February 1930, in Felivka, a village near Kharkiv, Soviet Ukraine
“Son, husband,” said Mama, her face frozen in an artificial grin. She was seated at the table with my nine-year-old brother, Slavko, and eleven-year-old sister, Yulia. My chair and Tato’s were occupied by two strangers. “We have company all the way from Canada.”
A Young Pioneer girl wearing her red devil’s noose* around her neck sat at my spot beside Yulia as if it were hers. She had been scribbling something on a form when we walked in. The other visitor was a man sitting beside Slavko, in Tato’s** spot. He wore the kind of collared shirt with buttons that Roman, the priest’s son, sometimes wore when he got a package from relatives in America.
The sight of them occupying not just our house but our places at the table sent a wave of fury through me. It was bad enough that Stalin had become the dictator of all the republics in the Soviet Union, but now he was starting up his “five-year-plan.” It was supposed to modernize the Soviet Union but actually hurt people like us. He was taking away our farms and making them into one big collective farm – the kolkhoz. He had already sent in city people ignorant of farming to force the change on us, but now he was sending in foreigners. They couldn’t possibly know the challenges we had. Every single day since Stalin’s push had begun last year, friends and neighbors had been bullied and forced into giving up their property and joining the kolkhoz. But why Canadians? (Pp. 2-3)
*Young Pioneers were the Communist Party’s youth organization and members wore a distinctive red neck scarf.
** “Tato” means “father” or “dad”, in Ukrainian.
Comrade George White (the English translation of his Ukrainian name, Yury Bialek) is on a mission to convince the farmers to accept Stalin’s plan for the kolkhozes. Bialek claims that tractors and modern mechanized farm equipment available to the kolkhoz will result in higher grain production and improved quality of life for all. Nyl’s father, Stefan Chorny, voices forthright skepticism and, upon hearing his words, White tells him, “You realize that your words are treason, don’t you? . . . The only farmers who insist on owning land are the kulaks, and they’re the enemies of the revolution.” (p. 8) Stefan quickly utters a retraction, but the damage is done. “Kulak” is a viciously derogatory term used for those who oppose the tenets of Communism. Death or imprisonment in Siberia is often their fate.
White’s daughter, Alice, is Nyl’s age, and she’s alert to the tension in the room. She asks for help with her designated task, the inventory of everything on the Chorny farm: livestock, lumber, and, most importantly, the remaining stores of grain not already requisitioned by the Soviet government. While the adults talk, Alice looks around the room, noting the icons on the wall, the bowl of pysanky (the decorated eggs made at Easter), and, most damning of all, the family’s prayer corner, with the crucifix hand-carved by Nyl’s great-grandfather. “That’s going to get your family into a lot of trouble. . . . You should really get rid of it.” (p. 7) It should be replaced by an atheist’s corner – altars to Stalin and the Soviet state – like the one that Nyl’s 11-year-old sister Yulia had recently made at school. Alice has already traded Young Pioneer pins with Yulia and has quickly made her a friend.
Uneasy with Alice’s attentions, Mama Chorny sends her oldest son to accompany Alice. As the two spend time on the property, 12-year-old Nyl points out the powerful human connection to the land, the animals, and the community in which they have lived for generations. Alice is a city girl from Toronto, unused to and unimpressed by the sights and smells of a farm. Besides, she’s an idealistic young believer in the Soviet dream. But that peaceful interlude is broken by a loud banging sound, summoning everyone to the village square for a meeting. The star attraction is a tractor, allegedly manufactured in Soviet Russia. Slavko is fascinated by the tractor, and he, Yulia, Nyl and the other village kids swarm forward to look at and touch the machine. But, when Nyl gets close to the crest affixed to the back of the tractor, he sees that the lettering is not the Cyrillic lettering of Russian or Ukrainian, but the English lettering on Alice’s Young Pioneer pin from Canada. It is the first of many deceptions.
At the assembly, Comrade Tupolev (a Party official from Moscow) is delivering a rousing propaganda speech, when suddenly, the bells of the village church ring out. Claiming that the interruption is an act of sabotage, perpetrated by kulaks, Tupolev orders soldiers to get the village priest, the alleged perpetrator. The priest’s wife is dragged from their house, shot in front of all, and then, a soldier strides into the house and shoots Father Ivan. Next, Tupolev orders that the church be torn down and soldiers, shock workers from the city, Komsomol and Young Pioneers destroy the ancient building, desecrating sacred objects, leaving the villagers traumatized. The killing of the priest and his wife is just the beginning of an endless round of intimidation, terror, looting, arrests, and murders.
On his way home, Nyl hears a gunshot and soon finds the victim; denounced as a “kulak”, his Uncle Illya has been shot. Illya’s family is ordered to vacate their home, and, during the inventory of that property, a soldier discovers a bound collection of local versions of old Ukrainian folk songs, compiled by Uncle Illya and Auntie Pawlina. The soldier burns this cultural treasure because it is “backward Ukrainian garbage”. (p. 35) His aunt and uncle’s house has been looted and so has Nyl’s family home. Worst of all, the sack of grain that was to be their winter provisions is gone, along with a substantial amount of other foodstuffs.
After Illya’s death, the family considers leaving Felivka for Ternopil in Polish Ukraine, a place where Pawlina has cousins. Ternopil is 800 km away, they have almost no money and Pawlina’s daughter Tanya is still an infant. Family opinion is divided: Mama Chorny wants to stay in the place that she has always known; Slavko wants to go to Kharkiv where he can work on tractors; and Yulia is sold on the advantages of life on the kolkhoz. At the end of summer, the entire village celebrates at a harvest supper and dance held at the kolkhoz. The food at the event is bountiful, but, after the meal, Nyl learns that the kolkhozniks’ pay is a week overdue, and their grain and produce has been taken. While everyone is eating and dancing at the celebration, the army has rounded up the village farmers’ produce and all their grain.
The confiscation of hidden grains continues and escape to Ternopil seems like the only option. But the journey demands provisions, identity papers, and money. One late summer day, a fancy foreign car - a Packard – drives up to the Chorny home. It’s Alice and her father, and this time, Comrade White offers Stefan Chorny work at construction of the tractor plant in Kharkiv. It’s impossible for Mr. Chorny, whose back is injured, but Nyl steps up and offers to go. Once again, Mama sends Nyl out of the house, and he invites Alice to visit the calf that was born in the spring. Outside, Nyl fills Alice in on the horrors suffered by the villagers and his family, and, although she is shocked at the news of Uncle Illya’s death, she holds to the Party line: “Everyone’s suffering with Stalin’s five-year plan, but our sacrifices in the end will all be worth it.” (p. 96) Later, Alice admits that she and her father are living in a cramped rooming house in Kharkiv. Leaving Canada for Soviet Russia because of the joblessness of the Depression seemed a perfect solution, but now, . . . not so much. Employment at the Kharkiv tractor factory is the only way for the Chorny boys to earn the desperately needed money, and Slavko is more than eager to join him. So, they leave a note on the kitchen table and set off for “Tractorstroy”, 11 kilometres away.
By September of 1930, the boys are at work in the factory, living in an encampment outside the construction area, sleeping on a piece of muddy cardboard and limiting their food intake, all to save as much money as possible. They learn also of the continued assault on the village farmers’ goods, land, and way of life. Meanwhile, Communist Party officials and elite foreign specialists lived a good life, clean, well-fed, and arriving each day at the huge complex in a car or a buggy. As the completion of the factory draws near, Nyl realizes that he wants a life with more opportunity than is offered for either a farmer or a factory worker. It’s time to leave, and they are paid well for their hard labour. Yet another fraud has taken place; the factory building is finished, but it won’t be operational for another year. Slavko is astonished: “They took our horses. How can we plant and harvest without horses or tractors?” (p. 119)
Returning to Felivka, the boys are shocked to find their parents so aged. Their seed grain has been taken, thanks to Yulia’s informing the authorities, and other food continues to be raided. The cousins in Ternopil will offer refuge, and the family makes the hard decision to split up, sending only Pawlina and Tanya in December of 1930. Christmas celebrations have been declared illegal, but the family celebrates a meager and secret, Sviat Vecher, the holy supper of Christmas Eve.
Between Christmas Eve 1930 and the spring of 1931, life becomes more difficult. The search and confiscation of every kernel of grain continues, Tato Chorny dies, and the family now plans for an autumn escape. Packed and ready to leave, on their way out of Felivka they encounter a Red Army soldier who beats Mama, and places her in “kolkhoz jail” for two weeks. Imprisonment leaves her mentally destroyed, departure is impossible, and, by March of 1932, she is a wraith. One day, in desperate hunger, she goes to the fields, scrabbling in the mud to find kernels of wheat. She is shot, and now, Nyl and Slavko’s only chance at staying alive is to return to Kharkiv. Their slow march takes them past deserted houses, empty villages, and everywhere, the smell of death. After awhile, Nyl is “ashamed to say that we got so use to dead bodies that we didn’t stop and pray anymore but just stepped over them.” (p. 160) When they reach the tractor factory, this time they head for the workers’ barracks where they get food or money for doing chores for the residents, such as laundry. Without identification papers, it’s impossible to obtain any other work. One day, they encounter Alice, and Nyl recounts the tragedies that have befallen his family in the interim. Saddened, Alice admits that she and her father are disillusioned; they also want to leave the Soviet Union, but there’s a problem. Although they have Soviet papers, the head Communist at the factory has their Canadian passports locked in a safe.
Life drags on – by mid-summer of 1932, Nyl and Slavko meet up with two other boys from the workers’ encampment outside of the factory. Lev tells the story of his mother’s horrific death: “Mama started to hallucinate from lack of food. She carved the raw flesh from a rotted cow and ate it, . . She was that crazed from hunger.” (p. 188) Armed with forged papers stolen from corpses, Lev and his brother, Petro, hope for a job in the factory; they want the security of a daily meal and a bunk on which to sleep. Nyl has other plans, and, although he hates having to steal, over time he pilfers enough clothing from his laundry work to transform himself from a village-kulak into a city kid. Alice cuts his hair, adds some accessories, and soon, the two are ready to leave when Slavko delivers stunning news: he wants to stay at the tractor plant and fulfill his dream of working with tractors. It’s the final break-up of Nyl’s family.
Nevertheless, Alice and Nyl proceed with a day trip to Kharkiv. Alice is on a mission: her father has taken photos of “workers collapsing from hunger on the assembly line and starving farmers in the encampments around the factory being rounded up and beaten. He’s been developing the pictures himself, using our bathroom as a dark room, but someone must have found out and denounced him.” (pp. 200-201) She wants to get the photos out to foreigners who visit Kharkiv. Alice and Nyl need to buy food, but they have neither the money nor the ration stamps to purchase anything. Farmers line up at the Torgsin, the luxury store whose goods are available only to upper-level Community Party members and foreigners. The farmers hope to sell their valuables – wedding rings, icons, and crosses – bargaining for a few more days of bread and life. Alice and Nyl rapidly become adept at theft and finding safe places to sleep. But the lack of sustained nourishment is taking its toll, and both have the puffy legs that signal the beginning of starvation. Ever resourceful, they raid the “good garbage” found in the trash bin of a restaurant. Their stealing techniques are enhanced by a chance meeting with Roman, son of Felivka’s village priest, who escaped after his parents’ murder. Any moral qualms he's had about theft from well-fed Party members are gone: “My parents would rest easy with the thought of us making those murderers a little less comfortable.” (p. 226)
Roman takes them to a place where he and other street kids hang out. A trip to the local market offers yet another example of Soviet “staging”. It’s been transformed from a place of bread lines and street urchins to a series of vendor stalls, stocked with a variety of food and Ukrainian craft items. Dancers and musicians are dressed in “costume”, a “postcard version of what village dancers really looked like” (p. 232) and what market vendors would normally wear. It’s a sham, designed to show American tourists that “there’s no starvation or repression” (p. 234), reinforcing Alice’s resolve to get her father’s photos out of the country. One day, luck prevails outside a hotel where they scavenge the restaurant’s garbage: the woman driving the car is Canadian, a Toronto journalist named Rhea Clyman. Alice boldly goes up to Clyman’s room, knocks on the door, speaks to her in English, and, once the two are inside, she tells the whole story in Russian. Rhea was a Communist idealist, but now is driving throughout the country, taking her own photos and writing the truth. She cannot take them to Ternopil but tells them to get out of Ukraine and cross the border into Russia where the famine lands end. Yes, there’s collectivization in Russia, but Stalin’s intention for Ukraine is “targeting Ukrainians for extinction. They’re being starved to death, executed, exiled to slave labor camps in the north. . . He wants Ukrainian land but not Ukrainian culture and traditions. He wants the Soviet Union to be Russian.” (P. 241)
Alice’s goal is to reach the British embassy in Moscow and then return to Canada. Nyl still hopes to reunite with his remaining family in Ternopil. That last walk from Kharkiv to the border is wearying both to body and spirit. Villages are deserted, the air is foul with the stench of death, and everywhere, more corpses, more starving wraiths, more peril. Once they cross the border, after a half day’s journey more, they encounter decency from “country Russians, with their hospitality and practical compassion.” (p. 257) A woman named Anna offers refuge, food, meaningful work to fill their days, and a safe place to grieve, to rest, and to process this overwhelming life experience. After some months, Alice is ready to leave for Moscow, but Nyl decides to remain a little longer with Anna. Back at home from the train station, Anna reassures Nyl that he has done “a good job”, but Nyl reminds her that his family is gone. Wisely, she reminds him that his siblings made their own choices, he helped to save Auntie Pawlina and Tanya, and above all, he has survived. And later, in July of that year, he receives a long-awaited letter from Alice. She is home in Toronto, has conveyed her father’s photos to someone who can publish them, and it appears that her father is safe and alive.
Winterkill is the story of two young adults who survive three long years during the sustained campaign of government-mandated genocide through starvation, the Holodomor. Holodomor means “death by hunger”, a policy implemented by Stalin with the intention of destroying the spirit of the Ukrainian nation, its people and their culture, by starving them into submission and extinction. It is a story of the destruction of humanity that happens in a state of siege: neighbours betray each other, families split up because of differing ideologies, incensed mobs behave with unquenchable violence, and desperate people act abhorrently in order to survive. Desensitization to horror is a defense for some while others are emotionally destroyed. The various quotations throughout this review provide an unflinching view of the horrors – both physical and emotional – experienced by those who were the Holodomor’s victims. Nyl and Alice are extraordinary in their resilience and their ability to adapt in the face of incredible challenges. Winterkill is also a story of disillusionment: Alice and her father believed so fervently in the hope that an egalitarian society would bring a better life for all. It’s clear that those at the top ranks of Communist Party membership benefitted from privileges denied to those in the lower ranks and thoroughly abused that privilege. Stalin never had access to the current digital media platforms that promote half-truths and untruths, yet we see in this book that government propagation of falsehoods was shockingly successful nearly a century ago.
Although Winterkill’s intended audience is stated as ages 8 to 12, I believe that this is a book for a slightly older audience, starting at ages 10-14. It’s unlikely that the history of the Stalin era would be known to readers younger than 10, if then. Nyl and Alice are both strong characters, and their presence is engaging for both male and female readers. The graphic descriptions of violence and the desperation of the starving are not for the weak of stomach, either. I commend Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch for Winterkill. The current conflict in Ukraine is a timely reminder that Vladmir Putin - another autocratic ruler who admires Stalin and wants Russia to be Russian - still denies that the Holodomor happened, and that deliberate starvation is a powerful weapon of war. Winterkill is a worthwhile acquisition for middle and high school libraries in schools, especially in communities with a significant Ukrainian heritage, and it offers supplemental content for History or Social Studies programs studying 20th century history.
Joanne Peters, a retired teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, B, Treaty 1 Territory and Homeland of the Metis Nation.