Ukraine’s Genocide by Famine

by Alec Torres
Eighty years later, there’s no denying the Soviet atrocity.

‘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.

Later attempts to bring the Holodomor to public attention were denounced by the Soviets as lies and, at times, even denied coverage by Western media outlets. As Peter Paluch reported in National Review (“Spiking the Ukrainian Famine, Again,” April 11, 1986), Time and PBS, among others, refused to cover a critically acclaimed documentary on the genocide, Harvest of Despair. Though some European papers reported on the Holodomor, “the American media were damningly silent,” Paluch wrote, “both about the genocide and about Soviet manipulation of the foreign press.” (Because of the lack of coverage, William F. Buckley Jr. hosted a special session of Firing Line on which he showed the documentary in full.)

Though the most basic questions haven’t been definitively answered, the legacy of the Holodomor lives on. “We always heard about the genocide; now we understand that with the genocide we had an additional component called ‘ethnic cleansing,’” Zaryckyj told me in reference to the Soviet efforts to Russify Ukraine through reeducation, deportation, and immigration. “The long-term cultural and political consequences are to break the back of the Ukrainian nation in eastern Ukraine.”

Caught between East and West, Ukraine today is faced with the same choice as the other nations that were in the Soviet bloc. Will it be pulled back into Russia’s orbit or join the world of the democratic West? “Right after the famine, we discovered that the population of non-Ukrainians in Ukraine went from 7 or 9 percent to 21 or 22 percent,” Zaryckyj said. These non-Ukrainians, along with the Russified Ukrainians, “continue to vote, or did until recently, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

Putin’s Russia has made little effort to hide its imperialistic ambitions, expanding its influence in Georgia, Syria, and beyond. Ukraine’s choice — whether to turn back to Russia or integrate into the West — will undoubtedly influence power dynamics throughout Eastern Europe and potentially greater Eurasia.

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“We’re running against a time limit,” Zaryckyj told me. “This is the 80th anniversary, so even the youngest — the eight-year-olds and seven-year-olds who saw it and lived — are now 87 or 88. So there is a definite urgency to get the story out as quickly as possible.”

The event ended with a reception remembering those who died in the Holodomor and honoring those who survived. Students from the Ukrainian Student Association of America read the testimonies of several survivors, five of whom were in attendance and were publicly recognized, as well as the names of all those who perished in a very small, unnamed village. As the room sat in silence, the reading continued for over ten minutes.

Speaking with Eugenia, I asked her what it’s like to look back on the Holodomor as one of the last survivors and whether she can ever forgive the Russians for their crimes. At the mention of the Russians, Eugenia spoke more quickly, her brow suddenly furrowed. “They destroyed my life, they destroyed my family, they destroyed my country. My family was a good example of what they did with Ukraine. They’re bandits, I call them. And not one brought to justice. Look at the Germans; all were brought to justice. But for Ukraine, nobody.”

Outside of this brief moment, Eugenia was nonetheless upbeat.

She expressed great pride in Ukraine and told me that she thinks she lived in order to bring its message to the world. She is a public speaker on the Holodomor, has written an autobiography titled One Woman, Five Lives, Five Countries with a complementary documentary, and hopes to produce a film soon.

After her mother’s arrest, Eugenia was initially sent from Ukraine to a Nazi work camp and eventually fled to Italy; she has now settled in Los Angeles. “I am very happy that I came to the United States,” she told me. “Freedom for me is a joy. It’s a blessing. We have problems here, but they’re minor. People still live well. They’re free mentally. In Ukraine, they lived in open prisons under the Soviets.”

As other guests shuffled around us, anxious to speak with Eugenia themselves and hear her story in person, she pulled out a copy of her book and read to me one of her poems, called “My Childhood.”

Why was my life spared? . . .
Ukraine by evil force was occupied.
Million souls were crucified,
The rest conveniently Russified.

My parents were arrested,
Their identity stripped.
Why was their destiny so cruel?
Today I ask for what reason were they punished?

— Alec Torres is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.