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Remembering the Great Famine in Ukraine

Recently the world celebrated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  This weekend, a more somber event will be commemorated: the Holodomor, or “Great Famine,” in Ukraine.

Although largely ignored in American history books, the Holodomor is one of the great tragedies of the 20th century.  Between 1932 and 1934, between seven and ten million Ukrainian men, women and children perished of hunger.  They died not because of draught or poor harvests; they perished as a result of a man-made famine, created by Stalin and his Soviet reprobates. 

This deliberate starvation of Ukraine, which devastated much of the country’s eastern and southern regions, constituted genocide on behalf of the Soviet government.  As historian James Mace wrote in 1982, “In order to centralize power in the hands of Stalin, what was needed was to destroy the Ukrainian peasant, the Ukrainian intellectual, the Ukrainian language and to destroy Ukraine as such.”

As one of the main researchers for the U.S. Commission on the Ukrainian Famine, Mace and others exposed communism’s total contempt for human beings and its indifference to human suffering, and revealed a wicked callousness toward the death of innocents.

I consider the work of the Commission, especially the eyewitness accounts of the Holodomor, to be a particularly important contribution to the memory of its victims.  In this way, I believe that the Ukrainian dead “speak to us from their graves,” to quote Mace.

Reading accounts from the famine is an incredibly difficult task.  One is first caught up in shock and disbelief, then outrage and anger that the Holodomor could actually happen.  The accounts are too awful to describe, but I’ve decided to share two examples, the first written by I. Mariupilsky, a Ukrainian living in Mariupol, entitled “The Girl Who Begged for Bread”:

One day, as I waited in a queue in front of the store to buy bread, I saw a farm girl of about 15 years of age, in rags, and with starvation looking out of her eyes.  She stretched her hand out to everyone who bought bread, asking for a few crumbs.  At last she reached the storekeeper.  This man must have been some newly arrived stranger who either could not, or would not speak Ukrainian.  He began to berate her, said she was too lazy to work on the farm, and hit her outstretched hand with the blunt edge of a knife blade.  The girl fell down and lost a crumb of bread she was holding in the other hand.  Then the storekeeper stepped closer, kicked the girl and roared: "Get up! Go home, and get to work!"  The girl groaned, stretched out and died.  Some in the queue began to weep.  The communist storekeeper noticed it and threatened:  "Some are getting too sentimental here.  It is easy to spot enemies of the people!"

Or consider this account from Kyiv:

In 1932 and 1933… thousands of villagers flocked to the city of Kyiv.  Many of the weak ones sat or lay down by buildings or fences, most never to get up again.  Trucks driven by policemen or Communist Youth League members, mobilized for that purpose, went around 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 who 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.

There are many more such testimonies, each more terrible than the last.  I look into the eyes of my own children, who are of Ukrainian blood, and I imagine the despair of a parent watching his children slowly die of hunger, and can only imagine the fear that young children had in their hearts as they witnessed the slow deaths of their parents.

In contemplating the tragedy of the Holodomor, it is our obligation to do what we can to ensure that the deliberate calculation to destroy a people by starvation cannot be repeated.  It follows that this can best be achieved by highlighting the crimes of the evildoers, while actively venerating those whose lives were cruelly taken.

The Ukrainian government has decreed that the Holodomor is to be commemorated each year on the fourth Saturday of November, falling this year on the 22nd.  So, at 4:00pm on this day, my family will light a candle in our home and pray for the innocents lost in the Holodomor. 

I hope you will join us.

Posted by

Steve Nix

Director, Eurasia Division