“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
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 Siberia.
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 realizing 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 were 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 property.”
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 their death.
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 was first Printed in “Pravda” (Truth) XII No 30, July 30, 1933, and is quoted here from Bishop Ivan Buchko, ed., “First Victims of Communism: White Book on the Religious Persecution in Ukraine.” Rome, 1953. 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 yoke.
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 concur.
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, divine assistance.
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