Published at Rakurs.
There is not enough research on the dynamics and effects of the Holodomor as well as on the psychological experiences of prisoners in the Soviet Gulag and their consequences. The reasons are clear: in the USSR, such studies were simply impossible.
At the same time, the memories of the Holodomor victims and the testimonies of their children and grandchildren, recorded by historians, allow us to describe and analyze the phenomenon of the Holodomor and its consequences within psychological and psychiatric criteria. The available literature, mostly in English, on other victims of post-traumatic stress, especiialy the study of Nazi death camps victims, describes conditions close to those experienced by Holodomor victims.
Described by psychologists and psychiatrists, the conditions of people in African countries who were starving as a result of the crop failure cannot be considered in our study as close to the Soviet phenomenon of the Holodomor genocide. Well-known sociologist Pitirim Sorokin wrote the first impressive work on famine as a social phenomenon: Famine as a factor. The impact of hunger on people’s behavior, social organization and public life. The researcher analyzed the famine of 1921–1923 in the Volga region. Even then he claimed that the famine in the Volga region was a vaccination of the Russian population with communist ideology, since it destroyed all the usual factors of regulation of public life.
The phenomenon of the Holodomor in Ukraine — the reasons
The Holodomor phenomenon in Ukraine occurred for socially determined reasons. They are as follows:
- total forced confiscation of all available food stocks, livestock, personal belongings, inventory from the rural population;
- aggressive behavoir of the authorities, who carried out the seizure, accompanied by repression;
- ban on leaving one’s settlement in order to find conditions for survival in the nearby cities, where one could get a job;
- lack of hope that these unexpected and undeserved repressions will end;
- famine-induced somatic disorders and deaths in neighboring homes;
- phenomenons of cannibalism and eating dead bodies;
- lack of any contact with relatives who lived in relative prosperity in cities and military garrisons.
But the real causes of the Holodomor were purely political. First of all, Stalin and other communist leaders distrusted Ukraine in connection with the recent (then) farmers’ national liberation uprisings, and the real intentions and attempts to create their own Ukrainian state.
Hopelessness was exacerbated by repeated searches and food seizures. The farmers, who managed to break into the nearest town, exchanged some items for food, but when they returned to the village, the Red Army soldiers confiscated everything they had received as a result of the exchange.
Narrowing of consciousness
Thus, the inhabitants of rural areas quickly lost their basic vital functions and, at the same time, hope for the future. Gradually moral constants were atrophying. People who used to adhere to moral norms experienced psychological and moral destruction. Their consciousness narrowed to a primitive dominant instinct for survival. The feeling of disgust disappeared, as the starving tried to eat inedible and poisonous plants, earthworms, insects…
Similar conditions are described by former prisoners of the Nazi death camps and Stalinist camps. In 1973, the Latvian “forest brother” Edik Pleps, who was serving a 25-year prison sentence with me, told me a lot about his experiences and observations in a Soviet prison, where hunger was a constant, chronic phenomenon. Yes, he said that the captured Germans, who had never known malnutrition before, chose fish bones already gnawed by convicts from the garbage and cooked them over a fire in a can. These starving men soon died. Pleps explained: “I survived because I did not expect anything. There was never enough wealth in the family where I grew up.” Ukrainian farmers also did not know wealth, and partial malnutrition accompanied them all the years of the Soviet power.
Another of my associates, UPA soldier Vasyl Pidhorodetskyi, who had spent 37 years of his life in prisons and camps, told me this. For participating in the camp uprising in Kazakhstan, he was transferred to the notorious Tobolsk Central Prison, where he spent more than a year in the cell with criminals with a devastated psyche, who had been imprisoned there for a long time. Trying to compensate for the miserable prison food, they periodically cut a vein on the wrist with a sharpened spoon and mixed blood with crushed prison bread in a bowl. This culinary invention was called a “bloody tiuria”.
Camp syndrome and the logic of despair
The famous European psychiatrist Leo Oettinger spent his youth in one of the Nazi death camps. Later, as a well-known researcher, he described a special “camp syndrome”, where not the fear of imminent death, dulled by constant hunger, but the feeling of hunger that haunted the prisoner for months and years was the most significant. The acute starvation syndrom and hungry death of thousands of people are also known in some countries in Africa and Asia.
The Ukrainian famine hunger differs in this way. There were no catastrophic climatic causes of crop failure, no other physical causes. The reasons were purely political. In 1929, mass forced collectivization began in Ukraine, accompanied by repression of dissidents. The villagers lived an atmosphere of fear and hatred. The authorities acted openly, not hiding their cruel intentions. Hopes for a change in the situation gradually faded. Attempts of farmers to rationally explain to themselves and their families what was happening also died down.
The final stage of chronic starvation was cannibalism and eating dead bodies. Previously completely normal, psychologically and morally adequate people fell to the level of predators because of the disintegration of the individual. As a modern Ukrainian researcher has noted, in a mind of a person doomed to starvation domiunating thoughts were if one or another living neighbor or a member of his own family should give others a chance to survive. It was a logic of despair that completely ignored moral and legal norms.
If the topic of Stalinist repressions and the events after them was at least partially depicted in Soviet memoirs during Khrushchev’s “thaw,” the Holodomor as a deliberate genocide was not officially reported. This topic was one of the most banned in the USSR, and even oral conversations were persecuted. To punish the “slanderers”, there was Article 62 of the Criminal Code of the USSR “Anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.”
Naturally, the Holodomor survivors and witnesses avoided talking to strangers about this and preferred not to inform their children and grandchildren. First of all, for the safety of his family. The Soviet authorities deliberately tried to push the subject out of the consciousness of the Soviet man.
The concealment of this terrible truth, even the superficial mention of which was dangerous, was not absolute. People, especially those living in the countryside, whispered about the events, which were unjust and senselessly cruel. This is how the special Soviet mentality was brought up in the next generation of people, who knew the cruel truth about their parents’ lives and were forced to live in denial or silence.
To save mental health
Of course, there was no social or psychological help or support for the victims of the Holodomor. They could not, with the help of a psychologist or a competent doctor, process the consequences of the massive psychological trauma. As with former Stalinist campers, who suffered long-lasting life-threatening trauma, the Holodomor victims had only one way to save their mental health: family life.
The person who suffered this purely Soviet trauma could not cherish his memories, share them with others, or describe them on paper. That is why this, in fact, collective trauma remained individual for everyone. Such person, as well as everyone like him, lived in constant fear of the state and its punitive authorities. The authorities and the Soviet state were not people’s defenders. Moreover, the fear of any representative of the authorities was necessary for a peaceful survival in that country.
I dare say that, paradoxically, the Holodomor victi’s fear of the state was a protective mechanism that to some extent pushed the experience out of consciousness. Victims of Nazism felt very differently, no matter what country they lived in after the nightmare of concentration camps. There, in the civilized world, they met understanding and compassion; historians, psychologists, psychiatrists worked with them… Dozens of researchers recorded traces of their suffering. Many years later, researchers interviewed their children, then grandchildren, for signs of trauma received by grandparents. Scientific literature in English and German is full of publications on this topic.
This is how Western researchers, who are currently studying the mental state of the third and fourth generations of victims of Nazism, find certain changes in them that are absent in the control group. The victims of Nazism, who long ago went to another world, were carriers of much more pronounced psychological and somatic disorders. Prolonged depression, nightmares and related fear of falling asleep, episodes of fear of strangers, peptic ulcer disease, severe skin diseases… Some of those who survived the brutal medical experiments in the Nazi death camps, had an acute fear of white medical gown.
Their contemporaries, survivors of the Holodomor genocide, have never been the subject of such attention of researchers. Their destiny was the eternal fear for themselves and for the well-being of their families. Unfortunately, their protection and rehabilitation were fear of the state and silence about their experiences. If young Jews born in Israel, free and confident, asked their parents a sincere question that seemed logical to them: “Why didn’t the Jews in Eastern Europe, the hundreds of thousands of whom were executed, resist; why did not they die, while resisiting?”, young Ukrainians who were born and raised in the totalitarian USSR, unfortunately, did not even ask themselves a similar question about the Holodomor.
They were the victims of Soviet fear already. The first reaction of many people to their parents’ stories about the Holodomor, especially in adolescence, was to repulse: “It’s impossible!”. Somewhat later, the information already assimilated by the young Ukrainian, in combination with information about other atrocities of the Soviet government, formed civil obedience. In other words, it formed a typical Soviet ambiguity. As Pavlo Hornostay, a contemporary Holodomor researcher, noted that the policy of silence was a repeated traumatization of the population, in fact, a psychological genocide.
Unfortunately, it is not possible to determine the mental state of people who survived the Holodomor by eating human flesh. Archives of medical (psychiatric) documentation of the pre-war period have not been preserved. According to old Soviet psychiatrists, it is known that patients who reported such horrific events in their lives to medical staff were immediately taken away by police and never returned to the hospital. Rare observations have been made by several doctors and paramedics telling their children (Poltava region, Kyiv region) that people ate human flesh in a state of confusion, thinking it was animal flesh.
At the same time, contemporary psychiatric science suggests that Holodomor victims and their descendants suffered from biologically determined mental illnesses not more often than their contemporaries, who were not subjected to such massive trauma. Researchers of victims of Nazism suffered from similar disorders such as schizophrenia.
A problem, which was completely closed in the USSR and in the post-Soviet countries and is now of particluar interest, is what emotions the Holodomor practitioners, who personally took away bread and other food from peasant families, felt? And the soldiers who took out the thousands of corpses of starving farmers who broke into cities hoping to survive? What were their experiences then? Was their specific work a psycho-traumatic circumstance for them? How and where did they end their earthly life?.. All this was an important state secret of the Soviet totalitarian state. There are literally isolated cases of refusal to participate in this crime. Thus, realizing the obvious, General Brotsky, who did not want to continue to take part in it, committed suicide. He exclaimed before committing suicide: “This is not communism, but horror!”
The forbidden topic of history and the Holodomor in the USSR has not been studied. The authorities used blasphemous substitution of concepts: the topic of studying the Holodomor was replaced by a new ideological legal discipline — collective farm law. In Kyiv, a lady whose uncle was killed and eaten by neighbors in the village of Medvyn, Kyiv Oblast, worked as a senior researcher in the department of collective farm law at the Academic Institute of State and Law. The unhappy woman, telling me this in a whisper, cried. And it was already 1991.
Witnesses to the Holodomor claimed that childbirth stopped in a Ukrainian village during these events. The absence of demographic research in the USSR in those years does not allow us to assess the impact of this phenomenon on subsequent events in the social life of Ukraine. It is also known that in just a few years the birth of children resumed. A need to open medical and obstetric centers and maternity wards in district hospitals in rural areas appeared then.
The Holodomor also dramatically changed the mentality of the inhabitants of rural and urban Ukraine. Formerly the freedom-loving and hard-working Ukrainian farmers, who resisted attempts to enslave them (this fact frightened dictator Stalin), turned into a submissive, timid mass. The fear of the survivors was exacerbated by the fact that the rural population in the USSR did not have passports, i.e. they were deprived of the right to change their place of residence in their country.
Fear as a variant of the norm
Fear is not a pathological phenomenon in ordinary social life in contrast to fear as a psychiatric phenomenon, i.e. a painful condition. Soviet citizens who survived the Holodomor, not daring to speak out, felt fear of the state. But their fear was a variant of the norm, it was based on concrete and obvious grounds, on the realities of human life in a totalitarian state.
Children raised in this fear taught in their families not to talk about the Holodomor and the Gulag, were also bearers of fear. Their life in a rural province was very different from life of their peers in the cities. Their capabilities were largely more limited. Many of them, going to work or study in the city, tried to as quickly as possible enter the urban, mostly Russian-speaking culture, which is fully consistent with the policy of assimilation of the Ukrainian-speaking population. It was an element of psychological protection for young people who felt like they come from a disadvantaged environment, whose life history had no right to be exposed publicly. Displacing from themselves, from their memory, the past of their parents, they tried to squeeze into the realities of a busy city life, where labor was paid for by state banknotes, not by slave labor. Where the parents of their peers looked younger, healthier and more confident than their rural parents. Many of them felt alienated from life in the city, from its subculture, while continuing to live in it.
To say it out loud
Of course, these people did not have any biologically determined, genetic traces of the Holodomor. Socially educated fear is inherited in only one way — education. Some people who survived the Holodomor in rural areas were able to get rid of their fear of the state, explaining its causes to themselves. These were the few people who spoke aloud or wrote the truth they knew. They immediately became outcasts, dissidents. Such were Ivan Svitlychnyi, Ivan Dziuba, Vasyl Stus… Although all their guilt was that each of them had a Ukrainian heart and the memory of the Holodomor as a motive for their desire to live in truth.
And here is the classic Soviet antinomy: their persecutors, their punishers were the same village boys who also knew about the Holodomor in Ukraine — high-ranking figures in the Ukrainian KGB Vitalii Fedorchuk and Yevhen Marchuk.
There, in Germany, the United States, Norway, Israel and Australia, researchers continue to study the psychological characteristics of the fourth generation of Holocaust victims. And here everything is different. Still.
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I sincerely thank the director of the Museum (Institute) of the Holodomor-Genocide Olesia Oleksandrivna Stasiuk and the lieutenant general of the Security Service of Ukraine Mykola Mykhailovych Herasymenko for their help in preparing this article. Without claiming the role of an expert, I nevertheless decided to write and publish this text. The reason is simple — I’m sure the dead feel pain if the living don’t remember them. Much of what we are experiencing today is our civic lethargy, our constant fear of the authorities, deriving from there, from our bitter past.