He Escaped from a Hungry Village: The Story of Fedir Zadierieyev
Recently, the team of our museum returned from an expedition to Sumy region. In the city of Okhtyrka, our staff, together with Ukrainer, conducted an interview with 99-year-old witness to the Holodomor genocide, Fedir Zadierieyev. His family was able to survive the famine, although they were not prosperous. Read about how he managed to escape in the article.
The story was recorded as part of the Holodomor: Mosaic of History project with the support of the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation.
Fedir Zadierieyev spent his childhood in the village of Kobylianka near Sednic town in Chernihiv region. He jokes about his birth,
“I was born of my own free will on February 1, 1921, in the Chernihiv province, in the region on the river Snov, which flows into the Desna. Ships used to sail on it before.”
One of his first childhood memories was gointo to the field with his father. Fedir remembers a song his father sang,
It’s good to live on the hill,
But it’s hard to climb it.
It’s good to love the girls,
But it’s hard to break up with them.
In the 1920s, Kobylianka prospered: artisans from all over the region came here. Fedir Zadierieyev recalls that many services and goods could be obtained “on the word of honor.” For example, villagers could give a piece of leather to a shoemaker without money, and three months later he brought them the shoes. It was also possible to get agricultural equipment and pay for it later.
New economic policy, collectivization, likbez
After the difficult years of military communism, the government made temporary concessions to the farmers, reducing taxes and allowing market relations, and a new economic policy (NEP) was introduced. However, in 1929, a mass struggle with wealthy farmerss, the so-called “kulaks”, began, and instead of a separate one, a collective way of farming was imposed. Although the communist authorities tried to implement their reforms in almost all spheres of public life, it was not easy to completely eradicate traditions.
“Education played an important role. God’s commandments, prayers — everything was taught from generation to generation. And all this could not be simply eradicated and forgotten. In our house, a lamp always hung in front of the icons. My father always whispered a prayer when he went to bed. And when he woke up, he crossed himself in front of the icons. All these traditions from our grandparents were kept in the souls. And even when Easter was banned, people still secretly went to the church to celebrate Easter.”
In Soviet times, the church in Kobylianka was closed and turned it into a school. Fedir recalls that the local priest was interrogated in the village council, and later he simply disappeared. Then, despite the propaganda, people continued to respect the traditions, taught children the commandments, hung icons in the houses:
“In front of the stove, there was a jug of milk for souring. And I was alone on the stove. I think I’ll go and taste the sour cream. I got down from the oven and climbed onto the bench by the window, where there were two jugs of milk. And I wanted to soak my finger to try sour cream. I looked at the icons, and the icons were looking at me. I immediately put my hand back. I feared God.”
Village church. 1933. Photo from the archive of Oksiuta Mykola Borysovych. Unknown author.
In the 1920’s and 1930’s, the Soviet Union actively “liquidated” illiteracy among all the populations, especially farmerss. So Fedir managed to finish three grades of elementary school. Then the years of famine began, and children were no longer going to school. The scoolchilkd well remembered the moment when the authorities first came to confiscated the food supplies:
“My dad and I were returning from school. Boys, my peers, run up to us and sais that some uncles had took our heifer. I look, and there are three of them. And one in budenovka with a red bandage and a rifle. Obviously, he was from the city. They took the heifer and took the sleigh. They just liked that sleigh. It was large, for a coachman and two passengers. I come home and see my mother crying. They took the heifer and beans. They took it straight from her hands.”
Also, activists even killed a dog during the confiscation of food in the Zadierieyevs’ yard. The absurdity of such an act struck then young Fedir,
“They took everthing away. And killed the dog. And I… but it wasn’t a pity, nothing, but I was the boy, the dog was my friend. I ran. And behind the barn in the garden, the killed dog laid. Well, of course, I cried. This was such a case, you know. The first blow to me, to my body and my whole consciousness.”
Even before the Holodomor, Fedir’s father went to Moscow to work on the construction of the subway and returned to the village in the midst of collectivization. He himself was lucky to avoid the collective farm, because he got a job as a watcher on the river. However, the family had to give away a horse, cart, plow, harrow and other agricultural implements. The co-villagers of the family were forced to join the collective farms, their cattle, vehicles and equipment was taken away. Some families were evicted from their homes to the streets — they were called kulaks and deprived of their property, left them without means for survival.
Then almost everything was taken from the kulaks, “sub-kulaks” and other “unreliable” people. Their belongings were given to collective farms or put up for sale. What could not be taken away was destroyed,
“We hid everything we could. Clothes, food, any rags. Because they came and took everything. If someone did not go to the collective farm, they were declared a kulak or a sub-kulak. The authorities described everything, broke the beak. Even rags were taken away and later sold in the village council. There was real chaos.”
1933. Photo from the archive of Oksiuta Mykola Borysovych. Unknown author.
According to Fedir Zadierieyev’s memoirs, 1932 was a fruitful year in the Chernihiv region. Although grain procurement was successful, special units of military and local activists soon appeared in Kobylianka and raided the village. Often these were local Komsomol members who confiscated cattle, bread and other food,
“There were grain procurement, grain pumping. This is how it was explained to us. It seems that all this was given to the Germans. There were even cases when the flour was kept in water, under ice. But they found it even there. They pushed thatched roofs with special sticks. They drove iron sticks into the ground, looking for hiding places. And if they found something edible, they took everything away.”
Cuisine of 1932–1933
In addition to Fedir, the Zadierieyev family had three younger children: Semen, Pavlo and the youngest Shura. In search of food, their parents went to neighboring Belarus, where it was still possible to find food. The family was lucky to have a relative in the Gomel region, adjacent to Ukraine. His parents went there, and Fedor was left to take care of his brothers and sister. Almost every day he had to look for something edible,
“I got up early and went fishing. I sailed by boat to the middle of the river, and sometimes I could catch a dozen of perches. When I got home, I crushed it all in a bowl. Sometimes I threw straw there, which I could pull from the roofs. I cooked this borscht and fed it to the children. And they ate with pleasure.”
At the school where the boy studied, students were offered “hot breakfasts” — a bucket of boiled water in which a kilogram of flour was mixed and then poured into cups for children. Mostly people ate potato peelings, nettles, linden leaves, plantain and grass — everything that could be found in the fields. They also dug up some roots. Places where potatoes used to grow were dug up several times. Fedir remembered how a guardian was riding through the fields, whipping those who wandered in search of food.
Those edible things that people managed to found were not enough. One day, while there were no neighbors, the boy climbed into their house to get bread, with which he then hid for several days near the local river,
“I ate quickly and fell asleep. I woke up and was afraid to go to the village. After all, if they saw me, they would take away the bread. I went to the river. I’ll eat bread and sip water from the river like a dog. And so he did not return to the village until he had eaten all the bread.”
People in the village began to die from lack of food. The Zadierieyevs’ neighbors, Nechai, ate an unusually large amount of rye porridge on an empty stomach, and the whole family died. Wandering along the banks of the river in search of something edible, Fedir repeatedly saw people from neighboring villages (Chornishi, Sukhodoly), who came to pick sorrel stalks, but often died there, unable to get home. The corpses of the dead remained on the shore for the whole winter, and only in the spring, when the ice melted, they were thrown into the water.
One of the most tragic memories of Fedir since then was the moment when he did not have time to help a man who was starving,
“I came back with a catch from the river. I walked along the path above the shore. And near the old willow I saw a grandfather. It was warm, but he was wearing a fur coat and a hat. I approached and said to him: ‘Grandpa!’. And his tongue was only incomprehensible ‘woo-woo-woo-woo’, and he repeated, ‘I want to eat, I want to eat.’ Well, I thought I would share with him. I ran home, poured a large bowl of borscht and went back. I returned to the willow, ‘Grandpa, Grandpa, I brought you borscht.’ And he was already dead. Died then. And f0r all my life I think how I didn’t have time to feed this grandfather then.”
Keep silent. No strength to bury
When people began to die, the living had neither the strength nor the ability to bury the dead,
“Our neighbor came and said to my father: ‘Andrii Fedorovych, my father has died.’ It was necessary to bury him. And winter has come, it was cold. Dad got up from the table and said, ‘Anna, I’ve not had a crumb in my mouth for three or four days, I don’t have the strength.’ She cried and left.”
Neighbors had a cellar in the yard where bodies were being collected. After there were about three dozen of them inside, and the smell of corpses began to spread around, the cellar was simply filled up. The dead were also buried at the local cemetery. It was impossible to dig deep holes in the frozen soil, so in the spring the bones sometimes emerged from the ground.
“I was collecting cherries at the cemetery. They were ripe a little. And the smell around was so unpleasant. I tore them at my bosom and suddenly looked and saw that some rags were lying and whether the arm or leg — white bones. I run away from there with all my might. Probably no one had the strength to bury. They sprinkled all in winter with a little earth, put some snow on top and that was all.”
Fedir Zadierieyev. Photo by Valentyn Kuzan.
No one from the Zadierieyev family died then because the parents went to their relatives in Belarus. They brought home a lot of potato peelings (in the village they were called “smerdiukhy”) and other food. Lykeriia’s grandmother, Fedir’s father’s mother, who lived separately and periodically helped the family with food, also helped them.
“Grandma sometimes brought us some potatoes. When her daughter-in-law went for water, the grandmother would hide the potatoes in the swamp, hide them under her blouse or throw them in her boots (because she was afraid of her daughter-in-law), and then say: ‘I’ll go, I’ll visit Andrii.’ And so she came to us during the winter.”
Lykeriia lived with his daughter-in-law and minor grandson, Fedir’s cousin. Their family managed to save the cow, partly because Lykeriias grandson joined the Komsomol while participating in anti-religious propaganda in the village.
“They managed to agitate him somehow. We were often ashamed: they said yours has done this. Specially young boys campaigned against religion. So the collective farm began and on the first day of Easter they went to plow in the field. They specially arranged this. On the holy day they went to work.”
Escape to survive
After the Holodomor of 1932–1933, in Kobylianka there was neither work nor proper living conditions, so then 15-year-old Fedir went to Chernihiv to earn money. There he met Ivan Pavlov. Friends wandered the city in search of work or food. At night they slept by the river on the pier.
To survive, the young men had to beg, and sometimes do petty thefts in the market.
“And in the afternoon we ‘fished’ in the market. Sometimes someone would even give us a bottle of milk to drink. Well, in the end, they sais, “drink it right here, or you’ll steal a bottle.” Aha. And they gave us cakes. Then this Ivan, the sage, he learned: who does not give a pie, and the basket with pies stands there. The owner did not give them to us. So he learned. He would lie on the other side of the shelf. On the shelf. He raises his leg, shouts: “It flies-flies-flies, oh it flies there!” And I’m on the side where the basket is, on the left. And the cakes are open. She would say, “Huh? Where? Whatw? ” And I, my taswas to take it and run. All! Well, how much I grabbed was mine, half was for Ivan.”
Eventually, the boys were caught by police. They were sent to work at a pasta factory.
“I then changed my clothes. They gave me a white robe and a white cap. Somewhere they found a T-shirt, a shirt. Sent me to the shower. And then to the drying department. I looked at all this and did not believe. As if I was on another planet.”
Photo. Fedir Zadierieyev (to the left) with his friend Ivan Novik (to the right) during a “five-minute’break” at the ,pasta factory. Chernihiv city.
Ivan was assigned to the shop where the packaging was made, and Fedir — to the drying department. Hungry Fedir tried to eat some pasta, but was noticed by the shop manager:
“I grabbed some in my hand, ate a bit, but it cracked. And he saw me, ‘Are you hungry, boy?’. I did not admit that I was hungry. ‘No, uncle, no,’ I said, ‘I’m just joking.'”
At the same time, for the first time he received money he earned by his own labor. Moreover, he was finally able to hold the bills in his hands.
“The chief gave me an advance in cash. I have not hold the cash in my hands before. Then I went to the dining room. I will never forget that moment. I ordered two plates. A plate of soup and pasta, potatoes with onions, and all this with margarine. I slammed a big plate. I ate and I thought I live like a general. As if in another world. I sat and sat and ordered another plate. I remembered it for the rest of my life. And my life went on.”
For this money, Fedir bought new clothes: a coat, shirt, cartouche and boots. When he came home, the whole village came to look at him. A few years later, the man got a job at the Chernihiv Musical Instrument Factory. He was housed in a dormitory, and since then he had a stable income and could stay in the city.
“Personally, I left the village. I was fourteen or fifteen then. I escaped from all this because the famine continued in the village, there was not enough food and no one was full with the bread that was there. I left, found my way. I think I was lucky.”