By Fr. Jeffrey D. Stephaniuk, Priest
Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Canada
UANews Religious Affairs Editor
Published by Ukrainian Archives & News, UK, 23 Nov 2003
"Whatever else I may do or think in the future,
I must never pretend that I haven't seen this."
Malcolm Muggeridge, Winter in Moscow
(Click on images to enlarge them)
I have undertaken what can only be described as a daunting task, namely, to
reflect as a priest on the Holodomor. Initially, I feel alone in the task.
It's as if I were the only person alive in an abandoned Ukrainian village
near Chernihiv or near Kharkiv or thousands of other villages south from
Kyiv to Odesa. The fields are overgrown with weeds, the entrances to
dilapidated houses are gaping and foreboding, the doors and anything wooden
long since burned as firewood. The farmers are gone but the houses
themselves seem to cry out for food. The world around me has collapsed in
the manner of one who has had a nervous breakdown and has the strength to
control neither the muscles nor functions of the body. It is a weight, and a
burden born of denial and deceit.
The weight is only compounded by the famine deniers, who began during the
era of famine itself to dispute the agonizing claims of death by starvation.
For example, when efforts were made by individuals such as teachers to form
even the most basic humanitarian response to the famine, those who made such
attempts were themselves arrested and exiled for spreading rumours of a
famine that did not officially exist. Further, something of an admiration
for Stalin was found behind Western scepticism about the famine, expressed
even from the pulpit.
Ian Hunter, in a biography on the journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge, describes
a high-ranking priest from the Church of England who praised Stalin for his
"steady purpose and kindly generosity." There's no danger of such sermons
being preached by a Ukrainian priest. After all, when the people in our
congregations speak of Stalin as having died, they don't even use the
Ukrainian word 'pomer' which would indicate that a human has died; instead
they use the word 'zdokh', which is the Ukrainian word used to say that an
animal has died.
Yet, this weight I feel is categorically different from what Stalin had in
mind with his "Dizzy With Success" article of 1930, when he called for a
time out to the pace of communism in the Soviet Union. It was a trick, of
course, to flush out the opponents of collectivization. Rather than feeling
dizzy, I am feeling breathless with the burden of remembrance for the ten
million lives counted as lost from famine, execution, or deportation to
A panic attack is like this: you wake up in the middle of the night,
convinced of the imminent approach of death; the heart races, the chest
feels heavy, and you are certain the end of the world is near. The only
remedy for this intellectual panic attack is to seek the company of others
for reassurance that the rumours of famine were true, that the eye-witness
accounts likewise are true and can be corroborated, and that Malcolm
Muggeridge was a journalist of integrity while Walter Duranty was not.
Any meditation on the famine begins as a heavy burden because of the sheer
magnitude of the losses. This is why Malcolm Muggeridge, who spent eight
months in the Soviet Union in 1932-33, felt at a loss for words to describe
the famine. Ian Hunter wrote that while Muggeridge looked back on his
articles about collectivization in Ukraine as being 'very inadequate', "it
is only because the sheer horror and magnitude defied expression even by so
adept a communicator." And, as if to encourage me in this present task, it
did not take long to read about others who shared the same sentiment.
Miron Dolot, author of "Execution By Hunger", dedicated his memoir about
surviving the famine "to those Ukrainian farmers who were deliberately
starved to death during the Famine of 1932-33, my only regret being that it
is impossible for me to fully describe their sufferings."
As a priest, my first prayer as I begin this reflection says, "Dear Lord,
unite the sufferings of this nation to the suffering of your son on the
cross." This paraphrases the prayer found in the document at the end of this
article, written by the hierarchy of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in July
1933. After begging for the world to turn its attention to the famine, and
realising that humanitarian efforts across the Soviet Ukrainian border from
Poland would be impossible, the bishops wrote, "Death voluntarily accepted
from the hands of God is a holy offering which, united with the sacrifice of
Christ, will lead you to Paradise and bring salvation for all the people.
Let our hopes be in the Lord."
I make this prayer even as I think about the countless wooden crosses stolen
from ancient graves in village cemeteries in order to have firewood during
the winter of 1932-33. I also think of the young mothers who dressed in
their finest Ukrainian embroidered blouses, donned necklaces with cherished
gold crosses, heirlooms from their own mothers, closed all the curtains on
the windows of their homes, and then hanged themselves. Their husbands had
been shot, their children surreal and macabre in death from hunger, resting
on their beds near the household stoves. They could not go on living without
them. They became the Ukrainian equivalent of the "compassionate women"
spoken of in the Book of Lamentations, written about a famine in Jerusalem
in 586 B.C. The famine became Ukraine's own time of "the destruction of the
daughter of my people."
A modern grief counsellor would have a lifetime of work among the famine
victims. The general themes of grief are denial and isolation, anger,
bargaining, depression, acceptance and hope. The famine victims would not be
denying their slow death by hunger; their isolation, however, would have
been compounded by the official ridicule at the mention of the word. The
isolation they experienced before death was followed by decades of isolation
through denial, which makes the work of remembrance in a modern Ukraine and
beyond its borders all the more urgent as a means of breaking that pattern.
Muggeridge expressed this fear of denial in his articles: "This, I am
convinced, is one of the most monstrous crimes in history, so terrible that
people in the future will scarcely be able to believe it ever happened."
The most painful symbol of mass depression during the famine was
cannibalism, a cry equal in magnitude to that of Lamentations: "Look, O
Lord, and see! With whom hast thou dealt thus? Should women eat their
offspring, the children of their tender care?" Another sign of depression
would be found among those who felt that the famine was something they
deserved, and was their punishment for supporting the Communists in the
revolution and civil war years.
In truth, they were not being punished by God for supporting the Communists;
they were being punished by the Communists for being Ukrainian. As Miron
Dolot describes, people like his mother grew pessimistic about finding any
way out: "Oh, Almighty God: You sent upon us Your Wrath and punishment
at a time when Satan is also torturing us. Why do you treat us this way,
Great God? Be merciful to us and help us to withstand Satan's treatment."
It is incredible to realize from such narratives about the famine, how
intuitively religious so many remained in private. They were denied
everything, from publicly expressing their faith to being unable to find
spiritual nourishment from the visible Body of Christ - the Church. They
could no longer hear the words of forgiveness in the sacrament of
confession, the cherished "go in peace, your sins are forgiven."
A Christianity that by its nature had very public elements of expression
suddenly and violently became confined to one's private life. It had to be
cherished in private because there would be trouble if it were ever
discovered. One's faith became spiritually what the family heirlooms such as
gold medallions from pre-revolutionary days, or embroidered wedding towels
and outfits were as physical treasures.
All these had to be hidden from the inevitable raids by the authorities,
until such time as they could be sold or bartered for food in order to avoid
starvation. Physically and spiritually the famine in Jerusalem was being
repeated in Ukraine: "All her people groan as they search for bread; they
trade their treasures for food to revive their strength."
Then there were those who felt it simply would not be right to bury a
relative or neighbour without saying a prayer at the graveside for this
victim of the Holodomor. If the adults were too weak to leave the house,
they would write the prayers down on a paper for their boys to read at the
cemetery. The children would also be warned to destroy the paper after the
prayers were said, for fear that the authorities might discover what they
were doing. There would be a better chance for a dignified burial in the
villages, while in the larger oblast centres and cities the unceremonious
disposal of corpses was more common. These unfortunates could be found
every morning at the edge of town, thrown in the dump reserved for raw
sewage, or kept in hospital morgues for research purposes.
While religion in general had been considered as an "opium of the masses"
and therefore undesirable as the society evolved in the "desirable"
direction of Communism, it can also be said that Ukrainianisation of the
1920s was likewise an opium of the people, one of those "one step backwards
in order to make two steps forward" type of concessions that made less and
less sense as Stalin consolidated more and more power - something that both
Ukrainian and religious populations could serve no evolutionary purpose in
as collectivization progressed into the 1930s.
Paul Robert Magocsi, in his book, "A History of Ukraine", reports that the
Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church was forced to dissolve itself in
1930, and over the next eight years, two metropolitans, 26 bishops, 1150
priests were arrested and disappeared in camps. Three hundred parishes were
initially allowed to restructure and operate as Ukrainian Orthodox churches,
but by 1936 they too were all closed.
The transition to atheism in the villages evolved. Crosses were knocked off
churches and red banners were hung in their place. Altars were removed from
sanctuaries, and the holy places were turned into theatres or into museums
of atheism, chronicling the paradigm of the modern concept of evolution, the
life and works of Charles Darwin. Where large buildings in the village were
few, the churches became meeting halls. They were stripped of the icons and
holy pictures, and portraits of Communist Party and government leaders, such
as Stalin, Petrovsky, and Chubar, replaced them. Prayers were replaced by
chants, such as the banners that read, "religion is the opiate of the
masses." Other phrases from the era proclaimed "it is impossible to build a
collective farm where there is a church" and "instead of bells we will enjoy
the hum of the tractors."
Churches were also converted into granaries. A Ukrainian village church in
the time of famine, filled with grain and protected by armed guards, became
an ironic metaphor for death on a massive scale. It once symbolized life,
the sanctified and visible Body of Christ and communion through the Holy
Eucharist. Ukrainian villagers were violently ex-communicated from the new
world of Communism with no symbolic or physical place left for them in this
world. Ironically, the places where bread - the product of human hands - was
once offered as a bloodless and spiritual sacrifice to God became armed
camps where the confiscated grain quotas were hidden.
The bread was then carted away to the cities, beyond Ukraine itself, or left
to rot in piles on the ground at railway stations. The grain was once a
symbol of the transformation of creation by the Word of God in the
Eucharist. Even in their homes, the farmers had an icon corner, and a piece
of blessed bread would be placed on the icon "as a symbol of God's
generosity", writes Miron Dolot in "Execution By Hunger". But now the
despair and death created in an era of famine threatened to turn the
churches irreversibly into a metaphor for the brutal transformation of the
means of production of Ukrainian agriculture by Stalin and Communism. The
propagandists would have enjoyed such a metaphor, although in private the
villagers still displayed a more honest piety about such matters.
By the time collectivization had resulted in famine, public church services
were no longer held. There was no publicly held religious Christmas
celebration in January 1933, or Easter in the spring. There was no place
left to hold such a service, and no clergy to officiate. A few years earlier
villages had started to declare themselves as atheist. When this occurred,
the priest and his family was given 24 hours to leave. The same fate awaited
the cantors. Reports reached the West that parks were being filled with
bibles and icons, all confiscated items collected and burned. Proclamations
were also made that Christmas day would be a regular workday, and church
bells would be collected for the needs of industrialisation.
In addition, by 1933, there had been instituted such a system of spying and
harassment by bread procurement commissions and seed procurement
commissions, the secret police, and the young communist league, that normal
relationships between people had disintegrated to the point where there was
no sense of community left. And hunger had left people so weak that they
just stayed home behind locked doors as much as possible. They were
obligated, however, to attend May Day celebrations, lured by a serving of
porridge. So there was no public display of Easter, but there was May Day.
If the sheer number of famine victims is a burden, the weight of remembrance
becomes heavier with the thought of the generation that could be born. The
famous title from a poem by Ukraine's national poet Taras Shevchenko also
coincides with a religious perspective that sees the world as "those who
were, who are, and those who will be." The Holodomor occurred at a time when
the Ukrainian farming family had a reputation for having a fair number of
children. In fact, the accusation of being a kurkul [class enemies] often
began with one's ability to hire workers.
However, many people who suffered from this accusation were only hiring
individuals to help with their growing families. Existing families were
destroyed as a result of de-kurkulization, and other families were unable to
grow further because the fathers were arrested and deported to Siberia.
Still other families ended when the men were shot in prison as a means of
intimidating others. Not to be forgotten are the children who survived the
famine but were orphaned, survived in youth gangs, and would never be able
to enter into normal family arrangements to raise children of their own.
Today when we hear about someone born in 1932-33 and who has assumed some
degree of responsibility in public life, one can well image how rare an
individual he or she really is. This connection crossed my mind when I
learned that Patriarch Lubomyr Husar, the "Head and Father" of the Ukrainian
Catholic Church, was born in Lviv in 1933, at a time when Western Ukraine
was a part of Poland. I see him as a representative of an entire generation,
for the "unborn" as the result of the Holodomor. This idea parallels a
prayer said by a priest when preparing the bread and wine for the sacrifice
of Divine Liturgy. The words are taken from the Old Testament Book of
Isaiah, and speak of a lamb being led to slaughter.
There is a question, "Of his generation who shall declare, for his life is
taken from the earth?" With reference to the famine and anyone born in
1932-33, we can ask, "Of their generation who shall declare, for their lives
are taken from this earth?" I see Patriarch Husar as one who represents that
generation. And he has consecrated himself to a world of mercy, justice, and
the becoming of a new creation in Christ. In such a spirit, the souls of all
these victims are respectfully commemorated.
If such a vocabulary seems out of place to modern sensibilities, I think its
employment is justified when one considers that Communism, too, spoke of a
new creation - a new Soviet man. The creation of this new man was a task for
the working class, and he would arise from among them. Myroslav Shkandrij,
in "Fiction by formula: the worker in early Soviet Ukrainian prose"
describes this Soviet man as a "strong individual who has proven his worth
[and] is sent by the Party into a situation of disorganization and
demoralization." He has a glorious revolutionary past and his one great
quality is a single-minded determination to mould the putty that is the
masses into an image of conformity to the Soviet goals.
The Ukrainian villagers were targeted with an artificial famine because
their national class stood in the path of this so-called evolution. As a
result, the ideology had built into it a violent, explosive element, which
detonated among the Ukrainian population of the 1930s. The Holodomor has
proven that the Soviet notion of humanity is morally bankrupt. Today we are
free to return to the ancient Christian anthropology summarized as follows:
we are made in the image and likeness of God, and in Christ we are a new
creation. Patriarch Husar, then, represents the generation that could not
have been born given the conditions of genocide, and he also represents an
alternative definition of humanity to the one that Communism offered.
The Communist victory in the Soviet Union is commonly associated with the
victory of the workers over oppressive owners. Ukrainian farmers were by
definition on the owners' side of the equation and in opposition to the
workers because of their connection to the land, spiritually and legally
through private property. The Communist idea to collectivize agriculture was
the model implemented in order to make the farmers into something analogous
to the proletariat. The coal miner in the enormous industrial unions of the
Donbas, the theory went, could identify with, and work towards, a common
goal of communism with the farm worker only after the process of
collectivization had transformed the face of labour in the countryside.
In the name of the worker's revolution, then, collectivization of farmland
and farm labour made sense as a perfectly legitimate evolution and
development from capitalism to Socialism and Communism. However, it also
meant that the inhabitants of whole villages were condemned to death by
famine because Communism could not reconcile the destiny of the worker with
the destiny of the farmer unless the farmer stopped representing something
in opposition to the evolutionary direction of the worker.
Both 'the Ukrainian Holocaust' and the Jewish Holocaust became a possibility
in fact when the target groups were no longer regarded as people, no longer
considered human beings. Although the Holodomor was chronologically 10 years
earlier than the Jewish Holocaust of the Second World War, the famine of
1932-33 is in general being introduced into a contemporary culture that is
already versed in the lexicon of the death camps of the Second World War. A
book by Wasyl Hryshko, translated into English for the 50th anniversary of
the famine, takes its name from the Jewish Holocaust. In "The Ukrainian
Holocaust" he writes that since "the Holocaust has become a symbol of the
horrors of totalitarian genocide (although genocide was a state policy in
the Soviet Union in peacetime a decade earlier), the fateful chain of tragic
events in Ukraine in 1933 has come to be called the 'Ukrainian Holocaust.'"
To make his point about the similarity in principle between the two
genocides, Hryshko quotes from the novel, "Forever Flowing", by Vasilii
Grossman. "In order to massacre them, it was necessary to proclaim that
kulaks are not human beings. Just as the Germans proclaimed that Jews are
not human beings." "They are kulaks, not human beings" formed part of the
lexicon of the dark world that made the famine possible - which Malcolm
Muggeridge referred to as a "macabre ballet." Such phrases rival those
employed by the statistics bureaux that registered the deaths as death not
from famine, but from "digestive ailment", and such language as used by
police to describe the personal use of grain as the "theft of socialist
The Old Testament use of the word holocaust is associated with making a
sacrifice to God, a burnt offering that is well pleasing to Him. The writer
who connected the word to the Nazi's extermination policy won a Nobel Prize
for Literature. In the commemoration of all those deaths, their memory is
elevated to a new level of dignity and reverence that they as individuals
would have been denied in the hour of their death. Although some resent the
application of the word 'Holocaust' to the Holodomor, it is a legitimate way
of conceptualising an unknown horror in a language a modern audience can
understand. And the memory of the ten million Ukrainians who died in the
famine of 1932-33 is similarly elevated to a new level of dignity and
reverence that they as individuals would have been denied in the hour of
Now that a free Ukraine is untangling the macabre implications of the
Holodomor, there may yet emerge a writer who will capture in metaphor the
events of 1932-33, serve us with an authentic rallying point, silence those
who maintain no genocide occurred, and win for himself or herself a Nobel
Prize for Literature. Such a writer, someone like Vasyl Barka who wrote a
novel, The Yellow Prince, about the famine, is sorely needed to help us
overcome the daunting fear of isolation as we embrace this task of
commemorating the millions of victims.
I conclude this famine lament by quoting the appeal from July 1933 by the
Ukrainian Catholic hierarchy of Halychyna [Galicia]. It is one of those
historical documents proving that the famine existed and also that
Ukrainians of Western Ukraine sincerely wished to overcome the isolation
that prevented effective humanitarian intervention:
The Appeal of the Ukrainian Catholic Bishops of the Ecclesiastical
Province of Galicia to all men of good will, to draw the attention of
the world to the atrocities in Eastern Ukraine under the Bolshevik
Ukraine is in agony. The people are dying from hunger. The
anthropophagous system of state capitalism based on injustice, deceit,
atheism and corruption, has brought the rich country to complete ruin.
His Holiness, Pius XI, the visible Head of the Catholic Church, has
protested emphatically against everything that in Bolshevism opposes
Christianity, God, and human nature, and warned the whole Catholic
world of the terrifying consequences of such crimes. With this protest
We already see the consequences of the Communist regime: each day it
becomes more frightening. The sight of these crimes horrifies human
nature and makes one's blood run cold. Being unable to extend material
aid to our dying brothers, we implore the faithful to beseech from
Heaven by their prayers, fasts, mortifications and all other works,
Furthermore, we protest before the whole world against the persecution
of children, the poor, the sick and the innocent. On the other hand, we
summon the persecutors before the Tribunal of the Almighty God. The
blood of famished and enslaved labourers who till the soil of Ukraine
cries to heaven for vengeance, and the plaint of the half-starved
reapers has reached God in Heaven. We implore the Christians of the
world, all those who believe in God, and especially all our fellow
countrymen, to unite with us in protest to make known our grief even
in the most remote corners of the earth.
We also ask all the radio stations to broadcast our voice to the whole
world; perhaps it may also reach the impoverished, desolate homes of
the famine-stricken and the persecuted. Thus at least the thought that
they are remembered and pitied by their brothers far away, and
supported by their prayers, may be a consolation to them amidst untold
sufferings and imminent death. And all you, the suffering, the famished
and the dying, pray to the Merciful Lord and our Saviour Jesus Christ.
Accept these sufferings in atonement for your sins and the sins of the
world, repeating with Our Lord, "Thy will be done, heavenly Father."
Death voluntarily accepted from the hands of God is an holy offering
which, united with the sacrifice of Christ, will lead you to Paradise
and bring salvation for all the people. Let our hopes be in the Lord.
Given in Lviv, on the Feast of St. Olga, July, 1933
+Andrew Sheptytskyi, Metropolitan
+Gregory Khomyshyn, Bishop of Stanyslaviv
+Josaphat Kotsylovskyi, Bishop of Peremyshyl
+Gregory Lakota, Auxiliary Bishop of Peremyshyl
+Niceta Budka, Titular Bishop of Patara
+John Buchko, Auxiliary Bishop of Lviv
+ John Latyshevskyi, Auxiliary Bishop of Stanyslaviv
First Printed in Pravda (Truth) XII No 30, July 30, 1933. Quoted here from
Bishop Ivan Buchko, ed., "First Victims of Communism: White Book on the
Religious Persecution in Ukraine." Rome, 1953.
By Fr. Jeffrey D. Stephaniuk, Priest, Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church,
Canada; UANews Religious Affairs Editor, Ukrainian Archives & News,
UK, 23 Nov 2003; firstname.lastname@example.org, http://religion.uanews.tv
FOR PERSONAL AND ACADEMIC USE ONLY