Day Weekly Digest | 25Nov2010 | Vasyl Vasylashko

Execution by famine: living pages

By Vasyl VASYLASHKO, journalist
The Day Weekly Digest, Kyiv, Ukraine, Thu, Nov 25, 2010
The claim that the Holodomor is not a relevant topic and the deleting of information about these and other Stalinist crimes from governmental websites does not fit in with the existence of “blank spots” in this mat­ter.
This article addresses the topic of an “unknown” Holodomor in the once borderline villages of Kurazhyn, Kalius, Hariachynka, Velyky Bereh, Maly Bereh, and No­vou­shytsk district, where the author co­mes from.
As the saying goes, the truth about old crimes does not rule out new ones, but nevertheless helps ward them off. This is one more reason why all the truth about the Holodomor should be revealed.
This is the topic to which I dedicated my books "Let Us Revive, not Degenerate" and "Through Hardships to Ukraine" ­(co­authored and based on SBU materials), and the old poems on “famine and cold, sad faces, where blood flows onto the flags and Bickford fuses smoke in the apple of an eye,” on the 1946-47 famine which I myself went through. One of my poems was set to music in the song Holodomor (“Christ was crucified at thirty three / Ukraine was crucified in ‘33”).
Why has the whole topic not been studied? By the time freedom opened archives and loosened tongues, too little evidence had been left. The Internet, too, as well as books and the press, has almost no information on the 1930s famine in my Podillia villages on the Dnister.
In response to my inquiry, the Khmelnytsky Oblast State Archive wrote in black and white: “The Kurazhyn and Kalius village councils, Novoushytsk district, sent no documents to the state-run archive on the birth and death of their residents in 1931-39” (Letter No. 01-14/B-989 dated October 28, 2010).
They did not explain why no documents were sent. And I hit upon the following idea: to compose a story on the famine in our places on the basis of every small bit of what I have managed to read, hear and see somewhere.

The years 1946-47 were easier for our family than for our fellow villagers. Although my father was gravely wounded in the war, he came back and was a farm team leader. But, to buy bread, he had to walk to the Carpathians, where granaries were not fully empty owing to the absence of collective farms (or to the presence of the UPA), and the non-black soil regions shared their crumbs with the black soil ones and saw what “good” is in store for them.
I can bitterly remember myself, a second-grade pupil, running to meet my father who limped along carrying a bag of maize flour and a small rubber ball — an Easter Day present for me. Mother would send a bowlful of flour to her parents, the poor neighbors Maria and Mykyta Kostash, but this did not help — grandfather Yakiv and grandmother Dokia starved to death. The orphans Zhenia and Vasyl Kostash survived on rotten potatoes from a frozen field, saltbush soup, and polenta crumbs that the neighbors had.
It was frosty when the neighbor Tymofii Honchar lay in the coffin with his eyes open, as if he were looking for a salutary soup, which was later cooked from American concentrates. I can remember father dishing this soup out with a field kitchen dipper. Some cried out: “Don’t give it to Ruman, he served the Germans,” others shouted: “Let him eat and snuff it.” The latter turned out to be prophets: Ruman immediately ate a bowlful of soup and died just on the spot, by the kitchen.

It hurts me to recall myself, a small boy, hiding the cat from Uncle Vasyl (he ate cats) when he sat down in front of his house and I saw his bloated log-like legs. “How come he can endure them and they can endure him?!” I poked a finger into a swelling and saw a water-filled hole. “A terrible water spring!”
Then I run into the house and carry an egg for him. He puts it in his bosom and says, “It is for Ivanko.” (the uncle died, but the son survived) I remember not only feeling pity for the cat Murko, who had saved mum from a snake: I also feared that the bitten cat could have been poisoned as a result.

And what did I hear about the 1930s famine? Almost nothing. The adults were very afraid to speak about this in the children’s presence so that they do not blab out in school. We just heard some fragmentary phrases. Grandmother Kateryna noted that the in-laws had managed to raise children during the famine and cold, which mother-in-law Dokia did not quite agree to: she claimed the children could take care of themselves.
Hania made her way up to be a Stakhanovite. Maksym and Siania saved themselves in Russia: the son survived in Primorsky Krai, where he stayed with his relatives, and the daughter in the Crimea. Mykhailo used to make stoves for people. Ivan survived thanks to the school soup. But Tymofii died…

The truth about the 1932-33 famine was “buried,” together with monuments to all the dead peasants, on the village outskirts, Skakunivka, by the waterfall. I used to walk past this gray-stone sad-looking topless structure (it was not finished before the war for some reason) to grandfather and grandmother Desniak, play the blind man’s buff there, and read some names and dates on the walls — so I memorized something. I was rather surprised to see old people stop and make the sign of the cross to the walls. Grandma Kateryna explained that the walls were made of crosses. I could not understand why.
“Most of the crosses are from the 1930s graves,” she said and stopped short. She could not find in the walls the crosses from the graves of great-granddad Karp and her son and my uncle Yevdokym. Once she saw her son in a dream, who asked her: “And where is my cross, ma?” But the old woman did not say that the authorities had dug his cross out of the grave and taken it away.


I heard about the 1930s theomachy much more than I did about the famine — maybe because the church, which had been closed in the 1930s, was reopened in the 1940s. As if they had tacitly admitted the mistake. So it must have been “allowed” to remember the “mistake.” I can remember father speaking to a blind lyre player who slept over at our place on his way to the Kalius marketplace. The lyre player earned a living by means of tear-washed songs. Quoting Plato, the blind man said: “Speak up so that I can see you.” He could “see” my father.

“And did your flock try to save the graveyard from destruction?” the lyre player asked father, touching a sensitive spot.

“Do you know where the rebels are? In the ground or in the taiga. Khrebtivsky and three more medium-scale farmers were deported for resisting the authorities as if they were kulaks, although each of them had two horses only. And if you keep silent at the government-arranged rally, you are branded as an accomplice. Doing evil? But it is ‘for good’s sake!’ A hard life on the collective farm? But with a tractor! They closed the temple? But now we have a club with a radio and a gramophone. If they flood villages, there will be more electricity. Does this mean that only the ‘holy martyrs’ were let into the ‘paradise on earth?’ A puzzle of sorts. Or did everybody not sin, believing in these myths? My Hania is praying to God that He forgive us for dancing in that ‘club’…”
When asked about who ruined the church, father said the following:

“In 1936, the wonderful wooden St. Michael’s Church, open since 1903, saw the glittering axes. The gilded domes with crosses and the belfry were dismantled. When the chain broke, the impression was that the bell fell down out of the blue and the heavenly thunder and the earthly cry rang in unison. The sexton’s heart ached and he went away not to see the sacred things being loaded onto the same oxen-drawn cart on which Yakiv Vasheniak used to carry corpses to ‘famine pits’ in 1933.”

The god-fighters were found. The one in charge of the sacrilege was Dihtiar, who was later ostracized by the village for his actions. The second, Yevdokym, who removed the crosses, became a “Turk” and found himself as a forester. The third, Mykola, cried out on top of the temple: “I am a czar!” So the nicknames “czar” and “czars” stuck to him and his poor family. Mykola later vanished from the village. And the trump girl Ahafia Desiak, who fought for a 100-centner-a-hectare crop of maize, wore the liturgical vestment and derided the priest with a censer, began to stammer. They all received their due.
My father saw very well the anguish of the sexton. Yakiv, mother’s father, prayed that there should be no sacrilege even though he knew: God gave people the right to choose good or evil, paradise or hell. He also gave them the right to repent. What He never forgives is a mortal sin. For some reason, God did not forgive Judas his betrayal, and he had to hang himself. Nor did God forgive King Herod: He left him to rot alive for having massacred 14,000 innocent infants. And grandpa also said that even the Procurator Pilate killed himself with a sword when he became aware of his sin.

The blind lyre player listened to my father and rolled the whites of his eyes. A terrible sight — as if he had recovered eyesight. I was lying awake on the stove, I was only pretending to sleep, because adults would stop talking in the presence of children, and I wanted to hear everything. I heard that the sin and the fear of punishment could not stop the wrongdoers. The “leather coats” only snarled and promised to deport the sexton and the priest: “And God won’t help you.” The sexton said with a sigh: “I would rather go blind than see your Siberia.” And, lo and behold, the sexton soon went blind. And he kept on saying: “God saved me from Siberia, which is worse.”

Not trusting the local cadres, the authorities would bring almost all village council and collective farm executives from other places, including Russia. Before the war, too, not all were exactly bursting to be “chairpersons of famine and repressions,” even those aliens from the “center.” One of them was Osipenko, a turner from Leningard. At first he could not tell rye from oats, a water melon from a pumpkin.
Although people were afraid of him, they often made him a butt of jokes. When ­Osipenko asked “What are you sowing?” the sowers said “Orchyky” [the name of a village – Ed.]. And when asked “How will they sprout up?” they said “Drawbars forward.” The chairman himself also laughed at this later. But once he got angry with my father for “Orchyky.”

“Fedir, you’d better remember what you should know!”

“How to ‘hone my class awareness?’”
“This is my business. What needs honing is you and your ignorance.”

“And what can and should I know?”

“You should know the following: where is it better for you to live — here or in Siberia?”

“‘Siberia is our undoing,’ our Danylko Kostash writes from there.”

“Well, I can see you really want to live in Siberia, as does Mykhailo Dziubetsky…”

Father recalled Mykhailo. He had vanished without a trace for telling a joke at the threshing floor: “Stalin lives in the Kremlin and I in Vilkhivka, but I keep a cow in union with him.” Luckily, they did not hear his other jokes, such as “Neither a cow nor a pig, only Stalin on the wall, and he shows with his hand where I should go for saltbush,” “I’ve gathered fewer wheat ears than there are in the national emblem and got more years up the river.” Father grew quiet and asked not without humor:

“So what am I to do to want to live at home, not in Siberia?”

“You don’t have to bust a gut,” Osi­penko said curtly. “Just swallow your tongue.”

“And can I be a ‘piglet’ again?”
“You can. All you have to do is make an effort and supply the farm with fodder.”

“But what does it have to do with a ‘piglet’?” the lyre player asked.

“It was like this,” father said. “Osi­penko was once handing out prizes: ‘Petro Kulyk — the prize is a sheep. Ivan Boiko — the prize is a pood of rye.’ And, to read faster, he began to omit the word ‘prize.’ As a result: ‘Hanna Desiak — a calf, Fedir Vasylashko — a piglet’.”

They even joked at the wedding:

“A piglet is marrying a calf.”

And the turner began to love the countryside. He brought his wife, who worked at the village shop. His daughter went to the local school. His hands, chapped by the machine-tool, turned into hands blackened by the soil. He did what he could about the wages: he would issue a kilo of grain per workday as early as in 1936.
He used to say: “A Ukrainian has awoken in me.” “If only he were not arrested as Petliura’s follower,” father thought. He must have been reborn. The chairman’s driver Yakiv Voit was interrogated in 1937 — they sought evidence against Osipenko. “Dad was convicted, but he did not betray the chairman,” Yakiv’s daughter Hanna Bushovska reminisced.

There was some real resistance, the journal Tryzub [a national Ukrainian publication, of which Petliura was the editor – Ed.] circulated, but sometimes the authorities simply fancied that there were “Petliurites” around. This was done to justify the terror. Note the typical articles: “Revitalizing the Kurazhyn leadership,” “The Class Enemy on Kurazhyn Cooperative’s Fields” (Kommunar, No. 33, April 12, 1933; No. 35, April 18, 1933, respectively).
Luckily, the 1933 wounds were healing. Once a “visitor” from the center examined, together with Osipenko, the sprouting grain crops. Rubbing his hands with pleasure, he was going to leave. Then he saw the crosses, and this had the effect of a burst barrel hoop.

“Why is the roadside studded with crosses?”

“It is a village cemetery, like everywhere,” Osipenko explained calmly.

They entered the cemetery. The outskirts of the village. Cherry and snowball trees. Stone crosses…

The Stalinist stared at the front rows of rather fresh cross-crowned graves.

“And what is this?”

“Eternal memory,” the chairman said, not noticing 1933 as the year of death.

“What? You are still keeping the eternal memory of 1933?”

“Yes, there are a lot of crosses like this over here — it is those who died in early 1933. Then they were buried in the same pit. There was nobody to bury them. Famine, you know…”

The functionary’s good mood vanished into thin air. “Stop sweet-talking me! What famine? Can you find any reports headlined ‘Died of famine?’ You are in the border area…”

“I don’t know. I am not saying this in public. What am I to do?”

“Wash away ‘eternal memory!’ Are they whining that dome and crosses were removed from the temple? So build them a dome from crosses. Raise their culture! What you should be afraid of is the Party, not God. Why was Myshkovsky purged from RPK and VKP(b)? For candles next to his daughter’s coffin.”

Memorandum No. 231 to the Vinny­tsia Oblast KP(b)U Committee “On the Results of the Inspection of the Political and Economic Condition of Novoushytsk District,” dated October 15, 1933, testifies to arbitrary “arrests, beatings, and mob trials.” There were 500 unfinished investigations and 120 unanswered complaints in the district centers for a period of up to one year. Village council chairmen could have people arrested for anything. Huta residents were saying indignantly: “We do not need a government and a party like this!” Thirty families ran away from the district across the heavily-guarded border.

What has changed since the 1930s? There are crosses on the graves and on the church. There is freedom and song. There is a school, a kindergarten, clubs, and even shows. There is no famine. There is the once coveted land, although not all can cultivate it and it is usually leased out. It still hurts one to see temporary owners exhaust the soil, ignoring the principle of crop rotation. Villagers are afraid lest the owners should bring the famine back.
Fortunately, the villages are visited by Anatolii Sazhienko, chair of the District State Administration, who has spoken to the people of Kurazhyn, Mala Shurka, and Hlibovka, and promised to help them. What is truly disheartening are the empty houses, a result of wars, trials, famines, and… the wild market.
Yet people are no longer being deported: they are allowed to go in search of a better fate. And it is really depressing that in more than a century, when the population of Earth has grown from 1.6 billion to 7 billion, Kurazhyn has seen the number of its residents drop from 1,111 in 1901 to only 797, as of January 1, 2010. Incidentally, this number includes those who were resettled from the villages flooded by the Dnister hydro power plant water.

The Kurazhyn cemetery has a cross, “In Memory of the Victims of the 1932-1933 Holodomor.”
The schoolteacher Svitlana Kolisnyk is one of the first to have revealed the truth about the 1930s famine in the village. The school “drew out” the now late 87-year-old Kylyna Hrynchak, who recalled the dead and showed their graves. The village library managed by Valentyna Burachynska exhibits the list of the 94 victims of the famine. Although dates of birth are not listed and there are nameless children, it is also an important piece of information signed by the village council chair Vasyl Hnatiuk.

Let us look now at the Khmelnytsky Oblast Administration’s website about the 1932-33 Holodomor (No. 01-13-346 dated August 21, 2008). 1,111 residents of 21 Novoushytsk villages starved to death, and 763 names have been found. But most of the death reports do not list the cause of death. For example, in the village of Kucha, 55 out of the 57 dead were the under 16. Was the children’s death not caused by something? Did they “wash away” the memory?
The point is that the “causes” sometimes exposed famine, as is the case with Zeleni Kurylivtsi: 10 died of “bloating,” 5 of “a cold” in summer, and three 60-year-olds of the “old age.” In the latter case, deaths mostly occurred during the famine. And nowhere is it written “of starvation.”
Incidentally, the grain crop in the hungry 1933 was twice as high as that of the plentiful 1934. This is the subject of the historical essay Kalius: a Village on the Seabed by Serhii Maiarchak (Kyiv, 2004, p. 50). How similar is Stalin’s 1933 to Hitler’s 1942! Nadia Kulchytska, an “Ostarbeiterin,” wrote to her sister Liza in Kalius on November 6, 1942: “You would not recognize me now. I’ve put on weight, as I did in 1933” (ibid., p. 53).

Pupils of the Kurazhyn secondary school were struck with the lesson on the Holodomor by the Ukrainian language teacher Tamara Velychko. People died in almost every house, eating saltbush, snails, cats, dogs, and flowers. Skeletons with bloated stomachs were hardly able to move on thin legs in search of food. Vitalii Kaplun recalls his mother’s words: “In Kalius, people would die of hunger while walking.”
Mytrofan Moskovchuk, a disabled war veteran, who has lived to be 100 years old, recalls how his Velyky Bereh survived on Dnister fish. Fate scattered his five children all over the world, leaving only his son Petro in Kurazhyn (Silski visti of April 22, 2010). Kurazhyn, which studies its history, the destinies of the war’s heroes and victims, and where there is even a “literary front room,” will undoubtedly have a place in the memory of Holodomor victims, perhaps with the names of the children buried in the 1930s.

I know that the old woman Kateryna, my fellow countryperson, saved, risking her own life, the Jewish woman Ruzia during the war. There were also Jews who helped Ukrainians during the famine. Among them is the family of Buzia and Ruchla Beider, who made clothes for the bosses in exchange for food.
Another important fact, as far as our friends are concerned. In his address at the 1953 Ukrainian Famine commemoration in New York, Raphael Lemkin, a Jew, formulated the concept “Soviet Genocide in Ukraine.”
For him, genocide of Ukrainians is: a) the extermination of Ukrainian intellectuals, the brains of the nation; b) abolishing the Ukrainian Orthodox Autocephalous Church, the heart of the nation; c) exterminating the peasants, the bearers of the Ukrainian language, culture, and traditions; and d) populating Ukraine with foreign ethnic elements, which radically changed the composition of the population.
Tellingly, the author of the Concept of the Genocide of Ukrainians is the same person who authored the Concept of the Holocaust of Jews, which was approved by the UN and formed the basis for its documents on genocide. Why do some people still refuse to heed even this expert?

I think the story of grandma Yevdokia retold by her granddaughter Malanka Bilyk, 83, would have also interested James Mace, who gave his life to revealing the truth about the Holodomor and who very often wrote about this Catastrophe in the newspaper Den/The Day. In the 1930s, local “chairmen of the famine” were not very much in favor, too: they were arrested for distributing among themselves what they had seized from the people (Kulyholovy, Palamarchuk) or for “condescension” (Dolenko, Pysk).
There also local “knackers,” such as Yakiv Zelinsky. Grandma recalled how this Yakiv hit the roof when no grain was found in the Desniaks’ house. His “commissars” were about to climb onto the stove, but he stopped them, while children lay on a sackcloth over the grain.
Somebody nervously crashed a pot with beans, found in the stove, on the grandmother’s head. But they must have been in a hurry or just took pity on the old woman and left the beans in her blood. When the sexton saw a beaten-up but smiling old woman, he feared that she had gone insane.
He only gave a sighed of relief when he heard: “They didn’t take even what they’d found.” He thought that Zelinsky had left the food because he recalled his relatives who had starved to death — Ahrafena, Petro, Opanas, Kornii, and Tun. But grandma whispered differently: “They are OUR knackers, you see.”

The UT-1 channel once hosted a debate of politicians, cultural and scientific figures on the Holodomor.
They concluded that Stalin had outwitted Hitler: he never called for killing a nation. And Jesus prophesied: they will be known by their deeds, not words. And it was revealed that Stalin had starved to death 3,941,000 people in Ukraine, and this was only the official account! Is it really easier for millions that they were put to death not as Ukrainians but as “Pet­liurites” and “kulaks?”
Robert Conquest wrote that, like Genghis Khan, Stalin would wipe out peasants and killed a quarter of them as Ukrainians. What astonished the West’s most well-known researcher of the USSR was not the fact that our nation has not achieved something but the fact that it miraculously survived in a Ukraine that was turned into a prison camp in the 1930s (A. Sydoruk, The Holodomor, Kyiv, 2009, pp. 206-216). Who else has ever paid so dearly for even a “radiant” future?
Successes in industry, education, war, and space exploration did not and could not justify the crimes the state committed in the 1930s.
I can still hear the pin-drop silence in the TV studio after my account of a dome made of crosses.
And, suddenly, such a “dome” is being built again in this country by those who still remain in Stalin’s stranglehold and pour shame on us with the monument to the “leader” in Zaporizhia; those who think that the Holodomor “is casting a shadow on Russia,” although they themselves are doing so (our laws do not call for falsifications and shifting the blame from Stalin to present-day Russia); those who also turn a deaf ear to the address of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate): “This genocide was an attempt to destroy the very soul of the people and reduce them to complete spiritual slavery” (Den, July 9-10, 2010).
Finally, is it not a building of a new “dome of crosses” on the part of those who are bending over backwards to publicly “expose” our nation, which even Stalin did not do; those who malign our national symbols and the much-suffering language; those who are vesting Valuyev’s practices into a “European” apparel so that our people lose faith in themselves; those who are turning a deaf ear to Moscow declarations of de-Stalinization, which would undoubtedly bring us closer to Russia; those who are discrediting the country and freedom and doing a disservice to the new leadership?