When the Holodomor (famine genocide in Ukraine) broke out in the village of Kobylianka, Fedir Zadiereiev’s parents had to travel on foot 100 kilometres to Belarus to bring potato peels from their relatives. Fedir’s grandmother sneaked potatoes in her boots, and Fedir cooked borshch from nettle and plantain leaves for his younger siblings. Thereby they managed to survive. Fedir recalls that prior to collectivisation (a policy adopted by the Soviet government to transform traditional agriculture from private property to collective state-controlled ownership — tr.), people in the village could lend money to each other for as long as half a year, though during the Holodomor he had to steal from his neighbours to survive.
Fedir Zadiereiev turned 11 years old when the Holodomor broke out in the village of Kobylianka, situated near the town Sedniv in Sivershchyna. The famine was not caused by drought or poor harvest. It was the result of the Soviet government policy under the supervision of Josef Stalin aimed at the genocide of Ukrainian people.
The Holodomor is the proper name for the genocide of several million Ukrainians from 1932 to 1933 that the Soviet occupational government organised. Despite the numerous attempts to deny and conceal the crime and exonerate the government’s policies of that time, the premeditated effort to annihilate the particular nation has been proven. Regardless of the record-high fulfilment of the grain procurement plan (a form of product duty from the villagers to the state according to which they had to supply the state with a specified amount of grain; it was one of the ways to control the villagers, their work, and lives — ed.), millions of people were relinquished of their property and other means for existence and doomed to death from hunger.
A great number of Ukrainians from the border-straddling areas headed in search of food to the neighbouring Bryansk and Kursk regions (modern Russia — tr.), Belarus, or across the Zbruch and Dnister rivers to Ukrainian lands under Polish (Halychyna, Volyn, and Western Polissia) and Romanian (Northern Bukovyna and Khotyn district) rule. Since the borders with Russia and Belarus were on lockdown according to the special decree of the Soviet government and there was no legal way to get to other countries for many people, these challenging journeys became their salvation.
Border shut offOn 22 January 1933, a decree was released ordering the local authorities to prevent the mass departure of villagers from Ukraine and Kuban (the latter currently is a part of Russia) to the central regions of Russia and Belarus, and the borders of the Ukrainian SSR were to be blocked by military units.
As of today, 17 countries have officially recognised the Holodomor as genocide of the Ukrainian people. A number of countries condemned it as an act of extermination of humanity. Under the Resolution of the European Parliament of 23 October 2008 and the act of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe of 28 April 2010, the Holodomor on the territory of the USSR was recognised as a crime against humanity.
Fedir Zadiereiev spent his childhood in the village of Kobylianka in Sivershchyna. His family survived the famine despite being poor. Today, 99-year-old Fedir speaks jokingly about his birth.
— I was born of my own free will on 1 February 1921 in Chernihiv Governorate, on the bank of the Snov river that runs into the Desna river. The Snov used to be even navigable once.
One of Fedir’s first childhood memories was going with his father to the field for agricultural works. He even remembers the song his father sang:
It’s good to live on a hill,
But it’s hard to climb it.
It’s good to love girls,
But hurts to break up with them.
In the 1920s, Kobylianka was a thriving village: craftsmen, tailors, and sellers with various goods used to go there from all over the region. The man recalls that you could get services and goods even on your word. For instance, villagers could give a piece of leather to a shoemaker without an upfront payment or a note of hand, and in three months he would bring them a finished product. Similarly, they could get some agricultural equipment and pay for it later on.
— A man once came to us, he was dressed for winter. “Peace to this house!” He crossed himself and took off his hat. He brought two scythes to mow. My father said to him, “I don’t have money to pay you.” He responded, “You will sell some eggs and fish in summer. I trust you.”
1933. Photo from the private archive of Mykola Oksiuta. Unknown author.
NEP, collectivisation, “liknep”
The traditional way of life in Ukrainian villages started undergoing changes during the war communism period (1917–21), but the changes became more noticeable after the introduction of the New Economic Policy (NEP). Mass uprisings made the authorities resort to temporary concessions through decreasing taxes and allowing market relations. However, in 1929 the authorities declared a mass struggle against well-off villagers — so-called “kurkuls” (Ukr.), or “kulaks” (Rus.) — and began replacing individual husbandry with collective economic management. Despite the attempts of the Soviet government to introduce reforms in all spheres of social life through collectivisation, anti-religious propaganda, and things alike, the traditions engraved by generations couldn’t be uprooted easily.
— Upbringing meant a lot. Commandments of God and prayers were passed from generation to generation. It was impossible to uproot and forget the knowledge. At home, we always had an icon lamp hanging in front of the holy images. Before going to sleep, my father would always whisper a prayer. And when he got up in the morning, he would cross himself before the icons. These guidelines from grandfathers and grandmothers were imprinted in our souls.
Village church. 1933. Photo from the private archive of Mykola Oksiuta. Unknown author.
During Soviet times, people were not allowed to attend churches or observe Easter and other religious holidays. Despite that, people secretly went to bless their paskas (Ukrainian traditional Easter bread — tr.). Thereafter the village church in Kobylianka had been closed and subsequently turned into a school. Fedir recalls that a local priest was called in for questioning to the village council, and later on he disappeared.
Despite the propaganda, people kept honouring traditions, teaching children the commandments, and placing icons in their homes.
— There was a jar with souring milk in front of the stone stove. I was on the stove alone and decided to taste cream on top of milk. I climbed off the stove, went on the bench near the window with two jars of milk. I wanted to dip my finger and taste the cream. Then I glanced at the holy images, and they had their eyes on me. I jerked my hand back. I was in awe of God.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the Soviet government vigorously introduced a state program aimed at eradication of illiteracy among all layers of society, primarily among the rural population. Due to this, Fedir was able to finish three grades of primary school. When the famine began, nobody thought about education. Being a pupil back then, he remembered well when the first food requisitions took place.
“Liknep”The Liknep (an abbreviation from the Ukrainian “likvidatsiia nepysemnosti”, which means “liquidation of illiteracy” — ed.) was not merely a cultural and educational campaign but also a political campaign that aimed at raising a human of a new kind, nurtured on Marxist and Bolshevist ideology.
— My father and I were returning from school. Some boys ran up to us and said that unknown men had taken away our cow. I noticed that there were three men. And one more who was wearing a “budenovka” (a pointed broadcloth helmet worn by the Red Army soldiers until World War II — tr.) and a red armband. He had a rifle. He was apparently from a city. They took our cow. They also took our sleigh, just because they liked it. The sleigh was big, for a driver and two passengers. I came home and saw my mother in tears. They took the cow and they grabbed beans just from her hands. There were four children in our family. They took everything from us and killed our dog. That was the first big blow for me.
Before the mass famine broke out, Fedir’s father used to go to Moscow and work at the construction of the underground. He returned to the village when collectivisation was in full swing. He was lucky to escape working in a kolhosp (collective farm) and got employed as a buoy keeper (a person who maintains buoys — anchored floats serving as navigation marks to show reefs or other hazards. — ed.) However, his family had to part with a horse, a cart, and some equipment. Other people were forced to join kolhosps and to relinquish their livestock, means of transportation, and agricultural equipment. The family that lived one house over was chased out of their home. They were qualified as “kurkuls” and were deprived of their property, left without any means of existence.
KurkulA term used to define individual farmers who used hired labour, had a mill or premises with a grits cutter, millet scourer, or other facilities for grain processing, rented out agricultural machinery, and were engaged in trade. In addition, authorities could call anyone a “kurkul” if they refused to join a collective farm; such villagers were compelled to pay an individual tax. The term “kurkul” was widely spread in Ukrainian, but there was also another term for such people in the Soviet Union — a “kulak”. Thus, the process of eviction and confiscation of all property was called “dekulakisation”.
Back then a “kurkul”, a “pidkurkulnyk” (a person who supported a kurkul), and other “unreliable” people were deprived of everything. Their belongings were either given to kolhosps or sold at auctions. Whatever remained was destroyed.
— People were hiding everything they could: clothing, provisions, any kind of rags. Squads of collectors took away everything. If somebody refused to join a kolhosp the person was announced to be a “kurkul” or “pidkurkulnyk”. They seized everything and destroyed barns. They took away even rags and sold all items in the village council building. It was real chaos.
Fedir Zadiereiev recalls that 1932 was not a year of poor harvest in Sivershchyna. Though the so-called grain procurement plan was successful, special squads of military people and local activists soon showed up in Kobylianka and went on raids in the village. They were often local members of Komsomol (an abbreviation for “Komunistychnyi Soiuz Molodi”, or the Communist Union of Youth, — an organisation the regime used to involve young people in the implementation of the state campaigns — ed.) who took away livestock, bread, and other provisions forcefully.
— There were grain procurement plans or rather complete grain requisitions. There were rumours that grain went to Germans. People even tried to hide flour in water, under the ice. But they were able to find it everywhere. They checked thatched roofs with special sticks, drove metal bars into the ground looking for stashes. If they found some food, they would take it away.
What people ate during the Holodomor
In the Zadiereiev family, besides the eldest son Fedir, there were three more children: Semen, Pavlo, and the youngest, Shura. Their parents decided to head to neighbouring Belarus where they could still find some food. The family was lucky to have a relative in the adjoining Gomel region who married a Belarusian man and moved there. Fedir’s parents set off on foot there, and Fedir stayed to take care of his siblings. He had to search for something edible almost every day.
— I got up early and went to catch some fish. I rowed the boat to the middle of the river, and sometimes I lucked out and could catch a dozen perch. I collected nettle and wild spinach as well as plantain. At home, I cut it all and put the mix into a pot. Sometimes I added some straw that I pulled out from the thatched roof. I called it “borshch” and fed my siblings with it. They gladly ate it.
At the school Fedir attended, pupils were offered “hot breakfasts” made of a kilogram of flour dissolved in a bucket of boiled water. Then it was poured into cups. The majority of people had to eat potato peels, nettle, linden, wild spinach, and plantain leaves — anything they could find on fields. They also dug out all kinds of roots. They dug up the patches where potatoes once grew. Fedir recalls seeing a patrolman on a horse with a whip patrolling fields and ready to whip anyone in search of food.
Whatever one could find usually was not enough for long. Once, while neighbours were away, the boy got into their house to lay his hands on a loaf of bread. He had to hide with it for a couple of days near the local river.
— I ate quickly and fell asleep. When I woke up, I was scared to go back to the village — if they saw me with bread, they would take it away. So I was going to the river. I would take a bite of bread and sip some water from the river like a dog. I didn’t go back to the village until I finished that bread.
People started dying in the village because of food shortages. The Nechais, the neighbours of the Zadiereiev family, once ate too much rye grits on empty stomachs, and all of them died. Wandering the riverbank in search of something edible, Fedir saw people from neighbouring villages (Chornyshi, Sukhodoly) who would come to pick some sorrel but died right there because they did not have enough strength to return home. The corpses stayed on the riverbank all winter, and only in spring, when the ice broke, the bodies were pushed into the water.
Fedir had nothing to eat. However, he was trying to figure out how to feed others. One of his most painful memories is about his unsuccessful attempt to help.
— I was coming back from the river with the catch when I saw an elderly man near an old willow. It was already warm, but he wore a winter coat and a cap with ear-flaps. I came up to him and said, “Mister!” He mumbled something like “voo-voo-voo” and kept saying “I want to eat, I want to eat.” So I decided to share with him. I ran home and filled a full bowl of borshch for him and hurried back. I approached the willow. “Mister, I brought you some borshch,” but he was already dead. I keep thinking all my life how come I didn’t make it to feed the old man.
No strength to bury bodies
When people began dying in large numbers, those who lived had neither the strength nor ability to bury the deceased.
— Our neighbour came and said to my father, “Andrii Fedorovych, my father died. We need to bury him.” It was winter, and the weather was cold. My father got off the table and said, “Hanna, I have not eaten a crumb for three or four days, I feel weak.” She burst into tears and left.
Our neighbours had a root cellar, and people started bringing bodies there. After about three dozen bodies piled up and the smell of decaying flesh started lingering in the air, people simply covered the cellar with earth. The deceased were also buried at the local graveyard. It was impossible to dig deep graves in the frozen soil, so in the spring bones stuck out from the ground.
— I was picking cherries at the graveyard. They had just slightly reddened. The smell around was awful. I was picking cherries and putting them into my shirt when I noticed some rags and either an arm or a leg sticking out — white bones. I took off running. Apparently somebody had no strength to bury the body deeper. They just covered it slightly with some soil and snow — that was it.
Everyone from the Zadiereiev family survived. It helped tremendously that Fedir’s parents went to their relatives in Belarus several times and brought a lot of potato peels (they were called “stinkies” in the village) and other leftovers. Their grandmother Lukeriia on the father’s side helped them. Though she lived separately, she used to help the family with food once in a while.
— My grandmother used to bring us potatoes once in a while. When her daughter-in-law went to bring some water, my grandmother would bury some potatoes in the mud, hide them under her jacket, or throw them into boots (she was afraid of her daughter-in-law), and then she would say to her, “I will go to see Andrii.” She visited us all the time during that winter.
Lukeriia lived with her daughter-in-law and her young grandson, Fedir’s cousin. Their family was able to keep a cow. It happened due to the fact that Lukeriia’s grandson joined the Komsomol (young people could join it starting from 14 years old) and took part in anti-religious propaganda in the village.
— Somehow they managed to recruit him. People shamed us that one of our family was a traitor. The regime aimed at young men to use them as a tool against religion. When kolhosps were formed, they went to plough fields on the first day of Easter. They did it on purpose — they made people work on a holy day.
The Holodomor was officially a taboo in the Soviet Union. Nobody mentioned it. Though everyone remembered.
— Nobody dared to mention it (in public — ed.). As if it was buried forever. People сould talk only very privately about it — and that was it. Some people blamed Stalin for that. They said he got angry at Ukrainians. Nothing else was said. Stalin was guilty — and that was it. Nobody was prosecuted. Everything was over.
Fedir Zadiereiev (on the left) with his friend Ivan Novik (on the right) during a five-minute break at a macaroni factory in Chernihiv.
Leave to survive
After the Holodomor of 1932 to 1933, there was neither work nor opportunities in Kobylianka, so the 15-year-old Fedir headed to Chernihiv to earn his living. He met Ivan Pavlov there. The two friends roamed the city in search of work or food. They spent nights near the river on the quay.
To survive, they resorted to minor thefts at the market. Eventually, the young men were caught by the police. They were sent to work at a macaroni factory.
— They gave me a change of clothes, a white coat and a white hat. They found an undershirt and a shirt and sent me to take shower. And then I was assigned to the drying department. I was looking at everything around me and couldn’t believe my eyes. I felt like I was on another planet.
Ivan was assigned to the department where they made crates, while Fedir was in the drying department. It was warm there, and there was plenty of macaroni all around.
— I thought that my boss would scold me but I didn’t care, just scooped my hand in and started eating. It was crunching in my teeth. The boss saw it. “Are you hungry, fella?” I didn’t admit that I was hungry. “No, sir, I am just fooling around.”
The man recalls that he got into a side job in a bathhouse: he washed the backs of top officials. And he received his first salary; moreover, he could hold real banknotes for the first time.
— The boss wrote me an advance in cash. I had never held banknotes in my hands. So I went to a canteen. I will never forget that moment. I ordered two times. First I took a plate of soup and macaroni, potatoes with onion, and everything was dressed with a lot of margarine. I finished that big plate in a blink of an eye. I filled myself up and felt like I was living like some general. As if it was in a different world. So I sat there for a while and ordered one more plate. I have remembered it for the rest of my life. My new life went on from that moment.
He bought a new coat, shirt, hat, and boots. He recalls that when he visited home all the villagers came to take a look at him. After a couple of years, Fedir got a job at the Chernihiv Musical Instruments Factory. He got a place in a dormitory and had a steady income that allowed him to stay in the city.
— I left the village life behind. I was 14 or 15 years old back then. I escaped from all of it because villages were still suffering from hunger, there was a shortage of provisions, and the bread that was available was simply not enough. I left and found my way. I believe I was lucky.
The material was published in cooperation with the National Museum of the Holodomor-Genocide with the support of the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation.
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