The Rings, Marsha Skrypuch
Holodomor in Literature
Historical fiction on a specific topic provides students with an excellent opportunity to become acquainted with a difficult and emotional event through the eyes of an individual in a story. It gives the event a personal touch and provides a context for understanding historical events.
“The Rings”, by Canadian author, Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch, is one of the stories compiled in Kobzar’s Children: A Century of Untold Ukrainian Stories, edited by M.F. Skrypuch, Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 2006, an anthology of short historical fiction, memoirs and poems, written about the Ukrainian immigrant experience. This is an excerpt from “The Rings”.
Other short stories on the Holodomor may be found in the book A Hunger Most Cruel, edited and translated by Roma Franko. One story, «Without Doctors and Priests, without Graves and Crosses», by Olena Zvychayna, is included in the appendix of this workbook.
“The Rings”, excerpt
Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
This story is set during the 1932-33 Famine-Genocide, which was orchestrated by Stalin in order to starve out Ukrainian farmers — labelled “kulaks” — who refused to give up their land. In all, an estimated ten million people starved to death.1 In the midst of the Famine-Genocide, Stalin invited foreign journalists to tour the countryside so they could see for themselves that there was no famine. Many journalists were sympathetic to the communist cause, and they stayed on the official tour and took things at face value. Others saw the truth but reported lies in order to stay in favor with Stalin. Famous Famine deniers include Walter Duranty of the New York Times and playwright George Bernard Shaw. There were a few honest journalists, like Malcolm Muggeridge and Gareth Jones, who heroically reported the truth and were scorned for it.
There are rare accounts of people who escaped from soviet-occupied Ukraine and offered eyewitness testimony about the Famine. “The Rings” is based on a number of firsthand accounts.
~ . ~ . ~ . ~
Danylo’s sharpest memory was of hunger.
When his father had refused to sign the papers handing over their tiny farm to the state, his family earned the label, pidkurkul—or poor farmer who sympathizes with the kulaks.
His father knew that the Communists would send in the Red Army to confiscate their grain, so he had mixed some wheat with the chaff and hid it in the loft. He had also put the best wheat for sowing, up in the rafters. Danylo’s mother had hidden a sack of grain in the chimney.
The soldiers who came were a rough and brutal lot. They were not from the village, and they spoke Russian, not Ukrainian. They brought with them a stabber—a device made of a sharp pronged stick with a bag on the end—to collect evidence of grain.
As one of the soldiers carried an armful of his father’s hidden grain to the waiting cart, Danylo rushed forward and grabbed back some stalks of wheat. “Why are you doing this?” he cried.
The man said something in Russian that sounded like a curse. Another Red Army soldier opened the pich (oven) and confiscated the fresh loaves of bread baking there. They loaded all the food into the cart and took it away.
A few pieces of stale bread on the rubbish pile had somehow been missed. Danylo’s family—his father, his mother, and three younger brothers—survived on these crusts and water for a couple of days. His baby sister Larissa was still at his mother’s breast—one less mouth to feed.
Danylo watched as those around him appeared to shrink. His mother remarked one day, as she washed her face, that she could feel every bone in her skull. Later, when Danylo carried the soapy basin of water outside to empty it, he found her wedding ring, which had slipped off. She had not noticed. His mother had not been able to get the silver band past her knuckle for years. Danylo dried it on his shirt, and brought it back in to her. From then on, she wore it on a strip of leather around her neck.
When the crusts of bread were gone, one day passed with no food at all, just water. Danylo’s feet and stomach began to swell with the first signs of starvation. His father caught and skinned a stray cat, which sustained them a few more days. But Danylo’s four-year-old brother, Anatoly, swelled up and died. Danylo caught a hedgehog, and the remaining family survived on that for a while.
As winter set in, the rats, cats, dogs, and birds in the village disappeared. Danylo learned, like everyone else, that one must eat at least one morsel, each and every day, to keep oneself from swelling. If the swelling set in, his feet and belly would get so huge that he wouldn’t be able to move. At that point, he would sit and wait to die. When his mother began to starve, Danylo couldn’t bear to look at her body, ballooning out grotesquely, as if it were about to burst. Her swelling caused what little milk she had been able to produce to stop—аnd so Larissa died. His mother died the next day. Then ten-year-old Vasyl, and then seven-year-old Ivan.
Danylo and his father said prayers for the dead. His father reverently removed the cord that held her wedding ring from around his wife’s neck. Before putting it around his own neck, he slipped off his own wedding ring and strung it on the cord.
In their small home, Danylo and his father sat with their dead loved ones for hours—perhaps days. What was time, anyway? It wasn’t until the corpses began to stink that they dragged their family beyond the threshold. The village authorities had dug a huge pit in the graveyard. Each morning they sent a cart around to all the houses, collecting the bodies. They dumped the bodies into a pit, until it was full. And then they dug a new one.
Permission to publish granted by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch
1 The latest demographic figures are 4-5 million deaths in Ukraine itself during the Holodomor.
Excerpted from Kuryliw, Valentina. Holodomor in Ukraine, The Genocidal Famine 1932-33: Teaching Materials for Teachers and Students. Toronto: CIUS Press, 2018.