‘We went to a field. We had nothing to eat. Everything was taken from us. So my mother decided we would go to the field, find some half-frozen potatoes, some kind of vegetables, to make a soup. At that time the Soviet Union was teaching people to report on each other, to spy on each other. Somebody saw that we came with some vegetables, half-frozen, and they arrested my mother. That was the last time I saw her.”
So Eugenia Dallas, originally Eugenia Sakevych, began her story to me. Born in Ukraine around 1925 (she does not know her exact age), Eugenia lived through the Holodomor — genocide by famine — as a young girl. Shortly before her mother was taken, her father was sent to Siberia, deemed a criminal because he owned a few acres of land.
In 1932–33, Ukraine was brought to its knees. After years of mass arrests and deportations had failed to bring the Ukrainians into line, Stalin decided to crush this proud nation with a new weapon: food. Ukraine, once the breadbasket of Europe, was stripped of its grain. With its borders sealed and its citizens imprisoned, an estimated 4 to 14 million people starved to death as food rotted in silos or was sold abroad. Stalin wanted purity, and Ukraine’s nationalism threatened his perverse utopia.
“I would go to the store where the bread was; there were lines of no end, and people standing overnight waiting for a loaf of bread,” Eugenia told me of her time living in Kiev during the genocide. “One man came out of the store with a loaf of bread. As he was biting his bread, he dropped dead. He died immediately because bread on an empty stomach is like cement. And many, many people died. Nobody paid attention.”
This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Holodomor. In remembrance of this crime, the Center for U.S.-Ukrainian Relations (CUSUR) hosted an academic conference, “Taking Measure of the Holodomor,” to try to answer the most basic questions about the genocide. Why? Where? How? Who carried it out? Who suffered? How many suffered?
A surprisingly small amount is known for certain about an event with a death toll that rivals that of the Holocaust. I spoke with Walter Zaryckyj, the coordinator of the conference and executive director of CUSUR, and asked him why answers to such basic questions remain indefinite. In short, he said, the records are spotty and, for a long time, the world press was not interested in bringing the truth to light.
“The Bolsheviks were never as efficient as the Nazis, and therefore evidence of the scope and ultimate meaning of the atrocity committed upon the Ukrainian nation, in contrast to the terror unleashed upon the Jews in Europe, has been harder to cull and identify,” Professor Zaryckyj told me. “As a consequence, it has been difficult to provide simple and succinct responses concerning the Holodomor that would allow for the kind of full-throated condemnation that the Holocaust justly receives.” Fortunately, archives — notably, formerly classified KGB archives — are finally making their way to the West.
However, the historiography of the Holodomor must overcome not only the relative deficiency of records but also a past of denial and deception. The USSR began its propaganda campaign to convince the world there was no famine before the genocide even ended. As the Ukrainian people starved, the country’s grain was gathered and sold to the West, fueling the Soviet industrial machine. The word “famine” itself was banned from use in Ukraine Though reports of mass starvation leaked out, the West could not believe a food shortage would exist amidst such abundance. In those pre-Holocaust days, Westerners could not believe a regime would strategically murder its people. Journalists, such as the now-infamous Pulitzer Prize winner Walter Duranty of the New York Times, told the world, “There is no famine or actual starvation nor is there likely to be.” And, as one speaker at the conference put it, the West, “either deceiving or wanting to be deceived,” looked away.