November 2, 1986

For the record: testimony of eyewitness to the famine


(The Ukrainian Weekly, November 2, 1986, No. 44, Vol. LIV)

Below is the testimony of four eyewitnesses to the man-made famine of 1932-33 in Ukraine. The statements were delivered at the October 8 hearing of the U.S. Commission on the Ukraine Famine. The texts were provided by the commission staff.

Varvara Dibert, Silver Spring, Md.:

In 1932 and 1933 Kiev seemed like a paradise to nearby villagers who had been stripped of all they had by the Soviet government. And no wonder: some villages were dying out completely, except for those who still had the courage and strength to flee. There were cases where mothers had gone mad and killed a child to feed the rest of the family. So thousands of villagers flocked to the city of Kiev. Many of the weak ones sat or lay down by buildings and fences, most never to get up again. Trucks, driven by policemen or Communist Youth League members mobilized for that purpose, went round picking up bodies or carrying those still alive somewhere outside the city limits. It was especially terrible to see mothers whose faces had turned black from hunger with children whose little faces had wrinkled up like baked apples, children who could no longer cry, but only squeal, moving their lips in an attempt to find sustenance where there was none. People sought salvation and found death. I saw these things as I walked to work through the Haymarket on Pidvilna Street near the Golden Gates and Volodymyr Street.

No one in Kiev had the right to allow even their closest relatives to stay the night in their residences. One had to go to the building manager with a certificate and get it stamped with a date indicating the length of the stay. For most villagers, particularly the men and boys, such certificates were not easy to get. Single women and girls were more fortunate. Sometimes they were able to get jobs as servants for [Communist] party people and thereby acquire union cards, even without residency certificates. Later they could even attend evening courses and get permanent jobs. This was sometimes done not only by villagers but also by women of the intelligentsia who had been denied employment because their husbands had been arrested as so-called enemies of the people or because of their own “non-proletarian” class origins. I knew of four such cases of the latter from among my own relatives, and my aunt in this way saved six women, two of whom had already begun to swell up from hunger.

Townspeople tried in every possible way to help relatives who were living in the countryside, but it was not easy. Workers and officials in Kiev received ration cards, but the rations were so small that even some of them began to swell up and even die. Only those allowed to use the so-called “closed distribution points” were able to get as much food as they needed. They had enough of everything. They were the members of special organizations and the party, but not even all party members were so fortunate. Civil servants got 400 grams of bread per day and another 200 grams for each dependent. Factory workers got 500 grams per day, while workers at military factories got 800. Some millet, sugar and fat was also given out. Today some people may say that 400 grams per day does not constitute a famine, but this is because we have other things to eat besides bread and don’t need as much of it. And in those days, what mother would eat her ration if she saw her starving child looking pitifully at her. In 1933 the so-called “commercial bread” appeared in Kiev. You could buy a kilo for two and a half rubles. They would only let you buy one kilo a day, and the lines for this bread were so long that not every working person could wait so long. The police would take villagers from these lines, load them on trucks, and take them out of the city.

The so-called Torgsin (acronym for “trade with foreigners”) appeared. For gold you could get all sorts of food and dry goods there. But how was one to get gold? Once my husband brought home a certificate and said he could buy some food with it at the Torgsin. When I stared at him in amazement, he opened his mouth, and I saw he had steel fillings instead of gold ones.

Ever since the revolution Kiev had been full of orphans from age 6 to 15. Although the government set up orphanages, the number of homeless orphans continued to grow, especially when dekulakization started and later when the famine began. Near the house where I lived there was a large building. The government converted this building into a so-called “collector” for homeless children caught on the streets, and who, after sanitary inspection, were sent to orphanages. When leaving my home, I would often see how trucks would pull up there and the police would take out the filthy, bedraggled children who had been caught on the streets. A guard stood at the entrance and no one was permitted inside. During the winter of 1932-33, I often saw, five or six times, how in the early morning they took out of the building the bodies of half-naked children, covered them with filthy tarpaulins, and piled them onto trucks. Going as far as Artem Street, I would hear a loudspeaker (at that time there was one on every corner) blare out how children lived in horrible conditions in capitalist countries and what a wonderful life they led in our own socialist fatherland.

Tatiana Pawlichka, Pennsylvania:

In 1932, I was 10 years old, and I remember well what happened in my native village in the Kiev region. In the spring of that year, we had virtually no seed. The Communists had taken all the grain, and although they saw that we were weak and hungry, they came and searched for more grain. My mother had stashed away some corn that had already sprouted, but they found that, too, and took it. What we did manage to sow, the starving people pulled up out of the ground and ate.

In the villages and on the collective farms (our village had two collectives), a lot of land lay fallow, because people had nothing to sow, and there wasn’t enough manpower to do the sowing. Most people couldn’t walk, and those few who could had no strength. When, at harvest time, there weren’t enough local people to harvest the grain, others were sent in to help on the collectives. These people spoke Russian, and they were given provisions.

After the harvest, the villagers tried to go out in the field to look for gleanings, and the Communists would arrest them and shoot at them, and send them to Siberia. My aunt, Tatiana Rudenko, was taken away. They said she had stolen the property of the collective farm.

That summer, the vegetables couldn’t even ripen – people pulled them out of the ground – still green – and ate them. People ate leaves, nettles, milkweed, sedges. By autumn, no one had any chickens or cattle. Here and there, someone had a few potatoes or beets. People coming in from other villages told the very same story. They would travel all over trying to get food. They would fall by the roadside, and none of us could do anything to help. When the ground froze, they were just left lying there dead, in the snow; or, if they died in the house, they were dragged out to the cattle-shed, and they would lie there frozen until spring. There was no one to dig graves.

All the train stations were overflowing with starving, dying people. Everyone wanted to go to Russia [the Russian SFSR] because it was said that there was no famine there. Very few [of those who left] returned. They all perished on the way. They weren’t allowed into Russia and were turned back at the border. Those who somehow managed to get into Russia could save themselves.

In February of 1933, there were so few children left that the schools were closed. By this time, there wasn’t a cat, dog or sparrow in the village. In that month, my cousin Mykhailo Rudenko died; a month later my aunt Nastia Klymenko and her son, my cousin Ivan, died, as well as my classmate, Dokia Klymenko.

There was cannibalism in our village. On my farmstead, an 18-year-old boy, Danylo Hukhlib, died, and his mother and younger sisters and brothers cut him up and ate him. The Communists came and took them away, and we never saw them again. People said they took them a little ways off and shot them right away – the little ones and the older ones together.

At that time, I remember, I had heavy, swollen legs. My sister, Tamara, had a large, swollen stomach, and her neck was long and thin like a bird’s neck. People didn’t look like people – they were more like starving ghosts.

The ground thawed, and they began to take the dead to the ravine in ox carts. The air was filled with the ubiquitous odor of decomposing bodies. The wind carried this odor far and wide. It was thus over all of Ukraine.

Ivan Danilenko, New Jersey:

We lived in a rural area of the Central Poltava region. My father owned four hectares of land, approximately 10 and a half acres. There were five children in the family, 16 to 1 1/2 years in age at the peak of starvation in 1933. First, as collectivization proceeded, food shortages began. As successive grain quotas increased, foodstuffs gradually began to diminish. By about 1931, my father made several trips to Kuban to trade some of my mother’s clothing for flour. Soon there were no garments left and travel became difficult. At the same time the grain procurements campaign intensified and special brigades frequently came to search our household, confiscating first grain and, later, all kinds of food. In the early spring of 1932 the whole family had to pitch in and look for food. Four of us children went out to dig for sugar beets and potatoes left in unharvested from previous years frozen fields. My attempts to beg for food from neighbors was short-lived. Facing closed silent homes only deepened my feeling of hopelessness. Later that year, we continued to search for food by gleaning wheat ears from harvested fields. Gleaning was prohibited and we were chased and whipped by overseers on horseback. Often, when they caught us, our bags, be they empty or full, were taken from us by force.

As early as the spring of 1932, my aunt on my mother’s side was apprehended while cutting half ripe ears of wheat, trying to save her husband from starving. He died, and she was sentenced to seven years of forced labor in Siberia. At about the same time my maternal grandparents died of starvation. I can still see quite vividly a man’s corpse that I stumbled upon along a country road one day. The worst came after October 1932, when my father’s property was confiscated, and the family was evicted from the house. Now we were homeless. For the next five or six months the family settled in a barn of a state farm – a cold, damp and dark place. Here we, undernourished and utterly hopeless, faced the most critical period in our lives. Skeletons with skin or with swollen, watery bodies, sick and desperate, we were ready for the final act, but it did not come. The family survived. The drama, the trauma, and the atmosphere that accompanied these events, probably account for the vividness of my memories after more than 50 years.

Sviatoslav Karavansky, Denton, Md.:

From my childhood years I remember that from 1929, the beginning of industrialization and collectivization, our family and all of the people of Odessa suffered a great shortage of food. Buttermilk, milk, sugar and even bread disappeared from the stores. In the period 1929-30 the whole city turned to the rationing system. The entire population lived on rations. The portions that were handed out continued to decrease, and in the winter of 1933 I, as a dependent, received 200 grams (seven ounces) of black bread per day. My mother, brother and sister received the same ration. Bread was, and still is, the main source of nourishment for the Soviet population. For comparison, let’s consider the daily ration of the Soviet soldier. The soldiers of the Red Army received at that time one kilogram (36 ounces) of bread per day. The entire city of Odessa lived on rations which were insufficient for healthy people, but which kept it from starving. The rural population was not subject to rationing, and it perished. People in the villages could not receive any help from their relatives in towns because the city population was hungry, too.

It should be mentioned that the closing of churches preceded the Great Famine. So, the organizer of the famine took into consideration the major role played by the Church in dealing with national disasters like the famine. It is known that during the famine of 1921 in Ukraine churches aided the starving people. During 1932-33, the churches did not function, and the clergy were sent to labor camps, which, in reality, were death camps.

Our family lived in downtown Odessa, and I attended school there. I never saw starving people downtown, but many of the latter were seen on the outskirts of the city. Odessa was a port where foreign sailors and businessmen could always be found, so the authorities took measures not to allow hungry peasants to reach the downtown area. But everyone in Odessa knew that there was a horrible shortage of food in the villages. People swelled from hunger and died. In the school which I attended from September 1932 to May 1933, the teacher told us that the kulaks (or kurkuls) were responsible for all the temporary difficulties of the Soviet socialist economy.

My father was employed in the Odessa shipyard, and I heard from adults that a lot of foreign ships in the docks were waiting their turn to be loaded with grain from Odessa grain elevators. My parents wondered how it was possible that such great quantities of food were being exported while the village population was starving. To ask questions about this was dangerous. If a child asked about these things in school, the teachers assumed that he had been taught by his parents, who were thus placed in danger. So, my parents were very careful about telling me not to ask any questions in school, and not to reveal anywhere what was discussed in the family.

The entire population was terrorized by the arrests and trials which culminated in 1932-33. In those years so-called “torgsins” were opened in Odessa. In “torgsins” anyone could buy for gold and foreign currency all the food that otherwise was distributed through the rationing system. Many people who had small golden crosses or wedding rings brought them to “torgsins.” Once my mother went to “torgsin” as well. She brought back a loaf of black bread, turning the day into a holiday for the entire family. There were rumors in Odessa that people were being arrested for selling human sausage in the market place. There was a saying that the sausages “had been shot.” Such accounts were not published in the newspapers, which only praised the wisdom of the party and the great leader, Stalin.

In 1934 my father, as a shipyard employee, got a free ticket for an Odessa-Batumi cruise on the Black Sea. Traveling to Batumi on the liner, he observed that a large number of Ukrainian peasants had migrated to Georgia where there was no food shortage and no famine.

The famine in Ukraine was over, but those who survived fled from Ukraine. I know that in the local schools in the village of Rossosha near Proskurov (now Khmelnytsky) there was no first year class for the 1940-41 school year because the birth rate in 1933 had been zero. In 1953-54 the Soviet Navy also experienced shortages of healthy servicemen because of the zero birthrate in 1933 in Ukraine. The requirements for the service in the navy were reduced because otherwise it was impossible to recruit the necessary number of sailors. I received this information from a navy officer who had served a 10-year term in Mordovia. In 1970 my wife and I met a woman in the village of Tarussa (Kaluga region) who spoke with a strong Ukrainian accent. She told us that she was born near Kiev. In 1933 she had fled from her native village because of the famine and had found shelter in Tarussa where she later married and settled down, thereby escaping death while her entire family died of starvation.

Since the revolution, the majority of the Ukrainian population has felt hostility toward the Soviet occupation. The artificial famine deepened the hostility. It is believed that half of the entire prison population in the gulag was composed of Ukrainians. The memory of the famine was especially vivid for the Ukrainian dissidents of the 1960s and ’70s. The founder of the Ukrainian Helsinki Monitoring Group, Mykola Rudenko, wrote a poem about the famine titled “The Cross.” References to the famine are present in the works of the late Vasyl Stus, Oles Berdnyk and others.