The Dignity of Nations: A Theological Reflection on the Ukraine Famine


In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Slava Isusu Khrystou!

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine that you are in hell. Or rather, listen with me to two eye-witness accounts of the Great Famine in Ukraine, and your imagination will require very little help.

“I am the son of a farmer from the once prosperous Poltava region . . . We joined the collective farm when our neighbors did and our land, horses, cows, and farm implements were taken away. Three months later we were notified that we were classified as ‘kurkuls’ and that we had to vacate our house.

“Before we were hustled out of our home, my father managed to conceal some grain in the leggings of his boots and we lived on this for a few days in the hamlet. Then came the ordeal by hunger.

“There was no food, and our bodies began to swell. It was at the time when hordes of ‘grain collectors’ invaded the villages and searched for concealed stores in the ground, in granaries, stables, orchards, fields and even wells.

“My father died on the road near the hamlet and his body lay there for ten days: Nobody buried him because the dead lay scattered everywhere. My mother could not bury him because she too had become swollen with hunger; her body was covered with sores and she was very weak.

“I don’t know where or when my father was buried. After his death, one day my mother and three little sisters joined him . . .

“All of us were small, we could not bury our mother and sisters, and their bodies lay in the house a long, long time. Three other sisters and I were still alive, but we could not walk, only crawl.

“We could crawl, thus to our mother and lie beside her. Then, about two weeks later our mother’s body began to move with a mass of maggots. We managed to roll it on to a ladder and drag it out of the house.”

Follow along with me to another vision of hell:

In February 1933, the neighbors noticed that for two or three days there had been no sign of life in Nikifor’s dwelling. Accordingly, three women entered the house through the unlocked door. On the mud floor they saw Nikifor’s corpse, while the disheveled, hunger-distended Natalka lay nearby. No children were to be seen.

The neighbors asked Natalka how she was feeling, and she answered, “I’m hungry. There’s an iron pot on the porch. Bring it in. It has food in it.”

One of the women went out to the porch. She screamed in fright. She saw the little fingers of a child protruding from a small pot standing on the floor. The other woman came out, and removed the whole tiny hand from the whitish liquid in the pot.

They began to question the woman, “Where are your children, Natalka?”

“They’re on the porch,” replied Natalka, whose reason had been unbalanced by hunger.

Nikifor and Natalka had murdered their children and eaten the first one, but had not yet begun on the second. Nikifor was dead, and Natalka was taken to jail after this, but she also died there three days later.

This is hell. This is depravity. This is degradation. For hundreds of years the people of Ukraine have lived with terror, humiliation and degradation. The Soviet-created famine of 1932-33 was the apex in this long history of degradation. An apex, however, which has had devastating consequences for the development of Ukraine for 50 years now and will most likely continue to have such consequences for many years to come. I say this because the brutal massacre of more than 7 million men, women, and children, loathsome and horrifying in itself, had a much broader purpose than just the murdering of elements undesirable to the state. The actual purpose of this man-made famine was to destroy a nation. To break its back. To make it grovel in mud. To show its people that their language, their culture, their religion and institutions, their aspirations for true democracy are all worthless. That they as a people are inferior and must be subsumed into the great Russian “melting-pot.”

Possibly the greatest tragedy of the Famine is that in many ways Stalin did achieve his goal. He terrorized a nation almost to the breaking point. Those who survived the Famine became quite conscious of the very narrow limits of their freedom. Succeeding generations have inherited this consciousness. They have also inherited a culture less expressive of their national genius, a language considered by the Soviet establishment definitely inferior, and a Church, which already devastated, must constantly do the bidding of the state in order to maintain even a servile existence.

If the Famine were simply a tragic event in past history, we would certainly not be here today, to commemorate its victims. In fact, it would be almost unchristian to vengefully brood over it. But because the legacy of the Famine lives on, because the same government which perpetrated this atrocity continues in existence to this day and has never even once admitted its crime, and because this government continues to suppress the Ukrainian Churches, language, and culture — precisely for this reason have we, Christians of the Milwaukee area, gathered to remember the Ukrainian holocaust.

Contrast if you will, then, the hell created by Stalin with the paradise created by God. In Genesis, chapter 1, we are presented with a vision of the world as God intended it to be. God creates male and female in His own image. He bestows on us the dignity, the beauty, of His own life and being. He lavishes upon us the richness of nature that we might enjoy its fruits.

What we must never overlook, however, is that God in His life-creating love has shown his concern not only for individuals, but also for peoples as such. God has not only ennobled man as individual, He has also bestowed importance, distinctiveness, and dignity upon nations. Allow me to quote Alexander Solzhenitzyn, who said that

Nations are the wealth of mankind, its collective personalities. The very least of them wears its own special colors and bears within itself a special facet of divine intention . . . At His Incarnation Christ came to heal and save all humankind, but at the same time He was made Man in a particular country, as a member of a specific people; and in this way through His Incarnation He blesses the distinct identity of every nation. Likewise at Pentecost the Holy Spirit descended in the tongues of the different nations. The apostles did not speak Esperanto, but each in his own language; variety was not obliterated, and so Pentecost reaffirms the plurality of national paths to a single goal. For the Christian nationhood is not pointless but providential, a level in the divinely-ordained hierarchy of the cosmos.

We as Christians know the saving plan of our Father. We experience daily the wondrous beauty of being created in God’s image. Ours then is the task of reveling in this dignity and revealing it to all humankind. Ours is the task of basking in the bright sun of our Father’s loving care for us. Ours also then is the task of abolishing all forms of degradation, be it individual, national, or racial. We are entrusted by our Lord with the task of compassionately embracing all of the world’s lowly, despised, and downtrodden. But what the world must finally realize is that the Ukrainian nation also finds itself among the lowly, despised, and downtrodden. And what the world must realize is that Ukrainians, struggling to maintain their own identity, are not acting out of some wildly nationalistic or chauvinistic motives, but rather that Ukrainians, a nation of over 50 million, with a territory comparable to that of France, and a language, culture, and history as distinctive and beautiful as any other, desire only that their God-given dignity be recognized for what it is. Nothing more; nothing less. It is brutal insensitivity on the part of the more developed nations to think that national self- determination is a rare privilege to be enjoyed only by certain peoples.

Let us pray today that an atrocity such as the massacre of 7 million Ukrainians by starvation will never happen again. And let us pray that in 25 years, during the 75th anniversary of the Ukranian holocaust, there might be no need to commemorate its victims, because Ukranians as a nation will finally once again know the dignity intended for them by God our Father. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Glory to Jesus Christ!

Slava Isusu Khrystou!

  • Fr. Galadza

    Fr. Peter Galadza was associate pastor at Sts. Volodymyr and Olha Ukranian Catholic Church, Chicago.

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