Never take what is not yours, not even during the Holodomor

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Marfa Kovalenko was six when the Holodomor began. All those terrifying events of the Ukrainian genocide were engraved in her memory, despite her very young age. The family’s only cow was confiscated; they were promised to get a cow back sometime later, but her father made it clear: he would not take any other cow besides his own, not an animal seized from some other family because of him. Thanks to the mutual support in the village, Marfa’s family managed to survive.

The Holodomor of 1932–1933 was the genocide of the Ukrainian nation. In this way Stalin was trying to suppress the Ukrainian farmers which opposed collectivisation and rose against the Soviet rule en masse. Unrealistically high quotas for the state grain procurement plans, coercive expropriation of people’s land, property, and food led to an artificial famine in many villages. The Holodomor killed millions of Ukrainians.

Ukraine officially recognised the Holodomor as a genocide against the Ukrainian nation by a special law in 2006. Later, such countries as Australia, Canada, Columbia, Ecuador, Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Poland, Portugal, USA, and the Vatican all supported this claim.

The topic of the Holodomor was banned completely in the Soviet Union. In Ukraine, the investigation of the archives started only after the country became independent. The recollections of eyewitnesses remain an important source of information about those events. But with every year their numbers dwindle.

Kostiantyniv. Marfa’s family

Kostiantyniv village is situated on the right bank of the Sula river in Slobozhanshchyna region. In the 17th century, it was a thriving trading point, which in the 19th century came into the possession of the Russian Count Golovkin’s family and after that, of the Russian Count Khvoshchinsky’s family. It was Khvoshchinsky’s manor where Marfa’s grandfather, Yakym Kovalenko, worked as a farm labourer (which later saved his family from starving to death).

Marfa Kovalenko was born in 1926 into the family of a physician assistant. Danylo, her father, attended the general practice in the nearby village, Korovyntsi, where that practice had been relocated from Kostiantyniv by Count Golovkin. Apart from a physician assistant, the practice also had other medical practitioners and among them, even surgeons; they had a wagon for home visits. There was accommodation for practitioners and their families nearby, and this was where Marfa’s parents lived. Marfa mostly preferred to stay at her grandfather’s home in Kostiantyniv, so her parents visited her almost every day.

Marfa’s parents had two more children: Oleksii, who had died of scarlet fever before her birth, and Fedir. Her father’s younger sister also died of scarlet fever. Marfa herself caught the disease when she was little, but she survived, despite high mortality rates.

— When my brother visited me, he was not allowed to come inside. Only as I started to recover were we permitted to talk through the window. He was standing outside, I was sitting inside, next to the window, — and so we were chatting. Then he would either head straight back to Korovyntsi or stay at our neighbours’ overnight, and in the morning he would go to school in Korovyntsi with the other children.

Kostiantyniv village, the house of Yakym Kovalenko, Marfa’s grandfather, where she survived the Holodomor.

When collectivisation and dekulakisation (mass expropriation — tr.) began in Ukraine, Marfa’s family was among those who suffered. Wealthy and hardworking Ukrainians were called “kulaks”. In the 1930s, everyone opposing collectivisation was considered a “kulak”. This was how the Bolsheviks tried to forcibly change the people’s values and to inculcate the principles of collective farming. They thus confiscated land and property from individual owners, proclaiming them “kulaks”.

— We had a small vegetable plot, but still they cut off most of it. My father was not in a kolhosp (a collective farm — tr.), so he was only allowed to keep 1.5 hectares, the area near our yard. So my father told the expropriators, “You may take away the vegetable plot, but please leave me a small garden up there.” And so the land adjacent to our house was seized, and crops were planted there, on my grandfather’s plot, by a collective farm. I could only use a narrow path to walk through it to what was left of our garden.

Patrol brigades, metal spikes, and smashed pottery

Marfa was only six when the famine began. She remembers the winter of 1932–1933 the most. Those were hard times, but they still had some food:

— We still had some potatoes and beetroot in the cellar, and some pickled cabbage and gherkins.

Special patrols were walking around the village, equipped with metal rods — long sharp poles which they poked everywhere, attempting to find any hidden grain deposits. In fact, they were looking for anything edible — to seize or destroy:

— They would come to our houses, look inside the stone stoves, take pots with some cooked food, and pour it out. Then they would smash the pots. Back then people mostly used earthenware.

Patrol brigades
These were special brigades consisting of village activists, kolhosp workers, or 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.) members, which during the Holodomor were tasked to search households for grain in order to meet the state procurement plan. Confiscation of grain, food, or cattle was often accompanied by beating, humiliation, and damage to property.

Kovalenko’s house was also visited by such a brigade. That day little Marfa was home alone with her grandfather:

— In the winter of 1932 or 1933, the brigade came to us. We heard the dog barking. It was very cold outside, so my grandfather helped me to bundle up; by the time we came out, the visitors were already wandering around our yard. They were all locals, all from Kostiantyniv. I even recognised one of them: Vasyl was his name; he was ginger-haired. “Put a leash on your dog,” — they told my grandpa. The dog prevented them from coming close to the cowshed. And that was where they were headed to. Finally they entered the shed, and led the cow out and away. Then that ginger Vasyl, who was actually living nearby, shoved my grandpa. He fell, and I started to cry and yell at them.

A group of physician assistants from the Nedryhailiv district after their revalidation in 1950. Danylo Kovalenko — Marfa’s father — is the second from the left in the front row.

Because Marfa’s father was a physician assistant, not a collective farm worker, he went to the town of Nedryhailiv to the head physician and attempted to get their cow back, but he also made it clear — he wouldn’t be taking somebody else’s one:

— If they bring back the cow that used to be ours, let them put it in the shed. If they bring a cow that they took from some man or woman, where there are still four or five kids, don’t bring that cow!

Йому пообіцяли, що приведуть корову назад, проте худобу так і не повернули.

He was promised his cow back, but it was never returned.

— So by the springtime our possessions were: some beetroot, some potatoes, dried fruits, and what was left of our garden. In the village of Terny, there was a sugar refinery which meant it had some sugar beet seeds.

Often for dinner people would cook “solodukha” — a liquid food from sugar beet — with some flatbread made out of leaves:

— We boiled the sugar beet. First we peeled it and cut it in quarters or in half (depending on how large the beet was), then we boiled it. Once cooked, we cubed it and filled it with the brine from pickled gherkins or cabbage. We didn’t have any bread by that time. People would bake “herbyks” (also called “lystianyks”, a flatbread made of leaves — tr.). Those who had a cow could use some milk to bake such “lystianyk”. My mother would not make them — we had no milk.

By the springtime people had no more seedlings to plant, so they had to use potato peels to grow any potatoes. Many people were starving to death, especially children. The survivors grew so weak, none of them were able to bury the deceased. The village council would provide a wagon to go around the streets and collect the dead bodies, which would be then buried in mass graves.

In the summer of 1932, the so-called “Law of Five Ears of Grain” was enacted, which prohibited villagers from collecting any ears of grain from kolhosp fields — according to the law, these actions were considered a theft. The fields were guarded by mounted patrols (formed by local activists from the lower classes, Komsomol members, sometimes by city dwellers who were rewarded for this service with a bread ration — ed.). They were preventing villagers from “stealing the state property” by making sure the starving people could not take any ears of grain or would not pick up any left over after the harvest. Patrolmen would whip any foraging children, as Marfa recalls. The luckiest few would bring back home a little bit of grain, to boil it or to grind into flour.

The Law of Five Ears of Grain
This was the name which people gave to the resolution “On Safekeeping the Property of State Enterprises, Collective Farms and Cooperatives, and Strengthening Public (Socialist) Property,” enacted on 7 August 1932. According to the law, for theft of any collective farm property, the offenders would be imprisoned for at least 10 years or executed by shooting.

Millstones preserved by Ivan Melnyk and Kseniia Bondarchuk, both of them born in 1926.

With the start of collectivisation, farmers’ millstones were seized and destroyed. In Kostiantyniv, the only person still possessing millstones was a local blacksmith. He was afraid to share them with anyone, fearing that somebody could whisper it to the village council and they would then seize the millstones:

— He would only grind grain for his close connections. He wouldn’t do it just for anyone, only for his relatives, good friends, or people he knew well. All this was revealed much later.

In the autumn of 1933, Marfa went to the first grade. The school was just around the corner, in a priest’s house. Their class was a large one, with over 30 children in it. That time the first grade would include children of different ages: from seven to ten years old. Children would not be fed at school. The support to Marfa’s family was coming from her elder brother Fedir, who was studying at the Mechanised Agriculture College in the town of Romny:

— My brother was studying in Romny during the period of the famine in 1933, and every Saturday he would bring a little piece of bread to our mother. I once snatched it from his hands and began to eat, he then burst into tears and cried, “But I brought it for our mother!” So my mother would divide it among us all, but we got a bigger share.

During the famine people were supporting each other. Marfa recalls how she and her friend Sonia would lead their neighbour Hanna’s cow back from pasture, and the woman would thank the girls with a glass of milk:

— My stomach was never distended. That girl and I would have about two small cups of milk, just about 200 or 300 grams.

Sonia’s elder brothers — Ivan and Borys — did not survive the famine:

— When the boys died, their father took the bodies out to an old half-collapsed cellar and covered them with something. My grandfather and another old man dug a small grave nearby, and there the boys were buried.

Silverware “odds and ends”

During the revolution of 1918, Count Khvoshchinsky’s family had to leave their ancestral home. While fleeing from the Bolsheviks’ rule, they took with them everything they could. What was left they gave away to their servants and farm labourers. That is how Marfa’s grandfather — Yakym Kovalenko — came into possession of some bits and pieces of silverware and dishes:

— The lords of the manor kept their sets to themselves, but gave away some odd spoons and forks and some children’s cutlery. The lady of the house said to my grandpa, “Take those, this will be a present to your boy.”

Marfa’s family managed to keep those items, and those saved them all from starving to death during the Holodomor.

— During the famine our family was saved by those items that the lady had given us — some silverware odds and ends. Those were a couple of spoons (I still have a teaspoon, which is now broken), some stainless steel knives with silver bolsters, a fork, and a silver herring platter.

During the Holodomor any items made of precious metals could be sold to a retail chain of Torgzins (abbreviation for “trade with foreigners”, special state-owned shops where goods were sold for foreign currency or exchanged for precious metals — ed.), which operated in the Soviet Union in the early 1930s. To save themselves from starving to death, people would bring to Torgzins any valuable possessions they had, any gold jewelry or silverware, and those items they would exchange for food. The exchange rates were the lowest, but this was life-saving sometimes:

— In Romny there was a Torgzin. My grandfather would eventually take a silver spoon or a fork to sell there. And then he would bring back home a handful of grains, which my mother would immediately grind and make some food. This was the price we paid for our survival, for keeping the whole family alive.

The manor of Count Khvoshchinsky, other facilities, and a tractor were all taken over by a local commune which later joined a local kolhosp. Soviet authorities also seized from the local community their church and turned it into a granary. The Kostiantyniv church was restored in 2007–2009, and today this is one of the most well-known monuments in the region.

According to Marfa’s recollections, many people in Kostiantyniv died during the years of the Holodomor; yet still many of them survived, thanks to their mutual support. The villagers did not lose their humanity and were able to share even when for themselves they had nothing to eat.

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The material was published in cooperation with the National Museum of the Holodomor-Genocide with the support of the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation.

The material is prepared by


Nazar Novak


Natalia Ponedilok


Yevgeniya Sapozhnykova

Kateryna Lehka


Karina Piliuhina

Liubov Hotsuliak


Mykhaylo Shelest

Valentyn Kuzan


Oleg Sologub

Mykhaylo Shelest

Film editor:

Yuliia Rublevska


Mykola Nosok

Photo editor:

Katya Akvarelna


Sofia Bazko

Liubov Hotsuliak

Yaroslava Nikitiuk


Yuliia Kotsur

Graphic designer:

Serhii Rodionov

Graphic designer:

Lyudmyla Kucher


Mykhailo Kostiv


Larysa Artemenko


Dmytro Vaskovskyi

Halya Kohuch

Translation editor:

Olga Kovalova


Richard Benton

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