Ep. 30 Holodomor – the bad years

1921 famine

Gerhard’s bad years kicked off with the worst famine in Russian history, likely up to ten million people perished. I say likely because no one keeps an accurate accounting of what happened or why when it comes to famines. This famine was given a name, Holodomor, which means to inflict death by starvation.[1] The name itself has sparked arguments for generations. Was collectivization forced too quickly? Was it a couple of bad crop years? Were the crop estimates faulty? Administrative bungling? Were the grain quotas too high and were they then forced to give up their seed grain as well? Why were a million of the best farmers and leaders now breaking rocks as kulaks in Siberian exile? Had the “dekulakization” program been too effective? Why hadn’t the government stopped its own grain exports when people were starving in the streets? Why was the famine worst in Ukraine when Russia and Byelorussia hardly suffered at all? Why weren’t people allowed to leave the worst hit regions and go to places where there was food? Was the government sacrificing the rural population to keep the city people fed? Was the state punishing Ukraine for its aspirations of independence?

Holodomor map red arrow

The famine was worst in the darkest areas.

In 1930 the state took 30 per cent of Ukraine’s agricultural production for its own purposes while the farmers required approximately 80 per cent of their crops in order to maintain production at current levels. In 1931 when the harvest was smaller, the state requisitioned 41.5 per cent.[2] It’s not hard to see the downward spiral forming.

The country had already been on a rationing system for a couple of years to help feed people who did not live on the land. Industrialization, as the top priority of the government, required an urban population. Government provided workers with rations based on their perceived contributions to this priority. Secret police staff and ranking party members were on a special list and received the best rations. After that the system became complicated. Employed people received higher rations than their dependent children or the elderly. People who lived in major cities and in industrial regions also received higher rations. Industrial workers were favoured over “white collar” workers. Craftspeople and self-employed people sunk to the lower rungs on the ration ladder along with those employed in the “liberal professions.” Miners and people employed in metallurgical plants and steel mills received better rations than those employed in textile mills or in light industry. Teachers in industrial schools and institutes received better rations than those in “classic” institutions, and village school teachers received the least of all educators. You can imagine where this left Gerhard. People in the lowest categories were entitled to 100-200 grams of bread per day, which they may or may not have received.[3]

1921 famine4Ukrainian historian Stanislav Kulchytsky argues the way Stalin dealt with the Ukrainian countryside lifted the events out of the category of merely a tragic famine and into the realm of genocide. In the fall of 1932, on orders from Moscow, government troops came to villages requisitioning grain to meet Stalin’s unrealistic quotas. At gunpoint they took grain, even when peasants did not have enough for themselves. Those peasants who had no grain were deprived of other food stocks such as cattle and vegetables. Those who resisted were shot. Then a January 22nd, 1933 directive from Stalin and Molotov sealed off Ukrainian borders to prevent famished peasants from escaping.[4] Villages which failed to meet the quota were blacklisted, meaning they received nothing from the outside until they cleared the accounts with the state. A third of the villages in Ukraine and the Kuban, where the population was mostly Ukrainian, were put on a “black list” (chorna doshka) and then cordoned off from supplies and left to starve. This was essentially a collective death sentence for these villages. Settlers from Russia and Belarus were brought in to resettle these depopulated areas,[5] thus laying the groundwork for the war in eastern Ukraine today that has killed more than 10,000 people in the last three years.

GERHARD The land was fertile land and produced great crops even without fertilizer, but the Russians renounced that blessing. In 1933 they ate cats and dogs, and even their own children. The Plan had to be fulfilled, the seed had to be sown even though it was too late. Threshing was done in February and people froze their hands and feet.

 This is no story I’m telling you, it was 1933 and I was a teacher and they were required to give me bread.

 The starving people buried their dead in shallow graves and when a horse died people fought over the meat even though the horse was just skin and bone. This is what it is to be hungry.


On a teacher’s rations Gerhard was able to survive and also keep his sister from starving. Based on the captured German war documents of Nazi ethnologist Dr. Karl Stumpp, approximately 3-8 per cent of Mennonites in Ukraine and Crimea died in the Holodomor, while 6-18 per cent of non-Mennonite Germans living in the surrounding villages died of starvation. Mennonites again seemed to fare better than the rest of the population perhaps because they, like Gerhard’s father, protected their grain more effectively.


To get a sense of what Gerhard’s environment must have been like, the following Holodomor victims have documented their experiences.

Mykola Meleshko

Once, worn out and hungry, I fell asleep near some garbage pails. Then I heard someone say, in Russian, “Yes, that one is still alive.” I opened my eyes, and saw two men standing over me. At the curb stood the truck of corpses. I got up and left.[6]

I. Mariupilsky

In 1933 I was living in Mariupol. 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 !”[7]

1921 famine3

Graziosi, Andrea, Italian diplomat

Cases of cannibalism are recorded both in GPU reports and in Italian diplomatic bulletins from Kharkiv: “Every night the bodies of more than 250 people who have died from typhus or hunger are collected. Many of these bodies have had the liver removed, through a large slit in the abdomen. The police finally picked up some of these mysterious ‘amputators’ who confessed they were using the meat as filling for the meat pies that they were selling in the market.”[8]

Sviatoslav Karavansky:

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.”[9]

Tatiana Pawlichka

In 1932, I was 10 years old, and I remember well what happened in my native village in the Kyiv 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.[10]

Sergio Gradenigo was the Royal Consul of the Italian Consulate stationed in Kharkiv  in 1933 who tried to rationalize the horrors he witnessed daily:

What is incontrovertible here is that this famine was caused primarily by an artificially bad harvest aimed at “teaching the peasants a lesson” […]

There were three apparent motives for such a policy:

  1. Passive resistance among the peasantry to collectivization;
  2. Belief that this “ethnographic material” will never be suitable for turning into integral Communists;
  3. The more or less openly-acknowledged need and convenience of denationalizing raions [regions] where Ukrainian and German self-consciousness has been awakened and the resulting threats of potential political hardships in the future. In order to keep the empire together it is better for the Russian population to be dominant. […]

Conclusion: the current cataclysm will lead to the colonization of Ukraine primarily by Russians. This will change the country’s ethnographic nature. It is quite possible that, in the foreseeable future, nobody will talk about Ukraine or the Ukrainian nation, meaning that the country will be de facto transformed into a Russian region.[11]

Nicolas Werth, writing in The Black Book of Communism, leaves no doubt Holodomor was as it suggests – genocide.

There is a remarkable coincidence between the areas that mounted stiff resistance to requisitioning in 1918-1921 and to collectivization in 1929-30, and the zones that were worst affected by the famine. Of the 14,000 riots and peasant revolts recorded by the GPU in 1930, more than 85 per cent took place in regions “punished” by the famine of 1932-33. The richest and most dynamic agricultural regions, which had the most to offer the state and the most to lose in the extortionate system of enforced collectivization, were precisely the regions worst affected by the great famine of 1932-33.[12]


Holodomor memorial in Edmonton, Canada.

Today Ukraine struggles to maintain a semblance of independence from Russia, particularly in those areas hardest hit by the Holodomor which were re-populated by ethnic Russians. Canada and 15 other countries have recognized this famine as an act of genocide. In 1983 the first public monument to the Holodomor was erected outside Edmonton’s city hall, marking the 50th anniversary of the famine-genocide. Since then, the fourth Saturday in November has become the day to remember those who died in 1932-33 and those who have suffered political repression.[13]



[1] Holodomor is a compound of the Ukrainian words holod meaning “hunger” and mor meaning “plague”. The expression moryty holodom means “to inflict death by hunger”, https://holodomorinfo.com/glossery/bolshevik-atrocities/holodomor, accessed November 28, 2016

[2] Courtois, Stephane, Werth, Nicolas, Panne, Jean-Louis, Paczkowski, Andrzej, Bartosek, Karel, Margolin, Jean-Louis, The Black Book of Communism Crimes, Terror, Repression, translated by Jonathon Murphy and Mark Kramer, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, London, England, 1999, page 160.

[3] Werth, Nicolas, “Food Shortages, Hunger and Famines in the USSR, 1928-33,” East/West: Journal of Ukrainian Studies (ewjus.com) ISSN 2292-7956, Vol III, No. 2 (2016)

[4] Andriy J. Semotiuk (5 June 2008). “Evidence proves genocide occurred”. Kyiv Post. June 5, 2008, https://web.archive.org/web/20090219045553/http://www.kyivpost.com/opinion/op_ed/29075, accessed November 27, 2016.

[5] Kuryliw, Valentina, The Holodomor, 1932-1933, A Ukrainian Genocide http://www.faminegenocide.com/resources/hessay.htm accessed Nov 28/2016.

[6] Meleshko, Mykola, I Affirm, Memoirs of the Famine, http://faminegenocide.com/resources/resources.html#memoirs, accessed December 5, 2016.

[7] Mariupilsky, I., The Girl Who Begged for Bread, Pidhainy, S. O. ed. The Black Deeds of the Kremlin: A White Book. Vol I Book of Testimonies. Toronto: Ukrainian Association of Victims of Russian Communist Terror. 1953 p. 284, quoted in http://faminegenocide.com/resources/thegirl.html, accessed December 5, 2016.

[8] Graziosi, Andrea, “Lettres de Kharkov: La famine en Ukraine et dans le Caucase du Nord a travers les rapports des diplomates italiens, 1932-1934,” Cahiers du monde russe et sovietique 30 (1989), page79, quoted in The Black Book of Communism, p. 165

[9] Famine Testimony of Sviatoslav Karavansky, Congressional Testimony presented before the United States Ukraine Famine Commission in Washington D.C., October 8, 1986, quoted in http://faminegenocide.com/print/resources/testimony-karavansky.html, accessed November 28, 2016.

[10] Famine Testimony of Tatiana Pawlichka, Congressional Testimony presented before the United States Ukraine Famine Commission in Washington D.C., October 8, 1986, quoted in http://faminegenocide.com/print/resources/testimony-karavansky.html, accessed November 28, 2016.

[11] Lettere da Kharkov, La carestia in Ucraina e nel Caucaso del Nord nei rapporti dei diplomatici italiani, 1932-1933. A cura di Andrea Graziosi. – Torino, 1991, рp. 168-174. Translated from Italian into Ukrainian by M. Varvartsev, cited in http://faminegenocide.com/resources/hdocuments.htm#73, accessed October 26, 2017.

[12] Werth, Nicolas, Pt. 1 The State Against its People: Violence, Repression and Terror in the Soviet Union, Courtois, et. al., The Black Book of Communism, page 168.

[13] Bradley, Lara. “Ukraine’s ‘Forced Famine’ Officially Recognized.” The Sudbury Star. 3 January 1999. URL Accessed 12 October 2006, quoted in https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Holodomor, accessed December 2, 2016.


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