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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Political nation and memory

Luhansk enthusiasts spend four years studying 170 Holodomor-affected villages
16 October, 2007 - 00:00
FROM THE SERIES IN MEMORY OF THE VICTIMS OF THE HOLODOMOR / Photo by Oleksandr KOSAREV

Despite the fact that the Holodomor of 1932-33 was duly recognized by Ukrainian legislators as a result of the parliamentary resolution adopted in November 2006, in the year that has passed since its adoption our society still has a detached attitude to the greatest tragedy ever suffered by the Ukrainian nation.

We know that under the Leninist-Stalinist Bolshevik regime the historical truth about its acts of terror and repressions against anyone were concealed or deliberately falsified, distorted, and simplified. Until recently, the truth about collectivization, dekulakization, and the Holodomors of the Ukrainian peasantry was hidden behind a wall of silence, concealment of documents, a fear campaign, and destruction of witnesses.

Under the Soviet regime this was natural. But attempts to diminish the scale and conceal the horrors of this genocide are still felt today, in independent Ukraine. As a result, our younger generation knows little or nothing about the causes, course, and consequences of the 1932-33 Holodomor, which was an act of physical and spiritual genocide against the Ukrainian people.

Unfortunately, to this day the Ukrainian government has not financed any systematic research on the Holodomor topic. According to Ivan Samiilenko, a Holodomor researcher, the main reason for blocking this research is that there are still ill-wishers in Ukraine who are waiting until there are no more Holodomor eyewitness left.

Historical memory is the hallmark of any civilized nation — above all in regard to national tragedies. It is precisely historical memory that is a guarantee of the formation of a political nation, the basis upon which a civil society can be built. Life shows that in Ukraine the problem of historical memory rests on the shoulders of civil organizations rather than state institutions. The fact remains that a handful of enthusiasts has worked hard to collect the accounts of eyewitnesses of the 1932-33 Holodomor, the main source of historical truth about this tragedy.

Collecting empirical data is the main task of the All-Ukrainian Association of Researchers of the Holodomors in Ukraine. A branch of this association was founded in Luhansk in 2003. Over the past four years its members have studied 170 villages in Luhansk oblast, whose residents suffered the most during the 1932-33 Holodomor. The eyewitness accounts were recorded on video and audio tapes. There is enough data for two books and a documentary on the subject, but the problem is lack of funds. In my opinion, this is nothing more than the attitude of the state to this glaring issue in our society.

I am convinced that, despite all this, it is necessary to keep collecting and publishing these materials in order to convey the truth to those whose task it will be to build a new Ukraine.

Here is an example of our younger generation’s awareness. Recently, I invited my pupils, students at one of Luhansk’s universities, to listen to a story about the horrors of the Holodomor in the villages of Slobidska Ukraine in the 1930s. I heard several vociferous objections: I was told that people have to live in the present and think about the future, not the past. One girl said that she knew everything about the Holodomor from what her teacher had told her (she said the woman was 60 years old). Another girl said she had learned about the Holodomor in Ukraine from Mikhail Sholokhov’s Virgin Soil Upturned. This was the “profound” knowledge of national history of university students majoring in the humanities, our future elite! What can we expect from other young people, who have a lower educational level?

Therefore, creating a database for future objective research in this sphere is the number-one objective of our civic organization.

When I was on vacation this year, I managed to visit four villages in five northern (agricultural) raions of Luhansk oblast, where I met and interviewed people who remembered the famine. Most of my respondents were children during the Holodomor, but I was fortunate enough to speak with people who were 100 years old, and one person who was 101. They allowed me to use my video camera as they shared their memories. There is much work to be done to transcribe these accounts.

Not so long ago, our association had to work along a totally different line. We received a letter from a Professor Vladimir Monakov, a lecturer at a Moscow institute. He said that his mother, Anna Yevgenievna Monakova, was born in 1925 in the village of Lytvynove (then part of Bilotusky; today, it is part of Novopskov raion, Luhansk oblast). She remembered her parents’ first names: Yevhen Platonovych and Uliana Makarivna, but was not sure about their surnames: Nelasenko, maybe Nelasov (her mother’s maiden name was Vasylynenko).

According to Monakov, his mother’s parents, brothers, and sisters starved to death in 1932. The family’s sole survivor, she was placed in an orphanage in the neighboring village of Novobila, where she studied until the Second World War. During the war the children were evacuated first to Saratov and then to Orenburg oblast (Russia); their documents were lost en route.

Anna Yevgenievna has lived in Russia ever since, and her son Vladimir asked us to help find archival documents that would shed light on his mother’s side of the family. I should point out that it is only natural for any civilized individual to know his family tree.

In Monakov’s case, his formal inquiry to the State Archives of Luhansk did not produce any results: they wrote back saying there was no archival data available. That was when our association stepped in.

The research is being done by my fellow member Nina Sychova, a retired historical archivist. She spent several months studying documents from the so-called “unique” collections, which contains birth registry books from Lytvynove and other villages in what was once Bilolutske gubernia (originally this territory was part of Kharkiv gubernia and later, Donetsk oblast; today it is part of Luhansk oblast).

Sychova’s findings established the first and last names of Anna Yevgenievna’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. The last name is Nelasy. As a philologist, I was interested in the etymology of this surname. We know that our forefathers gave names to their offspring, which corresponded to a certain trait. Borys Hrinchenko’s Dictionary of the Ukrainian Language (Kyiv, 1908-09) explains lasy as an adjective denoting a desire to achieve something; passion; greed, and gives the following examples: “Greedy as a cat for fatback,” “I’m not very fond of money,” etc.

The first and last names, and dates of birth, marriage, and death of some of Anna Nelasa’s closest relatives on her father and mother’s side were also ascertained, going back to the fifth generation. Besides Nelasy, the surnames Vasylynenko and Zaratuichenko also appear. Interestingly, the columns in their passports, indicating nationality and occupation, read, respectively, “Ukrainian” and “grain- grower” — as is the case with all their fellow villagers.

There is still difficult archival work to complete in order to establish the exact date of Anna Nelasa’s birth — her passport indicates only the year of birth (also questionable), but no day and month.

Many of the researchers were excited about this important and interesting task; they were unable to stop halfway and tried to complete it despite all obstacles. I decided to visit Volodymyr’s mother’s village, Lytvynove, to try to collect as much information about Anna Nelasa as possible. I set off after resolving the difficult of problem of transportation (I had to travel almost 500 km).

First I visited the district archives to try to find data on the orphanage where Anna had been institutionalized after her parents’ death, and about its evacuation. I was disappointed to learn that there was no data available; the staff said that their archives were mostly consulted by people trying to resolve their pension problems.

My next stop was the village of Novobila, not far from Lytvynove (Monakov wrote in his letter that his mother had studied in this village). The village council secretary had no good news for me. The local school principal, Andrii Bohachov, welcomed me to his home and assured me that I would never find any documents attesting to the existence of an orphanage any time before the war. His school was new, and none of his predecessors had left any information. Even elderly residents of the village didn’t know anything about any orphanage. Bohachov, who is also a historian, told me he is interested in the 1932-33 Holodomor and that he has been collecting local eyewitness accounts. He is especially interested in collecting data about his native village, which had a population of some 7,000 residents before 1932 and about 3,000 after 1933. He kindly agreed to be my guide.

Novobila is 15 km from Lytvynove. En route we stopped at Bohachov’s apiary. The summer landscape was wonderful: all around were forests, strawberries, and wildflowers. We passed what was left of a solidly built church (most likely demolished by the Soviets). I took some pictures, including some of the local landscapes peculiar to the southeastern part of Slobidska Ukraine.

When we arrived Lytvynove (it is still on the map of the oblast), we saw empty whitewashed village houses, many without their traditional thatched roofs, all overgrown with weeds. There was only one resident, a man living temporarily in an abandoned village house as though it were a dacha. He has an apiary and mows hay for his cattle. He told me that last year winds from Russia (Ukraine’s border on Kantemirov raion, Voronezh oblast, is right across the hills) swept in with a forest fire that destroyed the abandoned village homes, so now they looked even more miserable. Unfortunately, this sole resident of Lytvynove didn’t know anything about the people who had lived there before him; he was not a local. But he said that the last of the old-timers had moved to live with their children in Kozliv, a nearby village.

It was a 7-8 km ride to Kozliv. People in the village advised us to interview several elderly female residents, who had been born in Lytvynove and thus were potential informants.

The first woman we interviewed was born in 1925. Her name was Melania Trembach. Trembacheve is the name of another nearby village that was densely populated before the Holodomor of 1932-33; today it is practically a ghost town. Trembach recalled Anna Nelasa, who was her own age; they had attended the school in Lytvynove. She remembered that once there were too few people left in Lytvynove (most likely after the Holodomor) she and Anna attended the school in Kozliv. Anna had an aunt by the name of Dusia, and she lived with her parents at the end of the village, next to the graveyard. She lived with other families after she became an orphan. Finally, the old woman said that she doesn’t remember very much and told me to speak with her older fellow villager, Priska Kalmychenkova, who could tell me more.

Her name turned out to be Yefrosinia Fedotivna Bezkishkina. Born in 1916, this granny had an amazingly good memory and a sense of humor, even though she was over 90. She was living with her niece, who was taking good care of her. Her only affliction is impaired hearing, so when I asked my questions her relative relayed them by shouting them in her ears. Bezkishkina gave me a detailed account of Anna Nelasa and her family: her great-grandparents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, brothers, and sisters. She told me who had married whom and when, and said that after the girl became an orphan, she was first raised by her Aunt Serafyma, who later put her in an institution (the village’s nickname for the boarding school was “nursery”). She said the orphanage was located in Lytvynove and that the children continued to attend school in Kozliv. Anna was a clever girl, a good student; she wanted to have an education.

Her next statement didn’t tally with what we knew from the letter written by Anna Nelasa’s son. He had written that his mother, together with other orphans, had been evacuated to Saratov (Russia). The old woman whom I interviewed was convinced that the girl had left Lytvynove because she wanted a good education: “She packed her books and left, just like that.” Getting ahead of this story, I must note that Anna Yevgenievna had imagined the story about her evacuation, rooted as it was in her adult fears.

Both of the old women said that Anna’s father Yevhen had died in a mud-hut. From my rather considerable experience of collecting data from Holodomor eyewitnesses, I know that when the Soviets were organizing the collective farms, they divided the peasantry into bidniaky (poor peasants), seredniaky (middle peasants, of average means), kulaks, and pidkurkulnyky (subkulaks). The first two categories were comparatively lucky, as they were herded into collective farms without too many problems. Peasants in the third category (as a rule, capable, well-to-do farmers with large families, who worked their plots themselves and hired seasonal workers only in summer) were sent to the Solovky Islands. The subkulaks — intelligent, hard-working, and efficient farmers — were evicted from their homes and left with literally nothing. Unable to travel anywhere (no one had a passport, and in 1932 armed detachments were deployed to apprehend fleeing peasants and return them to their villages to starve to death), they had to build mud-huts some distance away from their villages in order to survive the winter.

When the Soviet-engineered famine began in 1932, these people walked around like shadows, staggering through the fields picking frozen potatoes and onions, and then dying. Anna Yevgenievna’s parents must have perished in this terrible manner. I arrived at this conclusion after both old women mentioned the word “mud-hut.” The stories I had heard in different villages in our oblast were too similar.

Here is an excerpt from Bezkishkina’s account:

“The Nelasy family was dekulakized and settled in a mud-hut, where they all died, the parents and four children. Anna was the only child that survived. I also remember how my granddad and grandma, my uncle and aunt starved to death here in the village.”

Why were people starving?

Bezkishkina : Because they [the Soviets] took away all the grain and shipped it abroad. But then collective farmers also started dying, along with the “individual farmers.” Then they were dekulakized...People lay dead in a row like sheaves. So many, many people died! At the time there were many houses in Lytvynove, and now there is nothing. “

* * *

The dead were not buried because the living had no strength for this. The same picture existed in neighboring villages and those farther away from Lytvynove.

My further correspondence with Vladimir Monakov has shed light on certain events in his mother’s life.

The history of Ukraine’s national tragedy in the 20th century is reflected in her life story.

Iryna Mahrytska heads the Luhansk branch of the Association of Researchers of the Holodomors in Ukraine.

By Iryna MAHRYTSKA

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