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.

 

 


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