A cross in memory of victims of the 1932-33 Holodomor was recently unveiled and consecrated on Remembrance Sunday in the village of Myrivka, Kaharlyk district, in Kyiv oblast. One-third of all the villagers (257 people, including 107 children) died in those evil times. (Data collected as of April 1, 2007.)
This is an unprecedented event because the monument was erected on the initiative of the 32-year-old Kyivan activist Oleh Pluhatarenko whose great-grandfather starved to death in 1933; his maternal grandmother also came from this village. “My late grandmother Paraska Baliasna told me that in 1932 she saved the life of my mother Odarka Rohoza by pulling her on a sled all the way to Kyiv — that’s more than 70 kilometers,” he told The Day. “She wanted to go back for her own father, but she got sick. Instead, she sent some food. After she recovered, she went to see his grave and found out that he never received her parcel, a common occurrence at the time. So I wanted to honor all those who never received any parcels, and there were quite a few villagers.”
Oleh paid for almost everything: the sandstone, the sculptor’s fee, and other things. His friends also helped him: Adam Sauer from Poland, Tim Boese from Germany, and Roberto Privitera from Italy. All of them attended the unveiling. The transportation and installation expenses were borne by the Myrivka village council.
The cross stands at the entrance to the new cemetery, right in front of the old graveyard where villagers who had starved to death during the famine were buried. There are only a few name plates, and the rest of the cemetery is filled with nameless mass graves.
The center of the traditional Cossack cross features a millstone that has a passing resemblance to the sun, as well as a broken ear of grain, and the horrifying number 1933. “This millstone is a multidimensional symbol,” says the head of the project, Mykola Malyshko, who also sculpted the tombstones on the graves of Ivan Honchar and Vasyl Stus. “I know its significance during the famine, as well as that of the ears that I used to pick surreptitiously on the collective farm field when I was a child. I was born and raised in the village of Znamenka, Novomoskovsk district, in Dnipropetrovsk oblast, where thousands of people, including my two brothers, died in those terrible years. This theme is consonant with my feelings.”
People, especially the elderly, carry Easter breads and eggs, sweets, and candles, items that are usually placed on the graves of family members and friends, to the symbolic grave. Their dreams and hopes are buried here. An old woman is taking sweets out of her pocket, one by one, and carefully laying them out. Eighty-year-old Dunia Savchenko lost her father, mother, brother, and sister in the Holodomor. “My father Yakiv Salii died on April 5 and my mother Maria died the next day,” she says. “They left behind three children: I was eight years old, my brother Mark was five, and my sister Olia was three. They also died very soon. There was nothing to eat, not even a blade of grass. As soon as weeds cropped up, they would be instantly eaten. There were no dogs or cats around — they had all been eaten. There were bloated bodies lying about. Although I was only a child, I will forever remember the story of my fellow villager Fedko Vakulenko. He was going to bury a woman, when another woman came to him, knelt down, and implored him to put her little boy into the same pit. So he put both of them in and barely covered them up with soil — everybody was very weak in those days.”
I shuddered when I heard this. Granny Dunia (that’s what she tells people to call her) suggests going to the old cemetery, where her family is buried. “Look out, these humps are mass graves,” she warns. I jerk back and stand still for a minute, looking at the mounds covered with periwinkle. “There was a huge pit here, where all the dead were brought,” she goes on. “A man named Dementii would go around picking up corpses and bring them here; for his work the Soviets rewarded him with half a kilo of bran. Once a woman begged him: ‘Dementii, don’t take me, I’m not dead yet.’ ‘You’ll die before evening, so why should I come back for you again?’ He loaded her on his wagon and continued on his way.”
The old woman remembers every detail. She still sees images of those horrors. “That ‘red broom’ swept everything away from the people. When my parents were still alive, father hid two buckets of millet in the well, but they still found his stash and took it away. Mother told us, children, to sit on some small bags filled with beans, but they ransacked everything and took the beans.”
We arrived. Here, beneath a modest stone cross, her father rests next to the grave of her mother and sister. The woman placed the Easter breads and sweets on the graves, leaned on her father’s cross and whispered something quietly. Bidding me farewell, she held me tightly by the hand and said, “Daughter, you should always have an extra supply of groats, flour, and sugar. Do you?”
This was a demonstration of love, a warning. This woman will live in fear of famine until the end of her life. This fear exists on a subconscious and instinctive level, rather than a rational and conscious one. Clearly, the generation that lived through those evil years will never be free of this fear.
Often, this fear is passed to the members of the next generation that has lived in the same villages with theirs fathers and grandfathers. This was recognized by James Mace, the distinguished American academic, who researched the Ukrainian Holodomor and became a great Ukrainian. Mace was the first to clearly define our society as post-genocidal.
Psychologists use the term “archetypes,” deep-rooted symbols that relate to both everyday human life and national existence, such as fire, earth, sun, and water. Today another archetype is famine. The horror of Ukrainian history is that the Holodomor has also become such an archetype because it is deeply imprinted in our subconsciousness.
When you hear Holodomor eyewitness accounts, you can see that you are crossing the threshold of pain. Below are a few recollections of those tragic days.
Maria MAZEPA , 83:
“I was 11 years old in those days, and I remember everything perfectly. Those people in the Verkhovna Rada should not talk about crop failure! There was a good crop of potatoes, carrots, beets, and wheat. But the Reds robbed us of everything. My mother would hide millet on the oven: she would cover it with a blanket and the children would lie on top. And what do you think? They came into our house, dragged us down, and walked off with that millet. I wonder why they left the cow alone. We managed to survive thanks to the cow.
“A woman lived nearby. The villagers called her Tabulchykha. She ate her husband and children. She and her elder son cut them up one by one and cooked them. Then a Soviet court sentenced her to a 10-year term. Word has it that she returned to another village after serving the sentence. It was like that: first they reduced people to cannibals and then convicted them. Poor things! Those people were no longer part of this world; they were ghosts.”
Maria SOKUR, 80:
“In the 1930s my father was deported to Siberia and shot. Why? Because he and his brother had six hectares of land, a cow, horse, and an apiary. In other words, he was a real farmer. But did that Red rabble know what it meant to be a real farmer? So they threw my mother and her two daughters out of our house, and we lived with some good people, literally clinging to them. In order to feed her children, mother used to walk every day to Vasylkiv, 40 kilometers away. She would go off, help somebody, earn a penny or two, and buy something to eat. People mostly ate weeds, lamb’s-quarters, frozen potatoes, and they were bloated with hunger. In 1937 we regained part of our vegetable garden. Somehow we managed to build a small wooden house. I remember lying down, bloated, and my sister hitting me so that I would get up and do some work in the garden. I still wonder how I survived.”
Hanna SIABRO, 81:
“My parents, brothers, and sisters survived, but my aunt died. So did our neighbors. Mother would go to the collective farm field on her bloated legs to weed beets. For this she was given a thin gruel made of flour and water. She never ate it, but took it home for us. I also went to the collective field to pick beet waste. I would gather a bucketful and get a piece of bread for this. I did not eat it but brought it to my younger brothers and sisters.
“After some time, the potatoes and rye began to ripen. We began to grind, thresh, and boil rye ears, and that’s how we survived. Otherwise, we would have died.”
After the cross was blessed, the names of all 257 people from the village of Myrivka who starved to death in the Holodomor were read out. This is not a final figure. After this sad list was read out, many people went to the village council to give the names of their relatives and acquaintances who had starved to death. “I was utterly stunned to see an elderly woman asking that the names of her dead relatives be added,” says political scientist Tim Boese from Germany. “She seemed to be speaking about this for the first time in public. On the one hand, this shows that memories are still fresh and, on the other, the ghost of this tragedy has not yet been laid to rest.”
The Day also asked Oleh’s other two friends, who had paid their own way to attend this uncommon event, to share their impressions. “I am moved,” says Polish lawyer Adam Sauer. “Undoubtedly, it is very important to support national memory at the governmental level. After all, the Ukrainian Holodomor is a global issue, and the UN should recognize it as an act of genocide. But in my view, supporting national memory ‘from below,’ so to speak, in the small village of Myrivka, is by far the most important factor because the initiative is coming from the people who live there. This means they are not indifferent.”
“When we, Oleh’s friends, found out about his plans, we decided to make our own modest contribution,” adds lawyer Roberto Privitera from Italy. “The truth is I first heard about the Ukrainian famine in the 1990s, when I was at the lyceum (Roberto is half- Polish and graduated from a lyceum in Poland — Ed.). I think the fact that Oleh, who is a typical representative of the Ukrainian middle class, spent a certain amount (not so small) on the monument and devoted himself to this important common cause, is a noticeable touch to the portrait of Ukrainian society, even though people, like Pluhatarenko, are an exception.”
Pluhatarenko rallied his foreign friends and the residents of Myrivka to his initiative. Someone like him can serve as a role model for the younger generation, because we will not always be a post- genocidal society.
The Day asked Pluhatarenko what else Ukrainians should do about the history of the Holodomor. “In reality, the damage that the Holodomor inflicted is still being felt,” he muses, “and has affected us both on the quantitative and qualitative levels. The most terrible thing is that the Stalinist system implanted a virus of fear into Ukrainians, especially fear of resistance. Naturally, we are recovering slowly but steadily. So the Ukrainian famine, its causes and effects, should be the subject of a frank and fearless debate so that we can eradicate the viruses of lying and wrongdoing. To a certain extent we are still living in a ‘stolen history.’ This will inspire an unquenchable thirst for justice, especially in young people.”