Most of what I want to tell you is about the post-war events, the 3rd Holodomor (death by starvation in Slavic languages) from 1946-1947, which my father, Philip Petrovych Gryganskyi, experienced as a child. He was born into the large family of Petro and Józefa Gryganskyi in the north of Ukraine, village Gorikhove, Korostyshiv district, Zhytomyr Oblast, in 1940, and the events of those terrible first post-war years were carved into his memory for a lifetime.
The Kremlin rulers remained silent and denied the shocking facts of the deliberate organization of the Holodomors. Thus, during Soviet times, we spoke about those events only secretly, warned of repression by the KGB. I remember when I was young hearing conversations about hunger several times, but one of the seniors always interrupted it to avoid the possibility that the children would hear and repeat the information somewhere, with all the consequences.
In detail, my father told me about his experiences in the late 90s of the last century. I, Andrii Gryganskyi, born in 1966 and his son, recorded his story from memory in 2010.
The communist regime was responsible for three deaths in my father’s family. Two of my uncles, my father’s brothers, the children of my grandmother Józefa and my grandfather Petro, died as toddlers before they were even a year old. In 1933, Victor Gryganskyi died, and in 1947 the 3rd Holodomor took little Antin Gryganskyi.
In 1937, my great-grandfather, Andrii Gryganskyi (misspelled as Garaganskyi in the official documents), along with 11 fellow villagers were arrested and shot without trial or investigation in Zhytomyr. My great-grandfather, a village blacksmith, was accused on false charges of plotting a “White Polish uprising” and spying for foreign states together with the Polish ambassador and a fugitive local noble. It was impossible to identify the place of his burial, but local whispers said that the executed were dumped in underground tunnels, the mysterious network of which is spread not only under the city but also outside it.
This story, in all of its tragedy, stirred the memory of our family in the mid-70s. It so happened that at that time, my father, among others, was involved as a welder in the liquidation of the accident during the construction of a new building in Zhytomyr, near the river Kamyanka. During this work, the earth pit at some point began to fill rapidly with underground water, which carried numerous well-preserved corpses. The horrified workers were immediately removed from the construction site. A few days later, my father and everyone else who witnessed this horrific event were summoned to the KGB and signed a non-disclosure for what they had seen. Subsequently, the workers were given alcohol before descending into the pit so that they could complete the repairs. According to the rumors among the repair crew, the corpses belonged to the people who were tortured and killed during the Soviet repressions and dumped in underground tunnels.
There are many historical hypotheses about the origin of these catacombs with stone vaults and signs of fortifications, many of which are very high, even for people riding by horse. A group of local speleologists was actively involved in reconnaissance of the catacombs grid in the 1990s, but the leader of this group suddenly died at the age of about 30 years, and the search stopped.
Although the dungeons contain artifacts of Trypillia culture and household items of the early Slavic times, most scholars agree that the underground network, in fact, the city under the city, was built in the Polish-Lithuanian period of Ukrainian history and was improved and expanded far outside the city in the eighteenth century by monks of a local Jesuit monastery. The emergency exits of the catacombs often went to a slope or to the river bank. Apparently, the pit for the new building somewhere breached the catacomb walls, which at that time was already flooded either from underground reservoirs or from the river Kamyanka. Perhaps Providence wanted to remind the living of a tragedy that should not be erased for generations.
My father, like the whole family, was painfully aware of what he saw. He said that it was possible that his grandfather Andrii’s body was among those murdered.
I have always been interested in listening to family memories of their experiences. Most of the family history was discussed with my father. His memories of the famine from 1946-1947 were especially painful.
During the war, the family suffered many disasters. The village was burned down by the Nazis at the beginning of WW2. Our house was also burned down. There was active partisan resistance in the Zhytomyr forests, led by the Tsendrovsky brothers. For any resistance action, the Nazis, in a rage, staged massacres of all the inhabitants of the surrounding villages. According to the elders, the reason for burning Gorikhove village was the murder of the female army companion and entertainer Masha, together with her personal driver. “Brave” guerrillas blew up her car near the neighboring Maryanivka village. As a punishment, Nazis shot every fifth resident for that, and Gorikhove village was burned. Everyone who was captured was taken to Zhytomyr, including my grandmother with my dad in her arms and his four siblings. Someone said that all of them were to be interrogated by the Gestapo to find the links with the guerrillas. Somehow the Lord had mercy, and the captives were eventually released. However, the village was already burned, and there was nowhere to live. The grandmother asked permission for herself and the children to live in a corner of the kolkhoz’ stable. They huddled there until spring, and when the ground dried up, the grandmother dug a dugout nearby in the woods and moved there with her children. After the war, my grandfather Petro, returning after a long hospital stay due to war injuries, began to build a house, although the process was slow and hard.
After “our liberation”, the Holodomor came to the village. Compared with the Holodomor of the 1930s, it was less deadly, but no less tragic – with a high mortality rate. It is not realistic to establish the exact number: there are almost no living witnesses of those events at the time when it became possible to statistically study the horrors of those years. Additionally, the books of registration of civil status records in many villages and even districts in many oblasts were not kept or were destroyed. For example, according to the Zhytomyr Archive, there are no books of registration of act records on the death of citizens from 1932–1933 in the districts of Baranivka, Yemilchyne, Korostyshiv, Luhyny, Lyubar, Ovruch, Olevsk, Popilnya, and Krasnoarmiysk (Puline) districts and the town of Novograd-Volynsky. According to various studies, from 1946-1947 alone, during the intensive grain confiscation, more than 1 million people died of starvation, most of whom were peasants who grew their own bread. In many areas, the plight and famine continued almost until the late 1940s.
I started to learn about all these events in Robert Conquest’s book Harvest of Sorrow, which became available to us only after Gorbatchov’s Perestrojka. Conquest had a surprisingly long life compared with others who attempted to talk about the true nature of soviet Russia, who were murdered, poisoned, or died following a “heart attack’ or “car accident.” In his study, he used archive documents, and our or neighboring villages he mentioned several times. Later, I asked my dad if he knew about those facts, and he did know about them from parents, friends, and neighbors, although Conquest was describing Holodomor solely from 1932-33, seven years before my dad was born. He knew about the tragedy of the family in neighboring Shachvorostivka, where the mother had sacrificed herself to be eaten after her death by her husband and four daughters. He knew the family from which the boy of his age had died on the road walking home from the school. He knew that our village counted 1/3 of the total households after 1933 because 2/3 of its inhabitants had died, as well as a few other local facts described in Harvest of Sorrow.
Killing millions of Ukrainian farmers, Stalin’s government “rebuilt the Soviet industry” after WW2, again using Holodomor tactics, and exported agricultural products to the countries of the so-called socialist camp to support collaborationist regimes that were loyal to soviet Russia. For this purpose, according to the Kremiln’s instructions, the annual plan for the delivery of grain to the Ukraine for 1946 in the amount of 5,440,000 tons was “launched”.
Ukraine became the main supplier of grain to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and vegetables to Moscow. Products beaten out of the starving Ukrainian village were exported to various regions of the RSFSR.
Grain, vegetables, and other agricultural products were donated or supplied at meager prices to neighboring countries. For example, the Soviet Union delivered 350 thousand tons of grain to Romania, sent 50 thousand head of cattle, 969 thousand tons of grain, and 60 thousand tons of other products only to Berlin, and exported to Poland 900 thousand tons of grain over two years (1946-47). A similar policy of providing agricultural products was implemented for Albania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, France, Finland, and other countries (http://www.territoryterror.org.ua/uk/history/1945-1953/1946-1947/ and other sources). It was demanded that the peasants supply grain, grain, and again grain, from the collective farm and from each household. Some grain was given back to the collective farm only at the end of the year to pay for working days, not in the form of money. In addition, each household was taxed unbearably. Taxes were placed on cattle, chickens, bees, on every fruit tree in the garden, even on seedlings. Unable to pay exorbitant taxes, peasants secretly slaughtered livestock and destroyed their own orchards. Openly cutting down trees was not allowed (such acts were considered sabotage), so the people poured boiling water over them in tears, in the night. Taxes required more eggs than a hen could lay, and chicken don’t lay eggs without grain. Almost all the meat of piglets was taxed, and the skin (leather for the officers’ boots) and shaving bristles for the army had to be handed over separately as part of the taxation. To somehow feed his family, a grandfather secretly singed the pig in the basement several times so that no one could see, choking himself on the smoke. He took a great risk, because if the tax collectors had found out about it, he would have been punished and sentenced to GULAG as a saboteur. Communists and their henchmen regularly raided and looted the village. Where they saw smoke from the chimney, they went and took everything away. Dad said that as they began to slaughter the pig, he grabbed the tail and ran away. It was his prey, no one was chasing him for that piece. No one laid taxes on pig’s tail.
Taxation in Gorikhove was provided by an accountant, an assistant of the head of the collective farm and an ethnic Russian from Siberia, from Novokuznetsk, who was sent to Ukraine as part of the so-called 25,000 to “bend” the party line in the villages. These two, along with the “law enforcement” and local informers (aka seksots – secret sotrudnik/co-worker), who were mostly local drunks, criminals, and skulks, were both organizers and perpetrators of the Holodomor in our village. For non-compliance with the Russian occupation, authorities demanded they sweep away everything edible that was found as a punishment. Party and state officials, as well as their henchmen, were provided with food through a special system of privileged shops (raspredelitel) or just grabbing the part of the loot.
Again, it was impossible to fulfill the norm of grain harvesting, and the punishment for non-fulfillment of the plan was the seizure of everything edible during the search, like in 1930. If you were unable to fulfill the demands, you were a saboteur. If you were able to get enough grain, the seizing quote was subsequently increased by the Russian occupants. If you were unable to get enough grain the second time, you were again a saboteur. Also, local authorities were punished for insufficient grain confiscations and planning, therefore they increased the quote over possible limits, as a rule. It was a vicious cycle with no way out. It was very easy to become an “enemy of the people” while trying to hide such wealth during an acute need for industrialization of the young soviet state or rebuilding of the Soviet industry. Again, as during the Holodomor from 1932-33, military check-posts were stationed near villages, and they did not allow peasants to leave their settlements to exchange items for food or earn money in the city or elsewhere. The law of March 17, 1937 forbade peasants to leave collective farms without a pre-signed agreement with another employer, depriving them of the right to free movement, essentially the right to escape starvation. Any army or police patrol could stop and arrest any farmer because the farmers didn’t have any sort of ID. I was a kid when the first passports were issued to some lucky kolkhoz members; it was in the late 70s when this process started. Before this time, the peasants could leave the village with only some paperwork from the kolkhoz management justifying their absence from the field.
Taxes also had to be paid in cash, and the collective farm did not pay money to their workers. Peasants were paid only once a year in “natural’ form, usually a bag or two of grain after all “debts” were paid to the state. To get money, my grandmother had to make her way on foot through the woods to Korostyshiv to the bazaar with a heavy basket of fresh produce, which was 18 km away. On weekends, police often stalked the Teteriv River crossing and prevented the peasants from trespassing, sending women back to the collective farm for “voluntary” subbotniks and voskresniks. Grandmother said that once a policeman snatched baskets of vegetables and eggs from her hands and threw it into the river. To the cries of a woman who does not receive pay with money on the collective farm but has to earn a living wage to get a bag of grain at the end of the year, he literally said, “Whether they will give you some grain or not, you will not f*cking die anyway.”
As for the accomplishment of working days on the collective farm, they were recorded with a stick in a notebook. One stick for one accomplished working day, which was totally dependent on the foreman and further on the leadership of the collective farm. Sometimes, after a full day of tough work with no proper nutrition, 3/4 of a stick, 1/2 stick, and sometimes 1/4 stick were recorded in the foreman’s notebook if he didn’t like you for some reason. Such a system was used as an analogue of fines: that is, for some “faults” or “shortcomings”, people considered a day of hard work as a half, a third, or only a quarter of the work accomplished.
If one was fortunate and his cow had a heifer, then he could keep it or sell it to someone else. If it was a bull, it had to be fed for a year and then handed over to the collective farm with no compensation. Our cow had a bull in 1946, unfortunately. The calf was called the Maliuk (Kid). He was small (therefore the Kid) but strong. Grandmother managed to raise him almost without milk, using herbal decoctions instead. She nursed the children with milk, otherwise they would have died, like my father’s brothers Victor in 1933 and Antin in 1947. Malyuk was like a member of the family. After he was taken away by the collective farm, my dad and his siblings often went to see him at the barn.
Cows and oxen were the main driving force in the collective farm because all horses in the war and postwar years were requisitioned for the needs of the military. Only the head of the collective farm was riding the horse, and the fields were plowed with cows – during the day they plowed on the collective farm, and at night in the peasants’ private fields. There was only one day off – Sunday, but they were often forced to work without days off. Often on weekends or after work on Saturday, the collective farm organized subbotniks and voskresniks, which comrade Lenin named as the days of “liberated labour”, a “new form of conscious building up of the bright communist future.”
Another story in the life of my grandmother’s family relates to the cow, which almost ended tragically. At that time, everyone was suffering from hunger and tremendous amounts of work – both people and cattle. Grandmother, like the others, had to go plowing with her own cow. The cow was harnessed to the plow and was milked daily. My father’s sister, my aunt Maria, was 14 years old at the time, and she was obliged to work on the collective farm along with the adults. After leaving the field on a cart with sacks of chaff and thinking that no one could see her, Maria hid one sack for our cow on the way. However, she was tracked down and apprehended when she returned. At that time, the most common category of “crimes” for which ordinary peasants were deported to Siberia or sentenced to death were “sabotage of grain supplies” (when people had nothing to pay taxes), “harvest damage” (if a person did not go to work, even if sick or starving), and “damage”, which could represent anyone and anything. The theft of anything from the collective farm was equated with the theft of state property.
The repressive machine in such cases worked with extraordinary efficiency, and the trials were demonstrative and took place without delay. The fate of the people was decided at the discretion of the “troika” (trio or trinity): the standard chairman was the head of the local NKVD (predecessor of KGB), the members – the local prosecutor and the first secretary of the regional committee of the Communist party. Under the 1926 Penal Code, theft of state property was a felony along with violence, murder, and attempted murder, and it was punishable from the age of 12 years. It was forbidden to shoot minors, but Maria would get at least 10 years in GULAG for her “crime”. My poor grandmother begged all authorities that Maria would not be sentenced. Apparently, her maternal pleas were heard by heaven. Although the trial took place, there was no verdict. Court decisions must be signed by all three members of the troika. Two members of the troika signed the verdict without hesitation: the head of the collective farm (a Russian) and a representative of the law enforcement agencies from Korostyshiv (either the police or the NKVD). Another troika member, a woman (no one remembered her position, most likely she was a local party representative) refused to sign the verdict, and without her signature it was illegal. Apparently, she had a good heart because she cried during the trial and said that she should also be convicted, but she refused to send a 14-year-old child to a death camp for one sack of chaff. Maria was spared.
The hunger grew. Stalin’s policy of grain procurement in reality became legalized looting of the village by the state. For the unfulfilled grain norm, special brigades of the so-called activists went from house to house almost every day and took away all the food they could find. Confiscations, hard labor, collection of exorbitant taxes from the peasants, incomplete payment, or non-payment of working days turned farmers into beggars.
Many loaches were observed during and after the war, in every pond, lake, even in every roadside ditch. They were feeding on human corpses, people said. They and other fish were caught by hand. There was still a pond near the village, but it was guarded. Regardless, some people did fish there and risked catching a bullet instead of fish. When the fish were gone, people caught and ate everything: rats, snails, frogs, snakes, but those food sources eventually ran out as well. People ate grass and tree bark out of desperation, and after the winter they rejoiced at the half-rotten potatoes found in the field from the previous crop. They ate unripe cereal ears, but they were sentenced for that because it was considered theft of collective farm property, Stalin’s famous law of five ears. In was easier to survive during summer and fall, but with the onset of winter in 1946-1947 and in the first half of 1947, famine began to rage again in peasant houses.
Infant mortality was extremely high. Mothers walked with small children under windows, begging for at least some food for their exhausted children. Many took the children to the city, hoping that they would be taken to an orphanage and at least fed. Hunger messed with people’s minds and awakened demons. Cannibalism became a documented fact in those terrible times. As a result, people rejoiced in the first sign of grass: quinoa, rolls, nettles, wheatgrass roots, cooked young bark of trees – all were eaten; it was salvation. Closer to fall, the nearby forest provided berries and mushrooms.
Rumors suggested that there was no famine in Western Ukraine, but it was far away and difficult to reach. After the war in our area, almost every village in the woods had a military unit that patrolled forest trails and roads and did not allow peasants to go “to wealthier villages” to look for places where repression was not as severe and one could exchange something for food or earn a penny. A military unit was also set up near our Gorikhove. The soldiers were located between the village and the swamp, from which the villagers were not allowed to fish. The military apprehended the wanderers, returned them to the collective farm, and confiscated their products. People were left to die in their villages.
Since then, spring has remained my dad’s favorite time of year. It stuck in my memory – if he made it through the winter, he would live. He was six years old in 1946 when he was “hired” to herd collective farm cows, which was fortunate despite not being easy for such an age. In the village, six-year-old children at that time had many adult responsibilities. While he was herding, he was searching for anything edible in the woods. He knew the nests of all the little birds to look for and when they laid their eggs. He knew where to look for hazelnuts, which were sprouting in the litter in spring, a time when they were especially sweet. He also knew how to find all edible herbs, wild bees, and wild apples. But the feeling of hunger still tormented him every day.
Sometimes my father was fed by the soldiers. He had a nice voice and often went to sing for them. He learned a lot of songs. For this, the soldiers often gave him a piece of bread, and his older brother Victor, named in memory of his deceased older brother, always tried to trade it for clay horses that he made.
Due to constant malnutrition, my father stopped growing and for a long time was the shortest child in his class. School is also a long story. Dad loved school, he cooked ink from willow cones himself. He often got bullied by older children – because he was too small and weak to fight back. Additionally, Victor, his older brother, could not always stand up for him because they took turns visiting the school – with only one pair of shoes for the two of them – and only in winter because the rest of the time they got to work on a collective farm. The school was located in another village, Shakhvorostivka, which was five kilometers from Gorikhove. It was especially frightening to return in the twilight because the road ran through forest roamed by wolves. No one dared to go to the school alone. It was said that the wolves (or “wolves”) even ate one soldier in the woods; only his feet were found in the army boots.
Dad started to grow again as a teenager when he was 13 years old, and he began to catch up with the other kids in height and weight. Eventually, genes took over and he grew as strong and tall as his grandfather, Andrii, who was killed by the Chekists in 1937 and was a real strongman.
That spring, in 1947, little Antin died. The baby was screaming from hunger constantly, and his mother’s breast had long been empty. It was still a long time to the new harvest. Grandfather went to the fields and brought home a dead stork from somewhere. Apparently, storks also died of starvation. A folk saying stated that killing a stork was a sign of great grief in the family, but little Antin was starving in his cradle. Grandmother boiled the bird’s thigh and let him suck it, and that’s how he died, with that thigh in his mouth and no more crying. The other children survived. They were swollen from hunger but survived.
There is another story that I think is worth mentioning. Our family had a special ability to find mushrooms. Knowledge of high-yielding foraging spots was passed down from generation to generation. My grandmother went mushroom “hunting” until she was walkable.
When the Russian “liberators” once again scooped up everything edible from the house, Grandmother Józefa went to the forest to search for mushrooms. All that she was able to find were poisonous fly agarics, Amanita muscaria. I don’t remember the exact circumstances of this story; it began to fade slowly and became less vivid in details. I don’t know when it was – when little Antin was still alive, or after his death. At that time, grandfather Petro managed to pass through the patrols, either to richer villages, or to exchange something in Kyiv or earn a living, and who knows how long there was no news from him. Once again, the “activists” confiscated everything they found in our household, although there was not much to grab. Grandmother Józefa went for mushrooms but apparently did not find anything decent. Either they were not growing that day, or others had already picked everything. The forest was, however, full of fly agarics. Grandmother said it was unspeakably scary to come home with empty hands and continue to watch starving children die. They did not even ask for food anymore; the hunger and suffering was apparent only in their eyes. In despair, she gathered toadstools in the woods, put them in a pot, and stewed them in the oven from morning to noon. Meanwhile, she gathered the children and had them put on clean shirts. She decided – if they all had to leave this world, then they would do so together, clean and well fed. She fed the children and ate herself. After lunch, everyone became calm and slow, like sleepy flies. Almost immediately, they all fell asleep. My grandmother also fell asleep, sure that tomorrow would not come for them.
Everyone woke up the next day around noon, as if nothing had happened. Who knows what worked. Whether it was God’s providence, or maybe those exact species were toxic but not poisonous, scientifically speaking. Later, my grandmother used them often to kill houseflies, and she always warned us little ones when she set the baits – do not even touch because it is poison.
The famine of 1946-1947 didn’t happen in Belarus, Moldova, and some other territories occupied by soviet Russia. It was a conscious famine with such catastrophic consequences, once again organized for Ukraine and Ukrainians.
The Holodomors in Ukraine in the 20th century is a terrible, cruel, and incomprehensible tragedy. It still seems surreal to me how on the soils of the European bread basket, which is even theoretically unsuitable for crop failure, people in such numbers died of starvation, three Holodomors during the lifetime of one generation, the generation of my grandparents. There are no records of any hunger in Ukraine since prehistoric times, only in the 20th century. I remain convinced that this planned mass murder by famine was a deliberate genocide of the indigenous people of Ukraine when the population was exterminated on ethnic grounds on their own land.
There are some memories left that are family memories only, but there is also something important that needs to be communicated both to my kids as well as to the world community so that no one dares to repeat this horror on our descendants in the future.
Andrii Gryganskyi, Nadiya Burmaka