The Great Famine-Genocide in Soviet Ukraine (Holodomor)


Roman Woronowycz
Kyiv Press Bureau
The Ukrainian Weekly
Ukrainian National Association
Sunday, December 1, 2002, Page One


KYIV....Today Yakym Kovalyshyn sees little except for dark shapes and shadows, but in 1932-1933 his eyes witnessed the misery of starving mothers and their children as they dragged themselves into Kyiv from the famine-ravaged countryside looking for food.

"I had the soul of a peasant, I came from the village, I had never seen this and my heart hurt, " explained Mr. Kovalyshyn, today 92 and all but blind as a result of the time spent at forced labor in Soviet concentration camps. "I was taught mercy and belief in God, but people ignored these villagers who lay on the sidewalk before the store."

Mr. Kovalyshyn, 21 years old at the time and filled with the spirit of the "enlightened future of Communism," had left his village in the Polish- controlled Ternopil region of Ukraine at the age of 18 to move to Soviet Ukraine, where he was promised a free college education in the Ukrainian language--not the Polish tongue then being forced upon western Ukrainian lands.

After living initially in Kharkiv, he had moved to Kyiv where he was assigned a job at a Kyiv bread store in the Podil district. There, at close range, he saw the bloated bellies of children near death and the desperate eyes of mothers begging for a small piece of a loaf of bread to feed their babies as famine raged in Ukraine.

Mr. Kovalyshyn did not last long at this first job in Kyiv. The director of the store told him he would have to make a choice: either stop feeding peasants because that could lead to arrest and imprisonment for both of them, or leave. He chose the later.

Seventy years after Stalin and the Communist hierarchy decided to force a reluctant Ukraine to accept agricultural collectivization and Soviet domination from Moscow by artificially starving the peasant population in what came to be known as the Great Famine, there is finally full awareness and recognition by the state leadership of the extent and nature of what remains the worst man-made calamity in Ukraine's tragic history. Many who never saw what Mr.Kovalyshyn saw, are finally admitting that it did occur.

At the anniversary commemorations in Kyiv on November 23, President Leonid Kuchma and government leaders placed wreaths and flowers at the single memorial of the Great Famine in Kyiv, located before St. Michael's Golden-Domed Cathedral, a tradition begun only four years ago after a presidential decree declared a day dedicated to those killed by the Communist system during the Great Famine and other Soviet repressions.

In remarks before the simple monument, Mr. Kuchma gave the most far-reaching official Ukrainian acknowledgement of the scope of the Moscow-oriented program to extinguish a good portion of Ukrainian nation resistant to continued colonization.

"Ukraine must let the international community know the truth about the Famine, its causes and consequences, to have it recognized as an act of genocide against the people of Ukraine," stated Mr. Kuchma.

The Ukrainian president said that one-fifth of Ukraine's rural population was eradicated in 1932-1933 "by starvation and Stalin's butchers." He suggested that a large memorial to the victims of the Great Famine must stand in Kyiv eventually, and that cities and towns throughout Ukraine need to build their own as well.

"This is not for formality's sake," explained the president. "This will show our deep regret to the perished and the undying memory about this tragic page of history, and simultaneously it will be a symbol of the immortality of our nation."

National Deputy Les Taniuk, the head of the Memorial Society of Ukraine, which is dedicated to documenting the political crimes of the Soviet era, told The Weekly he had witnessed a gradual change over the last decade in the way the state views the Great Famine, which today, finally, has led to a recognition that an artificially-induced hunger managed from Moscow had taken the lives of million in Ukraine in 1932-1933.

"During the Soviet era we could not even speak the word, "holodomor" (literally death by hunger), explained Mr. Taniuk in characterizing how recognition developed. "Then you could use the word with out fear of arrest. After that there was an acknowledgement that a famine has taken place in 1932-1933, but it had happened due to natural causes. After independence it became a famine that had come about due to government irresponsibility. Today we have a more accurate reflection of the truth."

Famine history must be institutionalized

Mr. Taniuk said, however, that the Great Famine as a part of Ukrainian history still needs to be institutionalized in Ukraine. He explained that the country still does not have a Great Famine museum, nor does it have a wide array of books published on that subject.

Mr. Taniuk also asserted that school kids still did not receive proper knowledge of what happened in 1932-1933. He said the event must become a part of the Ukrainian consciousness, not just an event to be commemorated."

"Look at the way the Jews consider the Holocaust. They think of it in every aspect of their lives," he stated.

Mr. Taniuk also would like Ukraine to take a harder look at the numbers: the number of people who perished not only due to the Great Famine in particular, but also as a result of forced collectivization.

He said he believes the official number of deaths should be placed at 13 million to 15 million individuals and which would include kurluks, the farmers who were shot or sent to death camps as collectivization began.

In addition, he said the official number of deaths directly related to the famine should be raised from the current 5 million -7 million to about 8 million - 10 million.

Mr. Kovalyshyn, the blind nonagenarian, admitted to seeing some of those millions of dead on the streets of Kyiv in 1932-1933. He also acknowledged that Kyivans and residents of all of the cities to which peasants fled to seek sanctuary only to be forced back on trains and boats and returned to the countryside to die could have done more to stop the slaughter.

"Everybody knew what was going on, but they were scared," explained the slight but still sturdy senior citizen. "In public, no one made comments about what they were seeing, even to a friend. But in private, in our kitchens, we discussed it. People had already learned to live in fear, even then. The national spirit had already been broken.

Mr. Kovalyshyn also explained that the Communist central regime was spared criticism to a large degree because residents tended to blame local leaders for the calamity occurring in the countryside rather than Stalin or Moscow.

He did not downplay the fact that he was not a victim but merely an eyewitness, although he emphasized that most city dwellers throughout the affected regions had difficulties finding food because most of what was confiscated by roaming bands of ethnic Russian Communist "enforcers" was shipped back to Russia.

Moments ingrained in memory

Mr. Kovalyshyn gave an account of two other moments that remain ingrained in his memory seven decades later.

He explained that as a member of the Communist Youth League, he was part of a youth brigade ordered to go to the Kyiv countryside to agitate for food to fill the depleted shelves of Kyiv's bazaars.

In the village of Muzychiv he saw the dying villagers, the empty warehouses and bare shelves and heard the accounts of how food was confiscated.

"They told us that they simply had no more to give," explained Mr. Kovalyshyn.

A couple of months later, hearing about a transfer of "cannibals" from Kyiv's Lukianivka Prison, youthful curiosity led him and a friend to sneak into the Kyiv train station to take a peek at state prisoners-- peasants accused to eating human flesh--as they were transported by train out of Kyiv. He said that even today he remembers their crazed expressions.

While those events occurred seven full decades ago, Mr. Kovalyshyn, although sightless today, still sees them through his mind's eye as if they happened yesterday. He explained that he understands well that the political system that so attracted him, as well as those who developed and nurtured it, are responsible for the death and misery of millions.

Mr. Kovalyshyn said he realized he had chosen a fateful path when it veered off its intended course unexpectedly and without due cause. In 1935 he was arrested and charged--baselessly, he maintained-- of being an agent for Poland. His reward for wanting to be part of the grand Soviet experiment: five years in a concentration camp in Mordovia followed by 36 years of forced exile in Krasnoyarsk.

Today Mr. Kovalyshyn can be considered a survivor of the Soviet system: a system he outlasted. In 1986 not only was he officially rehabilitated--as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev undertook his perebudova programs--but allowed to return to Kyiv as well.

For more than a decade, Mr. Kovalyshyn has lived in an independent Ukraine. He sees no need for further social experiments.

A fateful decision in 1928

He explained that in 1928 he was driven to Soviet Ukraine by National Communist Mykola Shrypnyk, whose inspiring words on a free Ukrainian nation within a Communist society had moved him to make his fateful decision. It's just that the journey there took many more difficult turns than he had expected. In the end, he wanted only to live in freedom.

Today, he believes that has finally happened. And 70 years after his ironic trek began, Mr. Kovalyshyn said he feels Ukraine has found its path as well. However, much still needs to be done to sustain independence, he added.

"Ukraine needs its own historical truth. Those nations who do not know their history cannot know their place in today's world." he observed. We need for our economy to grow, people who are still economically poor cannot feel freedom. People need to understand this priceless entity called freedom."

The Ukrainian Weekly, Sunday, December 1, 2002, Page One
Published by the Ukrainian National Association, Inc., P.O. Box 280, Parsippany, NJ 07054. Roma Hadzewycz, Editor-In-Chief
Subscription $ 55 per year,