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In Ukraine, Holodomor's Terrors Remain Fresh In The Minds Of Survivors

  • Yulia Ratsybarska
  • Iryna Shtogrin

KYIV, DNIPROPETROVSK, Ukraine -- Sitting up straight in a freshly pressed white shirt, Pavlo Rozhko beams with delight as he sings a Ukrainian folk song to the accompaniment of a traditional stringed instrument known as a bandura.

Rozhko, who at 91 still participates in a choir, says he has loved singing ever since his childhood on a bustling family farm in the village of Piski in southeastern Ukraine.

"My father and mother were cheerful people," he says. "They were sewing, spinning. We had our own sheep and lambs. We kept the lambs inside the house. There were a lot of us. We were dancing, singing, shouting. Nobody yelled at us about anything. Everyone was growing up healthy and happy, until the collectivization."

Rozhko was 11 when a massive famine hit Soviet Ukraine, as Josef Stalin pushed forward with radical agricultural reforms that stripped millions of peasant families of their land and crops.

By the time the 1932-33 famine ended, at least 3 million and as many as 10 million Ukrainians and Cossacks had died, and the Soviet Union's most fertile land had been overtaken by massive, Kremlin-run collective farms.

WATCH: Pavlo Rozhko -- 'Commissars Took The Rest Of The Wheat

The Holodomor, as the famine is now known, was never officially acknowledged by Soviet authorities, who said crop failure was to blame for any random accounts of starvation.

But as Ukraine has been preparing to mark the 80th anniversary of the Holodomor on November 23, the few remaining survivors remember the famine as deliberate, sweeping, and filled with terror.

Food Left To Rot

Maria Simak grew up in Spaske, a prosperous Cossack farming village where nearly all the villagers owned land and a team of horses. But in 1932, Soviet officials entered the town, seizing livestock, vegetables, and grains that they went on to sell for profit abroad, or left to rot in silos.

Simak credits her mother, a talented dressmaker, with keeping her and her brother alive by taking in orders from the local Communist Party elite. But even so, the family was forced to scavenge for edible plants in order to keep from starving.

"I know that we would eat weeds and crushed straw," she says. "We would boil it and our mother would form them into patties that we called 'matorzhenyki.' There was no flour. We dried herbs and plants and pounded them in a mortar, and then Mama would make these matorzhenyki."

People foraged in creek beds for mussels, boiled bark stripped from trees, and hunted snakes and ground squirrels. Mykola Mykolaenko, a 93-year-old Dnipropetrovsk poet and playwright who has written extensively about the Holodomor, said he would furtively collect discarded fish heads from a cafeteria for factory managers and smuggle them home to his mother to boil into a weak soup.

Such nighttime outings terrified his mother as rumors of cannibalism spread. Mykolaenko, who grew up in the village of Maryanivka, never saw actual evidence of people killing each other for food. But his mother warned him of the danger every time he went out, and he said paranoia in the starving village was rampant.

"It began even before 1933," he said. "One day, someone would go to a neighbor to ask for salt...and the next day they'd already be saying that someone in that family ate somebody else, that they killed a younger child in order to feed the older ones."

Help Rebuffed

Official accounts of the famine were banned from the local media. But unofficially the news traveled quickly to fellow Ukrainians further west, in what was then Poland.

Maria Vivcharyk, who was 8 years old at the start of the famine, grew up in Kryvenke, a village on the west bank of the Zbruch River which then divided Ukraine between the Polish-controlled west and the Soviet east.

Vivcharyk, who now lives in Smila, a town in central Ukraine, says her family helped rescue starving people who crossed the Zbruch to flee the Soviet side at the height of the famine. Many people drowned, too weak to fight the river's strong undercurrents. But those who survived would receive dry clothes and food from Vivcharyk and her grandmother.

The villagers also gathered food to send back to Ukrainians still suffering back east. But Vivcharyk says they were rebuffed.

"Some people gave one kilogram, some people gave two," she says. "Some donated wheat, others corn or rye, depending on what people had the most of. We gathered all this to send to the 'big' [Soviet] Ukraine. But the Bolsheviks would refuse to take it, they would say: 'We have no famine at all.' Can you imagine? How we cried."

WATCH: Maria Vivcharyk -- 'To Save Their Lives, They Came To Western Ukraine'

For many survivors, there's a bitter irony to the fact that the part of Ukraine that suffered the worst abuses at the hands of Soviet planners became a Russian-speaking, communist stronghold in the years that followed.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych grew up in eastern Donetsk Oblast, one of the region's worst-affected by the famine. But he has angered many Ukrainians with his impassive stance on the issue.

Shortly after his election in 2010, Yanukovych publicly rejected a Ukrainian law classifying the Holodomor as genocide. The law had been a hallmark achievement of his pro-Western predecessor, Viktor Yushchenko, who argued that the famine had been a willful campaign by Kremlin authorities against the Ukrainian peasant class.

Little Awareness

Yanukovych, echoing Russian sentiment, has argued that the Holodomor, while tragic, affected many Soviet peoples and cannot therefore be called genocide.

He has since attempted to mollify the Ukrainian public by creating an official Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Holodomor, marked on the fourth Saturday of every November. This year's commemoration will include a gathering of international Holodomor scholars in the capital Kyiv, possibly signaling a presidential willingness to keep famine politics on the agenda.

But Hryhorij Simak, Maria's husband and himself a Holodomor survivor, says politicians and the press have done a poor job of keeping the Holodomor alive in the public memory, particularly in the east, where the couple, now in their 90s, have lived their entire lives.

"In this region, the level of awareness of the Holodomor is absolutely low," he says. "This extends to the press, and it's probably because of party pressure...newspapers are influenced by the current party ideology of Viktor Yankukovych's Party of Regions."

WATCH: Pavlo Rozhko -- 'People Were Swelling From Hunger'

The Holodomor looks set to live on as a hot-button issue for Ukrainian politicians. But some Ukrainians worry that the famine's emotional impact may be lost in the fray. With its living survivors all in their 80s and 90s, there are already few voices left to attest to the brutal human cost of the Holodomor.

For Rozhko, it cost him the two most important men in his life. First, an older brother, who died after being stripped and held outside in freezing weather for refusing to hand over the family's remaining wheat. Then, his father, who died of starvation months later.

"He told my mother to take care of the children, because he wasn't going to make it," Rozhko says, running a hand through his snowy white hair. "My hair turned grey immediately after that, even though I was 11. But the words of my father gave me strength. I could hardly drag my legs, but I began to walk everywhere. I would walk for 60 kilometers, just to find something for us to eat."


Written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar and Claire Bigg based on reporting by Iryna Shtogrin in Kyiv and Yulia Ratsybarska in Dnipropetrovsk
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