The Memory Keeper of Kyiv by Erin Litteken


This isn’t a particularly well-written book, but it’s the first time I’ve ever come across a novel about the Holodomor (or Holodymyr), the man-made famine which killed millions of people in Ukraine in the 1930s, and it does get across the message of the horrors which people endured at that time.   There’s a film called Mr Jones, which I watched a while back, but that shows the events from the viewpoint of a British journalist: this book tells it from the viewpoint of a (fictional) Ukrainian girl who lived through it.   It uses a dual time narrative, which I’m personally not keen on, and the writing and descriptions are fairly basic, with a bit too much dialogue; but it does tell an important story.  There’s also quite a lot of general information about Ukrainian culture in it.  Especially about food.

I should imagine that we’re going to see quite a few historical novels set in Ukraine, over the next year or so.  I hope that they’re not going to turn Ukrainian history into a tragedy narrative, because it isn’t, and it can actually be very problematic – Khmelnytsy, Petliura, Bandera -; but the Holodomor was a tragedy, made even more so by the fact that it was largely due to Soviet ineptitude and repression, that some areas were deliberately starved by the Stalinist authorities, and that what happened was largely covered up until Gorbachev’s time.

It was part of a wider famine across several parts of the Soviet Union.  Gorbachev, although he was only a baby whilst it was happening, has spoken about the loss of relatives and neighbours, including two aunts and an uncle, to starvation, and he declassified the documents from the time.   However, it was particularly bad in Ukraine.   No-one’s sure how many died, with estimates ranging from 2.5 million to 10 million, but we’re certainly talking millions of people.  Some people and some countries consider it to have been genocide, and there’s certainly a strong argument in favour of that view.

So how did this happen, in Ukraine, the breadbasket of Europe?  Well, bad weather was certainly a factor, and it’s possible that rodents, insects and plant blight may all have played a part in it too, but it was basically due to Soviet ineptitude.  They tried to force collectivisation on the agricultural workers, insisted that some of the land be turned over to producing cotton rather than grain, failed to account for the need to produce fodder for animals as well as food for humans, imposed quotas which couldn’t be met, and allocated higher food rations to urban workers at the expense of rural workers.   People were shot for trying to escape from the areas with no food and prosecuted for trying to glean bits of food from the fields, offers of foreign aid were refused, and a lot of grain was wasted due to inefficient transportation and storage.

On top of everything else, Walter Duranty of the New York Times saw fit to report that stories of starvation in the Soviet Union had been wildly exaggerated, and that things under communism were all hunky dory.  And then the Soviets covered up what had really happened.  Gareth Jones, the “Mr Jones” of the aforementioned film, who had tried to tell the world what was going on, was murdered by Soviet agents.

There’s a school of thought which holds that the Stalinist authorities actually did it on purpose – that it was a way to try to suppress Ukrainian nationalism, at a time when Russification was being used to try to bring about uniformity, and when there was severe repression aimed specifically at Ukraine.  The poor agricultural policies led to resistance, and, as a result, whole villages in Ukraine were blacklisted, and banned from receiving any food at all, and the grain which they produced was requisitioned and distributed elsewhere.   Was it genocide?   I don’t personally think that the shortage of grain was deliberately engineered: the Soviets needed Ukrainian agriculture, and they needed the food to supply urban workers.   It was ineptitude.  Communism only works in a small scale setting: central planning and quota-setting for somewhere as large as the Soviet Union was never going to work.   But does the deliberate withholding of food from people, and the commandeering of such supplies as they produced for themselves, constitute genocide?   Well, there’s certainly a cogent argument that it does.

OK, history essay over!   This is a novel, not an academic work.  We’ve got an elderly lady in America in 2004, having flashbacks to her youth in Ukraine, and a rather irrelevant sub-plot about a romance between her widowed granddaughter and a handsome neighbour.   I could have done without the sections set in 2004, but, as I’ve said, dual timelines seem to be all the rage these days.  The interesting parts are set in Ukraine in the 1930s, with the elderly lady as a young woman.  It’s written in American English, which is obviously fair enough for an American author, but which may read strangely to readers from other Anglophone countries.  The style of writing isn’t wonderful, and there’s a bit too much dialogue and not enough description; but it is the author’s first ever book.

There’s a tendency in a lot of cultures to look back to some mythical golden idyll before something happened.  Think William Blake’s “green and pleasant land” pre the Industrial Revolution, the introduction to the Gone With The Wind film, about the antebellum South, or the idea that it was grand to be an Englishman in 1910, before the First World War.  I think that this book does fall into that trap.  Life in rural Ukraine before Stalinism was not a bed of roses: the grandparents of our protagonist, Katya, were probably born into serfdom, and then came the First World War, followed by the 1917-1921 war.  But, certainly, things were a lot better than they were during the horrors of 1932-33.

Without giving the whole story, we see Katya, the protagonist, as a happy young girl, and then her life and those around her turning into horror as the Stalinist secret police (always described as “activists”, for some reason) take over, try to enforce collectivisation, and take all their food supplies.  (The title’s a misnomer: we don’t even see Kyiv in the book, and the scenes in Ukraine are based around a village near the town of Bila Tservka, around 50 miles from Kyiv.)  Most of her family and many of her neighbours are either shot dead, are deported to Siberia, or die of starvation, and Katya herself is raped.  When the winter of 1932-33 is over, she and her brother-in-law Kolya go to look for the other viillagers, and find house after house containing frozen bodies.  Gorbachev’s spoken of how half the people in his village died during that winter.

A visiting cousin talks of cannibalism, and there are many accounts of that having really happened. In one chapter, Katya and Kolya go to the nearest town, and see piles of bodies along the roadside: again, there are many accounts of how people died in fields or along the sides of roads. They eat worms, grass, anything they can find, and even flush out rabbits’ burrows to take the animals’ grain supplies: all these things really happened during the Holodomor.

The book very much takes the view that Stalin was deliberately starving people: one character actuallly says that Stalin wants them all dead.   Katya and Kolya see vast amounts of food piled up in storage facilities, often rotting, dead horses being covered in carbolic acid to prevent people from eating them, and people being prosecuted for taking any food or grain from the fields.   People were denied the food on the grounds that their farm or village hadn’t met the quotas imposed by the authorities.  The afterword talks about how foraging in the woods or fishing in streams was illegal, as all the land and water was deemed to belong to the state, and how large amounts of food were exported to other countries during this time.

We do see someone who’d been with the secret police seeing the error of his ways, but too late.  And we see a 10-year-old boy informing on his own parents, because of the brainwashing that took place in the communist youth organisations.

The book makes clear that collectivisation caused considerable demotivation, and that that was yet another factor leading to the drop in agricultural production.  We hear how the the characters want to be working for themselves, not feeling that they’re just small cogs in a big and impersonal state wheel.  All sounds rather Thatcherite, doesn’t it?  Communism doesn’t work, except on a very small scale in Israeli kibbutzim.  And it inevitably brings about totalitarianism, which in turn brings about repression.

In the book, Katya’s diary from 1932-3 is turned into a book by her granddaughter, because the story needs telling.  Well, yes, it does.  Why is this story so little known?   Many people had left Ukraine for Canada, the US and elsewhere in the 1920s, but presumably those back home weren’t able to write and tell them. There were reports in the foreign press, and some offers of foreign aid, but Walter Duranty’s reports would have been widely read in the West, and … well, what are we doing at the moment to help the Uighur and Rohingya peoples?   Not much.

The author’s explanation is that the rest of the world didn’t want to antagonise Stalin as they needed his support against Hitler, but that wasn’t until later in the decade and into the 1940s, so I’m not entirely getting that idea.   She also says that people who were able to leave famine-stricken parts of Ukraine after the Second World War were so afraid of the Soviet authorities that they wouldn’t speak out even once they were settled in other countries, and explains that her Ukrainian great-grandmother was terrified of the police and even of unsolicited phone calls.

One moan, and this was probably a typo – a female character’s patronymic is given as Mykolayovych, rather than Mykolayevna.  Also, I found it odd that the Yiddish word “blintze” was used rather than the Ukrainian word “nalynsky”, but the author mentions in the afterword that her great-grandmother said “blintze”, so maybe she came from a village with a mixed population.

OK, end of essay.  I get a bit carried away when I’m writing about Eastern European history.   As I’ve said, this isn’t a particularly well-written book, and I’m not a fan of dual time narratives, but, especially if you can get it on the cheap Kindle deal offer, this is well worth reading, because this story does need to be far more widely known.


The Crimean Circle by David Kushner


This, as the title suggests, is set during the Crimean War.   It isn’t by a British author, and so it’s not the usual fare: there is nary a mention of Florence Nightingale, our characters watch the Charge of the Light Brigade and wonder what on earth’s going on (although, it has to be said, most of the British Army did as well, and they’re involved in the defence of Sebastopol, not in besieging it (I can’t get used to “Sevastopil”, sorry).

Crimea (I’m a British historian, OK, I can’t get used to “Krym”) is obviously much in the news at the moment.  People in the UK will, until 2014, have known it largely from the war of the 1850s.  It was a war in which Britain should never have got involved, but which was strangely popular here, and made a big impact on our culture – Florence Nightingale’s work, obviously, the Cardwell Army Reforms and the Tennyson poem, but also the use of the words “balaclava” and “cardigan”, and all those little urban roads with names like Inkerman Street and Balaclava Terrace.

None of that has got anything to do with this book: I’m just being Anglocentric.  Ahem.  The book is by an American author and is subtitled “A Russian Jewish Tale of the Crimean War”, which is certainly a different take on it.   Incidentally, our hero, Iosif Hirschcovich Cymerman/Zimmerman comes from Kremenets, in what’s now Ukraine, and would probably have been thought of then as Russian Poland, but, to be fair, most people would say “Russian” to mean “the Russian Empire”.

The point of the book is to highlight the issue of the forcible conscription into the Russian army of quotas from minority religious and ethnic groups, rather like the devshirme system in the Ottoman Empire.   This applied to Jews, Karaites, Old Believers, Roma people, various indigenous peoples and, after the 1830 Uprising, Catholic Poles.  With most groups, boys were conscripted at 18.  With Jews and Karaites, boys were conscripted at 12 in theory, and sometimes from as young as 8, and sent to cantonist schools.  It’s not something which is ever spoken about very much.  I think that the memory of the devshirme system still lingers in Greece, over 200 years after independence, but no-one talks about forcible conscription amongst minorities in the Russian Army.  There’s one vague reference to it early on in Maisie Mosco’s Almonds and Raisins, in which we’re told that Abraham Sandberg’s brother (who is never mentioned again) fell victim to it, but I can’t think of any other novel which even mentions it, and not even academic books say much about it.

So it’s an interesting and neglected topic: I just wish that a) the author had checked a few basic facts more carefully and b) the story had been a bit more realistic.  It’s a self-published novel, so it possibly wasn’t edited by a third party, but that doesn’t excuse some of the really silly errors which it contains.  And it’s not exactly very likely that our guy would have saved the Tsarevich’s life, been given a fortune by a count whose life he’d also saved, and then been invited to appear in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, is it?!

We’re told that Kremenets had been under Russian rule since 1756.  Oh, come on.  The Polish partitions took place in 1772, 1793 (the correct date for Volhynia … and I’m talking about the historic province, so it’s OK for me to say “Volhynia” rather than “Volyn”!) and 1795.  The significance of 1756 was the Diplomatic Revolution and the start of the Seven Years’ War.  You can check that sort of thing on Google or Wikipedia in a matter of seconds.  There was also a reference to Job’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt.  I do not claim to be an expert on the Bible, but Lot’s wife being turned into a pillar of salt is surely fairly basic general knowledge.  And referring to Ekaterinburg as Sverdlovsk, the name it was only given 70 years after the book was set, really was very poor.

Oh, and I also wish that the author had used the normal system of transliterating from Yiddish, rather than that awful alternative system which I don’t think anyone outside American academia can follow – khay instead of che etc.  Even Google can’t follow it.  I tried Googling a sample word using the normal transliteration and the alternative version, and Google didn’t recognise the latter.  So there!!  There were some issues with the quality of English, as well.  Maybe that was just with the Kindle version, but other errors were with the actual text – such as “two centuries ago” rather than “two millennia ago” (placing Judah the Maccabee in the 17th century!).

All right, all right, enough moaning.  What about the actual story?  I seem to have had a lot more to say about the historical background and the historical errors than I have about the story itself.   There was a bit about Cymerman’s early life, but the rest of was about his life in the army, first in Kyiv and then en route to and at the scenes of the fighting.  A number of other people also played a significant role in the book, including a brutal Ukrainian sergeant, a Jew who’d converted to Orthodoxy but said that he was only pretending to make life in the army easier for himself, and a lot of young lads who’d been taken from an orphanage in order to fill the quota from their area.  Oh, and a dog.  The dog had quite a big role.

TBH, I didn’t find the actual book that interesting.  I appreciate that the point was to show how awful life is, but there’s really only so much you can read about digging latrines and burying bodies, which was what they spent most of their time doing.  And there was a lot about weapons and battle tactics, which I know that a lot of people enjoy reading about, and which will probably really appeal to fans of Bernard Cornwell and Edward Marston, but which just wasn’t for me.

Books about the Romanovs are for me though, so I was quite chuffed when our pal Iosif rand his mates saved the Tsarevich’s life at Balaclava – the Tsarevich having apparently decided to make a surprise appearance at the battle, as you do.  But it wasn’t exactly very realistic, and I’d thought that the book was trying to give a realistic portrayal of these young men’s lives.  Also, the author showed the Tsarevich’s friends referring to him as “Alex”.  Excuse me?   I’m not sure that even his close friends would have used a diminutive of his name, but, if they had, it would have been “Sasha”.  Have you ever met a Russian known as “Alex”?!

Having saved the Tsarevich’s life, Iosif just happened to meet up with Tolstoy.  And then we learned – there was a bit of a dual timeline, with one of Iosif’s descendants meeting up with a British aristocrat and telling her his family history, and it transpiring that her ancestor had given Iosif his watch after the Charge of the Light Brigade – that Iosif ended up living in Missouri, had a run in with Quantrill’s Raiders, and turned down an invitation to join Buffalo Bill Cody’s show.

Sadly more realistically, Iosif’s fiancee Sima was raped by a soldier – and one of supposedly their own side, a Russian soldier.  As has happened in so many wars of the past and as is happening in Ukraine now, men rape women as some sort of particularly sick way of making war.  It’s quite rightly considered a war crime now, but that’s only happened quite recently.

Continuing with the story, Iosif was imprisoned for attacking Sima’s rapist, but he was later released, and he and Sima were married, and joined some of his comrades in a grand reception given by Alexander, now the Tsar, in St Petersburg, and received large sums of money both from the Tsar and from the family of a count whose life Iosif had also saved.   And there’s a sequel, which presumably covers the move to America.

The author is apparently a prize-winning journalist who’s also written non-fiction books.  I think this was his first foray into fiction, so maybe allowances should be made for that!   Full marks for the choice of topic, very average marks for the actual book!


Mr Jones


  This film tells the tragic story of Gareth Jones, the brave young Welsh journalist who tried to tell the world about the Holodymyr, the man-made famine which killed millions of people in Ukraine in 1932-33, part of a wider famine also affecting Kazakhstan and other parts of the Soviet Union, and is now considered genocide in Ukraine.  Not only were the Soviets were determined to cover it up, but so were left-wing intellectuals in the West, unwilling to admit that damage that Stalinism had done.  That, and false reporting by the New York Times‘ “man in Moscow” Walter Duranty, meant that the efforts of Jones, Malcolm Muggeridge and others to bring the famine to world attention sadly did little good.   Jones was murdered by bandits, almost certainly in the pay of the Soviet secret police, not long after his reports were published.

It’s not the easiest of films to watch, especially as quite a lot of it’s in Russian with English subtitles, but it tells an important and still little-known story of very tragic events.

It was only in the era of glasnost that people were really able to talk for the first time about what happened.  Gorbachev himself spoke of losing two aunts and an uncle in the mixed Russian-Ukrainian village in Southern Russia where he grew up.   It’s not clear how many people died – estimates vary from 3 million to 12 million – and there’s little clarity and fierce argument over exactly what went on.  Stalin’s collectivisation programme, together with generally poor administration, meant that crop yields fell in the first place, and a lot of grain was lost in the processing and transportation processes.  Then such grain as there was was requisitioned, and most of it was allocated to industrial workers in towns, leaving those in the countryside to starve.

Some people think that, whilst due to appalling mismanagement, it wasn’t deliberate.  Others believe that the Stalinist administration deliberately starved people in rural areas, probably to stifle Ukrainian nationalism.

Malcolm Muggeridge – am I the only person who associates him with Adrian Mole? – raised the issue in the British press, after spending time in the Soviet Union.  Other Western reporters also raised the issue.  However, they didn’t feature in this film, which was all about Gareth Jones, the first Western writer to speak out using his own name.

We saw Jones working in the Soviet Union, and some fairly harrowing scenes as he uncovered what was going on.  Then we saw his attempts to bring it to Western attention – and how, although his reports were widely publicised, it didn’t really suit anyone in authority to accept what was happening.   George Bernard Shaw and others would later travel to the Soviet Union, at Stalin’s behest, to claim that they saw no signs of famine: in this film, it was George Orwell who was reluctant to accept the damage done by communism, but that did sum up the views of many left-wing intellectuals.

Business people were eager to normalise relations with the Soviet Union, in the middle of the Depression, in the hopes of boosting the economy.  And we saw Lloyd George, for whom Jones had once worked, saying that he accepted what Jones was saying but that he didn’t know what Jones wanted him to do about it – what *could* he do about it?  On top of that, the Metro-Vickers trial was going on – the Soviets were holding six British engineering workers.  The film suggested that they’d threatened to execute them if Jones published his report … although I’m not sure that that’s very accurate.

The main figure, though, was Walter Duranty, the Liverpool-born journalist working for the New York Times, who insisted that Stalinism, although brutal, was necessary because the Soviet Union couldn’t be governed any other way, claimed that there was no famine and that Jones and the others were talking rubbish, and played a big part in Roosevelt’s decision to recognise the Soviet regime.  In the film, Duranty’s presented as a big baddie, forcing people to lie.  But what were his motives?  It’s certainly known that he did know about the famine.  Did he genuinely believe that Stalinism was a good thing?  Was he keen to promote good relations between the USSR and the West, to avoid war or promote trade?  Was he maybe, as some people have suggested, being blackmailed because he was gay?

There’s so much we don’t know.  But we do know that the famine happened, that it was the fault of the Stalinist regime, that millions of people died, and that Gareth Jones and other brave Western journalists tried to expose it.  People are very critical of the media these days: we shouldn’t forget what an important job journalists do.   And the Holodymyr, usually referred to as the Holodomor in the Russian rather than Ukrainian translation, is still little-known in the West.  Sad story all round.