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The Ukrainian Holodomor thru the eyes of Oleksandra Radchenko and her diary

Volodymyr Viatrovych, National University “Kyiv-Mohyla Academy”, Center for Research on the Liberation Movement (

Translated by Toshu Trinity and friends.

Under Communist rule, Ukraine’s historical past is similar to other post-communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Unlike other former eastern block countries, totalitarian rule arrived in Ukraine much earlier – not following World War 2, but several decades earlier in the 1920s. The most horrible crimes of the communist regime – mass murders, deportations, Holodomor – were committed prior to World War 2. Ukraine became a “laboratory” for the communist regime: refining the methods of oppressing opponents and the tools of a totalitarian system, which were later used in other countries  “liberated” by the Red Army from Nazi occupation .

Every fourth Saturday in November, Ukrainians around the world light candles in memory of the millions who died during the Holodomor

After the fall of the Ukrainian National Republic in 1921, communist rule came to Ukraine as a result of the Bolshevik Red Army occupying most of the territory of Ukraine.  Among the communist  activists there were many Ukrainians, but the formation of the regime was possible only after the Bolshevik army conquered Ukraine with support from Moscow. Because of massive anti-communist resistance, numerous armed rebellions lasted until the end of the 1920’s.

In order to control the territory, communists had to compromise with the Ukrainian national movement. They began a policy of “Ukrainianization” – the Ukrainian language became official in government institutions, and Ukrainian theaters and universities were opened. These favorable conditions resulted in a renaissance of the Ukrainian culture giving rise to  a new generation of poets, writers, artists, and cinema and theater directors. A new economic policy, announced by the communists, allowed peasants to be land owners and upgrade their farms. Ten years following the communist take-over, a famine would engulf the countryside, and the reborn “intelligentsia” would become part of the “Executed Renaissance”.

The Bolsheviks understood that the cultural and economic concessions for the rebellious Ukrainians could only be temporary, and in the late 1920’s, after the final consolidation of Stalin’s rule, a major offensive was initiated against everything Ukrainian. This attack was called the “Soviet genocide of Ukrainians” by the world-renowned lawyer, and author of the term “genocide”, Raphael Lemkin . The genocide included repressions (i.e., executions and imprisonment) of the intelligentsia, and the liquidation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.  Furthermore, the genocide led to mass deaths of Ukrainian peasants – who constituted the main source of national identity. The artificial famine brought about during 1932-1933 took the lives of millions of people (estimates range from 4 to 7 million). This heinous crime became known as the Holodomor (from Ukrainian words holod (hunger) and mor (death) or “Death by Hunger” )which is not only a part of Ukrainian history, but world history as well.

During the early 1930’s, the collectivization of Ukrainian villages was over, and its residents were forcibly driven onto collective farms. As a result of this policy, the farmers and peasants became totally dependent on government subsidies. Using mass deportations and repression,  the communists were able to eliminate wealthy and independent landowners in the villages – the “kulaks”,  who could form the basis of a national movement. But even after this repressive period, local anti-soviet rebellions continued. To destroy the resistance movement definitively the government decided to punish uncooperative peasants with hunger and starvation.

First, the government established unreasonably high quotas of grain procurement. The anticipated failure was declared as sabotage and resistance to the government. After that, forced requisitions began, and special brigades were sent off to the villages. They confiscated all the grain that was found. The government violently punished anyone who tried to hide grain, which was declared government property.

Armed guard near a grain storage facility, village Vilshany of Kharkiv region

In August 1932, a special law was adopted that became known as  “The law of five ears of wheat”. Violators of this law were punished with imprisonment or even execution for so called “plundering of socialist property”. In reality it was an attempt to prevent people from keeping for themselves even enough grain for a meal, or to find scraps of grain after the crops were harvested. An alternative method for starving the  peasants was the establishment of so called “natural fines”: peasants who did not meet the expected quota of grain delivery had all their food confiscated. Responsibility for “sabotage” was also laid on whole villages, that were registered on so called “black lists”. Such villages were completely isolated from the outside world and deliveries of any goods or provisions were stopped. Ultimately, the entire territory of Ukraine became a “ghetto of hunger”, its borders were surrounded by an army, that did not allow hungry people to escape.

Deprived of any food and the possibility to leave the region impacted by the famine, millions of people died, including whole villages. The dead peasants were just buried in large pits near their villages, because there were too many dead to be buried in graves, one at a time. Sometimes even live people were buried, because those who gathered the bodies were so weak that they could not come back to the same place twice.

Site of a mass grave for those who starved during the Holodomor in the Kharkiv region. Photo is from the collection of Cardinal Theodor Innitzir

This tragic death of millions of Ukrainians, was hidden from the world. It was prohibited to talk about the famine in Ukraine. Censored newspapers wrote about the great successes of the Soviet government, and any news regarding the famine was interpreted as anti-government propaganda and was severely punished.

Some of the famine victims were certain that the famine was the result of criminal activity by  local authorities, and all they needed to do was inform the central government in order to stop these crimes. People wrote letters to Stalin, in order to “open their leader’s eyes” regarding the horror’s of the famine. The communist government listened to such letter writers attentively and then… arrested them.

Nevertheless, survivors of the  Holodomor tried to preserve their memories and pass them down to their descendants. Mykola Bokan from the Chernihiv region took photographs of his family in those horrible years.

(Photo-Bokan family, 300 days without any bread, April 2 1933)

Some time later, these photographs were used as evidence in the criminal case against him. As a result, he was convicted to 8 years of imprisonment. But Mykola Bokan never came back from the GULAG concentration camps and died in a distant foreign land.

Oleksandra Radchenko, teacher

Oleksandra Radchenko was a witness to the Holodomor, who worked as a teacher in the Kharkiv region at that time.

She was given a government food ration, and it helped her and her family to survive from starvation. However, the “ration” that she received from the state couldn’t isolate her from the surrounding terror. It was hard to be isolated, because as a teacher, she had to look into her student’s hungry eyes, and saw the number of her students decreasing constantly. She knew that any attempt to spread information about the situation in Ukraine, would result in her imprisonment, and death for her own children, who would be left to fend for themselves. Oleksandra Radchenko understood what risks she took by entrusting the truth of what she saw to her diary, and what awaited her in case her diary was discovered. But she could not refrain from writing in her diary:

 “Tuesday, April 5, 1932. Hunger, an artificial famine, is taking on a monstrous character. Why are they taking the last grain of bread….no one understands why, and they continue to take everything down to the last kernel, seeing full well what the results are. The children are tortured by starvation, and worms from eating raw beets, which will not last them through to the next harvest in four months. What will happen then??”

“Wednesday, April 6, 1932. Sometimes I am seized by uncontrollable anger and feel ill. I read about “soviet speed” (reported in the communist newspaper “Pravda”), about the opening of the first blast furnace in Europe, about the completion of the dam in “Dniprostroy” and much more. This is all good, but what good is this speed compared to the children and men, swollen due to hunger and starvation . The hunger begins to fly into a rage and brings with it all our troubles, anything that you can imagine. Crime develops with special speed… Thoughts about the swollen, starving children torture me and the rage is growing…”

a page from the diary of Oleksandra Radchenko

“Thursday, June 2, 1932. It’s difficult to survive and getting desperately harder. It is an unusual time, never before seen in history. Everyone is suffering because of malnutrition or starvation and a destitute existence  Moreover, the impersonality is terrible and depressing.”

“Sunday, November 20, 1932. The old man, who worked in the rabbit hutch, was “robbed by the authorities”, as he said. This means that everything like grain and vegetables were taken away from him. He has been dispossessed for two years, almost a beggar, except that he does not beg. He is 70 years old, his wife is 65 and their disabled daughter lives with them. And now, miserable, what little they had that could have lasted them until February, was taken away.”

 “Monday, January 9, 1933. The horrors of the hunger are spreading in Kharkiv. Children are being kidnapped and sausage made from human meat is being sold. Healthier adults are being tricked and kidnapped by individuals supposedly selling shoes. This was reported in newspapers, asking people to be calm, because measures are being taken… but children are still disappearing.”

 “Thursday, March 23, 1933. On this day I saw an incredible amount of human suffering. I returned home with burdensome impressions. On the way to the village of Zarozhne, in the field close to the road, we saw an old man, who was thin, clothes tattered, and without boots. Perhaps he fell down emaciated and exhausted, and then froze to death, or just died and fell….and someone took his boots. When we returned from the village we saw him again. No one needed him…”

“Departing from Baku, we caught up to a seven year old boy. My companion called out to him. However, the boy continued walking unsteadily, and it appeared that he did not hear us. When the horse caught up to him, I cried out, and the boy turned unwillingly away from the road. I was drawn to look into his face. The expression on his face made a horrible, terrible and unforgettable impression on me. Probably such an expression in the eyes occurs in people, when they know that they are approaching death. Yet, they don’t want to die. But this was a child! I couldn’t stand my nerves: “What for? Why children?” I cried silently, so that my companion would not see. The thought that I can’t do anything, that millions of children are dying because of hunger, the inevitable horror, led me to the despair…”

“Several days earlier a stableman came over– his face and arms were all swollen. He says that his legs are heavy, and he is ready to die. “It is a pity for the children – he says. – They don’t understand anything – they are not guilty.”

Oleksandra Radchenko and her three daughters, the youngest of which was born in 1931, survived the Holodomor. Luckily, they were not impacted by the wave of repressions of the Great Terror in 1937-1938. However, more misfortune was still to befall them.

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