The Ukraine is one of those countries where unimaginable tragedies seem to wash over it on a regular basis. One of those tragedies occurred in 1932-33 when millions perished in a famine induced by Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union against the people of Ukraine. Holodomor is a Ukrainian word that literally means “extermination by hunger.”
The Famine Memorial in Kiev remembers victims of the man-made famine set loose to quell a growing Ukrainian nationalist movement in the early 1930s. In 1932 a law was put in place that made all food state property and unauthorized possession of food was a capital crime. Gangs of young students trained under the Soviet system were sent into the countryside to enforce the law and ended up contributing to the abuse and torment of the peasants. A rationing system was put in place that deprived families in the country the minimum calories necessary to sustain life. The food problems were complicated by implementation of the Soviet collectivization system which introduced new agriculture requirements and crops the Ukrainians were unfamiliar with.
The famine stopped at the border between Ukraine and Russia. Thousands of Ukrainians also died trying to escape to Romania where they were killed by border guards.
While precise numbers of of victims will never be known, estimates run between 3.5 and 7 million deaths by starvation. Some think the numbers could be twice these estimates.
The bronze statue of the starving girl at the memorial remembers all the children who perished during this time. In her hand she grasps five stalks of wheat. The Soviet law prohibited gathering leftovers from the harvest. If you collected more than 5 stalks you were sent to camps.
The main part of the memorial is the 32-meter high Candle of Memory. Large crosses represent the souls of adults. Small crosses represent the souls of children. There are golden cranes in cages on the memorial. The caged birds represent the travails of Ukraine. One bird escapes the cages and rises to freedom. This free crane represents Ukraine today.
Kongo’s guide in Kiev told him a story about her grandmother who was a child during this period of terror. Her family found a cow loose in the forest near their farm. If they cow was discovered by the authorities the entire family would be killed. Without the cow the family would die of starvation. This was a real Hobson’s choice. Luckily, the cow remained undiscovered and the family survived. It is stories like these that make memorials real. Behind the symbolism and architectural design are always real people and real events.
The picture below is a view of the Dnieper River from the Famine Memorial.
9 thoughts on “Holodomor”
Having lived for a year in Ukraine, I can say that Kongo got this tribute just right. Thanks.
The area of Canada I’m from has a huge Ukrainian descended population. In from of the city hall in my town is a memorial to that famine.
Absolutely first class post…..a tragedy that so few people in the West know anything about. I have also stood at that memorial: there is a sense of loss and calm that fills you with the sadness of the victims: that sense never quite goes away. Thank you for helping to spread that word
Thanks for the kind words, Johnny. It is indeed one of those places that leaves haunting feelings with you long after your visit.
Thank you for this post, Kongo. I just want to add that there are still a lot of dubious views about famine in Ukraine. Especially concerning the term “holodomor” – extermination by hunger. Some researchers deny that genocide against Ukrainians took place at that time.The argument for that became some facts of famine occurred in other regions of Soviet Union, including some Russian districts, in 1932-33. So it would be not correct to say that people were starving only in Ukraine at that time. Anyway we should admit that exactly on Ukrainian territory unbelievable measures were taken by power turning some natural factors of food shortage to annihilation of people and mass tragedy of the nation. Even some people insist on the absence of any intentional actions against Ukrainians it’s too difficult to believe that this tragedy could happen by accident.
Thanks so much for your insightful commentary. After visiting this mournful site with you in Kiev I did some additional research and reading about these difficult times in Ukrainian history and I do understand that there are some scholars who do indeed question whether or not the famine was deliberate, the result of incompetence in implementing collectivization policies, or even happened at all.
My opinion that the famine was indeed a “holodomor” event flows from other atrocities that Joseph Stalin carried out on other parts of the Soviet Union, the targeting of military and party members for the Gulag by the millions, and the use of young party members in the Ukraine to enforce the strict rationing policies in the countryside, the prevention of movement across borders to places like Romania where the famine was not in effect, and the draconian penalties for violation of hoarding rules. While inexpert implementation of the Soviet collectivization policies could certainly have exasperated the hunger, it seems to me that if the famine was not deliberate then the government would have taken actions to ease the policies and rationing.
Of course, as an American, it is difficult for me to imagine a government so inherently evil that it would target the direct elimination of its own people to achieve some higher political purpose. I am sure others in many other countries, including Ukraine, share similar feelings but when you read of the atrocities committed by Stalin and his gang of thugs in Moscow during the 1930s all the way up to the German invasion it not longer seems unbelievable that the could also have deliberately starved millions of their fellow citizens to make room for the new crops and larger collectivized farming techniques the Soviet wanted to implement. And I do wholeheartedly agree with your sentence that suggests that even in the absence of direct documentary evidence that holodomor was deliberate, the scale, impact, and end result of this tragedy is too overwhelming to believe that it did not happen by accident.
Oksana, I may be returning to Ukraine in the next few months and hope to see you again. You’re the best tour guide ever!
And best wishes for continued success in the New Year (which I believe starts on January 14 on the Gregorian calendar)!
For my insightful commentary I’ve got even more insightful commentary – thank you Kongo. I’m glad to know that after visiting Kiev and Ukraine some people get inspired to make a deeper search and to get knowing more about our history.
I will be glad to see a lovely Kongo monkey again and to have it on my shoulder for a while 🙂 So let me know if you’re in Kiev once!
Thank you for your explanation of the memorial as we were there on Monday and our guide book had a picture but no explanation of what it symbolised.
Christine, thanks for the comment. The famine memorial was quite moving for me and as I watch current events unfold in Ukraine I’m worried about more troubles for this amazing country. Best.
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