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.