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Rena's Memories

Part 6 (Famine & Purges)

Famine / Lusha

Did I ever tell you about Lusha, our housekeeper? This I know from my mother’s stories, because I was only three years old when she came. Before then I had an old fashioned Russian nanny who always wore black. And why she left at that time I don’t know and I never thought to ask my mother. I only know that she was an old fashioned nanny who took care of little babies. My mother needed somebody to take care of me because she was working. My mother was a bacteriologist and she worked at the Institute for Food Industry.


At that time (1932-3) Stalin put troops around the entire Ukraine, and starved millions of Ukrainians to death – men, women and children. It's not well publicized in this country. Robert Conquest wrote a book about it called Harvest of Sorrow

Many starving peasants came to the city in search for work. My mother often had no lunch because she gave it away on her way to work. The story goes that my mother saw Lusha sitting on a trolley line ready to commit suicide. She was from the village and her brothers and father were sent to Siberia and she was starving to death. So my mother picked her up and adopted her and she was the one who raised me. She was with us from when I was three till when I was about eight.


She was only about 16 when she came to live with us. I loved Lusha. We were good friends. I even tried to teach her how to read and write. It was only years later that I realized that the reason she didn’t learn was because she really wasn’t interested in it. I thought I was being a very good teacher and it was frustrating that she never learned.


Lusha got married in 1939 and I used to see her even after she got married. She didn’t live too far away. Eventually Lusha's brothers returned from Siberia. I remember visiting their village. The huts were pretty and white with straw roofs and dirt floors. We were there during the Trinity holiday and the floors were covered with flowering linden tree branches. The aroma was beautiful. It is a Ukrainian custom to decorate the houses with greens. The communist government was never able to totally suppress religion.

Click on images to enlarge.

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Rena has no memory of her first nanny who took care of her until she was three.


A painting of peasant hut by Ukrainian artist Ilya Repin. Source: click here

According to Rena's Russian mother, Ukrainian peasants were much cleaner and tidier than Russian peasants.

After the Bolshevik Revolution the economy fell apart and there was not enough food or consumer goods. The currency had no value and there was nothing for the peasants to trade their produce for. Lenin allowed a limited form of capitalism to revive the economy (so that the the people wouldn’t overthrow the government). Peasants and small artisans worked hard and prospered and the economy recovered.


Stalin wanted to reestablish total communism, force the peasants into collective farms (kolhoz), and suppress Ukrainian nationalism. In the early 1930's, forced acquisition of grain was accompanied by shootings, closed borders, and sending Ukrainians to Gulags (forced labor camps, usually in Siberia). This man-made famine is called the Holodomor and it killed up to 7.5 million people.


During this famine the Soviet Union continued to export grain. The map below shows the reduction in population.There are topics that I’ve refrained from illustrating with photos. This is one of them. 


A more recent history of this period can be found in Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine 1921-1933 by Anne Appelbaum, Doubleday, 2017


Map of depopulation of Ukraine and southern Russia, 1929–33. Territories in white were not part of the USSR during the famine.   Click here for source

Purges '33 & '37

Purges '33 and '36 - 38

Violent political repression in the Soviet Union started with the Bolshevik Revolution and continued through Stalin's reign. Stalin's purge in the early 1930s (really 1928 - 33) was directed mostly at Ukraine and reversed the former policy of encouraging Ukrainian language and culture. The second purge involved the entire Soviet Union.

Dedushka was in Kiev and he was employed. This was 1933, and that was the time of a purge. The communists were trying to arrest as many people as possible, and they were always particularly hard on Ukrainians, especially educated Ukrainians. They always thought that educated Ukrainians were a threat to them.


Dedushka never did anything threatening. He was not even involved in politics. He stayed out of it completely. He did not like communists but he was not an activist. I suppose if there was voting he would take a stand. He was a very ethical person and very forthright, but it was a hopeless situation to be involved in politics and he wasn’t even associated with any people who could have been involved. The suppression was so severe that political activity wasn’t even possible for those that were willing to risk their lives. It just wasn’t possible. 


He was put in prison and he was interrogated about subversive activities. They tried to make people confess. The communists use to get people to confess to things they never did. And they would get them to implicate more people. But Dedushka wouldn’t do it. And then they threatened that they would send all of us to Siberia, and threaten damage to me and my mother, and his mother, or that my mother would be deprived of her job. And he still would not do it. He just stood his ground. And he was so stubborn that there was nothing they could do to get him to confess, so they released him after three months. But the release was such that he was deprived of working. 

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Rena's father, Valentin Shugaevsky, in 1933

Soviets used the fact that academics and museum workers corresponded with each other to claim that they had formed anti-government cells. The following text, from an internet source translated by Google Translate, has a reference to Rena's father, Valentin Shugaevsky. A better translation is welcome.


At that time hundreds of museum workers were repressed. Among the executed - the organizers of the Lavra Museum of Cults and Life F. Ernst and F. Schmit. The repression wheel also swept through those employees who still worked at the Lavra Museum.


The following record refers to D. Gordeyev who signed a confession which falsely accused others including Rena's father. The interrogation methods ​were often brutal.

Units of the museum staff were miraculously alive. What is worthy of only the record made in the interrogation protocol of art historian D. Gordeyev: "In Kiev was the most powerful block of museum k-r (counter-revolutionary) cells at the Lavra Museum City (Kurinsky, Shugayevsky, Moshchenko, Morgilevsky, Pototsky, Novitsky).



After Dedushka was arrested Bobbi was very worried. Often the spouses would lose jobs too.  But my mother held her job because she had a practical profession and she was doing well at her institute. She worked for the food industry and part of her laboratory also did water testing. The safety of water was very important, and her mentor and original supervisor was Adya Belling who Dad and I visited in Germany.  She died at the age of 98 just a few years ago.  Adya was a specialist in water treatment and it was an important lab.


With Dedushka being out of work, he was out of the limelight and that saved him in 1937. Another thing is that the communists were always disorganized. On one hand they were very efficient at suppressing people, but they never kept good documents on one or another. Or if one person says we should do this and delegates it to someone else, in the process the paper may get lost. So we were never bothered by them later on. Many of my father’s friends were released and suffered less because they still had jobs. 


One family – I don’t even remember their names or exactly what they did at Lavra, but they were close friends of my parents – had a little boy, Svetic. He was my first little boyfriend and I use to play with him when I was three and four and five. In 1937 that family was all sent to Siberia. My mother’s story was that they were sent because they were visible because they were working. But my father disappeared from visibility. He was not on any lists of workers and was not receiving a salary or anything like this. He continued doing his scholarly work. He was writing books which he eventually published. So it wasn’t that he was sitting around, but he was not visible to the government. Eventually he did start working again. By the time the war started in 1941, he was lecturing at the university and associated with the archeological museum which was located in the center of Kiev.


The suppression in 1937 was particularly vicious. At that time I saw them evicting the families. They would be sitting on top of their furniture in the street. The secret police would come at night, arrest the father and just put out the wife and children on the street. It was awful. I remember crying when I saw that. It was just all around. And some people would surreptitiously help them somehow. But we never saw or heard of Svetic's family again.


One of my mother’s close friends here, Layla Basilevich, was also from Kiev. She married her husband, Dr. Basilevich, in this country - my father knew him very well. In Kiev, she was newly married when her husband was sent off. At first she was able to see him, but then they were totally separated and she couldn’t find him. And they were very much in love. It was only when she was older and in her fifties living in this country and remarried that she found that her husband had somehow survived. The war helped. Once the war came they released people because they needed them to fight. And, of course, he was also remarried. So she was helping them by sending them packages. To her he was family even though she had another husband here too. They were all good friends. Dr Basilevich was twenty years older, but he knew her since childhood. It was a small community from Kiev.

Dedushka was in prison just that once for three months, and that was very fortunate. I remember it and I remember baking food for him and my mother bringing food for him. And I remember making piroshki (yeast-leavened buns with a filling), and when my mother was ready to put it together she found that the mice ate one of the ones I made. It was part eaten, and I got so upset. I can still visualize the little thing I made. I remember that part.


Were you able to stay in the apartment?


We were able to stay in the apartment. The bureaucracy was very disorganized. That’s what saved a lot of people’s lives. One guy didn’t know what the other did or who did what and they lost papers. That’s how we were able to not be deported from Prague when the communists took over – they just lost documentation.

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Rena in 1933

Some Additional History

My mother remembers the name Postyshev from this period. In 1933 Stalin sent Pavel Postyshev to Ukraine. One of his tasks was to end Ukrainization (the promotion of Ukrainian language and culture). He was also in charge of collectivization. The following is from the Wikipedia article, Pavel Postyshev.

Under Postyshev, thousands of authors, scholars, philosophers, artists, musicians and editors were exiled to labour camps, executed or simply disappeared. Many others avoided being denounced by working according to Moscow dictates. "Nests of nationalist counter-revolutionaries" like the commissariats of education, agriculture, and justice, newspapers, journals, encyclopedias and film studios were purged. Over 15,000 officials were eliminated on charges of "nationalism."

Postyshev himself was arrested in 1938 and executed in 1939. Khrushchev was sent to Ukraine to replace him. Later, Postyshev's wife and son were also executed.



Around 1933 is when I begin to remember Christmas. Christmas and Christmas trees were illegal so "officially" we celebrated New Years. When I was older Lusha's relatives used to bring a small tree hidden in a burlap sack and we decorated it with ornaments from my father's mother.

When I was very young I didn’t know what Easter was, but peasants knew when it came and celebrated it secretly. There was traffic between Chernigov and Kiev by steamer on the Desna River and then Dnieper. I remember that grandmother used to send me a red egg with some peasants who traveled to Kiev. The red egg seemed especially beautiful to me. 

Early Communist theorists didn't have a strategy for eliminating religion. According to their ideology, the scientific validity of communism was so obvious that, at most, some minor education might be needed for religion to be eliminated. The Soviets did educate the population and schools were used to teach atheism, but people still clung to their religion. More perplexing to them, it was not just the workers and peasants, but also the educated people who remained religious.

Churches were destroyed, religious leaders executed, and churchgoers persecuted. Valentin’s sister-in-law lost her job because she went to church. Rena knew not to tell anyone that her great-grandfather was a priest. When Rena’s mother was 19 she worked for a short time for “Commission for the Liquidation of Religious Items”. This may have just been during the summer between high school and university and the job was probably assigned to her.

There was a rift in the communist party on what to do about religion. One faction wanted to let it wither and another wanted to actively and violently persecute religious activity (which they did). In the end the Soviets couldn’t extinguish religion and it became more tolerated during and after World War II.

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Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow before destruction and Soviets blowing it up in 1931. A major cathedral was also blown up in Kiev in the 1930's.

Click here for source

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