Свідок Голодомору Марія Гурбіч

She Lived and Saved Others: The Story of Mariia Hurbich

4 September 2020

With this publication, we begin a series of stories about Holodomor witnesses recorded on the expeditions by the team of the National Museum of the Holodomor Genocide and the NGO Ukrainer as part of the “Holodomor: Mosaics of History” project with the support of the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation.

Mariia’s family

Mariia Hurbich (Shovkun) was born in the hamlet of Vyla in Losyniv district of Chernihiv region. Later, she and her family moved to Oleksandrivka, Bobrovytsia district, where she survived the famine. Before collectivization, her family was wealthy: they had ten acres of land, four horses to plow the field, three foals and three cows. This was enough to feed a family of eleven people.

Photo: Parents of Mariia Hurbich (Shovkun): Kyrylo Pavlovych and Paraskeva Vasylivna

Her two brothers, a university student and a schoolteacher, were convicted in a case fabricated by the State Political Administration of the USSR within the process of the Union for the Liberation of Ukraine. The authorities claimned that they wished to liberate the Ukrainian people from the Soviet regime and establish an independent Ukrainian republic, and, therefore, organized uprisings and riots. The case was an attempt to justify the mass persecution and arrests of opposition Ukrainians on the eve of the Holodomor.

The Solovetsky Monastery (“Solovky”) was a place of imprisonment for some of the convicts. Mariia’s brothers were also imprisoned for nationalism there.

Their father visited his sons just as the collective farms began to appear, and it was necessary to decide whether to join them or continue to run their own farms.

“My brother immidiately said, ‘Dad, join to the collective farm; otherwise, you will rot in Kolyma.’ And we joined the collective farm, survived, and were not dekulakized.”

The woman recalls that those who did not agree to join the collective farms, even under the pressure of threats and intimidation — individual farmerss — were dispossessed and did not have the resources to survive the famine. Sometimes they were given very high taxes they could not pay. Mariia’s family gave all the farming and hpusehold implements to the collective farm and gave away horses and cows. They did not earn money.

“Where would the collective farmers earn money if they receive two hundred grams of bread per working day? So, the state does this: we work hard in the collective farm, absolutely hard, people live at the expense of the city. How they live there, how they survive is their business.”

For one working day, workers of collective farms would receive two kopecks, during the year they would make about 150 rubles. And even these meager funds were “borrowed” by the state to finance industry, the army, and medicine. In fact, people worked for the food they were given in the collective farm, and often did not even have the money for clothes.

Moods in the villages

No more than 3% of Ukrainians volunteered to join collective farms; others were forced to do so. In fact, they had no choice because those who did not join the collective farm were doomed to starvation. Mariia’s father became a collective farmer, and later it saved the lives of the whole family, since during the Holodomor the collective farmers were sometimes fed so that they would not die while working in the fields.

In the collective farm, at the age of 12, Mariia was already cultivating fifty acres of land on her own, harvesting and harvesting from them. This was a large amount of work that was not always done even by adult women. Maria says that even before the Holodomor it was “a truly satanic struggle for survival.”

1932 was a year of floods and crop losses in the region, Mariia recalls. People survived due to fishing: they were catching eels, crucian carp, pikeperch.

“From Chernihiv to Chemer itself, everything was covered in water. There was water from Nosivka to Bobrovytsia. The houses were under water, the village was under water, the streets were under water. But there were hills where there was no water.”

However, the crop failure was not strong enough to cause famine. Collective farms had neither human resources nor seeds to performt large grain procurement plans, and forced collectivization provoked the disapproval of the people. In 1932, the harvest was only 12% less than the average of the previous five years, despite the fact that the cultivated areas decreased by one-fifth.

This led to riots and protests in Ukrainian villages. On July 6, 1932, the Soviet government passed a resolution to increase grain procurement plan, and intensify repressions of Ukrainian farmers and their deportation. Moscow’s new demands deliberately exceeded the capabilities of collective farms, and, therefore, the villagers were deprived of their own stocks (sometimes this food rotted in warehouses).


Mariia remembers how her neighbors hid grain in the garden, and later their fellow villagers, who were sent from the collective farm, searched and confiscated everything they found. They took the bags away, threw on carts and marked them with a red flag. Maria says it was called a “red caravan.” However, you another name was used. “a red broom” (because it “swept” all the grain from the village).

Photo: Towing brigade, 1933. Unknown author. From the archives of Oksiuta Mykola Borysovych.

Anyone could be appointed to search the neighbors’ houses, but not everyone did their job properly people did not take the last food from fellow villagers. Mariia especially mentions the beans that people hid in the oven and which the guards found during the raids.

— People were saying how Nazarenko (a guardian — ed.) took a bean soup out of the oven and poured it into the slop from a teacher, Kalyna Hryhorivna Voloshchenko. This is how, how to say it, they were preparing people for the famine.

On August 7, 1932, a resolution “On Safekeeping the Property of State Enterprises, Collective Farms, and Cooperatives, and the Strengthening of Public (Socialist) Property” was released.  Confiscation of property and / or executions were used againnst “state property robbers”. This decree is better known as the “law of five ears of drain”, because even a few ears of wheat were considered theft.

Mariia recalls that the guards also monitored performing of this decision. After the harvest, uncut ears remained in the field, but it was forbidden to gather them. One woman was sentenced to five years in prison for cutting about a kilogram of grain. It was forbidden even to pick the grain up from the ground.

— Well, why do you need this bag? He [a guardian] would it you, then take the bag and take it to the office. And it was like that for me. But people still collected the grain. And it happened, for example, when we saw that we stayed there for a long time, and they were on horsebacks, we ran away, and they did not took anything from those those who ran home.

A portion of cooked peas

The severe famine in the village began in January and February 1932. There were no potatoes, no flour. Those who had a cow had a better chance of survival.

Maria’s family also had two sheep. Their parents cooked soup with sorrel. In the collective farm, people received a similar soup, which was also called “balanda”. In addition to the liquid, there were some peas in the dish so that the collective farmers could work.

Maria tells that once she was given a large portion of boiled peas in the collective farm. She carried a bucket of this dinner from the collective farm across the field.

— I take it, and a lad is chasing me. Well, a young man like that, maybe he was seventeen then. He calls me and says (and there is a big spoon in his hands): “Give me some peas.” I was scared a bit, so I said: “Take it! Take as much as you want.” He took a spoonful of peas, swallowed them quickly, took another one and said: “Go, that’s enough, take it home.”

Well, I brought it home, the mother poured it, and the father then said, “They gave the peas to the child,” he says, “and gave plain water.” And I did not say. And then I tell my mother secretly that Mykola Nabok met me and asked. “Don’t worry, my daughter, let it be. We have a cow, we will survive.”

And that guy survived. And then we met with him. I was already a student, and he was already a lieutenant. And we cried so much, we both remembered it. (Cries). In short, we look at each other, I say, “Are you Mykola Nabok?” “Are you Masha?” I say, “Yes, I am Masha,” and we both cried. And then we chatted. Well, I’m glad he and his whole family survived — four children and a widowed mother. They had a hard time, but they survived.

Mariia had the millstones at home. To save them from confiscation, the family hid them in a cellar. One neighbors secretly passed them to others. It was forbidden to grind flour and even just keep them in the house. The woman wonders why the millstones were taken away or destroyed:

— To take all the bread, so that, it turns out, to kill Ukraine. No matter how much you think about it, no matter what questions you ask, you come back to the same thing. To kill Ukraine.

People from the neighboring yards gathered in the cellar and ground the grain. When they ran out of stocks, they switched to beans. They soaked it, peeled it, ground it, and then cooked or fried some dishes from it. Maria says it was a “real treat” at the time.

— We also ate goosefeet. If anyone had press cake, they ate it. And if someone had a press cake of poppy or hemp — they were already rich. To fill that stomach not to die.

Maria’s neighbor Varvara Babko lost all four of her children during the first winter of the Holodomor. Maria’s mother sometimes brought them milk, but she couldn’t do it often because she had to feed her own family. Neither neighbors nor relatives were able to help Barbara’s family.

One day after the first harvest, after the Holodomor, Maria came to Varvara, when she was threshing the wheat and saying: “Oh, the paths where your little legs walked have overgrown.” The woman was very saddened by the loss of her children, it broke her. Neighbors mourned with her.

Holodomor witness Mariia Hurbich

Photo: Marfa Kovalenko. By Valentyn Kuzan.

Mariia says that later Varvara remarried the head of the collective farm and gave birth to three sons. After tshe died, many years after the Holodomor, Varvara’s grandchildren and fellow villagers erected a monument to her.

Villagers often supported each other. Everyone was in trouble the Holodomor affected every family. Only mutual support helped Ukrainians survive at a time when the Soviet totalitarian regime wanted to destroy them.

There were many cases when it was not possible to save a person. And each of them is still painful. Mariia recalls,

— There was one man on the road, he was walking and begging, and he was already dying. And I grazed a cow. I ran to my mother and said; “Mom, Opanasii is dying.” My mother quickly brought him milk, I carried it, my hands were shaking. And he was already dead.

To be afraid of truth

It was impossible to leave the village, since the villagers did not have passports. They had to stay at the teeritory of starvation, or risk their lives to escape the village. Some people succeeded. Others exchanged jewelry and family precious things at torgzins to get some bread.

Maria recalls that so many people died from the Holodomor in her village that the dead lay in the streets by the road. To bury them, a separate cart was allocated, on which the bodies were collected. The burial place was located in the center of the village, in a mass grave.

The death certificates did not indicate the real cause of death. People allegedly died of pneumonia or any other disease. Officially, there was no famine. Although those who survived it knew the truth, they could not talk about those events for a long time, they were afraid this much.

Mariia talks about how people did everything to survive on their own and help others. She often repeats that this is how the Soviet authorities wanted to destroy Ukraine. But she did not succeed.

The active and passive resistance of the farmers did not stop either before, during or after the Holodomor. People hid food in pits, refused to work on the collective farms or even tried to leave them, distributed leaflets calling for protests, and sometimes burned buildings or property on the collective farm. The waves of protests were local, but they gradually spread to other villages. This did not help to stop the genocide planned by the Soviet authorities, but it showed a strong disagreement of the villagers with its actions and their willingness to stand up for themselves.