Mapping the Great Famine

By Serhii Plokhy

One of the most insightful and moving eyewitness accounts of the Holodomor, or the Great Ukrainian Famine of 1932–33, was written by Oleksandra Radchenko, a teacher in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine. In her diary, which was confiscated by Stalin’s secret police and landed the author in the Gulag for ten long years, the 36-year-old teacher recorded not only what she saw around her but also what she thought about the tragedy unfolding before her eyes.

“I am so afraid of hunger; I’m afraid for the children,” wrote Radchenko, who had three young daughters, in February 1932. “May God protect us and have mercy on us. It would not be so offensive if it were due to a bad harvest, but they have taken away the grain and created an artificial famine.” That year she wrote about the starvation and suffering of her neighbors and acquaintances but recorded no deaths from hunger. It all changed in January 1933, when she encountered the first corpse of a famine victim on the road leading to her home. By the spring of 1933, she was regularly reporting mass deaths from starvation. “People are dying,” wrote Radchenko in her entry for May 16, 1933, “…they say that whole villages have died in southern Ukraine.”1

Was Radchenko’s story unique? Did people all over Ukraine indeed suffer from starvation in 1932 and then start dying en masse in 1933? Which areas of Ukraine were most affected? Was there a north-south divide, as the diary suggests, and, if so, did people suffer (and die) more in the south than in the north? Were there more deaths in the villages than in towns and cities? Were small towns affected? Did ethnicity matter? These are the core questions that Mapa, the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute’s Digital Map of Ukraine Project is attempting to answer by developing a Geographic Information System (GIS)-based Digital Atlas of the Holodomor. The maps included in the atlas are based on a newly created and growing database that makes it possible to link various levels of spatial analysis ranging from the raion to that of the Soviet Ukraine as a whole and to compare the demographic, economic, environmental, and political indicators in relation to a given administrative unit.

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