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holodomor survivor stories

Memoirs and “Ego-Documents” Provide Evidence of Holodomor

Oksana Vynnyk

And how I remember the many corpses found everywhere because it was spring: in the forest and in the fields, on the streets, people had just collapsed from hunger, and they died. […] I remember once I was grazing the cow, and in a field by the forest, a boy, Sirozha, died. We shepherds dug a pit in the meadow, gathered grass and tall grasses, laid the body in the pit, and covered it with grass and buried it. There wasn’t even anyone to bury the corpses.

– Z.S. Bilash, 1989


Z.S. Bilash, whose first name is unknown, was a Holodomor survivor who shared his story in 1989 after Ukrainian journalist Volodymyr Maniak put out a call asking for people to provide accounts of the Holodomor famine of 1932-33. The account from Bilash is featured in the Maniak Collection, a compendium of thousands of witness accounts from survivors of the Holodomor genocide.

holodomor survivor stories
Journalist Volodymyr Maniak

By the late 1980’s, a new Soviet Union policy of “openness” meant that Holodomor victims and their families were able to tell their stories after fifty years of near-total silence and denial by the Kremlin. This meant that rarely-seen autobiographical documents and materials, or ego-documents, were coming to light. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, allowed for far greater access to previously restricted archives. After fifty years, the discovery and publication of documents and research based on those who experienced the Holodomor firsthand was possible.

‘Archival Revolution’ Uncovers Holodomor Memoirs

This “archival revolution” also opened new opportunities for assessment and public discussion of the legacy of Stalinism. Although many scholarly works on collectivization and the Famine have been published over the last three decades, the social and cultural history of the Holodomor remains understudied.

To bring light and recognition to these new archival materials, the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium (HREC) organized a conference in December 2021 to provide a forum for examining practices of state violence and policies in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and to promote the exploration of little-researched topics in social and cultural history.

Historians Focus on ‘Ego-Documents’ From Holodomor

HREC especially encouraged the examination and integration of the unearthed ego-documents produced by victims, witnesses, and perpetrators of the genocide. HREC also encouraged comprehensive engagement with survivor memoirs and testimonies and incorporation and analysis of both official government sources and ego-documents.

The presenters of the conference, who were from Canada, the U.S., Great Britain, Ukraine, Poland, the Netherlands, Israel, and Australia, participated in the three-day virtual event, which included a keynote presentation and 10 conference panels.

The conference demonstrated a shift in Holodomor Studies from political history, the study of the responsibility of Soviet leadership, and the discussion of the Holodomor as genocide, to a focus on survivors’ experiences and memory of the Holodomor.

Natalia Khanenko-Friesen, director of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, delivered the keynote presentation, “The Pulse of Memory, through the Layers of Forgetting: Narrating Hunger across Generations,” which framed the conference theme.

Khanenko-Friesen focused on oral personal narratives and the possibilities and limitations they impose on what is remembered and forgotten.

As oral and visual sources are essential for the reconstruction of the experience of Holodomor victims, among the important topics discussed during the conference were various aspects and challenges related to collecting and working with these types of sources.

Scholars continue to discover new oral and visual materials in archives and local museums in Ukraine and conduct interviews with the few remaining survivors.

New Holodomor Survivor Stories Continue to Emerge

For instance, researchers of the everyday experience of those who lived during the Holodomor have benefited immeasurably from the discovery of the diary of teacher Oleksandra Radchenko and of the haunting photographs of Nikolai Bokan, which were found in his criminal case file in Chernihiv oblast and recently relocated for safe keeping due to the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Oleksandra Radchenko
Olga Radchenko

Some conference presenters also focused attention on personal narratives produced by members of national minorities and reflected on the German and Jewish experiences of the Holodomor.

Additionally, the conference considered other cases of mass atrocities in a comparative context, and discussions addressed the categories of victim, perpetrator, and bystander and the relevance of these concepts to the study of the Holodomor.

The Trauma of Starvation Viewed Through the Memoirs of Holodomor Survivors

A key notion addressed in most presentations was the concept of trauma. The presenters examined how the traumatic experience of starvation had been reflected in the testimonies of survivors (including, for instance, food disgust after the famine) and second-generation survivors’ narratives and how it shaped the collective memorialization of the Holodomor. In exploring the collective memory of the famine, in addition to survivor testimonies, participants focused on monuments, films, and fiction.

The conference constituted an important step in recovering the voices and agency of silenced Holodomor victims and integrating their stories into historiographic narratives. In organizing this conference, HREC not only created a forum for academic discussion and exchange but also demonstrated that Holodomor Studies is a vibrant interdisciplinary field that is developing new approaches to researching the famine and events of 1932-33.

All panels from the conference can be viewed on the HREC YouTube channel.

Oksana Vynnyk is a Research Associate, HREC.

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