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

Jul 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else."
Jul 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Remember, your wellbeing is extremely important when supporting someone with depression. Take time for self-care so you can model positive behaviours and be replenished enough to provide this crucial support."
Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."
Jun 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Bonhoeffer’s life holds an important lesson for us today, regardless of our religious affiliation or lack thereof. And simply put it is this: you are called upon; you are called on behalf of your neighbor. When you are called to be responsible that is not an obligation which you can decline, discharge or acquit yourself of – it is an infinite responsibility, a “forever commitment” as Charles Blow recently put it. And we all must be prepared to make any sacrifice necessary when we are called."
Jun 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "People differ substantially in how much they’re affected by experiences in their lives. Some people seem to be more affected by daily stress, or the loss of someone close to them. On the other hand, some people seem to get through the same experiences relatively unscathed. Similarly, some people benefit strongly from counselling, or having a support system of close family and friends. Others seem better able to manage on their own. But understanding why some people are more sensitive than others isn’t just a question of how they were raised, and the experiences they’ve been through. In fact, previous research has found that some people in general seem more sensitive to what they experience – and some are generally less sensitive."
Jun 7th 2020
EXTRACT: " The root causes of anthropogenic climate change – which has led to the endangering of countless species across the globe – cannot be adequately grasped in isolation from the technological application of modern science. While Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was certainly justified in calling upon American legislators to “unite behind the science,” neither can we overlook the culpability of science in bringing about the environmental crisis. "
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Psalm 91, for example, reassures believers that God will protect them from “the pestilence that walketh in darkness… A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee”.............Luther was a devout believer but insisted that religious faith had to be joined with practical, physical defences against sickness. It was a good Christian’s duty to work to keep themselves and others safe, rather than relying solely on the protection of God. "
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Evidence from this study shows clearly that eating foods rich in flavonoids over your lifetime is significantly linked to reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk. However, their consumption will be even more beneficial alongside other lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, managing a healthy weight and exercising."
May 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s possible that the answers to questions like, “how do I live a virtuous life?” or “how do we build a good society?” are not the same as they were a few weeks ago."
May 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Strangely, those with strong beliefs tend to be admired. The human mind hates uncertainty, so it is comforting to be told what to think, and to form settled opinions. But it is not rational. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Apr 21st 2020
Extract: "Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation. Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life? In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.
Apr 20th 2020
Extract: "If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world."
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Death is the common experience which can make all members of the human race feel their common bonds and their common humanity."