Starved mother lay dead while her baby sucked on empty breast | Voices of Holodomor witnesses

A villager signing a "grain procurement contractual agreement" for her family with the Soviet state in the village of Velyka Lepetykha. Such forced "contracts" served as justification to strip Ukrainian farmers of literally all the food they produced, leaving their families to starve. Source: Olena Tsipko Local History Museum of Velyka Lepetykha

A villager signing a "grain procurement contractual agreement" for her family with the Soviet state in the village of Velyka Lepetykha. Such forced "contracts" served as justification to strip Ukrainian farmers of literally all the food they produced, leaving their families to starve. Source: Olena Tsipko Local History Museum of Velyka Lepetykha 

History, Ukraine

Article by: Holodomor Museum
Edited by: A. N.

The floodplain of the Dnieper river is a unique natural complex with rich flora and fauna. Unfortunately, due to the construction of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Station dam, in the 1950s the majority of the Dnieper floodplains were flooded. Along with this, Ukraine lost not only the biological diversity, but also an important part of ancient Cossacks history, the locality of Velykyi Luh, which means a “great meadow” in Ukrainian. Much of Cossack economic and military activities was conducted in its floodplains. The natural landscape of the area consisted of vibrant floodplain meadows crisscrossed by small rivers and full of lakes rich in fish and wildlife.

Lepetykha was one of such small rivers and the Cossacks built zymivnyks on its shores. First permanent settlements appeared on the site of the former Cossack winter houses only in the late 18th century. The largest of them was the village of Velyka Lepetykha. Its name most likely comes from the name of the river. In the 19th century, agriculture was actively developing in these parts of southern Ukraine, which led to economic growth. The fact that that the largest annual fairs in the whole region were held in Velyka Lepetykha and attracted people from all over serve as evidence to its growing influence.

Despite the turbulent events of the early 20th century, Velyka Lepetykha remained one of the largest and richest villages in southern Ukraine with about 4,000 family homes.

The first significant blow to the region was the mass terror famine of 1921-1923 engineered by the Soviets.

“Many families were starving that year… [I remember] Myshko Droha, who often came to us asking for a crumb of bread, but his legs were swollen and there were worms in his wounds. Many died of starvation, both adults and children,” Olena Kutishcheva, who was born in 1913 in Velyka Lepetykha, said about the famine of the early 1920s (her testimony was recorded by Mykola Marchenko).

Olena Kutishcheva, born in 1913

A teenage photograph of Olena Kutishcheva (born in 1913)

Nevertheless, in the early 1920s during the period of NEP, residents of Velyka Lepetykha were able to rebuild their farms. Many of the farmers became successful and expanded their farms.

“My maternal grandfather was from Velyka Lepetykha. Their family name was Pavlovski. They were a large family. It seems they were very wealthy too, since when you go along the main street there is a big shop there. It belonged to them. Also, they had buildings in their garden. Three or four barns they rented to other people to store grain. They were that well off” – Hanna Babenko, a resident of Velyka Lepetykha, told the story of her family.

Dekulakization

However, very soon the communist totalitarian regime started the campaign of dekulakization.

There is information about the scale of dekulakization in the region in the diary of Makar Kryvtsun, who was an aktivist.

“In 1928 I came to Lepetykha and, as a member of the village council, I was appointed by the district committee [of the Communist Party] and the district soviet to the position responsible for destruction of the kulaks, nepmans, and speculators. I carried out this order with all my energy to the end as a representative of both the people’s court and the executor of the village council. Almost every day I brought in 10,000 rubles I got by selling the property of nepmans and speculators to the coffers of the district executive committee.” (Source: memoirs of Makar Kryvtsun).

Considering that the purchase contract of the dekulakized Lych family home stated it was sold for 250 rubles, this would indicate that sum of the 10,000 rubles that Kryvtsun brought to the Communist Party committee coffers every day was equivalent to the price of 40 houses!

The contract of purchase of the house of the dekulakized Pylyp Lych. Source Olena Tsipko History Museum of Velyka Lepetykha

The contract of purchase of the house confiscated from the dekulakized Pylyp Lych. Source Olena Tsipko History Museum of Velyka Lepetykha

A relic of these times in Velyka Lepetykha is the half-ruined building of the barn, which also once belonged to kulak Pylyp Lych. Even nowadays the size of the building is impressive. In 1941, during the German occupation, Pylyp Lych’s wife managed to regain the farm confiscated by the Bolsheviks, but, after the Soviets returned in 1944, the farmland was again taken by the kolkhoz and the house was transferred to a family named Lytvynenko.

In the early 1990s the problem of restitution to the descendants of kulaks and other “enemies of the people” was under consideration, but the family of Pylyp Lych did not get back the property of his ancestors. Some people did receive monetary compensation, but that quickly depreciated under the rampant inflation of the early 1990s. However, this process yielded at least one positive result: thousands of kulaks were exonerated and convictions in criminal cases against them were expunged.

The barn of the dekulakized Pylyp Lych. October 1, 2021

Ruins of the barn of the dekulakized Pylyp Lych. October 1, 2021

Dekulakization reached a large scale: dekulakized residents of Velyka Lepetykha and surrounding villages were moved about 30 km away from Velyka Lepetykha to an area with soil inappropriate for agriculture called Kairska Gulch.

“First dekulakized people were moved to Kairska Gulch. In this area, the layer of natural soil is only 8 to 10 centimeters (3-4 inches), and below it is stone [which makes it impossible to plow],” Mykola Marchenko, a local historian and the director of the Museum of Local History, says.

Kairska Gulch area. Source Wikipedia

Kairska Gulch area. Source: Wikipedia

Local witnesses of the genocide of Ukrainians also describe the dekulakization.

“They were resettled [to Kairska Gulch]… They weren’t allowed to build houses on the plain, so they made dugouts in the gulch. My mother took me there and I lived with them for a while. My grandfather had been resettled too. He was a blacksmith and the collective farm had continued asking him to do some work for them. Yes, they would give him something. Then [the Soviets] came back, ‘Are you still alive? You live here rather well…’ And then they exiled him,” recalls Tamara Konoshchuk, a survivor of the Holodomor now living in the village of Kniaze-Hryhorivka located near Velyka Lepetykha.

By evicting kulak families from their homes and confiscating all their property, the communist totalitarian regime left them almost no chance for survival, but even in such extremely adverse conditions, these industrious and resilient people managed to provide for themselves and their families.

The regime went further and then exiled the “kulaks” to Siberia. Such a fate befell Tamara Konoshchuk’s relatives.

“Two of my mother’s sisters were married to successful farmers — kulaks. And they were exiled to the [Russian Far] North. Aunt Shura, she had two children and on the wayin the cattle cars on the trainthey froze and died. When they died, their bodies were thrown out of the train… So, they were exiled and only returned after the war. Only Shura and Vera returned, the husbands were no more,” the woman said.

Grain procurement

Dekulakization was only the beginning of the suffering Ukrainians had to live through during the late 1920s and early 1930s. After the communist totalitarian regime repressed the people considered to be most active and dangerous, the searches began under the pretext of carrying out so-called grain procurement plans, which were in fact one of the mechanisms of genocide.

However, materials of the party purge carried out in the Velyka Lepetykha district in December 1932 show that some local officials were aware of the unrealistic nature of the grain procurement plan and refused to follow the instructions “from above.” Many of them paid for it with the loss of their positions, expulsion from the party, and even with the loss of their freedom.

For example, a communist party member Myna Maiboroda refused to head the collective farm and exploit his fellow villagers. He thought the grain procurement target was unrealistic and only 20% of the goal was attainable.

“By the resolution of the District Party Committee bureau, comrade Maiboroda was nominated as the head of the Ivan Franko collective farm, but he refused to accept the position on the grounds that the grain procurement plan provided to this collective farm was not realistic. Despite warnings from the party center reprimanding Maiboroda and demanding he accept the leadership of the collective farm, he did not comply. The district control committee expelled Maiboroda from the party for violating party discipline.” (State Archives of Kherson Region, fund 104, inventory 1, case 105, sheets 85-91).

Another striking example of punishment for humanity in the terrible times of genocide is the story of Petro Horyshyn, the commissioner for grain procurement on the kolkhoz named “Bolshevik.” The management of the collective farm employed tactics to survive during the Holodomor. They intentionally threshed the harvest poorly resulting in a lot of grain left in the waste (straw). The committee decided to thresh this straw again, but Petro Horyshyn delivered it to the kolkhoz members as if for fuel (and in fact, for eating). In addition, a lot of grain was left unguarded on the collective farm field under the snow: the party purge commission found a “hump of unthreshed millet and 25 baskets of millet not sifted,” which the collective farmers could “steal.” For such actions, allegedly “aimed at the collapse of the collective farm and disruption of the implementation of the grain procurement plan,” Petro Horyshyn was expelled from the party and brought to trial. (Source: State Archives of Kherson Region, fund 104, inventory 1, case 105, sheets 85-91).

At the same time, in the local party cell, there were many who carried out the unrealistic grain procurement plan “with Bolshevik zeal.” Often these people had no authority among the local population, were bad farmers, and even drunkards. For example, the commissioner for grain procurement at the local machine-tractor station, Vasyl Obukhov, successfully passed the party purge and continued to participate in the confiscation of grain and food despite having been “reprimanded by the party center for drinking,”. (Source: State Archives of Kherson Region, fund 104, inventory 1, case 105, sheets 85-91).

Tamara Konoshchuk, an eyewitness to these events, recalled how the searches took place in the village of Kniaze-Hryhorivka. The woman called all the members of the confiscation brigades by the word “the Soviets.”

“Soviets, God forbid. People always said, ‘Soviets, Soviets are coming!’ They are shouting and screaming. Oh, God forbid! It was like bedlam. And they come and take away whatever there is… Whatever they could find! Be it a pea or a bean — whatever. They took away everything. And they threw out what was cooked in the oven. They threw it out so we would not be able to eat it.”

Also, Tamara Konoshchuk remembers the confiscation of fish the locals caught in the Dnieper floodplain.

“Fishermen fished in the river with nets… They did catch fish, but then no one would let them take the fish home. Soviets took away everything. The fishermen had to hand over everything. And if you do try to take some home… Where would you hide a fish? In your shirt?”

After the majority of Ukrainian farmers were forced into collective farms, the regime received millions of free and defenseless laborers. People worked for the so-called “working days” credit tally (trudodens), for which almost no pay or food was subsequently issued.

“What did they pay…? [the interviewee laughs—Author]. They were tallying the trudodens with sticks. And these sticks… One stick meant one trudoden. Or one and a half trudoden. My mother joined the kolkhoz, and they had pigs there… The kolkhoz was breeding them. She took care of the pigs. She went there to pasture them. In short, she was a pig shepherdess. And we [children] stayed at home sitting near the gate and our mom was elsewhere. We would lie by the gate, waiting for our mother, [hoping] maybe she would bring something for us to eat… And we would fall asleep. She would come and we would be asleep in the yard,” Tamara Konoshchuk said about the “salary” in collective farms.

Tamara Konoshchuk, born in 1928

Tamara Konoshchuk, born in 1928

The justification for the food confiscation that the Soviet government used at first was a system of so-called “contract agreements” that individual farmers were forced to sign with the Soviet state and cooperative food procurement organizations. The contracts obligated the farmers to deliver a predetermined amount of grain to the state. These commitments had been enforced since the 1920s. However, the “norms” established in the contracts were unattainable so the farmers were deprived of literally all the grain and food they produced, leaving them to starve.

In 1933, this contractual system was replaced with compulsory “hard assignments.” This change formally abolished the last pretense of voluntary contractual relations between farmers and the communist state.

Signing of the contractual agreement in the village of Velyka Lepetykha. Source Olena Tsipko Village People’s Local Lore Museum of Velyka Lepetykha

A villager signing a “grain procurement contractual agreement” for her family with the Soviet state in the village of Velyka Lepetykha. Source: Olena Tsipko Local History Museum of Velyka Lepetykha

Mass mortality

Based on eyewitnesses’ accounts and historians’ research, we can confirm the mass deaths in Velyka Lepetykha and surrounding villages in 1932-1933.

“Swollen [from malnutrition] people walked in the streets and were laying on the ground. My mom went into the steppe [to search for grain stored by mice]. Mice, when there was grain in the fields, the mice would make holes where they’d store some grain. And people collected that grain and brought it home. And from it we would make some porridge. In our neighborhood, I know, there was a mother with a breastfed baby. There was no one beside the two of them in the house. Her husband was somewhere at work, probably. She could not work because of the baby. The baby sucked on her breast, but there was nothing there. The mother was starving and so was the baby. And she wanted to get out of the house, but she dropped dead in the hall and lay there, while the baby was still sucking on her breast,” Tamara Konoshchuk said.

Local historian Mykola Marchenko says that the death rate in Velyka Lepetykha reached one third of the total population of the village.

“How many people died? I calculated the statistics, I counted people from the testimonies, and about one third, one third of the people died. About one third.”

Exhausted by starvation Ukrainians could no longer properly bury their starving relatives, friends, and neighbors in accordance with traditional rites.

“Their daughter-in-law Sonia, married to one of the brothers, lived near the cemetery. She told me that there was no one to dig graves, all of the people were too weak… So one large pit was dug and all the dead were brought on wheelbarrows, wrapped in linens or in rags, because there were no coffins… there was nothing to make a coffin from… there was nothing even though the forest was here, but… And people did go to the forest… Into one large pit, no one knows how many bodies were thrown into it,” said Tamara Konoshchuk sharing her horrible memories.

One of the mass graves of the Holodomor victims is located on the outskirts of Velyka Lepetykha. After the restoration of Ukraine’s independence in 1991, the residents of the village honored the innocent victims of the Holodomor genocide.

“During the Holodomor, according to the people’s memories, people crawled to a chapel to die. In winter, the dead were piled near this chapel since there was no one to dig huge pits. In autumn and spring, large pits, like silos, were dug there. People either crawled themselves there to die, or their bodies were carried and piled here. There are testimonies, I don’t know what to make of them, that some of them were buried still alive. That is, people have not quite died, but they were already brought there,” – Mykola Marchenko tells.

Unmarked mass grave of the Holodomor victims in Velyka Lepetykha village

View near the mass grave of the Holodomor victims in Velyka Lepetykha village

Another place where the bodies of those killed by famine in 1932-1933 were carried is located on the territory of a modern park, which was recently named after the Holodomor victims. According to historian Mykola Marchenko, there was a cemetery on this site, which the local Soviet administration destroyed in the 1980s, and built a nature park there instead, named “Victory Park” [after the victory in WW2].

“They must have meant victory over the Holodomor victims,” the local historian jokes bitterly.

Nowadays, a cross and a monument are erected here. The local Church of St. Nicholas is located nearby.

Local historian Mykola Marchenko near the mass grave of the Holodomor victims in Velyka Lepetykha village

Local historian Mykola Marchenko near the memorial to Holodomor victims in Velyka Lepetykha village

In the neighboring village of Kniaze-Hryhorivka, the mass graves of the Holodomor genocide victims have not been maintained and no memorials have been erected. These graves are located within the territory of former cemeteries, which are now overgrown with grass and are used for cattle grazing.

Unmarked mass grave of the Holodomor genocide victims in Kniaze-Hryhorivka village

Unmarked mass grave of the Holodomor genocide victims in Kniaze-Hryhorivka village

Conclusion

In the ancient agricultural heartland of Tavria on the banks of the Dnieper where Velyka Lepetykha is located, the Holodomor genocide reaped its bloody harvest. Hundreds of people were dekulakized and exiled, and thousands of those who remained were starved to death. Neither the Dnieper floodplains, rich in fish and other resources, nor its fertile soils, nor even the attempts of individual communist party members to disobey orders from above could cancel or mitigate the criminal decisions from the highest level of the communist hierarchy, to exterminate Ukrainians. However, the memory of the Holodomor in the region still lives on in the memories of witnesses, in the monuments erected at mass graves of its victims, in buildings that have survived from the 1930s to the present day, and in the studies of local historians who restore the truth by researching in the archives.

The interviews with Mykola Marchenko, Tamara Konoshchuk, and Hanna Babenko were recorded by the staff of the Holodomor Museum during the expedition to the villages of Velyka Lepetykha and Kniaze-Hryhorivka of the Kakhovka district of the Kherson oblast within the project “Holodomor: Mosaics of History. Unknown Pages” supported by the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation.

Further Reading:

Edited by: A. N.

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