Evening skies engulf the small village of Plastunivka. The village is situated in the beautiful steppes of eastern Ukraine, 120km to the north of Luhansk and is right on the border with Russia. 13-year-old Hanna is doing chores around the house. Some guests arrive at the house: 6-year-old Vasylko, 5-year-old Klava as well as her cousin and sister. «We had pancakes with oil!» – exclaimed Vasylko. – And what you have eaten today?» «Nothing yet» – replied Hanna. «This is because your parents are alive – very unlucky for you!» – with a sense of sincere condolence said Vasylko.
This macabre scene could easily fit somewhere in the gloomy Grimm Brothers tales. Unfortunately though, this is part of my family story. Hanna was my great grandmother. The story was from the summer of 1932, when Ukraine started to experience mass hunger caused by the state campaign of mass bread withdrawal from the peasants. It caused a hunger in villages which took the lives of at least 4 million Ukrainians and was later known as the Holodomor of 1932-33.
The village of Plastunivka was founded in the early XX century by twenty families which migrated from the Cherkasy area (central Ukraine). The village quickly developed and became wealthy. However, in 1929, the Soviet government initiated its policy of collectivisation, which in practice meant the theft of affluent farms and the repression of their owners. A third of the inhabitants of Plastunivka fell into this category – they were all sent to Siberia where they disappeared forever. Those who were not exiled were forced to work for kolkhoz farms. This was humiliating, yet they had no other choice. They were not paid but at least they were fed sufficiently enough to survive. In an environment of mass hunger around them, this was the only way to survive. Being able to bring a piece of bread home was seen as a luxury.
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My grandmother Hanna was lucky: her family was robbed but not repressed. That summer evening, her mother Agafia Umanska was at work at the local kolkhoz. Her father, Pavlo Umansky stayed at home because he was too weak to stand from hunger, and thus simply stayed lying down, waiting to die. His brother along with his wife (the parents of Vasylko and Klava) have already died from hunger and fatigue and hence, their children were taken to an orphanage. Unlike the rest of the children which were suffering from hunger and often died together with their parents, orphans were better off as the Soviet government took care of them – it considered them as state property and wanted to raise them with communist ideals. This is exactly the kind of orphanage that Vasylko and Klava lived in. Pancakes with oil, which were given to them in the orphanage were unheard of – it was a very rare luxury. In the late autumn of 1932, the villagers of Plastunivka started to eat acorns, tree bark and even dug burrows in search of field mice.
Leaving the village was impossible, as Red Army soldiers were standing on the roads leading out and did not let anyone through. In January of 1933, Agafia Umanska, together with her young neighbour Stepan Khabryk decided to take a risk and go on an expedition. Upon collecting valuable belongings at home, they went to a neighbouring village in Russia to try to exchange some of their belongings for food – as they had heard rumours that there was no hunger in Russia.
Unfortunately, the name of this village was not included in family history and considered lost. The details of this trip were well remembered, however. Agafia and Stepan left at night, staying away from roads through the steppe and a waist-high snow cover, for about 20km. Despite being gravely exhausted and frozen up, they managed to reach their destination.They were lucky: they were allowed to sleep over at someone’s house and they even managed to return home with a sack of flour, thanks to which they were able to survive until spring. Springtime made things easier – ‘edible’ grass, leaves and roots came about. Yes, they were very lucky. Agafia, Pavlo and little Hanna survived the Holodomor. Vasylko and Klava also survived.
The memory of the Holodomor was always there. In the late 1960s, Hanna and Vasylko met once again in the same house in Plastunivka. They were not young anymore – they lived through the Second World War, post-war famine and many other hardships. When talking about their lives, Hanna recalled their childhood talk about pancakes and oil. Vasyl, being a large and strong man, suddenly went pale, ran out of the house and slammed the door behind him. Sitting outside in the yard, he cried for a very long time, beating himself with the same question: «How could I say something like that?» Perhaps he was crying simply from the helplessness he felt under the totalitarian government which killed his parents.
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The amount of people who died from hunger in Plastunivka is impossible to establish. As historians later determined, the nearby village of Romanivka suffered 155 deaths out of a total population of 500. Plastunivka declined as a settlement up until the 1990s, right before the first systematic studies of the Holodomor. The village eventually ceased to exist as there were no inhabitants there anymore. In the early 2000s, my father took me to that area. Plastunivka was just a few ruined abandoned houses, overgrown with bushes. The only thing remaining from the Umansky family house was a small hill and old apple trees around.
There are not many Holodomor survivors anymore. Nevertheless, the tragedy of 1932-33 is still an unhealed wound for many Ukrainians, both on the national and personal level. 90 years later, when Russian soldiers deliberately targeted food stocks of Ukraine, this instantly stirred up old memories of the Holodomor. The entailing political connotations are also not accidental, as collectivisation and the Holodomor came to Ukraine simultaneously with the arrival of the Soviet government, imposed by the Russian bolsheviks after the fall of the Ukrainian People’s Republic in 1921. Moscow’s brutal campaign for bread exportation in 1932-33 was a planned genocide of Ukrainian villagers and peasentry. In such a way, Stalin aimed to break the Ukrainian national resistance (80% of Ukrainians lived in villages). For example, just in 1929, there were a total of 1437 acts of resistance of some sort against the government in villages in Ukraine.
Similarly, the invaders’ current strategy to cause a humanitarian crisis through inflicted damage on the agricultural industry aims to undermine Ukrainian resistance once again. For example, on the 12th of March, the Russians shot up a warehouse of Fozzy group Co. near the city of Brovary in Kyiv region, as a result of which, 5500 tons of food were destroyed. On the 29th of March in the Kyiv region, a Russian rocket destroyed another warehouse, this time of the supermarket giant ATB. Food warehouses in Severodonetsk suffered a similar fate in March.
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However, the biggest harm comes from attacks on grain elevators and theft of agricultural enterprise. According to the Ministry of Agrarian Policy and Food, the invaders stole 100,000 tons of grain from the Luhansk oblast and another 30,000 tons were destroyed during the bombardment of the grain elevator in Rubizhne. To put this in retrospect, the annual needs of the Luhansk oblast (norms prior to the 24th of February, without taking into account the occupied territories of that time) was calculated to be 60,000 tons of grain. A similar situation persists in Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts. There is a seperate form of looting and theft that the Russian army has perpetrated – that of stealing agricultural machinery and vehicle. In occupied Melitopol, the Russians stole combine harvesters, seeder vehicles and tractors, which were later discovered to be in Chechnya.
Despite the war, the harvest season in Ukraine went ahead. As declared by the minister of Agrarian Policy and Food Mykola Solsky, the overall crop area was reduced by 20-30%. However, in the northern part of Luhansk oblast, which is largely agrarian since the 1930s, the harvest season is under threat of complete failure. Local agricultural enterprises have either completely ceased operations, experiencing a shortage of seed or simply don’t imagine what to do amidst the chaos and war. For the region, the threat of an economic catastrophe is real. Despite that no fighting is going on in this particular region (north of Luhansk oblast), the locals are well aware that they are on the verge of a catastrophic food shortage crisis. The main hope for self-sustenance for the locals is their own smaller agricultural establishments – their own yard, garden and livestock. The last 8 years have gone to show that humanitarian needs of the local population is the last concern of the Russian invaders. If the occupied territories of Ukraine won’t get liberated soon, then millions of Ukrainians there will start to think of pancakes with oil as a luxury once again.