Eyewitness accounts are one of the sources of information used by historians to arrive at the truth about a historical event. Using a number of eyewitness reports, students can see how the event affected the lives of ordinary people in a society at a specific time and in a specific place.

US Commission on the Ukraine Famine 1985-88

The following eyewitness accounts were collected in the course of the work of the US Commission on the Ukraine Famine 1985-88.

Case Study 1. Famine Testimony of Sviatoslav Karavansky

From my childhood years I remember that from 1929, the beginning of industrialization and collectivization, our family and all of the people of Odesa suffered a great shortage of food. Buttermilk, milk, sugar and even bread disappeared from the stores. In the period 1929-30 the whole city turned to the rationing system. The entire population lived on rations. The portions that were handed out continued to decrease, and in the winter of 1933 I, as a dependent, received 200 grams (seven ounces) of black bread per day. My mother, brother and sister received the same ration. Bread was, and still is, the main source of nourishment for the Soviet population.

For comparison, let’s consider the daily ration of the Soviet soldier. The soldiers of the Red Army received at that time one kilogram (36 ounces) of bread per day. The entire city of Odesa lived on rations which were insufficient for healthy people, but which kept it from starving. The rural population was not subject to rationing, and it perished. People in the villages could not receive any help from their relatives in towns because the city population was hungry, too.

It should be mentioned that the closing of churches preceded the Great Famine. So, the organizer of the famine took into consideration the major role played by the Church in dealing with national disasters like the famine. It is known that during the famine of 1921 in Ukraine churches aided the starving people. During 1932-33, the churches did not function, and the clergy were sent to labor camps, which, in reality, were death camps.

Our family lived in downtown Odesa, and I attended school there. I never saw starving people downtown, but many of the latter were seen on the outskirts of the city. Odesa was a port where foreign sailors and businessmen could always be found, so the authorities took measures not to allow hungry peasants to reach the downtown area. But everyone in Odesa knew that there was a horrible shortage of food in the villages. People swelled from hunger and died. In the school, which I attended from September 1932 to May 1933, the teacher told us that the kulaks (or kurkuls) were responsible for all the temporary difficulties of the Soviet socialist economy.

My father was employed in the Odesa shipyard, and I heard from adults that a lot of foreign ships in the docks were waiting their turn to be loaded with grain from Odesa grain elevators. My parents wondered how it was possible that such great quantities of food were being exported while the village population was starving. To ask questions about this was dangerous. If a child asked about these things in school, the teachers assumed that he had been taught by his parents, who were thus placed in danger. So, my parents were very careful about telling me not to ask any questions in school, and not to reveal anywhere what was discussed in the family.

The entire population was terrorized by the arrests and trials, which culminated in 1932-33. In those years so-called “torgsins” were opened in Odesa. In “torgsins” anyone could buy for gold and foreign currency all the food that otherwise was distributed through the rationing system. Many people who had small golden crosses or wedding rings brought them to “torgsins.” Once my mother went to “torgsin” as well. She brought back a loaf of black bread, turning the day into a holiday for the entire family.

There were rumors in Odesa that people were being arrested for selling human sausage in the market place. There was a saying that the sausages “had been shot.” Such accounts were not published in the newspapers, which only praised the wisdom of the party and the great leader, Stalin.

In 1934 my father, as a shipyard employee, got a free ticket for an Odesa-Batumi cruise on the Black Sea. Traveling to Batumi on the liner, he observed that a large number of Ukrainian peasants had migrated to Georgia where there was no food shortage and no famine.

The famine in Ukraine was over, but those who survived fled from Ukraine. I know that in the local schools in the village of Rossosha near Proskurov (now Khmelnytsky) there was no first year class for the 1940-41 school year because the birth rate in 1933 had been zero. In 1953-54 the Soviet Navy also experienced shortages of healthy servicemen because of the zero birth rate in 1933 in Ukraine. The requirements for the service in the navy were reduced because otherwise it was impossible to recruit the necessary number of sailors. I received this information from a navy officer who had served a 10-year term in Mordovia. In 1970 my wife and I met a woman in the village of Tarussa (Kaluga region) who spoke with a strong Ukrainian accent. She told us that she was born near Kyiv. In 1933 she had fled from her native village because of the famine and had found shelter in Tarussa where she later married and settled down, thereby escaping death while her entire family died of starvation.

Since the revolution, the majority of the Ukrainian population has felt hostility toward the Soviet occupation. The artificial famine deepened the hostility. It is believed that half of the entire prison population in the gulag was composed of Ukrainians. The memory of the famine was especially vivid for the Ukrainian dissidents of the 1960s and ’70s. The founder of the Ukrainian Helsinki Monitoring Group, Mykola Rudenko, wrote a poem about the famine titled “The Cross.” References to the famine are present in the works of the late Vasyl Stus, Oles Berdnyk and others.


Congressional Testimony presented before the United States Ukraine Famine Commission in Washington D.C., October 8, 1986.

Case Study 2. Famine Testimony of Tatiana Pawlichka

In 1932, I was 10 years old, and I remember well what happened in my native village in the Kyiv region. In the spring of that year, we had virtually no seed. The Communists had taken all the grain, and although they saw that we were weak and hungry, they came and searched for more grain. My mother had stashed away some corn that had already sprouted, but they found that, too, and took it. What we did manage to sow, the starving people pulled up out of the ground and ate.

In the villages and on the collective farms (our village had two collectives), a lot of land lay fallow, because people had nothing to sow, and there wasn’t enough manpower to do the sowing. Most people couldn’t walk, and those few who could had no strength. When, at harvest time, there weren’t enough local people to harvest the grain, others were sent in to help on the collectives. These people spoke Russian, and they were given provisions.

After the harvest, the villagers tried to go out in the field to look for gleanings, and the Communists would arrest them and shoot at them, and send them to Siberia. My aunt, Tatiana Rudenko, was taken away. They said she had stolen the property of the collective farm.

That summer, the vegetables couldn’t even ripen — people pulled them out of the ground — still green — and ate them. People ate leaves, nettles, milkweed, sedges. By autumn, no one had any chickens or cattle. Here and there, someone had a few potatoes or beets. People coming in from other villages told the very same story. They would travel all over trying to get food. They would fall by the roadside, and none of us could do anything to help. When the ground froze, they were just left lying there dead, in the snow; or, if they died in the house, they were dragged out to the cattle-shed, and they would lie there frozen until spring. There was no one to dig graves.

All the train stations were overflowing with starving, dying people. Everyone wanted to go to Russia [the Russian SFSR] because it was said that there was no famine there. Very few [of those who left] returned. They all perished on the way. They weren’t allowed into Russia and were turned back at the border. Those who somehow managed to get into Russia could save themselves.

In February of 1933, there were so few children left that the schools were closed. By this time, there wasn’t a cat, dog or sparrow in the village. In that month, my cousin Mykhailo Rudenko died; a month later my aunt Nastia Klymenko and her son, my cousin Ivan, died, as well as my classmate, Dokia Klymenko.

There was cannibalism in our village. On my farmstead, an 18-year-old boy, Danylo Hukhlib, died, and his mother and younger sisters and brothers cut him up and ate him. The Communists came and took them away, and we never saw them again. People said they took them a little ways off and shot them right away — the little ones and the older ones together.

At that time, I remember, I had heavy, swollen legs. My sister, Tamara, had a large, swollen stomach, and her neck was long and thin like a bird’s neck. People didn’t look like people — they were more like starving ghosts.

The ground thawed, and they began to take the dead to the ravine in ox carts. The air was filled with the ubiquitous odor of decomposing bodies. The wind carried this odor far and wide. It was thus over all of Ukraine.


Congressional Testimony presented before the United States Ukraine Famine Commission in Washington D.C., October 8, 1986.

[Excerpt From Holodomor in Ukraine, The Genocidal Famine 1932-33: Teaching Materials for Teachers and Students

– By Valentina Kuryliw]