Anatoly Ciacka learned about the Holodomor growing up.
His mother, who had lived through it, told him about the estimated 10 million Ukrainians who starved, about the bodies lying in the streets and the wagons that collected them so they could be dumped in unmarked mass graves.
Young Anatoly was told the famine, from 1932 to 1933, wasn’t the result of failed crops, floods or other natural disasters. In fact, with its rich soil, the Ukraine was known as the “breadbasket” of the Soviet Union.
The Holodomor, which means ‘killing by starvation,’ was a deliberate act of genocide committed by Josef Stalin’s Communist regime, he was told. The central government imposed exorbitant grain quotas, restricted trade and movement of people, and jailed or killed anyone who disobeyed—essentially creating a Ukrainian starvation ghetto.
Anatoly’s understanding of the Holodomor came from stories told by his mother and other survivors—until he discovered proof of his own.
Seeing it in person
In 2004 the Burnaby man returned to the Ukraine and was shown a mass grave of Holodomor victims.
“These were secret graves,” said Anatoly, now 70.
“It was just bones, that’s all you could see. It was horrific. There were skulls and everything was twisted, bones on top of bones.
“It was hard to look at. It gave you a stomach ache.”
The Holodomor was not widely known internationally until 2006 when government documents found in the national archives provided proof it occurred.
Today Canada, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations recognize the Holodomor as an act of genocide. It is blamed on Stalin and the Communist party, who sought to suppress a resurgence of Ukrainian nationalism threatening the stability of the Soviet regime.
The acknowledgment has led to Canada and other countries, marking Holodomor with a memorial service each November on the fourth Saturday of the month.
On Saturday at the St. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church in New Westminster, Anatoly, survivors of the Holodomor and members of the local Ukrainian community marked the occasion with a plaque and a candle-lighting ceremony. A future memorial will be erected there as well.
In front of the church, 33 black flags were raised to mark the year of the genocide.
“I feel it’s everybody’s duty to know the history of the world and how people have suffered, so it won’t happen again,” he said. “That’s what this will do.”
Detractors in Russia
Despite international acknowledgement, the Holodomor is not recognized everywhere as a genocide, a viewpoint that frustrates Anatoly.
The Russian government’s position is that it was a famine caused by crop failures and it affected people throughout the Soviet Union.
Even in Ukraine today, current president Viktor Yanukovych, considered pro-Moscow, denies the genocide occurred.
However Canada is not changing the position it first took in 2008.
In October Prime Minister Stephen Harper rebuffed Yanukovych’s views when he visited the Ukraine and placed a symbolic pot of grain at the foot of a commemorative statue.
In a speech he described the Holodomor as “one of the great crimes of history.”
This is the first year Canada has remembered the victims of Holodomor with Ukrainian Famine and Genocide Memorial Day.
Anatoly always considered the stories his mother told him as some of the darkest pages in human history.
Especially the story about how his grandparents starved and his mother could not do anything to help them.
During the Holodomor, Ukrainian Communist officials accused her parents of being capitalists because they had hired a man to pick fruit off trees on their property.
The secret police then took their home and possessions and threw them into the streets in the middle of winter.
They even took the boots off her father’s feet, Anatoly says.
The villagers were told if anyone helped them they would suffer the same fate.
Anatoly’s mother, who lived in a boarding school, watched them slowly die.
“It was devastating because she had to watch them die,” he said.
“The fear was tremendous. She never forgot it and she told me when I was a little boy because she wanted me to remember,” said Anatoly.
“She was most afraid that no one would ever know what happened to her parents and the Ukrainian people.”