May 20th 2013

The famine of 1933 that “never happened”

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

None of us can say for certain how starvation might affect our behavior but I’m guessing that slow death by hunger is one of the most degrading ways to exit this life. To make matters worse, in large-scale famines cannibalism is often the desperate act of the last survivors.

The Ukrainians, who lost more than 4 million people in Stalin’s famine of 1932-1933, have a chilling word for their people’s fate, holodomor – literally, killing by starvation. In Ukraine, the cannibals hunted down the weak and devoured what flesh they could find before finally expiring themselves.

The Soviet Union suppressed any mention of the man-made famine until Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost policies led to the free study and publication of works on the tragedy. With Gorbachev, it was personal. He was born in 1931 and grew up hearing of the horror that killed so many, including his own uncle and two sisters. For more than 50 years the official line was that the famine never happened.

Rutgers University political science professor Alexander J. Motyl, co-editor of the Holodomor Reader, published last year, developed a special interest in these events. The Reader is the first sourcebook in English of the cataclysm, and provides a goldmine of eyewitness accounts, press reports and government decrees from the period.

“Resistance to collectivization and grain-procurement policies was especially strong in Ukraine and the Kuban, “ the Reader notes. “The famine thus served as punishment of a recalcitrant, individualistic peasantry that resisted Stalin’s collectivist vision of agriculture.”

Motyl, also a poet, a painter and a polyglot, was so moved by the documentation that he sought a way to dramatize, humanize and memorialize the famine for a non-academic public.

“There are only a handful of literary works on the famine, and they are all in Ukrainian,” he told me in an email. “It just struck me that a novel was called for.”

The result is his seventh novel, Sweet Snow (Cerven Barva Press, $18), a graphic account of the wreckage left behind after the extermination of those who opposed collectivization. Their grain and livestock were confiscated by the Soviet state and any resistance was dealt with summarily. Millions were left to starve to death in their isolated rural villages.

Motyl has found a clever device to bring out the ghastly horror of the result, now officially labeled genocide by the Ukrainian parliament. He creates a four-man cast of contrasting nationalities, all political prisoners, who are accidentally set free in mid-famine when their Black Maria police van overturns. An American communist journalist, a Pole, a German aristocrat and a Ukrainian nationalist, climb out of the upturned van bruised but not broken, and their macabre adventure begins.

This volatile foursome slogs through deep snowdrifts in the winter of 1933 stumbling over corpses and dodging cannibals in Ukrainian ghost towns. Motyl, who grew up in New York in the Lower East Side Ukrainian ghetto, spares us no detail. The four men, he writes with clinical detachment, encounter the body of a teen-aged girl frozen under the ice of a river. “Only the tip of her nose, which extended above the ice, had begun to rot, creating an unsettling effect that reminded the count of a painting by Kirchner or Dix.” 

Later, they enter an abandoned hut and discover “two corpses entangled in a macabre embrace. They appeared to be a mother and her child.”

In a neighboring hut, things got worse: “The corpses were all in various stages of decay. The ivory colored eye sockets and nasal cavities stood out against the ebony skin drawn tightly against the skulls. Brownish bones protruded from the tips of the fingers.”

Interspersed among these disturbing descriptions, Motyl’s characters bicker, squabble and argue their contrasting political beliefs. I was reminded of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle in which GULAG intellectuals keep their spirits up by constant argumentation.

The American in Sweet Snow, nostalgic for New York Yankees baseball, his favorite delicatessen and Tenth Street steam baths, explains to the German aristocrat why he became a communist: “Yes, obviously I found the ideal attractive … a beacon of hope for the working people of the world… May I be honest with you? I wanted to stop being a Jew. It is that simple. I was tired of this impossible race. I wanted to be nobody, anybody – anybody but a Jew. And communism promised me an answer to this infernal Jewish question. It let me be a Bolshevik. … You cannot imagine the freedom!”

The once-elegant German, described as a man with a pianist’s fingers and neatly pedicured toes, responds with a story about his countrymen between the wars. “They tried to forget Goethe, Lessing, Beethoven, Wagner and Heine.

And they failed, inevitably and necessarily. And when the little man (Adolf Hitler) promised them salvation, they flocked to him – like sheep.”

Elsewhere, the German goes after the American, whom Motyl had earlier characterized as a “fourfold brute – an American, a journalist, a communist, and a Jew”. The German lets fly: “Permit me to tell you something…. You are like our dear Fuhrer. Yes, that is what you are, that is exactly what you and your comrades are: vulgar simpletons, ignorant and violent little boys, who have no idea just how primitive and stupid you really are.”

At another point, the Pole berates the Ukrainian Nationalist for defending the peasants who “chose starvation over joining a collective farm”. He goes on: “I can tell you right now: I would have joined on the spot. Death is not worth a piece of land.”

The Ukrainian retorts: “ You are not a peasant. That’s why. If you were, if you believed your whole life was bound up with this black earth, you’d speak differently.”

The Pole concedes the point but insists: “To me, soil is just dirt, nothing more, and the peasants are, as the good Marx once put it, just a sack of potatoes.”

Motyl finds little outlet for the humor he exploited so well in his previous novels but his Ukrainian background brings out his poetic side in his description of the vast snowscapes and changing skies.

 - “The sky, formerly a bright blue, had acquired a thick wet cotton-white cloud cover …”

-- “The cloudless sky was an astonishingly bright cerulean blue.” 

-- “The cloud cover was as thin as an old silk scarf.”

-- “The sun had already set and the snow shimmered like a mountain lake.” 

-- “The wavy surface of the snow glistened and sparkled and resembled what he imagined the ocean, on a hot windless day, must be like.”

Motyl brings the adventure to a melancholy close with just two of the four still alive, sitting along the Dnieper. The Pole sets out alone across the frozen river to Poland while his last companion, the Ukrainian Nationalist, surrenders to exhaustion. Soon the Pole was only “a wobbly outline a shadow among the swirling snowflakes and the thickening mist…. The shadow did not return.”

The Ukrainian decides that “Ukraine – his Ukraine – was dead, a corpse. No, it was worse. It was gone. It had disappeared, vanished. It had been extinguished and obliterated by the Russians.”

Only in his final delirium does he dream of rising to fight again for Ukraine’s liberation.

 

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Mar 19th 2019
European food and ingredients have become staple food choices for the British. The use of ingredients such as garlic, peppers, avocados, Parmesan cheese and all those other European ingredients that are now taken for granted are relatively new and were still rare in the 1990s. When I was growing up in rural Devon in the 1970s, olive oil was only really readily available in chemists as a cure for earache – now it is found in most food cupboards. And wine drinking has permeated through all social classes.
Mar 12th 2019
The Guggenheim’s strange and wonderful exhibition of Hilma af Klint’s groundbreaking, yet largely unknown body of abstract art is an important event – one that challenges us to not only rethink the early history of twentieth century abstract art, but to recognize her vision of art and reality as unique, authentic, and deliciously puzzling. 
Feb 25th 2019
Looking at the world today, it's clear that the consequences of this imperial legacy are still with us. If anything has changed it is that we are now beyond just viewing the former "natives" as far-away oddities. They are now living within our borders, having come to find the opportunities they were denied at home. So when I hear the reactions in the West to the influx of South Asians going to the UK, or North Africans going to France, or Central Americans migrating to the US, I can only say "Guys, these are the fruits of your conquest – your chickens coming home to roost."
Feb 25th 2019
Extracts: "The new novel Sérotonine by Michel Houellebecq, the bad boy of French literature, is a saga of depression and death told with such irony and wit that readers seem to love it despite the unsettling themes. Maybe it’s just me but I found myself laughing out loud.......True to form, the French don’t agree on Houellebecq – or anything else, for that matter. The impact of his new novel has divided the readers into opposite love-hate camps with hardly any middle ground. Houellebecq cannot leave you indifferent, notes a literary friend of mine"........Picture: Michel Houellebecq, by the reviewer Michael Johnson. 
Feb 19th 2019
The term “smiling depression” – appearing happy to others while internally suffering depressive symptoms – has become increasingly popular. Articles on the topic have crept up in the popular literature, and the number of Google searches for the condition has increased dramatically this year. Some may question, however, whether this is actually a real, pathological condition. While smiling depression is not a technical term that psychologists use, it is certainly possible to be depressed and manage to successfully mask the symptoms. The closest technical term for this condition is “atypical depression”. In fact, a significant proportion of people who experience a low mood and a loss of pleasure in activities manage to hide their condition in this way. And these people might be particularly vulnerable to suicide.
Feb 19th 2019
Outstanding, experienced journalist Michael Johnson, whose articles, often accompanied by his striking portraits, has now brought his love of music and of pen, ink, gouache and watercolor to create a study of remarkable insight, strong opinions and beauty in this gorgeous book. Written in both French and English the brief descriptions of musicians he has met, studied, interviewed are accompanied by distinctive portraits that, as his title suggests, some may be caricatures. I argue that the author/artist has created insightful studies of the human face engaged in the pursuit of music. The only caricature is his own self-deprecating, slyly wry self-portrait that opens the book—and it is worth the book’s purchase on its own. 
Feb 15th 2019
Only 9% of the overall population in the UK are privately educated, but they occupy an especially high proportion when it comes to positions of public influence: a third of MPs and top business executives, half of cabinet members and newspaper editors, three-quarters of judges....
Feb 12th 2019
There is a fascinating chapter toward the end of Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America titled “What Kind of Despotism Do Democratic Nations Have to Fear?” in which the author attempted something truly extraordinary – to describe a social condition which humankind had never before encountered. We find him trying to put his finger on something which does not yet exist, but which – in his extraordinary political imagination – he was able to foresee with startling clarity.............. we must recognize that Facebook, Google, and Amazon are the new leviathans. In serving users only those posts with which they will agree,  
Feb 8th 2019
Few modern cities can boast that a herd of Longhorn cattle has been driven along its main streets. But San Antonio can: each February, in a tribute to the past, the city plays host to a cattle drive.
Feb 5th 2019
Extract: "Most drugs are made to target “bulk” cancer cells, but not the root cause: the cancer stem cell. Cancer stem cells, also known as “tumour-initiating cells”, are the only cells in the tumour that can make a new tumour. New therapies that specifically target and eradicate these cancer stem cells are needed to prevent tumours growing and spreading, but for that there needs to be more clarity around the target. Our new research may have discovered such a target. We have identified and isolated cells within different cancerous growths which we call the “cell of origin”. Our experiments on cancer cells derived from a human breast tumour found that stem cells – representing 0.2% of the cancer cell population – have special characteristics."
Jan 31st 2019
For most people, teeth cleaning may just be a normal part of your daily routine. But what if the way you clean your teeth today, might affect your chances of getting Alzheimer’s disease in years to come? There is an increasing body of evidence to indicate that gum (periodontal) disease could be a plausible risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. Some studies even suggest your risk doubles when gum disease persists for ten or more years. Indeed, a new US study published in Science Advances details how a type of bacteria called Porphyromonas gingivalis – or P. gingivalis – which is associated with gum disease, has been found in the brains of patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Tests on mice also showed how the bug spread from their mouth to brain where it destroyed nerve cells.
Jan 28th 2019
Piano design has become so “radically standardized” since the middle of the 20th century that players and audiences are robbed of any choice today, claims a new book the piano’s past, present and future.  This book fearlessly confronts the big questions: Should we even call today’s top-selling acoustic models the “modern piano”, considering that they are all based on a 140- year-old design? Will the 21st century mark a turning point in piano building?
Jan 10th 2019
Extracts from the article: "Last November, Michael Bloomberg made what may well be the largest private donation to higher education in modern times: $1.8 billion to enable his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, to provide scholarships for eligible students unable to afford the school’s tuition. Bloomberg is grateful to Johns Hopkins, he explains, because the opportunity to study there, on a scholarship, “opened up doors that otherwise would have been closed, and allowed me to live the American dream.” In the year after he graduated, he donated $5 to the school, all he could afford. Thanks to the success of Bloomberg L.P., the international financial-information company he founded in 1981, he has now given a total of $3.3 billion......And yet I cannot applaud Bloomberg’s donation to a university that already had an endowment of $3.8 billion and charges undergraduate students $53,740 per year to attend. My preference is for Hank Rowan, who back in 1992 gave $100 million to Glassboro State College, a public university in New Jersey that at the time had an endowment of $787,000 and annual fees of about $9,000. Rowan himself was a graduate of MIT, one of the world’s finest universities, but gratitude was not his motivation for donating. He wanted to make the biggest difference he could, and believed that one makes a bigger difference by strengthening the weak links in the higher education system than by giving even more to those who already have a lot."
Jan 9th 2019
Marcel Proust was the master of artistic time travel, as he spent the final decades of his life exploring the nature of memory, in a quest to understand the relationship between past and present. In today’s troubled present of economic malaise and political agitation, the art world of Paris is currently engaged in a Proustian exercise of reexamining, and celebrating, a lost golden age of splendor and creativity.
Dec 10th 2018
The current exhibition of Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – the first of its kind to be mounted in North America – is indeed an extraordinary revelation. Delacroix was one of the great creative minds of the nineteenth century: an artist who embodied the spirit of Romanticism, a dramatist and virtuoso of coloration who never ceased to experiment, to take inspiration from the old masters – from Veronese and Rubens, Rembrandt and Caravaggio – whose works he would often copy at the Louvre, “that book from which we learn to read,” as Cézanne put it.
Dec 6th 2018
Your body has two metabolically different states: fasted (without food) and post-fed. The absorptive post-fed state is a metabolically active time for your body. But is also a time of immune system activity. When we eat, we do not just take in nutrients – we also trigger our immune system to produce a transient inflammatory response. Inflammation is a normal response of the body to infection and injury, which provides protection against stressors. This means that just the act of eating each meal imparts a degree of physiological stress on the immune system. And so for people snacking around the clock, their bodies can often end up in a near constant inflammatory state.
Dec 5th 2018
Researchers have developed a test that could be used to diagnose all cancers. It is based on a unique DNA signature that appears to be common across cancer types. The test has yet to be conducted on humans, and clinical trials are needed before we know for sure if it can be used in the clinic.
Dec 4th 2018
The late great Russian-born novelist Vladimir Nabokov (pictured below by Michael Johnson) amassed a range of critical comments during his 78 years, more than enough to qualify him as a literary giant and keep his books in print. But most of the assessments have an edge – he was irascible, independent-minded, contradictory, arbitrary, arrogant, tongue-tied, obscene. For such a tumultuous life, he died in opposite conditions: quietly in Montreux, Switzerland, having spent his last 16 years with few friends and almost no family around him. Making sense of this unique talent has been a hobby of mine since the 1960s, enjoying his quirky prose style, his trilingual puns and his forays into forbidden territory, particularly with Bend Sinister, Lolita, Pnin, Pale Fire and Ada. Have I ever made sense of him?
Nov 26th 2018
There is now good evidence that the risks versus benefits of alcohol are strongly influenced by the type of alcohol and the way it is drunk.
Nov 14th 2018
Jean Gabin - pictured below by the author of this book review Michael Johnson - lives on vibrantly through international film festivals, art houses and television reruns although he died in Paris 42 years ago. Just last week in prime time I watched one of his classic films, “Pépé le Moko”, a story of considerable depth that pops up regularly on television. American author Joseph Harriss rightly calls it “Casablanca for grownups”. Other classics abound – “La Grande Illusion”, “Le Quai des Brumes” “Touchez pas au grisbi”, for example.