Ukraine, Motherland: Part II

The following is a record of my family’s oral history. My grandmother told me her story in 1999 and then once again told my sister of our heritage in July of this year, during her 80th birthday. Click here to read the introduction, Part I.

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Part II

My grandmother, Maria Nesterenko, was born July 5, 1923 in a small town close to Poltava, Ukraine. This was during the Stalin regime.

Her childhood was completely different than mine.

“There is no even compare to United States,” she tells me. “My parents were middle class family. As a child, my life in beginning wasn’t bad. My dad was a farmer.” I ask her what kind of farming my great-grandfather did and she either didn’t remember or knew it wasn’t important. What was important is that, under Stalin, collective farming was mandated.

“Oh, general farming,” she says. “He did little bit more than perhaps average farmer. During Stalin regime, he was very strict to the people. What he was trying to do, he was trying to socialize all the people. He was trying to make everybody equal. Whoever had more than average, then they kick out.” The Soviet Union took all of the family’s money that “represented the reign of the Czar.”

“When you say ‘kick out,’ where did they put them?” I ask.

“In prison. They put my father in prison.” My great-grandfather had two cows and was only allowed to have one cow. My great-grandfather was labeled kulak[1]. The Soviet government confiscated all of the family’s money that, “represented the reign of the Czar.”[2] My great-grandmother attempted to get her husband freed.

“Mom thought we would have a better chance of getting him out of jail if we went with her. She thought maybe the guards would have some pity and compassion for him if they saw he had a family. But of course not. He only would wave to us from a distance.” Many years later, my grandmother’s father told her that his cell mate chopped off his own hand in the hope of being released. It was implied that it was a futile attempt.

My great-grandmother took her son and two daughters to live with a neighbor, a woman whose two children were now kulaks.

She was, “a widow and so she wasn’t afraid,” my grandmother said.

[1] “According to the Soviet terminology, the peasantry was divided into three broad categories: bednyaks, or poor peasants, seredniaks, or mid-income peasants, and kulaks, the higher-income farmers who were presumably more successful and efficient farmers.

Kulaks were seen as class enemies because they owned land and were independent economically. However, often those declared to be kulaks were not especially prosperous” (Wikipedia).

[2] The average value of goods confiscated from kulaks during policy of “dekulakization” (раскулачивание) in the beginning of 1930s was only $90-$210 (170-400 rubles) per household. Both peasants and Soviet officials were often uncertain as to what constituted a kulak, and the term was often used to label anyone who had more property than was considered “normal” according to subjective criteria” (ibid).


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