my attention and I began to read.

The children sat quietly for some time, then they began to perk up their heads and, opening their eyes in amazement, they came up and surrounded my desk.

I continued to read: “The children finished their lessons and the bell rang. Laughing and playing, they skipped downstairs to the dining room where lunch awaited them, among other things, cocoa, white bread and butter. The servant had extra work sweeping up bread crumbs which the boisterous children carelessly scattered.”

The children around me, famished and just barely existing, suddenly spoke up “Where, where was there such food?”

Choking back tears, I answered: “In Moscow.”

Wanderer saved from death

The following account was provided by Mykola Kozka.

I came from a peasant family. My parents, three sisters and two brothers all died of starvation during the famine in Ukraine in 1932-33.

Having lost my family, I became homeless and wandered all over the USSR like a stray dog. I traveled all over Ukraine, Russia, the Caucasus, and everywhere I saw many fellow countrymen hungry, swollen and dead.

In Kharkiv, which was then the capital city of Ukraine. I saw many horrible sights, a few of which I wish to relate.

On Kinna Square a woman lay on the ground. She was still alive but terribly swollen, her skin cracked and filled with pus and worms. Some of the passersby would attempt to place a few crumbs of bread into her mouth, but she was unable to eat. She cried continuously. Medical attention would perhaps have saved her life, but no one ventured to give her such aid I do not know what happened to her; she probably died much the same way as millions of other Ukrainians died during the Moscow-sponsored, artificial famine in Ukraine.

The streets of Kharkiv were filled with such swollen, dying and dead peasants.

I was detained by some militiaman who took me to the 8th precinct of the militia. There, I was placed in a cell in which I spent the night. This cell was filled with tired, hungry people. The inmates were supposed to get some “food” in the morning, but none came. I succeeded in escaping from this jail.

I left Kharkiv in the general direction of Moscow. I traveled through Bilohorod, Vovchansk and other cities and towns of Ukraine. In all of them I saw sights similar to those in Kharkiv.

After much wandering I returned to Kharkiv. This time I was successful in getting a job looking after livestock in a military establishment on Iskynska Street. A Jew by the name of Snider helped me to get that job after I told him of my life as a stray wanderer. This fellow saved my life.

Peasants hide millstone to survive

The following recollection was related by R.L. Suslyk.

The authorities prohibited the grinding of grain by domestic millstones. If a millstone was discovered in a peasant dwelling, it was promptly broken and in some cases the owner was penalized by the confiscation of property or at least a fine.

Elaborate hiding places had to be devised. In 1932-33, the residents of the villages of Nirka and Severyniwka in the Hrunsky region hid their millstones in a swamp between the villages. The swamp was dotted with dry areas on which the peasants could lay the millstones

Grinding took place during the night in order to avoid the sharp eyes of the authorities.

The millstones were of diverse shapes and sizes, usually the prototype of the regular millstones at the flour mill.

Quite often the peasants devised various types of grinders, most commonly one made of a wagon wheel. A set of grooved cones would be inserted into the axle head of the wheel, one mobile and one stationary. Small quantities of grain would then be thrown in and crushed.

Machinists in the cities and towns aided the peasants by shaping the metal grinding plates and cones for them. Such utensils could easily be concealed by depositing them in a pot, filling it with water, and shoving it into an oven. It was possible to crush two kilograms of grain an hour with such an implement…

Towers protect crops from hungry

V. Maly gave the following account of life on a collective farm.

In the spring of 1933, watchtowers for guarding crops were being erected all over the grain fields of the village of Druha Korulka and in other villages in the Barvenkiv district in the Kharkiv region. This was something unheard of since people lived and tilled the soil there. When questioned as to why such towers were being erected, the peasants usually replied that the “class enemy” was not asleep and might set fire to the collective farm crops. However, it was still a long time before the harvest.

Later on the peasants understood only too well for what purpose and against whom these watchtowers were erected. Armed vigilantes of the collective farm, and even GPU men, were dispatched to maintain a round-the-clock watch over the fields and the crops in 1933. Against whom were the fields being guarded?

There were no class enemies – kurkuls – at that time; they had all been liquidated and exiled to distant places of the empire. Only those peasants who were members of the collective farms were left in the villages and, of course, they were dying of starvation. Therefore, in order to save their lives, they would be tempted to clip the heads of unripened grain.

The peasants also understood that those destined to die of hunger must eventually come to such an end. The clipping of grain heads for food was tantamount to death. Anyone attempting to clip grain inevitably received a bullet…