Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 19, 2007
Ukrainian famine memories haunt local professor
Yar Slavutych watched his family starve, even holding his grandfather in his arms as he drew his last shuddering breath
- WCR photo by Ramon Gonzalez
"I wrapped my grandfather's body in a coarse cloth."
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
As a 15-year-old, Yar Slavutych witnessed the starvation death of many people in rural Ukraine, including his little sister, grandmother, grandfather and his neighbour Dovhal.
But it is the death of his grandfather that he remembers most vividly because the emaciated old man died in his arms, totally weakened by hunger.
"The last time I brought him some milk and a piece of bread he died in my arms," recalled Slavutych, 90, in a recent interview. "But before he died, he took an oath from me to survive and tell the whole world how the Soviets destroyed Ukraine."
Slavutych recalls burying his grandpa secretly in a forest.
"Since there were no boards for a coffin, I wrapped my grandfather's body in a coarse cloth." With difficulty, the lad managed to place his grandpa's body onto a broken sleigh and dragged his remains through the grass to a hole he had dug in the night.
Slavutych, a retired professor of Slavic languages at the University of Alberta and a prolific poet and author, is a survivor of the Ukrainian Famine of 1932-33 which claimed millions of lives at the hands of the Soviet rulers.
Slavutych began writing about the famine when he moved to the West after the Second World War, denying Soviet claims it was caused by drought. He was not allowed to return to Ukraine until it became independent. His 2003 book, Postscript to Posterity, contains one of his recollections of the famine.
The famine occurred when Soviet ruler Josef Stalin enforced a policy of land management called collectivization. This resulted in the seizure of all privately owned farmlands and livestock, in a country where 80 per cent of the people were traditional village farmers.
Farmers had to hand over all their grain and produce to the government that was supposed to distribute the food equally across the country. In reality, much of the hugely abundant wheat crop harvested by the Ukrainians that year was dumped on the foreign market to generate cash to aid Stalin's Five Year Plan for the modernization of the Soviet Union.
By mid-1932, nearly 75 per cent of the farms in the Ukraine had been forcibly collectivized. On Stalin's orders, mandatory quotas of foodstuffs to be shipped out to the Soviet Union were drastically increased in August, October and again in January 1933, until there was simply no food remaining to feed the people of Ukraine.
"Every handful of grain was collected. Death and stiff penalties were swiftly applied to violators," Bishop David Motiuk says in a pastoral letter to the clergy, religious and faithful of Edmonton Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy.
"A married couple was shot to death for unspecified pilfering. A father was shot to death for possession of 20 kilograms of wheat gathered by his 10-year-old daughter.
"A woman was sentenced to 10 years for cutting ears of corn from her own garden plot, two weeks after her own husband had died from starvation."
Slavutych knows all about that. "At the height of the Ukrainian Famine, farmers were dying of starvation en masse, senselessly wandering the fields in the hope of finding last year's grain or cob of corn or of digging out a frozen potato," he recalled.
"The harvested crop stolen from these same farmers by the Soviet government lay in great heaps, sweating and rotting under rain-covers."
He saw these stockpiles of grain with his own eyes at the Dolynska railroad station, the half-station Vysun and near the station of Kryvyyj Rih.
"There was so much of this grain, there were not enough freight cars to haul it all north. People were dying and their grain was rotting away in piles."
Crops were plentiful
By the end of 1933, seven to 10 million people had died from starvation.
"They died needlessly as the crop harvests were plentiful," Motiuk says in the pastoral letter. "The result is known today as the Ukrainian Famine or Holodomor in Ukraine."
On Nov. 22-24, the Ukrainian Eparchy will mark the 75th anniversary of the famine with a series of events featuring education, social outreach and prayer. Motiuk is urging the faithful to participate.
"Taking time to educate ourselves about the famine will help us to understand more of our own personal history as a people, as well as to take positive steps to ensure that history never repeats itself," the bishop said.
The Ukrainian Catholic Bishops of Canada have proclaimed November 2007 to be a month of mourning and commemoration of the Holodomor.
In a pastoral letter, the bishops ask the faithful to respond to the tragedy with fervent prayer, helpful information and good deeds. Parishes are urged to celebrate a memorial Divine Liturgy for those who died in the famine.
The bishops also calling on the faithful to pray for those who continue to be traumatized by the famine to this day and to "find it in our hearts to forgive those who played any role, whatsoever, in this tragedy."
Slavutych was 14 when he and his father were arrested and put on a train to Siberia for resisting Soviet plans. But the young boy escaped by jumping off the train near the Russian border. It took him a month to make his way back home, only to find his family farm in total ruin.
Worked at state farm
His mother and his sisters made their way to a nearby village where she worked at the miners' dormitories. She survived on some food rations for herself and the children.
"Most of my family was saved in this way, (but) three did not survive," Slavutych recounted. "Grandmother died in January and grandfather lived until May. My youngest sister Halochka passed away at six months because it was impossible to get her any milk."
Slavutych couldn't stay with his mother and five sisters because the authorities wanted him, so he went to work at a state farm nearby.
"From there I could visit Grandfather, bringing him a slice of bread and, occasionally, a little bag of millet, a couple of potatoes and a bit of salt for soup."
His grandpa lived near the family's ravaged farmstead in an earthen hut, sometimes in the roofless ruins of the house itself.
"Visiting him in March, April and May, I often came across corpses on the road," Slavutych recalled. "Dead bodies were removed very infrequently. Their stench permeated the whole area."
One time, a tall, ravaged man started to run after the young Slavutych. "He fell just before he reached me, gasping his last breath." Slavutych approached and recognized his farmer neighbour Dovhal. "Of his family, only the eldest son survived for he was serving in the Red Army at the time."
In Postscript to Posterity, Slavutych mentions several cases of cannibalism, including the case of a woman who, crazed with hunger in the famine, slew her daughter, cooked the human flesh, ate it and then shared it with others.